Media Fast

Beehive Hermit Cell,  Kilmartin Scotland

I was out of control. My YouTube time had ballooned into a near-addiction. Ever since I got rid of cable I had transferred my downtime to the internet instead of TV. And besides, YouTube is designed to keep you watching long past a couple of videos. I’ve never liked Facebook much but it still took up a bit of time everyday too. One Sunday morning I knew I needed to stop so I had Hamilton lock my iPad in the safe for a week. I need to take an internet break. I still had a laptop (too slow), smart-phone (too little) and Kindle (too basic) but none of them tempt me to do anything but important business.

With nothing to distract me I had to get back to books. I read some fluff on the Kindle and got the news from an actual newspaper and I got back to my early morning reading. I’ve had a routine since I was young of reading something spiritual when I first get up in the morning. I feed the cats, make some coffee and while that is brewing, unload the dishwasher. Then I pour my first cup of the day with just cream, and set to reading. I like to read a chapter or so in a spiritual or metaphysical book and then move on to something else I’m working on. It is amazing how many books you can get through in a year with a chapter a day.

The world is dark and quiet early in the morning and the only thing stirring is my cat Timmy who wants his morning cuddle. It is in this silence that I can open my mind and heart to the spiritual masters and teachers who left beautiful writings to help guide me on my path. During my internet fast I was reading a lovely book called The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way. An appropriate title for the a perpetual pilgrim to be reading, don’t you think? This spiritual classic was written by an unknown Russian peasant in the 1800’s who’s life was in shambles after losing his home and wife.

The author sets off to travel looking for his spiritual truth with only the clothes on his back and some crusts of bread in a knapsack. He wanted to follow the words of the Bible and learn to ‘pray without ceasing’. With the Bible and another book the Philokalia, a collection of early Christian writings. as his guide and solace, he encounters hardship, hunger, cold and thieves. As his journey continues he finds meaning and comfort in prayer and is able to help many people he encounters on the way. Two books and some bread—that is far from my stack of electronic devises and pantry full of food. Would I have the courage of this man? Could I ever be able to dedicate my life to such an ideal? Times have changed but the need to find our truth is still there.

I will definitely lock up the iPad again if I need a break from the world. I’m not quite ready to be a wandering mendicant but I did learn to put the world in its proper place again. By the way, my second book in the morning currently is about Thoreau and Walden Pond, Expect Great Things, and my third book is about a young man living in a van, Walden on Wheels. I think there is a pattern here. But as appealing as a good wander sounds I think I will stick with my air conditioned house during this hot and humid August and enjoy some vicarious wandering.

Rosslyn Chapel

Celtic Christianity, the third thread of my Scotland pilgrimage, has a very different feel than the Christianity back in the Bible Belt of the US where I live. Celtic Christianity has always taken on the flavor of the community, history and landscape of Scotland. The influences of the ancient past are still part of the spirituality of the place because you can’t isolate Christianity from the local culture and land. Scotland, being so remote, has been much more influence by isolation than by the Holy Roman Empire. There are no great Gothic cathedrals but instead the great cathedrals of the natural world. I went exploring many of the Christian mysteries of this magic landscape and I want to share with you some of my experiences.

We spent the first full day of our tour at the enigmatic Rosslyn Chapel just a few miles outside of Edinburgh. I first visited Rosslyn in 2009 on a gloomy day in September. There was scaffolding both inside and out and much of the chapel was concealed but I was not disappointed and had such a peaceful experience just sitting with the chapel cat William on my lap and enjoying the power of this small but energetically intense place.

Templar Gravestone, Old Pentland Cemetary

The land surrounding Rosslyn is a beautiful glen that goes straight down on one side of the chapel. We first walked down into the glen to see 400 year old Chestnut trees that hold the memory of this place. There are ley lines, energy lines of the earth, running through this land that cross in the chapel. Peaceful and beautiful and I spent extra time listening to the birds in an old yew tree forest. After lunch we proceeded to the chapel. On this day, there was not a cloud in the sky or a single piece of scaffolding now the renovations are complete. The chapel shone in all its glory. I was happy to be returning on such a perfect spring day. We walked around the outside and then I slowly took my time wandering the inside. I listened to the official guide talk about the history and point out the ley line in the center. William the chapel cat was napping in the same spot as last time and I gave him some love, I’m sure he remembered me. I watched the intense reactions of my fellow travelers to this very holy place. I finally made it to the crypt and lingered with one of my favorite parts of the chapel– a stained glass window with Christ coming out of a diamond.

400 Year Old Chestnut

The next day we went north of Edinburgh to Perthshire, just in the village of Grandtully. I had a big surprise for the group. In a sheep pasture is a little stucco and wood chapel, a place that is easily missed. St Mary’s chapel is a hidden treasure for inside this modest building in the middle of nowhere is a 400 year-old painted ceiling detailing the lineage of Jesus in Scotland. Depicted on the ceiling is a Grail Knight levitating the philosopher’s stone between his hands, a painting of Mary Magdalen, the four gospel authors Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and Jesus channeling energy into the flaming heart of the world. In the center, is a painting of what is clearly the Judgment depicted just like the Tarot. The mysteries are all there. When I stepped back to the far side of the chapel, you can see that each part together makes the shape of the Quabbalistic Tree of Life. This little secret place called me back and I was so glad to share it with my friends. Like at Rosslyn, the hidden stories of Christianity are kept safe waiting to be decoded by those who are willing to see an alternative story.

Grail Knight                                         Mary Magdalen

Jesus and flaming heart                      Judgement

St. Mary’s Chapel Ceiling

Speaking of alternative stories, there was one more mysterious place to investigate on the Isle of Mull. In a tiny church, in the tiny town of Dervaig on the edge of Mull, is a stained glass window with a heretical image. Here, in this hidden spot, is a 1900’s era window that shows Jesus and a pregnant Mary Magdalen in a loving embrace. Now remember, we saw the lineage of Jesus on the ceiling in Perthshire. And what about William Blake’s poem Jerusalem:  

And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains green: And was the holy Lamb of God, On England’s pleasant pastures seen!”

Hummmm. Not the official story but one I have long accepted as possible and probable.

Fairies, Knights Templar, stone circles, ancient forests, mysterious chapels—you just don’t know what you will find next in this magic land. But I had one more place to visit, a place I have longed for and the culmination of our grand Scottish pilgrimage—-Iona.

 

Rosslyn: Guardian of the Secrets of the Holy Grail

by Tim Wallace-Murphy and Marilyn Hopkins

The Woman with the Alabaster Jar:  Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail

by Margaret Starbird

http://www.sacredconnections.co.uk

Youtube:  The Scottish Grail Legacy

Thomas Merton

IMG_3330

Last week I had the most unexpected delight. Brother Luke from the Abbey of Gethsamani wrote me this note.

Many thanks for the thoughtful and generous reflections about your visit to us. Rest assured, the company of our fellow pilgrims is a blessing and enrichment for us there in the choir. Every warm best wish and encouragement from us all!

I was so pleased that our time together was a blessing even though the Brothers in Gethsemani and I have never met. The quiet interaction of our devotion was equally beneficial to our hearts even though our conscious mind didn’t know the specifics. It is through the quality of our heart the blessings are received. This is one of the great mysteries and graces of the devotion of the pilgrim.

How do we grow the quality of our heart? So glad you asked! Because one of the most important spiritual writers on contemplation and devotion was a Brother at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton. All you have to do is open one of his many beautiful books on the contemplative life and you will find the answers to the way of a Spirit filled life. You may have heard of Thomas Merton before but if you haven’t I want to introduce him to you because he brought contemplation into the 21st century and continues the long line of Christian mystics going back to John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. You will find his influence on many of the lives of current spiritual writers.

Thomas, known as Brother Louis at Gethsamani, was born in 1915 in France to non-religious artist parents and spent his childhood going between France, England and the United States. He ultimately ended up Columbia University where he got a masters in literature, with a thesis on William Blake, the first clue of his future. By the time Thomas was in his mid-twenties, he had no living family and a deep Christian conversion. He felt called to the life of devotion and eventually found the Abbey of Gethsamani. Thomas wrote about his childhood and conversion experience and first days in the Abbey in his classic best-seller, The Seven Storey Mountain. With a great talent for writing about the contemplative life, Thomas continued his work as a writer as his vocation in the Abbey. Eventually he was able to move to a small converted hermitage on the Abbey grounds where he could spend his time in the solitude he craved. The last few years of his life (in the early 1960’s), he became increasingly interested in social justice and the common spirit between Buddhism and Christianity. He made a famous trip to India to meet the Dalai Lama and attend a global conference on world religions. Unfortunately Thomas died on that trip in an accident exactly 27 years to the day of joining the monastery.

I’ve known about Thomas Merton for many years but the visit to Gethsamani gave me the context to read his books I had collected. I could spend a lifetime with this amazing writer and mystic. But let us go back to the original question that we asked, how to grown the quality of your heart. Thomas has some beautiful suggestions. He said that you didn’t have to be a monk or nun to live the contemplative life, that the life of prayer is open to all of us. It doesn’t require hours of meditating or renunciation of the world to make your own life an act of devotion. Our lives are perfect for growing the heart for it is the act of taking time to connect with the Divine everyday and see everyone we meet and our work as service to the world. He wrote, “to be a saint is to be myself.” Doing the dishes and the laundry, our commute, caring for our children and our elderly parents can all be acts of devotion and love.

Yes, every part of our lives can be a chance for awakening. One of Thomas’ most profound experiences wasn’t in the monastery in prayer but in a moment while on a busy street in Louisville, Kentucky.

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Be who you are, love the life you have, spend moments in silence, start and end your day with moments of prayers, sing a hymn, read a scripture or inspirational book, notice the birds and the wind in the trees and realize we are “all walking around shining like the sun.”

Books by Thomas Merton:

New Seeds of Contemplation

The Seven Storey Mountain

Thoughts on Solitude

 

Books on a modern contemplative life by Marsha Sinetar:

Sometimes Enough is Enough  

Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics

Abbey of Gethsemani

Trappist, KY

A few weeks ago Hamilton set out early in the morning to visit friends in Gravel Switch, Kentucky, to do whatever grown men do that is legal and moral. I find it usually involves metal objects that have letters and numbers instead of names and is in a language totally unrecognizable in my world. But that morning I decided tag along because the next stop on my sacred tour of rural America was just 45 minutes up the road in Trappist, Kentucky, just south of Bardstown. We met up with another couple outside of Danville, putting the men in one car and the ladies in another to go on our separate adventures. Barbara is a native of the area but hadn’t been to Trappist in many years. So we headed down the empty, winding roads through the beautiful back country of central Kentucky.

Tucked into a corner of the rolling country side is a Trappist monastery, Abbey of Gethemani, officially known as Cistercians. I don’t know about you but rural Kentucky is not the place I would go looking for monks; Pentecostals, tiny non-denominational churches, maybe even snake handlers but not Cistercian Monks who live in silence and prayer. Apparently Bardstown was settled by Catholics in 1808 in a very non-Catholic region of the world. Seeing as how the Catholics don’t have a ban on alcohol like the other local Protestant religions, Bardstown became the seat of the bourbon industry so the local landscape has enclaves of bourbon warehouses next to a half a dozen local distilleries. It is a strange but charming combination of religion, ‘demon rum’ and southern history with My Old Kentucky Home presiding over it all.

The Abbey of Gethsemani was established in 1848 and on a cold day in late December the monks began singing the Liturgy of the Hours seven times a day and haven’t stopped since, 168 years of devotion to prayers for the world without ceasing. The prayers start at 3:15 am with Vigils and continue at intervals throughout the day until Compline at 7:30 pm. In the morning between prayers the monks work. In the past there was farming but now they produce bourbon fudge and fruitcakes to support the monastery. In the afternoon, there is time for reading, prayer and contemplation. Although they are not vowed to silence, silence is part of their way of living.

I first heard of the Abbey of Gethsemani many years ago because there is a large guest house open to anyone of all faiths for silent retreats. The simple and tidy rooms are attached to the church. There is a library and extensive grounds for long walks. There are no classes or events, just time and space to go on an inner journey of silence and healing on this holy ground devoted to prayer.

I arrived about 10, on an overcast and very humid August day. I spent sometime in the welcome center where there is a movie that highlights the history and an average day at Gethsemani. Next door is a lovely gift store with local pottery, spiritual books, handicrafts from other monasteries and of course the bourbon fudge and bourbon fruitcake made on the grounds. I bought a sample of each to bring home. Nothing makes me happier the sugar blessed by monks.

The most important part of the visit was at 12:15, Sext, the prayers just before lunch. I sat outside under the trees waiting for the appointed time, the breeze helping with the humidity a bit. The peacefulness of the land and nearby cemetery gave me time and space to find my own inner quiet. Visitors are allowed at any of the services but must sit in the narthex under a small balcony. There is a barrier and then the long thin modern sanctuary stretches out to a distant altar. The bell tolled and about three dozen monks started to enter one by one from several doors and took their appointed places. They each wore a long white tunic with a brown scapular cinched at the waist with a brown belt except the three novices who had white scapulars. Under the narrow stained glass windows, they sat in the choir divided in two by the aisle facing each other with a small organ in the middle of the right wall.

The bell tolled again and the organ played and the monks began their prayers. Nothing was spoken only sung and the words of those noon prayers echoed that day as they had over 60,000 times since the monastery opened so long ago. About 20 minutes later, the prayers were finished and the bell tolled again and the monks filed out to their next duty. The other 20 or so visitors quietly left to go back to their own prayers and retreat. No one wanted to break the beautiful silence of that moment. As I walked back to my car in the heat of the noonday, I felt blessed by those beautiful prayers and so thankful that these men had devoted their lives to God and for the blessing of all the world.

http://www.monks.org

Languages of Faith

sweden

photo by V Budayr

When I was twelve I remember very clearly the minister of my childhood church telling the congregation that “This is the one true church.” I remember asking my mother how he could possibly know this. It was many more years before I could form better questions but looking back on that moment, it was the beginning of my quest. I couldn’t figure out why God could make 6 billion people wrong and just a handful right; it didn’t seem fair.

Through the years I have explored all the world’s major religions. I figure I could just cover all the bases in case one has the true answer to eternal life and I wanted to make sure I was good. I’ve always had Christianity as my base for that is the religion of my ancestors, my culture and my language and I am baptized as a Christian. But, over time, I have branched out and found that learning about other religions has helped me be more comfortable with Christianity despite my shaky beginnings.

My fundamentalist Christian friends would take great offense at my version of Christianity but I keep that to myself, I know the greatness of the Christ and know he doesn’t care about how some governing body defines him. What I know of the Christ is that he is our story of the enlightenment journey, he is the example of divine love and compassion.

I’ve been drawn to Buddhism for many years and have read a lot of the wisdom of modern Buddhist leaders. I find the words of the Buddha comforting and add a dimension to my experience of life. A few years ago a Rinpoche, the abbot of the monastery, established a small monastery in my county and on one of his visits I took the Vows of Refuge, something I had always wanted to do. I take refuge and comfort in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sanga.

As a child, I kept the Sabbath like the Jews and didn’t eat any unclean meat. The tradition of the Sabbath as a day to keep holy is something that our modern world could use a little more of. A day of quiet and family and to take a respite from our technology has made a come back in some circles. As a child I didn’t like the rules but as an adult I remember the Sabbath with nostalgia as a cozy loving time. I’m also told by my Jewish friends that I make very good Latkes.

One of the defining moments of my spiritual quest was Darshan, a meeting with the Hindu saint Mother Meera. In total silence Mother Meera blesses each individual that comes forward to kneel at her feet. She touched my head and looked into my eyes and my world changed. She put me in a place I had never been before but can get back to when needed. Some of my favorite music is an obscure opera about Gandhi using the words of the Bhagava Gita sung in Sanskrit. It is magnificent. Oh and I want a harmonium, the little organ used in chanting. I need one if I ever want to moonlight as an ashram. Got it on my Christmas list.

When I was in Egypt I visited the Citadel, the magnificent Mosque made of alabaster, that overlooks all of Cairo. My fellow travelers and I sat in a circle and listened to the teachings of Islam. Everyday I was there I heard the 5 prayers a day sung from the Minarets, calling the people to prayer. Those haunting melodies in a very mysterious language were healing, reminding me of the power of prayer.

The beating of the shaman’s drum, the gentle melodies on the wooden flute, the prayers to Mother Earth, bring the healing power of our Earth into my body. As I pray to the four directions for wisdom and guidance, I connect with the natural world, the sacred energy of the Earth where I live.

My daughter is a scientist and mathematician where the quest for the divine takes yet another language. Scientists see the world through the beauty of the stars overhead, the quantum particles too small to see and the elegant and universal language of math.

I’m no expert in the world’s religions but I’m an expert of my own heart and I know that honoring the world’s religions has brought great beauty to my life. Because in reality it is all semantics. We use different words and stories but at the core of our human experience is the same desire to know the Divine, the part of us and the Universe that us unknowable to our finite minds.

Canterbury

canterbury

“Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” These word of King Henry II spoken nearly 900 years ago, began a series of events that we still talk about today. Henry II and Thomas Beckett were good pals until Henry made Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then, Thomas did the unthinkable and decided to not do everything Henry wanted, that started a power struggle that ended when Henry’s henchmen took him literally and murdered Thomas in the middle of the Cathedral. Within hours of the murder, miracles happened with the blood of Thomas. Henry regretted his words and spent a lifetime doing penance. The world began walking to Canterbury for miracles and salvation.

A hundred and fifty years later, Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized the Canterbury pilgrimage and the stories of medieval life. 600 years later. The Canterbury Tales are still part of almost every high school curriculum, except my high school where the stories were deemed inappropriate and not good for me. Oh my.

Since I love reading about pilgrimages as much as taking them I picked up Jerry Ellis’ book Walking to Canterbury. Last year, I read his book Walking the Trail about his experience walking the Trail of Tears backwards from Oklahoma to Alabama to feel more connected to his Cherokee heritage. Jerry wanted to honor his English roots as well by making a pilgrimage in England. He also walked from London to Canterbury along the traditional pilgrim route. Throughout the story, he perfectly weaves The Canterbury Tales and life in medieval England into his own experiences of the local people and places he encounters, walking in both worlds simultaneously. During the pilgrimage, he carved a walking stick with the faces of Christ and Sequoya, to honor both pilgrimages.

When I made my own pilgrimage to Canterbury in 2005 I had never read The Canterbury Tales or the story of Thomas Beckett. What I knew was that Canterbury is a magnificent cathedral and the Archbishop of Canterbury is the highest authority in the Anglican church, As an Episcopalian the prayers always included the current Archbishop. I didn’t walk to Canterbury but took a train from London with my husband, teen daughters and my dear friend Rachael. It was the first warm day of spring and the town was alive with people wanting to revel in the glories of sunshine, blue sky and flowers against the backdrop of Gothic perfection. The day had a magic and wonder I will never forget.

We met up with Rachael’s daughter Anne and her family and bought a family ticket that included all of us as we were family by choice. Rachael and I wandered silently through the cathedral slowly enjoying every detail we could possibly see. I particularly liked the zodiac roundels in the floor near Trinity chapel that date to the 1400’s. Our tour took us to the crypt where we admired the elaborate vestments and chalices. Just at the door to the garden were prayer candles. I lit one and made a vow that I didn’t expect to make that day, a vow to do what the Universe asks of me whatever that was. It was a sacred moment that changed me, a vow as important to me as my baptism and confirmation and marriage.

Rachael and I stepped into the sunshine and were greeted by her 7 year old granddaughter Louise who was impatiently waiting on a bench. “Hurry up Nanny, I’m 72 years old now.” Louise was right. Time had stood still that morning and at least 65 years had passed in a twinkling of an eye that beautiful day.

candles in caterbury

Joseph Campbell

Pacifica

Joseph Campbell Library, Pacifica

I was 26 and a new mother when I decided I wanted to be an Episcopalian. I liked the local parish so I had a meeting with the priest to talk about joining the church. We talked about my childhood church and it’s very literal interpretation of the Bible. The priest then said something I will never forget that rocked my world. “You know the Bible is a myth.” Holy Cow! What? Everything stopped in that instant as the foundation of my world view cracked wide open. I barely knew what a myth was, in my narrow world novels, fairy tales, myths and Santa were lies and not allowed. The priest told me to read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. I read the book but didn’t understand it much, I had no context for the stories or concepts but I knew it was important. It took me an entire year to just wrap my mind around the idea that the Bible was not literal. The stories began touching my heart instead of baffling my brain.

I kept going to church and joined a book club and slowly, stone by stone, dismantled the cosmology of my childhood. When my world view lay in pieces all around me I started to rebuild with the good from my old life but now with the new materials. I read more mythology, Jung and archetypes, and novels. Each new book lead to the next and I spent all my spare time building a new and expanded paradigm that was much more open with plenty of room to grow.

I kept reading Joseph Campbell and watched The Power of Myth. I listen to interviews and kept a copy of Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion in the side pocket of my car. When I had a few minutes waiting in the school pick-up line or for ballet to finish, I would read the wise words. The book was tattered and coffee stained, underlined and loved. The myths, gods and goddesses became an important part of my life. When I went to Egypt for the first time, I knew little of the history but a great deal of the cosmology, I went to live the myths and stand before the gods. I was on the heroine’s journey.

Joseph Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and wrote about universal themes of mythologies in all cultures. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been very influential in our modern culture and the ideas helped create new myths for our time. Luke Skywalker is a classic mythological hero that bravely journeyed to the unknown to recover his lost self and bring back the wisdom for his society.

In mid-March I was traveling home from Alabama listening to some tapes of Michael Toms’ 1979 interview of Joseph Campbell. I had those tapes for many years and was going to listen to them one more time. I nearly had to pull over, on those tapes where exactly the validation I was needing about some materials I was working on about alchemy. Alchemy is not a subject usually associated with Joseph Campbell but there it was, an interview from nearly 40 years ago, perfect in that moment. The timeless quality of Joseph Campbell’s work is an indication of the deep universal Truths he was able to convey to the world. His work become new again as I grew and could hear it on a new level.

Two weeks later I was in southern California and had a day free to “follow my bliss” as Joseph Campbell so famously taught. I headed up the coast to just below Santa Barbara to Pacifica Graduate Institute and the Joseph Campbell Library. Nestled in a beautiful garden of a campus was a small library that holds all of Joseph Campbell’s personal books. Usually only accessible a few hours a week, the archivist happened to be free so he ushered me into a small dark room with bookshelves from floor to ceiling and a few display cases in the middle. I started to ask questions about alchemy and the librarian got on an old wooden ladder and pulled down a book. It was Carl Jung’s book on alchemy, Mysterium Conjunctionis. In it was Joseph Campbell’s prolific and very tidy underlining and notes. In front of me, under my fingertips was the meeting of two great minds. I turned the pages and read passages and notes and breathed in the magic of those two men who together restored the mythical journey to our modern world. Their work has restored the magic and mystery to my barren, literal life.

I spent a blissful hour and a half in that library, looking at the books that influenced such a great mind. There was an entire shelf of books on the Grail legend, some of them hundreds of years old. I saw his personal copy of his first book and a copy of The Joseph Campbell Companion with its familiar cover. In the display case were some of his favorite artifacts of ancient deity and a small metal ruler he used for underlining. Joseph was once asked if he meditated, he replied “no I underline.”

The Joseph Campbell Foundation   http://www.jcf.org

Pacifica Graduate Institute  www.pacifica.edu

PacificaIMG_3167

California Poppys,  Pacifica