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Posts Tagged ‘Contemplative Spirituality

Healing The Divide: A Book Review

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Healing The Divide Cover

Amos Smith‘s Healing The Divide: Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots is a joy to read!

As a lay person who has studied our Christian mystical heritage (my favorites are Meister Eckhart, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and St. John of the Cross) for 40+ years now, I’ve come to almost similar conclusions as the author. The themes that he tackles in his book, like paradox as the key to understanding Jesus, the nondual approach to Christianity, the transformative power of contemplative prayer, compassion and social justice as the fruit of spiritual practice really resonates with me.

Our Christian theology since the Middle Ages has become over-analytical and too rational, leaving no room for paradox and mystery. This has resulted in a Christianity that is too intellectual, legalistic, formal and rigid – and for the most part irrelevant to the contemporary person. What the 21st century man or woman wants is a direct encounter with God. And this is what is meant by Christian mysticism – a direct experience of God through the person of Jesus, which results in personal transformation as well as the transformation of our society.

If I’m not mistaken, this is what the book advocates, based on a theology which sees the person of Jesus through the eyes of the Christian mystics, specifically the Alexandrian mystics. And herein lays the value of the book: it is not just a book only about mysticism but about Christian mysticism, solidly built on a Christology based on what the author refers to as the “Jesus Paradox.”

Like the author, I’m convinced that paradox is the key to understanding the deepest truths in life, and that includes the truth about Jesus. Another author puts it this way:

Paradox is the best form of language for expressing some of the fundamental truths of human existence.

Jesus is not only divine, neither is he only human. He is absolutely divine and relatively human! This is the key to understanding Christian mysticism. And for those who can absorb it– this could be a life-changing experience!

What the book offers us is a fresh approach to Christianity that is not only based on theology (although the book is very theologically sound), but one that is also based on a personal encounter with God – an encounter which leads to personal transformation.

Highly recommended!

–Matt

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The Monastery

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Worth Abbey Church

Worth Abbey Church

A few years ago BBC asked a Benedictine monastery to open its doors to 5 ordinary men to share in the lifestyle of the monks. Does the 1500-year-old spiritual vision of the monks have relevance in our day and age? What does the monastery have to offer to our frenetic, materialistic, consumeristic society?

Abbot Christopher Jamison says:

We saw in this project an opportunity to discover what our way of life offers to people today who do not share our beliefs.

The 5 participants, although coming from different backgrounds, had a common desire to find out if life has meaning. The challenge for them is: Will they be able to follow the strict rules of the monastery? Will they be able to live a life of silence, simplicity, prayer, study, and manual labor for 40 days?

Tony Burke is 29 years old. He’s single, lives in London, and works in an ad agency, producing trailers for a sex chat line. He has recently questioned the materialistic and hedonistic life he’s living. He doesn’t believe in God, and has no religious background. Will he be able to turn around his life?

Gary McCormick is from Belfast. He is 36 years old and single. He currently lives in Cornwall, where he works as a painter and decorator. He struggles with his faith, and the emotional scars he carries from spending time in prison early in his life. Will he be able to cope with the pain in his life and move on?

Nick Buxton is 37 years old and single. Studying for a PhD in Buddhism at Cambridge University, he has been on a spiritual search for the past 10 years. Coming back recently to his Anglican roots, he’s questioning some of the tenets of his faith. Will he be able to make that leap of faith?

Anthoney Wright is a high-earning 32-year-old bachelor from London. He works for a legal publishing company. He has issues stemming from the fact that his mother abandoned him when he was a child. Will he be able to find inner peace?

Peter Gruffyd is a married published poet and a retired teacher, living in Bristol. Having rejected religion when he was a young man, he would like to know if life makes sense. Will he be able to find the answer to his question: “What is the meaning of life?”

To find out watch the episodes of “The Monastery” by clicking the links below:

The Monastery: Episode 1

The Monastery: Episode 2

The Monastery: Episode 3

The Monastery Revisited

–Matt

Written by MattAndJojang

October 2, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Thomas Merton

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Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, to artists, Ruth and Owen Merton. His early years were spent in the south of France; later, he went to private school in England and then to Cambridge. Both of his parents were deceased by the time Merton was a young teen and he eventually moved to his grandparents’ home in the United States to finish his education at Columbia University in New York City. While a student there, he completed a thesis on William Blake who was to remain a lifelong influence on Merton’s thought and writings.

But Merton’s active social and political conscience was also informed by his conversion to Christianity and Catholicism in his early twenties. He worked for a time at Friendship House under the mentorship of Catherine Doherty and then began to sense a vocation in the priesthood. In December 1941, he resigned his teaching post at Bonaventure College, Olean, NY, and journeyed to the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville, Kentucky. There, Merton undertook the life of a scholar and man of letters, in addition to his formation as a Cistercian monk.

The thoroughly secular man was about to undertake a lifelong spiritual journey into monasticism and the pursuit of his own spirituality. The more than 50 books, 2000 poems, and numerous essays, reviews, and lectures that have been recorded and published, now form the canon of Merton’s writings. His importance as a writer in the American literary tradition is becoming clear. His influence as a religious thinker and social critic is taking its place alongside such luminaries as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King. His explorations of the religions of the east initiated Merton’s entrance into inter-religious dialogue that puts him in the pioneering forefront of worldwide ecumenical movements. Merton died suddenly, electrocuted by a malfunctioning fan, while he was attending his first international monastic conference near Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968.

~Source: Thomas Merton Society of Canada

Click Here to Watch a Short Documentary about Thomas Merton

Written by MattAndJojang

November 29, 2013 at 10:23 am

Monk Manifesto

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Monk: from the Greek monachos meaning single or solitary, a monk in the world does not live apart but immersed in the everyday with a single-hearted and undivided presence, always  striving for greater wholeness and integrity.

Manifesto: from the Latin for clear, means a public declaration of principles and intentions.

Monk Manifesto: A public expression of your commitment to live a compassionate, contemplative, and creative life.

1. I commit to finding moments each day for silence and solitude, to make space for another voice to be heard, and to resist a culture of noise and constant stimulation.

2. I commit to radical acts of hospitality by welcoming the stranger both without and within. I recognize that when I make space inside my heart for the unclaimed parts of myself, I cultivate compassion and the ability to accept those places in others.

3. I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.

4. I commit to cultivating awareness of my kinship with creation and a healthy asceticism by discerning my use of energy and things, letting go of what does not help nature to flourish.

5. I commit to bringing myself fully present to the work I do, whether paid or unpaid, holding a heart of gratitude for the ability to express my gifts in the world in meaningful ways.

6. I commit to rhythms of rest and renewal through the regular practice of Sabbath and resist a culture of busyness that measures my worth by what I do.

7. I commit to a lifetime of ongoing conversion and transformation, recognizing that I am always on a journey with both gifts and limitations.

© Christine Valters Paintner

Written by MattAndJojang

March 25, 2012 at 9:57 am

Speaking of God

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Photo: TrueLight Expressions/Flickr

As we begin talking about God, I need to sound an important warning: We must be careful how we speak of seeking God. It is not the same as seeking some object, say, a new car or a new house. We must not reduce God to the status of an “object” or a “thing,” as if God were something that could be grasped or possessed in the way we possess riches or knowledge or some other created entity. Nor must we seek God outside ourselves…

For God is not an “object” or “thing.” God’s infinity, as the word implies, knows no boundaries; hence we cannot “define” God as we define things in the world… If we are to line up all the beings that exist or ever have existed, God would not be one of them. This is to say God is not one of the beings God created. Rather God is the Source from which all beings derive and the ground in which they are continually sustained.

In a letter to a young Indian student in Cracow, Poland, Merton writes of the naive atheism of nineteenth-century scientism:

“They think that religious people believe in a God who is simply a ‘being’ among other beings, part of a series of beings, an ‘object’ which can be discovered and demonstrated. This of course is a false notion of God, the Absolute, the source and origin of all Being, beyond all beings and transcending them all and hence not to be sought as one among them.”

As soon as we verify God’s presence as an object of exact knowledge, God eludes us.

Now if God is not to be sought among the beings we know in this life, it follows that we cannot know God as we know created things. This makes sense does it not? Yet at the same time it is true that what we know about God we can know only through created things. For created things, insofar as they are real, participate in a limited way in the qualities and perfections of the One who alone is Absolutely Real. There is, as it were, “something of God” in every creature that exists. In experiencing creatures, we experience that “something of God.”

The words we use to describe creatures, therefore, can serve as metaphors or symbols that enable us to have some knowledge of God. As I write this, I can look out the window of my office and through that window I can get some very limited understanding of the universe. Compared to the immensity of the universe, what I know by looking out that window is practically nothing. Even if I looked through many windows and in different directions, the knowledge of the universe I would attain will be skimpy at best. Modern technology has made it possible for astronauts  to see the earth from out in space. Even that is meager knowledge compared to the entire universe, and while their knowledge increases quantitatively (they see more), it decreases qualitatively (they see less clearly). They cannot from their place in space see the earth in detail that I can see through my window.

The ideas, the concepts, the images, the symbols, the metaphors we use to describe God are like those windows through which we look out through the universe. They are images of created things  which, because there is “something of God” in them, can tell us something about God. Thus, in the image we have of a person we call “father” we can see something of God and hence can speak of God as “father.” (though some people have poor experiences of  “father” and for this reason find it difficult to describe God as “father”). In someone we call “mother” we can also experience “something of God” and, therefore, we can use the name “mother” to describe God. And there are many other images we can use, lover, spouse, guide, helper, to name a few. In a certain sense we can say “the more the merrier,” since each image, each concept, can give a different insight into God we can never know in any total sort of way.

Our language about God, then, is always inadequate. One way of putting this is to say that our experience of God is continually outstripping what we are able to say about the experience. Listen to Merton:

“As soon as we light these small matches which are our concepts: ‘intelligence,’ ‘love,’ ‘power,’ the tremendous reality of God Who infinitely exceeds all concepts suddenly bears down upon us like a dark storm and blows out all their flames.”

At the same time we must not underestimate the value and importance of the rich imagery that the Bible and our culture offer us. The richer the imagery, the more deeply will we be able to know about God through God’s creation. But let us be very clear: there is a huge difference between knowing about God through God’s creation and knowing God as God is in the divine Self. Knowing about God is “mediated” knowledge, that is, we know God through an intermediary. This normally is what we think of when we speak of God. And some would say: This is enough. Short of heaven and the beatific vision, we can only know God through the medium of creatures God made.

But there is a long tradition, the contemplative or mystical tradition – a tradition that was most congenial to Thomas Merton’s approach to spirituality – which claims we can know God immediately. This is to say that we can know the divine reality as It is in Itself, and not simply through the medium of images, metaphors, ideas, concepts. But to do this we have to turn off the lights of our mind, that is, we have to go beyond concepts and ideas. This means going into darkness. For when you turn off light you are in darkness. It also means going beyond words that would try to describe God. But to go beyond words is to go in silence. In darkness and silence the only light we have is faith, whereby we grasp God or rather we are grasped by God. Thus, when all of our concepts and images admit that they cannot truly know God, love cries out: “I know God!”

To put this another way, in contemplation we come to know that our very being is penetrated through and through with God’s love. God is the hidden ground of love in all that is. Hence as Merton puts it:

“Our knowledge of God is paradoxically a knowledge not of God as the object of scrutiny, but of ourselves as utterly dependent on his saving and merciful knowledge of us… We know him in and through ourselves in so far as his truth is the source of our being and his merciful love is the very heart of our life and existence.”

Knowing God in the darkness of a love that goes beyond all that human reason can know is the greatest joy and happiness  possible in this life.

~ William H. Shannon

Written by MattAndJojang

March 12, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Into Great Silence

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The Carthusian monks who are the subjects of Philip Gröning’s documentary “Into Great Silence” do not, as the film’s title suggests, have a great deal to say. Living in a light-filled stone charterhouse (as the order’s monasteries are called) in a picturesque valley in the French Alps, they bind themselves to a vow not of literal silence but of extreme reticence. They pray and sing aloud, alone and together, and once a week the elders take an outdoor stroll during which some chatting is permitted.

Mr. Gröning’s cameras (one of them operated by the pioneering digital videographer Anthony Dod Mantle) observe the brothers from afar, or unobtrusively within their cells, a discreet approach that occasionally gives way to head-on portraiture.

Only one monk, elderly and blind, speaks directly to the camera. Appearing near the end of the film, he muses on the nature of his vocation and the texture of his religious devotion. Past and present are human categories, he says, but “for God, there is no past, only present.” Viewed from this perspective — from the standpoint of eternity — “Into Great Silence,” with a running time of 162 minutes, is absurdly short.

Mr. Gröning, a German filmmaker, waited 16 years for permission to document the Carthusians, and this too seems like a trivial interval. The order was founded by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084, and it appears that not much has changed in the lives of its adherents since then. A few concessions to modernity are visible: electric lights, a computer for keeping the books, and oranges and bananas in the middle of winter. But the rhythm of work, prayer and reflection —the attitude described as “joyful penitence” — flows in a cycle that feels not so much ancient as timeless.

And the film’s achievement is to capture, within a brief, elliptical span, this slow, delicate rhythm. “Into Great Silence” is not about the Carthusians in the conventional sense that documentaries are about their subjects. It offers no background on the history or theology of the order, nor any information about the biographies of individual monks. Though we do witness the initiation and adaptation of two novices, we learn nothing about their previous lives or their reasons for joining.

The psychology and philosophy of asceticism are not Mr. Gröning’s concern. He is after something more elusive and, from an aesthetic as well as an intellectual point of view, more valuable: a point of contact with the spiritual content of intense religious commitment.

He finds it by means of a visual style and an editing scheme that match the feeling and structure of the days and seasons as they pass through the charterhouse. Snow gives way to greenery, early morning light cycles around to darkness, and the viewer witnesses ordinary moments that add up to a persuasive representation of grace.

Not the thing itself — Mr. Gröning is not so vain as to suppose that a movie can provide a religious experience — but a preliminary understanding of its shape and weight. The sensual beauty of the images is part of this, but the film has more than lovely alpine vistas and arresting compositions of light and shade. Like the monks themselves, it is both humble and exalted.

And, in its way, eloquent. The idea of removing yourself entirely from the world is a radical one, and Mr. Gröning approaches it with fascination and a measure of awe. At first, as your mind adjusts to the film’s contemplative pace, you may experience impatience. Where is the story? Who are these people? But you surrender to “Into Great Silence” as you would to a piece of music, noting the repetitions and variations, encountering surprises just when you think you’ve figured out the pattern. By the end, what you have learned is impossible to sum up, but your sense of the world is nonetheless perceptibly altered.

I hesitate, given the early date and the project’s modesty, to call “Into Great Silence” one of the best films of the year. I prefer to think of it as the antidote to all of the others.

–A.O. Scott

Click Here to Watch the Trailer of the  Film

Written by MattAndJojang

February 25, 2012 at 6:00 pm