Friday, November 12, 2010

enstasy and ecstasy

This collective awakening,
similar to that which makes each individual realize the true dimensions of his or her own life,
must inevitably have a profound religious reaction on the mass of humankind
--either to cast down or exalt.
(Teilhard de Chardin)

The Abbey, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, England

Last Fall I had to go to Denmark to do a week's worth of work there. It was blustery and cold--the Danes were calling it "refrigerator weather," damp, dark and cold, but not cold enough to freeze or snow. I had, as usual going that direction, a very hard time getting over the time change and so hadn't gotten a full night's sleep for the whole week. From there I went on to England where I worked with the Psallite folks. We were housed at a little place called St John's Convent near Windsor Castle. The sisters there ran a home for retired priests and a retreat house. They spoiled the stuffing out of us and gave me an upper room with the coziest warmest bed in the whole world. I had much the same impression of comfort upon arriving here at the Abbey that I had then, walking into the warm kitchen with a pot of carrot soup, and a Spanish stew with ciccarones (chick peas) and a loaf of brown bread waiting, and--finally!--a decent cup of tea. The folks around the table were surprised, after my time in the Mideast and Paris, when I told them that that was the best meal I had had in a month. It was like eating at Esalen or Tassajara... or Corralitos. But I'm a little ahead of myself...

Wednesday, my last day in France, I took a trip up north to the ancient city of Reims. There were three reasons for the excursion: to see a little something more of France other than Paris, to see the historic Gothic cathedral and basilica, and to visit our young Italian friend Allessandro, who was an exchange student at St Francis High School last year and is now studying at the American Political Science College in Reims. I got up to the Gare de l'Est train station early, just for fun because I love train stations as much as I love travelling on trains, the exact inverse of how I've grown to loathe airports and airplanes. It was a short trip up really, made all the quicker by my seat mate. I was trying to figure out how to send Allessandro a text message on my phone but I couldn't figure out the numbers, so the young French woman next to me offered to help and eventually even sent the text message from her phone instead. We got to talking, since she spoke excellent English, having studied in London for some years. Turns out she is a professional classical singer and her husband a very successful concert violist, so we had a wonderful conversation about music: singing in French as opposed to Italian or German, both of our preference for Dawn Upshaw over Kathleen Battle, the exigencies of life on the road, and the Hindemith viola concerti which she and her husband, joining us by text, were quite impressed that I knew. (Well, I do listen to something other than Ben Harper and yoga music once in a while...)

Allessandro met me at the station and we went off for a good lunch at a creperie, the two of us both laughably struggling to order in French, and had a good long visit. Afterward we went to the great Cathedral of Our Lady of Rheims, which is "one of the most stunning masterpieces of 13th century Gothic art." Historically speaking its importance lies in the fact that this is where King Clovis was baptised and all the kings of France were crowned, including Saint Louis the King in 1226, all the way to Charles X in 1825. Much of it was destroyed in World War I and later refurbished. It's also the palce where Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenaur celebrated the Franco-German Reconciliation in 1962. The cathedral was astounding in its sweep, but my favorite moment was to come upon the stained glass windows by Marc Chagall in the apse. In them he traces the royal line from Abraham and David through Jesus and on through to the kings of France. They brought tears to my eyes, even more delightful having been a surprise. I left Allessandro off at school and then continued on to the basilica of Saint Remi, which dates from the 11th century, also a prime example of French Gothic architecture. It was once a Benedictine Abbey and houses the relics of the great bishop Remy's relics. I enjoyed the visit there to the basilica even more; it was quieter and simple in a way.

I was thinking of that quote of Carl Jung, comparing eastern and western mysticism. He wrote that whereas in the India the Holy of Holies is deep in the ground, symbolizing the way of interiority and enstasy, in the west it is the act of being swept up and out of ourselves in ecstasy that is emblematic. I think the first authentic Gothic cathedral I visited was in Bath and, perhaps just because of the state of mind I was in, it didn't do much for me, but here I could feel it viscerally. Perhaps I was better able to surrender to the soaring lightsomeness of the space and allow my chest to open and my spirit soar. Surely there is a place for both the enstasy and the ecstasy. Maybe that is the difference: the older I get, the more I come to appreciate that surely there is a place for both.

Yesterday was Armistice Day, the celebration so important in this part of the world of the end of World War I. I noticed it twice. Julia was coming to pick me up by taxi to usher me to the Eurostar bound for London, but I had to stand on the corner since the police had all the streets blocked off, preparing security for the grand events to take place later on the Champs Elysee. I must admit, I felt a little awkward and suspicious-looking myself standing acrosds from two policemen on the corner of Rue Jean Mermoz and Rue de Ponthieu with my guitar and backpack. It was a long comfortable trip from the other, even grander, train station, Gare du Nord, out of Paris north to the crossing point at Calais. The time under the English Channel was actually surprisingly short and when we surfaced in England the weather was even worse! I had to make a connection (besides detalied instructions from Michaela, Julia had explained it to me patiently three or four times, all but pinning it to my sweater): from the arrival station at Saint Pancras to Paddington via the Tube, to catch another train west to Didcot. Before I got on the Tube I stopped to use the loo and get a cuppa, and as I was coming back out into the station proper I noticed that everyone was standing still, dead quiet and all looking in one direction. It was weird and I wondered what was going on, if some kind of disaster had happened. Then I realized everyone was observing a moment of silence, right at 11:00 on the 11th day of the 11th month, in honor of the armistice. It still touches people here in this part of the world in a way that it rarely touches us in the States, having rarely seen combat on our own soil, save now, unfortunately, for our memorial of September 11th.

So, I am now at the Abbey, "A Centre for Transformation" here in Oxfordshire. I'm quite happy to be here. It's a funky, drafty, 13th century manor that can house up to 20 guests besides staff, a place dedicated to personal transformative spiritual work and ecological consciousness. I feel very much at home here. There is a meditation room and a tall ceilinged library, floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall covered with shelves of books two deep. My own room is on the top floor with a fire place (roaring now since 5 AM to stave off the blustery weather) and a too-comfy bed, right down the corridor from the "minstrel gallery" that overlooks the great hall where the lord and lady would have and have been entertained, and where I shall do a public talk tonight and a concert tomorrow, all part of a weekend retreat. More on all that later.