Sunday, October 23, 2011

evangelium paganorum

I am here.
Anything more than that
is rumor and slander.
(Mahmoud Darwish)
23 oct, holton lee, england

One conversation that Brigid and I had in the car proved prescient. The subject has actually come up a few times during my stay here, and that is paganism, of all things. If I get this right (and there is always a chance I don't) the British Isles are particularly amenable to the rise of a kind of neo-paganism, so I am told, specifically because of the renewed interest in Celtic spiritulaity, which had/has a well-developed sense of the "spirits" of nature.

Now I need to clarify terms again before I continue. As I understand it, the original term pagan means the country people, or the people of the land who worship or at least commune with gods and spirits. What it came to mean was unbelievers or heathen, and comes to have a lascivious, debauched air about it. It's that second meaning that I want to avoid. As far back as the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures, pagan means the first thing, not just "unbelievers" but people who worship idols or, as St Paul says, "the elemental spirits."

I also need to distiguish between two meanings of another word, and that is "spirit." As Fr Bede uses the term it means that realm of Absolute Reality as well as that place in us which is beyond all name and form. As Ken Wilber might say, it's the causal realm, that from which all else comes. But when we talk about "elemental spirits" and such, we actually mean entities which dwell in the realm of the psychic, the realm of soul not the spirit, simply because (and this is Fr Bede's language) anything still within the realm of phenomena is really a manifestation of soul, even though we call even ghosts "spirits." He would say the same about visions, locutions, all kinds of so-called "spiritual gifts" which are really psychic gifts or siddhis in the yoga tradition.

So monotheism in some way wants to go beyond all those entities straight to Spirit and spirit. The argument for the Oneness of God in Judaism and Islam is a conscious avoidance of all those entities in the realm of soul/psyche, or at least not worshipping them. I don't think that those "spirits" don't exist, because that whole psychic realm is very real. And there are good "spirits" there as well as dark ones, just as there are good powers and dark ones. All the "gods" are some kind of manifestation of these powers, forces. This is actually something that the great mystics agree with all the way from Shankara and the Buddha to St John of the Cross: don't get caught in the realm of the psyche. Go beyond it to the realm of your spirit and the Spirit. St John tells his readers to ignore visions and locutions and go beyond up Mount Carmel where there is nada nada nada; Patanjali tells his readers in the Yoga Sutras not to get hung up on the siddhis.

So to me that is the issue with paganism. It's simply not my way. First, as a monotheist I do not spend any time worshipping the Hindu gods either at Mount Madonna nor in India (though I understand very well that all the Hindu gods are really manifestations of Brahman) if for no other reason than I don't want to cloud up my soul/psyche with more images and archetypes (I've got enough already from my Christian tradition that I need to go beyond), and also because it is simply not our way. I also don't spend time communing with the "elemental spirits" for the same reason. On the other hand, I actually do acknowledge their existence. I was telling Brigid the story of our late Fr Romuald who along with Fr Bede's teaching gave me the clearest practical understanding of all this. He showed me that we need to respect that realm, but we don't have to be afraid of it if we are rooted in Spirit. And so on several occasions he had counselled people with psychic gifts. He didn't freak out about it, he simply showed them how to put that at the service of God. When he was living in New Hampshire at our short lived monastery there, he was sure that the house was huanted with ghosts. And he simply let them know what they could and couldn't do, and then said a series of Requiem Masses for them for the repose of their souls.

So, bottom line, if people refer to themselves as pagans (and I meet more and ore people who do, proudly!), if they are using that to refer to themselves as "lascivious heathens," I move on. If they are refering to themselves as someone who communes with the elemental spirits or worships other gods, then we have a whole different conversation. I would never refer to a Hindu as a pagan, mind you, or someone from the First Nation tribes anywhere. That might be a term used by an old school missionary type, but to me it always has a negative connotation.

So, I said something about "pagan music" at the event the other night, trying to say that music from the native peoples of Alaska, for instance, wasn't just pagan music as the missionaries claimed, that had to be discarded and replaced with Gregorian chant or some kind of horrible so-called Christian music (and there was a lot of HORRIBLE music that I heard there). Well, someone in the audience who said she loved everything else I said and sang, felt as if I had stabbed her in the heart by saying that, because she was sympathetic with a lot of pagan practices, as was her friend who was with her. We spoke to me at length about it afterward. And I tried to convey all of the above.

What is funny about it all is that the third good of our Camaldolese congregation of monks was originally called, as noted in the subject line, evagelium paganorum, the "evangelization of pagans." We never use that phrase anymore (and that would lead to a whole other discussion about what it means in this day and age to evangelize too...), but Brigid teased me that I was having plenty of opportunities to do so during my time in the UK this year. It's interesting to try to figure out what it meant in the 11th century in Europe.

After the late drive back to Cardiff, Brigid and I headed to London for the BBC interview. I was afraid we were going to have to drive, but Brigid decided that we should spend the money and take the train, which was just alright by me, an extra two hours to read and write and relax. We got to the BBC building in London about noon. The producer met us in the lobby and ushered us up to the recording booth on the fourth floor. It was kind of exciting to be there, and there was a buzz of energy and creativity and Very Important People (and very tight security). The producer set me up in the recording booth and briefed me on the questions that the host was going to ask, and then she retired with Brigid and the engineer into the control room, separated from us by glass. The host came in shortly after. His name was Hardeep Singh Kohli. If not by the surname Singh, one could tell by the turban that he was a Sikh. He actually regularly serves as guest host on this religious show, "Good Morning Sunday," but his main gig is as a comedian, mostly on various broadcast media. He's a unique combination himself, a Sikh from Scotland educated by Jesuits. He was very quick and intelligent, and also a very good interviewer, and I enjoyed talking with him immensely right away. He made me feel right at ease and we were well into a casual conversation before I realized that they were rolling tape and we were well into the interview.

Hardeep asked good questions that I think really got what I was up to, focused on the balancing out of monk and musician, and what kind of mission or message I had, etc. The only awkward moment came when he said to me, "So you spent all those years are a Christian monk and an ordained priest; why did you leave Christianity and become a Buddhist?" I carefully explained that I hadn't actually left Christianity nor become a Buddhist. At that point he glanced down at his notes and then shot a dark glare into the control room at the producer, and then picked up and carried on. (It wasn't her fault; he must not have read his briefing carefully.) Later I quoted him the Darwish poem above: "I am here./ Anything else is rumor and slander." Anyway, he had me sing two songs as well, and I don't think he was just blowing blue smoke when he said how much he liked the music. He gave me a big hug at the end of the interview, and we both agreed even after the tape machines stopped running that we had enjoyed our time together. It won't be broadcast until December, just before Christmas.

On the way down with Hardeep in the elevator I was just catching snippets on the BBC live feed of a breaking story about someone being captured and killed but I couldn't make out who it was. When we reached the lobby we saw it also playing on the TV screens there, and we realized it was the story of Mohammar Ghaddafi. It was chilling, but also poignant to get the news there first, at the BBC headquarters. And right away I was overwhelmed by a kind of sadness that we had to celebrate something like this. Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden... Obviously we are better off without these men running anything, but in spite of our relief, I still don't think we are allowed, nor is it good for us, to celebrate and gloat over their humiliation and death. It brings out the absolute worst in us. Every time we have had a dedication of merit in the days since I have prayed for the people of Libya, Ghaddafi's victim, his family and the repose of his tortured soul too.

I've just finished up a retreat way down south in Dorset near the town of Poole. After lunch I'm heading on the train up to London to stay with my friend Giovanni for the night and then off to Israel tomorrow evening.

May all bengs be well.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be at peace.