Friday, June 7, 2024

Covid Blues in Minnesota

 June 6, 2024, Feast of St Norbert, 26th anniversary of my ordination.

Now where was I? Or better yet, where am I? This has been the period of intense travel and work. After the retreat at St. Martin’s, I drove up to Auburn, WA and spent the weekend with an old friend, former Korean Buddhist monk, current acupuncturist and Chinese herbal medicine doctor, Ian Sok, and also got to hang out with good friend Lisa Benner who was in Washington on personal time. Then I drove down to Vancouver, WA, right across the river from Portland, OR, stayed at John and Mary Pennington’s house while they were on vacation, and while there spent several days in the recording studio. Then I drove all the way down to San Luis Obispo, dropped off the mighty Prius at Monastery of the Risen Christ in the wee small hours of the morning last Saturday and flew here to Minnesota, where I am currently giving a retreat for the community of St John’s Abbey in Collegeville. 


To be more specific, currently I am holed up in my room here in the cloister, having tested positive for Covid yesterday. I was feeling poorly, sore throat, temperature, aches, etc. and decided to test. Br. Ken, the infirmarian, administered and pronounced me positive, even though I thought the lines were very faint. (We did it twice to confirm.) I had already given four out of eight conferences; alas the remaining four will be all on Zoom, while the brothers are in the Chapter House just 100 yards away down the cloister walk around the corner from my room. It was going so well! I was so well prepared for this retreat. I was also singing Psallitè antiphons with them before each session with they and I were both enjoying greatly, since this is the place that they were invented. That does not work so well over Zoom, though I am going to try to pull one off tomorrow for the last conference. They are being rather strict with me––or at least Br Ken is. I was slipping out wearing a mask when the monks were at prayer to get tea and some food, but he told me that they would prefer I not leave quarters. So, I am totally at the mercy of my brothers. I assume they will not let me starve (or go un-caffeinated). Fr. Abbot Doug himself has brought me soup the last two days. I’m sorry not to have the one-on-one time with the monks; I was enjoying the interactions at table and in the corridors, immensely, as well as celebrating liturgy with them, even more than I thought I would. Ah well…


Now to backtrack… The time giving the retreat at St Martin’s was really fine; the monks were very warm and welcoming, and they seemed to really appreciate the retreat conferences. Abbot Marian and I had a couple of nice visits, and he was trying to load me down with all kinds of goodies before I drove off, including a little ice chest. I have learned about Vietnamese people that it is better to just accept than to argue. 


My time with Dr. Ian Sok up in Auburn was very good. We were young monks together. He had been sent over to America by his monastery in Korea to found a Zen center in Hayward, and he happened upon New Camaldoli, I think brought down there by a friend, and if I recall correctly we met because I was working in the bookstore. He walked in wearing his grey monastic habit––not really robes, more like pantaloons and a jacket, and we got to talking and became fast friends. We had a lot of interaction even up until my Santa Cruz years, but he went back to his monastery in Korea in 2005 for a three-year retreat at the end of which he, as they say in Buddhism, “gave back his vows” to his teacher, left the monastic life and moved to Seattle where he established himself as an acupuncturist and Chinese medicine practitioner. (He had gotten his master’s degree in that while in California.) We last spoke in 2008, I believe, just before he moved up north. I somehow still had his mobile number and when I found out how close I was going to be to Seattle I texted him and lo and behold we were back in touch. After a very few pleasantries I started receiving long text messages like this:


What do you think about Monophysitism, Dyophysitism of the Chalcedonian creed, or Miaphysitism of the Eastern Orthodox Church? I have been pondering deeply on this since my morning prayer until now. This issue is also very important among Buddhist scholars throughout the centuries and in many schools of Buddhist sects. Zen seems to lean more towards Miaphysitism, while Amita faith is closer to dyophysitism. 


At the same time, how we look at new religions close to Monophysitism, for example, Universalist Unitarian, Quaker, Shakers, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. I do respect whatever opinions you have on Monophysitism, Dyophysitism, and Miaphysitism. I just want to hear your own opinion on this subject. I also understand that this argument is ongoing among spiritual practitioners in centuries.


And the whole weekend was pretty much like that too. He had gotten his Master’s in Western

and Eastern philosophy in Seoul and is very interested in Christianity, and I would even say he is very devoted to Jesus, does his chanting the Amida Buddha every morning and then reads the Bible. He asks some of the most penetrating questions, cutting right through the trivia. It was so refreshing, consoling to talk about our real beliefs about Absolute Reality with each other and not have to worry about being too speculative or scandalizing someone with your doubts or shocking someone with a new way of expressing ancient fundamental truths. He treated me to several great meals, an afternoon in a spa and a lovely hike behind Mount Ranier.


As I mentioned, Lisa was in town on vacation and we drove up to meet her in Seattle, the three of us going to Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s Church, the Jesuit parish on Capitol Hill, a very tony beautiful neighborhood. It was a very well planned and executed liturgy in a wonderful space. (Ian was agog at the colors and images from all the stained-glass windows.) It included fine music, mostly in the popular style, led by a musician I had met before at the Composers’ Forum in St. Louis years ago, Laura Ash, with a fine ensemble. There were also liturgical dancers who led the procession in with streamers and a dove hung from a pole, and sign language for the deaf that was taught to everyone for the responsorial psalm, so it became a kind of dance from the pews too. This is the parish that Lisa had attended when she lived up there and she was very proud to share it with us, as she should be. Afterward we asked Ian what he thought of the whole thing, and he said he loved it. He felt like a little kid and he wanted to get up and dance too. Then Lisa led us to a fine Thai restaurant, and then a long leisurely stroll through the famous Volunteer Park (which abuts the cemetery where Bruce Lee and his son are buried). A really pleasant day with wonderful people. After that I drove down to Vancouver.


Not only did I have John and Mary’s place to myself for the first week (they were in Iceland with Mary’s elderly parents), I also had absolutely nothing to do for the first two days I was there, and that was pure bliss. I had gotten a month-long membership for LA Fitness on my way up (which I was also able to slip out and use every early morning from St Martin’s) and so I had a great couple of days getting myself ready for the studio and catching up on exercise and solitude and silence. 


Friday, Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.


At the recommendation of the monks, I got Dr. John Clark back in California to call in a prescription for Paxlovid. Good Br. Ken went and fetched it for me (along with a tin of salted mixed nuts, which I was craving) and I started it last night. It doesn’t cure Covid, but it is supposed to protect against more severe illness. Many people first report feeling worse after taking it, and I did have a weird night, not sure if that’s why. They warn about all kinds of possible side-effects but the only one I seem to have is a strange medicinal taste in my mouth. I have lost my sense of smell this time I realized this morning. We’re going to decide tomorrow whether I go to Maplewood and do the retreat via Zoom from the sisters’ place itself or stay here and do it via Zoom. Almost doesn’t matter, but it does feel a little awkward being here at St. John’s and not being here at the same time. And having to depend on someone to bring me food. They are pretty serious about me keeping quarantine. Don’t know for how long. I think I am on the mend.


So, the week in the studio in Portland was very good. I have to say after my two days getting everything ready and organized, I was like a little kid ready for the first day of school. It feels like so long since I have been able to spend quality time in the “magic kingdom.” Thinking back, in the Santa Cruz years I was almost always in the studio working on something and I think I did over a dozen albums on my own or collaboratively: John and I finished “Awakening” and then did “Compassionate and Wise,” I sang on and produced four CDs with the Collegeville Composers Group (Psallitè), I did “Lord Open My Lips” and “Awake at Last,” liturgical music for OCP, Gitanjali and I did “Hare Yeshu” and “The Ground We Share”, plus I did “My Soul’s Companion” and the guitar instrumental album “ecstasis.” Oh yeah, and somewhere in there I did a meditation collection with Laurence Freeman called “Wait My Soul in Silence.” But the month in Los Altos and that week in Portland both confirmed for me that at least the way I work I can’t work on an album and do something else at the same time. I need the leisure to dance around it, and really focus psychologically. That’s why I didn’t accomplish any recording of lasting value during the years as prior at the Hermitage.


I was working at Thelma’s (full name “Dead Aunt Thelma’s”) where I had worked several times before, one of my all-time favorite studios. I did all of “As One Unknown” there back in 1999, my first album for OCP. There is a new young manager named Gus, and he and I hit it off right away. He’s a graduate of Berklee School of Music in Boston, and we figured out that he crossed over with Devin’s years there, though they don’t know each other. We bonded over guitars (he’s the only person I know who owned a Collings, the exact model that I have, though he just sold his) and obsession with the production Steely Dan albums. I’m working on two things simultaneously. The most important one is a new Animas Ensemble album, my project with John Pennington. We haven’t done anything together since Compassionate and Wise in 2007 (?), though he did play a lot on my solo CD “My Soul’s Companion.” I’ve written most of the pieces for this one and had prepared all my reference guitar and vocals in Los Altos in April. John has a few pieces to add and is going to lay down his tracks and I will finish them remotely. We’ve been sending tracks and lead sheets back and forth across the ether for months. 


The second thing I am working on is my long-awaited Christmas album (not sure who is waiting for it but me!), for which I had also laid down my guitar tracks as well. I started a version of that album back in 2012 but was never able to get back to it. We tried again in 2016 to do oboe and ‘cello tracks but that was a disaster. The first day I worked with a wonderful ‘cellist named Marilyn from Brazil. John thankfully arranged for all these studio musicians through his connections as executive producer now for OCP, and he has high standards and exquisite taste. I found that I had to adjust my mentality though. I was so relaxed walking in the studio that first day after two days on my own humming to myself and exercising and working at my own pace and feeling ever so leisurely. John had told me I had Marilyn from 1 to 3, but I was thinking that if we go over time a little, I didn’t mind paying a little more for her and the studio as long as we finally get quality tracks. And she was a great player, so expressive and easy to work with. However, at 3:00 she was on her way out the door and on to the next thing! And Gus had an engagement and had to leave by 3:30, so I was somewhat deflated on my first big day back in the studio. 


Not to worry… the next day I was for many relaxed hours with the masterful Rick Modlin on piano. He was just making these songs come alive. I realize that we have been playing together since 1999, 25 years! And I am honored that for all he is in demand he really seems to like making music with me too. I told him recently that I think of him as much a part of the Animas Ensemble as John and me. I feel the same way about the ‘cellist Joe Hebert who I hope to work with back in CA in July. I thought about all three of them, especially John, as I was writing these pieces and recording my parts, and what a thrill to hear them bring the songs to life. Then Friday that week I had Marilyn again and a fine oboe player named Alan. That day we did work on the Christmas music. That was also a bit of a thrill, especially after the disastrous sessions in 2016. I had re-recorded my guitar parts, making them as clean and in-time as possible, and checked my arrangements––but it’s all in your head until you hear it on the actual instruments and not just on my tinny little computer playing it back to me. That is one of the marvels of being a composer: you have some sounds in your imagination, you make little dots and squiggly lines on a piece of paper, you put that piece of paper in front of somebody else––and they make sounds that sound even better than what you heard in your head. And I do love love love that combination: oboe, ‘cello and guitar with the addition of percussion, kind of medieval with a bit of an Mideastern flair. Anyway, I was thrilled with how that turned out, and I have got the “sound” for the Christmas album now and hope that I might actually finish it one day!


John and Mary go home Saturday night, and John and I had an intense workday in his home studio on Monday (Memorial Day), finally going through all the pieces face-to-face instead of over email. And then we were in the studio together on Tuesday. The first thing we did was actually with Rick again on a piece called “We Are Waiting for Peace to Break Out.” It’s a poem I have been carrying around for maybe 15 years or so from a collection called “Poets Against the War” edited by the late Sam Hamill (who by the way did my favorite translation of the Tao te Ching for Shambala). The inspiration for this piece was actually the rather controversial spoken word piece “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scot Heron, which, to my surprise, none of them had ever heard of, not Rick not John, not even Gus! I turned the first lines of the poems into a refrain, and then divided the rest of the poem up into four verses that I started speaking right off of the sung refrain. But I wanted the whole thing to be improvised as well, John and Rick’s part. It might have been a little frustrating for both of them at first because no one knew when to come in or out or when to go back to the refrain, but they soon caught the spirit of it and the more we did it the more we listened to each other. I told John, “All the music we do is important, but this piece feels really important” as Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas face off while the innocent civilians continue to die in Rafah, as Vladmir Putin continues his assault on Ukraine, and as Donald Trump and his allies all but overtly threaten violence if things don’t go their way. Meanwhile, “We are waiting for peace to break out. We are waiting for flowers to bloom. We are waiting for the moon to come / from behind the black clouds of war.” It turned out great. I was remembering, I think it was “Instant Karma,” John Lennon had the idea, went in the studio one night and had 45s on the street the next morning. Never have a felt so strongly that I wanted a piece of music I had written to get out there.


I’ll post this much a get back to the rest later. Time for Covid nap. Unfortunately, my temperature is back up to 99. Looks like I’ll be confined to quarters for a little while more… Oh well, I was raised in the hermit tradition, and it’s a lovely quiet comfortable room.

Monday, May 13, 2024

wherever I go, there I am....

13 May, 2024, Lacey, Washington, St. Martin’s Abbey


A week of traveling and visiting as I broke up the trip from the desert southwest to the Pacific northwest. I went up from Tucson to Phoenix last Sunday to spend some days with my family, which was as comforting as always. Dina got me two days’ worth of free passes to a very swanky gym in Arcadia called “The Village,” I got to see my nephew Aeson play baseball twice, once at the Homerun Derby on Sunday night and then a real game on Monday. Maybe others wouldn’t notice as much, but I found it quite a contrast from my normal life to be immersed in Little League culture, with all that that entails. I actually really got into the game, the first time in a long, long time I’ve been part of any sporting event. It helped that Aeson caught the winning pop fly to center field at the game. It was also his 12th birthday on Tuesday, so I got to celebrate that, and of course hang out with Mom and spend lots of time chatting with Dina and Steve. Now that Dad is gone and Mom only has a studio apartment, Dina’s house is kind of like home for me in Phoenix, and they makes me feel totally at home.

     I am intentionally driving rather than flying (and later taking trains whenever possible) for various reasons (besides the fact that I love to drive), but also being very intentional about not doing any breakneck distances so it stays pleasant. I left Wednesday noon from AZ and drove to just outside Riverside, CA. It’s notable to me how you can find very affordable hotel/motel rooms, especially at the last minute, if your standards aren’t too high. The next day I had a long interesting drive to Sonoma. My GPS took me on a rather circuitous route through the desert to connect me to I-5 from I-10, long stretches on two lane roads, at times not another car for miles, through Palmdale and Lancaster, and then up the 5, to CA12 and across to 80 and into Sonoma. 

I’ve treated myself to two audio books while I’m driving; someone sent me the record producer Rick Rubin’s interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn from Rubin’s podcast Tetragrammaton, which I thoroughly enjoyed and listened to twice. RR is interviewing JKZ about the 30th anniversary re-issue of Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go There You Are. I had never read the book, though I was aware of JKZ’s work with teaching mindfulness meditation and his work with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I was so impressed by their conversation that I downloaded both of their books on my phone, the 30th anniversary edition of Wherever You Go and Rick Rubin’s highly praised book from last year, The Creative Act. I suddenly realized that between the two of them they were encompassing my two favorite pastimes––music and meditation. Actually, I remember an exchange I had with the guy who forwarded the podcast to me (whose anonymity I will protect) during which I said to him, “You know what I think the solution is? More music and more meditation.” And he said to me, “You think that is the solution to every problem!” Well, ya. I still do. 

My only problem with audio books while driving is I get very frustrated not being able to underline the passage or dog-ear the page. JKZ’s book especially is highly quotable with an enormous amount of practical advice for the would-be meditator, beginner or long-time practitioner. He tells the story of how he got started when he was studying microbiology at MIT. In 1965 Huston Smith (yes, that Huston Smith) was teaching World Religions there at the time and had invited the Sōtō Zen Roshi Philip Kapleau to come and speak, who is considered one of the founding fathers of American Zen. JKZ was one of only three people in the audience and he said it “blew the top of his head off.” He then went on to say that you shouldn’t start talking to other people about meditation when you are a newcomer to the practice, “maybe for the first 20 or 30 years”! I almost drove off the road laughing.

My next big stop was to Skyfarm. Michaela and Francis and I were so close and spent so much time together during my Santa Cruz years, but I think I have only been able to be with them three times since I moved back to Big Sur in 2012. Now, blessedly, we have had three times together already during this sabbatical time. The added feature and the reason to make the diversion and add a day on to the journey northwest is that our friend Romuald Roberts was to be coming down from Oregon for his regular visit south just as I was making my way north. Rom is a gentle giant of a man, another former Camaldolese monk of Big Sur, like Francis, who was very close to Fr. Bruno in the ‘80s. Again like Francis, and Michaela, he came under the influence of Fr. Bede and India, consequently left and has been continuing the monastic-contemplative path on his own these many years. Romji also comes from some royal lineage: Alan Watts, the famous English writer and lecturer on Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism, was his uncle through marriage. The three of them had traveled to India together after leaving their respective communities and have remained close. As I told them, again I feel as one untimely born, as St. Paul described himself, and I listen with rapt attention as they tell stories about these great people they spent time with. 

Rom and I arrived minutes apart and appeared up at Michaela’s hermitage together about 5 PM, and the four of us spent the next five hours talking, eating, laughing. Rom and Francis apparently stayed up until 1:30 AM and continued their visit. We all had the morning to ourselves, though Michaela took me to her gym for a workout and jacuzzi, and then introduced me to Sonoma Ashram (too much to explain, but it is a lovely place, to be re-visited). When we got back to “the farm” we had lunch together, and then celebrated a beautiful Eucharist in the famous tea room, and then dinner and more conversation until I had to get myself to bed to prepare for the long journey the next day. I wrote to someone at midday Saturday saying that when I am there with them, I understand something deep about my own vocation, one of two or three places where I feel that’s true, the unique lineage that has inspired me, my life and my own work. It’s such a relief not to have to explain yourself all the time, to be with people who read the same things you do and share the same spiritual values.

The next day was the long slog to Portland. Most of it was not too bad and it was certainly beautiful, but the last few hours, coming into Portland were a little grueling. It was full 11 hours all told, with stops. I stayed with Pedro Rubalcava. His wife Kristen was out of town and so he was bach’ing it for the weekend anyway. In addition, my goddaughter Emily, who is now a young mother herself, was in town staying with another friend, so I got see her too. Pete and I had dinner out, retired early, had a beautiful early morning Eucharist together with Emily for the Ascension (not sure if that is allowed in the Archdiocese of Portland; don’t tell, please!), before I headed off for Lacey, WA I did have a quick stop just over the border in Vancouver to see John and Mary Pennington in their beautiful new home. I am going to be housesitting there next week when I go back down for some recording dates in Portland while they are on vacation in Iceland, so they wanted to show me around, give me the passcodes, etc.

I was texting back and forth with my host Abbot Marion of St. Martin’s Abbey as I left Vancouver, and he wrote that he was actually coming up from Mount Angel with two other monks and that they were about to stop in Vancouver for lunch, and he of course invited me to meet them. So I did. Marion and I hardly know each other––we only met briefly in Rome last year––and I didn’t know much of anything at all about St. Martin’s Abbey, so that was a very nice introduction, and a delicious bowl of vegetarian Pho besides. And now here I am.

As I am wont to say, I don’t know what I was expecting, but this is not what I was expecting. The campus (they also have a university) is right in the middle of the city, providing something like a 300-acre park/respite. The campus itself is very well-kept and beautiful, the monastery is rather typical cenobium, I suppose, long halls of cells and common rooms. The chapel is a lot nicer than I was expecting, the best of the modern (read, “Vatican II”) Benedictine style, nobly simple; there is exquisite modern art all over the place. The monastic community is not quite as formal as other places I’ve been such as Mount Angel, but they are still a lot more formal than Big Sur. There are about 20 monks, the majority elderly (70+), but a good slice of younger men, including Abbot Marion himself who is only 48. I fear he has a long tenure ahead of him, but he seems very well equipped for the job. He was a diocesan priest first, lived at the NAC (North American College) in Rome but studied at the Gregorian before joining the monastery, at which point he got sent back to Rome to do monastic studies for four years. He speaks Vietnamese, English, Spanish and Italian fluently, and has a good working knowledge of French. He’s a bundle of energy and has been very gracious in welcoming me. It’s always interesting for me to be with another monastic community, especially a “normal” Benedictine one. It makes me realize how eccentric the Camaldolese are, but also makes me treasure our unique charism too.

My conferences start tonight. This is the second of five retreats I am offering between May and early June, and no two of them are going to be the same material, it seems. I wasn’t exactly sure what material to use with these men, but I’ve decided to revisit the kenosis theme of The God Who Gave You Birth (hoping not too many here have read that book!). But it’s still good to have had a day to watch and listen, discern who and where the audience is, in every sense of that phrase.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

music and friendship (and some pious claptrap) in the heart of the desert

 3 May, Feast of Philip & James


I am currently “In the Heart of the Desert.” (If you don’t catch the reference, that’s the magical first album I did in collaboration with John Pennington back in 1998-1999, the one that got us started on the new musical trajectory together.) I’m at Picture Rocks, just outside of Tucson, at the Redemptorist Renewal Center, for the second time helping with the what-has-become-annual OCP Songwriters’ retreat, organized by my long-time dear friend and brother Tom Booth. His idea at the origin of this was just what it says, to get some of the newer songwriters in OCP’s catalogue together and do both some spiritual formation as well as “workshop” some songs in collaboration with other artists. I’ll write more about that below.

I drove here from the Bay Area Monday and Tuesday, over 1000 miles, staying the night partway in beautiful downtown Blythe, CA. When I was at the Hermitage for the Triduum and Easter, as per the deal I worked out with the brothers (that if I came home for Holy Week they would loan me a car for a month; John Pennington teased me this morning about how “transactional” I was…), I was supposed to leave the community’s 2011 Prius in Monterey for someone to fetch later. But when we were working out the details for that fetching, it was suggested that I just keep the car for another month. I warned them that I needed to drive some good distances with it (first here to AZ and then all the way up to Seattle and back down to California), but they seemed to think the car could handle those miles and they don’t really need it with the roads closed. I was all set to rent a car for the trip, but finally agreed to the plan which will save a lot of money. 

And so, the Mighty Prius and I made our way across the desert, stopping briefly for a little deviation to visit with Paul Ford and Janice Daurio in Camarillo. Being that close (right off the 101) it seemed a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity. That stop actually wound up adding several hours to the trip since I got caught in heavy traffic around Riverside, but no problem. I made it to Blythe by 8 PM, got a surprisingly good Chinese takeout meal and a good night’s sleep, and I made it to Tucson by lunch time Tuesday. All of which included driving into the glorious sunrise over the desert.

It's been a bit of a shock to my system to be here. I spent the last month in a solitary retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House in Los Altos. There is an apartment up at the top of the beautiful property in which I had made an eight-day retreat two years ago, and at that time had decided that when I made my post-priorship sabbatical I would like to spend an extended time there, and the Jesuits were very accommodating. It’s only a living room and a bedroom with a shared kitchen. I moved in the day after Easter and, as was the plan all along, I set up three microphones and my rudimentary recording equipment in half of the bedroom, with the plan to record my guitar and vocal tracks for at least two upcoming recording projects. Most days I got up at normal monk hours, did my meditation, went to the nearby gym (hence the luxury of having the car) where I got a workout, usually a sauna or jacuzzi, and some yoga in the studio, back home for breakfast care of the retreat center and morning prayer––and then got behind the microphones for two to three hours. Lunch break, nap and prayer, and then back to the microphones (or post-production stuff) for a few hours before evening prayer and a light dinner on my own. 

It was a marvelous experience, the first time I have ever combined that kind of intentional spiritual practice with recording. I took the weekends off, did a very minimum of socializing with friends who knew I was in the area, had a nice Sunday run every week at a nearby reservoir and one nice hike with a friend. Other than that, I was all on my own for three out of the four weeks. The last week I had errands and appointments and had a couple more visits, and I had delightful dinner with the Jesuit community one night. 

I had been planning on going to Italy to begin the Europe leg of the year in August, doing a good long retreat time at the Sacro Eremo before launching into my engagements in the fall. But it all went so well, and I was so relaxed and content, that I asked the Jesuits if I could reserve another month in the apartment. So, after the late spring/early summer travels and “work” I will be back there in late July. I am very happy about that. (I am intentionally putting the word “work” in scare quotes, remembering something I heard once: “If you love what you are doing you will never work a day in your life.” And so far this year, I simply love everything I am doing.)

The OCP Songwriters’ retreat… This is the third one. I came for the second one in January 2023 and offered two talks, presided at Eucharist and did a musical performance for the group. I am not coming as one of the participating songwriters, but I am honored that Tom asked me to not only do some teaching/formation last year, but also that he wanted them to hear my music. It is not a place for showcasing any particular artist. I remember last year, I did the first talk on integral spirituality in the morning, and then presided at a Mass sort of in the ashram style. We sat throughout in a beautiful wood floored room that used to be a zendo, some of us on the floor, and I prepared all music that I could lead even while presiding––“essentially vocal music,” as we Psallite people like to call it, some bhajans and acclamations from India, a few Psallite pieces and of course all the presider’s chants and dialogues. In this musical culture, heavily influenced by Praise & Worship music, the notion of chanting seems to have been somewhat neglected. Then I did the second presentation. If in the morning those gathered looked like they had been through a wind tunnel, by the afternoon they were very engaged, and we had some great discussions. And then to be asked to present my music was a real honor. This year there were several of the younger generation who are familiar with my music as far back at my first album, “Lord of Field and Vine” (1983), including the music if my band LUKE St. (Someone was singing “Prometheus” and “Maybe When I’m an Old Man” from that era today at lunch.) But last year I was an unknown quantity. And I have to say it went very, very well. And certainly very different from anything any of them are doing. I didn’t do much liturgical music, mostly the sacred world music. I thought they had had enough, but Tom brought me back by popular demand, this time in addition to two formation talks and presiding once again at the Eucharist (in very much the same style), serving as an unofficial spiritual director for the group.

The best part of the week, to be honest, is that this year some of my best an oldest music friends––and just plain best friends––were here, besides Tom, Pedro Rubalcava, John Pennington and Rick Modlin. Jaime Cortez, my guitar guru, even came down from Mesa for 24 hours. It was such a consolation to be sitting with these guys, all of us about the same age (I am the oldest by a month, Rick the youngest by 8 years), laughing and swapping stories with such instant ease and rapport. Oh my goodness. The talks went very well, as did the Eucharist again, and the several appointments I had with individuals were moving and profound. I am yet again moved by two things. One, just how much pain, how many wounds, people are carrying––we never know! All the more reason to err on the side of gentleness and kindness. And two: how courageous and resilient people are. My own petty problems pale in comparison with some of the issues that were shared.

We (John, Rick and I) did perform one piece of music. There was a song-sharing (no one wanted to call it a “concert”) last night, open to other guests. Tom asked me to do something with John to open the evening, and of course we wanted to include Rick, so we did a pretty nice, though unrehearsed, version of “This Is Who You Are (Litany of the Person).” I really wanted to showcase Rick and John’s talents and they can really stretch on that piece. I guess I also wanted the participants to see the sonic possibilities as well as extraordinary musical talent of those two brought to the service of sacred music. When we break into the, as John likes to call it, rhythmic modulation––going from 3/4 to 12/6 without every losing the downbeat; and then when Rick starts improvising at the end (not to mention me scatting over the top of the B section––I admit this time, as in the past, even I got goosebumps.

I realize that I have a very unique spiritual path––the combination of Camaldolese monastic and interreligious––but I felt acutely this time as if I am from a different world in almost every way from most of these musicians. There are some extraordinary musicians in the group, for sure. The skills of Sara hart and Thomas Muglia particularly stuck out for me. Though there were obviously some identifiable individual traits to  the songs that were presented, there was a commonality to the sound musically, a certain style of singing that was shared by several (often with just a hint of a southern accent even if they were not from the south and a way of biting off the end of the last word in a line), and a common lexicon to their texts as well. I was talking to my friends about this too, and they concurred. The best I can make out is it’s heavily influenced by the Praise & Worship music that comes out of Nashville. The word “worship” came up a lot, a word that obviously applies to liturgy, but I would hazard to say is not the central motif of liturgy (as a matter of fact one of my regular formation lectures on liturgy is entitled “From Ritual to Worship to Liturgy). And also “adoration” came up a lot, music that could be sung at Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I wonder if  Catholic musicians of this generation have moved back to devotional spirituality and somewhat away from liturgical spirituality, and why.

This group of musicians has become a real loving community of friends after three gatherings, and they are very sincere, talented, and devout people. I don’t know if I will ever be with them again, but I was glad to offer what I could, hear their songs and stories, and share mine.


Pedro is staying on through the weekend, lodging over at Booth’s house, because the International Mariachi Festival is taking place this weekend in Tucson. The two of them went with Tom’s lovely wife Tammy to that tonight and I will join them tomorrow for some of that. Tom and I are also going to look at some of the tracks I recorded last month for fine tuning, and then we will all celebrate Eucharist together Sunday before I head up to Phoenix to spend some days with my family. The Redemptorists were kind enough to let me stay here at the retreat house through the weekend. The building I am in is the same one that houses the zendo/meditation hall, but removed from the other hubbub of activity, though there is a meditation group here this weekend too. 

Tonight I had dinner with my friends Tessa Bielecki and Dave Denny, formally of the Sedona and Crestone Carmelites, both of whom are writers, now living just a few miles from here. We of course had a marvelous conversation about lo these many things. We know so many people in common and were dreaming of us all being together someday, along with Adam Bucko and Francis and Michaela of Skyfarm, this side of heaven. For now, so grateful for all the love and inspiration in my life, to be surrounded by such a great cloud of spiritual pilgrims, young energy, dedication, devotion and enthusiasm, and wise fellow travelers. 


Some things I’ve been thinking about…

First, the two talks I gave were based on two essays I’ve been working on, the first “A Body You Have Prepared For Me,” all about Mary, the annunciation and the visitation, and how central the flesh is to the whole Christian story. The second is entitled “Empty Words, Pious Claptrap, and Undigested Glop.” I don’t really have the explain what that one is about perhaps (empty words, pious claptrap, and undigested glop), but the subtitle of it is “On Authority and Love.” As I was rehearsing it, I kept wanting to slip a remark in about “Christian values,” which has become a kind of buzzword (if not an out and out dog whistle) in the political realm. I hesitated from adding it in specifically for that reason––knowing that there would be a wide range of ideologies at this gathering and not wanting to provoke a political debate. But it had left me wondering what exactly those Christian values were. Listening to the political discourse and how this term gets bandied about, you’d think it mainly meant protection of the traditional nuclear family and fighting against all the concomitant issues around sexuality––abortion, gay marriage, transgender rights, etc. (Honestly at times it seems like “the right to bear arms” gets thrown in there too as a Christian value.)

Sure enough, the phrase got brought up several times in discussions, almost as if I had put it in the air myself by thinking about it so much. One time it came up directly in regards the upcoming election and who to vote for. I went to bed that evening really wrestling with it, wanting to articulate my own belief, and what I came up with for Christian values was the seven corporal works of mercy, based on Matthew 25: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to travelers, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead. And one more thing: radical inclusivity. But then, I will admit, I did an internet search to see what is now commonly considered to be the list of Christian values, and I was shocked by what came up. I recommend you do it. The first list was love, humility, kindness, peace respect, generosity, and forgiveness. Other listings were simply the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26): love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Others of course mention belief in God along with living a moral life and practicing what you preach. But the answer I was looking for, and this was actually the point I was making in my talk and essay, came from a place called the Oak CE Learning Foundation: “Love is a core Christian value for our schools, because in the Bible we learn that God is Love and that God showed how much he loves us and how to love others.” Is this what people mean when they use that phrase? I suggest we challenge them on it, to make sure it's not just pious claptrap. I’d love to hear someone read Galatians 5:22-26 from the floor of the House or Senate. “My esteemed colleagues, I want to ensure that this bill is rooted in the Christian values that our country was founded on: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. With that I yield my time to the gentlewoman from Georgia.”

I was also thinking about how we Christians and the Christian tradition in general sometimes cherry-picks phrases out of the Jewish Scriptures that seem consoling and poetic, sometimes totally out of their original context.  One such is “Be still and know that I am God” from Psalm 46, a phrase that is used often as a spur for meditation, but which in context is in the midst of some very war-like imagery.


Come and see what the Lord has done,
    the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.


Another one is Your almighty Word leapt down from heaven from your royal throne, which is used as an entrance antiphon during the Christmas season. It’s already on shaky ground if you take the mythic language literally (i.e. “leaping down from heaven”), but in its context (Wis 18:15-17) it does not really convey the reign of the servant king who blessed the peacemakers:  


… your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne…
a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command,

and stood and filled all things with death,
and touched heaven while standing on the earth.
Then at once apparitions in dreadful dreams greatly troubled them,
and unexpected fears assailed them.


Merry Christmas!

The same applies to the favored phrase about the desert from Hosea 2:14, a phrase that I of course love (there’s a song on the new Animas album based on this line) and that is the motto of this desert house of prayer. The NRSV renders it I will now persuade her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. I went back to the rest of Chapter 2 of Hosea for the first time in a while and was shocked all over again to see how strong the language is in reference to Israel, as it is throughout the Book of Hosea. At the beginning of that same chapter God says through Hosea that she should


… put away her whoring from her face,
   and her adultery from between her breasts, 
or I will strip her naked
   and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
   and turn her into a parched land,
   and kill her with thirst.

There is a two-edged sword there, like the monastic cell or solitude itself: it’s a bridal chamber where God speaks tenderly to the soul, but first it’s a desert, a wilderness, a place of purification.  

With all that, still, good night from Picture Rocks, where at least tonight God is speaking tenderly to my heart.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

singapore and a little work in malaysia

 20 march, 2024

I’m back in California now, again staying with Bob and Ellen Peck until next week. I must say, 15 hours hurtling through the sky at 30,000 feet 300+ miles per hour––our bodies are just not supposed to do that. But it was without incident, thanks God, and I picked up a day coming home.

            The last week was certainly a change of pace from the easy flow of ashram life in India. I flew into Singapore from Delhi early morning March 11, met by good friend Leonard, and stayed with him two nights. He and I met Mark Hansen down at Arab Street the second evening. It being the first nights of Ramadan, there was quite a lot going on down there. All kinds of extra food stalls were set up near the grand mosque for the iftar at the end of fast, as well as other booths and shops. We had a delicious Turkish-Lebanese meal and walked around enjoying the sights and sounds. I also got in my first run in several weeks early in the morning along the canal outside of Leonard’s apartment complex and a morning at the gym there too. 

And then I headed up to Kuala Lumpur by bus on Wednesday where I had some "work." I chose the bus rather than flying, because these are great comfortable air-conditioned buses, and it’s a beautiful relaxing five hour trip with one stop along the way. I was met by my faithful old friends Pat Por and Joe Lipp of the WCCM Malaysia, and Ian John, both of whom were sponsoring me for some work I was to do there. I stayed at the newly built parish house at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Cheras, where I have been two or three times in the past. The pastor there is Fr. Paul, OFM Capuchin, who I had also met a few times in the past. It was a very comfortable private lodging with three bedrooms. The Malaysians are marvelously hospitable. 

The schedule was pretty full from there on. The main thing I was there for was to do three Lenten reflections with music and speaking. The first one was at St Francis Xavier Jesuit Parish on the other side of town. An amazing turnout of about 200 people on a Thursday night. It went very well. Friday evening, I did a small music workshop for Ian’s choir back at SFA. That was more fun than I thought it was going to be. I sang some fun songs with them first just to break the ice, then gave them a bunch of theory about music being mainly a share in the ministry of the Word, and how liturgical music, from my standpoint anyway, ought to be “essentially vocal.” And then we spent about an hour and a half with me teaching them Psallitè pieces, almost all acapella. They loved it and though it was a lot of work, I was very pleased at how well they sang the pieces. Then Saturday I did my Lenten reflection there at SFA before the evening Mass and then presided and preached at that Mass. On Sunday morning I did the same thing at the Cathedral. The pastor there is Fr. Gerard who I had also met, worked and lodged with in the past.

In between that there were several lunches and dinners. Malaysians and Singaporeans eat out a lot. Some say it’s actually more economical to do so, especially at the famous “hawker stands.” Plus we had a brief visit with Archbishop Julian Cheow who again I had met some years before when he was living and working in the seminary in Penang. He was a runner back then and I was interested to see if he has kept in shape. I am pleased to report he has! I was also impressed that he seems to have remained a simple down-to-earth guy. We met him at his residence-office, and he came into the parlor wearing what we would call simple street clothes (I am not sure I have ever seen a priest in clerical garb in Malaysia) and barefoot. 

I took the bus back to Singapore on Sunday afternoon. That was a bit of a longer trip given that there was a long delay at the border on the end of the weekend. You have to do immigration on both sides as well as bring your luggage in to get inspected.

My friend Keith Toh had arranged for me to stay at a nice hotel for the two nights that I was to be in Singapore before heading home, since I was to be doing something that he had arranged at the Tanglin Trust School, which I wrote about before I headed to India. It was a late night and an early morning, since we didn’t get in until 10:30 PM, and then I was to meet some other friends for breakfast the next day––Jeff Plein and his son Luke, who did a father-and-son Ora et Labora with us a few years back. Actually, Luke was a surprise. He’s in school at Yale now but had flown in at the last minute for Spring Break. 

Then a kind of long day at the Tanglin Trust. I was in the same room all day, which made it easier. In the morning I met with students from year 12 and 13, theology and philosophy classes. Our topic was “exploring arguments for the existence of God” and I was to offer some insights into different conceptions of the nature of God from around the world and the role of contemplation in reasoning about God. They were not as interactive as we (the teachers and I) had hoped they would be, but it went okay. Keith said I should have sung for them. So the next class in the early afternoon, I did start with a song. It’s a required class that’s part of the International Baccalaureate Curriculum (IBC) which Tanglin follows (which I had never heard of) called “Theory of Knowledge.” It’s not epistemology per se but rather “how different ‘knowledge communities’ construct knowledge, methods they use and perspectives they develop” (according to the notes I was given). Pretty sophisticated curriculum for 16/17-year-olds. After surveying the notes that Keith had sent along to prepare me for those classes, I had gotten up earlier than I would have naturally that morning to jot prepare some notes of my own. Whether because of that or not, that class was more interactive. Keith teased me about sending him 8 pages of notes at 7 AM (with footnotes), but I had to remind him that he is the one who could crank out a spread sheet in the middle of a Financial Advisory Board meeting. But he was right: I was way, way over-prepared.

The array of backgrounds of the students is phenomenal: several with dual citizenship, often British plus somewhere else, China, Italy, India, Pakistan, Denmark, the US, New Zealand and Australia are the ones I remember, with only a handful of actual Singaporeans, due to government regulations, I believe. I imagine these are all children of highly professional parents in business or diplomacy of some sort. 

The late afternoon was more like a concert, open to parents and faculty as well. It was entitled “Universal Wisdom: The Sounds and Songs We Share.” Basically it was me sitting on a stool singing songs and telling stories. 

After that I had a nice relaxing evening in my hotel room, Keith had a delicious meal delivered to me and I went to bed early for the early morning departure. As I said, I find those long flights really strange. I was squeezed in the middle seat between two not-small young gentlemen who were polite enough but also not very interactive (which was fine with me). I found a really fun Taiwanese Sci-Fi TV series called (in translation from the Chinese) “Oh No: Here Comes Trouble.” I have now learned what people mean when they say they “binge watch.” There were 12 episodes, all about 45 minutes long, and I got to watch 10 and a half of them before we landed, which took up a lot of the flight. Customs and immigration were mercifully quick at that hour, my bag arrived, and Ellen picked me up at the SFO airport, and now I am safely ensconced at their home for the next week. 

I will be going up to Skyfarm in Sonoma to spend Palm Sunday with the Francis and Michaela, but other than that I have a very quiet week ahead of me: Bob and Ellen left for the east coast this morning and I have the house to myself ‘til Sunday! Then somehow I will be heading south to Big Sur just for the Triduum next week, rain and roads allowing. After that I am heading into a month-long solitude retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House in Los Altos, during which time I plan on being offline until May, so this may be the last you hear from me for a while.

Every blessing on the upcoming Holy Days. May the memory of the Passion and Death of Jesus, as well as the energy of Easter and the Eucharist, make us grow in our awareness of our place in this world so in need of mercy.

Some pics....

Music workshop at SFA Friday evening.
My Malaysian "handlers": Ian, Joe Lipp, Ann,
Pat Por, Fr. Gerard

Ian's family who I have known for some years, 
        brunch on Saturday morning after the gym. 

Beautiful St John's Cathedral, 
Kuala Lumpur.

Setting up at Tanglin before the students came.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

a natural upsurge of energySaurab

 March 7, 2024, from Sadhana Mandir Ashram, Rishikesh


The promenade along the Ganges is not far from my window. If I open my curtains people could basically watch me sleeping. It’s 4:30 AM and I already hear pretty distinct voices of folks walking along it. Every now and then you see someone jogging. I was planning on doing that myself but with the schedule for the day there hasn’t seemed to be an opportune moment to sneak in a run. I have enjoyed walking it myself though. The weather has been quite pleasant, not too darned cold at night (there is no heat) and very mild during the day. Like other places I’ve been in north India, the houses are built to retain the cool for the hot months so in the winter rooms such as mine are like meat lockers nearly all day long. They supply marvelous thick duvets of sorts on the bed though, so sleep is no problem, and I wrap up in blankets to do my meditations.

Sunrise over the Ganges from the window of my room.

If I have any disappointment about this week, it’s that I would have liked it to be a little more retreat-like. I suppose if I had not attended the Daily Ashram Program (DAP) and kept to myself, as many guests do, it would have been different. The ashram itself feels a little bit like a hubbub of activity some days, and even though there are signs all over the place saying “SILENCE,” it is not observed very much. There is even a sign on every table in the eating hall that says “SILENCE,” but many folks carry on conversations at about half volume, as if that counts. I was worried about playing my guitar, but my next-door neighbor practices scales on his flute, which is quite loud, each day at 11 AM, so no problem.


The DAP is not as formal as I thought it would be. Attendees at the sessions come and go and the residents don’t attend at all. (I’m such a rule follower! I was sticking to the agreement that I was to attend all the sessions the first three days.) In the early morning there is a session called “joints and glands,” which I thought was a humorous name, but it’s mostly breathing and stretching, no real asanas. Swami Rama, the late founder was very big on pranayama. So far, all but one of the sessions has been led by young Saurab, 23 years-old, recent graduate of the Yoga University near Dehradun and an intern here. His English is pretty good once you get used to his accent and vocabulary. One pranāyama session was led by another intern named Kunji, whose English was very limited so that was a bit of a trial. He kept saying, “The whole body are relax.” Hard to silence the discriminating mind and not sure whether or not to correct him. I did offer Saurab one correction the other evening: instead of “causal body” he kept referring to the “casual body.” When I explained the difference, he found the humor in it. I was trying to imagine myself teaching any class or leading a yoga session in Italian. My guess is it would be a lot worse, so hats off to them.


There is a philosophy class at 10:30, the first two days a survey of Samkhya and yoga philosophy. Saurab is very knowledgeable about the tradition, though it was hard to have a discussion with him since he does not seem to know much about any other tradition. But we did have a pleasant exchange about the difference between “spirit” and “soul,” and also the connection between mind and soul, the nerdy stuff I like (and the topic of my Masters Thesis and nearly unreadable second book). Then there is another pranāyama session right before lunch and a rigorous asana practice at 5 PM.


I wound up having a few sessions with Saurab by myself. He’s a very talented yogi––I found out later that he has been studying since he was 4 years old and seems to come from a family of yogis. I have been comparing him to a pipe cleaner which we used to play with as kids, a wire covered with fur that you could bend in any shape. A 23-year-old pipe cleaner without an ounce of fat on his body who can basically fold himself into a wallet––needless to say, the asana classes have been challenging. He has not yet learned the art of finding where his students are at and leading them beyond. We have had up to six people in the class, but some of them dropped out because it was too difficult, and I did hear a few of them grousing about it after class the other day. He also has an issue with counting. You can hear the clock ticking behind us but when he says “30 more seconds” it usually lasts over a minute, for example. (I suppose he could be using “yoga seconds.”) But he will also at times start counting up and you have no idea how far he is going to count, sometimes 8, sometimes 12. And then he will count backwards and stop to adjust someone and then start at the same number when he is done. So, some long holds! The variations on postures that I already know may be the most challenging thing. Thus far I have been able to get into at least a modified version of all but one asana, but my hips are pretty sore. 


Last night, not sure whether or not it is because of the unhappiness of the other ashramites, I wound up being the only one in the asana class. Saurab and I had had a few friendly conversations, and at the start of class he asked me if I had ever been to the aarathi up river at Triveni. I said no, and after some confusing exchange I finally figured out that he wanted me to go to the aarathi at Triveni with him that evening, which started at 6:30, which meant that we would cut short the asana class. I was absolutely fine with that, and he led me through some nice hip opening asanas, and we set out down the promenade at about 6. Along the way we told each other a little more about our backgrounds. He is bound and determined to be a yoga teacher in Singapore, of all places. But if I knew of a place in California that needed an Indian yoga teacher… His family comes from a village up near the source of the Ganges. He by that time had figured out that I was a monk and I explained that I was on a sabbatical after ten years in leadership. He asked me some questions about monastic life, and at one point asked, “Are you the pope of your church?”


The aarathi was indeed a sight to see. It’s done every night, similar to what I have experienced here in Haridwar/Rishikesh before. The main devotion is to Ganga Mata herself, Mother Ganges, and is led by young priests in training standing on platforms on the bank of the river, waving large ghee lamps while the music plays from behind, highly choreographed. There were thousands of people there. Saurab said it is very popular with tourists, but I did not see many, though I didn’t feel too conspicuous. When the aarathi was done people then gather in front of the musicians on what was like a dance floor and then the kirtans start up in earnest. He had asked me on the way if I dance, and I said maybe not, not sure what was going to happen. Well, as the music turned up to a fever pitch it really did break out into a kind of ecstatic dance, with lots of shouting and singing along. Everyone seemed to know the words. I did not want to be in the middle of it so let myself get squeezed to the outskirts of the dancing area near a pillar, all the while keeping my eye on Saurab. I think in the past I might have felt a little moment of panic in a situation like that––it feels like there is always the possibility of being trampled by a crowd in India––but this time I felt safe and Saurab was keeping an eye on me too. It was really fun to see him break loose in “praise and worship.” As we left, we stopped at a little Hanuman shrine (his main devotion, he told me shyly, is to Ram), and again very touching to see how devout he was.


This same school of yoga, Himalayan Yoga Tradition, has another ashram about 3 km down the road, Sadaka Gram Ashram, which is their main center (though this place is the original). It is very large, set up to host big conferences. Our Brother Axel, who is a very well-trained yogi in this same tradition, has already been there for some weeks. It is he who recommended this place to me. He and a delightful Italian woman named Lucia came to see me here earlier in the week, and then as planned I went down there yesterday afternoon after lunch for a full tour of the place and a long visit with Axel, which was a really fine meeting. Axel and I both had some “disappointments,” shall we say, at the Chapter at Camaldoli this past fall so it was healing to talk that through from this distance, physically and emotionally. He is opening a new chapter in his monastic life in that he is going to be moving from the Sacro Eremo in Italy to have a trial period with our fledgling community in Hildesheim, Germany, which is of course his country of origin. 


Again, the issue of the kavi robes came up. He has a couple of very nice sets and wears them everywhere in the ashram, as well as walking the road and back and forth along the river. He is often referred to as “Swami” and noted to me that people recognize the orange robes as the sign of a monk. I find the dhoti so comfortable, but I am just not there. I have this aversion to either seeming like I am going native (no Indians dress like that here at this ashram) and a real caution about cultural appropriation––a white Christian wearing the robes of a Hindu monk and then changing back into street clothes––especially in Nerendra Modi’s India. 


Now already making my plans for the next transitional phase, back down to Delhi Saturday, two nights at my old haunt, the YWCA Blue Triangle Family Hostel, and then fly to Singapore Monday. It’ll be nice to have a day to tramp around Connaught Place and see how Delhi has changed since I was there 15 years ago. Tomorrow, Friday, is Maha Shivaratri, a major festival here especially on the Ganges, so there will be no classes for which I am grateful.


Sunday, 10 March, 2024


It is nicer than I thought it was going to be to be back at the YWCA Blue Triangle Family Hostel here in Delhi. As I was coming here in the taxi yesterday, I recognized the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s House, then the big Gurudwara, and then I called out to the driver, “It’s here!” as we passed the YWCA Blue Triangle Family Hostel. He seemed surprised and apologetic and, though I asked him to let me out at the corner and I would walk back, he insisted on driving all the way around again, which took an additional ten minutes given the traffic in Delhi and the maddening array of one-way boulevards in this area. We passed the spot where I got hit by a car in 2009––well, grazed by the mirror of a passing taxi going the wrong way, but still… the memory of the fact that if I had been one second faster I might very well be road kill still gives me the shivers. 


This place is clean but more run down than I remember, but I’m very happy here. I have a huge room (they had no single rooms left but it is still eminently affordable from the perspective of the USD). And the food in the little canteen/restaurant is really good. I didn’t venture out last evening, but I plan on going to Mass at the cathedral this morning, then perhaps tromping up to Connaught Place. My nextdoor neighbor from the ashram, Dhruv, the flute player, told me about his school of music and a cultural center nearby and then offered to take me there if he is free. So I might do that in the late afternoon. It would be nice to see Delhi from the perspective of a native, and it will be interesting to see how much it has changed since I was last here which I think might have been 2009!


You knew it was a festival day by early morning Friday: there is often some music from loudspeakers playing in the early morning hours almost everywhere in India, but there was especially a lot of it that day. I spoke too soon about there not being classes on Shivaratri. At dinner Thursday night, young Saurab went up to each one of us and whispered that there would indeed be the 6:45 joints and glands class. I was actually looking forward to a morning to myself, maybe an early morning jog along the river and my own practice, but I felt somewhat impelled to attend and avail myself of every opportunity to get some input into my own practice. Saurab has been showing up every day in something like workout clothes, black sweats and a hoodie. But this day he was all in freshly pressed white kurta and pajamas, with his hair combed and beard trimmed. He was going to be going to the temple immediately after class. 


Saurab in his festal whites saluting
Ganga Mata after class on Shivaratri.

I didn’t realize the significance of the feast for yogis. All I had heard was it was the legendary day when Shiva married Parvati. But some people say it is the most significant event in India’s spiritual calendar. The fourteenth day of every lunar month or the day before the new moon is known as a Shivaratri. But among all the twelve that occur in a calendar year, the one that occurs in February-March is of the most spiritual significance and so is called Maha-Shivaratri. Aside from its mythical significance, on that night, the northern hemisphere of the planet is positioned in such a way that there is thought to be a natural upsurge of energy, “when nature is pushing us towards our spiritual peak.” That’s why many people celebrate it all night long. To allow this natural upsurge of energies to find their way you are supposed to stay awake with your spine erect all night long. I am very attracted to the idea of lining ourselves up with the natural gifts that nature has to offer, aligning ourselves with the cycle of the seasons. The indigenous peoples all over the world have a real gift to offer us in this way.


I did have the rest of the day free. There was a handful of extra guests at the ashram, some preparing for the evening puja which was to take place, others gathering early for a retreat that was to start on Saturday, so the place felt a little extra crowded. After lunch I ventured off on my own back down the same route to the big market and the ghats upriver at Triveni. So much going on there! I originally was going to walk back on the road instead of along the river but it was quite unpleasant with all the traffic and dust, so I had a lovely meditative walk back, passing lots of people prepping for the evening’s ceremonies, weaving garlands and cooking pastries.


I had a nice long exchange with Ma Tripuram, the youngish Dutch woman who is the main monastic and teacher there. She sought me out at teatime, wanting to hear about me (she already knew Axel) and I was fascinated to hear her story as well. She sees herself as a sannysini in the universal yoga lineage, not really as a Hindu. We spoke about the usual things––perennial philosophy, non-duality, the changing climate in India. I gave her my spiel about the energy and the container, and how I find yoga to be a marvelous container for my devotion to Jesus and my Christian spiritual life, which she really loved. She goes back to Holland each summer where she does not wear her kavi robes.


I did dress up and go to the puja that evening out of respect. It was held in a big hall, with many extra guests and visiting dignitaries of sort, mostly administrators from the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy in Dehradhun. The VIPs were seated in a semi-circle at the front with the portrait of Swami Rama and all the vessels and instruments for the ceremony. There was a line of about ten Brahmin priests on the right and of course the main pandit and pujari. It was supposed to start at 5:30, but it didn’t start until 6. The priests were chanting the entire time––something I was used to––and the pandit gently guiding the main participants through the ceremony, while the rest of us watched. After an hour there was a little break and I asked my neighbor Dhruv, who was seated next to me, if it would be rude to leave. He assured me, no, and so I went off to dinner and bed. Another great night’s sleep and this time I did have the morning all to myself, besides packing up, seeing if I have added any new skills to my own practice after this intense week immersed in another tradition. 


They needed my room for this new retreat coming in, but they had assured me that I could stay until breakfast. So I cleaned up, packed up and after breakfast went looking for a place I could store my stuff and kill a couple of hours doing my own lectio and prayers before I had to head out. This happens so often: the very last day I find the perfect spot. Upstairs from where we did our DAP was just marked “silent hall.” I stored my stuff under the staircase and ventured up there only to find out it was Swami Rama’s old rooms, now turned into a kind of shrine and meditation hall. I spent a very powerful two hours there wishing I had found the space earlier. It reminded me of staying in Swami Saccidananda’s rooms at the Divine Light Society in Kuala Lumpur with Mother Mangalam all those years ago, where and from whom John Main learned meditation. There was kind of a touching moment. I was to take an autorickshaw to meet Axel again back at Sadaka Gram at 10:30 and had told Saurab that that was my plan. As I was coming down the stairs from the Swami’s rooms, he was coming into the building. I asked him if he had philosophy class today, and he said no, he was coming to find me. Right behind him was old Vippi; the two of them just wanted to accompany me out and get me my autorickshaw, which they did. I would really like to return there someday for a longer stay, though they tell me it is beastly hot in the summer months.


I really do respect that tradition, and of course love the idea of yoga being a universal science, a part of the sanatana dharma. I also love the fact that Swami Rama sponsored medical facilities that serve the poorest of the poor, that there is social outreach from the practice. It was only later that I learned that from the 1970s onwards, there were persistent allegations of sexual abuse against him. In 1997 a woman won a lawsuit against him for multiple sexual assaults. Disappointed but not surprised. Obviously, this is not just a Catholic problem. Ken Wilber calls it, “the uneven development of spiritual leaders,” writing mainly about the Buddhist tradition. But (I was writing about this the other day), principles before personalities!


I fly in the morning back to Singapore, then almost immediately to Malaysia for a little work in Kuala Lumpur.