Thursday, October 6, 2016

widening circles (updated)

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years 
and I still don’t know:
Am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?
        (Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Book of a Monastic Life”)

5 October, 2016

We had a marvelous gathering last night, when I received our friend Aaron Maniam as a Camaldolese oblate. I have known Aaron for about a decade now. We met through interfaith gatherings here in Singapore, and he consequently has come to visit me both at my hermitage in Santa Cruz and now several times at New Camaldoli on his semi-regular trips to California, bringing with him a new friend or two each time. He was quite taken with the Hermitage and decided to solidify that by becoming an oblate. Since I was going to be coming through this part of the world, we scheduled it for now; it just happened to be on the feast of Saint Francis. I had wanted to have some kind of gathering where I could greet several of the folks that I know here in Singapore anyway, and since they all know Aaron too, it became the double occasion.

We held the event at a place called the Harmony Centre, which also houses the al-Nahdhah Mosque. It is a Muslim center for interreligious study and dialogue, which I had visited back in 2006, my first year in Singapore. Aaron had booked the small auditorium and had brought in (vegan) pizza and soft drinks. Just when everyone got there, the muezzin chanted the call the prayer so Aaron went off for the salat while we nibbled and visited. What a great gathering of people it was, about 25 I think, most of whom I had at least met before, several of Aaron’s colleagues from work (he works for the government of Singapore) or from interfaith gatherings. My friends Joyce and her brother Richard (the photographer who did the photo for the original version of “My Soul’s Companion”) who I’ve gotten together with each time I’ve come through were there, as well as my philosopher friend Edward Dass from Kuala Lumpur, plus Leonard of course, along with our other Singaporean oblate Mark Hansen, who also serves on the Hermitage’s Financial Advisory Board.

When Aaron returned from prayer, we began in typical fashion with introductions around the circle. It was a pretty sharp group of mostly young folks, many of whom came just to witness Aaron’s commitment to this new branch of his spiritual life and wanted to lend support. Just to give you some idea: there was one young man named Yirin who I had visited with before, a Chinese Christian who majored in Islamic studies, has spent considerable time in Iran and just finished his Master’s Degree at the London School of Business. We were also joined by an engaging young Malay man named Asraf who works there at the Harmony Centre, who just finished his double degree in Arabic and Islamic Theology at the American University in Cairo (who had never met Aaron or any of us, but Aaron morphed him right into the gathering with his winning ways). Also there was Fr. Bruno, a French missionary priest who does lots of interfaith work and leads meditation groups here in Singapore, but whom I had first met in Shantivanam in 2006, where he was studying Tamil so that he could serve the Indian community here.

Then we had a 20-minute meditation which ended with Aaron reciting one of his poems (see below) he had written in Petra, Jordan,  which I accompanied with guitar and interspersed singing verses from Kabir’s “The Drink Sent Down.”

Here, I learn that even stone
Has its language…
Standing here, where
Rarefied mountain air slices bone
And evaporates the need for words
Except the toughest, most spare.

I discover how quiet eloquence can be
Hearing stone tease and immortalise
Civilisation’s first, girlish blush…
Hewn pink, red, brown compel humility
As I pass treasury and tomb and
Know my own silence, watchfully preserved
Is born of something more than fatigue
Or breathless strain.

Standing here, I brush shards of knowing
That space is sometimes just the lack
Of sound; and why these spaces,
This stony syntax, is what God chose
For chronicle, canon and commandment.
Why, to places like this, we bring
Our most quiet prayers and wordless pleas.

As if in otherworldly silence
There is some whisper of what we seek
When, freed of the world’s static
God’s word grows loud
And the silences–His, mine–speak.
(from Morning at Memory’s Border, 2005)

I then gave a brief introduction about what oblation means, but also addressing unique event of a Muslim making his oblation with a Christian monastic tradition. I thought that is was somewhat telling of Aaron and my work that it hadn’t struck either of us as a big deal, and we were both interested to find out how many eyebrows it raised. I first mentioned the idea of the Perennial Philosophy, how there is a deposit of wisdom that the great traditions share. But then I spoke a little about the universal principles of monastic life, too, and read the first paragraph in the introduction to the Rule for Camaldolese Oblates, which is adapted from our own Constitutions:

Long before the coming of Christ, humanity’s quest for the Absolute gave rise in various religious traditions to expressions of monastic life. The many different forms of monastic and ascetical life throughout the centuries bear witness to the divine destiny of the human person and to the presence of the Spirit in the hearts of all who seek to know what is true and ultimately real. There is a “monastic” dimension to every life…

This is not to mention the fact that Aaron has Christians in his family as well, and knows particularly the Christian contemplative tradition very well. And then we had the reception of his oblation, with Mark standing in for all the other oblates around the globe. And, since it was the feast of St. Francis, we ended, of course, by telling the story of Francis and the Sultan and singing Bismillah (with me leading, with due apologies to Gitanjali). We all shared a sign of peace in the end, and then ate cake (for Fr. Bruno’s birthday) and stood around talking for a good long time yet. Richard took some photos that hopefully he will send to me ere long. In the meantime here are a few. I happy to think that I too, like Rilke, have been able to “live my life in widening circles / that reach out across the world.”

Leaving for Penang today.