Sunday, July 20, 2008

What! No Work?????

Today is a magic day for us. It is the last day of the current guesthouse season. When the last guest has departed this afternoon, we will close for a month.

We will start our month with an old and honored custom - we go to Gardiner, a town a few miles from here, to the home of Toni and Jim Taylor. Toni keeps our books (and a lot more) and Jim keeps our pipes (he's the plumber) - and each year on this Sunday they invite us for a party around their pool. It has gotten to be a really nice part of the closing down for us. Not everyone gets in the pool, but I do, only emerging for a taste or two of scotch, which is well supplied. Toni and Jim are superb hosts, the food and drink are bountiful, and it is always a great time and a wonderful beginning to our down time.

Then Monday and Tuesday will be days off - having 'sabbath time' we say. And on Wednesday, we begin our Long Retreat. Ten days of silence. Bliss!

After that, we have a fairly informal time for the rest of the 31 days. Our schedule is relaxed, we have time for things we don't get to during the rest of the year. Some of the community like to catch up on movies, some like to hike, and we all like to sleep. Some will be away on vacation. We tend to linger more around the table after meals, sharing our time with each other. That will take us to August 21 when we open up again.

This brings me (not very accidentally!) to the topic of sabbath. It's a big deal in our religious tradition, particularly that part of our tradition contained in the Hebrew scriptures. The Sabbath was one of the principal things that marked Jews off from other cultures, and its observance occupies a good deal of the concern of the scriptural record, both Jewish and Christian.

And what was/is the Sabbath? Christians use the word loosely to mean Sunday, called the "Christian Sabbath" to distinguish it from the Jewish Sabbath, which is Saturday. But is Sunday a sabbath? Sabbath means pretty much one thing, when you get down to it - no work.

Whatever else may happen, work is not part of it, and the definition of "no work" is very stringent. It is, in fact, quite a different thing from having a day, or a weekend, when you don't go to the office so that you can work around home.

It is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition that sabbath is a necessity. Having time when you don't work so that you can pay attention to the deeper parts of life is not just a pleasant custom. Sabbath, in this view, is an important part of our nature, and we ignore it at our peril. That part of our life needs to be nourished just as much as the working part of our life so that we can be whole people. A Jewish sabbath traditionally includes worship, time to relax with the family, time to study (usually with friends), and a really nice meal with wine. And no work. It isn't just time off. It's time to be who you are, and it is necessary to stop working to do that.

It is a hard thing to get people to even consider, much less try to observe, any sabbath time. It has always been so. The books of the Prophets and the Histories of the Jewish people make it clear that people in the second millennium BCE were just as addicted to work as we are. It was a continual struggle to get folks to observe one day a week as a work-free time and people went to some really ridiculous lengths to do something that looked and felt like work. And in reaction the Sabbath regulations got more and more elaborate and detailed. (My favorite regulation is the one against moving furniture. You don't move furniture on the Sabbath because in the process you might move some dust and that would be plowing, and plowing is work and forbidden on the Sabbath). But believe me, I really understand how the situation got that way. Getting anyone - myself for instance - to consider the possibility of having a time when I can't work is itself really hard work. I freely admit that my retreats sometimes look more like silent work days than anything else. And when I decide to give a day to, for instance, meditation, I am horrified to see how much I arrange it to look and feel like work. Hard work. Yikes!

So once again I make the resolution that I am going to do something about making July 20th to August 21st different. My soul and my body both are crying out for it. There's a part of my being that I am not taking very good care of. Do you believe a monk is talking like this? (Well, those who read this column regularly probably won't be all that much surprised). I'm going looking for wholeness during these next few weeks.

My first resolution is to not write this column next week. We are going to be in retreat and I am going to honor that. You, in turn, might think about using the time you usually use for reading this blog for a bit of quiet nothingness. Just notice where you are. Meditate. Take time to notice something around you that you usually pass over. Really taste the coffee in your mug. Whatever. We'll do some Sabbath together.

And if you have some helpful suggestions from your own practice, no doubt a bunch of people would benefit from knowing about them.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Buddhists Are Coming!

The place is very quiet right now. The silence is deep. The food is vegetarian (and good!). We have no empty rooms this weekend. The guesthouse is full of Buddhists.

It would actually be more accurate to say that the guesthouse is full of people practicing Buddhist meditation.

I happen to know for a fact that the group includes Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, at least one member of the Dutch Reformed Church, Methodists, Jews and Buddhists of several different traditions. I know this because the teacher who is conducting this weekend is also my teacher and I have been a member of his Wednesday night group (or Sangha) for going on 10 years now. They have come because of Jose (the leader) and to practice Vipassana, or Insight Meditation. I've known and shared my life with a lot of these people for a long time.

I know enough about the readership of this blog at this point to know that there are likely to be readers who find this mingling of people and traditions inspiring. And there are some who find it just ordinary - the way things ought to be. And there are some who will find it disturbing, or even shocking. There is at least one person here this weekend who had to do a lot of soul-searching before she decided that a practicing Christian could do "this sort of thing."

A friend of mine has a great fondness for the culture of the early Middle Ages in Spain when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side by side in great comfort. She likes to imagine conversations in coffee houses on long hot afternoons, when people shared their traditions and learned from the traditions of others. Certainly there is plenty of evidence that there was enough sharing in that culture to influence all three of the religions pretty deeply. I personally have an interest in the early years of Christian monasticism in the deserts of North Africa. In those days, the principal urban center of that part of the world was Alexandria, and there was a large community of Hindu monks living there at the time. Did Christian monasticism develop completely independently of any conversation with the Hindu monks who were their neighbors? Do we really think that they never got together to spend an afternoon talking about how to do this thing? I think that is unlikely, but that story remains to be told at this time in history.

In this part of the United States such interchange is a fact of life. In easy driving distance of this monastery, even with gas prices as they are, there are praying communities of several different kinds of Christians - Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Ecumenical, Eastern Orthodox. There are Buddist communities from several different traditions of Zen and from other traditions - Therevada, Chinese, Korean, and several of the Tibetan schools. There are Hindu Ashrams and Jewish conference centers. And if you want to drive as far as Virginia there is even a Bon monastery (Bon is the pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion, and they have a very deep and formless form of meditation). There's lots of sharing back and forth. I have a friend who is a senior member of the community at Zen Mountain. Periodically he calls to talk about various community dilemmas and how we go about sorting them out. And though we don't do exactly the same thing when we sit down on our mats, we meditate together quite comfortably and naturally. We all recognize the search that each of us are on. The centrifugal force that draws us all together is quite strong in this area.

The centripetal force - the one that pushes us apart - is pretty strong at this point in history, too. Everyone has stories about how their group was injured by Them - whoever They were. Lurid tales appear regularly about how Christians massacred Muslims during the Crusades. Rather less is told at this time about how the Muslims got their Middle Eastern lands from the Christians and Jews, some of whom had been living there for hundreds, and in the case of the Jews, thousands of years, but that isn't a pretty story either. There aren't any Caananites still around, so far as I know, but if there were, they would be telling terrible tales about how the Jews took their land from them. All of these people, if asked, will say that God told them to do it. Iraq, Iran, Kosovo, Serbia, Mississippi, California - they all have terrible stories to be told.

And of course the voices are raised about the dangers of intermingling of faiths, of the loss of our traditions. We have to be very careful, so it is said, not to give the impression that they are as good, or as unique, or as possessed of salvation as we are.

Well, I just have to testify that I am fairly learned in the ways of Theravada Buddhism at this point. I have come to know it well and practice it deeply. And it has never been anything but a blessing to my Christian walk. The uniqueness of Christ and of what he offered to the world and what he offers to me is very plain to me. What I have found is that my Christian life has been refined and deepened by my encounter with the East. I have found in Buddhist methods of meditation a precision and directness that makes Christian meditation more accessible, especially as Christian forms of meditation never developed in quite the same way. A lot of the Christian contemplative tradition nearly died out in the years of the Enlightenment and the times afterwards, and it is just now really beginning to be restored in the lives of a significant number of Christian practitioners. In the lives of not a few of us, it is contact with religions other than our own that has made this restoration possible. I now regularly teach conferences and retreats on the ways of Christian meditation. I would not be doing this if it were not for my immersion in the ways of Buddhist meditation. (Actually it's a great story - it happened when the teacher of a Buddhist meditation retreat canceled out and my friend Mary and I had to fill in, and years later, we're still at it.)

Contact with someone different from yourself does not have to rob you of your identity. It can, in fact, lead you to greater depth in the discovery of who you are. Anyone who ever had a friend or a spouse knows something about this truth. Yes, we need to be careful of our boundaries, and we need to be certain of our own identity. But with our care and certainty need also to come openness. And this openness can lead us to parts of ourselves that we never dreamed of.

Jose, the teacher leading this weekend's retreat, is an agnostic about God. And Jose has taught me much about God and my relationship with God. Such is the mystery of love - human and divine. The spirit of Buddha and what he taught is very strong here this weekend. And so is the spirit of Christ, to whom this place belongs and in whom this community lives. People are being moved by both. And God will lead them as God chooses.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Particular View of Things

If you follow the comments that come after this column you'll know that my post last week about the death of two of our brothers stirred up something of a discussion, and this discussion also continued in a series of email messages to me in addition to the 3 comments on the blog. So I've had the whole matter of what's proper for talking about and what isn't in my mind this week. It's an area that is pretty fundamental for me as it happens, and which I think ought to be more fundamental in the Christian life.

Just before the Anglican Church of Canada's last General Synod I was talking to a Canadian friend about the likely outcome of the vote on the resolution concerning the blessing of same-sex unions and she said: "You have to remember that the highest value for Canadians is reconciliation and that above all things we are polite." She predicted that the House of Deputies, being concerned with their fellow Canadians, would vote to approved the blessings and that the House of Bishops, being concerned with their fellow bishops all over the world, would reject it. That's exactly what happened.

So what are Americans - above all things? It seems to me that no matter how you analyze it, one of the chief things you have to include in the summary of our character is that we are positive. We look on the bright side. And, just as Canadians see being polite as a virtue, Americans see being positive as virtuous - and see anything that seems negative as suspicious at best. There was a news story some time ago about a school system in Texas (I think) where a group of parents was objecting to some lessons that had been given to their children on the topic of death (this had happened after the death of a prominent person in town). The interesting thing was that they were objecting because they said this teaching was against their religion - which was Christianity. When a rather puzzled school board inquired what about death was anti-Christian the answer was: "Well it isn't very positive, is it?" The positive is good. Anything else is to be avoided.

Well, that's a perfectly normal part of human nature. We love things that are pleasant. We don't like the dark, the painful, the angry or the dismal. In addition, the positive outlook has done a great deal for our society. It has given us an orientation towards the future, towards problem solving and towards a view that difficulties are just obstacles to be overcome, and this has made us one of the most successful, and most prosperous, peoples in the history of the human race.

But how does it fit with Christianity? (or just plain reality, for that matter?)

Isn't there a reason why Christianity puts the Cross at the center of everything? Isn't there a deep intuition that sees to it that one of the first things you see when you enter a Church is a Cross or a Crucifix? This visual orientation towards Jesus' Crucifixion and all of the events that led up to it is simply a way of being reminded, every time we set foot in a Church building, that there is more to life than the American viewpoint (or the Canadian viewpoint, or the Argentinian viewpoint, or whatever). Is the sum of our life simply to be the positive things we have accomplished?

My questions arise from many years of a meditation practice that requires that I examine the way my mind wanders and the content of my distractions, and that I examine these things not with suspicion but with curiosity. And I am also bidden to become aware of the times when my mind has wandered from my meditation and to bring it back, with no recrimination but with strength and with patience. In this way of looking at things, pain is a distraction and so is pleasure, and both are to be examined. A pleasant smell can be a distraction and so can a loud noise, and both are to be received with openness. And lest you put this down entirely to my Buddhist proclivities, I will refer you to the practice of Centering Prayer - a thoroughly Christian form of meditation - and its practice of open receptiveness and the welcoming of whatever comes into consciousness.

"I haven't got time for the pain" says the familiar commercial. But what happens when I do the unthinkable and take time for the pain? Well, just to give one man's testimony, when I learned to take time for the pain of a headache a whole area of my life opened up. I saw directly the ways in which I create tension for myself and how my body responds by trying to get me to stop doing this destructive thing to myself. My headaches, particularly the ones that start at the crown of my head and radiate through my neck and down into my back, have become friends instead of enemies, because they warn me that I am harming myself. And this happened just because I took some time and some openness with something that isn't positive. The same is true with death. Those kids need to know about death, and so do we all. We need to know that we aren't going to live for ever in this particular life, and that our time is limited and we don't have any of it to squander. This sense of limitation can push us to open ourselves to each moment and to be alive to what can be accomplished now. It can expand our lives in countless ways.

This is an acquired taste, of course. It calls for embracing a part of life that is normally hidden from view by our usual ways of functioning and that is always a challenging and difficult task. "Embracing the shadow" is what Jung called it and in his view it was the chief human task of the 2nd half of life.

The Cross is the constant reminder of the death of Christ and the triumph of his resurrection. And it's a lot of things besides that. It is an important call to wholeness, an insistence that we look at all of life and not just the extroverted positive view that our particular society imposes on us.

There's more to life than the American Way. There's more to my life than a summary of all the positive things that I've accomplished. And in that dark and sometimes fearsome place I have found great riches for myself. The Cross invites me to explore more than I would think of investigating if left to my own devices.

The call is openness. The tools are curiosity and perseverance. The reward is an endlessly expanding knowledge of myself and of those around me and of the world. Thanks be to God for a bit of negativity now and then!