Tuesday, September 27, 2016

love is found everywhere...

Wednesday, September 28, 2016, near Milgrove, Australia

The universe is a vast field of lovers,
a gathering where gods and goddesses––
who are reflections of the supreme couple––
intertwine. Love is found everywhere.
                                                            John Dupuche

I did wind up singing part of the song during my homily Sunday morning. It was a very interesting parish, as Hans had advised me, very high church, and yet at the same time very socially progressive and active. They are right in the heart of downtown Melbourne, and have a soup kitchen as well as a very active ministry with the LGBTIQ community. I had to be careful about my references to “tramps on the street” because there seemed to be several homeless men coming in and out of Mass. Regarding “high church”: as we walked in some folks were removing the altar from the sanctuary and lighting the candles on the high altar instead, at which the priest-presider at our Mass faced ad oriens–“the same direction as the people”; most of the acclamations were sung polyphonically in Latin by a small choir; there was an MC, lots of incense and vesture, and it was all done very well, with almost military precision. I think this may be only my second experience of an Anglican High Mass, and I was taking all kinds of mental notes.

As I was getting ready to preach, I was trying to keep in mind my experience preaching at the Uniting Church in Perth seven years ago, and how there is a kind of British reserve about church folks here in Australia too; one simply doesn’t get the kind of feedback from an assembly that one would normally get in the States. But still, prepared as I might have been, it is a bit like flying blind. Afterwards people were very gracious and Hans told me that my homily was good. I actually overheard someone quoting me later, so I guess something of it stuck. After Mass and a small reception in the parish hall I was then the guest at a regular Sunday afternoon event, an hour presentation. That was most fun and again I felt in my prime––sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of a semi-circle of folks, singing songs and telling stories. I basically used the same program I had used the last two nights in NZ, so it is as easy as breathing now, and again I thought, “I love my life.”

Another of our oblates, Ruth Harrison, then drove me up here, up on “the peninsula,” as everyone calls it. I am staying at Pallotti College, the former novitiate for the Pallottine Congregation of priests and brothers, built in the 1960s when they were booming with vocations. Now that they, like so many other religious orders and congregations, are “aging out” it functions as a retreat center. But this has a connection with us Camaldolese (besides the fact that there is a priest who lives here as a hermit with a sign pointing to his place off the road that reads “Camaldoli”). Fr. Michael Mifsud, who is the director of our oblates here, met Bede Griffiths in the early 1990s, and came back from India requesting of his bishop that he be allowed to pursue an eremitical vocation. Soon other folks who were interested in the solitary life began to gather around him and they, along with our good friend Meath Conlan in Perth, who brought Fr. Bede to Australia in 1991, decided to become oblates of Shantivanam. More folks gathered ‘round Michael, and he founded a Camaldolese ashram here on this property, in a house called Montserrat. After Fr. Bede died in 1993 they decided to affiliate with New Camaldoli in Big Sur instead. Michael has been to stay with us several times now. The ashram experiment ended and he has moved to another hermitage in nearby Warburton, but the community of Camaldolese oblates has continued to grow. What is particularly interesting to me, and why I have a special love for this part of the world, is that it all started with Fr. Bede, and only then became Camaldolese; and our oblates here for the most part are folks who are interested in meditation and solitude, have more than a passing interest in interfaith dialogue, and hold their Camaldolese identity very dearly.

I might not have been paying attention when they were writing to me making plans for this trip, but suddenly my schedule seemed to fill up more than I realized, so I had written ahead and asked that I could have some down time, on my own. So they have kindly arranged for me to have three nights here, a full desert day Monday, and only a visit with the scholar Fr. John Dupuche yesterday and a brief visit to Michael’s hermitage. I was remembering the phrase that I heard attributed to Carl Jung: by then I really needed some time for my soul to catch up with my body.

The trip yesterday to visit Fr. John Dupuche was wonderful. We had met one time before at the Abhishiktnanda centenary at Shantivanam in 2009. He is a specialist in Kashmir Shaivism and works extensively in interreligious dialogue. When I first met him he was just beginning an experiment where a Tibetan monk and a yogi were living with him in his parish house. Now that he is retired from active ministry he has an interfaith ashram on 9 acres on the banks of the Yarra River, with room for six others. Currently a Buddhist practitioner and a former Jesuit who works in Islamic studies (currently teaching in Pakistan) live with him part time. He had two of his books awaiting me, Jesus: the Mantra of God and, the one particularly of interest to me, Towards a Christian Tantra: the Interplay of Christianity and Kashmir Shaivism. I was honored to find out that he, like may others down this way, had read my Spirit, Soul, Body, and apparently approved of it, too, and we launched into a good long discussion about our common areas of interest. I feel like a total dilettante in the area of Kashmir Shaivism compared to him, but he left me feeling as if I was on the right track. He was particularly struck by the mention I made in SSB that I thought that approach of kundalini Yoga, and even its “techniques, or something similar, are something I dream of being introduced into our seminaries and houses of formation.” We both agreed first of all that everything depends on some individuals really committing to prayer and the practice so as to be guides to others; but following on that wondered and dreamed if ever anything substantive and practical could grow from that in Catholic Christianity. I still don’t even dare to dream of myself enough of an adept to be a solid guide, but as I reflect on it this morning I am still frustrated that all of this so often remains at the level of theory and scholarship. Perhaps it can only be realized in charismatic relationships, guru to disciple, or companion to companion in a real bond of trust and commitment to long term relationship, and never really be institutionalized.

I read through most of the second chapter in John’s book last night and this morning, and am once again struck by the depth of this tradition, which so often gets known only by its sexual practices. It’s really all about consciousness. I went back to my own chapter on Tantra in the “Hidden Chapters” that were left out of SSB. As I understand it the fundamental intention––the scopos––of Tantra is to pass from the gross, phenomenal world to the subtle, absolute realm, but then to permeate the gross phenomenal realm with the value and meaning of the subtle absolute. If I may quote myself (from the “Hidden Chapters”):

Quiescence is realized and the universe reaches a state of absolute oneness when these two poles of activity and passivity, the Masculine and the Feminine, consciousness and matter, merge. Furthermore, the Tantric practitioner seeks the reunification of these two opposite principles––Shiva and Shakti, the masculine and the feminine, the passive and the active––in his or her own person, through experience, through sadhana. Note well that in Samkhya the union of purusha and prakriti had been an “unfortunate marriage,” whereas Tantra seeks the union of the two! Conceptually, they could merge for the Tantric practitioner simply by the repeated declaration of their fundamental oneness, but more importantly they merge when they are experienced, by the practitioner’s experiencing this merger through sadhana, through spiritual disciplines. They merge when the body––and with it all of creation––is experienced as an instrument of spiritual perfection.

Now I am off to another two free days at Hans’ home nearby on the peninsula, and then the retreat with our oblates on the weekend.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

across the tasman sea

25 September 2016, Melbourne, Australia

If Jesus should come and knock on your door
for a place to come in, or bread from your store,
would you welcome him in, or turn him away?
Then God would deny you on the great judgment day.

Just after I wrote that last entry I had a wonderful experience, a little thing that touched my heart pretty deeply. (As Br. Bede says, “It’s the little things…”) I was at the local gym, got in a good workout, and was about to leave. I asked the kind woman at the desk, who had been very welcoming as I got there, if there was any place where I could get a cup of tea. She thought for a moment, screwed up her face and said, “Well, the café is already closed…. Hmmm… Just sit down over there and I’ll make you a cuppa.” And she did, disappearing into a backroom and re-appearing a few minutes later with a good strong cuppa. I had many little instances of that during my days in NZ, not to mention that kind hospitality of my hosts Michael and Elizabeth.

My last two evenings enjoying Kiwi hospitality in New Zealand were spent doing two presentations, one at the parish in the town of Whangerei and another back down the coast in Auckland. Both were meant to be and advertised as interfaith events. The first one, in the smaller town of Whangerei, drew quite a mixed crowd. Afterwards I met some Baha’is and Vedantists and Buddhist practitioners. It was fun; as back in the day at the end of my time on the road I used to do events that were half-singing/half-speaking, so for these, since Michael had left the theme pretty open, I just picked five songs and did long introductions to them. The next night in the big city of Auckland (at least a fourth of the population of New Zealand lives there, over a million people), was mostly members of the World Community of Christian Meditation, who co-sponsored both events along with our Camaldolese oblates. I did the same program there but this time added on an extra half hour and left time at the end for a group meditation. It was a very sweet evening, and I found people enormously receptive and myself enormously satisfied.

In Auckland we were the guests of Fr. Peter Murphy who is very active with the WCCM and extremely well read in much the same area of interest as I myself have, so we had a good lively discussion about lo’ these many things. Peter had spent some years in California studying at the Center for Creation Spirituality, so that added a whole other layer to our discussion. Perhaps it is just the folks with whom I am hanging out, but I have noticed so much interest in and dedication to environmental concerns and sustainability in these parts, especially among Christians. It is inspiring and challenging. It is also so fascinating to find these common threads of dedication and enquiry at such a distant part of the globe and also heartening to realize that it is not just the tragedies in life that bind us together––global warming, the refugee crisis, warring states, Donald Trump––but we are also part of a tapestry woven together of common interest and common aspiration, common hope and energy.

Early the next morning I headed across the Tasman Sea on a four hour flight here to Melbourne. I was accompanied by our oblate Phillip Saunders, who was heading over here for family matters. It was nice to have the company, and then to be greeted by our obate here, Hans Christensen. Hans is an Anglican priest, a Camaldolese oblate and the chaplain of a large prestigious boys school here in Melbourne. We had met when I was here in 2009 for the retreat in Tasmania and had remained in contact occasionally since then. Hans is another one with whom I have so many interests in common and we began tripping over each other’s sentences almost right away. He and his wife Ruth (and their dog Nelson) took me on a good long walking tour of Melbourne that afternoon. What a beautiful city! The architecture and the large art installations all over the place are especially impressive, but the city is also very clean, diverse and seemingly loaded with culture of all kinds.

Yesterday (Saturday) I led a day retreat for members of the World Community from several places here in the state Victoria, two long sessions, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. Again, it was fun to revisit old material with a new audience: the morning was on the Universal Call to Contemplation and the afternoon was on Spirit, Soul and Body. What was most interesting was to see what new material actually came up in me after a three-year hiatus from broaching these topics.

Today I am preaching at a nearby Anglican church, which I’m alternatively told is very conservative and/or very high church. Hans has recommended that I wear my “whites” and helped me get all the Roman mud off the hems (nothing allegorical intended there; it was raining my last day in Rome as I walked home from the Congress at Sant’Anselmo, all of which, by the way, seems like a world away by now––and not only geographically). I’ll post my homily below as well. If the few of you are reading who remember this: a few years ago the song “Tramp on the Street” resurfaced at a conference with SN up at Mount Madonna, a song I hadn’t sung since I was in Chicago in 1976-77. That’s the gospel today––Lazarus, and I had fun with Ruth and Hans, who also knew the song, looking up its origins (and getting the lyrics right; the quote above is one verse I had never heard before, by the way.) You should look up Hank Williams’ version of it on YouTube, but it goes back farther. I am at least going to quote it in my homily, though still unsure whether or not I am actually going to break into song at a conservative and/or high church Anglican parish on a sunny Sunday morning in Melbourne.

a tramp on the street

(Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

There is a theory about what is called the Axial Period in human history that took place about 500 years before the birth of Jesus, what we call the Common Era. It’s a period when some scholars think that a great shift in human consciousness took place in several different places on the globe at the same time. The major things that get listed are, for example, in Asia it was marked by the birth of the scriptures of India known as the Upanishads, and the period when Buddhism broke away from Hinduism, and the birth of Taoism in China. A little more to the west, it was the age of the rise of Greek philosophy; and in the Jewish tradition it was the period of the great prophets.

What is the shift in consciousness that is taking place in Judaism at this time? The Jewish tradition seems to be coming out of a period of mythology and historical accounts, and moving into a period of an accent on greater individual moral responsibility. In the earlier scriptures of Judaism the image of God that is presented to us is a little confusing at times: God seems to be a little capricious, sometimes even warlike. Sometimes God seems to be appeased by sacrifice, as if we could manipulate and coerce God into doing things, or that we could change God’s mind. But in the period of the prophets, there seems to be a shift. In the very first chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, for instance, God asks, ‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls…’ And then in chapter 58 he says:

Is not this the fast I choose:
loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke,
let the oppressed go free, break every yoke,
share your bread with the hungry,
bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, cover them.
Remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.

That’s the kind of fast God wants––justice. And the prophet Amos who we hear in the 1st reading today, stands at the very beginning of this great tradition of the prophets speaking of and calling for social justice in the name of the Lord God, teaching that concern for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the needy is at the very heart of the Law.

We ought to see Jesus in this lineage, this prophetic lineage, always maintaining that the greatest commandment is actually two: not only ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind’ but there is a second too that is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ These two things are inextricably linked together. Twice in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus puts himself firmly in this new prophetic Axial consciousness when he quotes Hosea 6: ‘Go and learn what this means: “It is love that I desire not sacrifice; the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”’

So in some way there is no hidden message here: Our love of God must resolve itself in also caring for those around us, in ever widening circles of involvement. Our spiritual life demands of us a moral, ethical response, and urges us to build a world of justice and peace. And I think we will be judged as a society especially by how we take care of the neediest, the poorest and the weakest in our midst. ‘Anything you did for the least of these,’ Jesus says, ‘you did for me.’

That also leads us to another layer of meaning of this beautiful story. I was taught that we’re always supposed to be looking for Christ hidden in stories in the Scriptures. This is especially true when Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures, so we try to find Christ hidden in the story of Noah’s ark, to find Christ hidden in the story of the Exodus, in the story of the 40 years’ journey across the desert, even in the story of Joshua fighting the battle of Jericho. But we should also look for the Christ in Jesus’ own parables. Jesus is often speaking in veiled reference about himself. And of course in this very story of Lazarus and the rich man too, Jesus is speaking about himself. This Lazarus is a type of Christ, a Christ figure. Jesus is not afraid to be the poor one, the humble one, the one who is cast out, even the defeated one.

There was an old country gospel song that was redone by several folk singers in America, called “Tramp on the Street.” What is interesting about the song is that whoever wrote it was actually a pretty good theologian. They really got it right, not just the moral imperative that is implied in the song––that we cannot ignore the plight of the poor in our midst––but also that Lazarus himself is an image of Christ. In the first verses we sing about Lazarus:

Only a tramp was Lazarus’ sad fate,
he who lay down at the rich man's gate.
He begged for the crumbs from the rich man to eat.
He was only a tramp found dead on the street.
(I love this part…)
He was some mother’s darlin’;
he was some mother's son.
Once he was fair and once he was young.
And some mother rocked him, her darlin’ to sleep,
but they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

And then he sings about Jesus!

Jesus, he died on Calvary’s tree.
He shed his life’s blood for you and for me.
They pierced his side, his hands and his feet,
and they left him to die like a tramp on the street.
He was Mary’s own darlin’; he was God’s chosen son.
Once he was fair and once he was young.
Mary, she rocked him, her little darlin’ to sleep,
but they left him to die like a tramp on the street.

So when we encounter the poor––and Jesus was quite specific about this––we ought to see the face of Christ; we ought to see Jesus who, as St. Paul says, though he was rich he became poor so as to make us rich out of his poverty. In another place Paul calls it kenosis, the Greek word meaning “emptying.” Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave... Jesus emptied himself, became poor, and washed his disciples’ feet. He emptied himself, and gave his life over in a ministry of bringing good news to the poor and healing bodies and supplying banquets of abundance to hungry crowds because he had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a shepherd. Ultimately he emptied himself and became poor even to the point of accepting death, death on a cross, so as to be filled with the glorious power of resurrection. As the poet Christian Wiman put it, Jesus risked “complete erasure” of himself “for the sake of something greater.”

But Paul says you too––we too!––should have this mind of Christ. What does that mean? I think it means two different things. First of all: I don’t want to romanticize poverty, obviously, but when we encounter someone who is poor we are supposed to see ourselves, recognize our own poverty in some way. Maybe that’s why the poor are at times repulsive to us: we can’t stand to think of ourselves in that condition. But there is something worse than physical poverty: there is spiritual poverty. There’s something even worse than a hungry stomach––a starving, famished, depressed, tormented soul. And that’s what I see when I walk around shopping malls and watch people’s faces as they drive by in rush hour traffic. Mother Teresa said when she visited America that the wealthy were a lot poorer than the homeless in our country.

Secondly, a deeper spiritual message: I remember visiting a monastery of Poor Clare nuns some years ago. (They are the cloistered women descendants of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare.) There was a plaque hanging on the wall next to my chair in their dining hall that had a beautiful quote from St. Clare to her sister Agnes in Italian: Ne sono sicurissima––il regno dei cieli il Signore lo promette e lo dona solo ai poveri––“Of this I am absolutely sure, that the Lord promises and grants the reign of heaven only to the poor.” A variation on that might be, the Lord promises and grants divinization only to the poor in spirit, as Jesus teaches in his beatitudes, only to those who have died in some way, those who have emptied themselves of themselves.

There is a piece of universal wisdom here, and I think that the Christian tradition articulates this as beautifully if not more beautifully than any other religious tradition, though it may be a piece of universal wisdom that is really only understood in mature spirituality in any tradition. In his famous book The Perennial Philosophy Aldous Huxley points out that in all authentic traditions Ultimate Reality is only clearly understood by those who are loving, by those who are pure in heart and poor in spirit. “[It] is a fact which cannot be fully realized or directly experienced,” he says, “except by souls… who have fulfilled certain conditions.” And he goes on to point mostly to the life of Jesus and to many Christian saints, and he quotes the famous phrase of St. Augustine: Ama et fac quod vis––“Love and do what you will.” But, he says, you can only do this “when you have learnt the infinitely difficult art of loving God with all your mind and heart”; and we can only love and do what we will when we have learned that infinitely difficult art of loving our neighbor as ourselves. We can only love and do what we will when we have emptied ourselves of all other loves and attachments and desires. That is the baptismal death we have to undergo and the baptismal pledge by which we live, and the demand of our participation at the Eucharistic Table––that we ourselves agree now to be broken like the bread and passed out, crushed like the grapes and poured out for the sake of the world.

These are good questions to ask ourselves today in response to today’s gospel: Are we willing to be poor like Jesus? Are we willing to experience complete erasure for the sake of something greater than ourselves––for the sake of the reign of God? Are we willing to shed our blood for the sake of Christ? Are we willing to lay down our lives for our friends? Are we willing to suffer persecution for the sake of justice? These are all simply the demands of the gospel. In our monastic tradition we follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and he has some very annoying, demanding chapters toward the end of his rule. It’s not a great exalted thing we’re after as Benedict teaches it; it’s on a much more mundane and immediate level: he asks if we are simply willing to support one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior with patience, in community, in our family, in our workplace; and are we earnestly willing to compete in obedience to one another, are we willing to judge not what seems best for ourselves, but always what we judge best for someone else? This too is the poverty of spirit to which the gospel calls us. It’s not enough to dress in fine robes, or have good posture or even a still mind from yoga class, or memorize and quote scripture passages and say the right prayers in the right language. We’re not going to be able to buy our way into heaven nor manipulate God. We must at some point empty ourselves completely, and sit waiting, and make ourselves totally available to the Spirit of God.

God promises and gives the reign of God––a share in divinity––only to the poor in spirit. Of this I am, and we can be, absolutely sure, sure that it is only given to the poor, but sure that it will be given to us if we empty ourselves completely as Jesus did, and wait in joyful hope for the coming of the reign of God.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tihei mauri ora!

19-21 September, 2016, Whangerie, New Zealand

I am being hosted here in New Zealand by our Camaldolese oblate, Michael Dougherty. We had met some years ago (2005) at Gaunts House in England at the Bede Griffiths’ centenary event there that I attended with Fr. George of Shantivanam. Michael and another of our oblates here, Phillip Saunders, have been in touch numerous times over the years, and were eager to have me stop since I was going to be “in the neighborhood.” Our Fr. Daniel, who is the official oblate chaplain for this region, had been here some years ago as well, so I saw no problem with that at all. All told there are only four Camaldolese oblates here, nevertheless they seem to be a very tight knit group and it means a lot to them to have chosen to follow the Camaldolese charism in their own way. They are also in touch with our oblate community in Australia and all members of the World Community for Christian Meditation, for whom I have done a lot of work over the years.

Michael and his wife Elizabeth have a lovely place well outside of the town of Whangerei, about two hours north of Auckland on the north island. Folks in this area seem very intentional about living close to and gently on the land. Michael and Elizabeth have a well-gardened acre on a larger 60-acre parcel of land that was purchased specifically to put ecological and spiritual practices together. I find it all very inspiring. Elizabeth is a wonderful cook and the kitchen is full of all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables, many from their own garden, and all kinds of herbs and sauces and spices and wonderful homemade things. I told Elizabeth as I was struggling with my jetlag (it’s a 10 hour difference from Rome!), that I kept waking up not knowing where I was. Sometimes I thought I was in Wales (because of the landscape), other times I thought I was with my friends Elizabeth and Gillian up at Turtle Creek in Washington State (because of the wondrous kitchen).

One of the things you notice right away in New Zealand is how much the indigenous Maori culture is present in people’s minds. Many of the signs around stores and schools are in both English and Maori. Right away, for instance, in the arrival hall at Auckland airport you pass through a carved wooden arch called a waharoa. As you pass you can hear the voice of a woman chanting something called a karanga–a call. I had been advised by one of our oblates here, Phillip Saunders, that thought I may be tired (I was!) it is worth taking a moment to understand what is happening, and so I did. A lot of what follows is drawn from what Phillip sent me.
The waharoa is not only an entryway; it’s considered to be a threshold between two distinct environments, a liminal space. In traditional terms the waharoa was a portal between the group within a fortified precinct and a visiting group that restricted and manage the flow of a visiting group, defining the perimeter of any given precinct. But more importantly for our purposes, the waharoa was seen as a point of contemplation. This information that Phillip sent me stated that if one enters through a waharoa with the correct intentions, one would be entitled to hospitality and opportunities. In customary Maori society, no negotiations happened until this process had formally taken place. So the waharoa really symbolizes a relationship pathway between the two nations, two peoples. The karanga–the “call,” on the other hand, is meant to communicate both message and emotion. It usually comes from both sides: the host calls first answered by the visitors a call and response goes on. The purpose of this call is to “weave a spiritual rope to allow the symbolic waka–canoe of the manuhiri–visitors to be pulled on. It should never be broken and the sound should be continuous, each side weaving in and out of each other.
Thus the karanga is not just a call of one person to another: it’s a spiritual call that has been heard in Aotearoa––the native name for New Zealand––for generations and generations, providing the medium by which both the living and even the dead of the visitors can cross over to unite with the living and the dead of the hosts.

This reminds us that entering into a new space is never or never ought to be just a simple act of walking. Wherever we go, there is a presence of a people, and a coming together both physically and spiritually. I was reminded of walking through the entry gate of Tassajara, or how my friends and I used to anoint ourselves with oil as we began a hike in the wilderness.
There was one other Maori practice that Phillip alerted me to, that he thought related ot the yogic notion of prana–life energy in the breath. The Maoris have custom called hongi, which is a ritual greeting done by lightly touching noses and foreheads, and inhaling and thus exchanging breath with each other, sharing life force. This goes with the legend of the creation of the first woman, Hineahuone, who was formed from clay by the creator god Tane, who then breathed life into her nostrils. (You will recall of course the second story of creation, and the Lord God doing this with and for Adam.)

Another similar Maori concept is “Tihei mauri ora,” which literally means, “Sneeze! It’s the breath of life!” I’m told that this is often used in a practical way to draw attention to a speaker at the beginning of formal speeches. I might try it some time.

I just spent three days staying at a Baptist retreat center on the coast with three of our oblates and had a wonderful retreat with them, conferences, stretching and breathing, chanting and praying and wonderful meals provided by Elizabeth. This morning I did a short presentation for some high school students at the local Catholic high school, which went really well. The kids were very interested, well prepared and articulate, and had great questions. Today my kind handlers have given me some time off for good behavior, so I am sitting in a very nice internet café in the library, and then to wander around town on my own recognizance. Tonight and tomorrow night two presentations at local churches, singing songs and telling stories. Really wonderful hospitality and reception here from these good folks. Off to Australia on Friday.

(I can't download any pictures of illustration but will try to remedy that later.)

the blessing of fragility and the transfiguring power of beauty

There is formal intellectual formation, but the accompaniment of having a deep and stable experience of a life of communion with God and the brothers and sisters, which is essential in the charism of Saint Benedict, is often missing. There is instruction, but little wisdom; there is communal habitation, but little fraternal communion, little sharing on that which is truly profound in our life and experience.[1]
                    Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, Abbot General of the Order of Cistercians

18 September, 2016, Whangerei, New Zealand

Oh, my gosh: such a long couple of days getting here. And such-wide ranging experiences the last few days. My soul has got worse jet lag than my body!

Thursday morning I had the unexpected opportunity of celebrating Mass with the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity who, as I mentioned, share San Gregorio with us, though have very much their own space. George usually has this Mass with them, in English, but asked me to take it, which I did with pleasure. There were about 30 of them gathered, in a very simple chapel, most of them sitting on the floor. There seemed to be a handful of young women in formation and one not in any habit at all. It was a bit of a relief for me to pray and preach in English, which is the common language there. The contrast from our High Masses each and every day at the Congress couldn’t have been greater. They used simple songs, mostly from America, sung out of a photocopied book of lyrics, and everything was traditional in a devotional kind of way. I had a wave of nostalgia for mornings with the Poor Clares in Corralitos, especially looking out at their beaming receptive faces. I felt humbled by them: they have a very disciplined ascetical life both in life style and in prayer time, and yet they spend most of the rest of the day in very hard hands-on work with the poor.

It was the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, the day after the Exaltation of the Cross. There was a quote from Adrienne von Spreyr in Give Us This Day which I used as grist for my own reflections, of the nature that real sacrifice is when we do not know what form God will give to that which we offer. I went back again to the notion of real discernment not being between good and evil but between two goods, always trying to look for the summum bonum, giving up one good for a greater or the greatest good. But there is something even beyond that, like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac: giving up a good without any idea what lies on the other side of it, really walking on water, steping out into the dark. Somehow that’s real hope, too, as Vaclev Havel said, “an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.... Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless how it turns out.” What good could possibly come out of your son dying on a cross; and yet that becomes the seed that falls into the ground and dies and so yields a rich harvest.

I didn’t get to visit with the sisters afterwards (I was half expecting that there would be three eggs and toast waiting for me in the priest’s parlor as the Poor Ladies used to do), but headed back to Sant’Anselmo for one last session of the Congress. That morning we were to hear from the ecumenical participants. There were four from the Eastern Christian tradition––Bishop Epiphanius, of the Abbey of St. Macarius of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, Hieromonk Melchisedec Toronen of the Ecumenical Patriachate of Constantinople, Hegumen Joseph Kryukov of the Patriachate of Moscow, and Archimandrite Atanasie Rusnak from Romania––and an Anglican Benedictine, Abbot Stuart Burns, who had been with us the whole time. Of course I had noticed the Eastern Christian participants by there headgear, but I didn’t even know that the Anglican one was Anglican, he, obviously, blended in so easily with the group.

The intervention from the young Hegumen Joseph of Moscow was my favorite. He told us about a small choir from Germany called “Harpa Dei,” that came to visit there monastery, that specializes in singing rare sacred music from the medieval Catholic liturgy as well as from the liturgical practice of Byzantium, India, Ethiopia, Armenia and other countries. And he said that through their music they were able to accomplish something, which could have been accomplished otherwise. Despite their appearance, which was more than unusual for an Orthodox setting, which would tend to be very conservative and not very open to inter-confessional conversation, and despite their confessional affiliation, they made the monks listen. Then he recalled something that Pope Benedict XVI had said after a concert of Russian sacred music that was performed at the Vatican in 2010: that somehow “music already anticipates and resolves the impact between East and West through dialogue and synergy, and likewise that between tradition and modernity.” Then he went on to say that

Of course, one performance is just that––one of many steps that we need to make walking the road towards mutual acceptance. And the appearance of a Catholic monastic choir in the heart of the Orthodox monastic traditionalism should not be a reason for drawing too far-reaching conclusions. Yet, this shows once again that it is possible to have meaningful inter-confessional dialogue above the logical arguments. In some ways the beauty of art brings people into unity; in others––it prepares the way for a total transfiguration of a person. On the other hand, the absence of beauty in human life breeds hostility. As Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow and all Russia says, beauty forms the inner state of a person, while ugliness releases the instincts, which turn a person from a creator into a destroyer.

Of course there are about five things in there that I could go on and on about––especially about the transfiguring power of beauty, but I’ll leave that stand on its own merits, except to add this: How much could this also be said about inter-religious music, that it “already anticipates and resolves the impact between various traditions through dialogue and synergy”?

We had kind of a raucous pranzo at San Gregorio as the priors and assistants gathered from all parts for our afternoon meeting with Fr. Paciolla, and then we all headed over to the Casa Generalizia of the Cistercians, also on the Avventine hill, just up from Sant’Antonio and down from Sant’Anselmo, for our afternoon meeting with him, discussing some fine points of our Constitutions and institutional make up in preparation for General Chapter next year. While there I caught a glimpse of their Abbot General there who had given us a plenary session two days before at the Congress (quoted above). I thought his was the best of everything we heard during the course of those two weeks, so real, so down to earth about our situation and what to do with it. I had this in mind as we were discussing fine points of our Constitutions and institutional make up in preparation for General Chapter next year.

This sharing however requires a humility, the humility of recognizing that we need each other. Communion, before a sharing of our richness, is born and is nourished in the sharing of our fragility. In this the precariousness of our day certainly helps us. We all reached [in their order] in one way or another the blessing of fragility, of the need to recognize that no one is truly strong, and therefore it becomes ridiculous to want to be stronger than the others.[2]

It is obvious that our congregation of monks as much as ay congregation is very fragile, dealing with aging and lack of vocations. I think hope we can keep humility and the blessing of our fragility in mind and the very center of our prayer as we prepare for our Chapter next year, and have the humility too not just to chart our course, but to truly listen to the voice of the Spirit in the signs of the times and the needs of the world.

Then there were hearty goodbyes all around, and Alessandro whisked me off to Fiumicino. I was good and early for my flight; I spent my last Euros on snacks, then embarked the almost six-hour long flight through the night to Dubai. (I actually had it in my mind that I was going to Abu Dhabi, for some reason. Glad I double-checked…) Of course it got increasingly fascinating watching the changing demographic from Rome to Dubai, which is the hub for United Emirates Airline, and the mélange of folks traveling to and from points all around the world. And then of course the 16-hour flight to Auckland. The older I get, and now having been away from this kind of travel for a time, the more I think that it is simply just not normal (kata physin) for the body to do that.

My host here, Michael Doherty, met me at the airport, but even before reaching him I had my first taste of indigenous New Zealand culture, which I will write about in the next post.

(I'm at an internet cafe in the library in town, but I forgot my cell phone so I can't post any new pictures, alas. Will make up for that when I can.)

[1] “La formazione intellettuale, formale, c'è, ma manca sovente l'accompagnamento nel fare un'esperienza profonda e stabile della vita di comunione con Dio e i fratelli e sorelle che è essenziale nel carisma di san Benedetto. C'è istruzione, ma poca sapienza; c'è un'abitazione comune, ma poca comunione fraterna, poca condivisione su ciò che è veramente profondo nella nostra vita e esperienza.”
[2] “Questa condivisione però richiede un'umiltà, l'umiltà di riconoscere che abbiamo bisogno gli uni degli altri. La comunione, prima che dalla condivisione delle nostre ricchezze, nasce e si alimenta nella condivisione delle nostre fragilità. In questo ci aiuta certamente la situazione di precarietà di oggi. … Poi è giunta per tutti, in un modo o nell'altro, la ...benedizione della fragilità, del dover riconoscere che nessuno è veramente forte, e quindi diventa ridicolo voler essere più forte degli altri.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Dove siete, benedettini?

Theology does not demonstrate the truth,
but exposes it nakedly, in symbols,
so that the soul, changed in holiness and light,
penetrates without reason into it.
                          Dionysius the Areopagite

Yesterday was my last full day in Rome, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. I sang for Pope St. John Paul II on this feast back in 1987 and even composed some music for the occasion, so I have a special love for this feast. And today at 6:30 AM, I get the treat of celebrating Mass with Mother Teresa’s sisters who share our building, for Our Lady of Sorrows.

The gruppi di lavoroworkshops at the Congress have been a bit of a struggle, especially since they are held in the afternoon when it has been as hot as Hades in the rooms where they are held. But there were a few highlight moments. I signed up for the workshop on Contemporary Monasticism, wrongly thinking that it was going to be about the “new monastic” movement (a là Rory and Adam), but instead it was mostly about problems that traditional monasticism is facing: technology, multi-culturalism, the LGBT movement. Two moments stood out for me. One Italian, after a long philosophical discourse on the recovery of the idea of “person” and “the subsistence of the subject” against rampant individualism, ended by saying something I was happy to hear: Why is Enzo Bianchi––the founder of the very successful Bose Community in northern Italy––the most popular monk in Italy? Dove siete, benedettini?––Where are you, Benedictines?” And then the prior of a community in Nigeria offered his response and clearly delineated the difference between First World problems and his situation. In their country there are 248 different tribal languages, and in their own monastery they come from 14 different tribes. They are bursting at the seams. He also very humbly told us about all the problems with the political situation there, including Boko Haram, though he said they get on well with their Muslim neighbors. He also, without any drama, told us about he himself getting shot at. And in spite of the fact that their monastery has experienced a number of armed robberies, after the last one they decided as a community to let their security guards go! Talk about a prophetic sign.

We also had a keynote from the Abbot General of the Cistercians. I am waiting for the text of his talk to be put online and I will copy some sections of it. He spoke very frankly about the fragility of his own order and their individual communities; and of the community as a richezza sinfonicaa symphonic richness that requires humility and a sharing of fragility, the blessing of fragility. And something interesting and consoling to hear: as much as formal formation and the passing on of techniques is important, he thought in this day and age and with this generation of young people the most important element now in formation is accompaniment. That’s the pastoral challenge, because young people today––a phrase that I used to cherish when I was out working––are like sheep without a shepherd. And the life of communion itself is the major formatting tool, otherwise there is lots of instruction but very little wisdom. The dangers is that our communities (this was very funny in the Italian) come to be seen as wrinkled up boring old widows, sometimes even we see ourselves that way, whereas God always sees us as his young beautiful bride. We look at ourselves too much, he said. We ought to let ourselves be looked at by God.

I wound up spending my last afternoon yesterday wandering the streets of Rome again. Alessandro has also been skipping in and out of sessions at the Congress (we both played hooky Monday to spend an extra day at Camaldoli), so I don’t feel so bad. At any rate part of the aim of this sojourn was to get lots of down time, and I have enjoyed praying and meditating in my upper room here at San Gregorio in the early mornings and late evenings while it is still cool. I also found a new church yesterday, the church of I Quattro Coronati––the four crowned ones (martyrs)––which was very dark and cool. It’s also the chapel of the Augustinian nuns and just as I sat down they entered and sang None in Italian. It was quite beautiful.

Today, my last day, there is a plenary session, addresses from the ecumenical and other guests, which might be interesting. Then in the afternoon there is to be a great gathering of all the Camaldolese superiors here in Rome––Alessandro, of course, with Giuseppe Cicchi, Joseph Wong and Mario from the consiglio generalizio, plus Alberto from the Sacro Eremo, Giovanni Dallpiazz, Marino from Monte Giove, Gianni Giacomelli from Fonte Avellana (it’s their feast today, by the way), and yours truly, and we have a meeting with Msgr. Paciolla from the Congregation for Religious to discuss some aspects of our Constitutions in preparation for next year’s Capitolo Generale. I can already imagine myself being completely submerged in a storm of Italian discussion. I am practicing a knowing smile with my eyes half shut, attentive, dreaming of gelato.

Then tonight at 10 I leave for New Zealand, by way of Abu Dhabi. It promises to be at least 27 hours of travel, not arriving ‘til Saturday morning, flying straight through the feast of Cornelius and Cyprian (by the way, happy feast day, Cornelius!.) I’ve written ahead to the next three stops, requesting that they schedule in lots of down time and desert days for me, and everyone has been very accommodating. But mostly I am looking forward to being with our oblates and friends who are so excited about living out the contemplative life in the world in new ways. I come away from this Congress thinking even more how important it is for us monks, religious in general, to be in conversation with go the world, listening both to the hunger and the earnest attempts at solutions. Believe me, as the current prior of our community I know how hard it is, but as soon as all our energy is spent shoring up our own superstructures we start dying. The questions that I did not hear asked very often are the ones I used to ask myself all the time: What does the church need of us right now? And, what does the world need of us right now? What do we have to offer? What do we have to learn? We have to be careful about spending too much time looking at ourselves.

Here's the official portrait of us all gathered... Dove siamo, benedettini?


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.