Advent Week Four

(December 24th  2Sm 7:1-5,8b-12,14a-16; Rom 16:25-27; Lk 1:26-28) – READ HERE

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At its worst, which happens a lot, religion controls and patronises God. Rather than removing the human blocks and setting the spirit free in human affairs it can easily exclude the divine. Religious leaders often speak for God, telling others what God wants and doesn’t want, without ever exposing themselves to the risk of meeting God directly.

This is what David does in the first reading. He has won his battles and settled into his kingdom and then thinks ‘Oh, I should build a nice big house for God to live in which will be the Temple. What a good idea’. But God – more gently than he deserves – puts him down. ‘Do you think you can put me in a house? I bless you, not you me. But you will find me pervading everywhere in your life. That’s where I am and will always be. In you and in life.’

Paul, the former religious bigot, understood this after his transformative bout of blindness and a nervous breakdown. The truth is wider, deeper, broader and longer than can ever be expressed. The best we can do is try to express our growing wonder. And that is simply what ‘praising God’ means.

Today’s gospel of the Annunciation shows how the homeless presence of God, on earth and in the cosmos, saturates into the particular. There is a plaque in Nazareth, marking the supposed spot where Mary received her angelic visitor. It reads, ‘Et Verbum Caro Factum Est’: Here on this tiny piece of earth the infinite and eternal Word of God became flesh. The messenger explained to her her destiny. She, young and obscure, would be the house in which God dwells. She is frightened and confused. But she was conscious and responsive. She thought about it and then asked a question – how can this happen to me who am still a virgin?

It sounds like a simple fairy-tale and it is seen as such in nativity plays acted by little children around the world. The tale, however, is not only simple but profound and mysterious. How deeply it touches us, depends on whether we can suspend our scepticism and allow ourselves to be swept beyond the reserved mythical-literal dichotomy into a revelation that enters us and dwells in us for ever after.

‘Experience is the best proof’ of this and of everything else. If we can listen, be conscious and then say yes to what is beyond ordinary (dualistic) knowledge, we don’t have an experience. We become the experience.

The full celebration of Christmas depends on this surrender that is not a rejection of intelligence but an opening of the mind to the mystery dwelling in the heart. Mary doesn’t know what it all means and maybe she never did. But she teaches us the contemplative way when she simply assents to what is and knows what she doesn’t know – as we do in meditation. Her fiat, ‘may it be done to me according to your word’ allows the cosmos, materially, to become the temple that God soaks into by becoming, not only God but also human. No thing will ever be the same again.

 

 

 

Advent Week Three

(December 17th  Is 61:1-2A,10-11; 1Thess 5:16-24; Jn 1: 6-8,19-28) READ HERE

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We have to burrow deep down through disappointment and even despair to find the source of hope. Only at the place where it bubbles up from the bowels of the earth is hope more than wishful thinking, crossing your fingers, keeping up morale. This may be why prophets (and we all have a bit of the prophet in us) seem often to oscillate from the dark to the light.

Today Isaiah is all light. You would have to have a professionally hardened heart not to be moved by his vision of an event, a coming – that brings glad news to the poor, heals the broken-hearted, gives liberty to those held in bonds of fear or fantasy and sets prisoners free. At Christmas many people remember this hope, and feel connected to its pure, fresh and simple source. That is why Christmas is about a birth and children and Christmas go together so well.

This hopeful vision of the human theatre is usually buried deep in the noise and glitter and excessive indulgence of the festivities. Inevitably, we will hear about the economic impact of Christmas spending on the economy; much less about the special shelters for the homeless run by volunteers, the people who will search out and comfort those who with their families have lost home and livelihood because of war and are looked at by their new hosts with suspicion and hostility.

How do we dig down to find this spring of hope that can face the inhumanities of humanity and still not give up trying to make the world a kinder and more just place? After all, many who start off idealistically become cynical. Politics smothers purpose. And many more perhaps burn out in the process, giving themselves generously but imprudently in ways that break the mind or the body.

Paul says ‘pray without ceasing’. This hardly means spending all day in church, mosque, temple or synagogue. Nor does it mean thinking about heavenly realities all the time. It means unblocking the channel of consciousness that is the continuous pure stream of prayer in us.

I once sat down to meditate with a small group in my meditation room on Bere Island. Then an awful smell and a worrying sound of gurgling came from the nearby toilet. It was overflowing. Bad news, like we read of every day. My cousin, who is an expert in everything, came round and feared it was the septic tank. Big problem. Later as I walked around outside I saw a hole where the pipe led from the toilet to the tank. I looked in the hole and saw a stone lodged there. Hardly believing my luck and beaming with pride that I had solved the problem I plucked out the stone and everything flowed thereafter in the right way.

We don’t have to try to pray continuously. We just have to remove the blockages to enjoy what Paul calls the soundness, wholeness, of body, mind and spirit. This is the biblical understanding of the human – the triple dimension that lifts the duality of body and mind to transcendence. This third and most subtle dimension is clearly present in today’s gospel, as John the Baptist points away from himself to the ‘one who will come after’ him.

We can only say so much and see so much. We can only keep the attention on ourselves for so long. If we don’t clear the blockages in consciousness that foul up ourselves and the world, we will endlessly look and not see and chatter so much that we drown out the healing silences of life. The Baptist says ‘there is one among you whom you do not recognise.’

What a hopeful thing to say.

 

 

Advent Week Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Images of Bonnevaux

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

Before him, the prophet Isaiah said:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

You can visit the Bonnevaux website and here

Marvellous paradoxes

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

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

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

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

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

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Contemplative Exchange group in Snowmass

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

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

Not a Nostalgic reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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