The essential marvel of the divine milieu is the ease with which it assembles and harmonises within itself qualities which appear to us to be contradictory.
(Teilhard de Chardin)
last morning at The Abbey, Oxfordshire
I'm packed up and ready to leave for London, the last remnants of my morning fire still glowing in the hearth. How I have enjoyed the time here at the Abbey. My room has been this corner one with a large window full of plants overlooking the garden and another smaller window on the side, both sequestered at night behind heavy curtains to keep out the chilly breeze that creeps through the edges; a couple of sitting chairs, a desk, and a fireplace with a lot of open space in the middle for yoga mat and guitar. The heat gets turned off every night some time after I go to bed and this drafty old place is cold in the early morning, so since there are no activities here until 8 I've had those first few hours in monastic paradise, making a cup of tea in the warm kitchen downstairs and then building a fire to last for the few hours until the heat comes on to do my morning rituals.
There are only three other community members living here right now--Brad, Dylan and Charlotte--though there is are office workers, a board of directors and a whole host of volunteers. Though it was started with a loose Christian foundation, there is not necessarily any spirituality that holds the place together now, outside of the thrice daily meditation periods. There is some indefinite desire for a stronger spiritual practice to unite the place, but it seems more from the board and volunteers than from the resident staff. The place has its own spirit, you might say, a safe and nurturing place for self-inquiry and one's own spiritual practice, whatever that might be. Christian, Buddhist and Yogic spirituality all seem equally welcome and represented. Since there is a regular turnover of resident staff, like a monastery this place somehow has to hold its own presence, a palpable presence that people sense when they come here, as do I.
My retreat weekend went very well, I think. It was loosely based on my book and all the common themes I talk about. Friday night was both the first night of the retreat and an open public talk. I used the normal prayer service and meditation to frame it, and did the universal call and the spirit, soul and body introductions. Because it was for a larger group we used the Great Hall. I shall dream enviously of that great room. It probably dates back to the 16th century, big enough for an intimate chamber music concert for 50 or so people or a yoga class of 25, with a baby grand piano in one corner, a large fireplace, floor to ceiling curtains on two very large windows, and nooks and crannies, crevices and sills filled with candles and icons and statuary. It also has a minstrel gallery up above, right off my bedroom actually. Saturday we had a full day of conferences and meditations in the smaller meditation room, but the evening session was a concert, again open to the public and in the Great Hall. Sunday after the last session we had a simnple eucharist in the meditation room--it felt very much like our Sangha retreats, on a smaller scale and without group yoga at 6:30 AM. (Though I thought about it...)
Brad is the warm host, and Dylan with Charlotte's help is a wonderful chef, very creative and delicious vegetarian cooking. It could rival Esalen or Tassajara. The three of them hold court in the kitchen with classical music playing on BBC3 all day, and a big bowl of popcorn sitting on the counter next to the tea kettle in the late afternoon. I went in often just to sit and chat with them. Brad has a beautiful gentle north England accent (I told him he could tell me to go jump in a lake and it would sounds like a compliment), Charlotte is like an exotic bird who has lived in Paris and Tuscany, and Dylan is orginally from Kansas though eh has been here for twnety years and replaced his flat Kansas accent an English one. They were all very erudite, urbane and yet down to earth, witty and delightful company. They had arranged, not unusual for this place, for some friends of their's to perform here last night--the Cavaleri string quarter doing a piece by Zemlinsky, who is of the Viennese school spanning the time from Brahms to Schoenberg and Berg; and then the famous Ravel op. 124 (?) with the famous pizzicato second movement. I was thinking in Paris, as I was staring at the Chagall windows in awe, and again last night, this is somehow what I have been searching for my whole life, that marriage of beauty and spirit, the spirit that manifests as beauty, the beauty that is a reflection of the divine. It was a beautiful end to the weekend.
In between, after lunch yesterday, Adrian picked me up and took me over to Oxford to have tea with our friend Shirley Duboulay, the famous biographer of both Fr Bede and Abhishiktananda. Adrian I met at Shantivanam and is rathewr closely related to Fr Bede. His paretns were good friends of his when he was a monk at Prinknash. As a matter of fact Adrian's middle name is Bede, though his mother first wanted to name him Charles after Charles Williams. (Fr Bede talked her out of that silly name...) I have met Shirley on a number of occasions now, and we were very glad to see each other. Sitting and talking with her I also feel somehow in the presence of somehow who holds some of the lineage as well, her own deep roots in Oxford and the Royal Academy of Music in addition to her work on spiritual biographies of St Teresa as well as Bede and Abhsihiktananda, and her friendships with so many of their intimates, including Murray Rogers who lived just down the road in Oxford at the end of his life; besides her own spiritual itinerary, which she is beginning to write down. Among the various artifacts she still is in possession of--letters and books--she brought out something very special that was bequeathed to her by Murray when he died: the tiny paten and chalice of Abhishiktananda, the set he bought in Uttarkashi and carried with him everywhere, including, we assume, the one he used to celebrate Mass at the source of the Ganges with Pannikar. As I told a friend, forget rock stars and royalty: that's the lineage that fascinates me.
I have been able to clear up a few myths. English people do not toast their bread only on one side, but they seem to universally loathe peanut butter. They also think that I drink my tea far too strong, but at least I haven't done anything scandalous to it this time... yet. Really the folks have been so warm and gracious. By now I have grown used to the fact that most audiences, perhaps especially the British, are less interactive (and reactive) than American ones. It does make me slow down a bit and be a little more patient. That being said, the folks here for the weekend were very appreciative and the residents here at the Abbey and I have mutually expressed our enjoyment of each others' company. I'm heading down to London for two nights and then out west to Cirencester for some more work, then Dublin on the weekend. It feels like I am making my way home for Thanksgiving.