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.
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.