Thomas Merton

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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

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Canterbury

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“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

Krishnamurti

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Road to Ojai, California

I had one more stop to make on my library tour of southern California. After leaving the Joseph Campbell library I headed inland along a beautiful twisting road through the mountains and down to the town of Ojai. I had put Ojai on my wish list several months before because I wanted to go to the home and library of its most famous resident Krishnamurti. Over the months before my trip, I read about its charming shops and restaurants and watched some yoga videos that originated in a local studio.

It was lunch time so I had found a little Mexican restaurant with an outdoor patio that had wonderful food. I wished I had time to do a little shopping but I was on a mission. I headed out of town a couple of miles to the Krishnamurti Library and nearby Pepper Tree Retreat Center, only open three afternoons a week for a few hours. The library is in Krishnamurti’s white house surrounded by gardens and a very old pepper tree. The main room of the house is spacious with large windows and a fireplace at one end and two walls of bookshelves with his many books in several languages. There are pictures of Krishnamurti standing in the room 40 years ago and it still looks the same.

Krishnamurti Home

I had known about Krishnamurti for a long time. One of my teachers has taught Theosophy for many years and Krishnamurti is an integral part of the story. Theosophy is a philosophy founded by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott in the 1870s that is still active today. It combines Eastern and Western thought about the nature of God and mysticism. The headquarters of the new movement moved to India where a young Jiddu Krishnamurti was discovered and expected to be the next “World Teacher” by Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant. Krishnamurti and his brother Nitya were then educated and lectured all over the world to promote Theosophy and the Order of the Star in the East.

In 1929 Krishnamurti rejected his ties with Theosophy and his messianic status. He chose to take a different way which he call the pathless land. He and his brother had moved to Ojai for the climate and made his home there for the rest of his life. Despite his rejection of being a world teacher he continued to teach, travel extensively and write dozens of books. He also founded Brockwood Park School in England. He had great influence on the changing cultures of the 1960s and 1970s and on the great thinkers, musicians, world leaders and scientist during that time. You might not have heard of him before but his influence on modern society is great. He did fulfill his role as a world teacher but in his own way.

I spent some time in the light-filled room surrounded by Krishnamurti’s writings and then went into the small bookstore and visited with a lovely young women who was there for the next year as a student and intern. I actually have not read much of Krishnamurti’s work so I got a book and some DVD’s to watch.

I headed out to an organic herb garden on top of a nearby hill and had a seat to just relax and breath in the fresh air and sunshine. The garden was so peaceful and the surrounding mountains magnificent. What a beautiful day of gardens, libraries and deeply spiritual men, Joseph Campbell and Jiddu Krishnamurti. They both changed the way we see the world and interestingly enough met on a ship crossing the Atlantic when they young men. I felt I too got to meet them that blissful day in a garden in California.

herb garden

“We all want to be famous people, and the moment we want to be something we are no longer free.”

“I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect.”           J Krishnamurti

Krishnamurti Foundation of America  www.kfa.org

Brockwood Park School   http://www.brockwood.org.uk

Theosophical Society  www.theosophical.org

 

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

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California Poppys,  Pacifica

Sequoyah

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Not far from my home, about a 30 minute drive, is the birthplace of a remarkable man, Sequoyah. I often go there and take friends to this peaceful little museum and park tucked away in the coves of a man-made lake. The tiny museum, with an entrance fee of $3, has displays and a movie chronicling the history of the Cherokee people and Sequoyah.

If you’ve never heard of Sequoyah let me tell you about this genius that changed the lives of the Cherokee. Born in Tennessee around 1776, Sequoyah was a silversmith. Although he was illiterate he was fascinated by what he called “talking leaves” the white settlers used to communicate. So he set out to create a syllabary made of 86 symbols representing the syllables of the Cherokee language. It took him about 12 years from 1809-1821. The museum says that he received great inspiration from listening to bird sounds. He taught his young daughter to read and used her to prove his system worked. He asked the local councilmen to tell him something to write and then had his daughter to read back their words. Despite having endured ridicule for his endeavors, his system of writing was quickly embraced by the Cherokee nation and the majority of the Cherokee people were literate within months, surpassing the literacy of the local settlers.

No person had ever before singlehandedly developed a syllabary and Sequoyah was able to do this without being literate in any other language. His system was so well developed that is was fool proof and easy to learn and his syllabary is still being used. Newspapers and books were published with this new syllabary and it was essential for helping preserve the history, culture and spiritual practices of the Cherokee. Sequoyah went on to be a diplomat and statesman and was awarded a silver medal of honor by the Cherokee National Counsel which he wore the rest of his life.

Sequoyah is a modern day Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and language. Sequoyah saw that written language empowered people and wanted his own nation to have this same autonomy. Unfortunately the Cherokee were brutally removed from the eastern US to Oklahoma during this time and Sequoyah worked to reunite the tribe and helped create a syllabary that would work for all the Native American languages.

Like Thoth’s caduceus in the library and Quan Yin holding the energy in the garden, Sequoyah’s presence has been in my home for over 30 years. A lithograph of his famous portrait hangs in the front hall along with other notable Native Americans. My father-in-law collected these portraits because they were produced by someone with our same last name and he also loved history. I prefer to think that my land and home welcomes the learning and wisdom exemplified by this great man and I’m honored that he has a special place in my home.

Sequoyah birthplace

Replica of Sequoyah’s home in Tennessee

 

10 Books and a Bonus

11 books

The Christmas decorations are back in the basement, the house is cleaned up, and the extra chocolate hidden away. Alexandra is back in California and Caroline is getting ready for her final semester and I’m left with the happy memories of a beautiful Christmas with 27 dear relatives and many friends. It is hard to go back to a quiet house in these cold days of winter so I’ve turned to some of my dearest old friends to keep me company by the fire. I want to share with you some of my favorite books from my library. Some may be familiar to you too or some might start a new thread in your life. This is the time to plant new seeds for the year.

2 Old Friends

One of my best gifts from my teachers is an introduction to the classic spiritual writers. These older book aren’t well known but hold beautiful teachings that stand the test of time.

The Path of the Soul: The Great Initiations by White Eagle. A channeled book first published in 1959 this book describes the four initiations all seekers must take along the path, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. In my last post on the Magic Flute, our hero takes two of these initiations on his path of love.

The Thunder of Silence by Joel Goldsmith.  Joel Goldsmith was the founder and teacher of The Infinite Way, a path of practical mysticism. His style is a bit dated but the truth his speaks is timeless. All of his books are gems.

2 Great Stories

We can all use a compelling story in the middle of winter to inspire us. These are both true stories.

The Mystery of the White Lions by Linda Tucker.   I wrote about this book on my post The Ultimate Grand Supreme. This book has some twists and turns that help unravel a deep connection to our ancient past and our closest star Sirius.

Omm Sety’s Egypt by Hay el Zeini and Catherine Dees.  I bet you can’t put it down. Omm Sety was a very mysterious English woman who lived simultaneously in modern and ancient Egypt.

2 Guide Books

Everyone’s path is unique but the road signs and obstacles are the same so here is some help.

Barefoot on Holy Ground; Twelve Lessons in Spiritual Craftsmanship by Gloria Karpinski.  A well written book by a great spiritual teacher. Honest and useful tools for the road ahead.

Entering the Castle; An Inner Path of God and Your Soul by Caroline Myss. My favorite book by a favorite author about my favorite Saint, Teresa of Avila. My favorite quote “Enlightenment is the only authentic path…everything else is a detour.”

2 Stern Teachers

Sometimes we need to do something besides play on rainbows with unicorns so here are some books to make sure we get our work done and keep moving forward up the mountain. If you want a game changer check these out.

Truth Vs Falsehood; How to Tell the Difference by David Hawkins.  A must read for all spiritual seekers because discernment is as vital as water and air on the path. Then read his other books, not easy but important.

Halfway Up The Mountain; The Error of Premature Claims of Enlightenment by Mariana Caplan.  It is so easy to get too eager and run up the easy slopes and then there is no energy for the hard climb. This book must go in your backpack along with your pick ax and oxygen tank for the snowfields.

2 Study Guides for Graduate School

Spiritual Power; How it Works by Llewellyn Vaughan Lee. After you have gone through some initiations and realize you know absolutely nothing then you are ready for the GRE into graduate school. You will never make it if you don’t understand spiritual power so get studying.

The Emerald Tablet; Alchemy for Personal Transformation by Dennis William Hauck. My poor copy is warped, marked and worn from reading by the pool, in the car, on a train, in a plane. No seriously, one of the best books on Alchemy and even readable. You know how I love Thoth and the Emerald Tablets.

Bonus Book. 11 is a master number so I had to add an extra.

The Spiritual Reawakening of the Great Smoky Mountains by Page Bryant. This book is by my dear friend and teacher and about the magical place on earth I’m lucky enough to call home. Page is a master of earth and star energy and she has written the guide book to the wisdom of these ancient mountains.

 

 

 

Aunt Julie

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Twenty-nine years ago this summer I was decorating my first apartment.   Hamilton and I were engaged and we added an apartment above his shop for our first home.   We lived there for nine years, it was rent-free which allowed me to finish school and stay home with my babies.   We only needed one car because Hamilton just walked downstairs to work.   After we moved to town the apartment was continuously occupied by family members, friends and employees, giving them a rent-free space to live.   Now we are back on the farm and want to use the apartment as office and guest space but the interior is pretty tired so I’m in the process of renovating.

As I am back in the space for the first time in 20 years memories of that time of my life have come flooding back, almost like watching a movie.   As I started to take down the 80’s wallpaper I thought of Aunt Julie.   Hamilton’s cousin Tony built the apartment and his Aunt Julie offered to teach me to wallpaper the bathroom.    I was so excited to make my little place as cute as possible.

Over the years I would periodically call Aunt Julie.  There were many times I needed her gentle support.  As in most families, I have a couple of close relatives who can be very difficult.  Aunt Julie was the one person who really understood.   We never talked badly about anyone but I knew she knew what I was going through.  I just needed to be reassured that although there was nothing that could be done someone saw me.

Around this same time I was student teaching.   I had a very difficult supervising teacher who was not allowed another student teacher after me.  Those were hard days,  I came home to my only friend, General Hospital on the VCR.   Every day I would take a few students to a reading specialist named Karen.  She was always kind and went out of her way to speak to me.  We never spoke of my difficult teacher but once again I knew that she knew.   Yet again someone saw me.   That was all I needed to soldier on.

I’m so glad to have these memories of kind women who helped a young twentysomething negotiate tough interpersonal relationships, not by advice but by just simply being there. I hope that I have passed on this kindness to someone else.   Please thank a friend or relative that has done that for you.  Aunt Julie has passed on but this week I’m remembering to say a prayer for her and her sweet kindness.

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1980’s wallpaper on the way to the trash