Thursday, November 25, 2010

ireland, part II: Askeaton and Glenstal

Human lives are essentially not to be summed up,
but to be known, as they are lived,
in many curious partial and inarticulate ways.
(Iris Murdoch)

I was free then until the concert on Monday evening and as planned I took a train down from Dublin to Limerick, to visit Glenstal Abbey, Noirin ni Rian and Brother Emmaus. It broke out into sunshine again as soon as I got on the train, so I was treated to two hours of the most gorgeous view of the Irish countryside heading south and east out of Dublin. Green, flat and more green, some little villages that looked as cookie cutter as Romeoville, Illinois where I grew up as a boy, and some obviously ancient with a crumbly church or cloister in the middle of it, flocks of sheep and flocks of freckly faced T-Bone, Mike and Kathy McGoverns on bicycles. (My good old friends in Phoenix whose father's passing we celebrated just before I left). Noirin had offered to meet me at Limerick Junction, which is by the way in the middle of nowhere in County Tipperary, and nowhere near Limerick.

I was under the impression that Noirin and I had met at one point, and I was a little embarrassed that I couldn't remember her. She is a very well known Irish singer (please see her website), some there say the most well-known singer of Irish music. She has recorded numerous albums, some of them with the monks of Glenstal Abbey (the ones I know the best), some with her two sons and several of course on her own. As it turns out we had never met. She had stayed for a short time with our brothers at Incarnation in Berkeley, and knew me and my music only through them. So we both knew each other only through mutual friends and CDs. But we still greeted each other like old friends, and indeed by now we have many common connections, including Liam Lawton with whom I worked last year and Paul Winter with whom she worked for some years in New York and John Pennington and I will be working with at the Animas Festival in the Spring, and almost everyone I had met at All Hallows and Milltown. She buzzed me right off the Glenstal Abbey, where she has been living for some years as a teacher and sort of artist-in-residence. There the former abbot Christopher, who is now the guest master, guided me off to Midday Prayer in abbey church, followed by another delicious but quick meal in the reception area. Then Noirin had a concert that afternoon in a nearby village and invited me to join her. It sounded like a great opportunity, especially to see her perform, so we were off pretty quickly.

What a great afternoon that was, something I would hazard to say not a lot of tourists might get to take part in. The county Arts Council has commissioned three woman performers, Noirin, an actress and a poet, to do a series of programs in various venues around the county. We were in a little town called Askeaton, in an ancient (and chilly) Church of Ireland, joined by the local woman’s choir, another Arts Council Funded project led by a young woman with a guitar and an African djembe strung around her neck. I just don’t think something like this would happen in rural America. They were all really good, including the women’s chorus, doing mostly African songs and spirituals. The actress was even a little bawdy for an event taking place in a church, but the audience seemed to take it in stride. Noirin also turned over one of her turns to me, as a “special guest from America.” I sang Awakening for them, to rave reviews, and then played guitar with the women’s chorus on their last piece as well.

As evidenced both by some of songs and comments at the event, and affirmed by my conversation with Noirin and others, the thing that is on everybody’s mind is the collapse of the Irish economy. (As a matter of fact, one of the headlines this moring on Yahoo news is, "Ireland on the Verge of Bankruptcy.") The IMF arrived the same day that I did, as at least one person noted, saying, “I hope you have brought us better news.” What may not be so evident to us outsiders is the fact that here, not 100 years after independence, someone else is coming in to make the rules for them and tell them how to handle their economy. Just at the same time that the church has lost its credibility, the politicians have shown themselves unworthy of trust as well. When Bernadette and Michael were showing me around Dublin they were so proud of all the things that the Celtic Tiger had produced in that fair city, the convention center, the beautiful Samuel Beckett Bridge shaped like an Irish harp, and then had to keep adding “before the whole economy collapsed,” with a genuine sadness. Americans were outraged; my impression the Irish were embarrassed, sad and feel betrayed––again.

The biggest beacon of hope though was Glenstal Abbey. They have a new abbot these past two years, Patrick Mark Hederman. Canon law requires that an abbot be an ordained priest as well as a monk in solemn vows (something that we’ve been fighting for years). Mark Patrick was not, and no one considered him even to be a candidate for abbot. But that is who the community chose, and so he was ordained and installed. He is a philosopher and an English professor by avocation, reportedly an enthralling speaker, and an author. Before I left I was given a book of his and I read half of it on the plane coming home––The Underground Cathedral. Because it was so unexpected, both he and others consider his election to be the work of the Holy Spirit, and he seems rather fearless because of that in pursuing a new vision of what a monastery can be. Indeed, more than one person told me that they thought that the solution for the church in Ireland was to come from the monasteries and monasticism, and particularly held up Glenstal as an example. Mark Patrick’s vision, as articulated in an earlier book called Walkabout, Life as Holy Spirit, is centered around the arts, in which he dreams that Glenstal could become

a place where the abbot and the community help the artist to anchor the altar. The monastery becomes a place where artists hope to tie whatever kite they happen to be flying to a firm and stable anchor. The monastery as a silent hub of that firework display which art and culture need to scatter with reckless flamboyancy into the night.

A medieval vision come true.

The thing that strikes me is that these folks, unlike many church leaders in America, do not seem to be afraid of the long arm of Rome and the conservative climate of theological debate in the church, which has been increasingly more the response and reaction of the American Catholic hierarchy. Maybe this fearlessness is not as wide spread in Ireland as it seemed to me, having only met a select group of people, or maybe the Irish just feel as if they have nothing left to lose––the churches are empty and the hierarchy has let them down––and they are quite willing to envision the whole thing in a new way.

I had a wonderful long visit with Brother Emmaus when I got back, who was a member of our community in Big Sur for some years before returning to Ireland and now re-doing his novitiate there at Glenstal. Besides being a wonderful and prolific artist, he is far more articulate, well read and insightful than many people would have known from his time with us, since he is also rather shy. He situates the problem with not being able to keep a foot firmly planted in a tradition that one loves and respects and doesn’t need to deconstruct or destroy, while reaching prophetically into the future. Case in point, the abuse crisis in Ireland, which comes up often in The Underground Cathedral. When Abbot Mark was interviewed on television, the interviewer immediately latched right on to his critiques of the former archbishop of Dublin (and “Ruler of Catholic Ireland,” as he is known), John McQuaid, and the part he played in covering up the abuses. But Abbot Mark wouldn’t take that bait and made the point firmly, as he does in the book, the Archbishop McQuaid too was not just a product but also a victim of the system, and that everyone was complicit in perpetuating the system. This includes the laity who turned a blind eye to the corruption of absolute power and were content with “the semblance of unity through the invention and imposition of an idea of unsullied Irishness” which the Irish author Peggy O’Brien says was really an “ersatz racial purity” through a particular brand of Catholicism that resulted in “cultural xenophobia.” Ouch. Obviously there is something to be said for conservatism and I have my own streaks of it, but that could describe conservatism at its worse in any country. I was thinking this is also the potential danger of something like the strikingly mostly-white Tea Party and its marriage to certain forms of evangelical Christianity and conservative Catholicism. We must be careful of cultural xenophobia and attempts to protect our own ersatz super race.

The next morning I got a wonderful tour of the abbey complex from a Brother Colmàn, who is a medievologist (isn’t that a word?). The abbey is built around a Victorian era mock castle that an wealthy Anglo-Irish family built in the 19th century, modeled after Windsor Castle. (Noirin told me as we pulled in, “They were hoping Queen Victoria would come to visit.”) There is a tragic story of why they abandoned the property. Their daughter was engaged to an English officer, and one day while they were driving back to the castle together in his car in his car, the daughter was wearing his captain’s hat, and an anti-British sniper shot her, mistaking her for him, and then shot him as well. The family left in grief and despair. The monks have been there since the early 20th century, and have turned the castle into a boarding school for boys worthy of comparisons with Hogwarts, and built the monastery around it. Someone also donated a large collection of valuable icons to the monastery for which they have built a crypt chapel that is kept locked and dimly lit. Everyone had told me to be sure to get a tour of it and Colmàn, who is an expert on the icons there, ushered me in and let me stay for a good long visit.

After that I did a presentation for the school. There is a pretty serious choir––meaning the director, Fr Columba, teaches them a classical sacred music repetoire––of about 40 members, but he set me loose with them for about 50 minutes. And I did what I do with my guitar on a chair in the middle of a great room––I told stories and sang songs, focusing almost entirely on songs that had participation. The boys sang along wonderfully and seemed to enjoy the program. Three monks and Noirin sat through it all as well. I was delightfully thinking of three levels of meaning to presentations such as that: hopefully I am giving them a little taste of some pretty good music, singing, guitar playing and songwriting; but I get to tell them about other religious traditions, and more and more I get to tell them about other parts of the world, India, Lebanon, France. I keep remembering that comment from the woman in Tetbury, “We are so parochial.” We all of us are. And I keep remembering Maalouf’s solution to the crisis of identity in our modern age, to encourage local culture through language, art and even cuisine on the one hand, but also to encourage a sense of belonging to the global village, even to be able to enjoy the technological highway that connects us and use it as a way of building this universal community. As I’ve been saying as an introduction to “The Ground We Share,” I want to help people realize that the ground we share is our basic humanity, the human condition.

Mass and another quick delicious lunch, and then I had another luxurious train ride back up north to Dublin. I had one final concert that night at the Milltown Institute. I was glad to see a lot of familiar faces from Saturday and I felt a sense of satisfaction and closure bringing an end to this five-week odyssey that arched from Lebanon to Ireland.

I was happy to see my cold cold little cabin for a night, but I came right down to be with the brothers at Big Sur for Thanksgiving, which seemed very appropriate to let some of this sink in. The jet lag isn’t too bad, and at least has made it possible for me to finish these blog entries and try to start to make it through a pile of e-mail. I’ll add a couple of more little tidbits perhaps if I get the chance. I’m still trying to process it all myself and see what sticks and what morphs and what will come out of it all. With thanks for all, wishing you and all our friends around the world well today and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

ireland, part I: the underground cathedral

(I'm gonna try in the next few days to finish up these blogs and post them... Happy Thanksgiving all. I'm actually home now, [well, in Big Sur anyway] safe and sound.)

Our most precious heritage can only be expressed by poetry.
The Word of God can never be relayed through prose.
If this means that the message is sometimes obscure,
that is not because the poet is being deliberately obscurantist,
it is because we are moving in a borderland area
for which ordinary language is not designed.
(Mark Patrick Hederman)

On board Aer Lingus flight back to London and then home. My gosh, there is so much to write about these past four whirlwind days in Ireland. It may take a few blogs to spare your eyes.

Having been chased by rain and cold since Paris (for which I was blamed), I was expecting even worse weather in Ireland; but the reality was that I arrived in Dublin last Friday to glorious sunshine (for which I took credit). A gentleman named Michael, who I was to encounter several times over the next four days, met me at the airport with a sign bearing my name and whisked me away to All Hallows College where I was to be staying. All Hallows used to be a venerable old seminary run by the Vincentians that sent many a priest over to the mission countries of America and Africa back in the day. I was told that if I looked at the class pictures I would no doubt find an Irish pastor or two with whom I would be familiar. It was founded in the 19th century by a famous Catholic rights advocate, Daniel McConnell. This is during the English colonization period, about which I was to hear much during my stay, when Catholics were severely persecuted and oppressed financially, socially, economically. Again, may I insist that this was not about theology, but about power and control and some not-very evolved imperialists (in this case the British) using religion as a weapon. With all due respect to my English friends, I realize that this is the Irish side of the story, but it would take a lot to convince me that this was not a wrong-headed policy and polity. And I have heard as much from many British as well.

Now All Hallows is a humble little liberal arts college associated with Dublin City College, with about 300 students, mostly lay with a few seminarians, and certainly, decidedly, co-ed. It was a beautiful little campus with a sumptuous chapel that reminded me of St John's in Camarillo (hmmmm... Vincentians, Irish...?) as did the refectory. The guest accommodations were wonderful, clean, simple, the guesthouse serving as much as a hostel and retreat space, and the staff was wonderfully hospitable. As a matter of fact, I must say, and I said several times, for anywhere I have been in the world, to a person the Irish struck me as the most sincerely friendly warm people I have yet met.

The food was also delicious. Again, I had my expectations low (prejudice, I know, but low expectations lead to numerous surprises, and I did grow up with boiled potatoes and cabbage as exemplar of Irish cooking), but from the first bowl of creamed cauliflower soup through the brown bread and porridge and moist brown sugar and white cheddar cheese, I was overfed embarrassingly well. I also must say, with all due respect, I do prefer Irish breakfast tea, it's stronger and fuller. I asked someone at one point why the Irish tea is so much stronger than English tea and the answer given, with more humor than rancor, was, “Well, I suppose it's because the English starved us to death for so many years the only thing we had was our tea and we had to make it strong to fill us up.”

My host was one Bernadette Flanagan, a little powerhouse of a woman who belongs to the Presentation sisters. She now works in the research and development department of All Hallows, though she had previously been on staff at Milltown Institute, the honored Jesuit institution across town where we were to hold both of our events. Her expertise is in spirituality, and the events I was to do were actually not sponsored by All Hallows but by an organization--really a movement--that she heads up called “The New Monasticisms.” Friday evening Bernadette and one of her colleagues, a sharp Jesuit named Michael O'Sullivan, took me for dinner and a good long visit. They were happy to share and I was happy to pick their brains about the state of things in Ireland. If I may summarize: right now they are sandwiched between two things. First, historically this is a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic country. There was a church with a tall steeple and cross in the middle of the airport, for God’s sake! It is very much a part of the Irish identity, very much a part of the whole struggle for civil rights and independence from the 19th century on (remembering my reading of Maalouf’s book “On Identity” while in Lebanon, it was amazing the resonances); and of course a major element of what is gently called “the Troubles” from the 1960s through 2000 with the IRA and Northern Ireland. Again, this is religion being used as an identifier and not theological issues being debated. On this end there is also Catholicism as the final arbiter in every argument, with priests deciding who got hired and fired, who would marry whom, including putting women who were considered of questionable repute away in the Magdalene laundries (of recent cinematic fame), power more often than not yielded not very gracefully or healthily, but power submitted to nonetheless because it was part and parcel of ethnic and cultural identity. (It’s also interesting to note that that is a lot of the Catholicism that was exported to America.)

On the other hand--it is that very institution that has received an even harsher verdict on sexual and other abuse in the past months than what the US went through, widespread, ancient abuse in seminaries, orphanages and other institutions, and not just perpetrated by priests. And so, that which the people of Ireland struggled so hard to hold on to and uphold and defend has suddenly shown itself to be corrupt, or as Abbot Patrick Mark Hederman put it, in a book called the Underground Cathedral" which I will refer to again below I am sure, “the official idiom of the church in terms of chastity, purity and celibacy, especially with regard to the priesthood as a national shrine met up with an underworld of sexual depravity to monstrous to be entertained.” Ah, but here’s the rub: at least from the vantage point that I was offered, on the ground level, though the moral authority of and faith in the hierarchy and the “institution” is practically gone, the faith is strong. Case in point, this “New Monasticisms Ireland” program. 120 people gathered, some of them traveling from as far away as Galway, for this day that I led. The Spirit is alive and working.

Hederman suggests that while the “pretentious over-elaborate architecture” of twentieth century Catholicism is collapsing, “secret agents of the Holy Spirit” have been constructing an underground cathedral “where the true God might be worshiped in spirit and truth.” This program on Saturday was a roomful of those secret agents. And it occurred to me that I have spent a lot of time in these underground cathedrals with these secret agents over the past few weeks, from the Forum 104 in Paris, to the Abbey in Oxfordshire and Patrick Eastman's Zen Christian group in Tetbury, not to mention the three weeks in almost completely foreign territory in Lebanon and Syria. And I like it there, very comfortable underground.

I structured the day like one of our regular SSB sessions, framed in the prayer service. They are a more unused to the Universal Wisdom approach—drawing examples and practices from other traditions—though it’s not absent completely, but I didn’t shirk away from it. Instead I tried to show how both meanings of the universal call to contemplation—that is for everyone and that it is found in all traditions--is or at least can be part of the birth of the new mysticism or new spirituality (which term I prefer to “monasticism”). And then a short excursus also on the spirit, soul and body anthropology as practical aid in building a personal spiritual practice, something portable and personal (not to mention holistic) that we can carry with us anywhere and that is not dependent on someone else to supply to us. We are all pilgrims now. What did Merton say to the monks just before he died in Thailand? “From now on it's every man for himself.” That’s an exaggeration, of course, but I was stressing Bruno's point, that all our institutions, rites, dogmas exist only—“only” I repeated three times for emphasis--to lead us to that inner awakening. They are our servants, as Jesus made abundantly clear about leadership, too. That’s why everything that can be revised—language, way of life, ritual—must be revised for a new generation, for new modes of consciousness that are still evolving. And this is a country that is near devoid of priests in many areas. The Roman authorities have stepped in with investigations and admonitions to return to popular devotions and piety, but the people that I talked to aren’t having any of it. It’s time to build the underground cathedral. I found it all very exciting.

I began and ended the day feeling very humbled, by their energy and resilience. (Many of them had already read my book, which is still kind of a mind-blowing thing to me.) At the beginning I said, “I suppose it’s fitting that I should be speaking to a gathering called the New Monasticism, because, for better or worse, I am one of the new monks. I don’t say that to brag; I'm not saying I am a good example. I just am one of them.” And I ended fielding questions, and some very deep questions about profound issues concerning ecclesiology and Christology, and said to them then as well, “I am not even sure I am qualified to answer these questions but I will tell you as best I can...” I was thinking, “Why would anyone want my opinion?” What a privileged and possibly dangerous position to be in! I was staying very close to then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s “Questions on Meditation” (“These other ways may be taken up as long the Christian conception of prayer, it's logic and requirements, are kept in mind.") and John Paul II’s “Fides et Ratio,” (“Just because Christianity was first articulated using Greek philosophy does not mean that it is the only way... My mind turns first to India.”), asserting that I always try to find the most conservative support I can for a progressive position. Then I ended by quoting our former prior general Emanuele Bargellini from my meeting with him as I was beginning my exclaustration in 2002: “Cipriano, monachesimo non è un contenitore; è un energia—Monasticism isn’t a container; it’s an energy”; and then his successor Don Bernadino’s admonition to me in 2005 when I was allowed, encouraged, even mandated to continue as I am, when he told me not to change anything, to watch my balance between work and prayer, solitude and travel, “and this,” he said, “will be your stability now.” To use Rolheiser’s image, we all need to find that balance between the energy and the container (the “stability,” if you will), and then carefully monitor and discern and ride on that balance. Our particular way may not look exactly like anything that went before us, or anything around us—though chances are we are not alone and it will—but our commitment to it, with discernment in relationship with our community, our sangha, our tradition, is what will lead us to realize our true self, hidden (with Christ) in God.

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.

Monday, November 15, 2010

spirit and beauty

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.

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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


In the process of listening to myself
I came to the conclusion that my soul or my heart
was always yearning for something new.
I was constantly hoping for some new event,
some new information, some renewed courage.
(Isaac Bashevis Singer)

It still seems weird to me to write that: "Paris." A woman named Julia Thompson ran into my name and music at Shantivanam and through mutual friends in India, and when she somehow found out that I was going to be in the area--on my way to England from Lebanon--she invited me to stop by Paris and do one, maybe two, concerts here. I readily agreed, partially because I knew I was going to have some time between engagements, and of course because I would have loved to see Paris. I had studied French in high school and our wonderful French teacher, Suzanne Kosmerl, who was a Parisienne herself, had steeped us in French culture, including trips to the Art Institute in Chicago, as part of our French class. I had had visions of myself as a turn of the century artiste of sorts for years (turn of the 19th century, that is). I had read biographies of many of the Impressionist artists, and the French music of that era was my entre into legitimate "classical" music--Debussy, Ravel, and Eric Satie (whom I emulated), later Messiaen and some of the great sacred literature of that period. And then, of course, in later years I have had dreams of doing a monastic tour of France, not only the great Benedictine and Cistercian spots, but also Taize, Paray le Monial and Thich Nhat Hahn's Plum Village. That latter will have to wait, but at least I have these few days here, mostly in Paris.

I had a red-eye out of Lebanon Sunday morning at 3:45. Fadi picked me up from Saint Mouron and drove me into Beirut one last time, where we headed straight for Nayla's house, who prepared one last simple meal for us all. We had one last intense conversation as well, about some questions I had yet unresolved about Islamic philosophy. I urged Fadi to get me to the airport good and early so he didn't have to sit up and lose sleep waiting, so I had a good long time at the airport before my flight. It was kind of a time warp; they oddly served breakfast on the plane right away (at 4:30 AM) and then turned out the lights, at which point I went into an unusually deep sleep for an airplane. When we finally got to Paris via Frankfurt, six or so hours later, Julia thought I would take longer than I did getting through baggage and customs, so by the time she got there I had already installed myself at the first coffee bar and had mustered enough French to begin my comparative tests between Italian and French coffee and pastries.

Julia is British, but has been living here in Paris over six years now. She knows the city well, is used to acting as tour guide and trip planner for guests, and of course has a seemingly perfect command of the language. Through another friend Julia had managed to procure for me the use of a flat right off the Champs Elysee, midway between the obelisk on the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe. By the time we arrived at the apartment it was pouring down a very cold rain, which boded the same for rest of my stay here, by the way. The apartment is owned by an American woman who uses it only rarely, and it is pretty near what I imagined an apartment in Paris to be like, a small kitchen and bathroom, but a generous living-dining room and bedroom. There is a large photgraph of an elderly Pablo Picasso on the wall in the living room and assorted prints of his drawing on the walls around. Julia supplied me with more than enough food, and in those first few hours of just taking a nap and settling in I thought for a moment that it would be enough to sit in this flat off the Champs Elysee with my guitar, books, laptop and Yoga mat for the next four days. But Julia came back for me in the mid-afternoon and we set off on foot across town. Even more than London, it did feel as if one could at least see the major sections and sites of the city on foot in one day. We walked up along the Seine, past the Palais and exhibition hall, through the Louvre (without stopping since the lines were so long--the first Sunday of the month is free admission), and then the Tulieries Gardens, straight up to Notre Dame. Notre Dame was also very crowded--tourists plus an organ recital going on--so we only stayed long enough to make a slow walk around the entire nave and sanctuary past all the side altars, wonderful organ music playing throughout, with a promise to come back for more later. Then across the river for a delicious bowl of (what we would call "French") onion soup and a cup of tea before heading back to my part of town on the Metro for an early night's sleep.

Yesterday, Monday, was pretty much my only work day, so after most of the morning to myself and a nice easy run along the Seine, Julia met me again and ushered me over to Forum 104, the site and organization that sponsored and hosted the concert. Forum 104 is the brainchild of the Marist missionary congregation. This particular large building in which they are housed at one time was the home of a thriving community of Marist brothers and fathers, but as their numbers there dwindled and aged, some year ago they decided to do something different with the space. So they created Forum 104, and center that hosts all types of cultural and spiritual exchanges, round tables, conferences, study sessions, artistic endeavors and meditation groups. They also rent the space out to all kinds of groups as well, and the flyers that are posted advertising the upcoming events were pretty impressive in their variety--dance and Tibetan meditation, Yoga and music events. From what I understand, the only stipulation is that any group that uses the space be open to people from other groups taking part in their activities and an exchange of ideas. It's really marvelous. Here is a sample of some of soirees coming up: "The Notion of Energy in Hinduism and Christianity," The Recognition of Life in the Face of the Aggression of Inequality and Discrimination," led by a Buddhistm a Jew, a Muslim and a Chrsitian, "The Poems of Ramana Maharshi," "Philosophy and Spirituality: Is Dialogue Pssible?," "The Consciousness of the Heart in Energetic Chinese Arts," "The Bhagavad Gita: What is Right Action?" Given the theological climate in the US right now, I can almost not imagine such an exchange of ideas going on there led by a Catholic group, except at an occasional Franciscan retreat house.

We met with Pere Bernard, a tall friendly Frenchman who is the director of the place. He was quite gracious and kind to me from the start, joking with me either in halting but good English or speaking very slowly and deliberately to me in French. I get a lot of it, especially is someone really wants me to understand, though I get a little frustrated that I can't respond in French. The concert that evening was in the adjoining small but high ceilinged church of Notre Dame des Anges. It was well attended and, with Julia's help both translating and singing along, we even got good audience participation. It was one of those buildings where the guitar sounds like an orchestra. The audience was quite a mixed group, as is drawn to the Forum. There was a good handful of Anglophones there as well, Americans, Australians and British, and afterward I spoke mainly with them. One couple in particular had just returned from Armenia, and was trying to convince me both of its beauty--"the oldest Christian country," they told me--and of my need to go there and sing my songs for them. We'll see about that... right now, a lot of California sounds like the right next move.

Today was pretty much a free day, though Julia had scheduled for us to have lunch with and meet the brothers of the Community of Jerusalem here in Paris. I had met their confreres in Florence and attended their liturgies of the hours a number of time at the Badia Fiorentina. This is the mixed community that started here in Paris in 1975 (as a matter of fact I met the founder today at lunch!). The men and women live in separate communities but quite near each other so that they pray and sing together publicly three times a day. It is beautiful Byzantine styled part singing, as far as I know all written by the French comper Andre Gouzes, and it is stunningly beautiful, especially when you hear it for the first time. (Like anything, I suppose you get used to it...) As in Florence, the community sits on the ground on prayer benches in their choir robes, men on the left, women on the right, with the assembly behind on stools. They are at Saint Gervais here in Paris, a dark and drafty space with a generous acoustic, very much like the Badia Fiorentina. They are also at Vezelay and have been given custody of the famous monastery at Mont Saint Michel as well. I was told today that they still only have about 200 women and men, but still, I think they are a great success story in the Roman church. Many of them work outside the community during the day, in full habit, but they are pretty strict about not going out outside of that. Actually originally Julia was trying to have me stay there with them, which would have been nice as well, but they would not have been able to allow me to come and go for the concert or for any sight-seeing. But they were very welcoming at lunch, and afterward during recreation and coffee in the sunroom (meals are silent with table reading) two of the brothers, one Spanish and one French, who spoke excellent English, came and spoke with me the whole time, asking lots of questions and answering mine. The young French brother, Marc Abraham, actually spoke English with an Irish brogue, having lived at a monastery in Ireland before joining the Jerusalem community.

In the morning, before Julia came for me, I had already taken a long walk in the light but steady rain, basically in the same direction as we had gone on Sunday but a little deeper away from the river. I was mainly in search of a pastry and a quiet church to say morning prayers, and I found both, the latter being the beautiful Eglise Saint Roche. Then after lunch with the brothers, I headed out on my own, armed with a good map and an umbrella, some general directions from Julia and two pair of socks under my walking shoes. I first went once more for a quick visit to Notre Dame, and then I headed up to the Gare de l'Est to buy my train ticket to Reims for tomorrow. (More on that later.) It was fun figuring out the Metro and, like Roma Termini, I felt like I could have spent all day in the train station. But I resisted and headed back down to my main event of the day--a visit to the Musee D'Orsay. Of all the museums to choose from, this is the one I wanted to see. This is the converted train station that became the home of the Impressionists and mainly still concentrates on work from the turn of the 19th century. What might have at first seemed like unfortunate timing, they are doing major rennovation of some of the major galleries, but that meant that had set up temporary galleries of the most famous artists down at the first and second level. One whole section was devoted just to Gaugin and Van Gogh, during the tumultuous period when they lived together. Some of the most famous Van Gogh's are there, including one self-portrait, the portrait of his doctor patron and the well known painting of the Cathedral at Auverns with its deep blue sky, that he painted just a month before he suicided. The other side of the gallery was amazing: Renoir, Cezzane, Degas Toulouse-Latrec, Manet, Monet, Sisley, Seurat, and many lesser known names. It was quite a visual feast, more gourmand than gourmet perhaps, but I felt like I had fulfilled a thirty year old dream. I then spent the rest of the evening wandering the Latin Quarter, past the Sorbonne and the Curie Centre, the Pantheon and the Cluny Museum with its excavated Roman baths, with a short stop in at the beautiful church of Saint Severin. I must admit, I don't know anything about either Saint Roche or Saint Severin, except that the latter was a hermit, but as soon as I get some internet acess I'll look 'em up. The artist's name wasn't listed but I am quite sure that the stunning numbered black and white prints of the life of Christ that hung around the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament were by Roualt. I treated myself to crepes for dinner at a creperie off on a side street--one with spinach, egg and Emmental cheese, and a second with just butter and burnt sugar. After a long cold day of walking, they were as delicious as anything I've ever eaten.

Tomorrow I head up to Reims on the train for the day to visit a young friend studying there, and an excuse to see a little but more of France, and then on to England and back to work on Thursday.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

november 6: some last random notes from the mountain

"The basic postulate of universality is that there exist inherent rights to human dignity that no one may deny to their fellow creatures, whether on the grounds of religion, colour, nationaltiy or sex, or on any other consideration. This means, among other things, that any attack on the fundamental rights of men and women in the name of some tradition--religious or other--is contrary to the spirit of universality. There cannot be on the one hand an overall general charter of human rights and on the other hand special and particular charters for Muslims, Jews, Christians, Africans, Asians and the rest...
Everything that has to do with fundamental rights--the right to live as a full citizen on the soil of one's fathers, free of persecution or discrimination; the right to live with dignity anywhere; the right to choose one's life and loves and beliefs freely, while respecting the rights of others; the right of free access to knowledge, health and a decent and honourable life--none of this, and the list is not exhaustive, may be denied to our fellow human beings on the pretext of preserving a belief, an ancestral practice or a tradition." (Maalouf, 88-89)

At a social level, no matter how we describe the Beginning and the End, creation and heaven, we should be able to agree on this much, this is ground we have to share, built on our basic humanity. Without this there is little left to discuss, and at times we are impelled to wrest our rights and the rights of others out of the clenched totalitarian fists of despots and warlords. Hence the UN Charter on the Family, the Millenium Development Goals, the Assisi Decalogue of Peace, the Global Ethic, etc. Our traditions deserve to be respected only insofar as they are respectable, only insofar as they themselves respect the fundamental rights of human beings, Maalouf says.

At a personal level, this little section from Robert Frager's introduction to "The Essential Sufism" fell right into my trap, both using the word "goal" and dealing with the self. He says that "the goal of all mysticism is to cleanse the heart, to educate or transform the self, and to find God." Then he distinguishes between the lower and higher level of self. "The lowest level of the self is dominated by pride, egotism, and totally self-centered greed and lust." This level is the part within each person that leads away from Truth, that in us which is focused out instead of in. "The lowest level of the self, the ego or lower personality, is made up of impulses, or drives, to satisfy desires. These drives dominate reason or judgment and are defined as the forces in one's nature that must be brought under control. The self must be transformed--this is the ideal. The self is like a wild horse; it is powerful and virtually uncontrollable." But as the lower self becomes trained, it becomes capable of serving the individual and revealing the higher self, the true self. The highest level, on the other hand, is the pure self, and at this level there is no duality, no separation from God. (Essential Sufism, 19, 20)

I wonder, is that only the goal of mysticism or the goal of spirituality or is that the real goal of religion in general? The transformation of the self, the revealing of the true self, the higher self, the self hidden in God, the seed of our real being, of who we really are.

Amin Maalouf, as he ties up this book "On Identity," explains how religion fulfills two needs in the human being: the need for transcendence and the need for belonging, identity; and he dreams that religion can rid itself of that latter, to stop being a means of identity so that it can function as a pure spirituality unencumbered by egoistic cravings. He contrasts universality with uniformity, and dreams that we can still fight for the universality of values and even the sharing of cultural riches--in music, in art, in cuisine, in literature--while fighting against uniformity: the impoverishment of standardization, hegemony, conformism and anything that threatens the individual richness of each civilization. So we can find a way of belonging, a new universal way to identify ourselves--as belonging to the human race!--that still celebrates our diversity. I wonder, at a cultural level is it just or mainly us in the US that exports uniformity--Macdonalds, Starbucks, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, soap operas and sitcoms--while other cultures export food, music, art, dance, fashion, language, spirituality? Of course there is always jazz and all the other music that came out of the unfortuante marriage of the peoples of Africa with the slave trade of the New World, (Maalouf points to it as well), but does the credit, as its roots, actually go back to Africa? I'm embarrassed by that, but also heartened that the US embassy here in Lebanon is bringing in cultural envoys such as John to show something deeper of our culture; and I am happy to not only be here as a Catholic Christian, but also as an American, to show that we have something else to offer at a cultural and intellectual level.

Kahil Gibran, who often has a dark view of humanity, writes about it more poetically yet in his essay "the Voice of the Poet":

Human beings separate into factions and tribes and adhere to countries and regions whereas I see my essence as foreign to any one land and alien to any single popele. The entire earth is my homeland and the human family is my clan. For I have found human beings to be weak, and it is small minded for them to divide themselves up; the earth is cramped, so that only ignorance leads people to partition it into realms and principalities.

I'll have one more little trek up the mountain this afternoon to the Chapel of the Hermitage, now on the weekend full of visitors; but especially a little more time on the slope coming down where I've found a great spot behind the ruins of one of the old hermitages. Sitting on this spot some 4000 feet above the sea and valleys of Lebanon below, the sounds of construction and farm equipment and tour busses drifting up, the breeze blowing around the precipice, even the bustling monastery and guest house below, reaffirms to me why monks head up mountains and out into deserts and forests. It's not simply to escape the world, though there is an element of escape involved ("Fuga mundi!" was the old monastic cry.) It's to cleanse the palate, to fast and to reconnect with the deeper aspects of our human being, our being human. And if we are impelled or called or pulled out into the world for love or in service, we carry that silence with us, the silence that most everybody else does not or cannot access. One wonders sometimes at the various manifestations of Christianity, what they actually have to do with Jesus. I must confess that I think this often about the pomp and hierarchical pageantry of Roman liturgy. Well, monks go to the mountain to try to be like Jesus, to try and have Jesus' experience, to try to hear that still small voice that whispers deep at the entrance of the cave of the heart. I was contemplating the beatific face of Charbel and his confrere Estaban, and imagining them even leaving the monastery to live a quieter and simpler life still in a more inaccessible spot, and I was guessing from the smiles on their faces that they had had an experience of that deepest part of themselves that is already somehow in union with God, available to Spirit.

It is said of Muhammad that, after his experiences on Mount Hira, outwardly he was still only a man--bashar, but inwardly he was in perfect union with God, and so became al-insan al-kamil--the universal person, the full realization of human-ness. The perfect person is the one who is in union with God who dwells in the heart, because the heart is the arsh al-rahman--the throne of the Compassionate. This is an ideal held out to all of us, because we carry within us all the Divine attributes and all multiple states of being; we are mirrors of God in which God looks and sees God, and we are a microcosm of the macrocosm and of the metacosm. But I could also imagine a Buddhist monk sitting in my little spot in the ruins, dropping off body and mind at the feet of the Buddha, smiling inwardly at the realization of surrender to the waves of origination, of being and becoming, in wisdom and compassion. I could imagine an Indian sannyasi chanting the OM along with the resonance in the mountain itself, vibrating with the being, knowledge and bliss that is Source and Summit, Ground of Being and Consciousness. As I could imagine Jesus abiding there with his Abba, dancing on the edge of eternity, sensing the breeze carressing him and telling him, "You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased."

I didn't tell you about the doves, did I? They're all over the place here. One beautiful white one just swooped past my open window, wing to wing with some black bird, the two of them dancing merrily in the breeze.

novmber 5: further up the mountain

Love and what generates it.
Rebellion and what creates it.
Liberty and what nourishes it.
Three manifestations of God.
And God is the conscience of the rational world.
(Kahil Gibran)

5 november

So, a little more about this place. In 1811, two young men decided to devote themselves totally to God by living as hermits up on this mountain, Ruoais. They built a little church on the ruins of an old temple and made some dwellings near the church, calling the place the hermitage of Ss Peter and Paul. Fadi told me that there was quite a tradition of hermit monks here in Lebanon, as in Syria, but not much cenobitic (communal) monasticism until the late 17th century with the founding of the Lebanese Maronite Order. The two hermits then asked the local patriarch to send them a priest, but he instead sent them to the Maronite monks, who agreed to their request and also accepted them into their order. In the 1820's the Maronites decided to build a monastery on the same land, but the spot that the hermits had chosen was too inaccesible and exposed to the elements, so they chose a spot about 3 km lower near the village of Annaya. Obviously a lot like Camaldoli, the two communities lived concurrent lives. After Charbel Marklouf was beatified in 1965, the number of pilgrims making their way here increased steadily, so eventually the monks also built a large church next to the monstery. It's a modern, circular building, beautiful but sober, with tasteful stained glass windows. The last thing to be built on the property was the Oasis guest house, where I am staying, with its adjoining snack bar. Overall the whole place is quite tasteful; though a lot of the popular religious art of this region tends to be a little kitchy, there is not an abundance of it here. For the most part there is a monastic sobriety and noble simplicity throughout, which I appreciate a lot.

The great saint Charbel, whose repute overshadows everything here, was born the same year that the monastery started being built, 1828. He entered the monastery as a young man, but after some years asked to go and live in the hermitage instead. There he spent 23 years, until his death, and gained a reputation for great sancitity. After he died, on Christmas Eve, 1898, he was buried down below, in front of the monastery. Four months after he was buried lights started appearing on his grave. He was exhumed and reburied a number of times, and each time they found the clothes that he was buried in to be drenched with sweat and blood. This, of course, was conisidered to be a miracle. Many healings have been attributed to his intercession, and the museum below the monastery is full of letters attesting to healings as well as glass cases displaying the blood stained garments that were removed from his exhumed body. His present tomb has the coffin fixed on a base of cedar wood, which is in turn on a base of marble (from Verona, Italy, so we're told), all of which is separated from visitors by an iron gate with panes of glass. There is pretty much only one image of Charbel that is used, with his hood up, eyes downcast, white beard flowing, very pacific, and that image is ubiquitous here, even on seemingly every candle on the altars and in niches, besides banners on the roadisde, clock faces, calendars and bookmarks. There is another saint slightly less venerated here, actually a "blessed"--Blessed Estaban. I know nothing about him except that the image of him that is also prevalent is an old photo that shows him with a kindly face with smiling eyes between his hooded head and full black beard. What struck me about both of these saintly images is how peaceful and happy they look, as opposed to the anguished or treacly pious iconography of old Europe. I bought a small image of Estaban and a votive candle for my cell, so he is keeping watch over me these days.

So I trudged up the road to the hermitage and spent a pretty good afternoon up there. It's a bit of a museum in that the adjoining cells are blocked off and full of displays--Here is where St Charbel worked, here is where he lived, here is where he died. But it was very quiet except for the noise of construction and farm equipment drifting up from the villages in valley below. The little stone church itself is gorgeous, kind of Romanesque style, with rough wooden benches throughout. I don't know if it is ever used anymore. After a group of tourists came up, unable to comply with the countless signs in Arabic, French and English that asked for silence, I slipped out and sat in the park in front of the hermitage for a time as well. The lady at the counter down below had said to me, in French, that there was the road and then there was also the "rue au foret," the road through the forest. I couldn't muster up enough French to either ask or understand the answer to the question, "How do you find the rue au foret?" But I slipped off the main road on the way down and stumbled upon it. It led further up the mountain yet to the site of the ruins of two small cells, which I supposed to be the first hermitages, and then a huge plastic cross wired to the peak of the mountain, and then a path all the way down that at the last was sheer rock, but not difficult to descend at all.

I'm enjoying the "fast" from speaking a lot, almost as much as my "fast" of Pringles and biscuits. I'll confess to popping on my ear buds every now and again to listen to a piece of music on my iPhone but other than no outer stimulation. There is morning prayer with the monks in the monastery chapel at 7, followed petit dejeuner in the sunny refectoire at the Oasis each morning. An elderly woman is bound and determined for me to hear more of her story than I can possibly understand, but also speaks slowly and politely to explain everything there is to offer for breakfast: fresh cheese and lebneh (the thick yogurt spread for which, along with a few other Lebanese things, I cannot re-acquire a taste after the illness), a little bowl of delicious olives, a packet of what we would called pita bread (here it is just "bread"), a small bowl of some kind of marmalade, a plate of sweet sesame bread sticks, a pot of tea and one pat of butter. I've been slipping the sesame bread sticks into my coat pocket to save for my afternoon snack when she is not looking. I was trying to think of some way of nabbing half of the hunk of cheese too but I was afraid it might be obvious and go bad in my room. I've been attending Mass in the evening (yes, just "attending" since I have no idea what's being said and only the vaguest idea what's being done, the Maronite rite in Arabic; ex opere operato), and then eating the same sajj at the snack bar each night--"zaatar et fromage extra," thyme and cheese with fresh cucumbers and tomatoes inside. Rolled up it's almost a foot long, cut in four pieces and very satisfying. After that there is evening prayers and then the great silence of the night. It's all lovely, but still nothing to rival my beautiful life in the woods in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains.

november 4: up the mountain

To hate intelligence is to hate the most precious gift God has given to us. It is in Christian terms to sin against the Holy Ghost, and it is the attitude farthest removed from the real meaning of humility in tasawwuf--the Sufi path.
(Seyyed Hossein Nasr)

4 november, 2010, annaya, lebanon
couvent di saint maroun, oasis di saint charbel

In its earliest dreaming/planning stages, this trip started out as a trip to Lebanon, Syria and Jerusalem. When Steve and Ace and I talked about it, even though Imam Naveed had dropped out and there was no work for me in Jerusalem, we still talked about going on to Jordan and perhaps even sneaking into Isreal from there. When they decided not to try that, I still had a half-baked plan (about which I didn't tell anyone because I was so afraid I'd let it slip at the border) to go on to the Holy Land myself and somehow switch my plane tickets to depart from Tel Aviv instead of flying out of Beirut, which would have been quite difficult at that point. In the end, I discussed it with Steve and Ace, but when Fadi came up with the idea of getting me a place to make retreat for a few days before I left for France, and then when we all got sick, I just let it go. Even our time in Syria was cut short by the sickness and the government, so it has wound up being a good long stay just in Lebanon, with a brief jaunt into Syria, and I feel pretty good about that now.

Young Petter came and got me around noon yesterday and spent two hours giving me a tour of his favorite parts of Beirut. (He's the bright young Danish journalism student who is finishing up his Master's Degree here in Lebanon at American University of Beirut.) We hitched a ride on a bus--it was pretty much a mini-van with a big number 4 attached to the window, capable of holding about 12 people in a squeeze--up to a neighborhood called Archifiye, and then walked into another neighborhood called Gemmayze. (I may have these spellings wrong, but I gave my Lonely Planet guide to Steve to take home with him so I can't check... Apologies.) What Petter likes about these neighborhoods, he says, is that one can still see the early 20th century French architecture at its most resplendent, though he lamented often that ugly modern buildings were sprouting up like weeds among the wheat. We passed by several gated courtyards and garden, shuttered windows and balconies, shops and restaurants which indeed did call to mind what I would imagine that era to be like. There were also many little niches that contained Christian shrines to various saints or Our Lady, of which Petter was also quite fond. He led me to the apartment that he is sharing with two flatmates. It had that empty feeling of a college-era flophouse, where people are more squatting that actually living. I guess it's that way all over the world. There was an open package of Oreo's on the table which Petter said were his French roommates: "They love their cakes with tea, you know." Then we made a long trek back to Hamra, via the streets where all the clubs are--it was actually pretty hip looking and I wish Steve and Ace had seen it--and then through downtown around the edge of Solidaire again. It was the first time I had walked from that area back to the hotel, and I was surprised to find out that it was relatively close and easy to walk, less than a half hour. We stopped at a street stand for a sajj, a kind of Lebanese fast food, somewhere between a pizza and a crepe, and then said goodbye when he got me back to the hotel.

Then Fadi picked me up and we made the long drive here to Annaya. The worst of it was getting out of Beirut and its environs. The traffic was maddeningly slow, even for him. But well north of Beirut, just on the southern edge of the coastal city of Byblos, we headed inland and up into the hills. We first made a quick stop at Fadi's own village, where he had some personal business to attend to, and then continued up into the hills until we arrived here at the Monastery of Saint Maroun on Mount Rouais. It's really breathtakingly beautiful up here, and I was so happy to finally be well out of the city. Everything kept reminding me a little of the hills of Tuscany and a little of the mountain paths on our hike from Rajpur to Mussorie in northern India. We watched a spectacular sunset over the Mediterranean, and at one point Fadi pointed to the coast to our south, the peninsula that is Beirut--though it's over 50 km it didn't seem that far away--and the tip of it which was the Hamra district where we were staying and where I walked the corniche every morning. But now we were almost 1200 metres high, over 4000 feet by my crude math.

We had a good long talk during the drive. At one point in the conversation I let slip the phrase, concerning dialogue with other traditions, "How could it be that the top of the mountain could look so different if the way up looks so similar?" Fadi immediately jumped on that and asked me to explain, and I had to launch into my whole telos-scopos-praxis theory again, how we describe the end differently, but I am fascinated to find out how much ground we share in terms of the goal and even the practice. Fadi thought that this was a pretty unique approach, because they are so used to saying that the end is the same--union with God; it is only at the practical level that we are divided. He gave me a lot of new insights just from peppering me with questions and from his own work. For example, he was talking about a study he is reading now that suggests the main difficulty between Muslims and Christians is an anthropological one. (Did my face light up! Anthropological issues!) I just ran into this in Dr Nasr's book too, by the way. The study Fadi is reading is called something like "Son versus Khalifa." For Islam, the human person is a theomorphic being (in the image of God) who is, you might say, the viceregent of God (that's one translation of "khalifah"), even a theophany of God's names and qualities. But Islam does not accept the idea of a filial relationship, that we are sons and daughters of God, or that we can. Even in regards Jesus, though the Qur'an calls him the ruah Allah-"the spirit of God," a name not give any of the other prophets, he is still not Son, which would destroy the belief in the absolute transcendence of the Divine Essence. Islam never emphasizes the descent of the Absolute or the manifestation of the Absolute, nor the incarnation of God in history. I was also asking him how he understood the doctrine of tawid-the unity of God in terms of these anthropological questions, but he says really this is a practical doctrine, not an ontological one, in other words, tawid is more about an all embracing way of life that covers every aspect of existence than it is a statement about the unity of nature in being. (I hope to have one more conversation with Nayla when she picks me up Saturday about this last bit, and wonder if there is any speculation about advaita and tawid.)

As soon as we got here I was so happy to be here, for a number of reasons besides the silence. I am staying in the Oasis Saint Charbel, which reminds me so much of a foresteria in one of our monasteries in Italy, the smell, even the design of it. As a matter of fact there is much about this place that reminds me of our Italian houses. Right next store is the monastery itself, a modest but impressive stone structure built in the mid-19th century, seemingly built right out of the stone of the mountain. We went right away to the monastery church which is a barrel vaulted beautiful resonant place, reminiscent of many crypt chapels I've seen in Italy. One of the monks was leading the Mass in the Maronite rite there. Everything of course is Maronite rite and in Arabic, except that the signs and literature are also in French, and the staff all speak French as well. Not much English... There is also a snack bar next to the Oasis called Agape Saint Charbel, where they serve sajj and chips and burgers, etc., for pretty decent prices. Fadi set me up in my room, helped me order a sajj for dinner and a packet of digestive biscuits for my cell, and then told me that the monks knew I was here so I should just go to Vespers at 6 in the church and one of them would find me. I was to take lunch with the monks each day. So I sat through Vespers, with its beautiful chanting and clouds of incense, and then sat trying to look obvious afterward, but no one came forward. So I slipped away and went to my room. It is spacious though simple, with the most comfortable bed and pillows I have encountered yet here in Lebanon and I was happy to slip off to sleep early in the cool mountain air under a pile of blankets.

I keep saying I am feeling 100 per cent better, but I must not have been. I slept ten full hours! When I finally got up, I went down for breakfast in the refectoire below, took a little walk and went back to my room to say my prayers, and promptly fell asleep again! By the time I checked my clock it was noon. And I could have kept sleeping. I stumbled through asking the woman at the counter how I was supposed to get lunch and I understood that it was at 12:30 in the monastery, and again I should just go over there and stand around. I put on my nice shirt and walked over to the monastery again. Just as I was walking up a big black Mercedes pulled up and a portly monk got out of the back seat and was greeted by all of the local monks coming out of the door of the monastery as well as by various lay people standing around, with kisses and hugs and blessings. Fadi had said that the monks had something special going on this week, and I assumed this was it, maybe the visit of the equivalent of their prior general or some such thing. Again I stood in the hallway trying to look obvious but everyone just swept by, very caught up in the flurry of this man's arrival. They made a short stop at the chapel, a visit down to the chapel of Saint Charbel's tomb, and then rushed off en masse into the cloister, followed again by some lay people. At one point an old woman who could barely catch her breath asked me something in Arabic, and then in French, which I didn't make out either, at which point I felt pretty useless and walked away. I suppose I could have asked someone or just walked into the monastery myself following the crowd but, to be honest, I was so happy to be alone. So I went and changed into my walking clothes, bought a container of Pringles (that's right, I said "Pringles," salt vinegar flavored!) and a bottle of blackberry juice at the Agape Saint Charbel, and happily headed up further the mountain.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

doing well by doing good

If love maifests itself within you,
it has its origins in beauty.
You are nothing but a mirror in which beauty is reflected.

wednesday, 3 november

Steve and Ace left this morning at 1 AM. It has been good to have them here. They approach this whole world with different eyes than I do and they helped me to see things I might not have otherwise seen. Certainly they both approach Beirut as businessmen, both of them very successful and competent businessmen, while remaining honest and fair. But Steve is especially astute at politics, national and international, and with his background in journalism and political science it was like having a running commentary by a professional pandit. I was amazed at his ability to remember names and dates, and to tie things together. Ace brings his own perspective as a Shi'a Muslim of Lebanese origin. The two of them didn't always agree on the conclusions, but each always had a valid perspective.

We had quite a few good discussions, espeically with Dr Nayla again the other night, about the place of religion in all this. It is rightly suggested often by many people that if religion, especially fundamentalism, is the cause of so much discord, why not just do away with it? My answer is that religion is not the cause, but is used as a weapon. That's just the very surface of the dialogue we've had going on about this, enough to say that is why we (whoever "we" are) are trying to separate the fish from the bones in religious discourse, get to the essentials, the universals, the "ground we share," the transformative practices, while we try to understand each other. In my interactions with Nayla, for instance, I find absolutely no room for discord, even if we disagree about some fundamental things (though I am not sure we do) as a Muslim and a Christian. The ground we share is a lot bigger than the ground we don't. Why is that? What is that? It's at least the existential truth that religion, or at least the spiritual life, is not, or at least need not be, a source of discord but instead is and can be the "ground we share."

While Ace was off with his relatives in the south on Sunday Steve and I called up Deeb and Nadia, my monk friend Ildebrando's family, in East Beirut and invited ourselves over for Sunday lunch again. Mr Deeb came and fetched us from the hotel and gave us another guided tour across Beirut on the way to their house. Their three girls were all home (as is always the case, so Deeb told us) for Sunday lunch, and they made the gathering even more fun. All three are bright, articulate and friendly, and beautiful. The oldest is already working as a banker, the middle one is the associate producer for an afternoon TV show, the youngerst is just starting university studies. All spoke English quite well and we had a lively conversation throughout. Deeb beams with pride when he looks at them or speaks of them or even when he is not-too-convincingly complaining about them. He is intent on them having a good education. Their mother Nadia cooked up a wonderful lunch with many concessions to my vegetarian viral-wracked stomach, but Steve feasted on everything.

On the way home Deeb showed us a few more famous sites in the city. The most powerful one was the exact spot where former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in 2005, along with his aides. All told 22 people were killed that day. They say the bomb was so powerful it cut a 100 foot hole in the ground. It's simply amazing. Even more than the Israeli bombing in 2006, it is that event that seems to remain as the latest of bookmarks in a long series of horrific events in this land. And no one is still sure how, or why, or who. That is the business of the STL, the UN's Special Tribunal on Lebanon. Some thought it was Syria, but the current prime minister, in London the other day, publicly said that it was not them. (How is he sure?) Some say it might have been the Israelis; if the tribunal were to find that, there would be apocalyptic repercussions, but many say that if the STL were to find that they would hide it. Of course some think that it was Hezbollah, and it looks even worse for them now since their leader Nasrallah recently demanded that his followers not co-operate with the investigations of the STL, becaase doing so would be like co-operating with oppression and because, he said, everything was being reported back the Israelis.

Some say Hariri was killed because he was too close to Saudi money, money that was actually helping to rebuild Beirut. (It was helping rebuild Beirut and still is.) Everywhere we went we saw construction going on, large new malls and office buildings, and of course the wonder that is Solidaire, a high-end shopping district down by the water, with a mammoth new mosque, lots of fine dining, many restored old buildings from the French period--the time arguably of Beirut's modern glory days, when it was the Paris of the East. This was the part of Beirut and the thing about Mr Hariri that Ace and Steve were particularly interested in, how a man of business could do so well by doing such good.

I decided to spent the whole day with Steve and Ace yesterday, since it was there last day, no matter what they wanted to do. So we went to a distirct known as Basta, an antique district. The stores where we started were crowded dirty little places stuffed with room after room of stuff, some of it good, some of it just junk. It was strange to see ancient Oriental items next to Art Deco French furniture, Persian rugs and Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass LPs. As we moved on the stores got nicer and the prices as well. The two of them knew a lot about what was there, and it was fun to watch them bargain and search, though not much was bought. Then we walked down to Solidaire, for a little snack (Ace chose for us to stop at Starbucks, ignoring my protestations), to get a wider view of the place (we had been once before) and to make a stop at the Virgin Mega Store, into one of which neither Ace nor I had ever been. In Amin Maalouf's book "On Identity" he points to Toynbee's thesis about history in three phases, that has been very much on my mind these days: first the slow accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, when many cultures grew at pace; then a large increase of knowledge but slow dissemination when some cultures advanced ahead of others so greater differences emerged; now the massive increase in knowledge but an ever faster dissemination which homogenizes cultures but doesn't necessarily make them smarter. Talk about homogenization! So there I was in Beirut looking at the same Top 10 CDs and movies that I would in Monterey, and having a snack at Starbucks.

We were going to go and see the mosque as well but on the way in we found something that we had had no idea was there. It was a large tent-like structure with armed guards that contained the grave of Rafiq Hariri and his bodyguards. It was perched right there on the edge of Solidaire near the entrance to the mosque, both of which were of course his dream come true.

I've got our modest business suite to myself this morning. I turned the living room into a little yoga room and did my asanas while watching the results of the American elections, about which many people here have been fascinated. I am feeling just about 100 pecent better now, so then I ate the equivalent of all three of our free breakfasts down at the buffet. In an hour or so my young Danish friend Petter, who we met on the way to Minyara, is coming at noon to show me a few more things in the city and have lunch. Then Fadi is picking me up at 2 to drive me off to the Convent of Saint Maron, patron of the Maronites and the Oasis Saint Charbel, named for the most famous hermit monk saint of that place, whose picture you see everywhere. I was thinking this morning, I have gotten a really good dose of the political, cultural and even religious landscape of this region, but I am not sure if I have caught anything of the spiritual genius of this region. The closest I got was the few moments in the mosque yesterday, seeing how many people, even young ones, and especially young men, were coming in and performing their salat, putting their hands to their ears, bending low at the waist or prostrating to the ground, kneeling on their calves with eyes closed silently facing Mecca, listening, attending. I am sorry that we never got to Mar Musa or any of the monastic areas of Syria but maybe this little sojourn to the lap of Saint Charbel and reading Kahil Gibran will cure that.

I have this sense that it is that monastic impulse, of Christianity or of religion in general in its simplicity, that is the only real response for me, and the best thing I have to offer. A life rooted in purity of heart, mind, body, emptying oneself completely, content with the grace of God. Nothing else seems to really be able to make us really well nor bring about real good. But that combined with the Sufi impulse--to live in the world and still pursue the highest mystical goals. (Robert Frager). Is this not also "To do well by doing good"? I keep remembering the line that Gitanjlai and I heard in Delhi that I typed immediately into my iPhone: "What I thought was hidden in mystery, I found in the marketplace." To be in the world but not of it, Jesus asked of his disciples.