Tuesday, October 11, 2016

intentional effort

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

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

8 October, 2016, Penang, Malaysia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 6, 2016

widening circles (updated)

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

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

5 October, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving for Penang today.

Monday, October 3, 2016

a hidden wholeness

1 October, 2016, Queenscliff, Australia

It’s an act of rebellion to show up as someone trying to be whole, and as someone who believes there is a hidden wholeness beneath the very evident brokenness of our world.
                        Parker Palmer

Aussie fish 'n chips, "flake."
I had a wonderful three more free days down on the peninsula with Hans before coming here to the oblate retreat. There are a series of towns and villages on the bay side of the peninsula, some very simple and some on the luxurious side. Hans and Ruth have kept the house near the village of Rye that they lived in when Hans served as parish priest in nearby Sorrento. Many of the homes in this area are holiday homes and theirs too had the feeling of a beach house, a cross between Santa Cruz and Live Oak. There is of course a good surfing community here, and I actually learned that billabong is more than a brand name of surfing gear; it’s an aboriginal word (actually two: billa=water + bang=a channel), for a stagnant backwater pool off a river. Fr. Michael had driven me down, a long ride from the retreat center at Warburton with lively conversation, and after lunch Hans and I had a quiet afternoon with some errands, though he indulged me in my one wish for dinner: for some reason I had a hankering for fish and chips, to see how the Australian variety stacked up as compared to the English and Canadian. Just after dark he took me to a little place called Hector’s (with a name like that for all the world I was sure that the owners were going to be Mexicans; they weren’t), and we had “flake,” which is actually shark. Hans thought we would take away and eat at home, but I wanted the whole experience and suggested that we eat in, which actually meant eating out, on a metal table on the sidewalk right off the shore with a pretty blustery wind blowing, a scene that Hans has recounted several times already…

I have my old tried and true prayer service with me that I used to use on the road and which I was planning on using for this oblate retreat, and I decided to try it out on Hans. He liked it so much that we prayed morning and evening together from Wednesday night on, reading the Tao te Ching and Katha Upanishad off of my iPhone. We even co-opted Ruth into midday prayer with us before we left yesterday, that time reading from Laudato Si which Hans is reading with great admiration. Not often that kind of treat occurs, finding someone to pray and meditate with. In the morning on Thursday after taking the border collie, Nelson, for a walk down at the beach on the ocean side of the peninsula (it narrows here so that it is only a kilometer or so distance between the ocean and the bay), Hans took me on a grand hike in the national park. We first went one direction over some hills ‘til we spotted a herd of kangaroo. It was so cool, there were so many of them though I wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t pointed them out, so well camouflaged in the bush. And they were much bigger than I would have thought and looked strong and fearsome, though they themselves are timid. We kept walking toward them; they would stand and stare at us for a time with their limpid eyes and then bounce bounce bounce boing boing boing across the bush.
Then we headed the other direction, about a 5 kilometer hike through the bush and down to the shore, where we ate spinach and cheese pasties that Hans bought at the local pasty shop, which is now owned by a young Swedish gentleman, with whom Hans had a lively conversation. (Hans is originally from Denmark, and by the way it’s not pronounced “Hahns” as one might expect; the Danish is much more like “Hanns,” short flat “a.”) Later, after prayers, Hans prepared dinner and I played guitar a bit, biding time until the rest of the family showed up, Ruth and the two boys, Markus and Enoch. The whole mood of the place changed, of course, not at all for the worst and it was delightful to be around some nice domestic bliss for a few hours.

Hans had sort of co-opted the boys into taking me for a run in the bush along the shore in the morning. I was of course up at stupid-o’clock and Enoch too was up pretty early biding his time on the couch, until we finally had to rouse Markus around 9 o’clock. And then we had a great run, about 7 km., they reckoned, again through the bush along the shore, with Enoch leading the way until the end when Markus wanted to sprint the last bit along the street. Then after a bit of cacophonous yoga on the front porch and a wonderful lunch of smoked trout and hummus on thick toast, one of our other oblates, Joe, fetched us and we headed over here to Queenscliff. To get here be car would have taken a few hours, all around the bay and through Melbourne again, so we, of course, took the fairy, a huge boat that held about thirty cars. It was only a 45-minute cruise, but it was beautiful to see the shoreline and then the mouth that leads out to the ocean and the little village of Queenscliff as we approached. It is a lovely spot, with Victorian era homes, churches and public buildings. This area is one of the first places settled by the British, and it is from nearby that the first shots were fired in both the World War I and World War II, cannon fire across the bow aimed at German tankers who were trying to escape in the former case, and the same who were unaware that war had been declared in the latter.

Sr. Nola at the Santa Casa.
The retreat center, Santa Casa, is run by the Mercy Sisters, the same congregation that runs so many retreat centers in the States. Or, I should say, is run by one sole Mercy sister, Nola, and she does a great job. The place is very clean, quiet and well appointed. The main building, where most of us are housed, too is from the Victorian era, and there is another more modern building where we are gathering for our conferences and prayers. This gathering feels a bit different from the oblate retreat on Tasmania in 2009, a few less people and not all of them are oblates (14) but “observers” (6), nonetheless very invested and attentive. I had a lively discussion with several of the folks last night during and after dinner, one of them now a yoga teacher and iconographer (great combination) that I had met back in 2009 and with whom I had stayed in touch sporadically all these years. The guys I spoke with at least seem to be as very well read as Michael and Hans, and I found myself discussing Panikkar and Abhishiktananda with no real gaps to fill in.

Monday, October 3, Church of St. Mary of the Angels, Bukit Batok, Singapore

It was so interesting to step out of the airport and smell the air here in Singapore again. I transited through here so many times between 2006 and 2013, usually on my way to and from India, that it began to feel like a second home. I got in so late that I had to stay the night at Leonard’s last night, my old friend from here who again fetched me from the airport. He had set up a separate en suite room for me in the apartment and I slept very well ‘til about 5 when a massive thunderstorm blew through. It rains here all the time, like nearly every day, but I don’t ever remember experiencing thunder and lightning like that, and it caused me to have one of those odd travel moments where I couldn’t figure out where the heck I was, but I woke up thinking that I was on the uppermost floor of a high rise somewhere in Asia. (The apartment building is only seven or eight stories and we were on the fifth.) The rest of the morning couldn’t have been nicer: I got to use the gym at the apartment complex, then Leonard arranged for me to have a massage of sorts––their favorite Chinese body worker, Helen, does a unique combination of acupressure and massage––right there in the living room. And then I accomplished another of my goals, getting a new pair of glasses here in Singapore where there is a wide selection of one-off frames and they are less expensive than in the states. Now I am firmly ensconced at the friary at the Church of St. Mary of the Angels. I have stayed here many times, but usually in the parish house instead of the friary. It is very comfortable here and I shall enjoy celebrating part of the Transitus with them tonight and tomorrow.

Our oblates Down Under; Fr. Michael is to my left; Hans is three down from him.
The retreat in Australia ended very well. This is about the fourth time now I have offered a retreat on this particular theme, drawn from Bruno’s Second Simplicity––the quaternitas of the Silence, the Word, the Music and the Dance––but filled in with my own material. Just as in almost every retreat conference he gave Bruno used to always walk and draw a cross with a circle around it, a mandala, and then fill it in, so I have been introducing these talks by saying it’s as if he left me a blank mandala and encouraged me to fill it in in my own way, and I have. I hope he would approve. It has been interesting reading Panikkar’s Rhythm of Being simultaneously, in which he is trying to show the universality of the trinity or the triune relationship of Ultimate Reality not just in Christianity but also as it is manifested in many traditions” India, Egypt, the Buddha, Lao Tzu’s heaven, human and earth, ancient Rome, through the Christian writers. Actually he is extending the “privilege of the Trinity to the whole of Reality… The Trinity is not [just] the privilge of the Godhead but the character of reality as a whole.” I have been marking in the margins “the 4th” every time I see him pointing out Bruno’s other movement, the Dance, which is in some way included in Panikkar’s relationship already too. He does mention Jung once in relationship to this: “One might also refer to the hypothesis of the archetypes as C. G. Jung interprets them” who “tended to see the human psyche as a quarternitas because of its apparent balance.” Arcane nonsense, I know, but I love being at least in the shallow end of that particular pool, of this intellectual spiritual legacy, and our oblates Down Under sure appreciated my forays into it all.

At the last session of the retreat Sunday morning I offered my own reflections and a ferverino on the possibilities for our oblate program, how I see the oblates as the outer face of our charism, and how other religious congregations are passing on their charism to lay people and how this ties in with Fr. Bede’s vision of loose knit gatherings of lay communities (one of the main inspirations for the World Community of Christian Meditation, by the way). I told them too about our oblate mentoring program and how important it is to feel part of the larger congregation and our storied history. I also encouraged them to think outside the box, to stay content to be charismatic and outside the institution and traditional religious life, that that is where I see the real excitement happening.

Last night flying and this morning I was really feeling the beginning of the transition back to California. I think I will be ready come next Monday to empty out my backpack and sleep in my own bed again. It’s all very mysterious, the unfolding of life and our vocation, and to see the world again from these various perspectives and discern our individual and collective place in it. I feel more than ever the bond between us all, the common ground that we already share and how small the global village has become––and how symbiotic as well! I find it exhilarating and sobering at the same time. As Parker Plamer says, sometimes it's an act of rebellion just to believe that "there is a hidden wholeness beneath the very evident brokenness of our world."