I was listening to a talk of John Main’s this morning. I listen to one every day. I also take a daily aspirin. I forget all the good reasons why I take the aspirin, but I was told long ago it would be good for me. No one told me to listen to Fr John’s talks, but I know why I do and feel the good it does. It refreshes me, takes me back to the basic reason of my daily work which it is easy to forget. Like meditation itself, his talk relaunches me when that work gets complicated or overloaded. When it is an introductory talk he reiterates how to meditate. I have heard it many times but I never find it redundant or skip it. Although I know how to meditate as he taught and as I teach, repeated from the source of the experience it is inexhaustibly fresh and energising.
Like all true spiritual teaching that comes from experience, not second-hand ideas, each of his talks is like a flare shooting high into the sky and lighting up the dark surrounding countryside. If I repeat his thoughts afterwards, they lack that luminosity and intensity.
So, I began to write this entry in order to convey the profound inner vision and intimate
knowledge he was sharing. The radiance is still with me and makes a difference to my way of living today as every day. But in words alone I cannot convey this and so will not trouble you further.
But I hope I have pointed in the general direction of the source from which John Main taught. It is the same source in each of us. Otherwise we would not be able to recognise it when we heard it.
His key quote from the scriptures was:
‘So shall we at last arrive at the unity inherent in our faith, our full humanity measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ’.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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 …
The reason the Rule of St. Benedict’s is so influential is because it shows us how to make rules that are appropriate to our own day and situation, and how to change rules as need arises while remaining true to some clearly defined principles.
These are principles such as moderation, measure, good order, respect for those who are different from ourselves, compassion for the old, the young and the sick, generosity for the stranger who turns up after the guest-master has gone to bed, a balanced lifestyle, good time management, vertical and horizontal forms of authority, listening to everyone, social equality, and justice.
These are eternal principles of true religion, good religion, of civility, good society, the good life, health, and in short, holiness.
Time was when everyone agreed that the right aspiration of life was holiness, but what does holiness mean today, when holiness is often a neglected value in Christian circles? It lives on, maybe in diminished forms.
In the aspirations of some New Age spiritualities, we speak of “wholeness.” None of us would mind being called “whole persons.” Wholeness is that which has been fixed; what has been repaired, healed, made whole again.
It’s not only individuals who are broken and need repairing, healing, but it’s our culture and our world. A very striking sign of this is the hole in the ground just a few yards from where we are now. If we look into that hole at ground zero, and we look into all that made it, all the suffering it caused, and all the tragic consequences that have come from it, then we find ourselves looking into a deep and frightening darkness.
It may help us that to remember that Benedict also looked into a similar darkness. December, 546, the year before his death, was Benedict’s 9-11. Totilla captured Rome and demolished a third of the city before one of his generals persuaded him it might be better to stop there. It was the beginning of the dark ages, the decline of the Roman empire.
Benedict and the communities that he inspired responded to this darkness by forming local communities — not monastic orders, not great institutions — that were as self-sufficient as possible.
The monastery, not the empire, became the locus of civilization, of order, of peace. The empire failed. Men and women put their faith in the reign of God.
Today, monasteries are struggling to survive. Many of them are cutting back because of aging and diminishing numbers. It’s true there are new forms of monastic life appearing…but it’s certainly not the age of St. Benedict, when armies of monastics cleared the forests of Europe and opened up the economies and the social structure of the Western world.
And yet the Rule continues to fascinate and inspire countless men and women who have no desire to become monks or nuns. The monastic archetype is in the human psyche. There is a monk within each of us. Some of us express this in the monastic state and way of life.
The eternal principles of the Rule are very easily translated into other ways of life. This was made clear to me recently when on two continents I received two oblates of our Benedictine oblate community.
One of them was a 24-year-old Italian engineering student. The other was an 84-year-old French-Canadian retired businessman. When I asked them on different occasions what made them want to take this step, they gave surprisingly similar answers: simplicity of life, spiritual friendship, the need for a framework of values in their life, and the sense of being part of a community that is itself an expression of a living tradition.
The idea of a global village is a pernicious one, especially if it means the loss of cultural identity. But if we’ve got a new kind of community in the world, maybe it’s not so surprising that we’ve got a new kind of holiness.
Simone Weil, in 1943, said this:
This spiritual vision is just what we need when we look into the black hole of our present predicament. It’s the hope we need for our own dark age. The passage is pure Benedict.Proportion, and order. That’s what Benedict is so good at. Especially in times of crisis.
Modern saints know that the universe is a country, and that for the truly spiritual man or woman, it is the only country. Explicit universality surely is our way toward peace. A way toward love of country that is not nationalistic… local identity without aggressive behavior toward your neighbor, and religious belief without intolerance or prejudice.
(Preface to Collected essays on Hildegarde of Bingen Le Vie di ildegarde: Saperi, Contemplazione, CuraEd, Giambovoli 2020)
by Laurence Freeman OSB
For any student of English literature, it is hard to look at Hildegarde’s paintings and read of her visionary experiences without comparing her with the 18th century English mystical poet and artist William Blake. At the age of three, Hildegarde had her first vision of a light that ‘quaked my soul’. Blake had his first vision of angels in a public park in London at the age of eight and reported regular encounters with spiritual beings throughout his life. Both were deeply religious people and, for all the great contrast between the 12th century Catholic nun and the 18th century Nonconformist, they belong in their respective traditions to the mystical dimension of religion – according to Friedrich von Hügel’s typology of the three elements of religion: the historical/institutional, the intellectual/speculative, and the mystical/experiential. As mystics and artists, they were both deeply engaged with their times and social issues. Vastly different, they nevertheless equally disprove the assumption that the mystical element of religion is sealed off from the intellectual and institutional dimensions.
Blake was often regarded with suspicion and ridicule in his lifetime but after his death found his place in the academic literary canon. Hildegarde by contrast won papal approval when she began to publish her revelations and visions. During her lifetime, she was widely accepted as a genuine prophet, even as a self-confident woman, of orthodoxy and wisdom despite the vital diversity of all her gifts.
The present volume of papers from the 2019 Conference at the Christian Meditation Centre in Florence testifies to the resurgence of interest in Hildegarde that grew through the last century and culminated in her being declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI. Her contribution to the Christian mystical tradition was embedded in the 12th century renaissance which was an age of intellectual, spiritual and scientific flowering. Increasingly studied from these perspectives, she is now widely embraced as a wisdom figure in our time – in a culture that suffers from the loss of its spiritual coherence and social order amidst a disintegration of values in all fields of personal and institutional life.
Blake was a rebel – he typically conversed with fallen angels. He raged against the mechanisation and materialism of the early Industrial Age, mourning the loss of the capacity for wonder and delight in his culture. Hildegarde however lived in a world that saw veriditas, the ‘greening’ power of nature, as a divine presence. She was a woman of burning faith and solid belief who pursued her interests in all fields of knowledge without the fragmentation and over-specialisation that has disconnected us from the holistic vision of medicine , art and mystical wisdom.
Perhaps we are drawn towards Hildegarde because she was at home within in a mythic world and a nourishing field of symbols that could still assume the unity of all knowledge that even by Blake’s time was disintegrating into romanticism; and which in our time has left us in a wasteland and an anarchy of disconnected, competing values. Blake saw the remedy in cleansing the ‘doors of perception’ that would then enable us to see all things as they truly are: ‘infinite’. Hildegarde also saw the same light by looking ‘directly into the sun’ which she knew as the divine being that is ‘concealed in all things as fiery energy’ and ‘that blazed above the beauty of the fields’.
What are the elements in Hildegarde’s legacy that attract us and can refresh our hope today? The different papers of this volume answer this by testifying to her extraordinary mystical intelligence and creative imagination. But they also throw light on the hunger for wisdom that is both the pain and the promise of our time.
To understand if and how we benefit from encountering past wisdom traditions, Hildegarde is a friendly teacher, provided we ask ourselves honest questions. Are we re-inventing Hildegarde in our own image, merely to match our own need for spiritual coherence? Or does she truly represent unifying values and attitudes that chime with what we feel we have lost and seek to recover? For example, it seems at times she speaks with a remarkable post-modern subjectivity:
We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.
Yet her (at least public) views on gender and women’s inferiority strike us as embarrassingly of her time. Like, but better than, her 14th century English counterpart and visionary, Julian of Norwich, she nevertheless managed to flourish as a woman, an intellectual and a spiritual authority within a patriarchal system of exceptional rigidity.
Medicine is one field of Hildegarde’s passion where we can see this question addressed. In our age – that has been called the ‘golden age of medicine’ – we have become entrapped by the materialism of the scientific method and the greed of exploitation. Our understanding of health has been accordingly reduced to survival, medicalised life without spiritual quality. Consequently, the meaning of suffering and death in medicine has been excluded. Hildegarde offers us another idea of health that does not deny mortality but relates the individual’s well-being to the inter-related natural healing forces in which we live and that she saw s God’s compassionate gift to the world.
Speaking to a friend recently, a herbalist trained in a centuries long family tradition, I realised how grounded even those of Hildegarde’s remedies that initially seem laughable to modern medical science – placing a precious stone in the mouth to relieve chronic headache, for example – have a logic that can be expressed in terms we are familiar with. What is more laughable and dangerous is the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and its influence on our unhealthy dependence on medication rather than medicine. Hildegarde’s wise medicine recognises the need for the patient to be treated uniquely and to take responsibility for his or her own well-being. A mix of healthy asceticism, wonder and personal responsibility for our own health is at the heart of this contemplative medicine. It resonates with the wisdom of the great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney:
The ‘self-revealing’ refers to the inborn surge of self-knowledge that accompanies healing. The ‘double-take of feeling’ suggests the experience of re-cognition, seeing something again for the first time. Hildegarde studied and practiced the arts of healing within a wisdom tradition that harmonised (in the concepts and factual knowledge available to it) the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine. She saw healing as a realignment of the microcosm, that we are, with the cosmos, the great order, balance and harmony to which we belong.
Moderation and belief in the power of balance – fortified by her Benedictine values and the integration of the physical and psychological – are basic elements of Hildegarde’s theory of medicine and her use of tinctures, plants and healing stones. Everything can be turned to good and combined with each other to heal: plants, elements, trees, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles and metals. Using these gifts of nature in the healing arts expresses the fertility of nature in relation to the specifically human condition. ‘Greening power’ fills all living things and manifests every plant, stone or animal as ‘sparks of God’s radiance’. Yet, strange as some of Hildegarde’s remedies may seem to us – it was a different science just as her cosmology was pre-Galileo – it was also evidence based and able to observe that bacteria-polluted water that causes sickness can be purified by boiling. Medicine is food and food is medicine, as Hippocrates stated. This wisdom is the foundation of Hildegarde’s traditional medicine but also takes us into her theology.
Hildegarde’s idea of veriditas and her perception of the harmony between humanity and the natural world, engages with the modern anxiety about our ecological predicament. The link between the innate green health of the natural world – and its transcendent beauty – is indissolubly linked to the integral health of humanity. As we would say today, when our inner ecology is polluted, we pollute the outer environment. If we no longer experience our own nature as beautiful, we will be blind to the beauty of the natural world. What we truly perceive as beautiful we cannot abuse.
The wisdom tradition which nourished Hildegarde and became her field of flourishing creativity did not separate beauty from theology, liturgy, science or medicine. Her music and painting entrance and delight us today not least because we feel in them the consistency between all aspects of her personality and her ever-curious exploration of the inexhaustible wonders of the world. Like her near contemporary, Rumi and mystics of all traditions she felt the ‘sober intoxication’ of the discovery of God in the self and of the self in creation. For this reason, she is indeed a Doctor of the Church, a unique example of the Christian mystical tradition. But no less, does she belong to a universal wisdom tradition that recognises this sober intoxication as love. Like Rumi, Hildegarde saw this love flowing through all things including the human body and our deepest friendships. Rumi’s open anguish at the loss of Shams, like Hildegarde’s when separated from her Richardis illustrate another and all-important integration within their wisdom tradition: the oneness of divine and human love.
I asked a question above, which the 2019 Seminar and this book of its proceedings help to answer, ‘what is the meaning of our attraction to Hildegarde today and can she help us connect to an older expression of wisdom and help us in the present global crisis?’ Our attraction to her is more than nostalgia for a past where the world was seen to be held in one great chain of being. To see Hildegarde just nostalgically would lead to absurdity, ignoring her outdated information about the world and so failing to see the essence of her particular wisdom which connects her, for our benefit, with universal wisdom. Through telescopes and microscopes, we know things she didn’t. But, because of our self-blinding materialism, we have forgotten things that she clearly saw and understood. Connecting with her and other sources of past wisdom helps us see the essentially spiritual nature of our crisis.
What connects us to the wisdom she drank from is our own contemplative practice. Unless we are on our own quest for self-knowledge as the basis for the knowledge of God, our interest with the wisdom figures of the past must remain superficial or merely academic. Meditation, as a universal wisdom, offers us a way to heal the serial disconnections we have with our tradition, ourselves, each other and with God. It gives us a literacy in the language of wisdom which is silence. So, to me it seems significant that the content of this book was first composed in exchanges that took place at a living Christian meditation centre in one of the great cultural centres of the world.
Hildegarde’s meaning for us today is not merely her explanation of things but how she saw the world in its wonderful and blessed wholeness, how she understood the beauty of the human and of nature, how she experienced wisdom both transcendentally and immanently, how she could see God in everything and Christ in the power of veriditas. She helps us understand that we can indeed benefit from the wisdom of past teachers and learning how we, in very different circumstances, can apply what they teach us. As an ageing culture in transition, so often tired, confused and broken, we may be reborn, rejuvenated with her help. Then we will understand her when said at the end of her vibrantly green life ‘I feel like a young girl, not an old lady.’
As I write this, I am still feeling the surprise of feeling the brilliant light of the huge moon in the early hours of this morning. Moonlight always feels as if it gently floods your body and then strokes the mind. I am distracted, however, from thinking about the lunar feast of Easter, the link with oestrogen and the forever melting and growing phases of the moon. Distraction comes from a continuous raucous noise, like a football crowd celebrating a championship win that is pouring into my room through the open windows in front of my desk looking out at the lake at Bonnevaux. Frogs in full choral disharmony. As the book I consulted puts it, boy frogs awaken from their hibernation with one thing on their minds and lady frogs swollen with spawn lay it and before you can blink it is fertilised.
I rose from the dead after drawing the sting of death and loosing the bonds of hell.. for lo the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. I have risen from the dead, I have offered peace (Origen: Homilies on Song of Songs)
Spring. The calm peaceful, influential cycle of the moon which shape the religious and farming calendars and our moods. The frenzied fixation and impatience of the mating rituals. Energy passing upwards in the body and bursting into spirit. Resurrection happens both in nature and in our psyche which reflects it. Mis-stepping in the dance between the inner and outer rhythms disturbs everything. Many have understood this through their harsh encounter with the virus, one face of nature during the past weeks. The difference between the Resurrection of Jesus and the biological cycle of nature is that in him the cycle of death and rebirth is not repeated but transcended. True, we continue to experience many deaths and rebirths, as always, the deeper the death the higher the rebirth. But through each cycle in our personal and collective lives, we can better breathe in the light of the risen, never to die again, Jesus and lose and find ourselves in him. The corona crisis has meant death for many individuals, myriad kinds of suffering and perhaps the death of a way of life. We have long known it was unsustainable. Growth out of control is cancer. Easter reminds us that we do not need to fear change or death once we are committed to real life. Our spiritual path, whatever form it takes, is that commitment. As we
enter into the cycle of death and resurrection more thoroughly, we become more aware of its universal truth, that it is the model of all being. We begin to appreciate what Mystery is…It is the cycle upon which each half-hour of meditation is based: death to the possessiveness and triviality occupying our ego and a rising to the liberty that dawns when we find ourselves by looking fully at the Other…We are dying and rising to new life every day.. Yet it is also true that there is only one death and one rising which Jesus underwent for all creation. (John Main Word into Silence)
Family or loved ones waiting beside someone on life support or – as in the corona crisis – not allowed to be beside them but waiting for news at a distance – as long as there is breath there is hope. However close the inevitable may be, it is another age, another world away. But when it comes, and the last breath is drawn, when there is no next inbreath, we enter the summum silentium of death. The great silence.
In monasteries this refers to the silence monks are supposed to observe strictly after the night prayer. It’s not unknown, however, for monks to get on zoom or chat with someone in the community after the great silence. With death, however, there is no choice, silence can only be observed. We can’t cheat death. And it is shocking how powerless we are. Like children who think they can get what they want by insisting, by charming, by crying, by threatening, we finally give up and admit we are defeated. What is gone is gone.
However much we replay conversations with the dead we will never again hear or see them as we did. Photos, old letters, personal objects we treasure are all meagre consolation and after a while they become impediments to the new relationship that is being formed in the tomb that slowly evolves to become a womb.
The unyielding, uncompromising silence of non-communication, the failure to make contact, to know what the dead person might be seeing or feeling – if anything. The silence of wondering if they care – if they are anywhere or in any kind of existence in which they could care about those who miss them. Eventually the grieving process allows the bereft to accept the obvious and the inevitable. Albeit with another weight in their heavy heart to carry, they move on. As we die into the death the summum silentium shows signs of life. Green shoots from dead soil.
This doesn’t mean that messages from the dead are getting through on a busy network but that the silence becomes deeper. We become better able to listen to the silence without populating it with our desires and fears and imagination. It becomes simple presence. Simple but more intensely present than anything we thought was real before.
Inbetween the lines of this pandemic and the painful, not meaningless disruption it is causing, we should be able to hear this great silence. If we don’t have one, or if it has fallen into disrepair, this is the time to start or re-service a spiritual practice. It is time to see how necessary for survival is the silence of things. The silence which empowers life through death.
Here at Bonnevaux I have noticed on my walks how much more present and friendly the birds and animals seem. I imagine this is my projection. It is I who have changed, not them. But who knows? Maybe it is after all, all about relationship, not just observation or being observed. It is time to start Lent again.
It matters how we die. And how we die depends upon how we approach dying. How we approach that inevitability depends upon how we have lived. How we live depends upon how much we have learned love.
In many wisdom traditions death is associated with a crisis – the word krisis means judgement. A reckoning has to be made and, like doing tax returns, no one looks forward to it but it is not as bad as it seems once you set your mind to it. The more complicated your affairs, the longer it will take. But unlike tax returns you cannot pay anyone to do it for you. Dying, we all become hermits and if we haven’t understood solitude before we will learn in this last crisis of life.
The Egyptians saw the last judgement as a weighing of the human heart against the feather of truth. If the heart of the deceased was too heavy, too impure, the goddess of truth would devour it and the unfortunate soul would be arrested on its journey into immortality, stuck in some intermediate limbo or netherworld.
So, scared of the unknown afterlife, people used to pray for a holy death. This meant letting go of life and one’s attachments and loved ones peacefully. Even when pain was acute one could achieve a dignified equanimity, no thrashing around dramatically complaining about that ‘dark night’ which the romantic poet Dylan Thomas said we should not go gently into. Rather, he said we should, ‘rage against the fading of the light’. But beside the witness of a holy death this sounds embarrassingly adolescent.
What about Good Friday in the middle of this pandemic in which so many have died, and which will take away many others before it has run its course? If we have been following Lent – and what a Lent it has been in 2020 – we should be a little readier to look death in the eyes and face our deepest fear. When fears are faced, they crumble. It is only when we run away that they become monstrous and wreck our lives and our capacity to love.
Even the death of the unjustly accused, of children, victims of genocide or of social inequality (as we see in the figures of Covid 19’s victims), even the most disturbing deaths teach us about life. Yama the mythical god of death in the Katha Upanishad is a teacher of humanity. So is the fully human, historical Jesus, not only in what he preached but in how he lived and died into his teaching, indeed becoming what he taught. If we die as we lived, our dying is a gift, an authentic teaching in itself, to those we take leave of. Even in grief we can feel the grace of a holy death and its joyful, birth-like expansion and release. Every death, Jesus shows us, can be redemptive.
He did not rage against the fading of the light. He saw the rising light. Spoken from this incommunicable awakening, his last words enlighten us: I am thirsty. Today you will be with me in paradise. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. It is accomplished.
Do this in memory of me’. Jesus says this during the Last Supper, which evolved – and is still evolving in Christian life – as the Eucharist. We ‘remember’ him as members of his mystical body and this remembering nourishes us and helps us to grow. It is food for the journey, a healing of the human condition, a celebration of life as it could be lived with the powers of forgiveness, equality and sharing. Of course, it is symbolic. But symbols are forces of transformation.
There are different kinds of acts of memory. There is a remembering of anger and resentment we call vengeance. There is nostalgia, of regret and sadness for what is lost in time. These kinds of memory keep us looking backwards. They fail to incorporate the past in the present. They cannot prepare us for what’s coming next in the flow of time, the unknown future. These forms of remembering do not guide us to the present moment. They are not the way of ‘calling to mind’ that the Eucharist is about.
In a contemplative Eucharist, such as we celebrate at Bonnevaux (and do online every Sunday), it is easier to feel the presence of Christ in the eternal now, the present moment where the past is healed, and we are renewed to build the future.
Many of the readers of these daily reflections have been forced to become more solitary and even isolated since the beginning of Lent. I was talking today to a meditator who has been in quarantine for two weeks in a hotel room. He is coping well, he told me. He hasn’t turned on the television at all. Some days he adds a third meditation to his regular morning and evening sessions. He keeps in touch online with family and close friends and he started a creative work project which is absorbing him. He began the enforced solitude and dramatic slowdown with the advantage of an already established spiritual path. He is glad to be going home soon but he has learned a lot from the experience and is grateful for it. He feels he will life differently, more simply and gratefully.
For many others the slow down or solitude have not been so easy. Time has hung heavy on them. They have felt restless, lonely, isolated, forgotten, abandoned. When we are in pain it is natural to seek distraction, to “take your mind off it.” But distraction can become a problem in itself, giving only temporary relief. As it becomes more addictive, higher does are needed to achieve the same result.
Many of us are addicted to some forms of distraction already. Finding ourselves in house arrest may mean we automatically increase the dose or look instinctively for other ways of fixing the problem – which they don’t. It can also be an opportunity to discover what a spiritual path and practice mean.
Meditation doesn’t solve the Covid-19 problem. If the virus is contagious before meditation, it will still be contagious afterwards. But a simple daily practice of meditation will, without doubt, change the way you approach and cope with the crisis.