Monday, October 10, 2011

a mountain of ideology

Integrity is like a sword.
You shouldn't wave it around unless you're going to use it.
(Ken Follet)
8 oct, monastery of our lady of grace, beech grove, indiana

I had an uneventful trip out to the Midwest, met at O'Hare by Rory Conney who whisked me away to suburban Lake Zurich where he and Terri and Desi live. It was a quick visit (I only got to see Terri quickly at breakfast in the morning) but well worth it. Whodathunk 30 years ago that Rory and I would spend a morning jogging together? Besides being an extraordinarily talented songwriter and, especially, lyricist, he is also one of the most well-read and articulate people I know. Those two things go together obviously; there is a wealth of study, philosophy, theology and wisdom that forms the foundation of those lyrics. So I always I am inspired by our visits. He's also got a great love for pop music too so we exchanged some goodies. Hew left me with two songs by Steven Earle, one called "John Walker Blues," about the young American jihadist and another that I really want to work into the repertoire asap simply called "Jerusalem." We met another long time musician friend, Gary Daigle, for lunch and then Rory put me on the Metra train for Chicago. An hour or so hanging out at Union Station (such a cool place) and then boarded the Greyhound Bus for Indianapolis. Two nuns from Our Lady of Grace Monastery met me when I arrived, quite concerned for me that I had traveled so long to get there, eager to feed me and get me settled when we got to the monastery which was only 20 minutes or so from the bus depot. The others had already had a preliminary business meeting Friday evening and a social so I had to play catch up pretty quickly the next morning.

We are 13 at this meeting, seven men and six women, three of the men and one woman are Trappists in their distinctive black on white habits. The rest are regular observance Benedictines with the exception of one Camaldolese. I had written ahead to one of the women asking about the protocol concerning habits and was told that it would be very informal. At Morning Prayer I discovered that I was the only man not in full habit, though all of the women were in "lay clothes" except Sr Robert, the Trappistine from Wrentham. I had my standard issue Indian jhippa that I got off the back of Fr Amasamy, SJ, which again provoked lots of conversation. (I love telling that story.) Abbot James of St Anselm, Washington DC, said he even envied having something practical like that to travel in. Never mind these lofty issues--incarnation, re-incarnation; let's get to the practical things: what to wear! Monks... I kid, but, really, like Rory's lyrics, there is a mountain of ideology beneath the choice of one's clothes. Just ask many Benedictine women who still bristle at those old habits as a sign of domination and the stifling of humanity (if I may speak for them). And why would one wear or not wear an outer sign of one's religious status? These are actually not little questions.

The first part of the meetings on Saturday were all business: approval of minutes of the last meeting, election of new advisers and directors, review of the fiscal year, and then a long discussion about the future of the MID website. Here again, this was not just a discussion about the website; this was a discussion about the North American branch of MID's relationship with the international DIM/MID, and about the future vision for the organization. I sat out most of the early discussions, asking pertinent questions, still trying to figure out the whole structure and purpose of the organization. (I, for example, didn't even know how long my term was going to be.) If I understand correctly now: there is the Vatican Secretariat for Dialogue with non-Christians, and under that comes the DIM/MID, headed up by William Skudlarek, OSB, now working out of San Anselmo, the Benedictine University in Rome. And then there are the local conferences, We are officially the North American Commission for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. We are made up of a board (no more than 20), with an executive director (a paid position) and a president, treasurer, secretary; plus there are advisers, most of whom are non-Christians. Currently Br Gregory Perron is serving as president. He is a monk of St Procopius Abbey in Lisle, IL, where he serves as sub-prior, and is already an acquaintance of mine. He attended the retreat that Bro David Steidl Rast and I did for Boulder Integral Life. He is a big student of Ken Wilber's writings and as a matter of fact accompanied David and I to meet with Ken.

I started popping into the discussion more when we got the future of the website. Not that I am any great techie, but because here we were discussing something about the energy and vision of the board for the future. During that discussion I discovered that the Americans have been seen as something like mavericks in the greater organization and (if you read the last blog this will make sense) partially because of the involvement of lay people on the board, such as our old friend Wayne Teasdale. I brought up the discussion about the "new monastics/emerging communities" right away, as an example of the dynamic use of a Website (Julian's) that is getting lots of traffic. This issue came up again later as well when we were discussing the next gathering of Monks in the West (MITW), a Buddhist/Christian encounter that will be held for the second time up at the Land of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, CA, hosted by Heng Sure. Of the various possible themes that surfaced, three seemed to go together: the monastic ideal, formation of lay people, and meditation. So we ended picking as a theme for the next MITW the "Universal Call to Contemplation" (I swear, that title did not come from me!) to focus in on two things: how contemplative practice has become so important outside of monastic circles; and the exchange between the emerging communities and older institutions. Several folks at the meeting had had good encounters with this same movement, and we agreed that it wasn't just what monasticism had to offer them, but what they also had to offer us in terms of creativity and commitment.

The other thing that came up several times in various discussions was the relation with Islam. Sr Helene of Atchison KS spoke about being involved in a Christian-Muslim event that had included some prayer but was mostly scholarly discussions, and wondered out loud what her/our place was at something like that, especially since Islam, like Judaism, has no monastic tradition per se. I was reflecting on our wonderful encounters with our friends in Santa Cruz, especially the Tent of Abraham (which to our disappointment is not going to happen this year), but also remembering attending a conference at Santa Clara in the Spring and wondering the same thing. I was even a little annoyed at the scholarly conference, feeling as if I was getting too far adrift of my own vocation, whereas I would go a long way out of my way to pray, converse and eat (or do yoga!) with our friends from Pacifica Institute. The topic of relations with Islam and what our role should/could be came up several other times, most pointedly on Sunday afternoon when we watched the film "Of Gods and Men" together. That of course is the story of the seven Trappists of Tibhirine in Algeria who were killed in Algeria in 1996. Seeing that movie for the second time I was no less moved by it, especially to view it with Trappists several of whom knew one or the other of the monks killed and had other knowledge about the events surrounding their deaths. The film is so well done, and really does show Christianity, Catholicism, religious life, and monasticism at its absolute best. I remember thinking it was like a conversion experience for me the first time I saw it, it filled me such hope. I was even more moved by the scenes of Frere Christian, the prior, quoting the Qur'an both in writing and in speech, and even writing in Arabic in his letters. That's why we study--so as to speak another's language (Literally and metaphorically), to understand another's tradition, to find the good in it, to honor the other. I was reminded of so many things: discussing the Bhagavad Gita with the young guys from the Krishna Consciousness Center in Laguna Beach, talking about the Tao te Ching late one night in New Camaldoli's library with a visitor, discussing the practice of the tasbih with Mohammad, the owner of that delicious Moroccan restaurant in Copenhagen, how people just light up when they find out that you have spent some time to learn something about their tradition. Especially in this day and age so many irresponsible, ignorant and downright stupid things get said in public by politicians and preachers about other traditions, which is not just unfortunate, it's downright dangerous. It's how wars get started and keep going. Of course the other thing I was thinking about this time as the first time I saw the film was the Five Holy Brothers and Saint Bruno Boniface, the first generation Camaldolese monks who were martyred in Poland and Hungary. Especially the former came to mind as we discussed what we call the "dialogue of presence." The brothers went to Poland not to preach, but just to be there as contemplative monks among some of the most savage tribes, just as the Trappists in Algeria did not proselytize, but were woven into the life of the Muslim community around them. I thought of Charles de Foucauld as well, and of shopping at Corralitos market and running along Browns Valley Road.

It was all the more enjoyable then last night when some of the folks asked me to share some music with them at our last gathering, a social, and I sang "Bismillah," "The Drink Sent Down" and "The Ground We Share." I also sang "Compassionate and Wise" for them, and was about to launch into the whole story of how Heng Sure had written that piece after the terrorist attacks in 2001 for... when I realized that he had written it here for this very gathering ten years ago! Some of them remembered.

It's Monday morning now, I got a grand send off this morning at 5 AM. Bro Gregory, Sr Kathy and Sr Helene (president, secretary, executive director) all got up to usher me to the train station this morning. I'm on the Amtrak Cardinal now, since 6 AM ET, heading north to Chicago to begin the trek across the sea. Wishing you peace.