Tuesday, March 24, 2009

empty yourself completely

Sit in your cell as in paradise.

Put the whole world behind you

and forget it.

Empty yourself completely

and sit waiting,

content with the grace of God

(St Romuald)

Tasmania, continued… After the visit to Mount Wellington, it was onto Mary Knoll Retreat Center, which is located on a peninsula south of the bustling city of Hobart. Again, since Paul had pointed this general location out to me from Mount Wellington, I was expecting us to be in the middle of nowhere, and apparently at one time this place was pretty isolated. But now it is surrounded on three sides by a comfortable bedroom community with all kinds of normal middle class things all around it. But it is that fourth side that really gives this place it’s charm––a steep hill leading down to the beach, Derwent Beach. You can hear the waves crashing all day long, especially now in the early morning as I type this with my patio door cracked open. It’s a humble little retreat center, much used and homey, run by one solitary elderly Presentation sister. Drasko has arranged for me to have one of the three self-contained “hermit” units. I had pretty much all day yesterday to myself again before the oblates arrived last night, and spent a good part of the day reconnoitering the area––I’ve been three times to the beach already and had a leisurely exploratory run along the cliffs.

A quick summary of the first night of oblate retreat… For those of you reading who don’t know what an oblate is: an oblate is someone with a special bond of friendship with a monastic community who tries to live the monastic charism in a way modified to go with life in the world. Our congregation, the Camaldolese Benedictines, is a bit unique in that we have hundreds of oblates, of various religious affiliations, scattered all over the world, including a substantial number here in Australia. These oblates have the reputation for being a particularly intense lot, with two different groups of them setting up something like intentional communities, one led here in Tasmania by the same Drasko with another ex-Camaldolese named Christopher who is now a priest of the Paulist congregation, and another led by a colorful jovial priest named Michael Mifsud of Queensland, Victoria, who has taken canonical hermit status under his bishop, and whom I have met several ties in the States and in Italy.

I have prepared two pretty substantial presentations, one on the life of Saint Romuald himself, and the other on the three fold good (solitude-community-missionary martyrdom) by way of some of the early Camaldolese personalities––the five holy martyrs, Andrew and Benedict and Saint Peter-Damian. But I had an intuition to start with something I do very rarely. I checked with Drasko first to see what he thought and he agreed. Since many of them were curious about who I was (as a matter of fact I was being flooded with questions already during dinner), and since so much of what I have to say about Camaldolese spirituality depends on my own experience of it, I spent the first session last night telling them my vocation story. I touched just briefly on my early years in seminary and the experience with the Franciscans in uptown Chicago, “squandering” my twenties on music and confusion, but mainly concentrating on the years since my entry into New Camaldoli in 1992, meeting Fr Bede, the simultaneous immersion in Western and Eastern spirituality, first trips to India, the ten years at New Camaldoli, and then the whole story of these past six years. I really have nothing else to offer of any value but who I really am and what I really do, and, as I said, my own take on our charism is going to be shaded by all that.

I kept asking along the way as I was telling my story, “Is this too much detail?” but they kept saying, “No,” and listened very attentively. It wound up being a good move, and many of them related to my own quest for a “new way to do this whole thing.” Also a surprising number of them are students of the writing of Fr Bede, about which I was delighted; as a matter of fact more than one already said to me that Fr Bede and our involvement in east-west dialogue was their main attraction to being a Camaldolese oblate. So, I’m where I am supposed to be. One of the attendees is a young Anglican priest from Denmark, named Hans, who is a reasonable look alike for my friend Stefano in Florence, and like Stefano is a real student of the East. He and I already spent all of dinnertime last night immersed in conversation. So I am looking forward to the days ahead.

Without repeating my whole story here, let me just share with you how I ended, with three statements that would not have made sense without the biographical detail, but hopefully have set the stage for the conversations that will follow:
• First, in 2002, when I was with Don Emanuele, our prior general at the time, finalizing my decision to take an exclaustration in his office at Camaldoli, I said to him rather broken-heartedly, “I’m sorry, Don Emanuele. I hoped that monasticism would be a big enough container for me.” And he said to me, “Ma Cipriano, monachesimo non è un contenitore; è un’energia! Monasticism isn’t a container; it’s an energy.”
• Second, when I was writing a series of letters to Don Bernardino before he was elected as prior general (though expecting he would be), he wrote to me two things: “Once you have gathered the strands of your monastic life, which will be few, you will seek to remain faithful to them. Stability will reveal to you and to others your monastic being”; and he also wrote, concerning the institution, “The tie with the institution then comes last, because it will come to you and you will have to recognize it when it draws near…”
• And last, when we had renegotiated my status in the congregation to simple “leave with permission” that allowed me to continue living and working as I was indefinitely, Bernardino gave me a stiff talking to and told me to continue living exactly as I was, not to change anything, not to try to start anything new, to watch my balance between work and solitude, being alone and being with others, and––these were the wise prophetic words that so moved me––“this will be your stability now.”

Somewhere between the energy of monasticism and the stability that we have chosen and committed ourselves to lies that creative tension of monasticism. The tendency, or at least my tendency, is always to want to resolve the tension. But it seems as if staying in that tension, like riding a wave, is where we are all called to be.

* * *

tues, 24 march 09, Sydney

I flew here to Sydney last night, after the oblate retreat finished at lunchtime yesterday. I must say I think it was a great success. I had some doubts, as we were going into it, about the expense and energy it had taken to get me there to the remotest corner of Western civilization, hoping that it was going to be worth all our whiles––it was, as a matter of fact, all things being equal and with due reverence to all the other wonderful work and ministry I have been involved in these past seven weeks, it was the highlight of my trip. I only realized after a few hours how relaxed I was, in the way I am relaxed at Big Sur, laughing and joking and friendly in a way that doesn’t come out of me naturally in other environments. I really felt as if I was among family. It was also very nice to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist, and have good long periods of silent meditation with others.

I had a major presentation each morning Saturday and Sunday, the first on Romuald and the second on the three-fold good. I kept referring back to the lessons that I drew from my own story the night before, first of all, not to try to resolve the tension of Romuald, who was so insistent on putting everyone else under the yoke of obedience and yet he himself, as Bruno of Querfurt says, was “always a wanderer, now here, now there...” Peter Damian explains it this way: “Romuald could not bear to remain sterile. He felt a deep anxiety and a longing to bear fruit for souls, and kept searching for a place where he could do so. . . he was never satisfied with anything he did. While he was busy with one project, he was already planning the next.” Like what Shirley du Boulay says of Abhishiktananda: “a very busy hermit.” Instead of putting Romuald into a box or a pigeon-hole, I suggested that we see him in a constellation of other monks––the various types of hermits, wanderers, “clouds and water monks,” and sannyasis in the firmament, but also assume that he himself had a rule of life that he stuck to as well throughout. I think we can safely say that Romuald recognized the need for everyone to be yoked in obedience to someone––something other than oneself: as he really wanted to yoke himself to the Rule when he was in the monastery and all the other monks were lax; as did yoke himself to Marino; and I think we can safely assume that he was by then yoked to his own rule of life. For the ordinary monk it takes a rule and a master; an abbot and way of life. This is why the early Camaldolese were known as the “sensible hermits who live under the Rule.” That great formula of Aurobindo really spoke to them too, I think: that an ordinary person needs four things: the Sruti or recorded revelation (in other words, Scripture), the Sacred Teacher, the practice (he says, “of Yoga,” which of course is all encompassing of sadhana), and, of course, Grace. Scripture, a teacher, a disciplined practice and grace.

Then as far as the three-fold good is concerned, I kept focusing on the fact that it was first of all, as Robert used to say, not just sipping tea with the Anglicans in the drawing room, but that it is some kind of wild card, some kind of total abandonment of our self to the Spirit, total availability. And secondly, it is not something we can grasp or grab at or claim for ourselves. As is even taught about martyrdom and every other charism, it is a gift, something given to us. I think that they have been all been looking for something a little more solid in our tradition to hold on to, and they resonated with my story (they kept telling me over and over again) and these two things like cats in front of a saucer of milk. I did find it kind of ironic and humbling to be the one speaking for the Camaldolese charism, and even got pretty emotional when I was giving them a blessing at the end of the retreat “in the name of Don Bernardino and Prior Raniero,” but articulating it all for them was a good reminder and confirmation to me of how closely I am tied to our charism, and what my own particular yoke of obedience is as well.

In the meantime I had wonderful walks and talks, especially with the above mentioned Hans, with Michael Mifsud, long time student of Fr Bede and oblate chaplain here in Australia, and a young man named Michael who was visiting Drasko and Christopher exploring the possibility of joining their fledgling community. This latter was staying in the hermitage next to mine and we wound up spending lots of time together over tea and meals, tripping over each other going from one topic to another. I never realized how much this theme that Bernardino gave to me would serve others: gather the strands of your life, commit yourself to them, and your dedication to that commitment will reveal your monastic being, and this will be your stability. And so we can put together yogi, artist, nutritionist and student in a unique curry: but commit to it, and that commitment will reveal your stability.

After the retreat was over Drasko and Christopher took me back to their place, and told me more about their hopes for the future. Drasko has specifically been mandated by the diocese to found a place for young people to be able to have a monastic experience, a type of temporary monasticism. He has the possibility of a few locations, a parish center in north Tasmania, the house in Hobart down south where he and Christopher are living their common life of work and prayer now, and a rural property 50 km. outside of town where they hope to build a rural hermitage. They both spent nearly two years in formation at New Camaldoli, and still base their lives around our charism. As far as I can see in every way as much Camaldolese monks as I am. We had a great time together, talking, praying and meditating in their beautiful simple little chapel, then having a thali at an Indian restaurant around the corner before they took me to the airport. We too could have talked on for hours. They are both so well read, and Drasko is a fine and articulate theologian, so I was picking their brains about some thorny issues I have been running into that are a little out of my depth. (Mostly coming from finally reading Karen Armstrong’s “History of God.” I am loving her scholarship as always, but am so annoyed at her blatant blind spot about Western Christianity. She never misses an opportunity to give a passing pot shot or elbow in the ribs, and seems to assume as facts only views from the far left of Christian scholarship. Anyway, that’s another story… and Drasko was much more a match for her than I am.)

I am making my way home now. I’m here in Sydney until Thursday with only a small presentation to do tomorrow night and the rest of the time for sightseeing. (I’m under direct orders to do so from Master Ong.)