I’m at Shantivanam now. I came by bus, a long ride from Tiru, through Villupuram. Luckily I had the company of Vibike, yet another wonderful young Danish woman who arrived at Quo Vadis just yesterday and just happened to want to come here also today. I have to admire folks like her––a woman in her early twenties––who just pick up and travel fearlessly to other places in the world, and regret a little that I didn’t do that and that I am not so adventurous or at least haven’t been so. But I find that it is so much easier to travel with a companion and I feel so much more ready to pick up and go anywhere if there is someone sharing the road.
Yesterday was another concert sponsored by Quo Vadis, this time at the Lebanon Campus of the Danish Lutheran Mission where there is a teacher training school for girls and the weaving center among countless other activities under JP’s adventurous eye. I wasn’t quite sure what the whole event was, but fund out when I got there, a mixture of three different groups: his local parishioners and fellow Lutheran pastors and their bishop; a group of Lutherans from Minnesota who have been supporting the work of Danmission in India for some years and were now getting their first firsthand experience; and then the women weavers and the girls of the teaching school. JP had had the whole thing set up in the weaving center itself, setting up a stage in the open air “quad” surrounded by looms. It was quite a striking setting, but I must admit it took me some time to figure out exactly what audience to try to reach! I played it by ear and spoke as slow and careful English as I could when I remembered––for the Minnesotans Just kidding, but at one point I thought, “This is like Praise Home Companion meets Bollywood.” It went well.
I am certainly getting closer to true sannyasa itineracy. I always say that all I need is my Bible, my guitar and my computer, so since we were traveling by bus I packed up only my knapsack with one set of everything and left everything else behind except guitar, Bible and computer. If I hadn’t promised Lit Press to finish the manuscript for them during this trip I might have even left behind this computer (it sure adds weight), and I seriously considered leaving behind the guitar for these few days and would have if I were to have been traveling alone. But even thinking consciously about taking “just enough” (including clothes for the cold country later) I still feel like I have three times too much stuff. I’ll lug the rest of my stuff here when I go back to Tiru on Saturday for the Sunday concert and return Monday, catching a ride with JP and yet another group of Lutheran missionaries who are coming to spend time here at Shantivanam and then on to Bodhi Zendo, a place that I am sad not have visited myself yet. But I am trying to balance my itchy feet with some long stretches in some places.
I saw MC right away, still over at Sr Mary Louise’s recovering from typhoid. We already had a long visit. It was interesting how much he concurred about the energy at Ramanashram and used the comparison of a rainforest––how sensitive spiritual environments are to the slightest change in their ecosystem, not to mention huge changes like two-lane highways being put in at the edge of one’s property, which by the way is what is about to happen here at Shantivanam. The state government has co-opted land that runs along the edge of the formation house property, as well as that of Ananda and Shantivanam itself to build a new raised highway. The fragile peace of this place will soon be no more. We added to that the recent demise of Sr Pascaline’s beloved Osage Monastery (O+M) in Oklahoma (though it is falling into good hands) and were speculating about the age we are entering into––the yogis tells us it is the kali yuga, the age of Kali. Just as Lord Shiva possesses a double nature of repose and action, in each one of these characteristics he has a spouse that is not only his contrary but represents generally an intensification of his attributes. As the symbol of beauty she is Uma (or Parvati, the one who invented the Saraswati veena), the mother of the Universe; but as destroyer, she is called Kali.
What will all this mean, and what are we to do? This wild translation of Rumi by Kabir Helminski I read on the bus this morning comes to mind:
I am from you, and at the same timeI just missed a whole crowd of people who were here, Camaldolese visitors from the US and Italy and Bede Griffiths Sangha folks from England. But another group, Russill and Asha’s annual pilgrimage, is here, 23 of them from the US, and two other women I know from California. I am actually staying at the formation house again with George, so haven’t seen the others. There are four new guys here with George, two from Goa and two younger ones from Kerala. I look forward as always to my interaction with them, learning and maybe teaching too.
you have devoured me.
I melt in you since through you I froze.
You squeeze me with your hand,
and then you step on me with your foot.
This is how the grape becomes wine…
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Saturday, 26 january, timothy & titus, India republic day
I settled in pretty quickly to routine here at the formation house. (They’ve still never given it a proper name!) George has actually had to be gone a lot this week so I have stayed with the guys most of the time. I’ve been glad to be able offer the presentations on the introduction to desert monasticism each morning. The two older guys here, Lovell and Savio, are from Goa and speak very good English. The latter of the two seems to be brilliant with languages and rules of grammar, etc. He leads a Scripture reading class to the younger guys. When I attended it he didn’t hesitate to point out some of my own errors in phonetical pronunciation, until we established that “American English” is actually a legitimate variation on the Queen’s English. (Well!) After midday prayer, lunch and siesta, they say the rosary together, and just the other day I started also offering them some chanting classes before tea. I’m not trying to resurrect and teach them the raga tones, but merely teaching that simple three note tone I’ve been using for these past years all over the world. Then I take a long walk, and go over and visit with MC, enshrined at Mary Louise’ and still on the cure form typhoid before we do a period of meditation together up in Abhishiktananda’s chapel (as I came to think of it) before I head back to the house for meditation and evening prayer with them guys again. Dinner and nama japa, and then the day is done. We have all been going to Shanativanam itself for Mass each morning. I usually walk over with the two Keralese boys, 18 years old a piece, Elbis and Jibin. Again, I am enjoying the interaction with the young guys immensely and find it easy to slip into teacher mode.
Elbis and Jibin take English class with a wonderful erudite Tamilian man from Sri Lanka, actually a chemist by training and a Buddhist by religious preference, named Mr Ilangovan. We have had great exchanges over morning tea, he saying specifically that he wanted to speak with me and hear “American English,” which sort of justified my accent to Savio a little bit anyway. He almost does regard it as a different language. He wasn’t able to come yesterday and so I took class with the young guys, and I have to say, I enjoyed that too, though it made for a long day.
I have to say, if you haven’t gotten it from the tone so far, I am really enjoying settling in here and being a part of the daily round and common task of monastic life, and all of life being one dhoti, one pair of yoga pants, two shirts and a shawl, and two kilometers of forest along the bank of the lazy Kauvery River. I am scheduled for a yoga retreat up in Dehra Dun starting the 10th of February. I told a friend before I left that I wasn’t 100% committed to it yet, simply because I felt like I had “happy feet” and was feeling tempted to go tramping to other places up north I hadn’t seen yet, especially since Ranjeet from Rishikesh wrote and said he would be free to go with me if I wanted. But the very opposite has happened. I don’t even want to leave here and go north!
I haven’t been able to access e-mail here at the formation house this week so I am sending this off from Tiruvanamalai where I am for to do the concert tomorrow. More in the AM before I leave again.
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sunday, 27 january
Yesterday was India Republic Day. (I might not have known that except for the fact that, to add to my insertion in community life at Shantivanam, I was asked to preach yesterday.) In the years that followed Independence in 1947, a man named Vallabhbhai Patel, who was called the Iron Man of India but wanted to be known as “one of Bapu’s soldiers,” brought together the 565 polyglot states that comprised the Indian subcontinent, bringing some semblance of order out the nightmare of chaos that followed independence from India. And on January 26, 1950 India cut her last ties with Britain and became a Republic. Rajendra Prasad was sworn in as the first president and, as he said, the country was now “brought together under the jurisdiction of one constitution and one union which takes over the welfare of the more than 320 million men and women” who inhabited it at the time. The church in India has its own eucology for the liturgy of the day, prayers and readings.
The readings were interesting choices, Jeremiah 31: “I will make a new covenant with house of Israel, I will write in on their hearts”; and John 8:31: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” I talked about how these experiments in democracy are based on that law written on the heart somehow, that can be known by looking into the nature of things, and looking at the human person. We say in America that people being “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights” that are not just boons from the gods or gifts doled out from a monarch. I mentioned the pope’s world peace day message again (see earlier blog entry, “so the children may die no more”) too, and how nations need to be challenged to add to those rights things like homes, schooling and universal health care, and how their nation and ours both need to pay challenged by the pope’s call to care for the environment and demilitarization. These are things we can learn from reading the law written on our hearts and written into the very fabric of nature, and applying our logic to them. “My book, O philosopher,” says St Antony of the Desert, “is the nature of created things, and it is present when I will, for me to read the words of God.” You could even say that Jewish law was based on the same thing, an understanding of nature given their limited knowledge.
But Jesus always points out that even Jewish law or being children of Abraham is not enough, as in John 8. We need to go beyond that to have the very mind of Christ, “Christ consciousness,” if you will. But let’s make no mistake about what Christ consciousness is as recorded by Paul: he emptied himself and did not even consider godliness something to be grasped at. True freedom lies in not clinging, in not grasping, in being emptied out, not only not clinging to earthly attachments and the fear of death but of even our memory, understanding and will, all that which is in the realm of the soul. Then the awakening happens, then we may see God. “You can see forever when the vision is clear!” And then––Svetasvatara Upanishad again––: When the seers of Brahman see Brahman in all creation, they find peace in Brahman and are free from all sorrows. Then true freedom.
The promise about the end of that is two-fold. First: I remembered how Sri Aurobindo’s birthday was on August 15th, which is of course the feast of the Assumption, but also the day that India achieved her independence in 1947. Someone wrote to him to say how marvelous that was, that India should gain her independence on his birthday, since he had been a freedom fighter as a young man, but he had responded, referring to the Assumption of Mary, that it was even more wonderful that India should achieve her independence on the day when a human life was taken up into the life divine. The end of all this is that we are divinized. And then, we find that we haven’t actually lost anything, the things we have released from our grasp. “When I desired them the least,” says John of the Cross, “they were all mine.” But we look back on the world with clear vision and fierce optimism. Then we are really able to see even beyond the nature of things and “contemplate somewhat of the things divine and heavenly… which are beyond the range of bodily sight.” (Origen) It’s only then that we will know how to build a world of justice and peace.