Friday, November 19, 2010

the divinization of our activities

I don't know what I want;
I am inconsistent, non-committal, passive;
I like the indefinite, the boundless;
I like continual uncertainty.
(Gerard Richter, German painter)

from All Hallows College, Dublin

I had a couple of happy days tromping around London. Since I had a few days before the next engagement, we had found me an inexpensive guest house just off the train line a little north of the city from which I had easy access to everything in central London. I'm actually pretty comfortable getting around London by now and it felt like an old friend. Julia from Paris had lent me her "Oyster Pass" for the Tube, so I could happily ride up and down all day long as long as I kept topping it off. Mostly I walked a lot, though I also got a 24 hour pass to a gym (I had to fight to get them to let me use it twice...)

The highlights: I spent a marvelous afternoon at the Tate Modern Art Museum, which is thankfully free except for special exhibits.There were two exhibits on Level 3. The first one was called "Poetry in Motion," and it was mostly Surrealism. I am not a huge fan of that era, but I knew some of the artists from my brief period working the art auctions in San Francisco--Calder and Miro, for instance. And there were some stunning pieces--several Dali, for instance--and interesting displays. I was heading down the long escalator after an hour or so when I suddenly realized I had only seen half of the 3rd Level; there was a whole other exhibit I had missed. By this point I was tired (I had midjudged the distance to get there and had walked a long way to arrive there from the Tube already) but I thought I had better check it out. As I walked in the gallery, I groaned. I knew I was stuck. It was all post-war Abstract Expressionists, with some Cubism and Fauvism thrown in. I wound up spending another good long time there; really I lost track of time. There were several painting of that German school I have liked so much for years, Die Brucke, several early Jackson Pollack, one whole room devoted to new panels by the English painter I have liked so much, Cy Twombley, some very late Picasso, Matisse's cut-outs, one of Monet's large water lily panels, and one whole room devoted to panels that the German painter Gerard Richter had made for John Cage, that were mesmerizing. I was taking pictures of them on my iPhone. (Richter is the one I quoted above; it reminded me of Eugenio Montale's poem: "This only we can tell you: who we are not; what we don't want.") I forget how much I love that era, kind of like how entranced I was when I first heard the 12 tone music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Music and art always go together for me--Debussey and Ravel are the sound track to the Impressionists in my mind--and beautiful art like that makes me want to compose music. I left there feeling disturbed and peaceful at the same time. (Ziggy, if you're reading, I was tempted to send you a text message in the middle of it...)

The other highlight then came following on that. I continued walking across the foot bridge over the Thames that leads right up to Saint Paul's Cathedral--what a stunning view at sunset! I also captures that on my iPhone. I had never actually gotten into St Paul's on my last visits but I went in this time, just in time for the beginning of choral Vespers by the pristine boys choir. That liturgical style is for the most part "not my cup of tea" (a phrase that seems overly appropriate for that part of the world), but I surrendered to it, more as a passive participant than a full, active and conscious one, and it was beautiful. I was told by someone the next day that the combination that you get in that part of England that you cannot match anywhere else is actually the way the diction with which these boys grow up, the way they use their mouths to form words. It's that that gives boys' choir here that distinctive open sound in their singing. After that I walked a long way again in the drizzly early evening to find the next available Tube station, picked up a veggie bhiryani at the Indian restaurant near my guest house (it was the absolute worst Indian food I have ever eaten, to my surprise), and called it a night.

Then before I got on my bus out of town early in the morning I headed down to the area around Victoria station, which was a delight all of itself, to get my coach ticket and then spend the morning at Westminster Cathderal. I am not sure what it is about that place, but I love it so much. Maybe it has something to do with Roman Catholcism being a beleagured minority there, but in spite of the size of the place it has a chastity about it, a humility, a quietness. It's a very new building in the scheme of things, designed in the early Christian Byzantine style and opened only in 1903. There is a constant round of Masses and other devotional activites going on all the time, as well as some cultural ones. To my regret, they were staging performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem there that very night (regret, because I would have loved to be there but my coach out was at 1:30). They were setting up for it as I was walking around. Right at the entrance and to the right there is the chapel with the tomb of the saintly monk Cardinal Basil Hume, very lightsome and optimistic, it seemed to me, and then a whole series of small chapels up the aisles, dedicated to the church of Ireland and Scotland, to the English martyrs, the war dead, etc. As I sat in the Blessed Sacrament chapel I was thinking how it's been funny to watch my resistance to classic Western religious art slowly melt, like the experience at Rheims last week. I still don't think my place in Christendom is to be part of the pageantry and hierarchy--I feel in the right place being a and a forest dweller and a vagabond with a backback and guitar--but it's okay. It doesn't have to be an enemy.

It was a bit of a waste of time and Tube, but after a good visit there I went back uptown and retrieved my backpack and guitar, checked out of my room, and then headed straight back down to kill some hours hanging out at Victoria Station while I waited for my bus. Let me say it again: I love train stations, and at perfectly at peace traveling by bus or train. If there were only a tunnel under the Atlantic to get home...

Then I spent the next two days in the Cotswald, guest of Patrick Eastman and his wife Maureen. Patrick I know first of all through his visits to New Camaldoli (he reminded me that he was having an extended stay there while I was composing The Song of Luke in 2001). He is a former Anglican priest who came into communion with Rome many years ago now, partially due to the influence of Cardinal Hume, as a matter of fact. He then affiliated with the diocese of Tulsa, and was a close friend of Sr Pascaline and Osage monastery. Patrick is a long time student of Zen Buddhism and is a sensei himself, having just finally received dhrama transmission this past year, in the same lineage as Robert Kennedy, SJ and Bernie Glassman. He used to head up a group called Monos in Tulsa, that published a journal and met regularly to explore contemplative spirituality. He now runs a Christian Zen group in his area. He is one of the most well read people I have ever met, and right in my line of thinking, and within a half an hour of arriving at their house I was heading to my room with a pile of books under my arm. He had brought me to Tulsa a number of times to do various things, including a performance of the Song of Luke, and also had me here to do some work for him when I was coming through in 2006. On Thursday we went up to visit Priknash Abbey, Fr Bede's home monastery. I had been there once before with Fr George of Shantivanam in 2006 also, when we were here for Bede centenary celebration at Gaunt's House in Dorset. The monks, only a dozen left, have now moved back into the humble old 12th century monastery (the former hunting lodge of the abbot of Gloucester) and out of the gargantuan building in which they have been living, built in some kind of fit of hysterical optimism in the 1960's. We had a visit with Abbot Francis and the kindly elderly former abbot Althelm, who is an old friend of Patrick. They all seem very happy about being back in the old monastery.

Then that night a beautiful concert at Patrick's new parish in Tetbury. We seemed to drive for miles and miles on wet country roads to get there, and I thought it was in the middle of nowhere and that no one was going to come. But instead, there was nearly a full church, and a great mixture of a crowd, Anglicans, Catholics and Buddhists. I met one Anglican woman priest whose book comparing Dogen and Dionysius I had been reading all day, and another man, a psychotherapist, who was student of Amasamy, the Jesuit Zen master from South India (the one, incidentally, who gave me his shirt last year at the Abhishiktananda centenary at Shantivanam). Go figger. I didn't realize it (since I have still not replaced my broken watch since last winter I wasn't keeping track of time), but I went well over an hour and a half. I didn't notice any agitation from the crowd, and as a mmater of fact it was someone from the audeince who said to me later how surprised she was that so much time had passed. It was one of the magical evenings. By this time, though I have something in front of me just in case of a brain warp, I don't need to use a note or a cheat sheet. And after this trip to Lebanon and Syria, for some reason, I love telling the stories. Patrick noted too how given the folk tradition in this part of the world there is a long history of singer-storytellers, so a crowd would be more used to soemthing like that. In the conversations with people afterward I heard over and over again how much they appreciated learning about the common ground that we share with other traditions, while respecting the differences.

I feel like this is the other side of very important work: whereas it is important to build bridges and roads with other traditions and have occasions of dialogue and sharing, it is also important sometimes to be in some mostly Christian environments and expose Christians to what else is out there. It is not necessary for anyone to have to make zazen or Yoga or dhikr a part of their spiritual practice, let alone study texts from other traditions (though that might be of help), but in this day and age it is so important that we understand and appreciate what is going on around us. One woman said to me afterward, in a gently self-deprecating way, "You made me realize--we are so parrochial."

I've been reading Teilhard's "The Divine Milieu" these days. I was quite struck by his notion that what we do lives on. This is a powerful antedote to world-denying asceticism. Our works, our activities--these are all things that are part of the evolution of consciousness, part of our journey to the Omega point, part of building the reign of God on earth, and they live on in that way. I am deeply moved by the optimism of that, that essentially prophetic mystical notion that time is a sacrament, heading toward something, and I see Basil Hume's grave, and the panels of Gerard Richter, and I hear strains of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, and the beautiful harp shaped Beckett Bridge here in Dublin, and the book on Dogen and Dionysius, and all the good people quietly doing their work, in factories and offices, feeding the poor, caring for the sick, raising their children and caring for their elderly, and I am filled with a sense of optimism, and my hope is rejuvenated. Our asceticism is about right relationship, so that we can come back to our place in the world with detachment, our activities sanctified. When that come to pass, Teilhard says, "there will be little to separate life in the cloister from life in the world."

The more nobly we will and act, the more avid we become for great and sublime aims to pursue. We will no longer be content with family, country and the remunerative aspect of our work. We will want wider organisations to create, new paths to blaze, causes to uphold, truths to discover, an ideal to cherish and defend. So, gradually, the workers no longer belong to themselves. Little by little the great breath of the universe insinuates itself in us through the fissure of our humble but faithful action, broadened us, raises us up, bears us on.