Not a Nostalgic reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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www.bonnevauxwccm.org

Tradition

Traditional, traditionalist are two ways of describing how we relate to tradition as a human transmission of experience. There are, however, many nuances within the idea of tradition that we need to be alert to if we are to get our relation to the past and the future right. And in our era of instant excitement and chronic amnesia, getting it right is necessary to our survival

bernardLast week at the annual John Main Seminar (hosted this year by our Houston community) the presenter, Bernard McGinn was one of the great scholars of the Western Christian mystical tradition in our time. At eighty he radiates energy and a contagious enthusiasm for the field of study and research to which his life has been dedicated. The presence of his wife and colleague Pat and the benevolent evidence of their decades together was another kind of reminder that the past does not need to be the dumping ground of redundancy and obsolescence.  The past lives on when it is integrated into the present and fuels us for the future.

‘New’ does not only mean what has just now been invented or discovered. Human existence is not restricted to youth. Delightful and beautiful as youth is, it (and all beginnings and the early stages of things) has many limitations which only experience through time, trial and error can correct. On the physical plane, there is a price to pay for this, because of mortality and the fourth law of thermo-dynamics. Probably since humans first began to think about life they have been amused and saddened by the disparity between the capacities of youth and the knowledge that can only be acquired by ageing which involves the loss of capacity.

By the time we learn why we are making mistakes we have often lost the opportunity to repeat them as enjoyable and painfully as before. And even those in the full bloom of youth often undermine their own enjoyment because of a divided mind: thinking of what they might have chosen to do while doing distractedly what they did choose.  Transmitting the wisdom of experience is one of the defining responsibilities of the old to the young. To resist letting go of youth betrays this responsibility.

Usually, it seems inevitable that the young will make errors that their elders can foresee and perhaps cushion but rarely prevent. Their role then becomes one of giving reassurance and hope for the future.

Human existence is traditional. It involves the transmission of knowledge gained through mistakes and discoveries across the chasm of mortality. There are huge failures in this transfer of experience and wisdom, which is why we continue to repeat the same mistakes – such as the use of violence to resolve differences and the construction of unjust economic systems. But there are also amazing successes such as in the transmission of mystical knowledge that has created the interweaving wisdom traditions of the world.

In Houston, we learned more about our own mystical tradition from a mind and personality who had for long acquired and stored it in his tissue in ways with which Google or any hard-copy library could not compete. Humour, perspective, seeing new linkings across familiar territories, deepening one’s love for what is already very familiar – these are aspects of the transmitting of spiritual wisdom. The written texts are important – as will be the audios and videos of modern culture – but they are not enough. Tradition is not static. When it begins to gather dust it is not longer tradition – the inter-personal transmission of knowledge – but merely an archive. Dr McGinn reminded us several times that he was ‘only an academic’;  as a musician might remind us he is only an interpreter, an instrument player, not the composer. Nevertheless he communicated what he had learned with human skills that awoke or deepened curiosity and delight in us.

His listeners were fired with the excitement of making new discoveries, seeing new patterns. Some bought big books, which they won’t finish. For us all, the outcome was both a renewed understanding of our daily contemplative practice and of the importance of passing on the gift of meditation.

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From St Thomas University in humid Houston to the great cool valley of Snowmass monastery in Colorado, 8000 feet high in the Rockies. Last night we had the first meeting of a group of younger contemplative teachers and practitioners drawn equally from the World Community, Contemplative Outreach, the Center of Action and Contemplation and the Shalem Institute. The leaders of these four contemplative networks, with the inspirational support of the Trust for the Meditation Process, have invited these representatives of the coming generation of teachers who are taking responsibility for re-discovering and re-transmitting the contemplative tradition of Christianity in our time.

Bridges and personal relationships between the generations are vital. It is vital that the young take responsibility and use their capacities to the full with all their dedication and commitment. It is vital that their elders help them, offer sustained friendship – and, when necessary, get out of their way.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

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Let’s recall the archetype of Lent we are being nourished by on this journey, which is the time Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”

When you are truly attentive to something, fully absorbed in it, you are not distracted by anything as minor as not having eaten for forty days. To be fully absorbed in anything is a form of bliss. If on the other hand we are constantly snacking, consuming, digesting or spewing texts, twitters and emails we may well forget what a great sauce hunger is. I am not referring to the hunger for the necessities of life, which it is a scandal and shame that anyone should have to face. I mean the hunger for reality that our addictive consumption blocks and denies. The sign of over-consumption is a lack of compassion for the needs of others.

In a world of Brexit and Twitter politics the only certainty is uncertainty. This makes the financial masters of the universe tremble because growth depends on investment and risk is the great fear. So, this is the time to wonder if we have to turn every stone in our path into a loaf of bread and jam.

Life is growth and change. Tradition serves life, it doesn’t stifle it. Goals and objectives for growth need to be tempered and trained by the filaments of meaning and wisdom that connect us to our roots, both historically and spiritually. The ‘tempter’ breaks those filaments by awaking the perennial seeds of greed and lust. Soon we are running crazily around the desert, turning every stone into an unnecessary loaf of bread. We can’t consume them all, which frustrates us, but we have also lost the hunger for truth that makes bread meaningful and enjoyable.

If a country decides it has to go to war it should declare its war aims and stop when they are achieved. If the globalized world is aiming at economic growth it should declare its goals, how it can be distributed and its limits. Unlimited growth is cancer.

Moderation really cures. The middle way of the Buddha or St Benedict, the ‘narrow little path’ of Jesus that ‘leads to life’ is the journey. The hunger for reality also comprehends hunger for truth. As Orwell foresaw, and Goebbels proved, truth can be altered by manipulation. ‘Alternative facts’, or lies, can be thrown into the innocent eyes of any sincere statement. As espionage agents are said to discover after they have learned their craft of deception, it is soon hard to tell what side you are really serving.

When we feel the hunger for reality, we taste the word of God. Yesterday’s ash may have disappeared but the journey has begun. Each time we meditate we repeat Jesus’ response to the powers of self-deception.

With Love

Laurence

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Farewell to Huston Smith

1919-2016

Huston Smith, who led the John Main Seminar in Tucson, Arizona, in 1999 has died aged 97. He delighted the participants with his thought about religion in modern culture, sharing with them what was to become a book called ‘Why Religion Matters’ and stayed in touch with the community afterwards. A lifelong student of world religion, born in China to Methodist missionary parents, he always remained centred in Christian faith while exploring the spectrum of human religious experience and passionately defending religious freedom. His sharp and capacious mind and his sweet nature made him an unusual scholar of both personal depth and brilliance.

Laurence Freeman OSB

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Forth Week of Advent

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A short walk from the retreat centre in Rio there is a path that leads you into a little Amazon. Follow it through to the end – don’t fear, you are never far from the familiar world and the path is man-made – and you find yourself immersed and welcomed as part of the endless buzz and activity of life. The ecology of the forest is a dance of such complexity and intricacy that cannot be conceptualised. To analyse it is to lose it. To grasp it as a whole needs a change of focus.

Its complex inter-systems – insects, birds, fauna, flowers, trees, parasites and all the other kinds of life that shyly avoid bipeds like you – revolve in their own worlds of survival and self-reproduction, like countless whirling galaxies. Sometimes they collide silently and the stronger prevails. But no one complains. Destruction is part of the life system. Continually, leaves flutter down, having served their purpose. They settle on the ground to decompose and disappear forgotten and become something else. All the time there is a constant vibration of noise, the origin of music, but also forms of energy beyond our few weak human senses.

Looking down I see a perfect impatiens walleriana, the little five petalled flower of pastel colours I have on my balcony in London and that we call Dizzy Lizzie. It is a bridge between worlds but you are still the only human being in this particular parallel universe.

Walk out of the forest past the retreat house, you find well-manicured gardens, part of the tamer human ecology. Forest becomes garden. Low paid workers, now in their homes in the favella, keep it neat and tidy for those who have leisure to enjoy, but perhaps have also lost the calmness necessary for leisure. The flowers have the look of flowers that are looked at, the origin of cosmetics.

What if, from within and beyond these great artless symphonies of wild nature and the self-conscious aesthetics of human culture another vibration were to emerge? It comes silently, concealing itself in the very forms in which it is clothed. It is the source of both worlds including all worlds yet to be. In those perhaps the self-regarding human will be unknown. It is the primal utterance that brings existence out of being and leads it back to being. As leaves flutter down so universes expire. But this originating Word is the base line of all time and space.

We wait for it. It is coming. It is here. It is moving on, completing its big purpose, with or without us. But it has come to its own, as gloriously, movingly human as a newborn. Utterly weak so that it can reveal itself as the power of life to those who recognise it and are not too busy to listen to it during their short span of days. It was why a good Advent makes for a Happy Christmas – all year.

A very happy Christmas and peaceful new year to us all.

Laurence Freeman

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Second Week of Advent:

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Last week we looked at Advent as an illumination of desire. Human beings, who are creatures of desire, experience growth in self-transcendence and through the transformation of desire – what we want and how we pursue it. Eventually, we see that we do not want only what we like but we want the happiness of others. In that self-recognition we expand into the kingdom, free form the self-centred orbit of our self-made suffering. The catalyst for this transformation is to discover progressively that we are desired by a love beyond our wildest fantasies.

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Advent is a time to sense how this desire beyond the event horizon of our imagination is hurtling towards us in all the sweet majesty of its stillness. All of this is poetry until we meditate. Then it becomes ‘experience’ – but beyond all that we normally think of as experience. The early Christian thinkers who drew the ground-plan of this theology changed our anthropology in the process. The way we understand God changes the way we feel about ourselves. St Gregory Nazianzen, for example, wrote in the 4th century that in Jesus the Word of God comes to its own image in the human, ‘to unite himself to an intelligent soul.. to purify like by like’. This insight helps us imagine this core mystery of Christian faith from the inside as well as an external event.

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God forms into the human even beyond the event horizon of the cosmos. But that horizon is equally present in the deepest and brightest mystery of the human soul. Thus we can speak of the two births of the Word – in God eternally and in my time-bound soul. And it comes in three waves, in the great Beginning of all things, in Bethlehem on some unknown date and at the unpredictable end of time. The trick of our Advent this year of the Lord 2016 is to relate all this to Black Friday hysteria, to tinsel and sentimentality and to Christmas trees in public squares – or rather sharply to distinguish them.

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This coming of God into the human, from beyond and from within, is the great revolution of human intelligence. Once we have started to consider it we are never the same. It redefines power and weakness, richness and poverty, time and eternity. In other words, the Word made flesh explodes the fission bomb of the paradox of reality. It will never allow us again the cheap indulgence of dualistic answers. We have been plunged into the reality that is deeper than the atom.

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We are drawn to this almost in the same measure as we dread it. But in this advent – and our meeting with what comes towards us we discover the joy of being, the freedom to love and the supreme delight of sharing in the life of the source of our selves.

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In Amazonia there is a stretch where the two great rivers of the Amazon and Rio Negro meet. Their confluence is dramatic, the black river and the sandy-coloured river. For six kilometres they run side by side without mixing because of the differences in temperature and flow speed. But eventually they recognise each other as water and become one.

First Week of Advent 2016: We are creatures of desire

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We have been waiting for Advent for most of the year. (The Word was made flesh on March 25th, on the Feast of the Annunciation). But, like a seed silently growing in the ground day and night, its silence begins to be audible in the four weeks of Advent. If we can listen to the rising volume of the silence of the Incarnation during this season of heightened expectancy, we will be better set to celebrate Christmas as it is expects to be celebrated.

The nativity into our world of sense of the divine human and the human God is endlessly mysterious – and so it is easily lost in the yuletide razzmatazz. It reveals and conceals simultaneously. In Advent we begin to sense how God must be both very daring and very shy.

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As Advent is folded in four, let’s take the experience of waiting in that number of stages. The first is the dull awareness that there is something to wait for. This is felt rather than thought. The feeling of waiting however sharpens awareness and awakens us to our selves. It’s funny that we should first be awakened by longing, by the pain of not having what we long for and which we can’t even properly name. But Homo Sapiens is naturally discontented and ever hungry for more. Our satisfactions are wonderful but don’t last long. Fulfilling one desire soon shows us that it hasn’t concluded the sense of incompleteness that possesses our ever changeable selves. Before the froth of one wave of success hits the beach another is building up behind it. We are creatures of desire. So, we instinctively and fatally interpret each moment as painful or pleasing.

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As we see this, we mature and become better at raising the young. It makes us tender and compassionate to them. We are touched and amused at how ecstatic they are when their intense but still simple hopes are fulfilled. But it also makes us aware both of how we should help to shape their desires and of how we must keep our promises. Through this awareness created by growth we learn to be other-centred (some of the time). We see the provocative wisdom of putting the happiness of others on the same plane as our own. Children exemplify this for us. Not surprisingly then, when the wisdom of God comes in human packaging He comes as a child. We have to look after Him. Bow to Him. Tend to Him, change His nappies, comfort His crying. The gift we have been waiting for fulfils our desire to the degree that it turns our attention off ourselves.

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I have seen some very self-centred and anguished adults, tormented by the disappointments of their long waiting, transformed by a newborn child, lifted into a kind of happiness they could never achieve by fulfilling their desires.

Humanity too has been waiting, since it was first awakened by its its enslavement to desire. We have been waiting for God to burst through our images and desires projected onto our self-made gods. God takes us by surprise. He arrives as a helpless baby that we have to suckle and protect so that it can survive and grow. We parent God. But the growth that follows becomes wondrous as it was for Mary and Joseph. Our so called ‘spiritual journey’.

As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

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In contemplation God is born in us, how we don’t know, but at some point we feel the pangs of birth and rising wonder replaces the cycle of desire. Advent makes sense because growth means life revealing and unfolding on new levels of experience and meaning. Daily business, dealing with things, planning for contingencies, taking breaks to escape the drudgery is all one level. It is the literal level where success and failure are what they seem because they are labelled this by others. But another level manifests where all these judgements and activities also appear symbolic, reflecting another dimension of reality, expressing a new way of being, a fresh self-awareness propelling us from a tortured world of judgement and dissatisfaction into a realm filled with the wonder of the exchanging of gifts and real, not sentimental, innocence.

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The build-up to this is patience, the contemplative art of waiting. We have lost this art of practical wisdom in the modern world but meditation restores it. A contemplative Advent will re-enchant Christmas for us, sparing us from the tedium of its crude consumerism.

We become patiently aware of what we waiting for as it hurtles towards us through the interstellar spaces, homed in on us, eager for us, desiring us, transforming what and how we desire as we become more acutely aware of it.

Emily Dickinson wondered:

How News must feel when travelling
If News have any Heart
Alighting at the Dwelling
‘Twill enter like a Dart

We are humble creatures of desire. So, we merely repeat the cycle of pain and pleasure until we understand that we are also desired. What we truly long for, the love that creates us, has already targeted us. That is why we long for it. It is what we long for because God longs for us.