Saturday, January 29, 2011

Meister Eckhart and the Practice of Presence

Further to my previous post on solitude, I've just started reading a little of "The Talks of Instruction' by that reverred Dominican Meister Eckhart (1260-1327).  There is some pearls in a chapter in which he responds to the question: 'Some people like to withdraw and prefer always to be alone.  That is where they find peace, when they enter a church.  Is this the best thing?'  His answer is a definitive NO...his view is that solitude is not necessarily a problem but by itself it is certainly not the best thing.  The reason is that there is a greater and more substantial life on offer.

We should grasp God in all things and should train ourselves to keep God always present in our minds, in our striving and in our love.  Take note of how you are inwardly turned to God when in church or in your cell, and maintain this same attitude of mind, preserving it when you go among the crowd, into restlessness and diversity.

We should not content ourselves with a God of thoughts, for when the thoughts come to an end, so too shall God.  Rather, we should have a living God who is beyond the thoughts of all people and all creatures.  That kind of God will not leave us, unless we ourselves choose to turn away from him.

We must learn to maintain an inner solitude regardless of where we are or who we are with. We must learn to break through things and to grasp God in them allowing him to take form in us powerfully and essentially.

These are stirring perhaps confronting words for those of us in active family lives for example, preparing meals, attending household chores, intervening in sibling conflict, negotiating playdates and sex lives, arranging appointments and incomes and school drop offs and friendships etc.  The 'God of all things' is a common phrase in many Christian mystical writings in particular.  The all encompassing nature of this approach reminds that we are constantly called to express the love that already possesses us but that so often we are not present to.   In one sense it might be easy in moments of solitude in lonely places, with minimal distraction, to direct our attention to God and this is good training, but the real test of our loving attentiveness is in the restlessness and hurley burley of life where presence may find us.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Solitude as a Source of Life and Community

Solitude is the womb of Christian spirituality, the space which nourishes, which allows for the birth of the new creation or the newly transformed self (Maria Santa-Maria, 1983).

Recently members of the Community of Aidan and Hilda in Australia met in Geelong, Victoria (Wautherong land) for an inaugural retreat. This was the first time that our scattered lot from different backgrounds converged and shared a short period in community life. Please see Ray Simpson's blog summary of the retreat. I was fortunate to facilitate one of the sessions on the topic of solitude, that enormously important theme in the spiritual life. I will try to summarise some of the key points here. There are countless examples of solitude in Celtic tradition as well as elsewhere in Christian history. Indeed on visiting Celtic sites such as Lindisfarne and Iona almost ten years ago now I was almost immediately captured by the reality of solitude and how this might lead one into great relationship with the land, cosmos and God. The Rule of Saint Columba, written well after his death, has this as its first statement: If your conscience leads you to keep away from crowds, be alone in a separate place near a major city.
The fruits of solitude often lead to the great monastic centres in the British Isles. Solitude can be very beautiful, opening us to the wonders of prayer and land such as recounted in the Life of Kentigern (Mungo) by Joceyln:
And thus fleeing far away from the presence of the sons of men and waiting in the solitude with his body and mind, he dwelled with himself. And in that place, being more free for God, being away from the trouble of men and from the contradictions of tongues and discussions, he lay concealed in the presence of God in secret. Therefore as he sat alone, he raised himself above himself, and frequently dwelling in the caverns of the earth, or standing at the door of his den and praying after the commotion of storm and fire, he experienced the rustling of the light air breathing on him and anointing and filling him with a certain indescribable sweetness.

The beauty of solitude or this 'indescribable sweetness' will often be accompanied by some sense of darkness and in these alone spaces we uncover unexamined, wounded, ugly, unwanted parts of ourselves that if left to run riot will soon run our lives. It is this that Carl Jung called the shadow and encouraged not the annihilation of the shadow but its integration. And so beauty and shadow are inescapable friends in solitude. So it is no wonder that traditions of solitude often contain stories of wrestling with demonic forces:
Alone but for the help of God, he drove back from this island of ours (Iona), countless hostile armies of demons visible to his bodily eyes, which were making war against him and on his monastic community (Adomnan, Life of Columba).

While some of this language may appear to be unhelpful or irrational to our contemporary eyes, it nonetheless points to something real in our inner and communal journeys that requires our respect and attention.

We often conceive of solitude as taking place only in a 'separate place' far away from others and perhaps at times largely consisting of self-indulgent naval gazing. Of course these can be possibilities.  However, true solitude always carries the wisdom that we are never ever disconnected from the rest of life or the world. For if we come into the 'cave of the heart' we also discover the 'soul of the world' and vice versa.

What relevance might these ideas have for those of us in committed relationships while parenting and leading full suburban lives? Certainly, listening to our impulses to solitude in 'separate places' is key as this may well be the spirit driving us out into a different and transfigured reality. However, we may also experience the solitariness of our being on a daily basis no matter what is happening:

To love solitude and to seek it does not mean constantly travelling from one geographical possibility to another. A man becomes a solitary at the moment when, no matter what may be his external surroundings, he is suddenly aware of his own inalienable solitude and sees that he will never be anything but solitary. From that moment, solitude is not potential – it is actual. However, actual solitude always places us squarely in the presence of an unrealized possibility of "perfect solitude." But this has to be properly understood: for we lose the actuality of the solitude we already have if we try, with too great anxiety, to realize the material possibility for great exterior solitude that always seems just out of reach. Actual solitude has, as one of its integral elements, the dissatisfaction and uncertainty that come from being face to face with an unrealized possibility. It is not a mad pursuit of possibilities – it is the humble acquiescence that stabilises us in the presence of one enormous reality which is one sense already possessed and in another a "possibility" – an object of hope (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 1958).

It is in our actual solitude that life can move most freely within us...It is this life, this gift that we offer to others, that helps form true communities and listening souls. It is our actual, inalienable solitude that may assist us with the injustices of the world by embracing those who are alienated, alone, oppressed. It is from this place that we might also speak to systems that are disinterested in human transformation.

A final word, during the recent retreat session the reality of individual temperament was raised. The notion and experience of solitude, broadly speaking, tends be attractive to people who prefer to go inside themselves to find energy and life and less attractive to those who prefer to reach out to others to find energy and life. It is important to note that both are God-given impulses and require our discernment in each circumstance of life. Safe to say though that all are called to a measure of solitude.