Saturday, September 20, 2008

Of Tea and Boundaries

I'm here early this week. I'll be in New York City on Sunday seeing a friend who is in for the weekend, so I wanted to get this post done before I left. As I write, I'm sitting at my computer, having blackberry sage tea out of a painted mug that I bought in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. I haggled over the price of the mug, too. (Well, I didn't haggle a lot - what can you argue about when it comes to the price of a mug?)

My trip to the Aegean was not a pilgrimage. At least it wasn't designed or advertised as a spiritual journey. But day by day as I review where we were and what happened, the spiritual part of it gets clearer and clearer. You can't stop spiritual stuff from happening, after all, no matter where you are or how your trip is advertised.

In my case, one of the major things that has happened is that I keep stumbling over moments when my relationship to Time has changed. I have the good modern western concept that the past is "then" and the present is "now". But I'm having some experiences that were tripped off by this trip to the Aegean that indicate to me that the good modern concept is not all there is to be said. I'm having experiences of time as much less defined than that.

I first began noticing it in meditation. Meditation is an old and familiar experience to me, and the technique is part of my ordinary consciousness: attend to your breath (or whatever you're using), when you notice that you've drifted away, bring yourself back to the present, and do that as many times as necessary, with a gentle but firm touch. So if I'm sitting there meditating and find a thought of, say, the city of Sardis in Turkey coming into my mind, I just label it as "thinking", and bring myself back to the present. The trouble is that I'm no longer sure that Sardis is part of the past. What if that ancient city, those ancient ruins, are actually part of my present? This isn't anything that I'm thinking my way into. It's just happening. I can't seem to muster up the energy necessary to regard Sardis as a "distraction", because it seems very much a part of now.

Sardis Bath complex - picture by Dick Osseman

I think the stage was set by having those Turkish and Greek cities presented as a foundation of the Western Christian world; very much of what we presently are and how we think and what the world means to us has its origins in those walls, those streets, and the people who walked those streets and prayed and taught in those buildings. This found a ready audience in me, because I've always been interested in history, particularly in local history, and I've explored the archives of Holy Cross and the annals of the towns in Ulster County, New York for many years. New novices notice and comment on the fact that when talking about the history of the community I will say: "and then we began this ministry" or: "and then we opened a monastery in......." when I'm describing things the community did long before I was born.

So the stage was set interiorly and what has happened is that now the fabric of time is much less solid for me. The people of Sardis, the streets of Ephesus, the stones of Priene aren't "there" or "then" for me. They are here and now. They are my present. It's kind of disorienting, but also deeply real and satisfying.

This is, in fact, a fairly common spiritual experience. though the form I had it in isn't the most frequent one. More commonly it is experienced in terms of other people. It is described as the experience of how we are really all one, and there is no barrier between us. Thomas Merton's famous experience on the street corner in Louisville is one example. All of a sudden the boundaries that we assumed were there between us and other people, or us and other places, just seem to dissolve and we discover that the truth of the world is that there's a lot about those boundaries that is unreal. We- all people - really are one, nothing real separates us, and these experiences seem to also convey an urgency to live that reality. This seems to have struck me in terms of Time and my awakening to the reality that we are one with all the people, and the places, who went before us. In a powerful way there is no "then". Sardis is now.

I also had the great privilege of being in on a similar discovery made by one of my fellow travellers. We were in Thessaloniki in Greece, being shown through the Church of the Holy Wisdom which is a church so ancient that no one knows when it was put up - sometime between the 5th and the 8th centuries, probably, maybe earlier. It definitely has mosaics that were put there in the 8th and 9th centuries, when the church was already very old. We were sitting in the nave, hearing about all of the wonders of the architecture when the youngest member of the group appeared at my side. He's a teenager - a really great guy, and very bright. He's an ordinary teen in many ways, including the fact that he has found a real passion for his life. Unlike most teens, however, his passion is ancient Greece. He's read the Illiad and the Odyssey and much else. He knows the history, he knows the people. His grandmother takes his passion seriously and brought him on this trip. It was great having him with us.

Anyhow, he had wandered off during that talk, as kids often do (actually, as I often do, for that matter) and he appeared again while the talk was still going on, looking a touch disoriented and said quietly and urgently: "Bede, what's that room over there on the right? What is that? I've never felt anything like that in my whole entire life." From my years of working with young people I have the gift of recognizing an Issue when it appears, so I got up and went over to the room he was pointing at.

It was an ordinary square room with a couple of windows on the right side. It had a number of icons - no surprise, this is a Greek Orthodox Church. It had a large plain Cross in a stand. And it had two rows of stalls facing each other. That's all.

It was the Choir - or at least that is my interpretation. What we call "The Office" - that is, the daily recitation of the Psalms together with some hymns and prayers - is part of Church life in Orthodoxy, in parish churches as well as in monasteries, and in Greek churches, especially old ones, there is sometimes a room set aside for this purpose. I can't remember exactly, but I think that in this Church it actually connects with the Sanctuary, where the Eucharist is celebrated. In any case, what this guy had stumbled across was a room that has been prayed in most days for around 1,500 years. Prayer has soaked into the walls and it is a presence thick enough to be felt. And he felt it. And it blew a bunch of his circuits, just as my time circuits seem to have been blown.

I came back (the lecture was still going on) and quietly told him what he had found and what it meant. I also told him how much of a privilege I felt it was that he had shared that with me. He nodded, and then wandered off. During the rest of the morning he appeared at my side again a few times, and when I saw the disoriented look I put my hand on his shoulder to ground him, and when he came back to earth he would wander off again.

That's it. Even though we talked about a lot of different things during the rest of the trip, we never talked about that again. Life went on and the trip went on. I have no idea what he will make of that moment in that holy place as his life unfolds. I do think, however, that he will never forget it.

So there we are - two people, and two experiences of moments when the solidity of our lives dissolved and reality was perceived to be much more, and much different, that we thought it was.

I think these experiences are pretty common. I think, in fact, that they happen with both frequency and regularity. But in our radically secular culture we are trained to ignore them. And if they are strong enough that we have to notice them, we almost never, ever mention them to another person. People in our society don't talk about that sort of thing. You have to be someone pretty quirky, like a monk or a teen, to do that. But these experiences of awareness of the spiritual dimension of things are part of life. People who do brain research can even point to the places in the brain where they happen. They are part of the gift of our human nature; God pulling us to that place where boundaries aren't what we thought, and where we are really one with each other and with the world as it is and as it was. Quite a thing for an old man and a young man to share.

But you share it too. Yes, you do. And part of the journey is to learn to see it when it happens.

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