Here at Bonnevaux – in the Northern hemisphere – Advent begins in the Fall. Christmas arrives in the dead and dark of winter when the sun, though imperceptibly, is reborn at the solstice. The wheel turns again. The end of the Christian year – and like all ends it is also a beginning – happens while most trees are silently losing their glory, shedding their leaves. They fall one by one, like shooting stars or dying souls. The magical palette of Autumn fades into the dark silhouettes of bare trees outlined against the sky: the art of nature at its most minimalist. On the ground the leaves are everywhere, blown around by the wind or slowly decomposing in what’s left of the warmth of the sun. The cats love curling up in them.
Then the most un-contemplative aspect of all this, Jean-Christophe arrives with his mechanical leaf-blower. Making horrendous noise (but saving a lot of time and effort), he blows them into geometrical patterns on the grass so that he can gather them more easily for disposal. I thought of this when I read the first reading of today’s mass
We have all withered like leaves
and our sins blew us away like the wind.
The reading from Isaiah may sound over-negative to the untrained ear, full of straying and hardened hearts, divine anger, rebellion and uncleanliness. However, we don’t read scripture merely to be consoled; but to allow the razor of the Word of God to slice through our mental games and arrogance. And to diagnose us. The Word of God reads us even if we think in our pride that it is only we who are reading. If we can feel this, reading because we are read, knowing because we are known, what a relief! It makes us feel better just to get a proper diagnosis; one that we can trust and that makes sense of all the symptoms we are feeling.
If we can deeply feel this interaction with the Word, we will read it more insightfully and be better enlightened by it. It is also easier to interpret – for example to see ‘God’s anger’ symbolically. God cannot be ‘angry’. But the karma, the inevitable consequences of our own misdeeds can indeed feel like someone’s anger directed at us personally. The ecological crisis, for example, is the result of collective sin – impersonal ‘punishment’ for greed and the desecration of nature.
Reading scripture in this way, sometimes means we have to reverse the role-play described in the text: for example, Isaiah says to God ‘you hid your face from us and gave us up to the power of our sins’. This means that we hid our face from God. In seeing this, the sweet mercy of the Word brings us balm: “we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand.” Can you feel the sense of being restored to normality in those words?
The gospel today, at the beginning of Advent, reinforces this with great economy. It has two messages to guide us into a good season of preparation for the festival of the Incarnation: 1. ‘you don’t know’ and 2. ‘stay awake’. Staying awake in a condition of unknowing. That is how we prepare to recognise and receive what is coming towards us at the speed of light. This speed means that what is coming towards us is here already.
This was the response of Jesus to the Tempter trying to lead him into the ego’s illusory world of self-sufficiency and materialism. All religious traditions from the beginning express an awareness of this ‘something more’ than bread alone that we need, not only to survive but to flourish. A human being’s first instinct is survival but when this is assured we are restless, as St Augustine said, until we find our rest in God, in what we find to be both our source and goal, our true centre and meaning. Spirituality is the way we seek God when we realize that the truth is more than an answer or a formulaic response but rather a lived experience of what simply is.
The Neolithic burial site in County Meath, Ireland, called New Grange long puzzled early archeologists because of a narrow aperture above the entrance which led through a narrow tunnel into the dark and airless centre of the tomb. It is now known that the aperture is so accurately positioned that it lets in the first rays of the new sun on December 21st each year and fills the inner chamber with light for about thirteen minutes. We do not know the belief systems of our Neolithic ancestors but clearly they had an understanding of death as a mystery that informed their whole sense of life and what we would call their axiological concerns. Aborigines still cling to a 40,000 year old spirituality called dadirri, a deep inner listening and quiet still awareness which resonates with our idea of contemplation and which they also saw as the capacity to listen truly to each other. All civilizations at some stage of sophistication generate a minority form of life corresponding to what we call monastic, which focuses on this dimension of human experience even by excluding other valuable dimensions such as family, art, commerce and politics.
In response to the request of the organizers of the Marakech forum to write on the Christian perspective of mysticism and spirituality in our time, I would like to begin by acknowledging these ancient, atavistic aspects of human history. They remind us that what we are struggling to understand today – in the face of unprecedented contemporary challenges to our sense of what humanity means – is part of a common identity stretching back into the pre-conceptual and pre-verbal stages of human development. Our challenge is not to regress to these earlier periods – that is the most superficial kind of some contemporary new age spirituality – but to know ourselves in novel ways that integrate the past and prepare us for our next stage of evolution.
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These two modalities correspond in some ways to the gunas of Indian thought as well as to the hemispheres of the brain. But, however distinct, they are not antagonistic zones of consciousness, just as there are countless and constant synaptic communications taking place between the brain’s two hemispheres. The danger of ‘mysticism’, taken out of the context of the applied personal work of spirituality, is that it forgets the dual human need to both distinguish and integrate and – instead – tends towards over-spiritualizing the spiritual quest, or even attempts to exclude the physical. In the past Christianity, even with its roots in the incarnation of the Word made flesh, has gone down this spiritual dead-end in some of its schools of spirituality. But this has always been shown up eventually by the healthiness of the greater tradition to be an aberration.
For centuries the Christian contemplative dimension was marginalized. From the 12th century with the rise of scholasticism theology became separated from prayer as the intellectual focus moved from monastery to university. After the Reformation Catholic hierarchy feared the dangerous personal dimension of mystical teaching and Protestants rejected it as too Catholic! The recovery from this damaging and absurd imbalance has been astonishingly rapid in our lifetime.
Since the Second Vatican Council – with its after-shock felt throughout the whole Christian world the Roman Catholic Church has initiated and encouraged a major rebalancing of these two dimensions. The recovery of the contemplative aspect in the mainstream of the Christian life, led notably by great monastic figures like Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, John Main and Thomas Keating but underpinned by theologians like Karl Rahner and Hans Urs Von Balthsasar, has led to a new contemplative spirituality in Christianity. This has penetrated all denominations and led to a new approach to relations with other faiths. It is also initiating a new way of understanding how Christian faith can contribute to the world in its major areas of contemporary concern, environment, mental health, education, social justice, business and politics.
The idea that a “contemplative” means only a monk or a specialized form of life has rapidly yielded, in the modern mind – though not all minds today embrace modernity – to the sense that the Christian vocation to holiness is universal and that a contemplative practice, such as meditation, is necessary for everyone to reach their full flourishing. The teaching of meditation to children in school is a powerful illustration reflecting this new way of understanding spirituality. We know that children can and like to meditate and the benefits are quickly apparent to parents and teachers. We know that children learning to meditate in the classroom will often choose to meditate on their own at other times. Understanding the full potential of the spirituality of children is a radical contribution to the new way of thinking and the new language of religion, mysticism and spirituality.
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The study of mysticism allows a historical and social perspective of the spiritual journey. It can detect the constants as well as the self-correcting mechanisms in particular religions and also the invisible connections that unite them at deeper levels. This is important today, for example, as we face the rise of an aberrant form of ‘radical’ Islam. Recognizing this as a corruption of a great religious tradition does not imply that the whole tradition is corrupt. However it also challenges Islam to an internal dialogue with its own mystical tradition which has been alienated from its mainstream institutions. Persecution of Sufi groups for example is still common. The inter-religious dialogue of Islam with other faiths, even though this is largely occurring at the academic or hierarchical levels, may stimulate this internal correction.
The mystical dimension of religion has commonly been an essential part of the self-correcting function within religions. Without it religion tends towards exclusivism and intolerance if not outright persecution of other faiths. Lacking a sufficiently high level of contemplative awareness religion easily collapses into its own power structures, rivalries and internal politics.
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Knowledge of mysticism within one’s own and other traditions has a profound impact on the form of spirituality that is practiced.
All religions reflect huge differentials between the sophisticated and the popular levels of understanding and practice. A Catholic priest asked to bless a house in the Philippines notices a trail of blood around the house showing that the witchdoctor from the village was there before him sacrificing a chicken. In some remote parts of Syria there are places of worship in which many religious traditions are represented – tactfully – by the same minister. In the early Church bishops were constantly recalling their flocks from regressive infidelity with pagan rituals, so this popular syncretism is nothing new.
One might respond by saying that the ordinary ‘consumer’ is free to use the product he buys for whatever purpose he wishes, even if this is not the intention of the manufacturer. Religious freedom, however, is not compromised by the need for education or the responsibility of leaders to provide it. The more educated, the better able we are to understand what freedom means, what our choices are and even what place choice plays in the exercise of freedom.
The study of religion today needs always to take account of the spectrum on which religious belief and practice occur. Superstition and magical religion occur under the same roof of religion in which the higher contemplative life is also taught. This is an important but delicate distinction to explore because it is does not always denote a simple judgment about which is higher or lower. Forms of simple devotion practiced by the uneducated may be a form of spirituality that effectively leads them to deep contemplative experience. Simplicity is the key to making these kinds of judgments. Spiritual growth is itself nothing less than a process of simplification. (God is infinitely simple, as Thomas Aquinas said.) Yet if ordinary practitioners are not aware of the mystical dimension of their religion these same devotional practices may become magical, superstitious habits that keep them trapped them in realms of fear and ignorance.
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True dialogue highlights identity rather than confusing or erasing it.
Many religious leaders, however, fear real dialogue because of the risk of syncretism or of losing members. This fear keeps dialogue at a superficial or merely diplomatic level and contributes nothing to the need to educate and inform the ordinary practitioner.
It is important to distinguish the various kinds of dialogue which leaders should encourage. There is the dialogue of scholars, in a rarefied but important realm of discourse. There is the dialogue of visiting each other’s sacred places and participating in each other’s rituals. These forms can have an immense effect on the people involved as they discover what the other faith is really like in practice. There is the dialogue of active collaboration in the relief of suffering and the promotion of peace and justice. There is also the simple exchange of visits and time spent getting to know each other personally and communally at the level of local church, mosque and temple.
Like all religions Christianity has influenced and been influenced by the religions around it and with which it shares the spiritual life of the human family. The pressing imperative of dialogue today has however taken the Church somewhat by surprise. There are some Christians who feel that dialogue itself is a betrayal of their faith. This kind of fearful exclusivism is found in all religions. For others dialogue is a prelude to conversion. Others feel that their evangelical responsibility is to communicate the message of Jesus, not to convert others. And for other Christians, especially with an openness to the contemplative aspects of their faith, it is what dialogue is meant to be: a way of sharing, listening and learning that depends on the risk of seeing reality as far as once is able from another’s point of view. Because these different approaches to dialogue – which are reflected in all traditions – are matters of perception, the kind of spirituality being practised is all-important.
A spirituality that resides primarily in the external, verbal and kataphatic will more jealously guard itself and fear intrusion from outside. A contemplative, apophatic spirituality, which sees the value of word and sacrament but does not stop there because it penetrates into the silence and the way of unknowing, will inevitably be better equipped to enter deeper dialogue.
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Meditation, the imageless prayer of the heart in Christian understanding, is found in the contemplative spirituality of all traditions. It is the proper study of all mystical theology. It can only be understood in terms of the belief systems of those traditions; and the methods of meditation, although comparable, receive different emphases. However, the challenges and the fruits of meditation alike are readily identified from one tradition to the other. A Christian meditator will recognize meditators in other traditions heart to heart and face to face, just as monks from different faiths immediately recognize each other as brothers.
The study of mysticism allows us to understand these similarities and differences more richly. Some spiritual practices and terms may be ‘borrowed’. We may also be reminded by our encounter with other paths of practices within our own tradition that we can usefully recover and restore. This is what happened when John Main recognized the teaching of meditation in the roots of his own monastic tradition long after he had first been introduced to meditation in the East. Meditating together is perhaps the simplest way we can enter into and negotiate the complex field of inter-religious dialogue. The study of human mysticism is clarified by this shared experience of silence.
To conclude, I would highlight three elements arising from my remarks. First the importance of not underestimating the capacity of simple people and children for profound spiritual practice. Secondly, the need to distinguish between theory and practice at all levels. Thirdly the responsibility of religious leaders to encourage the teaching of a contemplative practice, as a discipline, by the adherents of their faith
Mysticism and spirituality are rich and useful terms we must continuously refresh both with silence and discussion. The “contemplative” approach and practice may also be invoked as a way of applying the wisdom of these fields to the problems of our world. A contemplative approach to the environment or education, for example, is born of the practice of meditation. It is free from attachment to particular religious paths but is at home in all of them. At the same time it is detached and so free from absolutising any formula or interpretation, whether religious, scientific or political. This freedom of contemplation is the true freedom of the human spirit. It frees our creative forces and sets us free to face what the time we live in confronts us with. In this way we advance.
A few notes on the Monte Oliveto retreat in Bonnevaux 28 September to 1 October 2020 led by Father Laurence Freeman and Giovanni Felicioni, World Community for Christian Meditation WCCM on the topic of
“The wisdom of the young”
by Ludwig Braun
During a retreat we change our daily life by slowing down, focusing our attention, finding an internal rhythm of life, doing physical exercises (yoga, walking) to help our body to integrate what we have learned, reducing unnecessary activity, and finally by producing fruits after the time of planting and growing. A retreat can also be a time of purification, of off-loading stuff we have not dealt with, a time of dryness, or of richness. We cannot predict the quality of the fruits, but we have to accept the fruits which will appear.
The topic “The wisdom of the young” is meant to help us navigate through this time of the pandemic, where we became aware that our way of life is based on exploitation, degradation of the environment, and where the challenges may lead to polarization and social unrest. There is the danger that we surrender to the dark forces. To navigate through this uncharted territory we need to develop the particular wisdom needed today. God often reveals what is best to the young, as they have the courage to change, to take risks, they are creative and are full of energy. This also applies to the young at heart, and thus we need cooperation between all age groups to develop new visions for our home planet. We need to discover the true sources of wisdom together (the younger and the rejuvenated older), we need to satisfy our thirst from a faithful source which will not dry up.
A test of whether the source is good is found in the fruits we will produce (also known as the fruits of the Holy Spirit). True wisdom will lead us to more tolerance, to patience, to respect other persons’ sources of wisdom, to see each other as sisters and brothers in Christ. Drinking from a bad source such as propaganda will lead to aggression, polarization, to division and war. Yet how do we deal with trouble-makers? How can we resist the temptation to yield to the dark forces?
Mediation leads us on the right path, as you cannot remain aggressive if you meditate faithfully. Either you solve the problem, or you stop meditating. We need to regain the early, fresh, beautiful youthfulness as a source of wisdom and joy. We call to mind and pray as we learned as young altar servers (at least some of us) at the beginning of the Latin Mass:
“Introibo ad altare Dei” (spoken by the priest)
“Ad Deum, qui laetificat juventutem meam”(spoken by the altar servers)
Meaning: “I will go to the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth”
Or: „ …. zu Gott der meine Jugend erfreut”
Or: „ … à Dieu qui fut la joie de ma jeunesse“.
The first lecture was followed by mid-day meditation, then by a question and answer period early afternoon, and by a contemplative Eucharist service at 6 p.m., all of these broadcast worldwide via internet.
Second Session, 29 September 2020
Topic: Myths as a common ground for dialogue
Father Laurence started by inviting us to write Haikus, these are a form of poetry, verbal snapshots following a Japanese literary custom consisting of three lines, the first having 5 syllables, the second 7, and the third line again 5 syllables. Then he continued by citing an ancient Greek myth, adapted by Seamus Heaney, named “The Cure at Troy”, a tribute to Nelson Mandela. Here are some of the lines cited:
“So hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells”.
A myth can be understood as a story that is not true, but also not really false. But there are much deeper understandings to myths: they are the common basis for conversation, and the sharing of myths is essential for a common language between persons and generations. The abuse of social media has resulted in a loss of common mythologies, replacing conversation by chats, twitter messages, and a boastful sharing of photos. Conversation, however, requires eye contact, time and leisure, self control, the ability to concentrate and to avoid interruptions. This is at the heart of education: the sharing of myths, the opening of our minds, bringing us to a common source of wisdom, cultivating a sense for the divine.
Many of us today are spiritually undernourished and fall into the trap of accepting “shallow myths” such as the belief that Elvis Presley has risen from the dead, or the creationist view that the world was created in 7 days, 10’000 years ago, the belief in conspiracy theories which confuse people, the attraction of right-wing movements…
On one hand, today’s youth is often afraid to take on responsibility because of the fear of making mistakes. On the other hand, many young people take a lead, speak up for the right of girls to be educated for example, show anger when “the old white men” refuse to listen (Greta Thunberg’s glare at Mr. Trump who refused to look at her …). Other examples are the Hong Kong democracy movement, or “Black Lives Matter”.
What is needed is an answer to the question of the existence and nature of God, and meditation is probably the only way out of today’s dilemma. In meditation we let go of all our thoughts and images, and become poor in spirit, so that we can invite the Holy Spirit to fill us. It is vital, however, that meditation not be considered a consumer item which can be used and discarded, but meditation needs to be continued, needs to be a continuous journey through life.
Midday meditation followed by lunch prepared by Susan and Ludwig,
Q & A period early afternoon, contemplative Eucharist service in the evening
Third session on 30 September
Topic: What does it mean to have a second chance?
Before each session Fr. Laurence invites us to reflect on “the blackbird”. Through life it is always accompanying us, sometimes in the form of a temptation, sometimes as suffering as individual bird or as a swarm. We are encouraged to let go of it, not to interpret hastily, to continue our path.
Father Laurence continued to explain the important role of Mythology to facilitate conversation and collaboration between the generations. Great myths need to become part of us to bestow on us deeper and richer understanding, so that the river of wisdom can flow between the young and the old, to show a new path toward a balanced ecosystem and a stable global economy. The narrative of myths expands our mind, changes us in a way so we can believe again and become simple once more.
One needs to be aware, though, that there are also false myths which may lead to superstition on one hand, or to a rejection of the spiritual dimension altogether on the other. In both cases there is the danger of making generalizations (for instance: the 1980s generation just wants to get to the top at any cost …, or: all politicians are corrupt…). Education can help to train our character, to increase the quality of attention and attentive listening, to cultivate our inner capacity for wisdom. Education is like the cultivation of a field, that is, to prepare it for the next season. Cultivation allows time to rest, takes into account the rhythmic cycles of life, to settle down and to become a local, to have a place where one belongs. Meditation then, is at the heart of growth and the cultivation of the fruits, of the harvest of a life well lived.
The fast pace and complexity of the human dilemma point to the urgent need to change our ways and to accept the good news, the kingdom within. Jesus did not want an “efficient” church, but his call is presented to us as an opportunity to be taken out of our small egoistic circle and be lifted into humanity, into society as a whole (… feed the hungry, clothe the naked …). We are held by a reality which rejuvenates us, even when we fail and blunder. We always have a second chance.
Midday meditation followed by lunch
Q & A period early afternoon (here a selection, there were also several personal testimonies not given here):
Q: Can meditation be an escape from the responsibility to take action?
Response by Fr. Laurence: Meditation is not an escape from the work to be done. Meditation helps us to assess our situation and lends us the courage and hope to tackle our own personal task. Meditation is a regulating activity, it prevents us from burning out. Meditators can offer support to the active younger people, having maturity and compassion that moves them to stand up for social justice, to share the gift of meditation. The inner work of mediation is work and not relaxation.
Q: May taking on the burden from others lead to co-dependent relationships?
A: Yes, there is that danger. But just as Simon of Cyrene was asked to help Jesus to carry his cross, so are we called to help others in need. Meditation helps us to step back, to become detached from dependencies, to let God do the work of healing,
Q: Mediation during work hours (e.g. in hospitals or in schools): is it taking away time for work and study?
A: Allowing time to meditate during work hours helps us become motivated to love our work; learning becomes a joyful activity, and loving relationships are fostered. Teachers are performing a most formidable task, and we should encourage them to be renewed and restored in their calling to teach. At Bonnevaux we plan to develop a curriculum for “contemplative” education. We ask for instance: what is the nature of science, of scientific research?
contemplative Eucharist service in the evening
Fourth session on 1 October 2020
Father Laurence requests participants to submit Haikus, and I contributed my own first one:
“Chestnuts are falling
autumn is here now to stay
for some time, watch out!”
Then he continued with the topic “God’s hidden wisdom” on the basis of St. Paul’s writings. God’s spiritual wisdom needs to be articulated, and myths are a common language of humanity which lead us to the same source. The committed practice of meditation leads us to become receptive to the words of wisdom, and is a constant process of the expansion of our minds. Our minds are being re-made, undergo an ongoing rejuvenation, a continuing transformation through all stages of life. These are the personal stages of each individual, but also the collective evolution of humanity “coming of age”. The blind myth of “constant progress” is shown to be wrong, but instead, we look at the cycles of nature with its seasons and organic growth: now, autumn is here, the leaves are falling, but spring with the onset of life will come again.
Losing something is often accompanied by disillusionment, causing pain (such as the nose dive of our church and political institutions). The childish belief in Santa Claus, for instance, will break down sooner or later in our youth. We need to find growth, free from such “immediate” beliefs, we need to go beyond our disbelief by returning to the Word, by listening to it, and by regaining a new childlike (not childish) quality. Growth in wisdom means learning how to taste reality (wisdom = sapientia = to taste), to experience it. As the psalmist says:
“Taste and see that the Lord is good”.
The young can be closer to this truth than those who are older, as the taste of reality can be lost with age. To become young again means to regain that “new taste”: this can come as a surprise. Although the physical development of the brain is said to stop at the age of 25 years, we have a second chance when we are older to reconnect to the mystic world, to the world of faith, beauty, belief. We are called to grow up, to grow as individuals, as a family, as the body of Christ. For this we need food, that is, nourishment, love and support. Small children are fed with milk, when they grow older they eat solid food, they cultivate wisdom and become teachers themselves. Christ is the universal teacher, and we are taught by contemplation, a personal moral way of life, and are called to “come of age”. This leads to a new revelation of who we are, and we become as young as God is!
The lecture was followed by midday meditation, lunch and the last question and answer period in early afternoon.
Q: Can you explain the difference between “imagination” and “fantasy”?
A: Fantasy allows us to escape from boredom, it leads to distraction, evasion, and consists of “light subject matter”. Imagination, however, brings us to a higher level of consciousness; it may be spontaneous, but can also be hard work. As a fox walking carefully over thin ice, we get beyond the dangerous passages by being creative. Children love to discover their own creativity, which contrasts with consumerism, distraction and entertainment. Creativity can be expressed in poetry, which means “to make something”, or in painting, for example.
Q: How can we make responsible use of modern media to engage the young?
A: The young generation often has great talent for using modern media. However, its use can also become an addiction, and one needs to be aware of this. A medium or forum of communion is the experience of silence together, for say 5 minutes, which is also a good way to initiate the process of self-healing.
Q: How can we see how the Cosmos came into being?
A: We can look at the way that people see the world today, and then go back to how they saw it, say 100 years ago, 500 years ago, at the time of Christ, in the period of cave art …. It is in itself an evolutionary process, and we should compose stories about it, e.g. the myth of the Great Flood (German: Sintflut).
The Q & A period was concluded by a poem by Fred Jass, the “poet in residence” (giving here in its basic meaning, consult his original text):
“The stillness of meditation finds the energy and wisdom
and opens a window to the garden given us by God.
Together we grow and see and feel the fruits and beauty of life”
The retreat was followed later by a casual gathering by the Library fireplace, sharing a simple, delicious buffet and enjoying in conversation into the later evening …