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.

some photos from Hildesheim

 Here is the compound of the Eremo Sankt Romuald in Hildesheim from the back road.

Here is the chapel––not a straight wall in the entire building!

The inside of the chapel with Bernd, the claustral oblate, who seems to practically run the place.

 Cyprian’s itinerary

August 23: fly to Newark, drive to Windsor, visit with our nuns.


Hello all,


Well, the first week did not go at all as planned. I got a ride up north with our friend Andrew who was staying at the Hermitage with his parents. He and I went to visit another mutual friend who is a new disciple, as it were, of Fr. Bede and Shantivanam, and then we met Andrew’s folks for a nice Japanese seafood meal. They dropped me at my hotel but by the time I got there I knew that something was wrong with my, shall we say, "plumbing." I won’t go into the details of it, but luckily our doctor, John Clark, is also one of my close friends and I was able to text him around 10:45 that night asking his advice. He wanted me to go right to a 24 hour pharmacy and get a prescription, which was a bit of an endeavor in and of itself––taxi, the pharmacist on “lunch break” at midnight, etc. I got home at 2 AM and started postponing flights and canceling hotel rooms, etc. because there was no way I was getting on a plane at 6 AM. By midday the next day things weren’t that much better and John wanted me either to go the emergency room right away or as soon as I got to New York, or see a urologist the next day. I opted for the latter, switched my New York rental car to California and extended my hotel room another night yet. Long and short of it is by the time I got to the urologist things were better and I was given leave to fly to Europe but by that time the New York leg was kind of shot. I re-arranged my trip yet again, turned the car in at San Jose the next day. Andrew was working in San Jose that day so he picked me up and let me crash at his apartment on the air mattress his parents had just used, and offered to take me to the airport early Friday morning. Since he was gone all day working and in the evening playing tennis, I had the place to myself to re-group and work on my reading for this meeting in Germany, my report to the Prior General and his Council, and my conferences for the retreat at Poppi. It was actually a pretty relaxing time, with a gym right down the road.

I flew to Newark on Friday, which pretty much took all day. (Since my ticket to and from Europe was already scheduled in and out of Newark Liberty Airport, I still had to make it there somehow!) A night in the hotel and then I taught my monthly online class from for the Episcopal House of Prayer from my hotel room. There was much better internet than we can access at the Hermitage, so that part was nice, but there was also some serious partying going on in this less-than-first-class hotel I was in, and there was a pretty strong whiff of marijuana drifting through the walls and/or under the door. Who knows what I said during the class itself, but I did have a strong craving for brownies halfway through…


August 28: fly to Germany, two nights at Hildesheim with our monks

                  –then to Nütshau for AI/FORA meeting

A beautiful flight to Frankfort then, only seven hours, with a meal, two movies and a nap, it went by very quickly. Unfortunately, we were a half an hour later than scheduled so I was literally running with my backpack and guitar through the airport trying to reach my train which was to take me to Hildesheim. I normally keep my watch running a little slow (so it gives the brothers a few more seconds to get to choir on time), but I was sure that I got to the platform at exactly 8:50 AM, the time the train was supposed to leave. The Germans were a little too efficient that day. By the time I got there the train was long gone, so I had to wait for another train that wound up being an hour late. When I asked a gentleman at the gate if I had read that board right––if our train was actually an hour late––and he answered in the affirmative, I said, “I thought those kinds of things didn’t happen in Germany!” (Thanks be to God so many people in Germany speak English!) At any rate I finally made it to Hildesheim where our Fr. Benedikt of the Kloster Sankt Romuald came to fetch me from the train station.


Not only is it my first time visiting this new Camaldolese community here in Hildesheim; it’s my first time in Germany, outside of changing planes in Frankfort or Munich many times on my way to India or Italy. I was only expecting the two monks that I have met several times already, Jeremias who is well known at New Camaldoli, and his confrere from the Congregation of the Dormition, the afore-mentioned Benedikt. However this community has actually grown to six now. There is Fabian, a young diocesan priest who about to make his novitiate at Camaldoli, an older man named Bernd who is about to make his official claustral oblation, another monk of their former congregation, Fr. Joseph, who is scheduled to arrive any day now, and yet another former religious whose name and congregation I have forgotten right now, also scheduled to arrive shortly. All six of them are traveling down to Camaldoli, so we will meet there on September 8 while I am there for my fraternal visitation and when Fabian will officially begin his novitiate, on the Feast of the Birth of Mary.


Unfortunately, Fr. Dorathick, the young prior of Shantivanam, who was also supposed to be at this meeting here in Germany and have a meeting with the General Council with me afterward, could not get through the German red tape in time to get a visa. And I know he and others have been trying for weeks. So that is a real disappointment for a lot of us. 


I can tell you more about this meeting––which wound up being the proximate reason for scheduling this whole trip now (in addition to the Abbots and Priors Congress which was supposed to be held starting September 13 in Rome)––later, when I understand it a little more. It has to do with a German sociologist, Artificial Intelligence, algorithms that decide the allocation of social services, safe spaces for dialogue, Benedictine monasteries, the Camaldolese, and Fr. Bede Griffiths. It got more specific as the organizer, Petra, got deeper into it and met us all through Jeremias. My main contribution, besides representing one of the communities that has been asked to be a safe space for a dialogue to take place (in affiliation with Esalen Institute), is to present on Fr. Bede. After meeting Fr. Thomas (Matus) at New Camaldoli, Petra chose his collection of Bede’s Essential Writings from Orbis as the main text for the meeting. I have used Bruno’s much more extensive anthology Bede's writings, The One Light, for years and must admit I had never read through Thomas’ selections since they are all repeats. As I started to read through this collection, I was both impressed by Thomas’ selections and moved all over again by Bede’s wise and prescient thought. I also realized, once again, just how deeply he influenced my whole way of thinking. There are things that I often say that are pretty much paraphrases of Bede’s own written words that I have no recollection of reading, but I must have. Or else I am so formed by him that my thoughts come out of the same logic. So that has been my spiritual reading for the past week and I have a well-marked copy of Bede Gritffiths Essential Writings. More on that later. For now, I’m going to try to conquer the jetlag.


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

September 6: meeting with Prior General and General Council

September 7-12: visit monastery and Sacro Eremo

September 13-17: teaching with the nuns at Poppi

September 18-23 back to Camaldoli, eventually to Rome

September 23: fly to Newark, overnight

September 24: fly to San Jose and home.


Oremus pro invicem!