Sunday, September 19, 2021

ancora di più qualche foto

A few more pics of this happy place before I leave...

Here you can see how the monastery is tucked 
right into the foot of the castle. 

The cumulus over the church in the deep blue sky. 
Those bells make quite a racket.

Here are the good ladies who have been such great hosts:
(from the right) Graziana, Isabella (China), Debora, Neti (Finland),
Patrizia, Miriam, Chiara (Poland via France), 
and Regina, Queen of the Cucina (Kerala)

On my way to Rome today.


Friday, September 17, 2021

delle foto di Poppi

The castle of the Counts Guido that crowns the city on top of the hill. 
The monastery is tucked into its base.

The Tuscan countryside after the rain.

12th century church of San Fedele, former Vallambrosian monastery 
with the Romanesque architecture I love so much.
The rest of building is just raw unadorned stone.

A view of the surrounding countryside, fields and the lazy Arno River 
drifting through on its way to Florence, not more than a creek here.

One of the gates of the city where I began my jog each morning.

This sign (which contains our stemma?!) descries how you can see two "universality spiritual" centers from Poppi, Camaldoli and La Verna which Date wrote is "in the raw stone between the Tiber and the Arno."

An evening of music with Neti and Miriam (behind me on the cetra).

Regina, reigning queen of the cucina.

nella grotta del cuore

Friday, September 17, 2021, feast of Hildegarde von Bingen

It has been a really great week here with the nuns at Poppi. I’ve been leading what they call a seminario––and I must say, the format fits me quite well, part educational, part practical, in other words a 45 minute to hour teaching, followed by 45 minutes to an hour of practice, stretching and/or breathing plus meditation time. We started Sunday night with just a brief introduction. I apologized enough times for my Italian pronunciation (I have never been teased so much about my American accent as I was by the monks last week) and for the fact that I am tied to the text. But the group kept telling me not to worry about it a bit so I finally stopped. (I keep imagining I’m like some foreign monk with a charming accent speaking to a crowd in America.) After that we have had two sessions a day, late morning and late afternoon (very civil), that have lasted nearly two hours with a break. It has been so interesting for me to re-visit this material (I’m teaching out of my book Prayer in the Cave of the Heart) again after over a decade, and to re-visit it in another culture. It’s all fresh to me again and I am so grateful again to the people of Holy Cross and Lit Press for making it happen back in the 2000s. I still find it all very essential and exciting––like discovering the Good News for the first time. Several people in the group are pretty well-versed in meditation practice already, friends of Antonia Tronti, who translated the book and does regular seminars on Asian spirituality as well as on Bede Griffiths and Abhishktananda. Some arrived with their yoga mats and zafus. One professorial older gentleman, when he received the message from Debora, the nun here who arranged this, that he should bring comfortable clothes, told her that he always wears a tie and jacket, that’s what he’s comfortable in. He has always looked a little skeptical of everything and admitted yesterday to the group that he is fuori campo, ‘out of his field,’ but he too seems to have had a good experience. 


One thing I have found out about leading a group of Italians is that if you ask a question, you can expect there to be about a ten-minute delay while everyone offers an opinion about the answer. We’re using the prayer service that I put together for the Sangha and have used in retreats all over the world, of course now translated into Italian with the help of Federico, but I was still unsure of a word or two, and I asked the group what they thought. That turned into a session where we practically re-wrote the last paragraph, and I must admit, it reads better now. This is the way liturgy ought to develop. One of the guys, Gianni, who along with his wife has been very much engaged, wondered why the prayer service didn’t have a name, a title. I asked him what he thought it should be and he said that that depended on me. Long pause… and then he added, “But perhaps I would call it preghiera nella grotta del cuore.––‘prayer in the cave of the heart’.” Of course. But I wasn’t sure if he had said della or nella or dalla––‘of the’ or ‘in the’ or ‘from the.’ So, in the final session I asked which one it should be. And of course, everyone had very strong opinions about which and I had to leave it unresolved and said let them know my decision later.


These folks have been such good meditators, if that doesn’t sound condescending or silly. There seemed to go deep right away and anxious to do it. I forget the strength sometimes of meditating with a group like that, somewhat different from being with the brothers each night, which of course has its own power. The final session today, which was nowhere near the end of what I had prepared, was especially powerful, explaining, off-script, how I thought we needed to evolve to face what we have to face, and why meditation was so important for the next step in evolution. All in all, a very satisfying and moving experience, well worth the effort.


The community here is just lovely, no two of them alike, on many different levels. Sr. Graziana, who I know well from my visits to the nuns at Contra and from our visitation to Windsor New York together last year is the prioress, a vispa–spry 81 years old, about 4’10” and full of energy and motherly wisdom. She explained the long, complicated history of the place to me. As far as I can remember, this was a monastery of Augusintian nuns dating back to the 15th century. When they had diminished in number it was taken over by the Camaldolese nuns from Arezzo, under the bishop of Arezzo. When they diminished in numbers, they asked the Camaldolese of Contra and Rome, and the Prior General to help out, and they patched together a community. That included, first of all, Patrizia, who I know from Rome and Contra (and once we were in India together). She is a very talented artist who weaves wonderful tapestries, arazzi. She is also the only one who is a full bred Italian Camaldolese nun. The rest, including Graziana, have migrated from other congregations or countries, even Graziana who was a Franciscan first. 


Then there is Regina, who I met back in 2002 in India. She has been here in Italy since 2012, I think, and speaks her own unique form of Italian into which, when she speaks to me, she throws heavily accented English words. It’s hysterical trying to figure out what she is saying sometimes. She is an amazing cook, mixing Italian and Indian in a way that defies categories. She is totally in charge of this kitchen, clucking and tsking at everybody. She has become famous among the monks and locals and has even offered courses in Indian cooking. She has also been practically forcing food down my throat. Between her and Graziana I’m going to turn into big gnocchi if I am not careful. Now there is also of Debora here, in simple vows, who organized this retreat. She was part of a consecrated lay organization that did missionary work in Africa before she joined here. She is also a poet, with one book of her work already published. She speaks very good English from having an English mother, and has been at my side to pull me out of linguistic holes a number of times. 

There is also Clara, who is Polish but joined the Camaldolese nuns in France, but who transferred here two years ago. I met her when I was here in 2019, but I would not have recognized her. At the time she was in a full black habit, complete with a wimple, and all you could see were eyes, nose, cheeks and teeth. Now she has lost 20 kms and is dressed in borghese, wearing a cowl for choir like the others. (Graziana is the only one in the full white habit.) Then there are four others here as well, Miriam who comes from another active congregation; and a woman from Finland but who has been living in Denmark for years, named Neti, who is also a holistic practitioner and yogi, and a bit of musician as well. It is her fault that I am here; she wanted a workshop in English, but no other English speakers signed up! She struggles with Italian––but then again she speaks six other languages. There is also Eleana, who is from Brazil, who as far as she told me is doing a hermit experience, but really joining the community for everything; and Isabella, from China, who belongs to a new Chinese congregation who I am not at all clear why she is here but is very much a part of the daily life as well. It’s all very Camaldolese.


Last night, just incidentally on the feast of St. Cyprian (oh ya, and Cornelius), we had an evening of music that had been planned beforehand. Miriam plays the cetra, what we could call a zither, a bit more popular here in Italy than in the US. She uses it to accompany the chant here. She is also a good singer. And of course, Neti plays and sings. So a program was put together of the three of us alternating for an hour, helping each other out on a few pieces, ending with a few Taizé chants and then an acapella piece for three voices that Neti had written that the people found very haunting. Since today was the feast of Hildegarde of Bingen I did my version of her O Virtus Sapientia, plus the Aarathi (in honor of Regina) and Compassionate and Wise, in keeping with the week. 


That plus the teaching and presiding and/or preaching each day on top of the thelanguage challenges left me a little wiped out. I was originally going to go back to the monastery for the last weekend, but my first thought when I woke up yesterday morning was that I should stay here after the seminar was done, so as not to have to pack and change beds again. I am just in love with this little city Poppi and the landscape around it. What’s not to love about a medieval city on a hill with a castle surrounded by the Tuscan countryside? Everyone was fine with that, as a matter of fact the nuns were thrilled, so I’ll stay here until Sunday, say Mass for them, then go to Camaldoli for lunch, say goodbye to everyone there and from there Federico and I will head down to Rome for the last leg. I assume I need to take a Covid test before boarding the place on Thursday, and Federico and I have an appointment to visit the Istituto di Musica Sacra in Rome, where there is the idea that he might study.


I’ll post this now, and follow up with some pictures and maybe some description of the town later.


Dalla grotta del cuore…

Sunday, September 12, 2021

delle foto

The Tanzanians singing their song for me.

The whole formation group.

A fount halfway up the path.

The intimidating stairs leading up to my room.

The sacristan's cell.

Axel's yoga room, also used at least once a week by monks for lectio. 


from Poppi

 September 13-17: teaching with the nuns at Poppi 

It was a great stay at the Sacro Eremo. As I had hoped and expected, there was little official business to do, just a brief meeting with one of the monks. The Prior General is here––and you can see that he is very much at his ease here, the community allows him all kinds of space––but I didn’t have much interaction with him either. The room upstairs in the chapel really is what you might imagine a recluse’s cell to be. I could imagine Sr. Nazarena living there. The only problem with it was that the guided tours went through once or twice a day, with very loud talking (going on right now). And from time to time, I had to slip through them coming or going, feeling very much like one the animals in a zoo that is allowed to walk around with the public. I just kept my head down.


I just wanted to spend all day sitting in my cell as long as I could get a good walk or run in each day. And I did, venturing out farther than I ever have. There is along trail that goes from up here all the way down to the monastery, a bit up the road toward the ridge and it takes about an hour and a half, as opposed to taking the paved road which takes about a half hour walking. I had only taken it once before, with Stefano and his family two years ago. I went looking for on Friday, planning on walking the whole thing, but couldn’t find it, even though Alberto had told me where it was. It turns out I hadn’t gone up far enough. So I went farther up and found it yesterday and did a long walk/run first thing in the morning. I just loved it. There was a well about a mile in, and then a little cabin two miles in. Later Alberto was explaining to me that it is just a resting place, but I had to inform him that there was obviously somebody actually staying there, with smoke coming out of the fireplace and laundry hung on the line. It would be so much fun to explore all the many trails that go through these woods. Just like at home I rarely see any of the monks out in them. These formation guys are lucky––I’d have them out on Rec Day hikes regularly!


Just like the old days being on the road, it’s really a lot of discipline to get into a regular rhythm in a new place. But I had borrowed a yoga mat from Axel, got out for exercise first thing after breakfast (which I didn’t think I should skip being present), and then happily spent most of the rest of the days reading, writing, playing the guitar. Speaking of the latter, that new little guitar (Taylor GS Mini) has worked out just great for me. It’s so easy to carry on the plane, I finally got the one that feels pretty good (a little adjustment still necessary) and I have gotten used to it, and it’s one of those guitars that I can’t wait to pick up and play when it’s sitting on the floor next to my desk. I did translate one of my favorite songs into Italian, Dan Schutte’s “Only This I Want,” which went quite well with today’s gospel––‘Take up your cross and follow me’––which was fun to work on. I also “worked” a little, but just a little, and was happy to simply follow the gentle rhythm of life here. They have little in the way of community life outside of meals (three a day together) and liturgies (usually four), but all seem to have their place and do their daily maintenance tasks, every one of them. Alberto is pretty clear about that, and he himself is a worker bee, happily watering the plants and wiping down tables and sweeping sidewalks. He’s just a great monk, the very model I think of what this particular life calls for, very open to other expressions of the life (like Axel going off regularly to teach yoga classes) but he himself never leaves the property, perfectly happen with the daily round and the common task, and really loves the Lord and the Word.


Speaking of Axel and his yoga classes, they have become very popular here at the Sacro Eremo, and around Italy. Apparently he has become a well-respected yoga teacher. They have given him a beautiful room to use above the portineria in the guesthouse, a wooden floor and a big stand filled with mats and blocks and blankets. 

We had group lectio in there the last evening too, just the monks. It was on the readings of Sunday, and it was really interesting to hear what they all had to say and how they said it. It was quite clear that a few of them, including but not only Alessandro, really know the scriptures! I only added the briefest thing, a little shy about the language. 

I tedeschi are still here until tomorrow when they will turn young Fabian over to the wiles of the novice master at the monastery. But we hadn’t seen much of them since they went to La Verna yesterday and all the way up to Fabiano in the Marche, where Saint Romuald is buried and one of our monks lives at the parish where the tomb is) and then to Val di Castro which is where he died. Especially Fabian came back feeling rather indignant about what bad shape cell where Romuald died is in as well as the abandoned monastery. But that is one of the properties that got taken over by the state in one of the suppressions and there’s nothing we can do about it. They invited me to go along for either or both treks, but I chose the better part, at least for me, staying home and soaking in the ambience. 

I realized today that thus far, outside of the airports, I have been in a monastery this entire time, from Hildesheim to Nütschau, then to the monastery at Camaldoli and the Hermitage, and now I’m here with our nuns in Poppi. I’m staying in the foresteria wing of their monastery with full access to their side as well. I’ll write some about that all later.

Friday, September 10, 2021

from Camaldoli

 September 6: meeting with Prior General and General Council

September 7-12: visit monastery and Sacro Eremo


I’m up at the Holy Hermitage now. Every one of these places is a world in and of itself. I kept noting earlier this week what a different world it is just to cross through the door that goes from the foresteria to the monastery. Really, looking back it felt so chaotic there in the foresteria, so many people, so much activity. Then there is this little semi-hidden door through which you can access my favorite chapel upstairs and if you know what you are doing you can cross through to the cloister by way of the winter choir upstairs or you can go right into the sacristy and then the lower cloister. (These, by the way, are things that I had forgotten myself.) 


I really enjoyed staying up in the upper cloister this week. I had the room dedicated to Blessed Rodolfo (I assume the famous one who wrote our first constitutions) a large room at the end of the only hall that has cells that look out at the cloister garden. Several mentioned to me how stately the room was––“fit for a cardinal”––and how it was unrecognizable from when Don Graziano of happy memory used to live there. Graziano was a large rough and tumble kind of guy, who handled money and worked on the farm, with huge hands and a rumbling gait, whose cocola was as stained as Emmanuel’s used to be. And yet when he would sit down at the organ the most amazing music used to come out of him. He favored the pre-Baroque stuff like Buxtehude which sounded perfect for the rococo church and its chiffy old organ, whose pipes he used to also climb up and adjust seemingly every day. (I was later told that that might really have been necessary. Like Emmanuel adjusting the generators.) He also gruffly told me how he didn’t like the new guitar music in church––chicka-chicka-chicka, he would say, strumming and air guitar––Ma tu, he said, “But you… it’s okay.” He also had memorized long passages of Dante’s Divina Commedia.


I am also here only semi-officially as the visitator for both communities. However, though this was only a visita fraternathe monks for the most part thought of me as Padre Visitatore. I was surprised (and delighted) how many wanted to talk, either asking for an appointment or, in one case, simply stopping by. A couple of walks, and one spontaneous 45-minute session in the laundry room downstairs. And really, lovely even tender sharing, and I felt quite honored. Also, one semi-official event each day. Monday there was a meeting of the Consiglio Generalizio allargato, and expanded General’s Council, Don Alessandro, his three assistants (George came up from Rome and Mario, my fellow visitator, was already there after offering a retreat at the Hermitage this last weekend), plus Axel and Giuseppe. Alessandro talked about the state of the two communities here, then I offered my report about New Camaldoli––they had lots of questions and I had to keep saying, Aspetta, per piacere––“Wait, please, I’ll get to that.” I was struggling a bit still with the language and was trying to follow my four pages of notes. Then I also got a report about Tanzania (Mario had just returned from there a few weeks back), India and Brazil. (I’m happy to report that Don Emanuele is doing much better. He is still resisting the community’s insistence that he return and move into the infirmary.) 


Tuesday, they had a chapter meeting to vote on the entrance of young Fabian from Hildesheim into the novitiate (young but already ordained as a diocesan priest), and also the acceptance of Bernd as a claustral oblate. I had asked if I could be present for it and all three, Roberto, the vice-prior, Giuseppe, the novice master, and Alessandro himself were fine with that. It was fascinating to observe. That’s all I’m gonna say. Jeremias and Benedikt were also there to present the candidates, and as always filled with joy and gratitude to the Camaldoli for having taken them in. That was the fullest day that I had because I had five private appointments that day as well.


Wednesday was a good catch-up day for me, trying to respond to emails mostly, not much to do until the evening. At Vespers then was both the entrance of the novice and the official oblatura (now I know where Robert got that word) at Vespers. Both simple ceremonies but very beautiful. Alessandro gave a powerful homily as usual. I was surprised at how much they made of the reception of the claustral oblate, a combination of what the Germans wanted and the Italians not having done this for a very long time. (Thomas remembers that there was one in his memory, but Alessandro has no recollection of it ever happening.) He had written his promises to poverty, chastity and obedience in the profession book and read them out (in German) and then signed it at the altar, and he was clothed in a cowl. I need to have a talk with Jeremias and Benedikt and find out how they see that category. Even one of the young guys at Camaldoli mentioned to me how he was surprised at how much was made of it. 


There is a very talented novice here at Camaldoli named Federico with whom I have been in contact for well over a year via email and Zoom. He’s a fine musician and also very talented at recording, having a solid background in the secular music industry before joining the monastery. He’s also quite intelligent and creative in lots of ways, writing, art, calligraphy, gardening and brimming with just brimming with energy. He also speaks English very well, having lived both in London and England for considerable periods of time. We spent some good hours together among other things preparing a song to sing for that evening, as i tedeschi had asked me to. (I keep referring to them as i tedeschi–“the Germans,” which makes the Italians laugh, maybe some nervous muscle memory of the World Wars…). I chose the song that Isaiah and James love to do, “This Alone” (“One thing I ask, this alone a seek…”). I must say, it was tear-jerkingly beautiful in that acoustic and always kind of a pleasant shock for the Italians to hear that style of music sung in their church.


Then of course there was a big feast in the refectory, both communities present, of course. Since Covid times the monks at the monastery have been eating in the scarpa di cavallo–the old-fashioned horseshoe arrangement (I think of it as “eating in choir”) where everyone sits around the wall a step up looking outward, which I actually really like, instead of at the tables set up in the middle. This time we were all around the walls and at the tables in the center. I suppose they made a big deal of it to celebrate the presence of the Germans. 


Then, kind of the highlight of the week, I had a session with all the guys in formation Thursday morning. I must admit, I was really struggling with the language early in the week. During my meeting with the Consiglio Generalizio I was fine, especially reading from my notes, and my comprehension is for the most part pretty high in situations like that. Also, at the end of the Chapter meeting Alessandro had asked me to come up and say some things to the assembled brothers about things at New Camaldoli, for which I was totally unprepared, and I did fine. But trying to adjust to new voices on the fly, particularly in the refectory, and trying to have little conversations about things that I usually don’t talk about––plumbing, health, even asking about daily things, and sometimes responding to the brothers in the one-on-one meetings––I kept just freezing up, not being able to find the words. By Wednesday I was pretty frustrated. So, when Giuseppe asked me to do something with the formation guys, without giving me to many parameters except to talk to them about my spiritual journey and monastic life, I wasn’t sure how to do it. And I originally thought I would just surrender and speak in English with Federico translating, which can be pretty tedious for both the speaker and the listener. We weren’t sure how much the Germans understand Italian, so in the end I decided I would try to go back and forth between English and Italian myself, with Federico next to me to help if I stumbled (or freaked out and froze up). As it turned out, that wound up being a pretty good way for me to do it and after a while I forgot what I was doing and it just kind of poured out of me. Who knows how many grammatical errors I made, but no one seemed to mind.


We met in that same little chapel upstairs. It was quite a group, the three young guys from Tanzania (ages 30, 26 and 22), two Chinese, two Germans (Fabian and another German monk, Joseph, from their old congregation of the Dormition who is considering transfer for Hildesheim), then Federico and three other Italian postulants-observers. Since they liked the music so much, I decided to do the session around a few songs. We had heard the reading from Hosea 2 that morning at Vigils, I will lead her into the desert and tenderly speak to her heart, which I love so much, followed by a reading from the Spiritual Canticle of John of the Cross. So I choose that as a theme, you might say, one my standard screeds, how the cell and solitude itself is both a desert and a bridal chamber, a place of love and a place of purification. And then talked about a new look at asceticism, one that is not about punishing the body but “training the senses and stilling the mind,” as yoga teaches. The energy and the container, stuff like that. During my sabbatical I wrote a song based on that same Hosea reading, which I sang for them, and the “Arise My Love” from the Song of Songs, and in the end the song “Holy Now,” whose words sounds even more powerful translated into Italian. Joseph, the German who is considering transferring and who has been a monk for 20 years, said that it was different from any novice conference that he had ever heard, which could go either way, really, but Fabian was wildly enthusiastic as was Federico and the Tanzanians.


But the real highlight came afterward. The Tanzanians had written a song for the solemn profession of Emanuele, Don Bosco and Elia which took place a few months back. Simple words, in Swahili, praising the day and telling what it was about and then repeating the same verse for each man replacing one name for another. The youngest, John, who both Federico and Axel say has a real talent for music, had composed most of it and even come up with a choreography to accompany it. It had harmony and a countermelody and Fede accompanied them on a djembe. After they sang it, John and Onesforo (I am not making that name up) tried to do the dance, but Onesforo kept forgetting it and they wound up laughing. I got a video of both. And then all the formation guys together sang a beautiful song that Fede had written and taught them all, based on Saint Romuald, called Il Privelegio d’Amore–“The Privilege of Love,” just beautiful, again harmonized, accompanied by the guitar. They are pretty fortunate to have such a large group together here in formation, though they are not always all here at the same time. I am not sure they all appreciate what they have, but then again, “don’t it always seem to go…”?


Now, as I say, I’m up at the Sacro Eremo. All the Germans are here too, five of them. I asked to just have a room instead of a full cell, partially because I am only here for a few days and it seemed like such trouble to set up and clean a cell. Plus they are big and ungainly, and I always take some time to feel comfortable in one here. Some years ago I had a magical stay here in an old room, from the 13th century, above the kitchen and portineria, where you could smell the smoke of the caminetto seeping through the floor, and I was trying to get that one again. But instead I am in a room that I did not know existed, above the sacristy of the church up this very steep flight of stairs, where beloved Don Carlo used to live. Apparently, it was the room of the sacristan at one time. It looks out over the property behind the church on one side with a view of all the cells on the other. It’s as silent as can be and it was pitch dark at night. I’ll be here now until I go to the nuns on Sunday. I had a long visit with Axel yesterday afternoon when I arrived, but other than that I have little to do, thankfully, my only real days off during this trip. Alessandro did announce to the brothers that if any of them wanted to speak to me as vistatore, I was available. Though I think there will not many who will avail themselves of that here.

Monday, September 6, 2021

delle foto

The German picnic in Emilia Romana...

A beautiful version of our logo, motto and stemma...

Vespers in the woods on the Day of Prayer for Creation (the best I could do...)

A view of the Tuscan woods and sky in the morning from the foresteria...


Sunday, September 5, 2021

sociale evolution and the spiritual fundaments of the participative approach


I'm afraid this may be a bit jumbled but I'll post it anyway in the interest of not getting too far behind...

September 5, 2021

I just moved into the monastery. It was a heck of a day yesterday. Our AI FORA group did meet three times, and of course three meals in the crowded and noisy refectory of the foresteria. Because we needed access to the WiFi we wound up meeting in a hall right next to the busy bar. All in all I kept being reminded just how quiet my life is normally! Even on what feels like a full day in Big Sur I have lots of time on my own and we are never surrounded by as much hustle and bustle. Of course it is summer time and there are so many guests staying here on top of all the weekend tourists who come. Yesterday was also the Day of Prayer for Creation and the monks always celebrate Vespers in the forest up near the Sacro Eremo, from both commubnities and some of the nuns from Poppi as well. So we all hoofed it up there. It was raining off and on all afternoon but three of us decided to take our chances and walk up there in between the raindrops. We made it fine and I was able to give the group a bit of a tour of the Eremo before we walked down the road and out near the little lake where Vespers was set up. Unfortunately, it started to rain again about halfway through, so they decided to cut it short. I was chilled to the bone by the time we got back down the hill (by car this time). I got semi-accosted by a lady from Sicily that Mario has introduced me to. She didn’t believe me that there was a place in Sicily called Bisaquino where my relatives live and assumed I was saying it or spelling it wrong in Italian, and kept switching back in forth from her rudimentary English to what I think was dialect flavored Sicilian. Luckily Federico saw my struggling and came to rescue me but by that time I was having trouble communicating in any language. I escaped to my favorite chapel upstrairs––the chapel of Madonna del Conforto––for a good meditation before dinner and felt much better, which was good because we still had one more closing  session with AI FORA group.

We spent all day talking about Fr Bede. Sr. Moira and Dorathick were online Zoom with us from Germany and India, respectively, which is still pretty amazing when you think about it. Though it was much harder for them to really contribute to the discussion they said they were able to listen to most of it very well. For the first two sessions Petra had done an amazing job putting together a PowerPoint that highlighted social science theories from scientists and philosophers that have influenced her––Hegel, Max Weber and Jürgen Habermas might be the best known names––comparing them to resonances in Bede’s thought “on social evolution and the spiritual fundaments of participative approaches,” as she called it. Petra would present something either from the social sciences of the humanities and then quote at length from Bede’s writings. Here’s a question about a theme that kind of sums it up: “Is the organic model of a network society evolutionary in terms of Sociology?” Of course the words that got my attention were organic and evolutionary.


The theme of Bede’s that I kept returning to was “union by communion,” compared with Abhishiktandanda’s “union by identity,” the former more influenced by the Bhagavad Gita and centered on love and relationship, the latter more by the Upanishads and the unquenchable drive for the experience of advaita as it is traditionally understood. This is also material that I have been exploring a lot myself revisiting Bede in the current writing I am doing anyway, so it’s all fresh in my mind. But the other thing that I kept coming back to was that the reason that we monks were involved had to be more than because the Rule allows a good environment for safe spaces, but because we supposedly explore the dimension needed for the energy to evolve consciousness, that is meditation and prayer. The other dimension that Bede keeps talking about, the spiritual, does not open up for us without that path of transformation. And the new model is not going to be born without something dying––our old way of being in the world, the lifestyles to which we have grown accustomed. And so hand in hand with meditation and prayer comes a certain asceticism, a willingness to be converted. I also brought up Cornel West’s distinction between optimism and hope a few times (again!), suggesting that sociology is optimistic; whereas spirituality is hopeful. Though, at the same time, to quote the great professor, things don’t look too good right now…


There was so much discussed it is impossible for me to give a summary; sorry, I can only give you some highlights of my own contributions (if it even matters!). Needless to say, it was a deep conversation. When we went around the table very last session my summary reflection was that the more we spoke the larger our vision became, as if we were trying to change the world, and the more intimidated I became. How to make this practical in our own safe spaces, the environments that we are tasked with creating for these dialogues to take place? And wondering if these methods really work. With the rise of populism and nationalism, isn’t this just what is being resisted––one world, one religion, peaceful coexistence in the name of protecting our own identity and sovereignty? There are those who want this and those who do not, and those who do not want will not take part anyway so it could be the safe space becomes a meeting of like minds instead of a place of networking and common ground. That’s the optimistic part. And yet, “I’ll die a prisoner of hope,” and I keep saying I want monasticism (and this monk) to be a part of what I refer to as “the Great Conversation,” and this is it.


There are plans for this group to reconvene, maybe in Germany, though they all, especially the Germans, really liked Italy. There was also a suggestion of re-convening in India at Shantivanam. Petra does have a pretty good budget, so my own cost would not be a problem, but the time would be, for sure. So we shall see what happens going forward and how much I can actually be a part of it.


We had Mass together on our own this morning up in the chapel of Our Lady of Comfort that I love so much. Since we were several language groups (though the meetings were in English and everybody outside of Pater Johannes from Nütschau is perfectly comfortable in English), I did not assume that anyone knew any of the responses in English, so I told them all to reply in whatever language they wanted. Don’t tell any liturgists or Church Officials (stet) but they decided that, instead of doing today’s assigned readings, they wanted to do a group lectio on John 3:1-15 today, Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night and ‘you must be born again.’ I actually wrote a reflection on that in The God Who Gave You Birth, so I was prepared! When we got to the Our Father, we sang it: I gave each language group a note forming a major chord and told them to chant recto tono on that note (with some improvisation of course). That hasn’t always worked in the past but this group was singers and willing to try new things (since we had all been dancing together and done other icebreakers together last week in Germany). It was pretty cool. Today was actually the birthday of Fr. Manel, the Spanish monk of Monteserrat, so we celebrated him by learning (kind of) a short German song that has each voice SATB singing a different text with its own melody. It was a well-intentioned car wreck, especially on my part since I couldn’t read Petra’s handwriting of the German words, but we had a laugh and a hug afterwards. Then Jeremias and I walked them to their van (he is staying on up at the Eremo for a few weeks) and waved them goodbye.


I’ve moved into the monastery now, and it is a much different environment to say the least, quiet and sweet. The sun came out and it has been a gorgeous cloudless Tuscan sky all day so far. The community is not eating at tables in the refectory but since the pandemic they are spaced around the room at the old-fashioned chair stall set-up, which is kind of fun. I had a brand-new kind of pasta, of which I cannot remember the name, thin light pasta square folded into a triangle stuffed with ricotta and spinach covered with a creamy mushroom sauce. I am trying hard to watch my intake because it is so easy to overeat in this environment with all the pasta, formaggi e dolci


I am also here unofficially as a visitator, and most of the community knows that. I’ve already had a couple of good talks with some of the brothers. Mario Zanotti, partner visitator, who is well known to our community at Big Sur is also here, and he and I will have a meeting with General’s Council tomorrow (though no one seems to know what time that is). I will stay here until Thursday and then spend a few days up at the Eremo, for which we are also visitators. We both think that just coming after six years, before the General Chapter in 2023 would not be enough. As I said to Giuseppe, former vice-prior here and also well-known in Big Sur, it’s good to palpare il polso della comunità–feel the pulse of the community.


I also had another interesting encounter this afternoon. The woman who translated my book Prayer in the Cave of the Heart into Italian was here this afternoon, Antonia Tronti. We had never officially met. So that was fun to walk and talk with her. Interesting to find out that she translates from English, beautifully, but does not speak English!


And now I am also doing my laundry, something one does a mother’s house. Bouna sera, tutti!

a German picnic in Emila Romana

September 3: fly with the AI group to Italy to continue the meeting at Camaldoli


We’re at Camaldoli now. It was a bit of a whirlwind yesterday. We all met at 5:45 AM outside the guesthouse at Nütschau, Prior Johannes and another monk meeting us with flasks of coffee, and each of us with our little takeaway bag of breakfast foods. We were driven in two vans to Hamburg, where we took our first flight to Munich, and there transferred to a flight, on Air Dolomiti, to Bologna. There Petra had rented a van and the seven us piled in and began the three hours plus drive to Camaldoli. Petra’s idea for our lunch was to stop at a supermercato and buy provisions for a picnic along the way, which we did about a half an hour into the journey. Seeing the seven of us run around the store, each grabbing something that he or she wanted was extremely funny. Sr. Mariangela wanted buffalo mozzarella, Manel wanted olives and Coca-Cola, I wanted grapes, and lemon for my salad. There were two large bottles of red wine and three loaves of the big round bread known as cembelle, three kinds of cheese, yogurt, cucumbers, big beautiful tomatoes, oil, bananas, cabbage, fruit juice and, for some reason, a large bag of peanuts (unsalted). We also had to buy a knife, napkins, bowls, spoons, etc. By the end I am not sure that it was any less expensive than panini at the Autogrill would have been, but it was a lot more fun. I had forgotten about the trip over the Mandrioli Pass from Emilia Romana to Tuscany. Luckily, we had another stop and a bathroom break in between, but I was getting a little green in the gills from Johannes’ driving on those curvy mountain roads. I was teasing him about a German driving in Italy, but he was very much in control. We wound up getting here minutes before Mass began (the Feast, for us, of St. Gregory the Great). Jeremias and I were able to greet a few monks as we walked in, but mostly we all just stayed at the back of the crowded church, masked and semi-socially distanced, most of our group standing. Then after Mass a madhouse of trying to say hello to everyone, introduce the group, then we talk to the woman at the front desk and get our keys, herded into a delicious dinner before going to our rooms, and then unloading the van and finding our rooms. I got sidelined almost immediately by the novice here named Federico, with whom I have had a lot of online contact via email and Zoom but had never met face to face, and we wound up walking and talking for about an hour before I finally got to my room well after 10, set my things in order and crashed, big time.


One rather humorous and typically Italian thing: the three other members of the support team at Nütschau worked for hours with us individually helping us fill out all the necessary forms online to enter Italy during these Covid times. And it was a labyrinth of details, back and forth form one site to another, flight numbers, temporary addresses, permanent addresses, vaccination proofs, etc. and in the end a sheaf of documents to carry with us to present to the Italian authorities. The only thing is we walked into Italy without anyone checking any of our documents including our passports.


The last day at Nütschau was very intense. Besides two or three more dance (I lost count) we actually did case studied that day. What would a safe space encounter actually look like if we were to host one? They had six prepared for us: one form each of the countries represented: Spain, Nigeria, India, Germany, China and the US. It all suddenly became very real when they told me who my team was: a social scientist and AI tech from the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica and a research fellow at, of all places, Arizona State University in Tempe, where I actually studied. And the hypothetical situation was immigration, centered in San Jose. The host country had to discuss the background and then the group had to come up with a list of the who the stakeholders were (who would need to be involved in the dialogue) and what kinds of exercises would facilitate creating the environment for a Safe Space.


I am staying on the third floor of the foresteria (first time staying here), a nice quiet room, but there is no phone signal nor WiFi so I may be a bit incommunicado for the next days. I am not sure if I am moving the monastery after this meeting finishes tomorrow. Today is our day to discuss Bede Griffiths. After her visit with Thomas and I at New Camaldoli Petra became convinced that he is an important voice to be in the background of our work moving forward. Of course I am excited about that, and she and I discussed it on the plane yesterday comparing notes from Thomas’ Essential Writings. Jeremias and I want to drive the whole group of the Sacro Eremo and find a place to meet up there, where it is quieter and less crowded. (The foresteria seems to be chock full.) This is our last working day. Tomorrow we will celebrate Eucharist together and the others will head out to the four winds. 


Love and prayers.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The AI FORA at Nütshau

31 August

Jeremias and I had a beautiful train trip up from Hildesheim to Nütschau today. It got sunnier and sunnier as we traveled north. I had all but forgotten that it was summer, it has been so chilly and cold. Of course, the upside of that is everything is so green! The very opposite of California where fires are raging out of control… The train was… actually, the three different trains were all very comfortable and Jeremias filled me in a little bit more on the history of Sankt Romuald in Rodenhof (Hildesheim) and the foundation there. I had forgotten that Benedikt was at one time Jeremias’ abbot when they were both stationed in the Holy Land together. And Jeremias was 14 years the prior of the monastery at the Sea of Galilee, over which he oversaw the building, and the church at the site of the multiplication of the loaves. After he stepped down as prior, the congregation then asked him to oversee more buildings and do fund raising, and that was when the big move began away from them and eventually to join Benedikt in this new experiment back in Germany. And then Jeremias, after having had a positive experience of us in California in 2008, suggested that the two of them affiliate with Camaldoli. I also found out further that the whole community, including the two new perspective members will be staying in Italy for two weeks, so we may get to spend some more time together. I suggested that they might want to go to Ravenna (mainly because I want to go to Ravenna, and they have a car!).


We are now actually in the city of Oldesloe, only about 100 km south of the border with Denmark, guests of the Benedictine monks of the Benediktiner-Kloster Nütschau, staying in the Haus Ansgar guesthouse. And the whole group is here: the young prior Johannes of this community, whom I had met in Rome in 2016, a monk from the famous monastery at Montserrat near Barcelona, two nuns from Kylemore in Ireland, and a diocesan priest from Nigeria who is studying here in Germany, along with Jeremias and I, with Fr. Dorathick from Shantivanam chiming in via Zoom for some sessions, make up the religious contingent. The other four participants are Petra, the sociologist and convener of this AI FORA project, along with her all German team, all young social scientists, one an expert in ethics, another whose major area of interest is philosophy and political science but also dabbles in theoretical physics, and an even younger undergraduate student, all associated with University of Mainz. After our introductions, our first session ended with, you’ll never guess… two line dances accompanied by music off of Petra’s computer. She is modeling some of the exercises she does as part of her space spaces projects, “ice-breakers” I suppose we would call them, interactive participatory practices. I do think it is the first time I have danced in full habit, at least in public, but I hope it will not be the last. After Mass with Vespers and then dinner, we had our official opening session in which, as part of another exercise called a “fishbowl,” more about the program was explained to us, partially through us asking questions of the four social scientists. I was happy to find out at dinner that almost none of us religious knew what it was really about, but I discovered during the fishbowl that I was actually pretty close.


AI FORA stands for artificial intelligence; fora is related to the Latin word forum for a gathering of people like a marketplace but also serves as an acronym for ‘AI For Assessment.’ The basic issue is that more and more decisions everywhere in the world are being made based on algorithms that Artificial Intelligence comes up with based on objective data––concerning everything from job training and incarceration to decisions concerning immigration, especially decisions based on race and age. But AI making objective decisions is coming under more and more scrutiny and criticism since some factors inevitably get left out. The aim of our team of social sciences is, first of all, to create safe spaces for vulnerable people to express their needs and fears, and then set up dialogues between them and the folks who are making these big decisions based on algorithms. Their case study already done in Germany was around migrants. The other places were chosen for the combination of cultural and religious factors: Germany for Protestant Europe, Spain for Catholic Europe, China for Confucianism (and Taoism?), Mexico for Catholic Latin America, California for, well, for being California (!), Nigeria for Africa, Iran for Islam.


What I still don’t quite get, and these were my questions when I took the empty chair in the fishbowl (some of you will understand that reference which I am too tired to explain): Why spirituality? Why Benedictines? And why Fr. Bede? The answer I got was, “So, you want to know everything tonight? This is what we will figure out in the days ahead.” I am glad that she doesn’t, nor does the team of social scientists, know for sure yet. They’re just being driven and drawn by an intuition and a devotion. But I already noted one small point of convergence in Bede’s writings: the gradual development since the time of Galileo and Newton of “a materialistic philosophy and a mechanical model of the universe” which has affected all of society in the social, political, and economic system of the West especially, even art, morality, and religion. Bede says, “It’s basic principle is reductionism: it is the reduction of everything to certain material principles and to its material base.” The antidote to that is something dear to my heart (and I do hate to keep saying, “I told you so,” but I did). The antidote, as far as Bede was concerned, is in the recovery of the perennial philosophy, the traditional wisdom according to which “the order of the universe is seen to be threefold, consisting not only of a physical dimension but also of a psychological and spiritual world.” These three worlds were always seen as interrelated and interdependent. And algorithms simply cannot take those other two elements into their consideration. And the more dire conclusion of that is even though the materialist, mechanistic reductionist model doesn’t recognize nor take into account the psychic or the spiritual, yet it has released psychic and spiritual powers into the worlds that it cannot control.


That’s enough for tonight. Tomorrow starts with Vigils and Lauds together with the monks here but I am going to opt out and do my own; it really is a terrible chore to try to follow the German. But I will show up for the Qi Gong session at 7:30 before breakfast, and then back to work.

photos from Kloster Marienrode

Sr. Monica, the German Expressionist nun.


Monday, August 30, 2021

Eremo Sankt Romuald und Kloster Marienrode

 From Eremo Sankt Romuald, outside of Hildesheim.

I am trying to piece the story of this community together. There used to be a Carthusian monastery in Hildesheim, a Charterhouse. And this place was originally the farm and granary for it. The monks live in four buildings that make up kind of a cloister quad, the main house, the guest house (which now houses two of the members), the refectory, and the chapel. Next to these buildings are the bigger farm buildings. A family lives there and runs the farm now. One side of the property is bordered by a deep dark forest, and the other is large fields with dirt roads running through them.


Benedikt was the first one here. He and Jeremias both belonged to the Ottilian Missionary Congregation at one time, then they both joined the congregation in Jerusalem. Benedikt left that congregation first and was offered this place by the bishop of Hildesheim. And shortly thereafter Jeremias too left that congregation. I met Jeremias for the first time when he was discerning that move. He came and stayed with us for a good long time, led there by Michael Fish, I believe. The two of them were accepted into our congregation only four years ago, and it is great to see that they are already growing, so it is not just a vanity project for the two of them. 

Both Benedikt and Jeremias are deeply influenced by Asian spirituality, particularly India, and especially great lovers of Abhishiktananda, and consequently Ramana Maharshi. (This whole place smells like Nag Chapma!) 


Speaking of which, we had a bit of a debate at lunch today about everyone preferring Abhishiktananda over Fr. Bede and I found myself in the delicate position of having to defend Bede(!) whilst proving my bona fides by saying I had read everything of Abhishiktananda too, including his diaries and journals, and had read The Further Shore ten times. I don’t want to have to choose between the two of them––does everything have to turn into a contest?––so I said simply that Bede was the more systematic of the two, but Abhishiktananda had the fire. (Maybe the energy and the container?) It was an interesting discussion and afterward Bernd thanked me for giving him a new perspective on Bede. This was all brand new for young Fabian, on the other hand, who asked us what he should read to get acquainted with Asian spirituality. The others recommended the Bhagavad Gita. I recommended the Tao te Ching as well.


Bernd does not speak very good English so I have not been able to get his story yet. He has been here with Benedikt for some time now, I take it, and has helped put together the beautiful liturgical books that they use, so he seems to know his way around the Roman liturgy very well. He too is also very influenced by India. I hope to get more of the whole story from Jeremias on our long train ride tomorrow.


A nice confluence is happening next week: we will all be at Camaldoli at the same time. Bernd will be making his official oblation there on the same day that Fabian will begins his novitiate. The other two members who are arriving any day now will also be making the pilgrimage to Italy as well, so the whole community will be there. Their connection to and affection for the Camaldolese is palpable and strong. Fabian this afternoon spoke movingly about all of them going to visit Saint Romuald’s tomb in Fabiano, saying Mass there in the crypt, and then all of them laying hands on the tomb together and weeping.


Fabian and I spent a good couple of hours together this afternoon. He first took me to a huge supermarket where I needed to pick up a few things. And then we drove to the Kloster Marienrode, a Benedictine women’s monastery right outside of Hildesheim. He was pointing out all kinds of points of interest along the way. He is actually a local boy and, at 32 years old, is already ordained a priest for this diocese. His bishop was both pleased and sad that he was leaving parish ministry for the monastic life. As a matter of fact, the church of Kloster Marienrode was his parish church growing up, and all of the nuns there greeted him like a favorite son. That place has a rather storied history. It is about 1000 years old, built around the time of the reign of Otto III (the very same friend of Saint Romuald). It was first an Augustinian monastery, mixed both monks and nuns; then for many years a Cistercian abbey. The present community of nuns came from one of Hildegard of Bingen’s monasteries in the south of Germany only in 1988. The church is only 700 years old or so, Fabian told me, but it is definitely pre-Baroque and beautiful in its simplicity. 


We met several of the nuns and I must say I was somewhat pleased that the majority of them did notspeak English well. I feel rather intimidated by how well so many Germans speak English, when a second language is still rather rare for Americans. On the other hand, one of the nuns we met told me that her English wasn’t so good because she had learned Russian instead as her second language. One wonders how it would change American culture and the American parochial mentality if it was assumed that from childhood you would be learning a second useful language. (Let’s say, for instance, Spanish?)


These women were a pretty impressive lot. Sr. Cecelia (the Russian speaker) only joined the monastery in her 50s after spending thirty years working as a medical doctor, for instance. The main feature of the visit was to meet Sr. Monica. Apparently, every time an American, especially a Californian, visits, the monks bring him or her to meet Sr. Monica. Her degree is in German Expressionist literature, which was a dominant literary movement during and immediately after World War I. She held a teaching position at Smith College in Massachusetts, where she met and later married a scientist from Stanford, consequently living for several years and raising two sons in the Bay Area. She only entered monastic life when she too was well into her middle age, the first novice for this kloster, she proudly told us. We had a great wide-ranging conversation, and all too short.


Today was a communal desert day here. We only met for lunch and Compline. They normally sing Gregorian chant in German from a book put together by the German Benedictines––and they do it very well––in their quaint chapel. But for Compline they use the meditation room upstairs here in the guesthouse where I am staying. There they sit on zabutans on the floor in a room that looks very much like a zendo (I’ll try to catch a photo before I leave), where the Blessed Sacrament is as well, and begin Compline chanting the Sanskrit mantras that are used at Shantivanam before singing the Gregorian office. They each also make a full prostration as one does in the samadhi halls in India before the Blessed Sacrament as they enter and exit. It was very beautiful.


Tomorrow Jeremias and I leave for the meeting at Nütschau, a long train ride from Hildesheim.