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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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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