Tuesday, October 11, 2016

intentional effort

The world is threefold:
the parvus who is the human being,
the maximus who is God,
and the magnus who is the universe.

The parvus is the likeness of the magnus,
and the magnus is the likeness of the maximus.
In all the parts shines the whole,
then a part is part of the whole.
                                                (Nicholas of Cuxa)

8 October, 2016, Penang, Malaysia

When Dr. Pat Por of the World Community for Christian Meditation found out (how did she find out?!) that I was going to be on the road for a little while this year she wrote and asked if I could do a retreat for them here in Malaysia, where I have been several times, always working for her and the WCCM. I was only happy to comply since this would give me the opportunity to see my old friends here and in Singapore again. I had been through these parts so many times between 2006 and 20013 that something in my whole life rhythm felt like it was missing.

I managed to have three relaxing days in Singapore, as a guest of the friars there who afforded me a big comfortable room in the friary and lots of independence. I got adventurous enough to take the Metro on my last full day and after the gym had a happy jaunt into downtown, to the shopping district, only because I knew there was a book store there and I was in need of a new novel for the long flight home. Of all the four million plus people on that crowded little island, walking through Raffles City shopping mall I ran smack dab into Mark Hansen, who at first didn’t seem to know who I was (incognito in hat and glasses). The next day then he had the same flight with me here to Malaysia since he too was to attend this retreat, since he hadn’t been able to make the oblate retreat down in Australia.

We are staying a Stella Maris Retreat House on the island of Penang. Though being twice before on this island itself, I also had been in almost this exact location before, I think it was in 2007, staying with the Capuchin Franciscans friars who have a house across the street. I also remember visiting some priests here who were on retreat, and slipping through their back gate to jog on the small beach. It is right on the shore of the Straits of Malacca, maybe 30 feet from the water. I was given a room on the sea-side so I can hear the sound of waves crashing all day and all night long. It is not too hot and there has been a breeze most of the time, with occasional rain showers, so it is a lovely and even kind of exotic way to spend my final days of this excursion.

There is a big crowd here––68––and the retreat in a day longer than usual––Thursday evening through Sunday noon, so that gives me time to stretch out a little in terms of the material I can offer, which is good for this crowd. It is such a wide range of participants, from quite devotional church women to a few religious women and one priest and Mark himself, all of whom I know have a greater degree of vocabulary and experience in the area of spirituality that I am speaking on. My young friend Ian from Kuala Lampur also flew in for it, and we are having a wonderful time reconnecting. (He also came and spent two weeks with us at NCH on the Ora et Labora program.) Fr. Paul, OFM Cap, who is a consultant for the WCCM Malaysia, was insistent to Pat that this time there be more yoga! I usually add sessions in couched in the phrase “stretching and breathing,” but this time, no, straight out: he wants more yoga. For that it is also a mixed crowd so it has been calling on all my Mount Madonna Yoga Teacher training skills to give, as St. Benedict might say, enough the inspire the flexible but not too hard to scare away the not-so-adept. So we have an hour each morning at 6:45, to which I must go right now…

Sunday, 9 Oct 2016, Transit Hotel, Changi Airport, Singapore

I love to tell the story of how I wound up in this part of the world the first time. I had a layover in Singapore both to and from India in 2005 and, tired as I was, this airport seemed like paradise to a tired traveler. They had a transit hotel and a swimming pool and a gym, not to mention that it is a beautiful place, more like an indoor shopping mall than anything. And then I was we were taking off I looked out the window of the airplane and thought, “This place is beautiful!” I already knew one young man from here named Jonathan that I had met in Berkeley through Rev Heng Sure, who had told me that if I ever crossed through Singapore I should let him know and he would host me; I also recalled the Laurence Freeman had some connections here, and so I wrote to both of them, basically just wondering if there was somewhere I could crash for a day or two, get over my jetlag and/or recup from India next time. The next thing I knew I got an email from one Leonard Ong, asking me if I would do a concert here, and the rest is history. 12 years ago I didn’t even know where Singapore was, let along Malaysia, and now I think this is my tenth trip here, with friends up and down the coast.

But this is my dream come true. Since I was only flying in from Penang Sunday evening and my flight is in the morning, I decided this was my chance to actually avail myself of the transit hotel and all its amenities, instead of going all the way back into town and having someone cart me here through Singapore morning traffic. And I thought ahead that I would like one night all to myself as I prepare to re-enter. I checked online and found it very inexpensive and so, to the chagrin of my local friends, here I am, spending the last night of my mini-sabbatical/working vacation at the airport. It is the most efficient little hotel room you ever saw, with shared bathrooms (locking stalls) down the hall. There is indeed a little gym (for an extra cost of S$22), a spa, an outdoor sunflower garden complete with a smoking deck, a game room and a movie theatre. Just down the hall there is an amazing food court called Straits Food Village, with just about every kind of Asian food you can imagine, Malay, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Indian. I ate the most wonderful grilled fish at the Korean hotbox restaurant. I don’t think I’ll avail myself of much else except hopefully hit the gym before I hit the plane in the morning. Too much fun.

The view out my room at Stella Maris.
The retreat went very well. I was quite keen to make sure that everyone could grasp the material, which I am sure was a little dense for some of them, so that made me take lots of time with it and break it down, with lots of anecdotes and repetition. Usually I only officially schedule one Q&A session, but they had scheduled 5! I thought it was going to be too many (they were to write questions on a piece of paper and stick them to a bulletin board), but there were so many questions, and really good questions too. Some of them dealt with deep age-old theological issues like sin and evil, others, several, about meditation versus devotions and liturgy, others about inter-religious dialogue, and then clarifications about the material itself. I think that really helped to get the stuff across. And I think three-quarters of them came for the yoga in the morning. Plus we had three liturgies besides Eucharist each day each with a period of meditation. So it was a full three days.

Ian and I got out and jogged on the small beach afternoon (8 times up and down to make two miles we figured) and the next day took a walk in the surrounding area, and then we nabbed Mark and snuck out to the hawker stand last night. Penang is especially famous for its hawker food, basically a covered pavilion with various food stands inside, usually a combination of Chinese, Malay and Indian. I cannot remember the names of the dishes Ian chose for us, but one was grilled stingray (lots of cartilage, which I was told was edible, like fingernails, which I also don’t eat) and the other was cuttlefish re-processed in some type of acid (at his urging I had one bite but the texture and the thought of something being processed in acid took my appetite away). I was better with the fried noodles.

Mark and I were on the same flight back here to Singapore and he was sort of charged with making sure I got where I was supposed to go and he indeed accompanied me all the way here and made sure that I really could just check in tomorrow without going through immigration or TSA again––and I can! It’s the little things.

10 October, back home at New Camaldoli after a bumpy but otherwise uneventful 14 hours direct from Singapore.

I’m very grateful for this time away. Rome seems like a long time ago, as does New Zealand by this point. What stays with me is that I think that there is an important conversation that is going on and needs to be had. I kept coming back, this weekend especially, to the idea of how important it is that a shift in consciousness takes place. As the philosopher Jacob Needleman put it at the end of An Unknown World, in the human being the process of evolution does not proceed automatically in the way it is usually imagined by modern science. The next stage in the evolution of life on the Earth depends on our intentional effort. “Without this effort… this unique movement of inwardness and its outer manifestation in willed action, the growth of the tree of life on Earth may come to a stop.” Such is the power of our ability to interact with and adapt to our surrounding. And Needleman adds that “this is what the Planet Earth needs from us,” a consciousness awakened to this. This is why we are on Earth. I think a mature understanding of God and a depth anthropology are essential to this intentionality, as is a new cosmology. And an integral spiritual practice can be ought to be, the foundation and the cause of this evolution in consciousness, a transformative spiritual practice that realizes (makes us aware of and make real) our symphony as opposed to our autonomy with the created universe material and psychic as well as spiritual.

One last little bit from Panikkar (who has continued to blow my mind as my companion throughout this trip by way of his Rhythm of Being), and then I’ll let you go, and let this be our credo, monks and others striving for Blessed Simplicity, contemplatives all:

Contemplation stands not for a mere theoretical or intellectual life, disconnected from practical existence and social solidarity. Contemplation includes… “sacred secularity.” Contemplation of Being includes the act of merging with, or rather becoming Being––a Being that is itself Becoming, pure Act.