Friday, October 21, 2011

the depth and the breadth

I walk lightly so as not to crush my cheerfulness.
I walk heavily so as not to fly.
In both cases the ground protects me
from disappearing into adjectives
that cannot be used to describe it.
(Mahmoud Darwish, "From Now on You Are You")

19 oct, 2011 cardiff, wales

I traveled by train here to Cardiff from Swindon yesterday. Sunday night Janet, the priest who had invited me for the events in Cirencester, had Patrick and I along with another of her friends who is an Interfaith minister over for dinner at her place in a village not far from Cirencester. Driving through the ever narrower roads into the village where she lived and then down her lane, for all the world I thought I was in a Ken Follet novel about medieval England. We had a great dinner and visit, and a lively conversation. Janet was originally in business, but before that had done her post-graduate degree in theology (patristics) at Oxford. A stint working in Japan led to her seriously studying Zen under a teacher there, and when she returned to England and decided to pursue her doctorate, she wrote on "Denying Divinity," a comparison of the negative language (the via negativa) in Dogen-zenji and that of Maximus the Confessor and Pseudo-Dionysius. She then went on to ordination in the Anglican church as well as teaching comparative religion (among other theological and philosophical subjects) at the college level. She has a particular interest in inter-religious dialogue, obviously, and this was the main topic of our conversation.

At one point Janet asked me what I thought we were really trying to accomplish in our work. My answer was, "Friendship." She asked me if I thought we were preaching to the already-converted or if we were doing something more besides. That was a good question. I said that it seemed to me that there was both a depth and breadth involved: the more I get to know someone and another tradition, the deeper my knowledge goes; that in turn allows me, inadvertently perhaps, to disseminate some understanding about others and their tradition to folks who may not necessarily have any interaction with people of different traditions, my own relatives and friends, other religious, etc. I think the depth is more important than the breadth, but it cannot help but spread, like love itself.

The next day Patrick took me for a long drive down into Sussex county to visit a wondrous place called the Ammerdown Centre. It is mainly housed in the converted stables on the estate of Lord Hylton, whose family still live in the manor house. Ammerdown was started by a group of progressive Roman Catholics shortly after Vatican II as a Conference and Retreat Center "nestling in woods next to a Stately Home, surrounded by beautiful landscape gardens and parkland, with an exquisitely beautiful chapel in its midst." So says the handout advertising the place. It really is a wonderful space, the chapel, a converted granary, I believe, with symbols of other faiths displayed prominently as well as the reserved Eucharist in a corner tabernacle. It is "run as an open Christian community dedicated to hospitality, spirituality and growth." The courses are wide ranging, everything from arts to spirituality. A sampling of earlier this year: Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Understanding Islam, Chrisitan Arts, Artisitic Influences of World Faiths, Gregorian Chant, Jewish Spirituality, Desert Mothers, the Enneagram... We had a good long visit and lunch with Mrs Benedicte Scholfield, the French born current director. She was keen, and this was the purpose of Patrick bringing me there, on me coming to do something for them in the future.

The event went well at Cirencester Monday night. I am avoiding the word "concert" because for most of these events the organizers want a talk as much as they want music, and most of them have wanted me to add a period of meditation in as well. It works out well for me. I bring my notes with me but I generally never consult them anymore and I just sit there and sing songs and tell stories. I've got a bunch of new stuff to talk about now that has been gluing together with more current reading and practice, so it seems fresh to me. The only downside is that I don't get to sing as many songs as I'd like and I am itching just to do a concert without all the talking, but this is a luxury problem. The next day, I was up early with Patrick to go and sit za-zen with a couple of his students at a local house in the village. He is now an official dharma heir in the White Plum lineage and runs a group here called the Wild Goose Sangha, the wild goose being an ancient Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit. Patrick has been a very serious student of Zen ever since I've known him. Janet says that he is the only one she knows who combines these three elements: a former married Angican priest who became one of the rare married Roman Catholic priests, and then went on to be come a Zen teacher. The room where I always stay is filled with his books, many on Buddhism. He is also always a great resource for new reads in general and I wind up wanting to tuck two or three books into my backpack as I leave... but I resist.

Patrick got me to the train headed for Cardiff later that morning, and I was met there by my very enterprising host, Brigid Bowen. She is a journalist by profession, now involved in several different projects, and also a long time spiritual seeker, interested greatly in inter-religious issues. Though a Catholic from birth, she is a student also of Thich Nhat Hahn, having been to Plum VIllage in France several times. She has had several things lined up for me this week. Tuesday night I was at St Michael's College, which is basically a training school for Anglican priests. mostly for the Church in Wales. I had a wonderful visit and tea with the acting director, a youngish man named Steven Baker. He had been to Shantivanam and was well read in many of the current thinkers on comparative religion The evening event was super. We were in an upper room in the library, which could hold only about 50 people. By 7:25 there was still only one person there, a kind elderly retired Roman priest with whom I had a wonderful conversation. He was 87 years old, and had seen a lot of life, including having been a conscientious objector during World War II. (That was mighty brave in its own way back then, maybe even moreso here in Britain where the bombs were actually falling.) I thought that I might be spending the evening with just him when suddenly the place filled up, every seat. I suppose it might have had something to do with a semi-academic setting, though not everyone was from the seminary. Several folks whom I met afterward had read or heard about it elsewhere, a Yogi, a few musicians, etc. It was the best evening I have had thus far; the crowd was so attentive, and that was certainly encouraging for me, especially knowing that there were several folks in the audience who were well read and sympathetic already. I found myself talking about Gregory of Nyssa during the introduction to "The Great Mother" from the Tao te Ching, and all about fana and baqa and the belief in the abiding self in the prophetic traditions during the introduction to Kabir's "Drink Sent Down."