Sunday, September 11, 2016

constant contact with beauty ever present.

Our stemma in one of the panels on the floor of a cell.

There is a form of laus perennis 
which does not require an army of monks,
which is open to each individual to realize:
it is secret prayer, attention to God 
and the things of God, the attitude of submission and love, 
a certain constant contact with Beauty ever present.  
                                                     Abbè Paul Delatte

 I am writing from a cell at the Sacro Eremo of Camaldoli now. I suppose I don’t even realize it ‘til I am gone from there––I have just not been myself in Rome! All the noise, all the dirty streets, even the crowd gathered at the Congress of Abbots feels raucous to me now, on top of the heat and humidity. Alessandro and I didn’t leave until after 7 last night, stopped for dinner somewhere outside of Orvieto and so didn’t arrive here until after 11. I excused myself from the mattutina (vigils) even though hearing the bells go off at 5:15 and woke to such deep darkness and perfect silence, perfectly content. After Lauds and a lively greeting from the brothers––especially a long talk with our young German monk Axel who recently spent four months studying yoga in India and met several folks along the way that I also know––I got back to my cell and thought to myself, “This is the first time I have felt al mio agio–at my ease not only this trip but maybe in months. All things being equal (and they seldom are) I feel like this place is the heart of our charism, and for all my support and encouragement of the triplex bonum–threefold good, this is what drew me to Camaldoli, the hermit cell, from the first days of my postulancy. Here, even at the common prayer, you get a sense of the simplicity, the quiet listening to the Word in common prayer which one takes back to the cell for ruminatio.

Friday morning we had a wonderful conference by Prior Alois of Taizè, what a treat! He also spoke about community becoming communion in three steps: communion with God, communion with others which then becomes communion as mission. He was the chosen successor of the famous Frere Roger of Taizè (who was murdered, if you recall) and spoke a lot about Roger’s vision, that the beauty and simplicity of the liturgy and the chapel and the chant were all designed to lead to a personal communion with God (a little different starting point from Ab. Bernard earlier last week). But he emphasized that this cannot happen without some kind of asceticism, just as celibacy cannot happen with out praise––“even poor praise,” he said––the stripping of our material goods, then of our will, and even of our spirituality. Blessed are the poor. (I remembered how Fr. Bede spoke about Jesus on the cross quoting Ps. 22: ‘My God, why have you abandoned me?’, as a moment even of his spiritual poverty.)

I liked hearing this too: “We can never tire of starting again!” As I age, finding the inspiration to pick myself up, dust myself off and start from what feels like zero, seems harder and harder. I suppose that’s why I am cherishing these few hours here at Camaldoli; I feel some of the initial fervor and remember who I am, who I have wanted to be, the heart of our charism. But then that communion with God must––must must must must!––resolve itself in the new commandment of Jesus, in mutual love, in whatever form that takes, and surely that takes different forms depending on the grouping of people. This is the point that we solitaries must always remember, the relationship of, and the trajectory, from autonomy to abandonment. I think that the drive toward generative autonomy (Bruno’s phrase) at some point becomes kind of remedial, as the ascetical life is about re-establishing right relationship (or establishing it for the first time), but then there is another step. Perhaps real knowledge of self doesn’t happen until we can actually let the “self” go, and part of the letting go is abandonment to the greater Good, abandoning self to the All and thereby discovering oneself as part of that All and coming to our own fullness.

Ab. Jeremy Driscoll gave the response, which was a perfect choice, because his own theme that struck me deeply three years ago at the Abbot’s and Priors Workshop in Alabama was similar to Prior Alois’: our very life is an evangelizing word, and so Prior Alois says our communion itself is our missionary activity, our living sign, our inclusivity. This was one of the founding principles of Frere Roger too, as Taizè was started right after World War II, with all the damage done physically, psychologically and spiritually to Europe, to be a sign of people of different faiths living together, praising together, praying together. Our monastic life––this was a phrase that really resonated with many of the men gathered––is a “parable: like a parable it doesn’t propose or enforce anything but opens up to inexhaustible meaning, fraternity as a sign, living out the search for unity and reconciliation. What an ideal!

In our discussion by language group afterward, I brought up my image of New Camaldoli as a village––with the prior as a cross between a bishop and a mayor, or janitor, or a Sherpa!––and the inspiration I’ve drawn from the ashram model, concentric circles of involvement. I doubt that anyone on our staff is reading this, but I was thinking of Rich and Alicia and Michael Richards and Brendon and all the folks who live with us for the long term or for a short time, our village. The question remains: what kind of city do people build as they are seeking God and after they have had some kind of experience of union with God? How does that change the way we live, the way we treat each other, our notions of justice and solidarity? Our welcoming of the stranger?

Abbot Primate Gregory Polan of Missouri.
Friday afternoon we had the praevium scrutinium for the new Abbot Primate, but first we had a process by which, as I understood it, we voted to see if we were ready to vote. And then we had the vote, which was actually what we would call a straw vote. There was adoration of the Blessed Sacrament ongoing throughout this time. We returned yesterday morning to find out that there were several candidates who made it onto the ballot. After all the discussions none of the candidates outside of Abbot Gregory had received very many votes in the praevanium; Gregory was ahead of everyone by about a hundred, though Abbot Bernard had more support than I thought he would as did Abbot Giuseppe Cassetta of Vallombrosia, with Abbot Richard of Yeo falling way behind with the other “also rans.” There was a long roll call of every man present––we each had to stand, raise our hand and call out, ‘Ad sum!’ or ‘Ad sum procurator’ if you held someone’s proxy. That was pretty impressive. At the first vote both of the above two mentioned had a pretty strong showing and Gregory fell one vote shy of a quorum. At the break I learned that many of the Italians had decided to use the first vote to make the point that it doesn’t always have to be an American or a German (!) and so had cast the lot in with Ab. Cassetta for the most part, which accounted for his strong showing, but they were not ready to support Gregory. When we counted the second ballots the number was off; unbeknownst to us two extra abbots had slipped in! So we had to do the whole roll call again. This time Gregory was well over two hundred, so the bells rang, we sang the Te Deum, he was acknowledged, greeted and “installed,” and he read his profession of faith and we had a grand pranzo.

I see why all that was important, but from this vantage point––at the Sacro Eremo––it all seems to be in its proper perspective. All that organization and shoring up the superstructure and higher education and raising funds is important, but it is all in the service of this, this moment of communion with God from which grows communion with one another and our living sign, our prophetic witness, our mission, our little village on the hill.

After a festive lunch, complete with a huge torta di frutta and lots of Asti, I was suddenly surprised to realize that we were having workshops in the same afternoon of the election. (My suspicion is that a lot of Italians didn’t show up. Several of them expressed their perplexity to me. It suddenly occurred to me that we were almost all visitors here. The Italians would never dream of scheduling something like that.) There will be two other days of workshops as well, next Tuesday and Wednesday. I want to take full advantage of those, especially to get a little bit of a global perspective on things.

My first workshop, the one I was mostly looking forward to, “A Benedictine Response to Global Warming,” was offered by Abbess Andrea Savage, a Glaswegian from the famous Stanbrook Abbey. I knew the nuns of Stanbrook had moved from the old monastery to a new one; what I didn’t know, and what was the subject of her workshop, is they had been intentional about building in a sustainable ecologically sensitive way, with wood chip boilers, solar heated water, reed bed sewage, rain water harvesting, sedum roofs, deciduous plants for shade, natural ventilation and even locally sourced stone. We were treated to a Powerpoint and each given a booklet of the new monastery. It is not the most beautiful place from the outside, but offers vast vistas from the interior, bringing Nature in.

Ab. Andrea told about how the windows in the old monastery were built so high from the floor that you couldn’t see out! It reminded me, and I shared the story with them, about our own tall fences around the cells at New Camaldoli and also of Br. Anthony’s cabin in the woods in which the huge plate glass windows were totally covered with Styrofoam panels and thick curtains––“I got God in here,” he told me, “Why do I need to see the ocean out there?” A whole different mindset. One abbot and I touched a bit on the idea of a new anthropology and a new cosmology that must underlie our inspiration for doing things differently, though when he and I spoke at the end privately, he wasn’t willing to go as far as I was with that topic. I spoke to openly about being evangelized by the pagans at Esalen instead of evangelizing them; he was suspicious of how much influence the Asian religions had had on them, with emphases that “aren’t Christian,” he said. Of course I was “loaded for bear,” having just the night before read this in Panikkar:

… the conception of God has always been intimately connected with the reigning worldview of a particular epoch. Cosmology was a part of theology as long as the cosmos was believed to be God’s creation or the Divine intrinsically related to the universe. In a parallel manner, anthropology was a theological chapter studying “the image and likeness of God,” while cosmology was another chapter studying the divine energia in the universe. (Rhythm, 186)

Alessandro would have liked to leave for Camaldoli a bit earlier, and I would have conceded to that except for the fact that I was scheduled to be a respondent at the next workshop, offered by Ab. Phillip of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma, a very traditional monastery of the Solesmes Congregation, on “Liturgy and Continual Prayer.” It was a topic I know well, and my response was partly drawn from the conferences I have been offering to the brothers at New Camaldoli recently on liturgical spirituality. As I understand it, for monastic spirituality the ideal is that it’s a seamless garment, the flow between public liturgy and private prayer or devotion. (I learned a new Italian word yesterday, by the way––cucitura, “seam”; Non c’è cucitura!) Our private praxis is formed by and flows back into the prayer of the Church. The thing that I was able to add, which Ab Phillip thought would take us too far off topic, was how things such a Centering Prayer and other contemporary contemplative movements play into this. I asserted that it could be specifically the role of the monastic tradition to both make sure that these movements stay rooted in the prayer of the Church and that the prayer of the Church stay open to our liturgical prayer resolving itself in meditation.

It was interesting to hear the other abbots speak of all this, especially since I was in the room with both the abbots of Kergonan in France and Prinknash in England in other words, the abbeys of Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths, who in some way got this whole thing started, at least my whole thing. I wondered how much they care about the legacy of those two who are so important to us, to me. I enjoyed that moment very much and savored it, since they both wanted to renew the contemplative life of the church by opening it to wisdom other than Western European, whereas Benedictine monasticism remains frightfully Western European to this day, even though there are many yellow, brown and black faces in our midst.

The bells are dancing. Off to Sunday Eucharist.