I am a medical practitioner and after a health scare in 2004 began meditating for health of mind, body and spirit. I started a meditation group in 2014 and attended an Essential Teaching Weekend the following year. I am also a committee member of the ACMC in Victoria.
God is watching us
Cardinal Hume told a story to American bishops of how when he was a child, his strict disciplinarian mother told her children they were not to take cookies from a cookie jar in between meals or any time other than feast days because God was watching. Later, as an adult, he had a mystical experience of God, and realised that if he had taken a cookie from the jar, God would have asked, ‘Why don’t you take another one?’ When we heard this story on a CD talk by Thomas Keating, a woman in my meditation group was impressed by this image of God asking, ‘why don’t you take another one?’ which shows her God’s generosity. The impact on me was that God is watching us.
At the end of a prayer day in May, 2016, a woman asked me if I would join her in walking the labyrinth. I was tired and in a hurry to go home but could not say ‘no’, so I accompanied her. It was the first time I walked the labyrinth. It was not the best time to do this spiritual practice which I have heard such wonderful things about. Because I was in a hurry, I felt it was never-ending. I also felt self-conscious and wondered if anyone was watching us doing this strange thing. And then a thought came, ‘Is God watching us?’ The words from a song by Bette Midler came to me then, playing over and over in my mind, God is watching us, God is watching us. I do not know all the lyrics, so when I got home, I googled and found out the title is ‘From a distance’ rather than ‘God is watching us’.
I remember as a little girl having that feeling, every now and then, of wishing that someone was watching me, showing interest in what I was doing. Watchful eyes, not watching to catch what wrong I was doing but just watching, taking delight in all that I was doing.
In September, 2016, I attended a Christian meditation community day led by Fr Cyprian Consiglio, Camaldolese monk, Catholic priest, and American composer and musician. Due to some family problems, I arrived late and in a distraught state. On arriving, Mary offered me a cup of tea. I sat on a bench at the back of the hall, with tears overflowing, with my cup of tea and Mary sitting next to me. I didn’t have the song and prayer sheets, so I couldn’t participate in the prayers and singing. I just sat there, listening while people chanted, prayed and sang, while Fr Cyprian played beautiful music on his guitar. It was an absolutely beautiful and healing experience for me. Had I been a participator instead of an observer, it might have been just as wonderful or more so, but I am grateful for that different experience as an observer and listener rather than active participator.
In some forms of meditation, we watch our thoughts and emotions. We watch them come and we let them go, we do not let ourselves be actively involved with them, be over-identified with them. That day, I imagined God was watching us with delight while the community sang and prayed aloud, and others observed and listened. God is watching us too in our struggles of life.
God is watching us with love, attention, care and concern, like a parent. He is not watching from a distance, aloof and disinterested, nor watching like a police or judge, waiting to pounce on us, catching us when we do wrong.
God is transcendent, watching us, from wherever he is, from everywhere he is. But God is also immanent, within us. When we realise the immanent God, the God who is within us, we can watch ourselves the way God watches us, with the eyes and mind of God, knowing that there is a grand plan in all that is happening to us, that good will triumph eventually.
‘Yes, I know what plans I have in mind for you, plans for peace, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’ Jeremiah 29:11
In late September, ACMC Victoria was delighted to host a day of contemplation with Fr Cyprian Consiglio, prior of the New Camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur, California.
Here, Susie Hii and Ros Harris share their thoughts on what many described as a ‘brilliant’ day.
We receive from your fullness, light upon light
We receive from your fullness, truth upon truth
We receive from your fullness, grace upon grace
We receive from your fullness, O Lord.
A monk, a guitar and an invitation to sing – that’s how Fr Cyprian drew us into a rich and moving day of contemplation.
It was a simple song of light, truth and grace. But it took a while for us to get right! And so, to begin, we sang gently and tentatively. We sang with ardour as we became more familiar. And then we sang with tenderness as we drifted toward silence.
From the outset, this community day was about sharing and becoming closer – closer to God and to each other. Sharing song. Sharing silence. Sharing food. Sharing wisdom from different traditions as Fr Cyprian explored the intersections between our Christian mystical tradition and the traditions of the East.
Father Cyprian’s teaching ranged wide – from apophatic theology and duality/non-duality in Christian thought, to thoughts on the resurrection and the body. It’s not our aim to recount the full content of his talks here, but to describe just three of the many gifts Fr Cyprian shared with us so beautifully.
One gift was the resonant image Fr Cyprian offered for our contemplative practice. Our soul, he said, consists of two parts: fire (the spirit) and the container for that fire – the vessel without which our energy would be formless. The energy is our desire for meditation. Our practice of meditation is the container for the energy.
Another was a piece of practical advice as Fr Cyprian led us into our periods of silent meditation. He suggested that each time we sit to meditate that we not enter quickly into the practice, but that we pause to recall our motivation and intention before saying our mantra. Remind yourselves, he said, that we meditate to have conscious contact with the deepest part of ourselves, where God, the stream of life is found. Of course, as meditators in the John Main tradition we recall that intention during the Opening Prayer, when we say: ‘Come, Lord Jesus’. Fr Cyprian urged us to be mindful of that intention each and every time we entered our meditation.
And throughout the day, Fr Cyprian reminded us that the call to contemplation is universal – and beyond language. (He quoted Flaubert’s famous line about language being ‘a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to’.) Union with God is not something we have to achieve through words or conscious thought and effort, he said, but something we slowly, inexorably, become aware of.
Fr Cyprian reminded us that all faith traditions have anthropologies, and that we experience the mystical through our own background, language, culture and tradition. He spoke of how we sometimes find ideas expressed better in traditions other than our own, which is why when we read the Tao Tê Ching or the Upanishads we sometimes have an ‘aha’ moment that helps to illuminate our own Christian experience.
For example, when Fr Cyprian spoke of the Tao as the mother of 10,000 things and the womb of possibility, Susie was reminded of Mary, mother of Jesus, womb of possibility, and how we – created in the image of God – are also wombs of possibility. And when Fr Cyprian spoke of yoga as an incarnational spirituality it resonated with Ros’ own 30-year practice on the mat, and her deep sense that this practice has nurtured her Christian faith in a profound way.
Throughout the day there were moments of recognition as we sang, meditated, chanted the Psalms and listened (‘yes, that’s right; that’s what I know’) and times when Fr Cyprian’s words were strange and new. And so it was fitting that we finished the prayer service with a song, just as we had begun. Only now, we weren’t singing in English to Lord Jesus, but in the language of the East: Hare Yeshu.
Fittingly, both strange and familiar.
Hare Yeshu, hare Yeshu!
Yeshu, Yeshu, hare, hare!
Hare Christa, hare Christa!
Christa, Christa, hare hare!
Ros Harris and Susie Hii are ACMC (VIC) Committee members.
24/9/16 Talk by Fr Cyprian
I had looked forward to this ACMC community day on a favourite theme, Body, Soul and Spirit, led by Fr Cyprian.
Fr Cyprian’s talks were as Michael Mifsud said at the end ‘brilliant’. The first part was almost a continuation of Chris Morris’ talk on meditation in the wisdom tradition. Our soul consists of two parts, fire and the container for fire, energy in a vessel (Ron Rolheiser in Holy Longing). The energy is our desire for meditation. Our practice of meditation is the container for the energy.
Universal wisdom and universal call to contemplation
Authentic spirituality is about union with the source of absolute reality, God. Unmediated immediate experience of the divine was experienced by Buddha, Mohammed, Moses in the burning bush, the apostles at Pentecost. The mystical is experienced according to each person’s own personal background, language, culture and tradition, which transforms the person and is passed on, affecting cultures and civilisations.
The first person of the Trinity is the silent depth of God. The Father does not speak. Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, speaks. Taoism is the religion of the first person of the Trinity. The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the unchangeable name. The Tao is the mother of 10,000 things, the womb of possibility. (It brings to my mind God and also Mary, mother of Jesus, the womb of possibility. We, created in the image of God, are also wombs of possibility.)
In the 20th century, Western Christians discovered Eastern mysticism. Western Christians have learnt the silence of God from Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, not from Christianity, but when they dig down to the foundation, they found that the wisdom is also in Christianity, the wisdom that all spiritual traditions have. Another religion might teach me something about my religion.
John Main, Bede Griffith and Thomas Keating teach us that all people are called to the mystical experience, it is not only for monks.
Every time we sit down to meditate, we ask ourselves why we are meditating, we remember our motivation and intention. We meditate to have conscious contact with the deepest part of us, where God, the stream of life, is.
Body, soul and spirit
There are three interpenetrating realms of our existence – spiritual, psychological, physical.
‘I urge you then, brothers, remembering the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, dedicated and acceptable to God... Do not model your behaviour on the contemporary world, but let the renewing of your minds transform you… ‘ Romans 12:1-2
Dualism – the body is bad, the soul is good – is the easiest trap to fall into. The thinking that the body is to die, the soul to go to heaven, is hopelessly misleading. The end of life is the resurrection of the body, the ultimate goal is a new heaven and a new earth. We inherit dualism, the thinking that the body drags down the soul, from Greek philosophy. God says that all his creation is good. God creates humans in his own image. We, his creation, which includes our bodies, are good. Our body is transcended when we share in Jesus’ Taboric light, his transfiguration on Mount Tabor. The resurrection of the body is the triumph of the flesh. Jesus, the head of the Church, ascended into heaven. Where the head has gone, the rest of the body is going. There is continued ascension of us, the parts of the Body of Christ,
For Fr Cyprian, yoga is incarnational spirituality. It teaches how our body can be servant and friend, how to focus our monkey minds. We use our body, our breath, to slow down the mind.
In New Age language, we are body, mind and spirit. Soul is reduced to the mind, to intellectual pursuit. But soul, in fact, refers to the whole spectrum of consciousness – our emotion, senses, intuition, and higher levels of consciousness. Psychology is the study of the soul.
What I give my body is going to affect my soul. Going for a run in the morning, stretching, watching my diet, taking care of the Earth, therapy, studying Arts, language and literature, are all good for my body and my soul. The soul gets bigger and bigger, and makes conscious contact with the spirit.
The second person of the Trinity is the Word. John 1:1 – In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Before Jesus was born, there is the Word. The seed of the Word is manifested in many ways, in beauty of any kind, sculpture, art, literature, which all point towards Christ who is the Word.
While the Father is Silence, Jesus is the Word, the image Fr Cyprian presents for the third person of the Trinity, is that of the love of God poured forth into our hearts by the Spirit living in us (in St Paul’s words), and from our hearts shall flow streams of living water.
John 7: 37-39
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me!
Let anyone who believes in me come and drink! As scripture says, “From his heart shall flow streams of living water.”
He was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive…’
Apophatic theology is the silent depth of God, wordless, faceless, the negative way. Apophatic anthropology is the incomprehensible depth of me. At the depths of us, we are constantly being poured forth by God.
We are somehow already in union with God, says Martin Laird. Union with God is not something we have to achieve but something we become aware of, something we realise/ made real.
For me, one way of seeing the Trinity is as Mind, Body and Spirit of God. Fr Cyprian left us with this image for Trinity – Silence, Word and Love.
For me, one way of seeing the Trinity is as Mind, Body and Spirit of God. Fr Cyprian left us with this image for Trinity – Silence, Word and Love.
Meditation in the Wisdom Tradition
On 16 July 2016, I woke up, went downstairs for breakfast, and saw my husband, Ray, and my son, Gerard, having breakfast in silence. I waited to see if they exchanged some words but there was complete silence, like people having meals on silent community days or silent retreats. It made me reflect on the kinds of silences there are, from antagonistic silence between warring parties, awkward silence when we are first introduced to someone and feel we should be making conversation to get to know the other but do not know what to talk about, comfortable silence between father and son, close friends or an old couple even if we are distracted with our own thoughts, to intimate silence between two people in love. We have all these kinds of silences with God too.
I then went to an ACMC community day at St George’s Anglican Church in Malvern. The speaker was Chris Morris, lecturer at Catholic Theological College, a spiritual director and an oblate of the Camaldolese Benedictines. The topic was Meditation in the Wisdom tradition. Chris quoted Bruno Barnhart who found a text about Johann Sebastian Bach. ‘He is talking about what he considers to be the finest kind of music (and he imagines it being played on a keyboard). In this supreme sort of music, the left hand, Bach says, plays what is written. Meanwhile the right hand improvises, playing assonances and dissonances upon what is written.’ In the same way, the left hemisphere of our brain is good at learning and accumulating head knowledge while meditation and other creative activities help our right hemisphere add the visual, creative element to complete and enhance the picture. This is my right hand playing my own notes while my left plays what I remember of Chris’ notes.
He said, ‘Where have you tasted wisdom? We are being tasted by God.’ I thought of the words from the Bible, ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ but I have never associated taste with God. I guess like the eye of the heart, our inner heart has taste-buds. Do we taste the Body of Christ during Eucharist? I later learnt that in both the Hebrew and Latin language, the words for ‘wisdom’ are related to tasting.
He talked about ‘recognition scenes’ that lead to wonder. ‘Who is this, that the wind and sea obey him? They were astonished beyond measure.’ What was the recognition for me in the midst of this new wisdom language? Without too much effort, I recognised it. When I heard these words from Scripture, something happened in my heart. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, my heart burnt within me as I heard the words from Scripture about Jesus. During lunchtime, I shared this with Chris, which brought on a graced moment when it felt as though we were held by Jesus. Words from Scripture can become all too familiar. It helps sometimes to have it interspersed among new language, where the familiar stands out in stark contrast.
Chris talked about ‘to birth something new’, ‘we are in birth all the time’. The word, ‘birth’, led me to an alien thought I had some years ago of us being called like Mary to give birth to Jesus when I was reflecting on the Annunciation. I brushed the thought aside for fear it is blasphemous or sacrilegious, until I read Meister Eckhart, the 13th-14th century German mystic: ‘I once had a dream in which I, even though a man, was pregnant like a woman with child. I was pregnant with nothingness; and out of this nothingness God was born.’ What hope this image conjures for us when we experience nothingness in our meditation and spiritual life. Out of nothingness, God is born! For those who find this image distasteful and unpalatable, to birth Christ is to birth divinity, Christ-like qualities of creativity, wisdom and compassion.
Chris showed a clip from the movie, Man on Wire, Philippe, who walked on a rope between Twin Towers. A man from the audience asked Chris a question that was on my mind too, ‘Why did you show us that?’ Chris explained that we have to take risks, that being close to death brings freedom that we cannot imagine, it unleashes creativity within us. The synapses in my brain started making connections, linking new information with old, so that my mind can make sense of what is presented. I connected risk-taking to these words of Guillaume Apollinaire
Come to the edge, he said.
They said: We are afraid.
Come to the edge, he said.
He pushed them, and they flew.
We were given times to discuss what we have heard with our neighbour. Mary shared with me the death of her father and the birth of her daughter three weeks later. Her father’s spirit remains with her, which affirmed for me that when loved ones die, they leave their spirit with us, much as Jesus promised that through his death, he would leave the Holy Spirit with us.
Death and birth reminded me of Ron Rolheiser’s image of death as second birth. When we die, we leave the physical confines of our bodies, and are born to eternal life that we cannot imagine from within the womb of life.
During lunchtime, I told Kathy and Trudi that I think wisdom comes with age. Trudi said that we do not have to be old to be wise, children can be wise. The jigsaw pieces fell into place. In the first thousand years after Christ, Christianity was expressed in wisdom language. The desert fathers and mothers had the wisdom that children have. This wisdom was eclipsed at the time of Renaissance, from the 13th century, with Science and objectivity becoming our new idol/ god, much as youth is a time for learning and accumulation of head knowledge. In these exciting times, perhaps the old age of humanity, we are reclaiming/ regaining the lost wisdom of early centuries. Dialogue with the great Eastern traditions has opened up Christianity to its core. Rebirth of wisdom leads to wholeness.
‘All matter, all creation, too, is drawn into the comic movement towards unity that will be the realization of Divine harmony.’ (Word into Silence, John Main). Chris pointed out that it should be ‘cosmic’ rather than ‘comic’ movement. We burst out into laughter. Humour is healing for the soul. From where God is watching, a lot of what we do is probably comical. But for us at times, life can be one great painful act of giving birth.
The process of meditation is the opening of the eye of the heart. This is the deeper and more simple consciousness that allows us to know that we can love and be loved and that we are all in love. John Main
Meditation – nothing is happening!
John Main advises us not to evaluate and look for immediate results of meditation but tells us that it will gradually show in our lives, which makes it all the harder. It is easier to evaluate how we feel after each meditation session, whether we feel relaxed, feel the warm fuzzies or not, than to see its fruits unfold in our lives. How do we know that meditation is making a difference in our lives when it is so gradual and subtle?
On 27 May, 2015, I went to the dentist to have one of the roots of my tooth removed. I had spent a lot of money on this tooth, had root canal done, then my first ‘crown’ installed on it. Unfortunately, I am not destined to have a crown, not even one on a tooth. The tooth started causing problems which ended in needing one of its infected roots removed. I understand it to be a fairly major dental procedure; an oral surgeon said he would only do it under general anaesthetic. My dentist could do it under local anaesthetic, so I went with him as I did not want to have general anaesthetic. Throughout the procedure, my dentist kept praising me for doing so well. Over the years, since I started meditation, I have often had more minor dental procedures done without local anaesthetics. Maybe it is to see if meditation works as well for me as it did for psychiatrist, Ainslie Meares, an advocate of Stillness Meditation, who had his tooth extracted or some other dental procedure done without local anaesthetic. In this area, meditation has helped me. I would not put up with unnecessary pain but I feel little pain during dental procedures. Of course, some may say, ‘why bother with meditation if it is just to feel less or no pain during dental procedures? Just have local anaesthetic.’ The hope is that it would extend to other areas of one’s life, to feel less pain in other situations.
I went for MRI brain a couple of weeks before that. Without meaning to, I found myself concentrating on my breathing and mantra. If you have had brain MRI, you would know that it is very noisy. There are different noises at different times. Each time the character of the noise changed, it served to jolt me out of my thoughts back to the breathing and mantra. Afterwards, I felt so relaxed, more so than after some actual meditation times.
Dealing with the results of the MRI proved more challenging. It led me to my usual mode of catastophising, imagining something bad happening in the future, which led me to question whether the practice of meditation has done me any good. In truth, meditation is very good for catastrophisers because we learn to not think but let go, we learn to be in the present moment rather than worrying about the future. I am still very far from that goal when things do not go according to my will but I think there has been a lowering of my anxiety level.
I have experienced light during meditation a couple of times. Once I saw colourful, zig-zag lines. It was no extraordinary phenomenon but the visual aura of migraine that I have been getting the past few years. It bothered me that it came during meditation of all times. I had hoped that meditation could stop it when it came in the midst of the stress of work. I guess I could learn to enjoy those colourful lines instead of being anxious about them. Another time, when I was meditating with my group in church in the morning, I felt a bright light shining on me. Had I been fully in the present moment, I could have enjoyed being bathed in the light but instead I thought it must be the electric lights in the church which I should have switched off before meditation. At the end of meditation, I opened my eyes and saw that the light was streaming in from the sun through the skylight. It was not a supernatural phenomenon, it was an ordinary, natural way of God’s light shining on me.
One of the reasons for meditating is because John Main says that ‘in the silence, you will feel lovable and loved’. I have yet to experience that. Most of the time, I have experienced nothing. I will share these words of a priest, which have been helpful to me. ‘The experience of nothingness is one way of experiencing the Infinite.’ They give me hope even though the truth is that the nothing is really nothing mystical or spiritually romantic, it is not the vast emptiness or spaciousness that mystics talk about. It is simply nothing. It brings me to the words, ‘Human nature abhors a vacuum.’ We cannot stand the nothingness, the vacuum, yet St John of the Cross and other mystics say we must empty ourselves, to clear the space for God.
Even though John Main tells us not to look for results, as humans we cannot but expect results of any undertaking. I think, ‘I am a meditator, I should be calmer, more patient, walk slower etc’. I have not felt that I have reaped the fruits of the Spirit but I do feel more relaxed after a period of meditation, and I am more aware of trying to be in the present moment when it is a pleasant moment and to let go when it is not so pleasant. It is worth persevering with this ‘resting in the Lord’. I have become more mindful when doing mundane household chores like washing pots and pans, and mopping the floor. In the recesses of my mind somewhere, I recall words I have read,
Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.
After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.
I am far from enlightenment but meditation has taught me to be more mindful and to enjoy being in the present moment, to find moments of God in everyday activities.
Flooded by grace or trials or both?
26-27 September, 2015
I was at the Essential Teaching Weekend with the Victorian Christian Meditation Community. I only knew Kathy, who was facilitating the weekend, and Mirella, who was helping her. I have met a couple of others, Joan and Karen, at our first committee meeting recently, as we have just become committee members. Very quickly, through meditating together, sharing meals/ breaking bread together, watching and listening to talks by Laurence Freeman and a couple of other meditators on the screen/ DVDs, which inspired a lot of lively discussion among us, I got to know the other people who were there.
On the one night I slept there, I had a dream. My room, which was right at the end, at a corner of the building, was flooded by waves from the ocean. I wasn’t afraid or perturbed but curiously, I went to look at the other rooms, expecting them to be flooded too. To my surprise, they weren’t because they were sheltered by a building that was just outside. My room wasn’t protected.
I wondered what the dream could mean especially because a month or so ago, I had another dream about my house being too close to the ocean. A visitor came and suggested that it would be better if I have the house next door, at least it was a bit further from being broken in/flooded by waves from the ocean.
They say that to interpret dreams, the dreamer has to think of the feelings the dream evoked. I cannot remember exactly what my feelings were during the dream even the morning after the dream but I do remember I was not afraid or upset as I would be in real life if something like that were to happen. When I woke up, I thought it was because the house we were in during ETW was near the sea. In the half-awake state, I had mistakenly thought I was at Anglesea where I usually go to with CLC. But it wasn’t. This building was the Janssen Spirituality Centre in Boronia, far from the sea. The day after, I was just left wondering curiously what the dream meant.
Some people suggest that we note and write down our dreams because they can guide us on our inner journey. While I like Joseph with the multi-coloured coat, the favourite of his father, the envy of his brothers, who was sold into slavery, who could interpret dreams in the Old Testament, I do not attach much importance to dreams because I am afraid that dreams may warn me that something bad is going to happen. But now and then I have a dream that seems significant. In this case, it was because the dream happened while I was having a wonderful, spiritual time with like-minded people, like I had come home, and because I had a dream with a similar theme not long ago. I told the dream to a friend who has some knowledge of dreams. I also told her of some difficult areas in my life at that time. She suggested that the waves could represent those difficult things that came into my life but I was not afraid of them. This interpretation makes me fearful that God will send me more trials if I leave my rooms empty, unguarded.
I like to think of the sea/ ocean/ big body of water as God. God was flooding into one of the rooms of my house that was not protected by a building outside, a structure I had erected, my ego. The uninvited flooding of God into our space could evoke fear when we are not prepared. But when we are prepared and our rooms are emptied, we are not afraid, instead we are curious and pleased. The other rooms were protected, meaning that I have not fully let go of my ego, which is very hard to do. Dreams are never about other people but parts of ourselves.
The first dream perhaps is an image of the practice of meditation or any spiritual practice putting us in a vulnerable position for God to enter. I say ‘vulnerable’ because I think most of the time, we are afraid of making room for God, we hold onto our securities, we erect strong structures to stop God from entering and disrupting our lives while saying with our lips that we want him.
Relating the second dream to the circumstances in which it occurred, it could mean that the practice of meditation, the ministry of teaching and spreading meditation to others, could result in grace flooding our lives.
The reality is that trials are part of life. Both interpretations are true in that when trials come, grace comes along with it.
As with other aspects of our lives, we can interpret dreams in the way that best helps us, not in a way that frightens us. We take what is life-giving and reject what is death dealing. I prefer a God who floods my rooms with grace and love, not a God who sends trials. As our thoughts about external events create our world, so too our thoughts about our nocturnal dreams.