Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Your task is not to seek love
but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself
that you have built against it.

I had to preach twice these days and it wound up that both times were about something that I have been thinking about a lot…so I decided to write it all down here and share it with you.

The other day we heard the reading from the prophet Hosea chapter 6, which ends with a poignant phrase––I can hear at least three different musical versions of it in my head: It is love that I desire not sacrifice; the knowledge of God rather than holocausts. This is a theme that crept into later Hebrew thought. Hosea had said earlier: Your piety dissolves like a morning dew! and it’s already evidenced in Psalm 50 and 51, for instance (the latter of which we actually used for Mass that day): You are not pleased with sacrifices; / burnt offering from me you would refuse. / My sacrifice a contrite spirit; / a humble, contrite heart you will not spurn. And of course the famous invectives of the prophet Isaiah, my favorite being from chapter 58: You say, ‘Why do we fast and you do not see?’ … Is this not the fast I choose: loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your home. Karen Armstrong would say that this is the Hebrew tradition waking to the perennial philosophy, the awakening to a sense of individual moral responsibility. And in some way it’s the core of the message that Jesus has for his co-religionists right in line with the prophets, trying to make sure that the “main thing remains the main thing.”

That reading from Hosea was paired yesterday with the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18) both praying in the temple, the Pharisee, convinced of his own righteousness was “praying to himself (!)” boasting to God about his righteousness and tithes, and the tax collector was beating his breast, saying “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Of course Jesus says that he, the tax collector went home justified because those who humble themselves will be exalted. It was kind of surprising to me that the reading from Hosea wasn’t paired instead with the call of Levi/Matthew, the tax collector (maybe it is somewhere else in the church year), because it is in that story that Matthew has Jesus quoting Hosea, when others around (the ‘righteous’) criticize him for eating with sinners, and Jesus turns to his critics and says, Go and learn the meaning of these words: ‘It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice…’ Of course what’s equally interesting there is that Jesus does not quote scripture exactly, as often happens, and the modifications he makes are always significant. He says ‘mercy’ instead of ‘love.’ Of course, we could say that mercy is a special kind of love. And that’s what we’re after; that’s what caught my attention.

We often think of mercy in relation to forgiveness, or else in terms of some higher creature having pity on some lower creature, like acts of ‘charity.’ But mercy is wider than that, it’s more like compassion. Note how Islam understands this and puts those two together: Bismillah ir-rahman, ir-rahim! A look at the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist will show you what I mean. John is preaching a baptism for the forgiveness of sins; if Jesus has any ritual it’s his open table––he eats with sinners whether they have repented or not. This is one of the things that confuses his co-religionists: he makes no issue of purity or forgiveness or their repentance before he hangs out with people.

I’m getting some of these ideas from Pagola’s book again (“Jesus: An Historical Approximation”). He points out that in contrast to the holiness code––“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”––Jesus radically transforms our way of understanding and living the imitation of God. He says instead, and again, it is always instructive when Jesus adapts the words of scripture–– “Be merciful just as your heavenly Father is merciful.” (In another place he says ‘be perfect’ but somehow that is God’s perfection––mercy.) It is God’s mercy, God’s compassion that we are supposed to imitate. And the meaning of this compassion/mercy––I go back and forth, as Pagola says translators do with these words––is summed up in the Aramaic word that Jesus would have used: rahamim means literally ‘bowels,’ or better yet it’s what a woman feels toward the child she carries in her womb, nurturing, nourishing, caring for. This is, of course, quite close to the Hebrew word rahum (not to mention the Arabic as above), which again describes “a compassion that comes from the bowels and involves the whole person.” The Gospel writers instead use a very unique Greek word when they speak of Jesus having compassion: splanjnizomai, which again means a feeling that comes from out of the bowels. So when they say about Jesus that he had compassion on the crowd––like when he sees the crowd of 4,000, or when he cured the sick, or when they ‘are like sheep without a shepherd’––it means literally ‘his whole body shook’ or even ‘his guts quaked.’

What I am getting at is, perhaps we could translate Hosea to read, “I don’t want your sacrifices, your rituals, your liturgies: I want your bowels to shake.” If our rituals, our sacrifices, our liturgies, our yoga, or zazen, our tapas–asceticism don’t lead to that, then they are like a morning fog.

But, God says, “I want your bowels to shake toward me as well as toward others!” This mercy-compassion has two sides to it. On the one side tremble before the Divine presence in awe of the merciful womb from which you came that is love without an opposite. And then loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your home. We should quake before the mystery of Divine love, who quakes in compassion for us (“who humbled himself to share––and immerse himself––in our humanity”), and then in turn we should quiver with compassion when we encounter others in need of something to eat, who are hungry, naked, lonely––‘like sheep without a shepherd.’

And then today I had to preach again (it happened to be the 62nd birthday of Shantivanam; we had ‘Western’ birthday cake for breakfast!). The guys from the formation house came over too and it was quite a festive liturgy. But they kept the readings of the day, and I am glad they did. It was that marvelous reading from the prophet Isaiah chapter 49 that ends with the unforgettable phrase, Could a mother forget her baby, be without tenderness for the child in her womb? Well, even should she forget, I will never forget you. Sometimes I think it is amazing that we don’t refer to God as mother as much as father, because we have all those words again in that reading. Before that beautiful closing line about the mother and the womb, Isaiah has already used the word rehem four times, referring to God’s love, and that is translated literally as ‘womb love.’ And then the psalm that was chosen to accompany those readings was Psalm 144, which sings over and over again the Lord is gracious and merciful, now using the word hesed, scholars say is that love which is beyond a mother’s love, if there could be such a thing.

This seems to me to be the very heart of the Abrahamic tradition, the revelation that God is mercy-compassion, ir-rahman ir-rahim, every surah of the Qur’an reminds us. The very nature of who/what we call God is this––rahum–mercy/compassion. So it is almost anachronistic to ask God for mercy. God is mercy, all God does is mercy, love-without-an-opposite. Maybe we could say with Rumi that “our task is not to seek mercy but merely to seek and find all the barriers within ourself that we have built against it.”

Again, it is a marvel to me that we don’t speak of God more as mother. Jesus is constantly showing a God who he calls Father but who acts like a mother, and Jesus himself, while male, is always showing a whole different, much more maternal side of masculine love. I was thinking of when Matthew tells us about Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, and he says, How often I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings… As a matter of fact Raniero and I were remembering a beautiful retreat that our Fr Romuald (of blessed memory) on Jesus as mother, based on the writings of Julian of Norwich.

I told the guys too, thinking of the birthday of this place, Shantivanam, that I remembered my first visit to Camaldoli in Tuscany, the “mother house” (or “Mothership as some of our friends like to say) how after all my other monastic experiences––the traditionalism of San Miniato, the stoicism of Gethsemane, the relaxed austerity of Big Sur, the high church Cluniac sensibility of St Meinrad––the monastery at Camaldoli reminded me of my Sicilian grandmother with her arms out and a big kiss and a pot of tomato sauce on the oven. And I mentioned who the rotunda at New Camaldoli reminds so many people of a womb, and for me it is that too, New Camaldoli being the place that nurtured and gave birth to who I am today. On top of that I was reminded how Fr Bede loved this image of God as mother, and how he loved to stress union by communion and the mystery of love that was the center of the Christian mystical experience. And he for all his world fame and lofty theology remained a consummate guestmaster all of his life, welcoming visitors here and giving so much time to them as well. I hope Shantivanam and all our communities can ever strive to be this for a world so in need of this mercy.

Speaking of mother love, my days are winding up here now. Someone asked me what I was going to be doing at Shantivanam this time and I said, “Absolutely nothing,” because I was hoping to make this a retreat time after all the work and traveling of the past year (England, Israel, Italy and now southeast Asia). But I didn’t think it was be this much nothing, but I have been serious about giving my body a break to heal this hip injury. Amma Mary Louise has made life very comfortable and made sure that I was overfed (not what one would expect in India) with fruits and vegetables and eggs. I even get scolded for doing my own laundry and again if I walk too much or too fast. And she and I have had lots of opportunities for long conversations over breakfast in her kitchen and Eucharist together each afternoon (she herself is having trouble walking). So I have been well mothered myself. Now some work kicks back in. I have some errands to run in Trichy tomorrow, then JP and his group of 40 are coming Friday and Fr John Robert and I will lead them in a retreat until Sunday when I head out, taking the long way home re-tracing my steps––Chennai, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and God-willing California on Friday the 30th.

Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

lectio divina and dharma mama

Some perform sacrifice with material possessions;
some offer sacrifices in the shape of austerities;
others sacrifice through the practice of Yoga;
while some striving souls, observing austere vows,
perform sacrifice in the shape of wisdom
through the study of sacred texts.
(Bhagavad Gita 4:28)

Monday, 12 march, 2012

I’m getting out tomorrow. I’m happy to be going back to Shantivanam, but I’m a little sad to see this time end. It really has been a wonderful retreat, with just my holy books and computer, and lots of time alone. A guitar would have been nice.

I’ve also got a wonderful novel by Amitav Ghosh with me called “The Glass Palace” which I lucked on in the airport in Malaysia. It’s all about the Indians in relation to the Burmese and the Malays during the late colonial years, and it takes place in all three of those countries, in many places where I’ve been. Its climax happens during World War II when the Indians begin to question their allegiance to the British Army who still treats them like indentured servants, and questions the difference between colonialism and Fascism. Last year I read “The Mulberry Empire” which took place in Afghanistan in the period just prior to then, also about the end of the colonial period in that region. We may not realize how this crescent is all lined together––from Afghanistan through Pakistan, India and then on to Burma, Malaysia and Singapore, and on into Indonesia, not to mention Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam just above, and what an impact European colonial times had on the delicate ecosystem of the region. I couldn’t help but feel as if I were in the midst of it as I sat reading while hearing to the temple bell and the rush of traffic outside of my window and hear the news about the latest disaster in Afghanistan, the American soldier killing 16 civilians. I think a big part of the problem is and always will be that we have no idea what is going on in the psychic matrix of another culture’s soul.

After the visit to Pondicherry, I’ve been really inspired by Sri Aurobindo again, both personally and philosophically. I actually kept imagining him wrapped in his white dhoti, retired to his private chambers the last decades of his life, studying, writing (volumes) and practicing his Yoga, while the Mother attended to all the business of the Ashram, during my “retreat” here. I’ve got his “The Yoga and Its Objects” with me, along with my Gita and a cool travel sized copy of Prabhavananda’s translation of the Upanishads, besides a beautiful little copy of “Rumi’s Poems” that Claire gave me in Singapore before I left.

I’m also devouring Jose Pagola’s “Jesus: An Historical Approximation,” which I have been saving as my Christian spiritual reading for this trip since before we went to the Holy Land. It’s just wonderful. (In the name of full disclosure, though this book was a best seller in Spain and won acclaims from half of the Spanish episcopacy and one of the Vatican congregations, it is currently under by another Vatican congregation [the CDF] due to the other half of the Spanish episcopacy.) In it Pagola carefully sums up the best of the most current research into the historical Jesus and presents what he believes to be credible, possible and non-substantial. He for instance gives little credibility to the work or motivation of the Jesus Seminar People (though he cites them from time to time as if to say, “Even they say this…”); nor does he put much weight behind the apocryphal or Gnostic gospels or the novelistic approaches such as “Jesus’ lost years in India” (though again, he does often cite the Gospel of Thomas to back up the authenticity of certain sayings of Jesus). Anyone who ventures into this territory is asking for trouble. Those limitations of course make the left think he’s too conservative, and yet the right is questioning his dividing up the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith. He takes that right on in the introduction, quoting John Paul II and Pope Benedict, and it has never been an issue for me.

There are several reasons that I bring that up: because of a discussion MC and I had, some writing I’ve been doing regarding the perennial philosophy, an e-mail I got recently, and a follow up discussion I had just today with young Dr Prakash. MC carves a really balanced middle road it seems to me when he notes how often the historical critical method can, in my words, “take all the fun away.” He says the same trend in Buddhism can be bothersome as well, trying to pick out authentic sayings of the Buddha. What that has to do with the Perennial Philosophy: perhaps there was a moment in the dawning of the Axial Age, and in each of our developments when the sharp focus of rationality is just beginning to burst through the mythical mind, and the two live together nicely, and we don’t have to explain all the symbols and say what happened and what didn’t really happen. Perhaps this is also the mind that is still at work in us at ritual, in liturgy, for instance, when we’re not supposed to say too much out of the rational mind (in a homily or a sermon), just enough to let the rational mind catch up and shut up. MC says this is not an issue for the most part in India.

Then this e-mail the other day that someone sent me, a link to some talks by a fundamentalist preacher about “false religion.” I looked the guy up and read about him. If the rest of the stuff didn’t turn me off, his unequivocal support of the State of Israel as determined by divine revelation did. He did not support the ‘theology of replacement’ (neither do I, but for different reasons) and so the State of Israel is divinely sanctioned. With all due respect to my Jewish friends, for me that is going too far, and that’s false religion. You can’t use the Bible like that. At least that’s not how we understand it in my tradition. I support the State of Israel too, but not because God said that they must have this particular piece of land to the expense of everyone else on that land, and not so that it will bring about the Second Coming of Christ, but because it’s the right thing to do. And I also with my fellow Americans retain the right to criticize our friend Israel if they do not live up to international agreed upon standards of justice.

So with all that on my mind, Dr Prakash appeared at my door early this afternoon. I wasn’t quit sure if it was an official or a fraternal visit, as we say in the monastic world. If it started as the former––a few perfunctory questions, “How do you feel?”––it quickly became the latter. We talked a little about each other’s lives and his career plans. And then, “So, do you have any more doubts about the Bhagavad Gita?” was how he phrased it. I said that I respectfully disagreed about the assessment he had offered––that the Gita was the milk of the Upanishads––; that I thought it was just the opposite. He took that in stride. And then, some weeks ago someone had challenged me by referring to the most important verse in the Gita, and I did not know what that was, so I asked him. He said there was no most important verse, but that the first word and the last word of the Gita are its summary. Sure enough, I looked it up later: it begins with the dharma and ends with the word mama––“my dharma.” And then he asked me smiling, “So, you spend your life studying this books. What is your goal? What is your dharma?” I refrained from launching into my infamous discourse on telos and scopos (the end and the goal). And we had a good discussion about the various holy books.

After a while he also asked me to compare the Qur’an, the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. And that’s what leads me to the present discussion. I said that the Bible was not a book; it was a collection of books and that it was very difficult to understand because each section had its own way of being understood. I said that many observant Muslims believe that the Qur’an was dictated word for word by Allah directly to the Prophet (peace be upon him and his sons and daughters!), and there was no interpretation of levels of meaning to be discerned. This is why even the Sufis’ mystical interpretation is sometimes seen as suspicious if not outright heretical. Whereas it seems to me that few Hindus take the Bhagavad Gita literally as an historical record––that Arjuna and Krishna actually sat on a battlefield and discussed the entirety of the Gita––and so people can easily gather the milk from the coconuts. In other words, as MC pointed out, the Indian mind can sit in that beautiful place where rationality is still embedded in the mythical mind and not have to sort out what is what, just let it live together. He smiled and said, “That’s right!” and then left.

* * *

Wednesday, 15 march. I'm back at Shantivanam now, virtually being held under house arrest by the nuns at Ananda Ashram since the doctor said I am not supposed to do anything for anohter two weeks to fully effect the cure. This is a little hard because my hip and back feel great. So it is a continuation of a forced retreat, which is most welcome, and I'm delighted to be here looking over the River Cauvery again.

an ayurvedic retreat

(As you’ll read below I was indisposed for about a week and couldn’t get my writings from my computer to the internet so am putting a two-week backlog of blogs 14 March.)

So then, putting away falsehood,
let us all speak the truth to our neighbors,
for we are members for one another.
Ephesians 4:25

Saturday, 10 march, Kerala Ayurvedic Hospital, Trichy

No sooner had I gotten to Shantivanam than I left again. I’ve been having this ongoing issue with a torn ligament or something in my hip joint for some time now that flared up kind of bad before I left on this trip and has been bothering me the whole time. I kept hoping for a miracle cure and saw a couple of specialists along the way––a physiotherapist in Singapore, an orthopedic surgeon in Malaysia and an osteopath in Tiru. It was pretty clear that the only cure was gonna be some total down time. I was so sore by the time I got to Shantivanam that Fr. George and Sr. Mary Louise both suggested I go to the Ayurvedic Hospital here in Trichy to see Dr. Ajil. Again, I guess I was hoping to get a quick massage and be on my way, but he recommended 14 days in house treatment. I talked him down to one week, so he’s doubling up the treatments. I’m glad I did it.

This is an interesting little place. I was thinking “hospital” like CHOMP or Dominican by us in Santa Cruz. It’s more the equivalent of very inexpensive hotel room, very simple, not necessarily sanitary by our standards (though they do sweep and mop every day), and they provide no necessities at all except one sheet, not even soap. Now I know why Sr. ML packed me up a bag of towels, sheets, dinnerware, etc. I do have a private room (with a TV!). Tea is served twice a day, 7AM and 3:30 PM, there are three simple meals of good Ayurvedic healthy vegetarian cooking served in a tiffin kit, and you get lots of boiled, purified water––“The same water I myself drink,” said the doctor when I asked him. I’ve had three days’ of treatments so far, mostly consisting of getting slathered in hot oil, and then them pounding on my hips and thighs with tied up sacks of hot minerals for 40 minutes at a time. I had a mud paste of sorts added too now every afternoon. The main doctor, Ajil, is a sharp guy who has a great devotion to Shantivanam and Sr. Mary Louise, and three other young doctors look in on me three times a day. But the guys who do the actual treatments look to be in their late teens at the most. Outside of the doctors, none of them speak much English outside of “Good morning,” “thank you,” “Sir, treatment, sir!” and “Medicine!”

Actually at first I thought the room looked like a prison cell and I quickly converted it in my mind to a monastic cell and I’m trying to take this as a retreat time. I’ve got books and my computer, and I’m just here wrapped in my dhtoi all day. I haven’t left the room except for my treatments, which take place just down the hall, since Wednesday night.


Fourth day of treatment now. I never know what’s coming next. Last night a new added treatment was getting my waist and belly wrapped in a pad that looked and felt like the texture of the insulation around a water heater and yards of bandage. I was to lie down with that on for six hours. I didn’t think that would be too bad. I wrapped myself in my dhoti and lay down on my bed, which had a plastic mat on it. Soon I realized that the medicine was oozing through the whole thing, and soaking my dhoti and the mat, so it was real slithery. And then the electricity kept going out, which meant no fan. The window is shut due to mosquitos and of course my door was closed for privacy, so it got really uncomfortable and itchy in the heat of the night. I could barely wait until midnight to rip that thing off and wash off. But I must admit, it did something magical. My hip feels more open today than it has in a long time.

I inadvertently threw away the bandage with the used pad, which set up for an interesting encounter. My main doctor here on the floor is a young guy named Prakash, who speaks pretty good English but is very shy and hesitant. My main therapist is a rail thin young Keralese guy who is a bit of a coyote, named Jijo. He has warmed up more and more, started singing Indian film songs to me during the treatments, and imitating the way I say “thank you” and “nandri” (Tamil, for thank you). I was expecting my next treatment at 1 PM when suddenly at 11:30 Dr Prakash, Jijo and another tall thin guy came into my room. Prakash hesitantly asked me where the bandage was. That’s when I realized I had thrown it away, and the garbage man had already come and emptied my pail… I apologized and thought the discussion was over, but the three of them just stood there looking at me in that direct Indian way. Finally they started asking me questions through Prakash. I don’t think they get many Westerners at all in this hospital, and I think they are trying to figure out who the heck I am. I heard Prakash tell Jijo “Father” once the other day, and “Christian,” and they know I am a musician. Prakash said they wanted to hear me speak English. They made some jokes and Jijo sang again, and then they asked me to take their picture, and then they just left.

Then at the treatment session, while Jijo is singing and dancing, Prakash sets himself up near my head and says, “Sir, so you read the Bhagavad Gita?” He must have seen it in my room. And so we launched into a discussion about the lessons of the Gita, and the difference between it and the Upanishads. He knows the Gita well and says it is the “milk” of the Upanishads.” He also asked me what I thought about “the Hindus with all their idol worship.” That’s the way he said it, mind you. I still haven’t ascertained whether he is a Hindu or Christian; it’s one of my quirks that I don’t like to know so I usually don’t ask. I feel like that forces me to say what I really believe. Since he’s from Kerala, there’s a good chance he’s either. Of course I asked him back each time what he thought. He did say that we need a new spirituality for the new age––Kali Yuga––that focuses more on karma yoga, and I said that’s why I thought the marriage of East and West was so important, because at our best we in the West are brilliant at karma yoga, the yoga of action, but we needed more of the interiority of the East to balance us. At the end of the session the other guy came in the room too and presents himself in front of me wanting to know my name and what it means, and then asked if I had a family, was I married. I said, no, I was a monk. I looked to Prakash to translate and he said to them, “Brahmacharya.” “Oh, brahmacharya,” they both said and nodded. I told Prakash as I was going back to my room that we could talk some more later if he wanted.

the purpose of our yoga

(As you’ll read below I was indisposed for about a week and couldn’t get my writings from my computer to the internet so am putting a two-week backlog of blogs on 14 march.)

The first process of the yoga is to put yourself
with all your heart and all your strength into Gods hands.
The next process is to stand aside
and watch the working of the divine power in yourself.
(Sri Aurobindo)

9 march, 2012

Monday I headed out with JP to Pondicherry. He was to attend a Lutheran Pastors’ Conference there until Tuesday and had booked me to offer a musical presentation to the gathering as well. I’d met several of these guys before, both at Quo Vadis as well as at Gurukul Theological in Chennai and the seminary in Madurai where I have done other things for JP. They so reminded me of a gathering of priests, mostly guys (only a handful of women Lutheran pastors here in India), lots of boisterous joking and backslapping. After lunch with the group that first day, I was free. They offered me an AC room in a nearby hotel, quite near where we stayed at one of the Auroville guesthouses in 2007, and I accepted that offer, and I got to spend the day on my own here in the hometown of Sri Aurobindo once again.

JP’s noble driver Sam drove me out to Auroville itself in the afternoon. It was farther outside of town than I thought it would be. Actually we had caught a glimpse of it as we were driving in that morning; the recent cyclone through those parts had wiped out all the trees and so from a good distance we could see the golden discs attached to the dome of the Matri Mandir. (More about that later.) Auroville was a creation of the Mother, Mirra Alfissa, the French woman who moved to Pondicherry and dedicated her life to Aurobindo and carrying out his work for twenty some years after his death. He regarded her as the incarnation of the Divine feminine herself and trusted her completely with this after he withdrew into the retirement of the ashram the last thirty years of his life. Auroville was not begun until long after his death, started in the late ‘60s and opened in 1972. It is meant to be an international––or better yet, a non-national––community, a true village of the future, beyond nationality, beyond creed, (“Imagine…”), built around incarnating Aurobindo’s vision of what Yoga it would take to bring down the Supermental in to earthly life, and programs and principles based as if that were already to have happened. A utopian project–– thinking of it in the line of Buckminster Fuller’s thought from a few weeks back––the only requirement for belonging is that one would be committed to making the Divine manifest on earth in humanity. “The present community consists of more than 100 settlements spread over 20 square kilometers, and of around 1900 residents drawn from some 40 nations.” And its purpose: to realize human unity.

There is a quite a little ecosystem that has grown up around Auroville itself. We started passing by countless little shops, bakeries, health food stores, then more and more Westerners wearing their Asian pilgrim clothes, either on foot or, mostly, on scooters, tea shops and Internet spots. The “suburbs” seemed to go on for miles ‘til we finally got to the main visitors’ entrance. Sam led me in but let me go on by myself. At the visitors’ entrance there is a greeting hall with a display about the history of the place and its charter, lots of literature available and a video presentation.

Sam got me a ticket to go to the Matri Mandir viewing spot, and I headed out. It was a good kilometer or two walk to get there, built on a spot that the Mother had chosen either at random or by some kind of supernatural premonition. I don’t have the literature with me so I am trying to piece together all that I saw. The centerpiece is the dome of the Matri Mandir itself, (that literally translates as “Mother Temple”) as I mentioned earlier, all gold and covered with dozens of gold plated discs. (I believe I read that there are 42 of them.) Inside is a great meditation hall. Next to it, sort of semi-encircling, it is an outdoor amphitheatre, with terraced seating, where the community gathers a few times a year to celebrate. Around are also a series of twelve gardens, each set up around a certain flower that the Mother chose, named for the attribute that the flower represents.

I headed back and lounged a bit in the various shops that were set up. Auroville, like no other place I’ve seen in India has set up quite a boutique industry, aimed very much at Western tastes: lots of handmade paper, various flavors of incense and candles with flowers in the wax. There were also a few clothing stores with what looked like pretty high end merchandise, and of course the book store, where I spend a few rupees on things I might not be able to find at home. I was kind of underwhelmed by the whole place––of course I never did get any taste at all of what community life is actually like there––because, as much as I am fascinated with Aurobindo’s writings, I find the whole ambiance that it has spawned kind of sterile, almost cold––the architecture, the symbols (or lack of which), the calculated formulae that the Mother lays out as a plan for incarnating her Lord’s vision. As much I loved staying at the Aurbindo ashram in Delhi, I had the same impression there. Aurobindo himself has little time for image worship, and he and the Mother both wanted to surpass religion, though both were ardent believers in God. But they either set themselves up or allowed themselves to be set up, or set each other up as the Lord and the Divine Mother. I feel in my guts that they went too far with the whole thing and hubris ruins it.

Still it’s hard for me to fault this vision. In some way it’s what all of our lives are about: Sri Aurobindo points out that “the only way we can move toward unity is to realize that ‘there is a secret Spirit, a divine reality in which we are all one.’” This is the vision of the perennial philosophy and certainly the hope of Fr Bede. “Only when we live from our essential being, which is identical with this Reality [we could trip over that vocabulary a little, but let’s go on…] and not from our ego, will a real unity become possible.” This is what Sri Arubindo thought was the radical shift that had to take place, the next step in the evolution of humanity, the emergence of a new consciousness higher than that of our present consciousness. And it is only this that will ultimately result in the “integral transformation of humanity.”

Later that night, back in town, I treated myself to a nice meal at a French-Italian restaurant just down the street from my hotel––a real Greek salad and a pretty good facsimile of penne with a pesto sauce, just the kind of thing I crave after I’ve had stomach troubles––and a great night’s sleep in my hotel room.

The next morning I was on to sing for the pastors. I was feeling pretty confident about it––JP had asked me to do for them the Lenten program that I had prepared for Malaysia, all Christian stuff, with a lot of Lenten homiletic exhortations mixed in––but everything was just off. Before I went up there was first an elderly retired venerated Lutheran pastor who led the group in a couple of bhajans in a pleasant but shaky voice. And then a Catholic priest led the “morning devotion” by playing various very loud pre-recorded tracks for them over which he sometimes sang and during which he also preached and prayed. It was all in Tamil, so my best guess was that this was something he does for parish missions and retreats, etc. It went on a long time, maybe 45 minutes or so. Then, without a break from all that, JP introduced me to do pretty much the same thing for an hour, though a lot quieter. I wanted to blame it on the sound system––though JP said it was good––and the sound of traffic whirling all around us in the open air pavilion, the fact that probably for no one there was English their first, nor for many primary, language (and a few didn’t speak much at all), and (so I was told) the difficulty of the melodies that I was asking them to sing along with me (“They’re too classical,” one man yelled to me), in addition to having been a captive audience for more than an hour before I began… Within a half an hour, some were sleeping, some were talking a cell phones, the bishop was having a conversation with two guys in the back row, some left. I tried to stay focused on the two or three guys who were paying attention, but I was so relieved to be done, and I said to JP afterward, “I’m sorry, that was a disaster.” He said not a disaster, but it was a bad setting and said that he had wanted to tell me to throw in a few bhajans to get their attention. Anyway, they can’t all go well. But I did note the difference between Malaysia and Tamil Nadu. The same program went over very well indeed with lay people in Malaysia, but hardly worked at all with clergy in South India. There was also certainly a difference from a mixed crowd such as at Quo Vadis (or Auroville) and a purely Indian, even if all India Christian, one. I do chalk it up to the greater familiarity in the former with both English and Western music. South India is still much more enclosed. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, but a good shot across the bow of any would-be missionary.

Aurobindo stresses over and over again, per the Gita, the importance of being released from the fruit of your work and then being released from the work itself. “The first process of the yoga is to put yourself with all our heart and all our strength into God’s hands. The next process is to stand aside and watch the working of the divine power in yourself.” I was really trying to keep that in mind, but I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. Who knows? Maybe the divine power did something in spite of me!

Then we piled into the car for a long afternoon’s journey to Shantivanam. I was so relieved to finally see the place. We arrived just as the evening samdhya was starting. JP and I sat under the thatched roof of the tea circle and talked until we heard the happy sound of George and young George and Raniero come walking up for dinner.

compassionate love

(As you’ll read below I was indisposed for about a week and couldn’t get my writings from my computer to the internet so am putting a two-week backlog of blogs 14 March.)

Jesus defines God’s holiness as compassionate love,
not as separation from everything impure.
God is great and holy,
not because he is separated from impurity,
but because he is compassionate to all.
Compassion is God’s way of being.
(Jose Pagola)

7 march, Shantivanam

I had a really fine week at Tiruvanamalai. Michael Christian (MC) had as usual arranged a room for me in back with the permanent and semi-permanent ashramites, right next to his room as a matter of fact. I felt right at home there right away, and fell easily into the rhythm of the place.

There was a special series of Vedic chantings going on led by a highly trained group of mostly young Brahmin pandits. It’s a style of chanting called ganam, and it involves not only reciting the text but repeating each syllable (if I understood correctly) 13 times in various groupings. We were never sure which Veda they were chanting, but the meaning of the words was not the important element anyway. The way MC explained it to me, many of these pandits do not actually know the meaning of what they are chanting either, even though their Sanskrit is impeccable. What they are doing is releasing the power in the sounds. This is known as shabda. I’ll share with you from this article I wrote back in 2001 on this.
Shabda is never simply noise; Hindus believe that shabda-sound has power. Especially powerful are sounds created by human beings because they are intentionally focused releases of energy, whether in music or in speech, above all in mantras. It is believed, for example, that the spoken word when properly controlled can reconnect one with the source of creation, and lead to direct illumination. Hence the importance placed upon the chanting of the Vedas, which when sung properly are believed literally to release the wisdom they contain as real sacred energy that can create the spiritual states of mind and of life which the words describe, and influence the course of human destiny and even the order of the Universe.

So these pandits who wander the land chanting the sacred mantras and singing the Vedas are doing so not only for their own spiritual attainments, but for maintaining the equilibrium of the world as well. What was the most amazing thing is the fact that these guys can sing for hours from memory.

MC had rented a scooter from our friend Kumar, and so we went wheeling off like a couple of Deadheads following these guys from site to site where they were chanting, at the main temple and then at a series of smaller temples and shrines throughout the city. There was a small crowd besides us that I recognized from place to place as well.

I also availed myself of Mount Arunachala, and Skanda Ashram and Virupaksha Cave as much as possible the first days as well, and then when all that was over settled into my room and watched the peacocks strut by and caught up on some writing projects I’ve been wanting to get to.

By the weekend we were at the other extreme––hanging out with JP and the folks at Quo Vadis. This time it struck me even more than before, that’s why I say “the other extreme.” I think it is no offense to anyone to say that whereas Sri Ramana Ashram is most definitely a Brahmin community––and there was a time at least when lower caste people could not get into temples or other such places––Quo Vadis is the most open place in the world and run by folks who are mostly exponents of what I’ve heard called “Dalit Theology,” (India’s version of Liberation Theology) dalits being the untouchable caste. Many dalits converted to Christianity, many of the Protestant religious I’ve met are passionately committed to the social gospel, and many of them have no time for the Brahminization of Christianity through Sanskrit, yoga and meditation. As a matter of fact, one of the Lutheran pastors that I met later in the week told me proudly that an ecumenical group has just completed a liturgical translation that is “pure Tamil, no Sanskrit!” In the early days, so I was told, liturgical and scriptural translations were done by Brahmins, and so a lot of Sanskrit worked its way in instead of Tamil––the “sacred” as opposed to the vernacular language. I’ve run into that before, but it was good to be reminded of that when dealing with Indian Christians. There is a real sensitivity about this among some Indians when we Westerners come over with our limited understanding. Also, it’s interesting to compare this to what we’re dealing with in the Roman church in regards the new English translation; you might say we’re going through a bit of a re-Brahminization of our liturgy with our slavish translations of Latin texts among other things.

Anyway, I did a concert for Quo Vadis, this time right there at QV instead of out at the Arunai Ananda hotel where we did it the last three times. JP still drew a respectable crowd and, some problems with the sound at the beginning notwithstanding, it was a beautiful evening. The next morning I had Mass with some of the diaspora Catholics, and was supposed to lead a meditation back at QV that evening, but I got felled pretty good with a case of food poisoning that knocked me out ‘til Monday.

Some Carmelite sisters had been at the concert Saturday night and really want me to come and visit, so MC had set up for us to go there for tea on Sunday as well, but wound up going alone. I was even sorrier that I didn’t go after he returned. Not only had they laid out quite a spread––a real proper “tea”––MC got to find out a lot about their work, mostly with AIDS victims and sex workers in the local villages. He was astounded by the stories they told him about the staggering numbers, and profoundly moved, as was I in the recounting, by the work that these women do, unflinching tough work in the midst of the absolute worst conditions. It makes our arguments about birth control seem very paltry in context, and also makes me feel like I am doing almost nothing with my life compared to their kind of service for the People of God.