Stillness in Schools

Dom Laurence Freeman OSB is a monk of the Olivetan Benedictine Congregation of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation. Fr Laurence was born in England in 1951 where he was educated by the Benedictines and studied English Literature at Oxford University.

He is also the author of many books and articles including “Light Within”, “Selfless Self”, “Web of Silence”, “Common Ground”, “A Short Span of Days”, “Your Daily Practice” and “Jesus: The Teacher Within”. He is also the editor of John Main’s works and a member of the Board of Medio Media, the publishing arm of the World Community.

(Source: www.wccm.org)

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First Sunday of Advent 2011

There is something more disturbing these days aside from the political chaos that the case of the now under-arrest former President and now Congresswoman Gloria Arroyo has created. It is linear thinking that seems to operate even in Church circles and is playing safe on the side of legalism. When the Department of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima “defied”  (in virtue of her intuition that the Arroyos will eventually seek political asylum in other countries) the Supreme Court order to allow the Arroyos to leave the country for “medical emergency reason,” the staunchest critic of de Lima’s executive arrogance is no less the respectable Constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas, Jesuit, lawyer and former Dean of the Ateneo Law School. The venerable Cardinal Vidal also voiced out his opposition to the “defiance,” followed by the new Archbishop of Cebu Jose Palma. Clerics and laypeople also jumped into the fray, mostly fearful of the possible Constitutional crisis the “defiance” could trigger. Indeed, de Lima’s decision was very polarizing. But clearly, those who denounced de Lima’s very unpopular move of barring the Arroyos from leaving the airport castigated her for doing a perilous, illegal encroachment of the power of the Supreme Court whose 8 justices were ungraciously appointed by Congresswoman Arroyo a week before she stepped down from power.

With due deference to our well-intentioned bishops and Fr. Bernas, it is understandable where they were coming from – from the logic of the law. De Lima’s call shocked the nation’s common sense because it was almost unthinkable that a lone woman could almost singlehandedly blur the autonomy of both the Executive and the Judiciary. To make sense of the unthinkable which appears very dangerous to our “Constitutional survival,” basic human psychology would dictate us to anchor on a safe ground. This safe ground happens to be the logic of the law which is the law of linear thinking, the striving for consistency of one’s syllogisms, or the clarity of one’s arguments.

But linear thinking easily grinds against intuitive thinking, which was the main operational mode of De Lima’s intransigence. If linear thinking likes to play safe within allowed borders, intuitive thinking is more adventurous. If linear thinking is more closeted, boxed-in, intuitive thinking likes to venture into open seas.

This difference is not something new. More relevant for this blog, it is the same sea of difference between the Benedictines and those dominated by linear thinking (coincidentally, De Lima graduated from the Benedictine San Beda College of Law; ironically, the cleric-Dean of the College also joined Fr. Bernas), the difference between the medieval scholastics and the medieval monastics; the scholastics (whose spirit continues to dominate Roman Catholic theological schools) being the champion of linear thinking, whose commentaries for example on the Canticle of Canticles were doggedly written as clear and precise as possible, its doctrines stringently addressed to the intelligence; whereas monastic commentaries were addressed to the whole being; its aim is to touch the heart rather than instruct the mind.

“Scholastic commentary is almost always complete; it explains the entire “letter” of the sacred text. Monastic commentary is often incomplete; St. Bernard, in eighty-six sermons composed over a period of eighteen years, had reached only the beginning of the third chapter.”

The medieval monastics were more at home with incompleteness, with the open-ended meanings of sacred texts. The linear thinker among the scholastics, under the method of quaestio and disputatio, liked it secured in conclusive and convincing arguments at the expense of disregarding an essential component of one’s being like intuition or common sense. It was the medieval monastics openness’ rather than their rigid stance before sacred texts (Bible, Church Fathers, and the classics) that transformed them into the moral fiber of the medieval period, a period of unparalleled masters of waiting, men and women who in their desire for the truth grounded in the Holy, were less enslaved by the “letter” of the texts than by  its capacity to shock-to-transfigure. Their holiness apparently went beyond human beings’ capacity for linear thinking, no matter how valuable learning was for them.

Advent. Seems to be the “real time” for contemplative waiting and open-mindedness rather than for discursive, logical thinking for the coming of the Messiah. The medieval monastics used to be where we are now.

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Leclerq, J. The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (Fordham University Press: New York, 1982, pp. 84-85).

Photo credit: malasiquibaptist

Noise and more noises

This is going to be short, sweet, and a little scathing.

I was coordinating a retreat for graduating students during the weekend and  it was partly frustrating. The retreat venue was a marketplace of retreatants –  too crowded and noisy. There was little sense of silence in the place as 4 separate groups bargained for space at the lobby, dining halls, chapel, etc. It was a mix of college students, adult charismatic groups, and grade school kids. Charismatic singing could be picked up from the same one building where everybody was halled in. Right at the doorstep to the chapel were carpenters varnishing and repainting old vestment cabinets. As one or two groups were leaving after an overnight stay, replacement groups were arriving and waiting at the lobby while the “linen boys” hurried up in cleaning the just-emptied rooms and quarters. Someone at the front desk played rather loudly a religious instrumental but it was no match to the noise; it seems to have added to the noise. At the lobby were a couple of cigarette butt cans, practically giving signal to smokers to go ahead with the smoke-blowing. Flashes from cameras tried to defy the weather-imposed, dark cloud-subdued mood of the place. A few feet from the building and near the solitary bamboo huts were parked buses and jeepneys and drivers had to warm up its engines hours before departure back to the city noise.

It was frustrating because in a way, it defeated our whole intention to travel for an hour and a half to distance from the clutters and chatters of the campus and for students to take stock of their lives and future. Ask every ordinary Filipino Catholic, including regular parish priests when is the best time for prayerful silence and spiritual retreat will surely top the survey, no matter how limited this view on silence is.

It was not that other groups did not deserve to be there. They had the same intention for some spiritual respite. It was how the sense of silence was curtailed by mindlessly filling up the place. It was a managerial decision to accommodate as many people as possible and such decision seems to be more reflective of a mindless regard for the value of silence. I brought up the issue of crowd and noise with the team and we seem to have agreed on a common hunch – the retreat center is becoming more income-conscious, if not trying to be nice to all requesters at the expense of silence.

While silence is more of an internal disposition, it is also an acute appreciation of the stillness of trees, stones, hallways, restrooms, dining tables, kiosks, and human beings. A retreat center is supposed to facilitate a pilgrim into this stillness.

There is no need to be specific because the point is how sacred silence is violated as a human tendency even in religious places. And the thing to note is there are many retreat houses out there who may or may not be succumbing to the agenda of financial viability.

Again, as a reminder, “salvation is about silence,” says my coach, a movement into eternal silence.

Silence and life’s many passages

Been silenced by a few big life’s passages the past 2 weeks: the death of Fr. Piet; our youngest sister getting pregnant at the most inopportune time; my other sister’s separation from her husband; the birth of another nephew; and an ailing father. It’s a paradoxical exchange of birthing and dying, always reminding me into silence of the temporariness of my time-restrained existence.

At times, life’s routine seems smacked of a standstill reality, of nothing-seems-happening, of a movement almost imperceptible to the human mind. But no – am too is on a passage and every single day is a tiptoeing into what my mortal, sacramental body also stands for: a being-unto-death-unto-transformation. Every birth transforms, if not give new meaning to a woman’s body. Every reasonable separation is a freeing of the mind and the body. And every transformation often happens beyond human calculation. Unlike external change too often measured by human metrics, in transformation there’s not much to know when it happens. Or even talk about. It is more interior. Should we say Christlike in its simplicity or insignificance. Or humility. It simply happens with its own measure of unassuming seductiveness. In silence it happens. In the most surprising murmuring of grace if one is open to grace especially. On the surface, I see only the pain of my sister out of her fallen relationship. But everytime I remember her in my prayer moments, my consciousness of her situation also deepens. I sensed her decisiveness, her radical “no” to infidelity and irresponsible wastage, her commitment to her personal project of raising her 3 kids no matter what, not to mention her courage to bear the burden of loneliness of working in a foreign soil. She has her own Mt. Tabor to climb whether she is aware of this or not and every climb never assures of an easy passage.

When the trails get noisy, impeded by many a distraction to their own transformation, I pray that the solace in silence where the Word of comfort and assurance of co-travelling waits be theirs. Often, it is only a matter of listening to Silence and in silence the power that calms every storm, that drives every demon into the cliff.

Through life’s many passages, I am often silenced. Through Silence, I am also redeemed from its burden. Because He listens to transform you and me. In silence…

Photo credit: jan.norlund

The Best Translation/Companion of Psalms for Praying

No other book in the world that not only outsells any bestseller, but also reworked or translated the most in many languages than the Bible. The Bible remains the ultimate library, and in this case, not only as a repository of ideas and knowledge on human nature and behavior, but more significantly, as a source of wisdom and comfort. Such is the case with the Hebrew Psalms – timeless as a source of strength, bold in its speech of the mess and sanctity of the human predicament. The more one prays the Psalms, the more one keeps praying them because they resonate so much with the meandering and groping in the dark of the human desires, the lostness and the longing to behold a Face steady enough in its loving gaze to make sense of all temporariness and vanities. The Psalms always remind me that “everything is in flux” said Julian of Norwich. Only one thing is permanent, if you excuse my banality for referring it to a thing – the loving gaze of the Beloved as the ground of my fleeting existence. 

There have been different reworkings or renditions of the Hebrew Psalms especially in the context of regular prayer times. In the past 25 years, I have encountered most of the mainstream renditions of the Psalms for praying – from the Liturgy of the Hours to the New Zealand Prayer Book touted as rendering a more personal approach towards an impersonal addressing of the Thou, from the Messenger’s Bible of the evangelicals to the People’s Companion to the Breviary, from the Protestant NIV version of the Bible to the more contemporary Catholic prayer book Pray Unceasingly. The Psalms for Morning and Evening Prayers is good enough for group chanting. But if you want to have a more contemplative and contemporary experience of incorporating the Psalms in your regular prayer times – go for Nan C. Merill’s Psalms For Praying. They are the most consoling renditions one could pray with, the language so alive and fresh for our antsy, contemporary senses. Here’s part of the preface of the book:

“Who among us has not yearned to know the Unknowable? For most, these moments are fleeting glimpses that may last a lifetime; in some, a Fire is kindled and life becomes a quest to live in Holy Surrender; and though fewer in number, saints dwell among us who know the Beloved, who aspire simply to co-create in harmony with the One, who is Love and Light and Power….

The Psalms have ever been a response to these deep yearnings: cries of the soul…songs of surrender…paeans of praise…”

Here’s part of the rendition of Psalm 62:

For You alone my soul waits in silence;
from the Beloved comes my salvation.
Enfolding me with strength and steadfast love,
my faith shall remain firm.

Yet, how long will fear rule my life,
holding me in its grip like a trembling child,
a dark and lonely grave?
Fear keeps me from living fully, from
sharing my gifts;
it takes pleasure in imprisoning my soul.
Fear pretends to comfort, so long
has it dwelled within me;
truly it is my enemy.

For You alone my soul waits in silence;
my hope is from the Beloved.
Enfolding me with strength and steadfast love,
my faith shall remain firm.
In the Silence rests my freedom and my guidance;
You are the Heart of my heart,
my refuge is in the Silence.

Trust in Love at all times, O people;
pour out your heart to the Beloved;
Let Silence be a refuge for you.
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If words in prayer is the other half of Silence, then let those words best guide me back into Silence where words are given birth. This is basically the function of words. So a good translation does really matter.

Happy Lent 2010 Everyone!

Quite ironic a greeting from a country known worldwide for long Christmases, Holy Week processions and actual crucifixions right in the land of  those-who-drool-for-power Pampanga (a national symptom only).

Seriously, should one deserve to be happy during Lent? I guess so if one has to bracket for a while those moss-covered beliefs that Lent is essentially more about human wickedness and the busy activities of whisking them off through self-denial (i wonder if most still understand what self-denial is because it sounds archaic to me with all its psychological overtone; a better term nowadays is self-forgetfulness or self-emptying); that Lent is essentially more about flagellating ourselves (even if only imaginatively) than about going deeper into our inner fields of alienation from ourselves, from our neighbors, from Creation, and ultimately from God and dwell from there, yes, happily, serenely, confidently more than miserably. I take it from Paul:

“One of Satan’s angels was sent to make me suffer terribly, so that I would not feel too proud. Three times I begged the Lord to make this suffering go away. But he replied, “My kindness is all you need. My power is strongest when you are weak.” So if Christ keeps giving me his power, I will gladly brag about how weak I am. Yes, I am glad to be weak or insulted or mistreated or to have troubles and sufferings, if it is for Christ. Because when I am weak, I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:8-10 – Contemporary English Version)

That Lent is about taking stock of the human condition with all its fragile, broken, wounded, ash-covered, dilapidated, debris-mantled, fear-driven, control-freak-populated landscape – yes. That Lent is about staring at our own mortal programming – yes. That Lent is more importantly about being silent and serene with my own weaknesses in order to allow the wounded God to meet me from there and raise me up – this, i hope will be the cause of my rejoicing this season. So, there’s actually a reason to be happy this Lent, ain’t it? Otherwise, i’ve got a lot of explaining to do with Paul.

Happy Lent to you again…

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Photo credit: bighug

Third Sunday of Advent: Teachability

I was informed 3 months in advance about the event and got invited as a dear friend. Then 2 weeks before this big event, i received the invitation in glossy print with our names as sponsors, names familiar in political circles including officials from the Bureau of Customs and the Department of Public Works and Highways, a lawyer, a Congressman, a Police Superintendent, and myself a sinful blogger. On the event day, the pastiche of perfume, alluring to ones smell, filled first the aisle then onto the baptistery from men and women in coats and ties, Barong Tagalog and glittery bling-bling. It was not Baptism Day because we can afford to pay the special price. Besides, Baptism Days can get too crowdy for our privacy, simply a mishmash of the B and C and D classes of people for a baptismal festival. We want our souvenir photos, the pouring of water or the annointing with oil uninterrupted and unhurried by the celebrant. Soloing the Cathedral makes this social celebration plus sacrament more solemn in our opinion. A group photo at the altar afterwards, never mind the responsibilities as godparents, brings the event to its jovial element. These were all playing in our imagination in different frequencies as we await the celebrant to emerge from the sacristy. We, the less ideal, horde of sacrament recipients.

Here comes the priest, ambling towards the pews where we are all docked on. Then he begins, composed as a trial lawyer:

“You brood of vipers, miscreant beings who leech on the coffers of the people, rogues in officials’ robes, you who come here for social networking and fear that if this baby doesn’t get baptized, he would be cast into eternal damnation. You, you…”

Typical of our prideful, achieving and overeducated generation, we grudgingly stayed throughout the tirade, our nerves frothed with anger to hold back or cannon our own tongue-lashing charges. But this was not our turf, and instead, almost in unison, we whispered: “Never with this wicked bastard again, nor in this lousy cathedral.” We mindlessly made the sign of the cross.

My apology peeps. The story and event above is only imaginary to emphasize some points for this 3rd Sunday of Advent, points actually from our tongue-lashing hero par excellence – John the Baptist:

“So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Not easy to hear at all, especially for an Asian race and sensibility whose softest core is being shamed in public. But the Gospel this Sunday has a very interesting, if not shocking, opening sentence:

“And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?”

I hear more than curiosity over practical strategies to conversion. I imagine depth after depth where arrogance and self-exultation are emptied out, replaced by open spirits and spaces. It is called teachability – the openness to be taught of certain things, to learn from those who treaded the self-emptying desert way like John. Am i teachable enough especially in the things of God? Are you?

This 3rd Sunday of Advent, i will light 3 candles along teachability: one for that part of me covered by hubris and remains un-teachable; the second, in gratitude for past spiritual teachers; and the third, for present spiritual guides and those God will still surprisingly send me along the way. It’s my way of making sense John’s fiery, baptismal tongue.

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Photo credit: marc50