Thursday, June 5, 2008

il fondo dell'anima

Thus, the Divine is not real as we are real, nor is it unreal. The divine is not living in the sense humans live, nor is it dead. The Divine is not compassionate as we use the term, nor is it uncompassionate. And so on. We can never truly define God in words. All we can say, in effect, is that “It isn't this, but also, it isn't that either.” In the end, the student must transcend words to understand the nature of the Divine.

In this sense, neti-neti is not a denial. Rather, it is an assertion that whatever the Divine may be, when we attempt to capture it in human words, we must inevitably fall short, because we are limited in understanding, and words are limited in ability to express the transcendent. The original most ancient texts of the tathagathagarbha shed light on the practice of neti neti as a tool to Self-realization aka Brahman.
It’s so satisfying when things coalesce. In the homily for the wedding, I used the phrase il fondo dell’anima –the ground of the soul, as suggested by Stefano. I didn’t know that Marco Vannini, who as I mentioned was also in attendance, was mainly an Eckhart scholar, nor did I realize that that is how Eckhart’s gr√ľnt is translated into Italian. Apparently his ears perked up when he heard that and it led to a wonderful conversation. And then the next day my young Indian friend Sri sent me the above quote, a commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which seems as if it could be from the Meister instead.

According to apophatic theology––or the via negativa––instead of saying what God is like by ascribing certain attributes to God (God is love, God is light, God is truth), we come to know God by recognizing that God is beyond all of our ability to understand, comprehend, grasp or communicate. Yes, God is Father, but no, God is not Father as pictured in the old Catechisms, an old man with a flowing white beard. Yes, God is person, but beyond any concept, philosophical or otherwise, that we could come up with of “person.” So in the apophatic way, God is known by negating any concepts that might be applied to God, and (as the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions describes it) by “stressing the inadequacy of human language and concepts to say anything about God.”

Meister Eckhart goes even farther and says things such as, “God is not wise. I am wise. God is not light. I am light.” And his famous expression is “God is not this, not that!” Neti neti! These are the things he said that got him into a lot of trouble because they were misunderstood. What he was pointing to was the same principle, that all our descriptions of God are hopelessly inadequate. I can be wise; but God is so far beyond anything I could ever be that that word is an inadequate description. All my descriptions are what psychology might call “projections” onto God of qualities I admire outside of myself.

It’s Friday, feast of St Norbert, himself both a monk and a wandering preacher. It’s been a great week. I’ve been spending early mornings at home at casa Rossi, then going to a nearby gym where I got a weekly pass, and going off to Italian class every afternoon. The classes, really private lessons 2 1/2 hours a day, have not been difficult but they have been fun and informative, led by an older, very cultured Italian woman named Matilde, who speaks to me very carefully and loudly. I have found myself speaking like her on occasion. She says I am bravissimo with my Italian but it's not true. My comprehension is pretty high but, in spite of the immersion in Italian this week, I still struggle mightily in conversation and don’t think I have regained the level at which I was speaking back some years ago. Still in all, I have enjoyed it immensely, and they say learning a language is one of the best exercises for the mind as we age. But also for me, reading the Scriptures in or translating poetry into another language is quite a moving thing; it uncovers other meanings that you might have missed in your own language.

One of the things Matilde and I worked on was my commentary for the upcoming concerts. It was interesting to have to defend some of my choices of words to describe some of the pieces. Often Matilde thought I was not using exalted enough words for a concert of sacred music. She didn’t like that I said for instance, regarding my setting of the Canticle of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, that I hope Francis would like it, Spero che gli piace and thought instead that I should say Spero che sia gradito al santo––“I hope that it be pleasing to the saint.” Luisa, who is also quite a linguist, by the way, disagreed.) I was trying to explain to la signora that that was in some way the heart of my particular gift in sacred music, to find the holy in the ordinary. That seems to me to be also particularly the gift of Saint Francis, even that he wrote his canticle in the vernacular Italian instead of Latin as would have been the more common thing to do for a sacred poem in his day.

Luisa has kindly offered to fix me pranzo early each day before I go to school, but I have assured her that it is quite divertente for me to find pick up a little something per strada-on the road each day. Yesterday I stopped by a little place that advertised Specialit√† Siciliane and asked is they had anything vegetariana. The young woman recommended an arancina, which I took to mean, a “little orange.” It was indeed shaped like an orange. When she asked me if I wanted it heated up, I asked if it really was an orange (a hot orange did not sound pleasing). She looked at me like I was an idiot and said, Non, signore, ha soltanto la forma di un’arancia––It’s only shaped like an orange. Who knew? It was delicious, a rice ball filled with cheese and spinach coated with bread crumbs and, I suppose, fried. “It isn't this, but also, it isn't that either.” In the end, the student must transcend words to understand the nature of the Divine, no?

I’ve been trying to go to a new place very day to pray and meditate in the afternoon, since the city is filled with churches, most of them empty save for the ones that are filled either with culture vultures or tourists who have no idea of the spirituality behind the great frescoes or sculptures, but are lapping up souvenirs like aprons that show nothing but the private parts of Michelangelo’s statue of David. I’ve been irritated by the crowds, having never been here at the height of tourist season before, or maybe more irritated by the fact that a city full of such spirituality and art and culture has become like Disneyland. There is an oasis of peace at the Badia FIorentino, where the monks and nuns of the Jerusalem Community have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and gather from their various jobs around the city (a unique feature of their life) to sing their beautiful Byzantine based harmonized chants every day at mezzo giorno e mezzo––12:30. I had been there before, both with our former prior general Emmanuele and with Stefano. It’s one of those rare places in Italy where you can actually sit on the floor in church, as they themselves do. I was at the church of San Carlo yesterday, itself the home of the Emanuele Community also founded in France as the Jerusalem community was, but this one a lay community devoted to the Eucharist and inspired by it to spread the love of God through various ministries. I don’t why these things make more sense to me here than they do in the US, or at least seem easier.

I’ve been up to the monastery of San Miniato four times now as well to visit my friends there and pray with them. Even in my running shoes and khakis, they usually slip a cowl over me and have me join them singing the sinewy Gregorian chants for vespers and Mass, and take my place in the refectory for pranzo or cena. When Abhishiktananda writes about the “Gregorian peace” that’s the place I think of. We Camaldolese tend to disdain “old fashioned” monastic life like that, but when I read the life of St Romuald, as I am doing again now, it seems to me that when he reformed monasteries, as opposed to or in addition to founding hermitages, he had the monks live a simple rather rigorous observant common life. We Camaldolese instead have a tendency to skip over all the formalities in the name of freedom, which can be kind of nebulous since it may or may not have been actually reached. That can be a slippery slope.

I’ve also been back to the ashram twice. On Saturday night before the wedding, Stefano and Pamela, along with Pamela’s mother and I went for the weekly chanting of the mahamrtyam jaya mantra––Om tryam bhakam yam jamahe…––108 times for the sake of the peace and well-being of the world. They also sang some wonderful kirtans on either side of the mantra, but it was the first time I have experienced that repetition and did I love it. It was such a powerful experience to lose oneself in a chant like that, when the words sort of dissolved inside the sound and the sense of the separate self in some way as well. Then Luisa and I went back Tuesday evening for yoga, riding on two beat up bicycles through the rain. He led a beautiful seduta–session of yoga ending with yoga nidra, a kind of yoga done lying prone on the ground and being led through a series of visualizations. I’d only been introduced to it myself this last time in India so it was wonderful to experience it first hand, led by a pro. You are urged to commit yourself to not going to sleep during the session, but I heard at least two people snoring, and the swami interrupted himself twice saying a little louder than usual, “Stiate svegliati! Stay awake!” The Swami has been most gracious to me and even called yesterday to greet me and ask if I was going to come back for yoga last night, which I was not able to do.

Vacation time starts today. My family arrives tomorrow––and so also the end of my Italian immersion. We will spend a week together in a rented house in a city called Tavernelle. My friend John arrives next Friday, and will accompany us to Camaldoli on the weekend. Then the coro californiano arrives after that, Monday the 16th, to begin our retreat and concert series, first there at Camaldoli, then on to Assisi, then Florence and Rome. I plan to slip away and spend June 19th, the feast of St Romuald, at the motherhouse at Camaldoli, and then rejoin the choir in Florence. I don’t expect to be writing much the next week during vacation days, but will try to post something from Assisi.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

our union is like this...

1 june 08

Our union is like this:
You feel cold
and I reach for a blanket to cover our
shivering feet.

A hunger enters your body,
so I hurry to the garden and start to
dig up potatoes.

You asked for some words of
comfort and counsel,
and I knelt by your side offering you an entire
book as a gift.

One night you suffered so much from the
pain of loneliness that you cried;
and I said, Here’s a rope: tie it around me, and
I will be your companion for life.
after Hafiz

Today was the wedding. It was a beautiful chapel and was full to the rafters with about 100 people. Everyone scurried around telling each other what to do and arranging things for about 45 minutes, and suddenly we just started. Don Andrea, the parish priest, gave some opening remarks and then snuck out the back door leaving the whole thing to me. There were six witnesses, Stefano and Pamela and the choir with all the children of the choir members all gathered in the sanctuary with me. I didn’t have to say much until the Gospel and the homily. By the time I got to that I was already pretty hot, and not just from the humid cloud that has descended on Florence––what the Fiorentini call una cappa––but from the layers of cloth and a little bit of nerves preaching in Italian. After one little mistake in the reading of the Gospel (I was quickly corrected by one of the witnesses at my side), it all went fine. Stefano had helped me write the homily.

I was very touched by the readings that they chose for the wedding. They weren’t so much about marriage as they were about the context of a marriage and particularly about the choice of a way of life, and the context and state of heart necessary for that choice.

The first reading was that marvelous story from the Book of Kings, the same one, which––Stefano and I marveled at––I chose for my solemn vows, God being revealed to Elijah not in the earthquake or in the fire storm or in the thunder but in gentle breeze. There are other translations of this “gentle breeze.” My favorite, even if it is not the most accurate is that of the NRSV: “the sound of sheer silence.” When the time comes for us to choose a way of life, how can we really know what God wants for us? Well, we have to somehow find the voice of God that isn’t always in apparent things, nor in showy things, but is in this gentle breeze, in this sound of sheer silence. The voice of God is revealed and can only really be heard in this sheer silence. Where do we find this silence? Elijah found it in a cave on the mountain. We, too, find it in a cave––the guha, the cave of our heart, the ground of our soul.

Admittedly, this is a rather optimistic view of the human person, that we can find the will of God written in our hearts, but do not the Scriptures confirm it? Jeremiah prophesies, “I will make a new covenant, I will write it on their hearts” and Paul in Romans says, “The word is near us, on our lips and in our hearts.”

They used Psalm 91 as a response: “You will not fear the terrors of the night, nor the arrows that fly by day…” and the letter of John for the second reading (1 Jn 4:16-21), about the “perfect love that casts out all fear.” The Gospel was Matthew (7:21-27), which was again about God not being in the apparent things––“not everyone who calls me, ‘Lord, Lord!’”––and also about “the house built on a rock.” I hope I didn’t stretch too far, but it all fell together in this way: it seems to me that the strongest ties are those between people who are each one “at home” in their own beings, in their own person, not those between people who fear the terrors of life, or the terror of solitude or abandonment. Perfect love casts out all fear because perfect love carries us to ourselves, again, to our guha, to the depths of our own souls, where the voice of God is. And, to put it simply, this is the house built on rock, the rock of our own Being, a house constructed not of fear, not of scarcity, but built of two (or more) complete people standing on the rock of their being.

Stefano wanted to have a reading from the Indian scriptures too and asked me to choose one. I picked that great passage from the Taittiriya Upanishad (1:9) that’s addressed to grihasta–householders:
They must practice virtue: learning and teaching.
Austerity: learning and teaching.
Control of the senses: learning and teaching.
The sacrificial fires must be lit: learning and teaching.
They must welcome guests: learning and teaching.
They must follow correct social conduct: learning and teaching….
I’ve learned along the way, not only from the Bhagavad Gita but also from the practical experience of the many holy lay people I have met––not to mention from so many of us half-hearted and mediocre religious––, that there really is no one way of life higher than another. That’s just an abstract formulation. The Upanishads for the most part address sannyasis, renunciate monks. But right there in the middle of the Taittiriya Upanishad there is this little passage addressed to householders, urging them to not only study, as a monk might, but also to teach. (Both Stefano and Pamela are teachers, so it seemed even more appropriate.) But study what? In order to teach what? Not just the history of art (as Pamela does) nor math and science (as Stefano does). But to learn the art of living a life that stays close to the heart, and to raise others who can follow the same path that one has discovered, to pass on a way of life close to the heart where the voice of God dwells in the deepest part of our beings.

Anyway, that was basically the homily. Then we did the exchange of vows and the blessing of the rings and all that that involved. It all went quite smoothly until just after the Sanctus, when suddenly the lights went out! The couple was standing next to me by now, at my right and my left. It was a little dark in the old church and I asked Stefano to find a lighter to relight the candles, which had also gone out by this time, so I could use them to read by. The candles wouldn’t relight, and so Stefano tried holding the little lighter next to the Sacramentary, which didn’t work at all either. When I turned to him and said, “No, non va––that’s not working,” we both started to laugh. Mind you I was already halfway through the Eucharistic Prayer by this point. I somehow managed to pull it together and we made it through the consecration. Just after I stood back up after lifting up the chalice, the lights suddenly went back on. I smiled and said, “Ah, il mistero della fede––the mystery of faith!” which caused the whole church then to crack up. I continued with the post consecration prayers when suddenly Pamela started to giggle. Luckily it didn’t get much farther than that, but by this point I was bathed in sweat, between the heat, concentration and trying not to laugh. It could have been a disaster, but it wound up being a really joyous celebration.

There is an extra little part of the wedding here in Italy: the civil code and all the legal agreements that marriage involves must be read out loud at the end of the Mass as well, which consists of two different complicated documents. This was done half by me (the easy part) and the rest by a woman in the choir who is a lawyer (all the technical stuff), and then both of them had to be signed four times, first by the priest, then by the couple, and then by all six witnesses (that’s 36 signatures, in case you’re counting), while the whole assembly stands there waiting to applaud the couple by shouting and throwing rice. This is Italian bureaucracy at it’s finest, but no one complained or even looked annoyed. I suppose they are used to it. I’m not entirely sure the whole thing was valid, but it was at least licit.

I’ll write more about the eight course vegetarian meal that followed in a medieval castle in the Chianti region later.