Monday, November 16, 2009

other peoples' words

When you go forth begging,
let contentment be your earrings,
and modesty your begging bowl;
smear your body with the ashes of meditation,
and let contemplation of death be your beggar's rags.
(from a Sikh Morning Prayer)

15 november, 2009

I have had a harder thime than usual with jet lag on this trip so am still staying awake until 2 or 3 AM before I fall off to sleep (I stop looking at the clock after 1). That means I usually sleep until 8 or 9 in the morning which feels like a decadent extravangance. Actually the sky has been so overcast that with the curtains closed in my room it is pretty dark until then anyway. But this morning when I was rustling awake around 8 o'clock, through the little crack in the curtains there was some yellow and I woke up saying, "What is this?!", opened the curtains and, sure enough, there was sun shining on the steeple outside my window. As quickly as I could I gathered my running clothes and headed out for a jog around the lakes. It was the first time I was over-dressed for the run, with hat and gloves and a scarf, and worked up quite sweat. As other days, I was even more impressed to see so many people out doing the same thing this morning--even on a Sunday. On my way back, as has been my wont, I stopped for a caffe americano and a pastry. I had been going to what I came to find out was the most expensive bakery on the block: once I figured out the exchange rate I found out I had been paying around $10 for what I thought was a humble bun and a cup of coffee. The past two mornings I went to what I think is the Danish equivalent of Starbucks, and got the same for a little less. Heck, gotta have some treats on the road, and absorb a little of the local flavor.

Friday night, back in Copenhagen, I was scheduled to perform for Night Church back at Helligandskirken (Holy Ghost Church). This is an activity sponsored by quite a few Lutheran churches here in Copenhagen, a kind of open house from early evening until some time around midnight, with various events scheduled, at least in the case of Helligandskirken, every hour on the hour, with people drifting in and out as they wish. How well it succeeds at this I do not know, but the intent is to make a welcoming place for folks who would not normally come to church to drop in and stay as long as they want. As I had been told earlier in the week, I was to simply play for about an hour, whatever I wanted, without even talking. That sounded like my dream gig, and I put a set list together and practiced for it beforehand. As it turned out, Mikel, the pastor of night church (one of eight--eight!!--pastors at Helligandskirken), wanted a little more than that, and hoped that I would also share something about monasticism in general and my life as a monk in particular. So I played for about 40 minutes, and I did do some small introductions to the pieces, mainly just titles and translations. I was thinking it was like a "cabin set," what I would normally play while practicing at home in the afternoon (while listening to NPR in the background), going from an instrumental to a song, from Sanskrit into English. May favorites were playing the Malayalam "Aarathi" and then going into "Behind and Before Me," and then a long instrumental version of Christopher Walker's "Like a Child Rests" into "Put Love First." And then the last 20 minutes, led on by Pastor Mikel, I first led the crowd in "The Lord is My Light," then aided by Agnete sort of interviewing me, I spoke for another 15 minutes, and then closed with "Streams of Living Water." Again, this sort of fascination with "monkery" among the Lutherans here in Denmark. It was a sweet environmnet, the church low lit with candles all over the place, at least during the musical set, and I felt right at home. After my hour another pastor came, led by a candlelight procession, and led us in a simple eucharistic service, the church in total darkness except for the candle light. Pastor Mikel was off to the side accompanying a few hymns on classical guitar. I don't know if I have ever heard hymns sung so beautifully, especially one which is also a favorite of Agnete that she said she would get for me later. I was told it is not typical there in Denmark either for the hymns to be accompanied by guitar, as it is rare too in the US.

Saturday was a full day off. I had the morning luxuriously to myself in my comfortable room with the Jesuits, and then Agnete came to fetch me around 1 o'clock for sightseeing. She took me first to a Leggo store (Leggos are made here, you know) for a few small Christmas presents for a select group of beautiful nieces and godchildren; then on to the Lutheran Cathedral where Agnete will be ordained some time before the end of the year as the ninth pastor of Helligandskirken, dedicated mainly to dialogue. That church is filled with the statuary of the famous Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen. The twelve apostles are lined up along the aisles and at the very front is an enormous Christ. Agnete was keen on introducing me to his work, so from there, after some meandering around the beautiful walking malls of Copenhagen, we ended up at the Thorvaldsen museum, chock full of his sculpture. I had never heard of him at all, but he is the pride of Denmark (one of his statues is in St Peter's in Rome, of Pius VII). He was a contemporary of Hans Christian Anderson and Soren Kirkegaard, and apparently they all hung out in Rome together during their Italian period at a certain osteria, with a host of other thinkers and artists from around the continent. The place reminded me of the Uffizi in Florence and overall gave me a good case of nostalgia per l'Italia. From there Agnete took me to the district known as Nyhaun--the new harbor, an area where Hans Christian Anderson lived, which later became a red light district, and is now more of a tourist trap with kiosks and taverns and entertainment. There was also a view out over the harbor and national theatre and opera house, to which the Queen, incidentally, can sail directly from her castle. The Dane's are quite proud of their royalty, too, by the way, the oldest monarchy in Europe. I heard none of anti-monarchy talk that one hears from time to time in England, for instance, but instead a kind of fondness and affection for the heritage.

Agente and I spent a good deal of time talking about our various approaches to dialogue that day. This is a big word for Agnete--"dialogue"--, the main focus of her life and work, fostering experiences of and situations for folks from different religions and cultures, even different sects within religions and ethnic groups to find space for and the skills to be in dialogue. I was running by her what my experience of dialogue has been, what I feel like I've been attempting to do with the Sangha and in other situations as well. She often faces the opposite problem than I. She is often with people who are not open to experiencing difference from another religion, folks who are focused on the differences without necessarily knowing the facts. I said that I often feel that I am faced with folks who think "it's all the same"--without necessarily knowing the facts. We talked about the tendency of some moderns, for example, who want to reduce all mystical language and experience to the advaita non-duality, and dismiss any mystical experience and language that doesn't convey that as somehow "less than." This was a tendency in Ken Wilber's earlier writing, though his language has modified a great deal (I wonder how much influenced by wise old Fr Thomas Keating?). Again, I brought up how impressed I was by these two things in her work and that of IKON and Areopagus: the triple focus on spirituality, study and dialogue; and how they are intentional about including "alternative spiritualities" in their dialogue. I think that this is something I have been trying to articulate for some years, that we needn't go to India or Japan or Saudi Arabia to be in dialogue with Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims. Perhaps the more important work is being in dialogue with our neighbors who are already well steeped in a philosophical matrix and language, unknowingly or not, that is post-Western Christian, a language that often conveys and fills in some of the gaps in the practical application of Christian spirituality and anthropology, particularly about relation to earth, to bodiliness, and to spiritual psychology.

And then came what I think I will look back on as the highlight of the day and the week. For all the work I do, what these trips are really about is meeting these remarkable kindred souls from all over with their beautiful tapestry of stories. Per his invitaiton from last Tuesday, we showed up at Suhail's Marakesh Kitchen for dinner around 6 o'clock. As it turns out, oddly enough, we wound up being his only customers that night, so he was free to lavish us with his presence as well as his hospitality and food. He had cooked up for me a vegetarian dish that included, at last count, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, carrots, prunes, a pear, tomato paste, lemon (pickled with vinegar), corainder, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon. Tremendous, that combination of sweet and savory with the density of those spices. Of course there was bottomless pot of mint tea, and a delicious creme brulee style desert with mint and rose water, but the main course of the evening was the conversation. Suhail told us more about his own fascinating life, the son of an Indian mother and Pakistani father, raised a kind of secular Muslim, though he has been a spritiual seeker for many years. We talked about the Shi'a and Sunni spiritual differences, his experiences with the Sufis, and about the state of Muslims in Denmark. He was also quite well verses in various meditative traditions, especially Ramana Maharshi and Brahmakumari, and he and I had a good long talk about my favorite topic, spiritual psychology and integral spirituality. At one point while we were talking about prayer I mentioned dhikr ("rememberance," what Muslims call the style of worhsip they do that inolves a kind of ecstatic repetition of the name of God) and the tasbih (the Muslim prayer beads that accompany the 99 Beautiful Names of God), and Suhail sort of leaned back and looked at me through half-closed eyes saying, "So you know these words... It is very good to understand other peoples' words." That became the theme of the night for me: It is very good to understand other peoples' words.

We were then joined by another friend of Agnete's, who I had met once already, named Elizabeth, who is a cultural sociologist by training, but also, Agnete claims, a very good theologian besides. After working with HIV/AIDS patients here in Denmark, she moved to San Francisco in the late 1980's to work with the same there, and now is back in Copenhagen doing the same still, offering counseling and help wherever she can. And then after the creme brulle, while Suhail was serving a pot of ginger tea he had brerwed up specially for Agente, we were joined by two more friends, Thomas and Lotus. We had all met Thomas the other evening when he happened upon the concert/event at Helligandskirken. He had said that he was going to come for night church on Friday but never showed up. When we got to the resturant, I had asked Suhail if he knew him, and Suhail pulled out his mobile phone, and called and invited him as well. His lady friend Lotus was a tall beautiful girl of Danish and Gambian heritage. Then the conversation took on another depth altogether. Thomas himself has a rich background for such a young man. I may get this wrong, but he is the son of a Spanish father and Dutch mother. I never suspected that Denmark woul dhave such a beautifully rich variety of ethnic groups! Thomas is currently specializing in Disaster Management, the kind of folks who go in to a place that has been devasted by a tsunami or a flood. But before that he spent a year studying in the Rudolph Steiner school (and so a connection with the Theosophists), some time studying theology, and has been to Tiruvanamalai. After I got more of the dope on him, he, like Sunhail, started asking me some pretty in-depth questions about spirituality and monastic life. At one point he said something like, "I have so many questions, but this will have to do for now." We finally closed up the Markesh Kirchen around 10:30, having exhausted ourselves and probably Suhail's hospitality as well.

As I mentioned, I have had a worse bout of jet lag than usual on this trip, so with that added to the stimulating conversation and all that tea, I was up 'til well past 4 AM, tossing and turning, but all the while marveling at what a wonderfully small place this world is when people meet heart to heart, deep calling unto deep, like pure water poured into pure water. These are where the real "dialogue" goes on, in friendships, well worn paths between huts, when there is nothing forced about or exercised about it. It's just friendship.