Advent Week Two

(December 10th,  Is 40:1-5,9-11; 2Pet:3:8-14; Mk 1:1-8) – READ HERE

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Stillness in meditation is, despite appearances, the fast lane of the spirit. Without knowing it we are covering a lot of ground and we do not become aware of it until we realise there is no going back. People stop meditating for a variety of reasons. One is impatience; another is fear that we are travelling too fast. Advent is an opportunity to readjust our awareness in the strange, fluid dimension of time in which we live and die every day. Tough love can be this wake-up call.

Isaiah today seems captivated by the melting tenderness of God. It is different but not incompatible with last week’s emphasis on the painful estrangement between the human and the divine. Actually nothing is incompatible with God. The greater the difference, the deeper the paradox to be resolved and then the greater the delight in seeing opposites united. But, the divine shepherd? If you have ever met a shepherd close to his sheep you may have been surprised by his manner. On one hand tough, unsentimental, masculine; on the other, gentle, attentive and nurturing to even the weakest runts in his flock.

In today’s gospel we meet another prophet, John the Baptist, the last of the pre-Christian ones, the same age as Jesus. The tradition has imagined him hairy, unwashed and angry, ascetical and denouncing corruption and hypocrisy. Maybe there is more to him than this. Prophets are characteristically hyper-sensitive, lonely, dysfunctional and they rarely get their message over without offending people on all sides.

But their intention (the true prophet’s) is kindly: the health and well-being of others. The call to change our mind and way of seeing things and to adjust our life-style to this new way of being is painfully kind. The people who came out into the desert to hear John asked him ‘what shall we do?’ They were – as we are often are, and more than we realise – quietly desperate.

There is not much that fills us with unconscious dread more than the glimpse of our lives trickling away from us without meaning, without discovering what we were really supposed to do with our lives, trying to keep the accusatory awareness of our mistakes and self-deception from surfacing above the waves of consciousness. Prophets get this out in the open.

But the tension between patience and urgency can resolve as we see in the letter from Peter today: ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years’. If we see that, then two meditations a day seem more doable. John Main said (prophetically) this was the minimum. Even if it takes a millennium to understand and comply with this, it is a truth always worth listening to.

The prophet may appear to us this coming week in many guises. In whatever outward form, tough or gentle, the effect should be the same: to make the glimpse of life’s urgency last a little longer until we steadily look the truth about ourselves in the eyes. Hard as that may be, we will not fail to sigh with relief that the truth is finally out and we can stop pretending.

 

Advent Week One

(December 3rd  Is 63:16b-17,19b, 64:2-7; 1Cor 1:3-9; Mk 13:33-37) – READ HERE

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Prophets are not fortune-tellers, much as we secretly crave to know what’s going to happen – or to think that we could see into the future. Isaiah is a prophet and his gift to us is not a prediction but a reminder – an urgent one – to be really, fully present. He is someone who has experienced God and can’t get God out of his mind – although, like any God-believer, at times he would like to be free of God. Isaiah deals with this by asking this searching question of God: ‘why do you let us wander from your ways and let our hearts harden?’

We won’t get final answers to this kind of question, but just asking helps powerfully to clarify the human dilemma. If God is God – good, loving, caring for us – why do we go off-track so easily, so ruthlessly and so often? Why Syria? Why human trafficking? Why political prisoners and torture? Why off-shore tax havens? For that matter, why the hardening divisions associated with American and European politics? As Advent begins, this is a good question to keep fresh and to keep our waiting increasingly, not decreasingly, conscious. ‘Advent’ means that something is coming and, good or bad, is heading straight for us.

Isaiah yearns for a time when we would be ‘mindful of you in our ways,’ rather than constantly forgetting that ‘we are the clay and you the potter.’ So perhaps the answer to the human failure to be humane is not in God but in us and especially in our forgetfulness.

So, today and throughout this season, Jesus has one word for us: watch. It means make an effort to see, take heed, look both ways, be alert at all times. Watchfulness is an ancient virtue. It does not mean packing in more words, plans, reports, meetings and projections. If we are watchful these will be mercifully reduced and our decision-making and collaboration greatly enhanced. To watch means simultaneously keeping focused and expanding our field of awareness. If this balancing act is lost, we become either distracted or obsessive. Then everything falls apart.

So the answer to Isaiah’s question is not an answer, but a response. The response is a change in behaviour, a practice. The mantra coordinates that for the meditator. The sign that we are watching is what Paul, in today’s second reading, observes with spontaneous gratitude: ‘giving thanks that we do not lack any spiritual gift.’ It’s really and presently all given if we can but see it.

(I was looking up Mark Chapter 13 to check the Greek text and googled ‘Mk 13’. The search showed me a ‘bolt-action sniper’s rifle’ used by the US Seals. That’s one kind of watchfulness but not the one we should work on during Advent.)

Images of Bonnevaux

We are now the owner-stewards of Bonnevaux. It is like becoming a parent of an old child waiting to become young again. Rejuvenation is the essence of all growth – which is why meditation is more than recharging one’s batteries. Over time the capacity of a battery decreases with each recharge. In prayer by contrast, we increase our capacity by becoming progressively more conformed to, more like God who is always younger than we are. ‘Though our outward humanity is in decay, yet inwardly we are renewed’ puts it well, as St Paul thought too.

Before him, the prophet Isaiah said:

And the LORD will continually guide you.. and you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. Those from among you will rebuild ancient ruins You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell. (Is 58:12)

With the renovation of a building the outward form is improved; and its capacity to welcome and become a place for others to be refreshed and renewed is enlarged. The work involved is deeply satisfying even to the degree that it is challenging. There is fundraising, planning, meetings, plans and decisions at the micro and macro level. It begins in faith and it will end in faith: lot of work, as in parenting, creating, restoring or loving anything. But the people caring for this work at Bonnevaux is an extraordinary phenomenon. It has been moving and wondrous to see how it attracts people to give their time, their talent and their treasure.

We are more than grateful. We are strengthened and energised by the messages of support, the donations, small and large, the fridge from the meditators in Poitiers, the Dutch meditators who came down for a few days to help clean the house, the architects, planners, monks, the archbishop, the local mayor, the French community who will provide the refreshments at the blessing next week, to Odile for the icon of Cassian we will bless and install, and countless others who are already forming the Bonnevaux family. These are all sacraments of love which will build to make Bonnevaux what it will be again – a place of contemplation for all, a home of peace and a maker of peace.

Some people have the impression from the beautiful photos that it is all ready to move into. Not quite… I’m afraid! The building work will start soon and take a year or so for the first phase. How quickly we finish will depend on the donations coming in. Our first group of pilgrims from Asia is booked in for next Fall – so we are working hard to be able to welcome them then.

 

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Here are two images of the reality. Kailas Murthy, the architect with DPA who have contributed freely to the planning and vision of the building, working in the Bonnevaux kitchen. And a small group meditating in the library with Andrew and Delyth Cresswell who gave up their job and sold their house in Wales to come and be part of the community and the work from the beginning. The day we signed the sale they moved in to Bonnevaux, to care for it and prepare it for its transformation which is now under way.

We are working on a list of all the small things for the house and grounds – from kitchen things to gardening tools -we need to make this a reality and if you can help with any of these you would be a real part of this work.

You can visit the Bonnevaux website and here

Marvellous paradoxes

Reading the Rule of Benedict frequently reminds me of the mysterious way in which apparent gospel contradictions can reveal marvellous paradoxes – and, so, release different aspects of the same truth that then further enrich and transform us.

In Matthew 11, Jesus touches our hearts with a kind and light touch when he invites all those who are weary with life to come to him, learn from his gentleness and humility, and accept his light yoke and easy burden. In any true lectio on this passage, we will probably be given a glimpse of what metanoia means. We change our lives and undergo conversatio morum in such a way that we feel an unspeakable relief in the face of the heaviest problems and crosses we have to carry in life. Daily existence acquires something of the incredible lightness of being.

But then listen to Jesus speaking about following him in Mark 7. Here his tone is very different, sterner and less inclusive. The road that leads to life is narrow and only a few find it.

Benedict and the early monastic founders understood monastic commitment as a second baptism in which the true meaning of the Christian promises are re-discovered. Benedict warns of the hard challenges of this way of self-renunciation and emphasises the freedom we must feel when we commit ourselves to it. But then, he soon says, after an initial encounter with the hardness of discipline, we come to ‘run along the way of the Lord’s commands with an unspeakable sweetness of love.’

Maybe undertaking a contemplative practice is like starting to live the monastic life; they are each a re-baptism and re-discovery of what discipleship means. Because meditation creates community, we soon find ourselves inside a ‘school of the Lord’s service’. The Master of this School teaches each of us uniquely how we are to serve him and what kind of work we are called to undertake.

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Contemplative Exchange group in Snowmass

Narrowness and expansion, discipline and lightness. We reflected on these paradoxes recently at Snowmass Monastery in Colorado when a group of younger contemplative teachers and scholars converged from the WCCM, Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach and Tilden Edward’s Shalem Institute. When the four ‘founders’ (though we were ambivalent about this description) met last year to discuss the work of contemplative wisdom today we agreed to invite five representatives of our communities or networks to explore the question in the light of the next generation. Two of our five were oblates.

I felt equally proud of each of them for the way they participated and represented our own path It was a most fruitful time of prayer and discernment, with a self-evidently deep and diverse group of twenty younger people committed strongly to the contemplative path and serving the Lord through it. It showed the vitality of the monastic path as a way of transmission but also the quite new ways in which it is already being transformed – so that tradition can be regenerated and we who are ‘students in the Kingdom’ can ‘bring forth things new and old’ from our inner rooms as a contemplative way of serving the global needs of our time.

Not a Nostalgic reflection

John Main & Laurence Freeman..Forty years ago today John Main and I boarded a plane from London to Montreal carrying a couple of suitcases and an embarrassing number of overflowing plastic supermarket bags holding last-minute remembered clothes and commentaries on the Rule of St Benedict. On arrival and under heavy rain we were met by Bishop Len Crowley, a rare free spirit among bishops, who had invited us to establish a Benedictine priory of monks and lay people dedicated to the practice and teaching of meditation. In the ‘quiet revolution’ in Quebec he had seen a once all-powerful church diminish and recede from public acceptance and suffer a devastating loss of meaning. Prophetically – and like John Main – he could see this was not merely an era of change but a change of era.

The archdiocese had bought a small new house for our new adventure, rundown yet with a unique charm. It was in an inner suburb of the city but a historic old home. As the sale was not yet completed, Bishop Len drove us to a nearby parish church where the priest gave us homeless monks refuge for several weeks until we were ready to move in. We used the time driving around collecting furniture that people were offering us, getting to know people and already embarking on our reason for being there – teaching meditation.

Over the next 13 years Montreal became, for me personally, a home-city with lifelong friends who are, of course, always what makes home and life worth living. Fr John and I became Canadians. It taught me a lot, often painfully, about myself. It was also the place where John Main fulfilled his personal mission, taught and put up with me and trusted me to share in laying the foundations of the essential teaching and shaping the outlines of what Montreal was to be the embryo of – the World Community for Christian Meditation.

Very soon after we arrived we realised that the house on Vendome Avenue was too small – new members and guests had to live close by with friends of the community or in a couple of rented apartments. We had no money but we had a rich vision – and we had Fr John. Soon we were offered an extraordinary house and garden, high on the mountain, Mount Royal, but it was in an easy walking distance of downtown. It had not been lived in for ten years; but it had an old Irish butler-caretaker and a sleepy young security guard. As Fr John showed me round and explained the terms of the gift, I felt we had won the spiritual lottery. Fr John kindly tempered my enthusiasm by saying: ‘it’s what we need now to do what we have got to do now, but remember it’s not the last step.’

We moved in. Some people thought we shouldn’t be in such a big place. But it was the right place. The windows didn’t fit and let in the snow. The plumbing worked when it was in a good mood and that made them feel we were being kept humble. The generous donor would also arrive unexpectedly and say the family needed a piece of furniture or books from the library we had come to think of as ours. Fr John (more than me) loved and laughed at this exercise in detachment and poverty of spirit. People came to meditate and to stay. We fixed the windows, got hot water and refurbished the garden. The extended community grew, in Montreal, in Canada, in N America and globally. Fr John died there knowing the meaning of his life was alive.

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Ernie Christie, Debra Christie,Teresa Tratnyek, Paul Tratnyek, Cathy Day

The stories of life flow into and inform each other. Anytime now we will get the keys for Bonnevaux. It is a place of tangible and spiritual beauty. As I write this a group of education leaders, committed to our work with children, are walking the grounds and talking about a seminar we will hold there next year. I am skyping with them, seeing how their exciting ideas are forming through the courage of their vision. I am also feeling how the spirit of Bonnevaux spoke to them yesterday, as they sent several hours walking around.

So today is not about nostalgia. It about seeing patterns and resonances in life, personal and communal, luring ever deeper into the experience of meaning. Never settle for just one level of meaning, every day, every decade tells us.

Nostalgia is melancholic. That is why Fr John said that prayer is not a ‘nostalgia for God’. Vision and meaning are about discovering that there are and always will be new ways of being. We have to see them and then believe that they are there for us. The beauty and hope they glow with invite us to trust. This is what prayer is – an experience of being that shows us new ways of being.

Doesn’t our whole world need this? At Bonnevaux it will be truth at the heart of the life we live there. People will feel it when they arrive and see its physical beauty, when they are greeted and settle in their room, when they meditate and when they work and when they learn through teaching, dialogue and discussion how this new vision of reality can be truly lived when they return.

We have many needs to ask you to help us with for Bonnevaux. The most important is to share in this vision with us and to share it with others.

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www.bonnevauxwccm.org

Muddling Through

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Our left brain view of the world believes strongly in strategy. Planning and controlling the future is an uncontested goal for most modern administrators and politicians. They seek a utopian, perfect algorithm that will beat even the common image of the know-all, do-what-he-likes God.

But when you see the chaos rampant in The White House or the confusion in the British government’s approach to Brexit or when you speak privately to most CEOs, the reality is very different. Behind the facade of being-in-control is the fact of fear, uncertainty and just trying to see how to muddle through from crisis to crisis without losing face or bonuses. People are generally surprised – with a vague sense of gratitude to something – when things work out as planned.

This is just Life, where the best-laid plans can be swept away in an instant by a hurricane, a medical diagnosis, drop in exchange rates or clicking ‘send’ by mistake. No wonder we are afraid and deal with fear by embedding ourselves in secure routines which ‘holidays’ only serve to reinforce.

Maybe this is where the ‘fear of God’ can come to our rescue. According to Scripture it is the beginning of wisdom. Fear is a bad translation, however, because it evokes punishment or guilt. We are rightly frightened of neo-Nazis but that is a different kind of fear. The fear of God is more like the sense of vastness and vulnerability we feel looking over the edge of a high cliff, or the wonder at the moment of birth or death or the mutual declaration of love, or the night before marriage or monastic profession.

This so-called fear of God is less like ordinary fear and far closer to wonder, awe and sheer excitement at seeing our familiar world being deconstructed and transformed. It is the revealing of new ways of being that we were unaware of or sceptical about before. The parables of Jesus effect this revelation by their exaggeration and near-absurdity. Would any father be quite so welcoming to a prodigal son? Would anyone sell everything for sheer joy to buy a field or a fine pearl? Would anyone who couldn’t fill all the seats at their banquet really bring in street people and social rejects?

The very far-fetchedness of these ordinary-seeming stories with their weird spin serves as an explosive device in the familiar arrangements of our mental and emotional world. Yet, once we have accepted this revelation of the unknown, we feel not the anxiety and insecurity we dread and evade, but a new kind of peace and the mysterious certitude of faith. The irony is that the way the church tells these dynamite stories usually makes them sound like a lullaby.

There is another way to balance the real, frightening unpredictability of life with a calm and humorous adaptability to circumstances. That is found through meditation as we make a habit of poverty and powerless-ness and discover that these qualities of consciousness are not the cause of psychological fear but the antidote to fear of all kinds, except the fear of God.

In saying the mantra we recognise and accept the muddle of our minds and lives. Eventually, we become fearless. We walk through the minefield of life with a lighter step. In that acceptance we begin to see potential and pattern in chaos. We remember that the Spirit of God can do what management consultants cannot. It brings cosmos out of chaos and sets the experience of creativity way above the compulsion to control.