Tuesday, August 28, 2007
IL REGNO DEI CIELI
IL SIGNORE LO PROMETTI
EL LA DONA SOLO AI PROVERI
1st Letter of Saint Clare to Agnes
I spent the weekend with my godson and his family. I love calling him that, for some reason. This is Alberto Molina, boy genius, and his wife Dana and their baby Catalina. I met Alberto when I was still a postulant at New Camaldoli. The family of a classmate of his brought him down to the Hermitage for a retreat just after his graduation from Yale, double major in Political Science and Drama, which do not seem so disparate when you think about it, the possible birthplace of some very astute guerilla theatre. My recollection is that we met in the bookstore at NCH when I was on duty, and we got to talking, which led to a walk up to the lake, which led to a 15 year friendship. At one point, the summer of 1995, I was in New Hampshire staying with Romuald, of happy memory, at Epiphany Monastery, and Alberto came to visit for a week or so. Romuald left to accompany another monk who was transferring there on a drive across the country, leaving the place to Alberto and I, and we had a writing week. We both had our respective Powerbooks, and he would retire to a little shed out in the front and I would set up mine at the dining room table. He was working on a play at the time, and I was working on the Camaldolese Psalter, the Sunday Office if I recall correctly. We would touch base around noon, and then again at dinner time, after which we would roll a couple of Drum cigarettes on the back porch and talk ‘til bedtime. It is a great memory. We also drove out to the New Hampshire coast one day, which was quite a discovery to me––that New Hampshire even had a beach. At the end of that week I drove Alberto into The City (if you have to ask…), where he was sharing a loft near Chinatown with some friends. That’s another wonderful memory, shopping for dinner at little local store, meeting a group of high-powered Yalie classmates, many of whom were already working in media, MTV, Disney, etc. We have kept in touch as he pursued a career in stock trading and then all kind of creative ventures in computer technology. The latter is his métier now, running Topaz Groups interactive media and building a creative web-based community called MassMind, hosts of our foundling consiglipennington.com web page. Alberto also met me in Italy in 1999, at the end of my first visit there, and we spent about a week together exploring Rome and Florence. In spite of the fact that I, having just finished an intensive one-month course in Italian, was supposed to be able to get us around with my command of the language, my main memory of tha time is of Alberto speaking very loud Spanish to waiters and shopkeepers while I slunk out to the sidewalk and waited. He is rather fearless.
I also prepared he and Dana for marriage, my one and only marriage prep to date, and presided at their wedding in Princeton in 1993. (This is why they refer to me as “our monk.”) They still tease me about the fact that I was more nervous than they before the wedding. It was only my second wedding, and had been fraught with difficulties: Dana is Jewish so we had to get special permission for Alberto to marry a non-Catholic non-Christian; they wanted to have it in a place that was not a church, so I had to get special permission for that; and then in the midst of a flurry of letters back and forth between their diocese and ours Alberto revealed to me that he was pretty sure that he had actually never been baptized. So, on one day Bishop Ryan was signing permission for me to perform his wedding to a non-Catholic in an extraordinary place, and the next day he was granting me permission to baptize and confirm him. Hence how I also became his godfather. (Richard Crowe from St Francis Kitchen actually stood in as proxy while I administered the sacraments.)
They now live in Princeton in a spacious house right next door to Dana’s parents home, where Dana actually grew up. Jim is a retired professor and academic dean from the University and Kate is among other things the former mayor. I’ve been to Princeton three or four times now, and I must admit that my earliest memories of New Jersey (Newark, Elizabeth) have now been replaced by images that justify it being called the Garden State. I love it there.
Sunday morning Alberto drove me down to the Monastery of the Poor Clares in nearby Bordentown, NJ. I know the nuns there from the Franciscan Camaldolese Contemplative weeks hosted by Dan Riley et al up at Mount Irenaeus, most especially Sr Mary Franics Flynn who has been one of my faithful ammas these past years. I have a special love for the Clares (le Clarisse, in italiano), or “the Poor Ladies,” as I like to call them. I love the fact that Francis established a strictly contemplative female counterpart to his own charism as hermit-preacher-wanderer, almost as if he knew he had to root himself in both the feminine and the contemplative, to which he often returned for spiritual refreshment like a wandering sannyasi pulling in at an ashram. As a matter of fact it was in the garden of the monastery of San Damiano, under the care of the nuns while suffering excruciating pain from his eye disease, that Francis wrote his Canticle of all Creatures. I began sketching some songs some months ago for an idea I had of a musical based on the life of Francis. My idea (please do not steal it, anyone!) was to have Clare narrate it. One of the texts that I want to adapt for a song is this one that I saw in a calligraphy on the wall at the monastery in Bordentown the last time I visited and later ascertained was from Clare’s first letter to Agnes.
NE SONO SICURISSMA
IL REGNO DEI CIELI
IL SIGNORE LO PROMETTI
EL LA DONA SOLO AI PROVERI
Of this I am sure,
the Lord promises and gives
the reign of heaven
only to the poor.
Mary Francis had invited me to preside at Mass, an invitation I was glad to accept. My homily, by the way, is an abridged version of the preceding blog. Afterwards Alberto and I along with a visiting friar (who is stationed at the New York province’s house of studies in Rome and who also works for the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith who had con-celebrated with me) were invited into a small dining room where we had a little breakfast and lively conversation with a handful of the nuns. I felt so comfortable there, as if those women truly know how to treat a passing pilgrim. Alberto seemed to have been very touched by their warm hospitality as well and I have hopes he will return with his women-folk.
Later that morning we headed into Manhattan (Men(h)a(t)’n I believe is close to the correct pronunciation, “h” and “t” optional). Two friends of theirs are involved in a new play that has been a part of the “Fringe Festival” on the lower east side. The neighborhood, the theatre and the audience itself were all in keeping with the fringe aspect. (There was an impressively optimistic but ultimately failed attempt at finding curb side parking.) The play, called “As Far As We Know,” is a re-creation of the story of Keith Maupin, a soldier from Batavia, Ohio who has been missing in Iraq since 2004 since his company was ambushed. There was one videotape released of him early on, and another very grainy one relased some time later that alleged to be his execution, but it was said to be inconclusive. His company came home but the military claims to be continuing the search for him even as his family still keeps hope alive that it was not he in the second videotape. The story is mostly their story. In a fascinating process, the play began with many of the members of this ensemble sitting around simply discussing the topic of torture and then improvising lines and scenes about it in something they called “The Torture Project.” Then when they heard of this story one of their ensemble went to Batavia and did research, interviewing the Maupin family extensively. After that they got more serious about it yet, and basically came together, chose characters and improvised scenes and lines until some kind of story and script emerged which was later written down by the director. This was off-Off-Broadway, mind you, and certainly not the slickest of productions nor the most professional, but I had not been to a live play in I can’t remember how long, and I was fascinated by the whole thing as well as, later when I found out about it, fascinated by the whole process.
We had dinner afterward with one of the lead characters, Sarah, who did a fine job playing the female military official assigned to be the liaison to the family and winds up getting too emotionally, personally involved with them, until she is later assigned to active duty in Iraq herself. Of course you can tell the anti-war, anti-military prejudice in something like this pretty far up-front, but they really did resist getting too heavy-handed. As Sarah explained to me afterward, the family is still supportive of President Bush and the war, and they wanted to be sympathetic to that if they were to tell the story truly. One scene, in which the missing soldier’s twin sister is doing research about various methods of torture, which morphs into a fantasy scene about a mock quiz show about torture methods (reminiscent of Bob Fosse’s death scene in “All That Jazz”), I found myself getting me very agitated then angry. I kept thinking that they were going “too far” and being disrespectful, but by the end of the scene, as the sister is coming out of the fantasy, I was almost in tears. Very disturbing.
Even more fascinating to me was to be around this group of people dedicating their lives to the arts in small ways, little theatres, obscure scripts, and genuinely seeming to be very dedicated to it as more than a passing hobby. As we walked to dinner I was asking Alberto why––Why do people write plays and act in them and dedicate themselves to theatre? It is the same question I have to ask myself about music all the time, especially since I am a monk as well; as Thomas Merton said that a monk had to ask himself every day why he became a monk, I have to ask why as a monk am I wandering around the country and the world singing? His answer, for himself at least, was about the same as mine. We really believe we can change the world, make it a better place, use art as a medium for convey truth and a better outlook on life. Just as they really think that that play can really effect change in the world, so I really do believe that the music I do changes peoples’ hearts––makes the world a “better place… a kinder place… helps the human race.”
After the play we went to a restaurant called Quintessence, “Raw-Vegan-Organic.” A very creative and delicious––and expensive¬¬––meal all made entirely of, well, raw, vegan, organic ingredients. It is an understatement to say that it was a stimulating experience to be in New York City even to just get a peek at some of the souls meandering and strutting through even a few of the panoply of neighborhoods there in their various habits and haloes in the self-named Capitol of the World.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
I just finished doing a Spirit, Soul and Body week at Omega Institute in upstate New York. Even a year ago I didn’t know anything about the place, but was told vaguely that it is like the “Esalen of the east coast.” The place has been around 30 years now and considers itself “a pioneer in exploring, teaching, and embracing new ideas focusing on health and wellness, personal spiritual growth, and self-awareness.” They also have another mission: to create a peaceful oasis in a hurried world, and an environmentally aware one as well. To give you an example of what goes on there, the same week that I was presenting there was a workshop on the “Sexual Body and the Yoga of Light,” another very popular one on shamanic healing and shape-shifting, one on yoga and one on Thai massage yoga, and one called “the Natural Singer.” This weekend as we were leaving they were going to be hosting Robert Bly and Arlo Guthrie, and local boy Noah Levine of the Dharma Punx¬¬––the name of whose latest book I love: “Shut Up and Sit Down.” The last weekend of August there will be the ecstatic chant weekend with Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, both of whom I love, and would I love to be there! (There is actually kirtan singing regularly, as well as an all cultures pow-wow.) The place is beautiful in the lush countryside of the Hudson River Valley, near Poughkeepsie, Westpoint and Hyde Park. The staff was very gracious in accommodating me, sent a limo to pick me up the airport when I arrived (three hours late) and hired a driver to take me all the way to Princeton, New Jersey when we finished Friday.
The architecturally and in other way inviting and contemplative library is named after Ram Dass, who I have admired for some years, especially for three things of his: his book “The Journey of Awakening” was one of the foundational teachings for me on meditation; the album he recorded with Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, “Amazing Grace,” on which he reads the poetry of eastern mystics has been one of my favorite listens for years and also was the inspiration for some of the recorded work that I have done; and a cassette tape of a talk he gave called “Death is Not an Outrage,” during which he told the story of his own life. I was tempted to buy the new DVD about his life, “Fierce Grace,” which I hear is wonderful, but it seemed a little spendy at $32.00. Anyway, when I first walked into the Ram Dass Library the woman who was working there (I later found out her name was Page––“No jokes, please!” she said) looked up from the counter and said, “Cyprian!” I asked her if she knew me, and she said that she had been looking at my picture in the catalogue for some time and had been waiting for me to come in. It was so nice to be welcomed like that, and we became pretty good friends over the course of the week.
Coming so recently off of the Esalen experience, I couldn’t help but make comparisons, mainly about the experience of the workshop. At Esalen we had people from a wide variety of spiritual traditions take the workshop, which was pleasing to me, but the description of the workshop had not made it very clear that I was coming mainly from a Christian background, even though bringing in elements from other traditions (Universal Wisdom). I was also hopelessly naïve thinking I could slip in things like Bede’s version of the Our Father and Hail Mary without more than raising eyebrows. In the end it went well, but there were some rough moments that could have been avoided, and I was actually afraid that the ritual was so much of a buzz factor that they were not getting the stuff of the talks. On the other hand, even though the material and ritual was more inclusive and universal at Omega, it had been advertised in such a way as to make it seem off-putting to non-Christians (one Jewish man told me so), and so all the participants were Christian, (at least nominally so; I made it a point not to pry into their affiliation or involvement, though some of that came out). One of the attendees was an articulate ordained Baptist minister, who was a delight to have around. As a matter of fact, they were a little surprised (though, thankfully, delightfully so) that I was drawing so much on Universal Wisdom, so I found I couldn’t always assume that everyone knew what I was talking about when I referred to the Upanishads or the Dhammapada.
Though it was a long week, it was a good thing to have four and a half days this time. I knew I had enough material and I also didn’t have to rush, so I could relax and sit back and talk more off the cuff, as well as review and make sure folks were following along. The participants were wonderful, engaged and committed to the work of the week, which of course included chanting, prayers, yoga and lots of meditation. We also, each afternoon, had a period of group lectio divina. This is the first time I have been able to do it fully this way: on Monday we read from the Gospel of Luke, but then all the other days we read from non-Judeo Christian sources: the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita, as we do with Sangha, applying the same method of reading four times, pulling out one word, then one phrase before opening the floor up to discussion about how we were encountering this word (Word!) today. I think the best discussions of the week came out of those lectio sessions. I have two things in mind when I do them: first Abhishiktananda having the lectio sessions on the Upanishads, and second how Bede said over and over again that he wanted to encourage people to be able to meditate each others’ Scriptures––hence, of course, the book Universal Wisdom. So we were very much in the lineage.
Outside of my particular group, I was delighted to be in an environment like that. Once again, for all the bad press that the Roman Catholic church has gotten these past years––and especially ordained Roman Catholics––I felt as if people treated me with a great deal of respect even before I had earned it. I also love being in such an idealistic environment––I am a hopeless optimist about the human race––where people really believe that they can change the world by changing themselves and the way they live (and they can––“with my own two hands…”). My optimism carries over into all of these creative, and sometimes seemingly whacky, new approaches to spirituality mainly, I posit, trying to invite the body and the earth back into the temple. That, of course, is a large part of what we deal with in the Spirit, Soul and Body sessions. I explained this time that the reason I spend so much time talking about Christianity during the “body” section is not so much to try to convert others or be an apologist for Christianity, but because western Christianity is largely to blame for the mess we are in because of its dualistic and decidely non-incarnational approach to spirituality. It is other traditions who are teaching us westerners, Christian or not, how to bring our body into the temple. (I am halting here before I start quoting my whole first two talks, Wendell Berry and Sam Keen.)
But yes, optimistic, that these kids and other folks at Omega are not only sincere (even a murderer can be sincere) but are quite often on the right path, discovering truth, beauty and goodness, discovering new wine for their new wineskins in many ways. I was thinking of the two preceding popes, first of all how Pope Paul VI at the opening session of the Second Vatican Council urged the Council fathers to change their attitude to the world––“not to conquer but to serve; not to despise but to appreciate, not to condemn but to comfort.” Specifically as regards the ritual/prayer service I had been worried about diminishing the Christian element too much, not wanting to make it seem as if I were ashamed of Jesus somehow, remembering Martin Marty’s warning that we are in danger of losing the cross, “and that,” he wrote, “as they say, is crucial.” But then suddenly I remembered John Paul II’s hopeless naïveté in 1983 when at the Assisi gathering of the world’s religious leaders he announced that they would now all “go and pray together,” a remark that was later stricken from the record since there are those who think that people of different traditions cannot pray together. I can celebrate Eucharist and the other sacraments, the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours on my own. When I am with others not of my tradition, I want to find a way that we can pray together, find some words that we can all agree on or at least words that do not exclude each together, and/or of course, to sit together in the sacred silence.
To my surprise I ran into someone I knew there, a girl named Rebecca who I had met over a decade ago through the Four Winds Council when she was living at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. We had had a few nice visits back then and had also exchanged a few letters but I have not seen her since. She appeared at the door of the building where I was doing my sessions and I was both surprised and not surprised to see her again, and there. This was her kind of place. We had a long hug and a quick visit, and then she was whisking off to be with her yoga gurus for a few days, so we made plans to visit later on Thursday when she got back.
They have open “sampler sessions” on some nights of the week so that people from one workshop can get a taste of another. My sampler was Tuesday, and I had planned to do my musical presentation that evening, even though it wasn’t typical of what the rest of the week was. We had a nice little crowd come besides my own participants, and I thoroughly enjoyed doing the concert again, which is also always a relief from speaking. Through it I got to meet another handful of great folks that I would run into again over the course of the week. And somehow I still feel like this is what I really do––I’m a singer not a teacher! It is true: music cuts through all the ideology, especially since we have really been able to develop a repertoire drawn from poetry from many different sources.
Thursday I had dinner with Rebecca and then a long visit with her again after my evening session over a cup of tea. She is so impressive. She has traveled the world partly for the experience, partly finding ways that she can be of service. She has been heavily involved in animal rights activism and nature causes. She has taken lay ordination in the Soto Zen tradition and has studied yoga extensively in the jivamukti lineage, and also seems very conversant in Sufi mysticism. We had a thousand things to talk about and by the end of the evening, well after midnight, I was so charged up I could barely sleep. I am just so glad that there are people who are that alive in the world, who care that much about the future of the race and the planet, and who care so absolutely little for social convention and security. She is a real sannyasin. She had had no idea what had become of me over this past decade and so was equally excited to hear about all my wonderful spirit, soul and body adventures, and was a captive and appreciative audience when I sang three or four of the new songs for her. I had this same feeling that I get from time to time, like singing for Jojo and his friends in Durango, that I was able to write these songs just for them, just for Rebecca, just so I could have a bridge to cross over into Rebecca’s world and she to mine.
The weird thing is I feel like I get all my naïve optimism from my reading of the Scriptures. The prophet Isaiah says some shocking things. In regards the above quote of Paul VI, that’s also what comes to my mind when I hear the words of Isaiah 40 at the beginning of Advent: “Comfort, give comfort to my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” And I think of Isaiah 43:18-19––“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”––when I read this passage from Is 66:18 that we use in the lectionary today: “I know their works and I know their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come to see my glory… to the farthest coastlands far away that have not heard my fame or seen my glory… and I will take some of them as priests and Levites.”
Isaiah seems to be already pointing toward the universality of the covenant, that at some point, even if it has started with Abraham’s children, his seed by blood, it is soon to include people from all nations and tongues, from the farthest coastlands. (Jesus will take that to its extreme when he says in Matthew 3: “I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”) This has got to have been a shock for the Hebrews to hear at that time. The monotheistic religions––Judaism, Christianity, Islam––have all inherited this tendency to turn the scandal of particularity into a scandal of exclusivity. But how could it be so? How could God be so small? Now, ripped away from the security of the temple in their exile, the people of Israel have had to discover a new interiority––the 1st Axial period––and that new interiority in some marvelous way is also calling for a new inclusivity.
In the Gospel of Luke (13:22ff.) when they ask Jesus how many will be saved, Jesus doesn’t answer. He turns it back on the questioner: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” I find it very funny that he doesn’t answer. “Many will try to enter and will not be able to”; on the other hand “people will come from the east and west, from the north and south.” And if it will be in keeping with the rest of Jesus’ ministry, those who will enter might be all kinds of unexpected people, the blind and the lame, the tax collectors and prostitutes, unclean and outsiders, people from Omega Institute and Esalen, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and Mount Madonna, white guys with dread locks and Jewish girls with multiple tattoos and body piercings––not who we thought was going to be first, but those we might have thought of as last. Not the ones who are necessarily calling “Lord, Lord” but those who are showing that the law is written on their hearts.
Many of the people who frequent and run places like Omega are those who have turned the backs on institutional religion (for the most part Christianity) because they feel as if institutional religion turned its back on them, or because they weren’t finding transformative experiences or inclusivity inside of churches, and so they have built an environment of transformation and inclusivity. I know a lot of people in Christianity scoff at folks like this, and giggle and snicker at their costumes and antics and diet and drums and dancing, but I see, “They were hungry and no one was there to feed them. They were like sheep without a shepherd.” And so now they, the children, are leading the way.
There’s a movement in the human person, a natural movement that must be respected. We all start out selfish; we’re supposed to be selfish as children. It is our survival method. We automatically know how to cry when we need to feed, when we are too hot or too cold or in danger, so that we will be cared for. (It’s actually amazing to me just how helpless human children are for so long. Other creatures in nature seem to be self-sufficient a lot sooner.) But slowly, slowly our parents wean us not just from our dependence on the breast, but also from our selfishness, and teach us that we belong to something bigger. The first something bigger that we learn that we belong to is the tribe, or our family; we learn even that our personal survival also depends on survival of the tribe. Some people say that in women it is the growth from selfishness to care, meaning care for the tribe, for the family; and in men the growth is from selfishness to rights, to protecting the family and the tribe. But there is a greater belonging too that we learn, and another move that we need to make: from care for the tribe to universal care; from rights for the tribe to universal rights. In a sense this is the ultimate selflessness, extending care, extending justice outside of our known categories and cultures. At some point we are going to realize that our personal survival also depends on this universality, that we are all one body. (I’m thinking again of the marvelous experience of Malcolm X just before he was murdered, what he called his “second conversion,” when during his hajj to Mecca he realized that all these people around him, black, white, brown skinned, from every nation and language group, were all his brothers and sisters, and he left the Nation of Islam of Elijah Muhammed to form Organization of African-American Unity, and eventually moved from fighting for civil rights to fighting for human rights.)
In some ways I think that it is contemplatives, meditators, who should be able to understand this the best. “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” The narrow door is the one leading into the inner chamber, ascending to the depths of the heart, and then all of this will make sense. It’s narrow because we have to shrink and shrink and shrink some more to fit through, like the healthy ego that is lean and mean, servant and friend and messenger, like the seed that falls to the ground and dies, like the yeast that disappears into the dough, like salt disappears into whatever it is flavoring. We have at some point to cast off all our bloated self-importance and our cultural baggage if we are to be people of the spirit. The new interiority gives birth to a new inclusivity. Bede Griffiths wrote that at the level of the body and the soul we are all separate, and constantly yearning for the re-connection. But at the level of the spirit we are one. We are all contained in God, permeated by the Spirit, swimming in Spirit.
Bruno writes that this new period of post-modernity and globalization is marked by a transition from a Eurocentric to a global consciousness, and that both monasticism and the church in general are being invited to open themselves toward “a larger emergent reality, which can itself be seen as a fruit of continuing incarnation––of the working of the Christ mystery in the earth of humanity.” Instead of the scandal of exclusivity we move from the scandal of particularity to the scandal of the Incarnation. This, of course, is why we study Universal Wisdom, and why we teach of the Universal Call to Contemplation, why we watch for and applaud it wherever it is happening. This has great implications for and is the very basis of inter-religious dialogue.
Sunday, August 19, 2007
I take the offering, I am the offering
I am the father and mother of the world.
In ancient days I established it.
I am what need be known, what purifies,
The sacred syllable OM,
The verse of the sacred books
Your way and goal, upholder, ruler,
Witness, dwelling, refuge, friend,
the world’s origin, continuance and dissolution,
abiding essence, changeless seed.
Bhagavad Gita 9:16-18
A friend sent me a YouTube link recently. I think he was thinking that I would really enjoy this talk by Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. It starts out with these words on the screen:
"We have no reason to expect to survive our religious differences indefinitely. Faith is intrinsically divisive. We have a choice between conversation and war. It was conversation that ended slavery, not faith. Faith is a declaration of immunity to conversation. To make religious war unthinkable we have to undermine the dogma of faith. The continuation of civilization requires not moderation but reason."
Harris's basic theme is that the time has come to speak openly and clearly about what he sees as "the dangers posed to society by religious belief. While highlighting what he regards as a particular problem posed by Islam at this moment with respect to international terrorism, Harris makes a direct criticism of religion of all styles and persuasions, as both dangerous and impeding progress toward what he considers more enlightened approaches to spirituality and ethics.” (thanks to Wikipedia)
"To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world – to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish – is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance."
My first response, though being no great student of history, was to wonder, “Didn’t we already go through this during the Enlightenment?”––reason as the primary basis of authority, the Scientific Revolution, rationality. I understand that the great figures of the Enlightenment were reacting against the stale traditions, irrationality, superstition, and tyranny of the Middle Ages, and that they believed they could lead civilization to progress––but did it work? Reason divorced from religious intuition and mythic imagination? Is this not what gave birth to unbridled capitalism, the military industrial complex and all its spawn?
My friend argued that Harris is “a huge defender of the mystical aspects of religion” but is it not true that not only cultures and civilizations but people themselves aren’t simply born into the mystical aspects of religion. Those same cannot easily be divorced from the popular mythological aspects of religion. Does not Jungian psychology suggest that if we were to rid ourselves of all the religious imagery and language it would all rise up again?
I am no defender of fundamentalism in any of its forms and would count myself first in line to decry the abuses in the name of religion. But “gibberish”? Is biblical, quranic, vedic or any other religious language merely gibberish? Is mythology––or art, for that matter––gibberish?
Fr Bede, in his introduction to Universal Wisdom, says that this is the difference between the mind of western man (sic) and that of the people of the ancient world, and that it is typical of a male patriarchal culture. The human being in the west is "described as a ‘rational animal,’ that is, an animal being with body and soul, of which the faculty of reason is considered to be the highest power... and no knowledge is considered to be scientific which does not depend on this…” On the other hand, as Jacques Maritain, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung point out, there is another way of knowing––imagination, images and archetypes, the intelligence of myth and the intelligence, if you will, of religion. And it is actually a superior way of knowing. And in these great myths (albeit when not taken literally), Bede says, a profound wisdom is contained in which “reason is implicit but not explicit” and reason proceeds from it by abstraction, “from its embodiment in the imagination. The wisdom of a great poet… a wisdom which grasps reality not in abstract concepts but in concrete images.”
And then I thought about Mahatma Gandhi (faithful devotee of Sri Ram), and Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez. Would they be excluded from Harris’ conversation? Or did they ever exclude themselves from their current conversations about social change, all four devoted ahimsa–non-violence, peacemaking? And was slavery really ended by unaided reason, not, at least in some cases, “reason informed by faith”?
That latter, “reason informed by faith,” was actually the only thing I offered by way of a, looking back, somewhat pathetic salvo to my interlocuter. In the odd position of using Pope Benedict as an counter-example, I wrote that the flaw in Harris’ argument is that someone like the present pope, for example, does not base his opinions just on revelation, but is a stalwart defender of Greek philosophy, and of the fact that the “will of God” is reasonable, ie., a hopeless defender of the logos of the Greeks, and so things like slavery or spreading religion by violence are against true religion, the abuses of religion in the past notwithstanding and no longer to be condoned. But, I added, obviously people who don’t believe in the reality of grace, coming from any tradition, are always going to think that even religious ritual and praxis (and not necessarily only the higher stages of mysticism) are going to have nothing to offer to either human or social development, and so have no place in the conversation that Harris rightly declares to so precious.
It's Harris' argument that I don't think is reasonable.
We are so often stuck between a rock and a hard place, as Bruno (Barnhart) describes it: “a climate polarized between a reductionist rationalism on one side and an immobile institutional dogmatism on the other. In the midst of the continuing war between scientism and fundamentalism… it has never been easy to imagine and to develop a third sapiential possibility.” (The Future of Wisdom, p. 23)
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
August 15th is not only the feast of the Assumption of Mary. It is also India Independence Day, the day that India gained her independence from England in 1947, 60 years ago. I am reminded of that because my arrival for my first visit to Shantivanam occurred just days before India Independence Day and I got to witness first hand the festivities, the colorful chalk drawings on the ground around the ashram, the raising of the Indian flag accompanied by the singing of the national anthem, and the children breaking a pinyata-like object filled with sweets. I also will never be able to forget the connection because of a startling something I read while visiting the New Delhi branch of Auroville on my last trip, the ashram founded on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo. I was sitting in the meditation room in mid-afternoon, killing some hours before I caught my flight out that evening and leafing through some pamphlets I had picked up n the bookstore. One of them was the story of Sri Aurobindo’s life. He had been a kind of Indian freedom fighter in the early days. He first turned his prodigious intellect toward a short political career and became one of the leaders of the early movement for the freedom of India from British rule, mainly through journalism and other writing. But then he “turned to the development and practice of a new spiritual path which he called the “integral yoga,” the aim of which was to further the evolution of life on earth by establishing a high level of spiritual consciousness which he called the Supermind that would represent a divine life free from physical death.” As it turns out, his birthday was also August 15th, and when India finally won her independence, someone wrote to him remarking that wasn’t it wonderful that India should have won her independence on his birthday? He replied that it had an even greater and deeper significance that India would have won her independence on the feast of the Assumption, a feast which "implies that the physical nature is raised to the divine Nature"–– and that of course was the point of his integral yoga. He thought that physical consciousness and physical being, the body itself could “reach a perfection in all that it is and does which now we can hardly conceive. It may even in the end be suffused with a light and beauty and bliss from the Beyond and the life divine assume a body divine.” I think that he perhaps understood the promise of the Gospel even more than most Christians.
I think we have to turn back to some events in Jesus’ life first to realize the significance of this story, mainly to the story of Jesus' ascension. There was another shocking thing I read some years ago about Jesus’ ascension from the French liturgist Jean Corbon: “There is but a single Passover or Passage but its mighty energy is displayed in a continual ascension and Pentecost.” A continual ascension!? What does this mean? Not only is Jesus at the Father's right side. We are, Christ’s body. Jesus is the head of this body, and his fullness is in us, the rest of the Body. I have a quite literal image in my mind of this. The head of the body is there, but for all of history that head, Jesus, will be dragging, sometimes kicking and screaming, the rest of the body behind him, to follow him, to be with him, at the right hand of the throne of God in glory. Us, his body! We are the work of this continual ascension. We are meant to ascend, we are "being ascended"! Because our high priest Jesus is there, drawing us to himself. I have also the image of the tides and the moon: the same water (that is, the Spirit) who raised Jesus from the dead is in us, and like the moon draws the waters to itself, even more so we are being drawn to Jesus, drawn to God, drawn to glory, even in our very flesh. Jesus' public ministry is done, but his work continues, from the right hand of the Father, the work of drawing us to himself. Did not Jesus say in his final discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper (Jn 14:3) I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also?
And Mary stands for Christians as the first fruit of that promise.
I read something about Muhammad recently in Mircea Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion that made me think of Mary. It said, concerning Muhammad, “There was always a thin line between emulation and veneration, between making him an ideal exemplar and dehumanizing him into a perfect man. One could imitate him, but not completely, because he was too special; but one could not make him so special that he was not human.” In dealing with any religious figure, and especially with Mary, there is always this thin line between emulation and veneration; there is always a thin line between making of Mary an ideal exemplar and dehumanizing her into a goddess, making her so special that she is no longer human. The danger of the latter is that we can imitate, but not completely, because she’s too special; and we project all of the promise on to her and forget that we, humanity, are the subject of the story.
Under the pontificate of John Paul II we almost had "the Fifth Marian Dogma," a dogmatic recognition of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Co-Redemptrix. Mary had already been designated by the Church with four other holy attributes––as Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431, as ever Virgin in 649, as immaculately conceived by Pope Pius IX in 1854, and as being assumed into heaven body and soul by Pope Pius XII in 1950. The proposed dogma of co-redemptrix would have held that by her unique co-operation with God as the Woman, New Eve, Mother of the living, and having been assumed into heaven, Mary continues this saving office as Advocate and Mediatrix of all grace by her constant intercession to obtain for the gifts of salvation for all people. Even though Mary’s role would still have been subordinate to and always dependent upon the essential and chief role of Jesus, one of the reasons this was controversial is because it paints a very thin line between her and Jesus––it deifies her. I was of two minds about it. On the negative side, I do not want anyone else between me and God. I never like the saying, “To Jesus, through Mary,” for instance. On the other hand, one of the reasons I liked the idea of Mary being raised up even more was specifically because of this thin line. Mary has been the only feminine face of the Divine for Christians for centuries. (And it has often been the common people––the sensus fidelium––not the scholars––the sensus fidei–– who have clamored for her being exalted). But Mary is also not only the feminine. By virtue of being the feminine she is also the connection with the earth that is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodies. She is also humanity; she is one of us, the first fruits of the promise. I love the idea of Mary, and so humanity, the feminine, the earth being deified, a concept that the eastern Christian tradition speaks of much more than the western.
I love the Rublev icon of Abraham’s three visitors under the oaks of Mamre, and I have used it as a sort of emblem for all my work. The thing I especially love is that in the image there is a place at the table for us to enter––why it is so wonderful at the entrance to the chapel at our monastery––to enter right into the life of the Trinity. On the other side of the chapel, right in front of the Marian icon, there is an echo of that configuration in a design in the granite stone that was laid down some years ago. There is a triangle there, representing the Trinity, and a smaller triangle in front of it opening toward it. That’s Mary breaking into the Trinity, but that is also us and behind us all of the earth that is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodes, being led by Mary where she went, where Jesus is, into the Life Divine.
I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
Some last words from Sri Aurbindo:
In the past the body has been regarded by spiritual seekers rather as an obstacle.
In the past the body has been regarded as something to be overcome and discarded rather than as an instrument of spiritual perfection and a field of the spiritual change.
Monday, August 13, 2007
they are liberated whose kundalini is awake.
They are liberated who hear spontaneous repetition of hamsa.
They are liberated who have envisioned the blue pearl.
But they are undoubtedly liberated
who experience the transcendental state beyond form.
Sri Guru Gita, 122
I just read Wilber's essay on "Translation versus Transformation." I usually use the words "conformation versus transformation," but he writes in a very similar vein to what I have already learned and I was thinking about that in relation to today's feast and have borrowed some of his language.
Today is the feast of Pontian and Hippolytus on the Roman calendar, second century Christian martyrs. Similar to Ss. Cornelius and Cyprian, Hippolytus is always associated with Pontian, who was a pope, but Hippolytus outshines Pontian in many ways. But, also similar to Cornelius as opposed to Cyprian, Hippolytus was the harsh one, the intransigent one. If I had to guess, I would say that Hippolytus was an 8 on the Enneagram––his first answer to every question was “No.” For example, in regards to the liturgy, he was steadfastly against people using the vernacular for the Eucharist, and he wanted to retain the liturgy in the sacred scholarly language. Meaning, he didn’t want the Eucharist celebrated in that vulgar language of Latin––he wanted it to stay in Greek. (So, even our current language debates must be put into perspective.)
But worse than his refusal of Latin, he refused to accept the teaching of the legitimately elected Pope Zephyrinus and called the next pope, Callistus, a heretic, and then allowed himself to be named an anti-pope by a circle of followers who thought of the church as an elect community of pure souls who had to remain sharply and uncompromisingly separated from the world and all its dangers. He and his friends remained in schism through the next two popes, Urban and Pontian. But then, as ironic fate would have it, he was exiled with Pope Pontian. It is only then that some kind of reconciliation took place, and Hippolytus resigned. (Maybe the one area where Pontian outshines Hippolytus was in his humility. Pontian himself resigned his office for the good of the church.) When they died their bodies were brought back to Rome together and buried with solemn rites as martyrs. So, basically, what we have here is someone who was a schismatic and a heretic himself. And I can’t help but think that the martyrdom of exile itself was some sort of grace of God––to finally break through his self-will.
Religion seems to perform two very different functions. I think of them as conformation and transformation. First of all religion can act as a way of creating and building up a sense of a separate self, and then a collective of separate selves. That separate self or the collective of separate selves then has to be fortified, defended and promoted. At this stage we think that as long as we believe the myths, performs the rituals, say the right prayers (in the right language), and embrace the proper dogmas, we are going to be saved. This is the process of conformation, conforming to an external framework, perhaps akin to the purgative phase of the spiritual life. But at some point, hopefully, the spiritual aspirant is going to feel comfortable enough within and with this framework to open up to more than conforming, to open up to transforming instead of conforming, transforming self and transforming the world from within––to going beyond the external signs to actually “circumcising our hearts.”
For example, in the Book of Deuteronomy (10:12-22), we hear the Israelites being challenged to stop being so stiff-necked, and now that they have circumcised their foreskins––now that they have fulfilled the external signs and practices––to circumcise their hearts––internal transformation. And part of that internal transformation involves breaking out of the caged little world of self or the little protected collective of separate selves: not only accept no bribes, not only care of orphans and widows, but even to care for aliens. This isn’t all about you! Open the doors! I’m thinking of the marvelous experience of Malcolm X just before he was murdered, what he called his “second conversion,” when during his hajj to Mecca he realized that all these people around him, black, white, brown skinned, from every nation and language group, were all his brothers and sisters, and he left the Nation of Islam of Elijah Muhammed to form Organization of African-American Unity, and eventually moved from fighting for civil rights to fighting for human rights. Ken Wilber refers to this movement as moving from selfishness to care, to universal care; or from selfishness to rights to universal rights. This is the work of transformation, inner transformation that enables us to transform the world.
Unfortunately, sometimes this circumcising of the heart, this opening of the heart only happens when that whole structure gets challenged, undermined and perhaps even dismantled completely––like Hippolytus being sent into exile, like the falling out between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam (who will eventually have him killed). At some point authentic transformation is not a matter of merely believing, but about the death of the believer, a total surrender of self with all its opinions and plans. And then authentic religion becomes not a matter of merely conforming and making the world conform, as much as about being transformed and then being able, through our transformation, to transform the world around us. As we realize our own transformation, our very presence automatically effects transformation in others, like yeast in the dough, like salt in the earth.
Ironic and typical in today’s Gospel, after the glorious vision of the Transfiguration, and Jesus announcing that he is going to suffer, be handed over and killed, immediately he and his disciples get faced with a bunch of petty questions about paying taxes (Mt 17). It’s almost as if Jesus says, “Whatever! Pay it! We’re free. We have seen the glory; we know where we are going.” That’s the freedom of transformation, and that’s how we become agents of transformation in our world. As we realize our own freedom, our very presence automatically liberates others.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
"You know, Larry-san, marriage very beautiful.
Two people live together, do each other laundry, cook each other.
Slowly two people become one. But me - I one already!"
And then his commentary:
“The roshi is one, and he knows it;
others are one too, but they do not see it.
The difference lies in the awareness,
not in the shape of one's being.”
And then these three parallel passages from Christian Asia and farther Asia:
Regardless of attire or adornment,
The guiltless one, calm, self-restrained,
Chaste and resolute,
Refraining totally from hurting living beings,
Is the Brahmin, the recluse the monk.” (Dhammapada 10:14)
They who are happy within themselves,
Enjoy within themselves the delight of the soul,
And even so are illuminated by the inner light,
Such a yogi identified with Brahman
Attains Brahman who is all peace. (Bhagavad Gita 5:24)
We are told of one of the divinely inspired Fathers,
That when he was asked what a monk was,
He made no reply,
But removed his cloak and trampled it under foot.
(Nicholas Cabasillas, A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy)
I’m off to Big Sur to give the Spirit, Soul and Body retreat there.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
With no inside and no outside,
No subject and no object,
No in here versus out there,
Without beginning and without end,
Without ways and without means,
Without path and without goal.
I have found myself in the odd position of trying to defend Ken Wilber recently. I brought him up to one of my friends who said that WIlber was a charlatan and a cult figure, even like a sort of Gnostic leader, and what had become apparent to him as he read Wilber and about him was that he standing rather tentatively in the minefield of the hard philosophical problems––the one and the many; good versus evil; body and soul, mind and matter––with some serious inaccuracies in various fields of study, namely, biology, physics, philosophy. Some think that the very notion that Wilber's passion for synthesizing should be put under the transpersonal psychology label is what Confucius regarded as the central instigator of spiritual/political disturbances, i.e., "confusion of the names". This has won him many critics on many topics and left him outside serious academic circles. One reviewer said that “his musings on Quantum Mechanics could only put off a professional physicist or a mathematician as an amateurish dabblings of a presumptuous ignoramus.”
I’m actually glad to get some critique of him to keep me balanced. And yet, I still have to say that I have so enjoyed much of what I have read by him. I found Wilber's language really worked for me and allowed me to express and convey some things in my own experience that I did not have vocabulary for before, especially his thing on the "Uneven Development of Spiritual Teachers" and his Integral Spirituality (though I must say I find it too complicated and stay with Spirit, Soul and Body). And Fr Bede was very much taken with Wilber's notion of the spectrum of consciousness (which one critic thought was about as useless as hierarchizing choirs of angels), and, for him, its resonances with Upanishadic thought. That's why I finally decided to give him a look after 15 years or so, since I have immersed myself in Bede and his writings all these years.
From my admittedly fallible and somewhat unlearned perspective, the notion of the spectrum of consciousness is much more able to be observed than choirs of angels. This is even the work of psychotherapy at its best. And perhaps it’s because Western Christianity grew fearful and neglectful of that inward look that psychology has become our priesthood, and therapy our sacrament. It's different in the East, even to some extent in the Christian east, the hesychast tradition et al. Both Hindu and Buddhist thought tend to spend more time mapping the inscape of the psyche/soul, because so much of the practical spirituality is involved in meditation, the way "in" through the mind, what we call the contemplative life, as opposed to the way "out," with a belief that the divine is the ground of consciousness. (This of course has not been the case for the bulk of Western Christianity, but this is the consciousness that has arisen in the longing for contemplative prayer and meditation.) Hence the journey through the layers of our own consciousness arrives hopefully in an abiding in the cave of our own heart, the deepest part of our I-ness, our "spirit," where we await the life-giving grace of God. It's through our study of eastern thought that we have once again found similar notions in ancient Christian spirituality, even back to Plotinus and the neo-Platonists' study of the nous, and certainly Evagrius' teachings about the logismoi (hence the seven deadly sins), and perhaps even John of the Cross and the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways, which also traces its roots back to Origen and the desert. It's not a hard science, but it is one anyone engaged in any kind of psychotherapy is already involved in. Wilber at least has the sense to say that psychology can only take you so far; at some point one's spiritual tradition/teacher has to lead you to the Spirit, the love of God which is poured into our hearts.
I’m preparing yet another version of the Spirit, Soul and Body talks, and as I was reading from Quantum Questions about Wilber’s delineation of spirit from Spirit. Spirit as realm or as an element of the human condition––jivatman as opposed to Spirit as Ultimate Reality, Paratman, or the Holy Spirit. He says that when he is referring to spirit as the highest dimension or summit of being, he uses “spirit” or “spiritual realm” with a small “s,” “to indicate that the spiritual realm is a realm that in some very significant ways is different from, or transcendent to, the realms of matter, life, mind and soul…” There are “functions, capacities and aspects that are found in the spiritual realm and nowhere else.” I am especially pleased by his use of the phrase “spiritual realm,” as this is one of the notions I got from Bede, of the interpenetrating realms of existence––the realm of matter, the realm of psyche, the realm of spirit. On the other hand, when Wilber is referring to the all-pervading, all-embracing, radically immanent aspect of spirit, he uses “Spirit” with a capital “S,” “to indicate that Spirit is not the highest level among other levels but rather is the Ground or Reality of all levels, and this could have no specific qualities or attributes itself, other than being the ‘isness’ or ‘suchness’ or ‘thatness’ of all possible and actual realms––in other words, the unqualifiable Being of all beings, not the qualifiable being of any particular beings.” He goes on to say that this is what is meant by the Buddhist notion of sunyata––Spirit is unqualifiable, “no thing” we can say or grasp or qualify: “Spirit is neither One nor Many, neither infinite or finite, neither whole nor part––for all of those are supposed qualifications of Spirit. Those things might be able to apply to the spiritual realm but not Spirit. This is the second aspect of spirit I always bring out as well––spirit as apophatic depth, but I do however tie it in to the anthropological use of the term; as Paul Evidokimov says, “Just as there is an apophatic depth to God, so there is an apophatic depth to us.”
Where I stumble with Wilber’s writing, and where I can understand that someone would consider him a Gnostic, is that you get the impression that realization or enlightenment––might Christians say, “Salvation”?––is a self-powered cure. I always remember now the adage of Aurobindo, from whom I am sure Wilber culled some of his own ideas––“within there is a soul and above there is grace. That is all you know, and all you need to know.” It’s as if we had to to do the whole work of ascent––ascending through the charkas or the Christian mystical tradition’s “the soul’s ascent to God”––but we still then wait, at the crown chakra, if you will, for the descent of the Supramental, the outpouring of Grace. There is an intentionality about Grace that I haven’t found alluded to much in Wilber’s writings. And also for all his talk about Spirit being unqualifiable, Wilber does tend to be pretty cocksure about what Spirit is and isn’t. Furthermore, all his information tends to be gathered from the strict non-dual sources, (“essentially, it is Ch'an/Zen, Tibetan Mahamudra or Trika Shaivism refurbished, combined with Hegel's evolving Spirit”) He writes again in Quantum Questions for example:
“In the soul realm, there is still some sort of subtle subject-object duality; the soul apprehends Being, or communes with God, but there still remains an irreducible boundary between them. In the realm of spirit, however the soul becomes Being in a nondual state of radical intuition and supreme identity variously known as gnosis, nirvikalpa Samadhi, satori, kensho, jnana, etc. In the soul realm, the soul and God commune; in the spirit realm, both the soul and God unite in Godhead, or absolute spirit, itself without exclusive boundaries anywhere…”
With that in mind any kind of suggestion of even “union by communion” with the Divine, as Bede teaches, is somehow of a lesser ilk that the strict non-duality of, say, Hindu advaita––perhaps even Jesus’ own experience. Bede taught many times that Jesus says, “The Father and I are one,” but never said, “I am the Father.” (Though six times in the Gospel of John he does say, “I AM”!)
A friend of mine is involved in dialogue with some Buddhists and was asked to look for instances of Christian expressions of non-duality, in terms of the individuals identity with Ultimate Reality. I warned him not to get caught in the trick. It’s not the Christian mystical language (the exceptions only prove the rule) and in a discussion like that the non-dualists will nod their heads knowingly, even sympathetically, at the poor dualists. But I do not think "union by communion" is any less wonderful than "union by identity." Besides that, the other seduction is this: Abhishiktananda warns that it is often the ego saying “I am Brahman” anyway, not Brahman saying “I am Brahman.”
“Only don’t know!” a famous Buddhist teacher was known to say. I don’t know! Abhishiktananda was so insistent that we need to go for the experience, we need to make the journey of interiority and not just spend time speculating about or defending abstract principles. And he himself had had some very real experience of what he considered to be non-duality. So the danger to be avoided is to stay in our heads and not spend enough time on the cushion, in prayer and meditation which is the garden in which we grown in awareness of not only who the Divine is but perhaps more importantly who we are. Wake up to who you are! And then we can try to express that reality in poetry (theology, philisophy) and, of course, in active love and service. I don’t want to be a defender of duality or qualified non-duality either. I want to follow the path and help others do so as well; I want to talk only out of my experience. It’s only because I know my own hubris that I can warn others of it; it’s only because I have experienced the peace of abiding in God that I can give others hope that such a thing exists.
One another similar note, the Lectionary today serendipitously pairs the reading from Numbers 12 (about Aaron and Miriam doubting Moses' decisions and powers) together the story from Matthew 14 about Peter's failed attempt to walk on the water. It just played into my thinking again about soul and spirit, the psychic and the spiritual. There's a specific kind of doubt, one could posit, going on here.
I always remember how cinematographers often love to place their protagonists near a body of water when they are making big decisions; bodies of water become symbols of the unconscious. I always think of that when Jesus appears by a body of water, and especially when he is calming the water or walking on it. This is the symbol of that something beyond the unconsciousness, the psychic realm, the spirit, the spiritual realm. And the Spirit with which Jesus is filled to bursting––just touch the hem of his garment and it oozes out of him––has power over the physical realm as well as the psychic realm. He calms the waters of nature; he calms the the waters of the unconscious, the troubled mind. And Jesus invites Peter to go there, higher than, deeper than, beyond the churning world of matter and the psyche, to have mastery over his own body and soul. And for a moment Peter rises above and then doubts that this power has really been given to him. He makes a good choice at that point––he starts saying his mantra, his nama japa: Lord, save me! Good advice!
Maybe you can see a similar dynamic in the Numbers story.
I the Lord make myself known to prophets in visions;
I speak to them in dreams. 7
8Not so with my servant Moses.
With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles;
and he beholds the form of the Lord.
The Lord says that he makes himself known to the prophets in visions and dreams––the psychic realm; but "with Moses I speak face to face"––unmediated, direct, the realm of the Spirit. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron doubt this immediacy can be given to a human being just as Peter doubted it could be given to him.
When I doubt, I just need to stick close to the breath and the mantra and nama japa––Save me, O Lord!
Monday, August 6, 2007
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns
and the morning star rises in your hearts.
2 Peter 1.19:
How can you get around it? Once you see it, it's everywhere! This lamp shining in a dark place is the morning star that is meant to rise in our hearts! The dark place is the mystery that is Ultimate Reality; the dark place is also the mystery that is the deepest part of our own being.I was so excited this morning to get to celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration with the good folks at St Columba's, or simply to celebrate it at all. I have been pondering this issue of non-duality so much (maybe more on that later) and feeling quite consoled and satisfied with Fr Bede's notion that the specifically Christian notion is union by communion, which is still so close that Paul says, "It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me." And satisfied with the eastern Christian emphasis on deification. This is a stumbling block for folks such as Ken Wilber, who probably consider this to be somewhat less than strict non-duality, and for folks who don't like Ken Wilber who consider his emphasis on strict non-duality hubris. I don't need to know how to define the ultimate. It is enough to me to know that deification is promised us. We shall be like him when we see him as he is. Isn't that enough for now!?
And when I get worried about my own hubris, suddenly I see it everywhere, if not in the Scripture just cited, how about St Paul saying that Christ will "transfigure our lowly bodies into copies of his own." Or how about the eucology of (reading the prayers of) the Eucharistic liturgy in the Roman Rite: Jesus has heard the voice saying that he was the beloved son, the opening prayer echoes that and goes one step further praying that God would "show us the splendor of your beloved sons and daughters" and "help us to become heirs to eternal life with him"; the preface of the Eucharistic prayer has the beautiful phrase, "His glory shone from a body like our own to show that the Church which is the body of Christ, would one day share his glory––which I see referring to its individual members as well as the whole; the communion antiphon quotes 1 John, that in seeing him as he is––in his transfigured glory, "we will be like him"; and the communion prayer asks that the Eucharist we receive would "change us into his image."
I am remembering so may friends because of this feast. Moses and Elijah at first glance are symbols of the Law and the Prophets, Jesus being the fulfillment of each. But at second glance there is a deeper significance too––Denis Delaney has made it so that I will never forget. It's the mountain. Jesus is on the mountain, which was very significant to both Moses and Elijah before him. Moses has climbed the mountain to meet God, and it is there that he has his encounter with God, especially, as told us by Gregory of Nyssa, in the dark cloud, where God was. And Elijah of course is on the same mountain hiding from Jezebel when he has the revelation of God not in the earthquake, not in the firestorm, not in the mighty wind, but in the sound of sheer silence. And sure enough, Moses' cloud appears too in all the versions of the story (in Matthew it's a bright cloud). The Cloud of Unknowing, the same cloud that Jesus will enter in the story of his Ascension.
Peter wants to build three tents, nail it down. The synoptic Gospels all tell us just before this story that Jesus has given this beautiful discourse about "those who lose their life will save it," his discourse about not clinging to anything, just as Paul tells us he himself did not even consider godliness something to be clung to. But Peter wants to cling to this. It's normal. But nada nada nada––St John of the Cross makes sense in a whole different way now––even on the mountain, nada!
I love to think of this power, this light coming from the inside of Jesus. He was bursting with it. This is the sap that runs through the vine, and so to run through the branches as well. I also find it interesting that the disciples are asleep, and then they wake up. This is as metaphorical as actual too. They wake up! Wake up to the reality of who Jesus is. Was he always like this and did they just see it for the first time? Hopefully they wake up to the reality of what creation is too––charged with the grandeur of God, and even more that they too, as branches on the vine are filled with this same Taboric light.
How can you get around it? Once you see it, it's everywhere! This lamp shining in a dark place is the morning star that is meant to rise in our hearts! The dark place is the mystery that is Ultimate Reality; the dark place is also the mystery that is the deepest part of our own being.
I think this is why we do yoga, by the way.
Sunday, August 5, 2007
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
4A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
5The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
6The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
Pope John Paul II got in a little bit of trouble some years ago from something he wrote about Buddhism in his book “On the Threshold of Hope.” He said that it (Buddhism) was basically a nihilistic religion, implying that for the Buddhist nothing is real and life is meaningless. (He later nuanced what he had written when he realized that he had offended some Buddhists by not really understanding their philosophy.) What he said was based on his interpretation of the Buddhist concept of anika, which means “impermanence,” meaning that nothing lasts forever, that all things are constantly changing. From that concept of anika the Buddha taught the second of what he called the Four Noble Truths, that suffering is caused by clinging. If everything is impermanent, then clinging to anything is eventually going to cause suffering when we lose that thing to which we are attached. The Tibetan version of the metta sutta that I use even goes so far as to say, “May they leave attachments to dear ones" as well as "aversions to others.”
Oddly enough, when I first learned that concept of impermanence, I actually felt this huge sense of relief. Oh, I thought, so that is why I have been suffering so much. I am attcahed to so much.
The other day I went canoeing on the Animas River. As you know, it can be a pretty good effort to row upstream, which we did for about half an hour. But, after landing on a little sandy beach upriver for a while, when we headed back downstream it was such a relief to just lay back in the canoe and let the river carry us back to where we had put in. This is to me a good image of impermanence, of the flux of life. Whether I want it to happen or not the earth turns on its axis and orbits around the sun; and summer is going to be followed by autumn and autumn by winter, and winter by spring, and day gives way to night and sunrise gives way to noon. Whether I like it or not there are thunderstorms and earthquakes and freezing rain, the leaves turn beautiful colors for a little while and then fall to the ground. Whether I like it or not, there is sickness, old age and death; and I am getting older and some day I am going to die and return to the dust from which I came. I/we spend so much of our lives paddling upstream, going against the current; it’s such a relief at some point to lie back in the canoe and accept that this is what life is like. This is not to say we should not do everything we can to improve our lives while here, and help relieve the suffering of others, but ultimately, “All things must pass.”
And I remember some years ago when I was reading the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…” I thought to myself, "This is a very Buddhist teaching." You go through the whole Book of Ecclesiastes and you never get any relief. It ends 12 chapters later by saying, “… the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” And so, the point is according to Quoheleth (“the Teacher”), “fear God and keep God’s commandments.” You can see why the church pairs it with the story from the Gospel of Luke (12:13ff.) about the man who built the towers for his extra grain, not realizing (“You fool!”) that he was going to die the next day, so he decided to “relax, eat, drink and be merry!” Vanity of vanities! “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God!” St Paul goes so far as to call this greed and grasping "idolatry," worshipping something that is not God.
But actually not all things do pass. There is a unity and stability underneath the flux of things. This is the basis of the Perennial Philosophy, articulated by contemporary philosophers such as Alduos Huxley but going back as far as the ancient Hindu teaching on the sanatana dharma––the eternal religion, that some thinkers consider to be the basis for all religious instinct. The founding premise of it is the existence of a unity and stability that lies underneath the flux of things. As Sri Aurobindo says, nityo nityanam: the one Eternal in the many transient. Later on in the same chapter in the Gospel of Luke (12) Jesus will teach, “Do not worry, do not be afraid!” concerning clothes or food. It’s as if he is trying to convince his audience that the Universe is benevolent, and pointing them toward that unity and stability that lies beneath the flux of things, which I think of as being kind of like that river. Floating down that river the other day really reminded me of this quote from Ptolemy Hopkins, in her essay entitled “A Small White Book on the Way of Life” about the Tao:
Before everything, there was the Tao.
Subtle and silent, void of all form or extension
and yet at the same time immeasurably vast,
it held the noise and pandemonium of the entire universe within itself,
like a mother awaiting term.
It was from deep within the boundless watery hush of the Tao
that the world and all the things within it were born,
and once it had given birth to them,
these things became like objects moving downstream in a giant river.
In this great drift, nothing stays as it is for long.
Trees, animals, entire civilizations:
all of this material is like the scrim of twigs and litter you see on the surface of the water,
on a day after there has been a lot of rain.
Sometimes bobbing at the surface,
sometimes sinking out of sight,
drifting and bumping and turning in the dark, downward-moving water,
all things flow in the Tao without knowing it.
Beyond all thought and action,
beyond life and death,
the Tao is the one constant,
the sole aspect of all the universe that is entirely beyond change.
It is the ultimate source,
the ultimate support,
and the ultimate destination of everything that is.
Strive for the kingdom, Jesus says, strive for the Spirit, strive to attain the will of God, strive for the Tao, strive for that unity and stability that lies beneath the flux of things, and the rest will given to you as well. If we keep ourselves close to that one permanent thing, all things will be well. If we stop clinging to the things that pass, and if we stop trying to paddle upstream, if we can find our way back to the way the earth was set up to run, then the Universe will take care of us; as a matter of fact, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Universe is conspiring to your happiness,” because that unity and stability that lies underneath the flux of things is what we call God. God is the ground of being, God is what we call the source of all creation, and that source has an intentionality about it, like a parent toward a child, so Jesus calls it “Daddy–abba.”
I marvel sometimes when I look at pictures of myself when I was younger, a teenager. Or even if I think about the kind of boy I was or the kind of young man in my twenties or thirties compared to who I am now and how I live now. I can hardly believe that I am the same person. But even though all the outer things have changed, I know that the essence of who I was at six, at 16, at 25 and at 30 was the same as it is now. From that I learn that not only is there a permanent something underneath the flux of things, but also our own deepest self, a our real self––which Paul says is hidden with Christ in God––is permanent too, no matter how the outside changes.
Saturday, August 4, 2007
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.
No fight: no blame.
Tao te Ching, #8
I was here in Durango for the Animas Festival again this year. John and I performed with trumpet, bass and piano (Rick Modlin, of course), a new array titles that we have talked about doing for years. I called it "Sacred Secular," so-called secular songs that were reflective of the sacred, Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic," Sting's "Message in the Bottle" and "Fragile," Kurt Elling's "The Beauty of All Things," for instance, along with some of our own pieces. It was a lot of work, but ultimately worth it. At the same time, when we finished I decided that that was as far into the secular realm as I wanted to go in concert. (Not to say that I would be opposed to a coffeehouse gig singing a dream set with Elvis and Danny Black some evening in Santa Cruz.)
After the concert among the people who came up to talk to me was a guy named Jojo. I took him to be Nepali or Tibetan (he later told me many people mistake him so; he is Filipino). He was very enthusiastic about all the music, and declared himself a kind of devotee of Hafiz' poetry which he carried around with him all the time. He had won tickets for the concerts on the radio during the interview John and I had done for KDUR on the campus of Fort Lewis College. We ran into each other again the next morning at the gym as I was working out and Jojo was coming out of yoga class, and talked again, this time a little more in depth about yoga and each others' paths. He said something like, "You're a minstrel going around the world singing about God's peace." I liked that description; it surely is what I want to be, and I was glad that we were able to get that across in the more secular set as well as our regular one. He left me with his phone number and told me to call next time I was in town, and he would take me kayaking or something. I found out early on that he was a great devotee of outdoor sports, skiing and surfing especially, but also mountain biking.
So I called him when I got in on Thursday, and we set up to get together on Friday, yesterday. After a series of missed phone calls we finally hooked up around 11:30. He had a canoe strapped to the top of his old Honda Accord, and was dressed in his quick dry clothes and big yellow goggles, a visor and Chaco sandals. I was of course in my blue running/swimming shorts with a grey t-shirt and sweatshirt. We put in up river a little bit and canoed upstream (it was a lazy current, so not too difficult, but still good exercise). Jojo immediately started asking lots of pretty insightful questions about my life, monk stuff and music stuff, and then I turned the tables on him and asked about his. I found his life more interesting than mine. He had lived on his bicycle for a year and a half, camping in National Forests and campgrounds; and lived in a tree house for a while also. He was headed from Chicago to Santa Cruz (of all places) 15 years ago when he stopped by Durango and never left. He also wound up marrying some years ago but that dissolved only recently. He is very active in outdoor sports, and is also a collector of re-usable things, building materials, old trailers, firewood. As a matter of fact he couldn't go canoeing until late morning because he had gotten a call about some wood to be retrieved and had to get to it right away, first come, first serve. He was living with his surfing partners here in Durango, but also owns a piece of property in nearby Bayfield that he is slowly working on.
We drifted to shore after about a half an hour on a little shrubbed beach and began the second part of the adventure. He had brought with him a set of baci balls. I had never played before, and he was delighted to be able to teach it "to an Italian." Only this was a little different. "Usually you play on a rectangular sand court, but we are going to play 'all-terrain baci ball'," he said as he tossed the white ball into a clump of shrubbery. He won most of the matches, but it was great fun, and we continued to talk and talk about many things even after we stopped playing, sitting on the sand, comparing notes on lessons learned. Out of the blue at one point he said, "Do you want to eat frozen cherries by the creek side?" I asked him to repeat that, thinking it was some kind of code, before I said "Sure." What he meant was going back to the house that he shared with his surfing partners that is built on a large piece of property with a hillside abutting Junction Creek.
Now, I don't know what "living with my surfing partners" conjures up for you, but I was imagining a house full of young guys, etc. etc. His surfing partners are a married couple in their mid to late fifties named Sarah and Robert. Robert apparently has lived on this particular piece of property since he was a little boy and inherited it from his father. It is a large piece of land filled with every kind of salvage: old cars and trailers, bike frames and motorcycles, building materials of every sort. The house is full of all kinds of creative energy and artifacts from all over the world. What a place! After being introduced to Robert and Sarah we went to sit by the creek side––to eat frozen cherries––which had been picked locally this Spring––with just a dash of yogurt.
There is a little clearing on the shore below the house that seems well-used, with a chaise lounge and a table with three chairs. They talked among themselves about how high the water was compared with this morning, and how much silt was in it, people who obviously know the land on which they live. And then I found out a little about them. Robert spends most of his time on various handiwork, mostly car and motorcycle repair and woodworking now, and is apparently, according to Jojo, a fantastic mountain biker. Sarah is a sixth-generation storyteller, but has mostly retired now and has been travelling the world quite a bit. They all go to a certain village Mexico in the spring, hauling a load of re-furbished bicycles and surf boards for the local kids with them, and spend some weeks happily surfing.
What really got the conversation going was that Sarah was a devotee of Baba Hari Das' same guru (I have forgotten his name again!) for some years in the early 70's in India, and actually lived for a time, at her guru's urging, as a wandering sadhu, "a total renunciate," she described it. She had carried with her only the cotton cloth with which she was wrapped and a little bag with a hair brush and a toothbrush, and spent three months wandering. Amazing, she said, how many times poeple woud come up to her and say, "Have you eaten today?" or "Do you need a place to sleep?" India being perhaps even more then than today a culture amenable to wandergin sadhus. She said she was following the example of St Francis of Assisi. Later she showed me a picture of herself superimposed on a version of Psalm 150 that she had handwritten, a text that she used to love to sing.
After a time Jojo said that it was too bad that there was not a guitar, that we could sip tea and I could sing for them. Well, as a matter of fact there was a guitar, a nylon-stringed one, and there was lots of tea, so we adjourned to the house. There was no guitar pick however, so Sarah handed me an old plastic lid and a pair of scissors which I happily fashioned into a makeshift plectrum suitable for an impromptu recital. And so, while we sipped tea, I mainly played for them things from the "Dream Album," the new India pieces. Sarah recognized the melody of "Vedahamatam" immediately, and said, "That's Tvameva mata..." which is actually the second verse in my version. I told her the story of writing it at Arunachala, and its connection with Bede and Abhishiktananda, and then played the whole thing. She sang along strongly when I got the second verse. I had such a strong memory of Joseph in Rishikesh that I felt like he was right there with me. She also enjoyed "Spirit in the Cave of the Heart" very much, and sang along with gusto.
Last week at Esalen a woman, who was not a Christian, wanted to talk to me about meditation and her experience of it. She had been most taken with John of the Cross' teaching about nada nada nada, or at least how I use it to speak about going beyond the psychic to the spiritual. I was more than happy to do so, and afterward when she thanked me for that and for the retreat in general I said, "It's all for you. It was all for you!" Meaning to me, I had studied these other things, even the other traditions, and had come ot Esalen this weekend just so I could be of service to her. As Sarah was enjoying the music, and reconnecting with her own spiritual roots––getting inspired to go back to the Upanishads––I was thinking to myself, "It's all for you! It was all for you!"
I wanted to see Harry Potter that evening, but no one else did, but we all went to see "Ratatouille" together instead. Good enough.
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Friday, August 3, 2007
Only do not use your freedom
as an opportunity for self-indulgence,
but, through love,
becomes slaves to one another.
For the whole law is summed up
in a single commandment:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself!”
I did a workshop at Esalen Institue in Big Sur for the first time last weekend. To people who ask me the title of my workshop I usually preface an answer by saying, "I am going to use the same title until I give this retreat/workshop to every person in America: Spirit, Soul and Body: the Universal Call to Contemplation." Young Jay went down with me––Sanjaya––as my assistant. This is the second retreat he has helped me with and is very good to have around. He knows what I am going to do and anticipates my needs by lighting incense before I get there, putting the music on, he even got up with me early to stretch before the regular yoga session. I also thought that he would love the place––Esalen––and he did, the sumptuous organic gardens, the hot spring tubs, the location perched just above the ocean, not to mention the colorful creative crowd of searchers who crowd that little piece of paradise.
I had wondered about how Christian I could make the workshop, hoping that I had adequately, fairly described it and myself as coming from a mainly Christian background. I brought with me the same prayer service, based on Shantivanam's, that I have been using these past years. I have never really gotten negative feedback on it, except for from Laurence who thought it was too prolix for the WCCM retreats. But by Saturday morning (we had begun Friday night), it was obvious that it had raised some hackles. Two young folks met me at the door of the Big Yurt, where we were meeting, and said that they had decided to drop out because they were not Christian and it was a little too Christian for them. Then at the end of the first talk, on Body, when I asked for questions, comments, there were no questions about the subject matter; there was mostly discussion about why we had to say these prayers, being the Trisagion, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, etc. They were fine with the Sanskrit chanting, and the Buddhist metta sutta that are also in the service, but the words of the prayers and psalms were sticking in their throats. I admit I thought that the Hail Mary (Syriac version) might be a stretch for some folks and had said as much the first evening, that if anyone didn't think they could say certain of the prayers they should feel free to not. But the discomfort was a lot deeper. There was also a pointed comment about the exclusively male language. And, of course, as much as I had vetted them, there were still certain sentiments in some of the psalms that made people bristle, any talk of "foes" especially.
Not everybody was bothered or agreed, mind you, but I was still a little taken aback, though I should have been a little less optimistic about my ability to ease a crowd at Esalen into such a thing. My friend Ayres, now from England, was there, and his comments were moderating and typical of the kind of inter-personal dynamic operative at Esalen at its best (he had been a resident there for some time), that we should struggle with the elements in the prayer service that made us uncomfortable and see what they were bringing up for us. We had another discussion about it later, and it was good. The thing that was bugging me the most was that I was afraid that they were missing the content of the talks due to the noise factor of the ritual. It is, as Ayres also noted, what I had brought to share from my tradition, and I am unashamed of it, but did I absolutely need to contextualize my teaching in precisely that way for my comfort or for their sense? Emphatically I answered my own question, No. Though I thought it was valid to try and get people to see how also these prayers that they were struggling with were valid expressions of this same Universal Wisdom, flowing from the same source and pointing to the same Ultimate Reality beyond words that other rituals and prayers were.
Later that afternoon, when I had, as I often do, shortened the ritual for the afternoon talk, there was still a line in Psalm 119, which is generally pretty usable in every situation, that made someone react and we got started all over again on the discussion. And again, I was afraid that folks were missing the content of the talks. As a matter of fact they hadn't missed the content completely, but I did want to take out the noise factors and find some common ground, as I say myself often, "to find some words that we could all say together."
I often mention the talk that Fr Bede gave in 1992, when I was still doing my observership in the monastery, the talk that changed my life. I have carried a tape of that talk around with me for years now, but I don't believe I have ever listened to it since then. It seemed propitious to listen to it on my way down for the Esalen workshop because it felt like a crossing over of sorts to lead something there for the first time. So Jay and I listened to it in the car. It was even more timely than I thought. First of all, pace detractors to the contrary, Fr Bede immediately started out talking about Spirit, Soul and Body, and how that informed all his thinking. But then, among other things, he mentioned having just been down to Esalen. Witht at in mind, after the little discomfort over the prayers and psalms suddenly I was 100% sympathetic, which I have not been up until now, of his "decimated Psalter," as the brothers at Shantivanam called it, at least with the attempt. When people stumble over that language, it isn't to enough to ask them to get over it, and we certainly can't expect them to translate and deconstruct the psalms or prayers while they are reading or praying them. And haven't I said many times in my talks on the Liturgy of the Hours that my goal is not only not to convince someone to pray the Roman Office or any other semi-official version of the Liturgy of the Hours, nor was it even to get people to pray the psalms, as much as I love them? My goal is to pray constantly and to live prayerfully, and to foster that for others if I can be of service.
So with all that in mind, and heading to Omega Institute in New York in a few weeks, which is considered the "Esalen of the east," for an even longer workshop on the same theme, I have been doing two things. First of all, in regards to the psalms, I have been taking another look at the ICEL psalter's almost totally inclusive language version (as regards the Divine as well as other people) of the psalms and re-vetting them as well for exclusive language regarding foes. It's even more than making them into Psalms for Christian Prayer, the title of Bede's collection of Psalms. It is a matter of psalms for inclusivists of every stripe, which I must admit is not a beginning stage in most peoples' spiritual lives. Obviously I do want to find a way to use the psalms, and the ICEL version may come the closest to modern and popular versions of the Upanishads or the Gita or the Dhammapada, not a comprehensive scholarly version, but one that invites in and facilitates prayer.
This is a change of heart and mind for me. I have not ever warmed up the ICEL Psalter. I thought that they pushed too hard, and in removing every masculine pronoun for God they made another noise factor not just for traditionalists but for ordinary folks as well. But now I get it. Even if it could never have served for common use in the lectionary of the Roman Catholic Church, it can serve me and my people.
The second thing that I have been doing is coming up with a new opening prayer, with different language. I had carried Bro David Steindl-Rast's words in my head. At lunch after the morning session on Saturday I had talked to him about some of the difficulty we had had with the language of the ritual, and he was sympathetic but said, "Maybe you will have to come up with your own ritual." I was resistant to that for some reason, but while I was waiting for my car to get smogged the other day I suddenly got, well, inspired. (Thanks for the delay, Subaru of Santa Cruz.)
Here is my first version of it. I wrote it out on the plane yesterday and have been using it in my own samdhyas:
Leader: In the name of the God beyond all names
and the Word made flesh,
who pour the Spirit into our hearts,
in whom we live and move and have our being:
Holy are you, O God,
Holy are you, the strong,
holy are you, immortal one.
Blessed are you, O God,
Who dwell in the abyss
and are seated among the cherubim.
Praised be you, O God,
Who dwell in highest heaven
and in the cave of our heart.
You are our mother, you are our father,
You are our brother, our sister, our friend.
You are our riches, you are our wisdom,
You are our all, our God, our God!
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are those who mourn:
The reign of God is at hand!
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed those who long for righteousness:
May Your will be done on earth!
Blessed are the merciful,
Blessed the pure in heart:
The reign of God is at hand!
Blessed are the peacemakers,
Blessed those persecuted for justice:
May Your will be done on the earth!
Give us this day the bread we need:
Forgive us as we forgive others.
Let us see your loving kindness:
And grant us your salvation.
Glory to you, O God:
Glory to you, Creator,
Glory to you, O Christ,
who have compassion on your servants.
Sing praise to the Abba of Jesus,
To the Spirit in the cave of our hearts.
Through Being and Knowledge and Bliss,
We are called to share in their life.
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