Friday, October 14, 2011

the holy fire of imagination

Only the art that comes from within,
out of the creative personality,
will be interesting, impressive, constructive.
(Edwin Fischer)

11 Oct, the Abbey, Sutton Courtenay

I'm lucky to have a few days of r&r to let me soul catch up with my body, as they say. I love this place. I was here for the first time last year. The name, the Abbey, I'm told, is a Victorian pretension, but the place does have the look and feel of an old monastery. It's a 13th-14th century manor house, once owned by the Astor family, a quadrangle with a Great Hall (which has a minstrel gallery), and a vast array of rooms in various states of renovation and decoration. The kitchen is like a warm underground hearth, the little meditation room is a sunny sitting room, my bedroom reminds me of a cell at old Camaldoli, complete with the sweet smell of centuries-old wood and a stone fireplace. There are four live-in people on staff now, Brad, my host and pretty much the public face of the Abbey, Hillary who just moved in six months ago and does a lot of the office work, and Dylan and Charlotte who do the wonderful cooking. (Today for lunch there was a potato and onion lemon pepper soup.) They try to live ecologically sensitively and eat organic (the household is vegetarian though none of them are). Christianity is only one of the streams flowing in and out this place, though it was started as a Christian experiment in the evolution of consciousness by a German Ghandian and a progressive Anglican bishop. There is qi-gong, yoga, literature and music, lots of music. Dylan and Charlotte are aficionados and big supporters of chamber music, and often sponsor performances here. The addition of that fine art element makes for a fascinating parade of personalities in and out of the door. Just for one example, when I arrived a German cellist and his wife, who is a poet, were here at the counter having a discussion about the poetry of Wallace Stevens; Gustavo, a Brazilian pianist was here as well, with his wife who is a Russian born philologist. They are touring Europe as Gustavo plays a series of concerts. At one point there were four languages going on at once, though everyone speaks near flawless English. (I asked Gustavo how many languages he speaks; he said, "Seven, and my wife speaks six.") Brad's lady friend Beata has just arrived from Germany as well. She is a psychologist and teacher, and we just had a wonderful conversation over dinner about Ken Wilber. Not to mention the folks that come to attend the events. It is really inspiring to be in an environment such as this, where the level of culture meets the spiritual search, where the transcendent is as recognized in a string quartet as much it is in the Upanishads.

I flew in from Chicago overnight Monday, and got in so early Tueday morning (5:45) that I thought it best (and kind of fun) to kill some time before calling up my hosts let alone arriving here. So I had a little sandwich and a cappuccino at the airport (I couldn't figure out if I was hungry for breakfast or dinner), and then took the train up to Paddington Station in London. I didn't need to kill time there; I spent most of my time trying to figure out which train to take, trying to buy a ticket, and trying to get the phone card I had just bought to work. I finally got through to Brad here at the Abbey by sending him a text message on my own phone, and hopped on a train out to Didcot Parkway, where he met me. I have had two small informal things to do for them here--last night music and tonight a new series that Brad has started called "Living the life..." in which he simply invites a guest in for conversation with a group of people, asks a range of questions about the how and why of their lives, and hopes for a topic of conversation to arise. I have found that I am an easy interviewee--just put a nickel in me and I never shut up, though it does have to be the right nickel. He started out asking me about monastic life, my particular living out of it, some questions about music and then the real spark question: what was the single most important event of your life? Oddly enough, the thing that stuck out the most for me was my decision to move in with the Franciscans in uptown Chicago my senior year in high school (that era very much on my mind since I have been through Chicago and seen several folks from that era these past weeks) because that was the time when I decided to "walk the other way," as the song goes, and I suppose I have continued to walk the other way ever since. It sort of set a theme. That set off a great conversation among the other participants about the moment of decision, the moment of discovering one's own voice, the moment of stepping out on one's own. I was quite impressed by their sharing, and Brad was a fine animator and facilitator. He'd make an excellent TV host.

The other thing that came up for me was how there has always been these two paths running parallel in me, music and spirituality, that are somehow inseparable. If I find myself too involved in music I start to miss the spiritual life. But the spiritual life for me without music, art, beauty is so dry. They don't always feel like the same path, but in this phase in my life they do more than ever, when practicing the guitar seems like a spiritual practice and working in the recording studio at times feels like an extension of my meditation. That's the ideal. Dylan and I are were talking about this the other day, how often art reveals the transcendent when religious language leaves off or becomes hackneyed and a hindrance rather than a vehicle. Afterward he gave me a copy of this wonderful speech that Edwin Fischer gave at the opening of a summer school for pianists in 1937. He had gathered them all in a "quiet house... far from the bustle of the big city," an "austere place which you can only reach after a good quarter of an hour's walk. Without artificial light, without cars and telephones [pre-cell phones obviously...] surrounded only by Nature" so that "thus in tune with trees and clouds and winds you may approach those musical works with receptive minds." I quoted one small sentence above, and here's another little section I loved:
Like an explorer you must, then, gently go down into the dark depths of your being where you were as a child, and there you must listen to the surge of your desires and your longings and become like a child again, like a tree or a flower, genuine and unsullied, giving yourself up to the fullness of life. And when you are quiet enough, in awe of the divine within you, with your ear pressed against the ground to listen to the secret tune which vibrates through the universe--then He will light in you that holy fire of imagination which draws strength from the very depths of your being.
If our art, if our everything were to come from that place...

Other than those two little things I have been enjoying the quiet and the days have passed very quickly. I have been working very hard on my sermon for Sunday. Before I offer a concert at the Anglican church in Cirencester on Monday, the priest there has asked that I do the Sunday sermon, maybe also in hopes of stirring up a little buzz for the concert. I don't know why exactly but I am a little nervous about preaching in an Anglican church, with no idea what the hearers will be like. I have some faces in my mind, but they are not based on any known reality. I do know that the priest, Janet WIlliams, recently published her doctoral dissertation through Oxford on a comparison of Dogen-zenji and the apophatic tradition of Christianity, and that may have set the bar a little artificially high. At any rate, the scriptures that are assigned for that day played right into my hand, something I have been reading about, fascinated with and eager to write about. I'll post it after I've delivered it (just in case they're peeking in Cirencester). I've also of course been practicing, putting together a nice set for the upcoming six concerts, and getting a good walk or run in every day. This village, Sutton Courtenay, is three miles from the town of Abingdon, which is best arrived at by traveling the "Thames path," which is exactly that, a mostly dirt footpath that runs along the River Thames, past a small lock, through some woods and fields and lands right in town. The weather has been beautiful, partly cloudy, warm days and chilly nights, and this house is very quiet, so it is a much appreciated break before the work ahead.