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.

BONNEAUSTRALIA
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

fear

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.

No Decoration

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The present moment is the whole mystery. But it is so inherently simple, unadorned and simply what it is, that it is like one of those leaf insects, so perfectly camouflaged into its environment,  that it is easily missed.

Meditation is radically simple attention to the present moment. When this work of attention reaches a degree of purity it cuts through the razzmatazz of the mind. Layers and layers of thought and imagination that we have piled on top of the present peel away like old paint.

Until then, it can be frustrating, trying to be present. It can feel like looking from the outside into a warm and cozy house through an impenetrable window while you are drenched with rain and shivering with cold. Over time and in grace, the outsideness disappears. The window becomes a friend and we are inside. In fact we are both inside and outside and therefore free of that illusion – illusions are always one-sided –  that makes us feel forever as if we were outsiders.

Being in the present is to be an insider – a citizen of the kingdom as the New Testament said to its first readers who were, for the most part, total social and economic outsiders. To be truly on the inside is not to be first class, enjoying special privileges. It is to know that the sense of being outside – for both the have and the have-nots – is equally an illusion. In this way contemplative experience promotes social justice and equality because it dissolves the fear of losing what you have to those who want to take it away from you.

I have wandered from my original point which is the easiest thing to do when you are trying to talk about something that is self-evident. The present moment. In meditation we sometimes are led into a space where the great tide-currents of the mind become still. The energy is stronger for being still. Thoughts and problem-solving, fantasy and fears recede. Complex emotional and logistical anxieties are relativised and right proportion reigns. Meditation doesn’t solve your problems. It makes you aware that you are not your problems and that you are not imprisoned in them. You no longer have to decorate your mind, tidy it or make yourself look attractive. You become like a person totally assured of acceptance and love.

Outside the present moment we are always fiddling around trying to make things better or nicer. Inside the present moment we see that things are always becoming better and nicer if we allow them and collaborate with the power of goodness that is in all things all the time. We don’t need to re-create the world but to be in the world as it is.

The deep human instinct to decorate oneself, beautify oneself and one’s surroundings yields to the perception that we are adequate, more than adequate. We do not have to win recognition or admiration. We can quietly celebrate – and if we feel like it, even loudly – celebrate this.

Nevertheless it is hard to accept at first. The first stage of the opening of the present moment, as we get free of compulsive analysis of the past and scanning of the future, is surprisingly ordinary. You might then think, ‘well it’s calm and quiet and trouble free, but all a bit plain. Like being given a plain digestive biscuit rather than your favourite cookie. Is anything more going to happen? What about the glory of the Lord, ecstasy and bliss?’

You are not ungrateful but still wondering ‘what next?’ and that tells you you are no really in the present moment. It is a good place to be and you have to learn to be there and work inside and outside from this new place of calm and quiet. It is within you but you will find that you are influencing the external dimension too. Martha and Mary get on better. The ordinary is just what it seems because it is not what it seems.

So, when the mind calms down in meditation, keep up the work of attention, let go of the remaining thoughts and questions. And then, in this plain and quiet mind, pure streams of joy begin to bubble out of their deep source