Dedicated to the Contemplative and Mystical wisdom at the core of all traditions, including Judaism, Christianity, Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and to the core of our own mystical Heart within.
Exploring how Silence and the Contemplative Way infuse into our ordinary everyday active lives, how Awareness manifests itself, and how we can respond to the call to rest into the divinity within.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

A Time to Love

The Angel said to them, "Don't be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people."
Luke 2:10

It's Christmas. Today, in spite of the frenzy and excitement of preparation, I am taking a moment to listen inside to the warm pressure inside my chest. This is what Love is trying to say to me:

That in spite of our losses, Love is real. Love is here and is to be relied upon.
Even though we may grieve, Love comforts.
Even though we feel weak, Love strengthens.
Even though life may have been harsh to us this year, Love's gentleness penetrates.
Even though we can lose hope, Love cannot be lost.
Even though we might not feel joyful, Love embraces our desire for it.
Even though we may be lonely, Love alone can meet this.
Even though others may ask too much of us, Love makes up our deficit.
Even though we're scared of another year finishing, Love is timeless.
Even though we know not what lies ahead for us, Love does.
Even with all this, something is being born in us. Love wants to love, through us.
Even when offered yet rejected, even when we recoil, we must let ourselves Love.
It is time for Love to be heard.

It is the season of Love, of being swept up by it, being fortified and strengthened by it, to allow ourselves to feel the wonder and purity of it, to see cynicism and hatred fade because of it.

There is a time for everything - now, it's time to Love. It's time to light the candles. It is time to stretch and extend Love's warmth in us and offer it to others. It is time to laugh, to rest, to play, to touch the good earth, to let Love conquer us, to be known by Love, to be comforted by Love's embrace. It is time to sing, even if our voices are quiet. Sing, sing out loud. It is time to be swept up by others, by music, to hug, to forgive, to receive, to let ourselves be loved.

Look around. Look deeper than the strain on someone's face. Look deeper than the smile on others. Look deeper than the spending, the decorations, the wrapping of presents. Look deeper than your own life. What's happening out there? There are crises and surprises. There are unseen kindnesses, heartaches and wishes, hidden dreams and prayers. There is tummy-bursting excitement. Love sees them all.

We pray for all who are suffering in any way at this time. May Love bring comfort, direction and strength. May Love be re-born in us all. Breathe in deeply. Love and Wonder are in the air!

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
 ... a time to love ...
Ecc 3:1. 8.

Friday 13 November 2015

Contemplative Prayer

An extract of this essay was recently published in To Live From The Heart, Sr. Stan's latest book.

St. Mary's Cistercian Abbey, Glencairn

The Contemplative tradition echoes back through many centuries of spiritual wisdom from the early Christian saints such as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, St Bernard, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart. It has been brought to us more recently by the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Fr. Thomas Keating, Fr. Richard Rohr, James Finley, Fr. Daniel O'Leary, Fr. James Martin, and the rich heritage of modern writers and living "saints".

According to Thomas Merton, Contemplation is “awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God's creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life.” While we associate the contemplative life more typically with cloistered monks and nuns, more and more lay people are seeking balance through a gentler, contemplative context for their ordinary lives, whether they are parents, children, teachers, students, bread-makers or quantum physics professors. Such people are seeking their truest life in the busy-ness of this modern world. Prayer itself, by creating an anchor in the Heart transforms our interior landscape to create a true and meaningful life, as exemplified by the contemplative sisters at St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey in Glencairn.

Monastic life at St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey moves each day with the rhythm of the Divine Office, where the community gathers for prayer in the Abbey Church 7 times daily, in addition to the morning celebration of Mass. The Divine Office begins with Vigils at 4.10am, and the day completes with the community’s evening gathering at Compline at around 7.55pm, closing the day once again in prayer. The Office itself consists of the prayerful singing of Psalms and hymns as well as readings from the Bible, and moments of Silence. The Office of Vigils is followed by a period of silent prayer, reading and Lectio Divina, the sacred reading of the Bible. Two periods of work take place daily except on Sundays, to allow the Abbey to run in a self-sufficient manner, including their Eucharistic Bread and Greeting Card businesses. In addition, the myriad domestic and farm maintenance activities take place each day in a spirit of devotion to God and in a context of prayer and surrender to the divine.

Throughout this rhythm, apart from the praying of the Divine Office and mass, the movement from rising in the early hours of the morning to the setting of the day after the final Office of Compline, the community remains largely silent, bringing their attention, time and time again, interiorly to God. This devotion to interiority, contemplation and prayer leads the Sisters to a deeper experience of Presence, and to being internally “united to all”, as highlighted by the Desert Father, Evagrius of Pontus. The early Office of Vigils takes place at a time when people often wake from sleep with troubles and worries. We can only too easily forget that these concerns are held daily in prayer by the Sisters and in the prayer lives of all Monastic traditions.

In speaking with one of the Sisters at St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey, it was her initial unexpected encounter with God’s Presence and Love at the age of 18 that so ingrained in her being a lifelong recognition of Presence and a unquenchable desire to remain there continually:

“I had a wonderful sense of His Presence. He showed Himself in His incredible beauty and love and I understood without a shadow of doubt that He was Love and that I was loved unconditionally and lifted up into that self-same love.”
Sr. Michele, St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey, Glencairn

This initial encounter confirmed a deep knowing that the meaning of her life was to devote herself to this Love, and soon thereafter she joined a religious missionary congregation. While her younger years as a nun saw her serving as a missionary nurse overseas, she eventually followed the deeper call within her to a life of contemplation, and joined the contemplative monastic life at St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey, Glencairn some 28 years ago.

Fr. Thomas Keating, the Cistercian monk who rekindled meditation and brought us Centering Prayer said, “the Spirit prays in us and we consent.” It is not just through the formal prayers, or the praying of the Divine Office, or even Lectio Divina that prayer happens - prayer is a way of being, it is an offering of yourself to be prayed. It was the French Cistercian Abbot, André Louf, who said that the objective of the monastic life was to awaken the heart and “make it aware of that prayer which is always going on within it. Prayer is there. It abides there.” Prayerfulness is the landscape that is continuously present in the background behind us all, monastics and lay people alike. The Heart is prayed into Being.

There is a place in every man where God touches him and where he himself is constantly in contact with God. This is simply because at every instant God holds us in being. The place where this creative contact with God takes place is deep within me. If I can reach it I can touch God.
André Louf

Following the Rule of St. Benedict, which is adopted for monastic life in most monasteries and abbeys, the working day in this School of Love flows out of its prayer life, forming a continuous flow from more meditative prayer into the active daily chores. The vast majority of work time is spent in silence, when the sisters continue to rest in Presence during their activities, and to Pray Continually (1 Thess 5:17). All the ordinary events and encounters of the day become devoted to this relationship with God, with Love. It is also a discipline of seeing every moment as a gift from God, surrendering one’s own self into the greater Self of God.

“The call and grace of monastic life is to move from the superficial self to the deeper self and to live from the heart. The call is to listen to the voice of the Lord, moment by moment, and to make choices that are motivated by a surrender to God and his will.” 
Sr. Marie, Abbess, St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey, Glencairn

Contemplative Prayer is also a disposition of heart, by yielding, receiving and responding to God. At times there is a felt awareness of the Presence of divine energy, and at others it is simply a patient knowing that God is present. Contemplation strengthens this awareness, and the certainty that God is everywhere, is in everyone and in everything. God is in every human activity. Presence envelops our atmosphere, our surroundings, our personalities, our work, our life experiences. Our response is borne out by following our heart-felt desires, planted there by God. By being and becoming fully ourselves, we respond.

The singing of the Psalms at the Divine Office, as well as the periods of quiet prayer and Lectio Divina, holds the sisters in touch with God and the concerns of others. Many people contact the Abbey and report answers and resolutions to their prayers, often in unexpected yet welcome ways. Through Prayer, the sisters hold the certainty that even in the midst of our experiences of difficulty, suffering, confusion and even joys and breakthroughs, we can rest assured that we are contained in the Love of God.

Inspired by the lives of the many saints and Cistercian brotherhood throughout the centuries, one sister felt her calling was deeply influenced by the example and influence of St. Joseph, in particular his qualities of unassuming protection, strength and hidden Presence. Having spent 32 years as a missionary nun, she then chose to follow the deeper yearning within for the Cistercian life.

“The Cistercian Way in its simplicity of lifestyle, in humble manual labour and highly organised life, opens my heart to discover and receive the ever loving Presence of God in the ordinary; in the obscure minute moments.”
Sr. Denise, St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey, Glencairn

In day to day life in Glencairn, Prayer is lived out in the relationships within the Abbey community and with the wider community outside the Abbey. Harmony in the Sisters’ prayer life extends outwards to create and nourish harmonious relationships, which then feed and nourish the prayer life further into deeper contemplation. Community living fosters the development of deep compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and understanding for their own perceived weaknesses and failings, and those of others. This is humility. St. Bernard described the journey of the steps of humility as arriving at a “no-self”, which for him, was union with God in Love. His continuous advice to “return to your own heart” was to bring people home to the Heart where God dwells. A natural selflessness arises out of this place of humility, and the generosity to perform little hidden acts of kindness and help for others. Prayer transforms the heart into ever-increasing contentment, and humble generosity arises.

As a lay person I have felt very drawn to the Contemplative Way, especially by this sense of an interior prayer which is constantly going on within me, even before I do anything - I am being prayed into Being. In our busy modern lives of constant external stimulation and demands, more and more people are feeling anxious, powerless, uncertain and disillusioned with their lives. Mahatma Gandhi said that prayer is not asking, but is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. "It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart."

I have always felt that the deepest aches and joys of the heart are always heard, especially those that defy words. They are utterances longing for rest. Sometimes just being heard is enough. At others, the allowing of the interior ache to exist brings untold relief. At still other times, we have to practice a kind of patient Unknowing until some sense of resolution eventually comes.

Over time, through surrender and trust, I have gained more patience and tolerance for this vulnerability and this Unknowing, and a wonder at the harmony with which each new situation becomes resolved, too often in spite of me. Such contemplative experiences have confirmed to the degree of unshakeable certainty that Life, that Love, that God is present in them.

One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life itself solves them for you.
Thomas Merton.

With heartfelt thanks to Sr. Marie, Sr. Michele and Sr. Denise, contributors and inspirations to this essay, and the entire community of St. Mary's Cistercian Abbey, Glencairn.

Sunday 11 October 2015

The Way We Get

I Know The Way You Can Get

I know the way you can get
When you have not had a drink of Love:

Your face hardens, 
Your sweet muscles cramp.
Children become concerned
About a strange look that appears in your eyes
Which even begins to worry your own mirror
And nose.

Squirrels and birds sense your sadness
And call an important conference in a tall tree.
They decide which secret code to chant
To help your mind and soul.

Even angels fear that brand of madness
That arrays itself against the world
And throws sharp stones and spears into
The innocent
And into one's self.

O I know the way you can get
If you have not been out drinking Love:

You might rip apart
Every sentence your friends and teachers say,
Looking for hidden clauses.

You might weigh every word on a scale 
Like a dead fish.

You might pull out a ruler to measure
From every angle in your darkness
The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once

I know the way you can get
If you have not had a drink from Love's

That is why all the Great Ones speak of 
The vital need
To keep Remembering God,
So you will come to know and see Him
As being so Playful
And Wanting,
Just Wanting to help.
Hafiz, I Heard God Laughing

When our own words fail us at times of grief and change, we look for help. We are not in new uncharted territory for humanity, but maybe for ourselves. We are not alone, but have to travel unaccompanied to many places. We are grateful for the mystics and Great Ones who have charted the journey before us.

Thursday 23 July 2015

Infinite Moment

God is the infinity of the concrete immediacy of every moment.
Dr. James Finley

How many times do we catch ourselves being surprised by beauty, by the quality of light, by the sense of reflection from a bird or animal accompanying us on a walk, by a breakthrough at work, by the unexpected kindness of a shop assistant, by a sudden forward flow in our day after an equally sudden series of delays and challenges, by a momentary sense of contentment welling up from within?

My current ponderings are all related to reconciliation - reconciliation with my own self. How do I reconcile my moments of peace, contentment, reverence and trust, with passing moments of anxiety, insecurity, frustration, rejection and all the other more difficult places that can momentarily dominate our lives? How do I anchor myself deeper than the polarity of both these moments?

It seems the deeper God and Life brings us, the deeper we go! It is as though the powerful current of Love is continually cleaning its path, exposing and removing ever more debris blocking its free flow within us. Would we have it any other way? Contemplation reveals that this unblocking is sourced in benevolence, and knowing that, we recognise and trust its movement and force within us. Even though we can initially resist, we eventually consent, knowing some divine balance is taking place. It also gives us great compassion and understanding for our fragile places. It gives us the courage to go through life’s challenges, upheavals and misunderstandings.

It is also good to know that God is not selective, but is bursting open frozen and hidden judgements and convictions within us all, freeing up any and all holding, and insisting on Love being allowed to flow. Phew! If left to our own devices, I’m pretty sure we would continually tighten in our certainties of how life and others “should” be, and shrink ever more into a flawed and limited sense of ourselves, others and life.

This flow is not our doing, it seems, so it can't be rushed. It is in the immediacy of our lives where reality lives, where Presence lives, where God is. God/Presence IS the playing out of our lives, the activity, the surroundings and the details of our lives, and most especially, the working out of all upheaval, and even the relief, resolution and reconciliation we seek.

Harmony has its own timetable and will seek the best and truthful outcome for all concerned. Processing rarely comes with the analysing mind. It usually happens upon us, as a result of sincere questioning and inner compassion, but more importantly, because of the natural law of things finding their own balance in time.

In the meantime, we can do our best to ease these times of intensity through any contemplative practice such as Meditation, Centering Prayer or Mindfulness. This helps us to practise staying with it, bravely staying here in the now, by honestly baring our souls to ourselves and to God. Be here as we struggle with old hurts. Be here as we drink that morning cup of coffee. Be tuned in to our hands as we wash the dishes. Be here as we take a walk, as we perform an activity at work, as we sit with a friend, as we watch a child play, or as we listen to the worries of an aged relative. Contemplative practice tells us to return again and again to our immediate activity and surroundings. Become anchored in the body. What is immediately happening now? What are my surroundings? What is Love revealing in this moment. Are we brave enough to know with certainty that this too is going to work itself out?

It is in this moment that we access Presence, Peace, Harmony, and the best version of ourselves, God within. It is in this moment that we can be accessed by God, by Presence, by the movement of Love. It is only in this immediate moment that we can gain strength and relief from our troubles, receive help from our insights and intuition, or indeed help from others. It is in this moment that we can make our best decisions. It is in this moment that we forgive. By unlocking our external focus, we open up to perceiving and experiencing Presence. It is the eternal reminder to our endless forgetting. It is essential to hold faith and care for ourselves, and God. It is essential to stay here, in this infinite moment.

Peace I leave you; my peace I give you. 

I do not give to you as the world gives. 
Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. 

John 14:27

Friday 17 July 2015

What Lies Beyond

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing 
and rightdoing, there is a field.
I'll meet you there.

Beyond Acceptance and Rejection,
Beyond Closeness and Distance,
Beyond Welcome and Indifference,
Beyond Openness and Reticence,
Beyond being Included and Excluded,
Beyond others being With you and Against you,
Beyond Safety and Danger,
Beyond Confidence and Insecurity,
Beyond Friendliness and Shyness,
Beyond Engaging and Withdrawal,
Beyond Self-Assuredness and Self-Consciousness,
Beyond Praise and Criticism,
Beyond Forthrightness and Caution,
Beyond Determination and Reluctance,
Beyond being Believed and being Condemned,
Beyond Belonging and being an Outsider,
Beyond Conflict and Reconciliation,
Beyond Leading and Following
Beyond being Known and being Misunderstood,
Beyond Excellence and Errors,
Beyond Success and Failure,
Beyond Clarity and Lethargy,
Beyond Progression and Regression,
Beyond Remembering and Forgetting,
Beyond Wisdom and Ignorance,
Beyond Intuition and Intellectual certainty,
Beyond Faith and Cynicism
Beyond Heart and Mind,
Beyond It All ...


A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It "consents" so to speak, to His creative love.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

Sunday 12 July 2015


I watch people in the world 
Throw away their lives lusting after things, 
Never able to satisfy their desires, 
Falling into deeper despair 
And torturing themselves. 
Even if they get what they want 
How long will they be able to enjoy it? 
For one heavenly pleasure 
They suffer ten torments of hell, 
Binding themselves more firmly to the grindstone. 
Such people are like monkeys 
Frantically grasping for the moon in the water 
And then falling into a whirlpool. 
How endlessly those caught up in the floating world suffer. 
Despite myself, I fret over them all night 
And cannot staunch my flow of tears. 

Like one of Ryokan's monkeys, I can catch myself engaged in confused frantic actions, with the mind fixed tightly in some automatic or repetitive thinking mode. It is rarely restful, sometimes creative and excited, but all too often it returns to an ingrained habit of anxiety and restlessness. It is also the strongest reminder that I am making restlessness my practice - Oops, there I go again, worrying about whether the oven is off.... Did I manage to send that email? ... I wish my colleague and I got on better.... Is that a flu coming on?

We can find a tremendous process for transformation using a Contemplative Practice. We find a practice which brings us home. We might even come to accept that it may never be possible to prevent these momentary states of mind from arising. We are human, after all. That's nature being natural. However, we also come to know that these are passing states of mind, alluding to passing triggers and circumstances, in a world which is forever changing. The moon is not in the water. Planting ourselves here will not make us happy, safe or content.

You must rise above
the gloomy clouds
covering the mountaintop
otherwise, how will you
ever see the brightness?

It is in the practice of relying on our deepest Knowing, of being comfortable with Unknowing, that we come home to ourselves. We come to know we were always home all along, we just didn't recognise the house or the neighbours' cat.

The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls...
Thomas Merton

When our own words fail us, when our understanding falls short, we lean on those who can remind us of Silence, Beingness, Presence, of our true nature in the depths of each moment. The continuous sinking back into Silence needs to be our primary practice.

You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.

Saturday 4 July 2015

Gardening Wisdom

Gardening is cheaper than therapy, and you get tomatoes.

Mindfulness is a practice which has become greatly accessible to people of all traditions and faiths. Often sought as a remedy for excess mind activity and turbulent emotions, many people don't quite know why they are drawn to it - they just know they feel more balanced, centred and happy by having this practice in their lives. Mindfulness teaches the fundamentals of meditation and of present-moment awareness.

This practice is of immense value as it teaches us self-awareness - we become aware of our habitual patterns of thought. We begin to see how much of our day is taken up with worries, stress and ruminating over situations past or future. It reminds us to bring our awareness back to our immediate current situation, our immediate activity, surroundings and bodily sensations. It trains us to create an internal anchor such as the breath or anchored awareness of our body in the immediate moment. This action of continually returning to present-moment awareness is meditation, it is mindfulness.

By locating our attention on our immediate surroundings, we are dropping an anchor into the deepest and calmest part of the ocean. It steadies our erratic movements, and gives us a chance to look around and get our bearings. Present-moment awareness is naturally calm and it slows and soothes both mind and emotions. Because of our deepening self-awareness, we come to know ourselves very well. Dedicated practice over time habituates us to fresh moment-by-moment awareness, and centres us in our true nature. Through longer and more focussed meditation practice, we learn to recognise ourselves, and learn to recognise Presence. 

Take a look at a gardener at work, or anyone who works physically with their hands. A rhythm comes upon them and a natural ease in their movements. They are not in a rush. Years have taught them that there will be more weeds tomorrow, so they just do what they can today. They witness their thoughts and bodies relaxing as they focus fully on the work. They always pause to look around the whole garden as a complete entity, to search for ideas and inspiration for the next season's planting, and to decide what needs pruning later in the autumn.

They always take time to stop at their favourite flower in bloom. They take time to smell the roses, to water the dry patches, to tend the seedlings, to thin out the carrots, to rub the cat that loves visiting her owner in this space. They see which plants are struggling and which ones are taking over, and they have no problem pruning and removing plants, and relegating them to the compost heap. They know the overall garden rhythm. It is all natural.

Some days, they will even go out and attack the garden with tools and clippers with a whole load of steam built up inside. After an hour, the higher balance of nature will have exhausted them, and unleashed their steam. They return to themselves. Even as the gardener is slowed by age and arthritis, they know every inch of this familiar landscape, and find a spot to sit where Presence is loud, and the heart becomes still.

Any practice that brings us home to ourselves is a gift to be cherished and an activity to pursue with priority for all our days. This is effortless mindfulness. We may go for another round of golf, another choir practice, a music gig, a leisurely walk or run in the park, T'ai Chi, or some Meditation or Centering Prayer - whatever brings us home. We all benefit when we are around people who know themselves deeply, know and practise their divine practice, and share Presence by their presence. 

We spend our lives hurrying away from the real, as though it were deadly to us. "It must be up there somewhere on the horizon," we think. And all the time it is in the soil, right beneath our feet.

William Bryant Logan, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth

Friday 19 June 2015

Staying With It

Don't surrender your loneliness 
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,

My need of God

Once you have committed to being lived, to being moved, to being surrendered, you must stay with it, you just must. I'm not sure there is a choice anyway. We all honestly know when we are in a mental spin and obsessing over trivia, and when a truly painful transformation is taking place within us. You can't unknow your Self and the promptings of Spirit. A greater emptying out is going on inside. Even more letting go is possible, infinitely possible. All holding and hiding spaces become illuminated. It is no longer possible to hold or to hide anything, or to operate with such sustained effort. Effortlessness and Surrender demand everything of you and from you. You know they're right! The absolute scent of Truth and Presence confirm this.

To soothe those throbbing painful places, is to stay with it. To resist figuring it all out, is staying with it. To allow yourself to admit this current awfulness is happening, that this turmoil is all-consuming, yet somehow necessary, is bravely staying with it. It is beyond bravery. It is an accepting of our failure, our unknowing, our inadequacy, our innocence, our humanity.

Where to from here? Keep staying with it. Then, stay with it some more:
Pick some easy steps from the list of Contemplative Practices.
Locate your breath. Find the physical throb in the body. Breathe.
Softly tap the chest and heart.
Go for a gentle walk.
Pray. A Heart Without Words is heard.
Talk to a spiritual adviser.
Get some flower essence remedies to soothe the emotions. I find the Australian Bush flower essences excellent.
Allow a moment of lightness - Envelop yourself in re-runs of The Waltons, and Little House on the Prairie (Feel free to substitute!). My own version of this includes a warm blanket and home-made Rice Pudding (don't overdo it!).
Be your own comforter - sometimes, absolutely no-one will understand.
Follow the reassurance of routine. Go about the daily duties and demands, as normal. Keep going.
Go Beyond the Shadows.
See The Highest Good.
Remember, This Too Shall Pass.

Stay With It. You will emerge - even less that you are now, even lighter, and ever more graced. Our need of God, is met.

I Am With You Always
Matthew 28:20

Friday 15 May 2015

A Parent's Blessing

A Parent’s Blessing

When you were born
Our hearts were so full of happiness
That there was no room in us for words.

When you were growing
Our hearts were so full of care for you
That we spoke soothingly
And sometimes sharply,
Fearful for your safety,
But always
In the deepest places of our hearts
We spoke lovingly.

As we watch you
Moving forward with your friends
We marvel at all you have done
And become.

Our spirits sing praise to God
For the gift that is you.
And, though our hearts
Have stretched to love others,
Yet, there is a place within us
That is yours, and only yours

For the light you have shone on us,
For the life you have called us to,
For the special gift of God
You are now, and will ever be,
Thank you. 

Christy Kenneally
Communion Blessing

For all who were once someone's child, for all parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, extended family members, friends and strangers, may we receive the gift and blessing of these words from Presence.

Image Courtesy of Baby Images 

Monday 11 May 2015

Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind

A friend of mine recently handed me a copy of this book which I had come across many years ago, but had never quite got around to reading. It tells the story of Maura (Soshin-san) O'Halloran, an Irish-American Catholic woman who was one of the very few women ever to be allowed to train at a male-dominated traditional Zen monastery in Japan. She was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk in 1982.

She was born in Boston in 1955, the daughter of an Irish father and American mother. They moved to Ireland when she was four. She spent most of her youth in Ireland, though the entire family along with her five younger siblings also spent time in Boston, and especially in Maine where her maternal grandmother lived. Her father died suddenly in a road accident when she was 14. She was very socially aware, and became active for social justice while attending Trinity College in Dublin, and during her early working life. She was a courageous and adventurous traveller, at times braving solo travel through Central and South America.

At some point during this time, she became drawn to the conviction that the social changes she longed for in her environment could possibly be more effectively brought about by changing oneself, rather than seeking to change others or institutions. Inspired by a family friend, she decided to visit Japan, to deepen her own meditation practice and to study Zen. She was very aware that control over her thoughts and mental processes was key to her sense of well-being and happiness. The book, told through her own journal accounts of her three years in Japan, give great insight into daily monastic life at two Japanese Buddhist monasteries under a master Zen tutor (Roshi). We learn about her life there, about Zen, about the sacred moments, the squabbles and the cultural diversities. Her journals also reveal her loving and open relationships with her family and many friends.

Of late I feel ridiculously happy. No reason. Just bursting with joy... Now I'm 26, and I feel as if I've lived my life... Any desires, ambitions, hopes I may have had have either been fulfilled or spontaneously dissipated. I'm totally content.

This is one of those books where you find shelter. It is at times heartbreakingly moving and inspiring in its description of human effort, surrender of self, and realisation of the divine inner nature, or enlightened Buddha-nature to use Zen terminology. For me it was a pilgrimage, read during a recent short hospital stay. This time saw her transformed by her dedicated heart, heavy work load and prolonged meditation training into a Zen monk and master in her own right. She is now recognised in Japan, and by all those who have been touched by her story, as a Zen saint. In 1982, at the age of 27, Maura died suddenly in a bus accident, while travelling in Thailand on her return journey home.

Maura was engaged with the honorary role of monastery chef, but her daily workload often consisted of long arduous hours of cleaning, cooking, gardening and sewing. She had help at times from other monks, but remained primarily self-motivated to seeing work as a continuation of her Zen practice. Over time, she solved the various koans (Zen riddles), worked tirelessly to prepare for extended Zen retreats, engaged in the Zen practice of begging/blessing (Takuhatsu), often in freezing temperatures and snow while wearing only straw sandals, and long periods of sitting meditation including overnight meditation while getting one hour's sleep sitting upright. Her Zen practice became a minute by minute dedication to the task at hand with full focus, attention and presence. This was her primary training, life itself. Through this, she achieved great spiritual breakthroughs, and came into a deep sense of peace, surrender and self-abandonment, while growing in inner contentment, acceptance and joy.

Everything seems wonderful. Even undesirable, painful conditions have a poignant beauty and exaltation. So in a sense I feel I have died; for myself there is nothing else to strive after, nothing more to make my life worthwhile or to justify it. 

As she immersed herself more and more in her work and Zen practice, her own needs and desires further dissolved, and she became dedicated to helping others. The journey of her discipline and mindfulness practice is altogether uplifting and inspiring, and clearly puts our daily grumbles into perspective. Maura's journals take you on your own retreat with her. You appreciate her struggles to overcome her own conditioning, as well as her moments of hardship and discouragement. Mostly, you sense her vibrant energy, her great sense of humour, her excellent discernment, and purity of heart. I couldn't help but have a sense of companionship as I read on, that a compassionate listener was present.

Having always had a generous nature, she planned to open a Zen training centre in Dublin on her return.

I have maybe 50 or 60 years (who knows?) of time, of a life, open, blank, ready to offer. I want to live it for other people. What else is there to do with it? Not that I expect to change the world or even a blade of grass, but it's as if to give myself is all I can do, as the flowers have no choice but to blossom. At the moment the best I can see to do is to give to people this freedom, this bliss, and how better than through zazen? ( Zen practice of sitting meditation ) So I must go deeper and deeper and work hard, no longer for me but for everyone I can help.

There are poignant parallels with Thomas Merton's desire to help others and to be of service in the world, as well as his tragic death in Thailand. Some also compare her short life and deep realisations to that of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Each have blessed us though their journals with the gift of seeing and understanding their inner journeys of liberation and transformation from the conditioned self to the realisation of the divine nature within.

Silence and Presence exist everywhere and in every tradition. However we feel pulled by Silence, it seems fulfilment and enlightenment lie in our ability to find rest there, and to let our actions move from there.

Friday 8 May 2015

The Divine Image

Stained Glass at Mount Melleray Cistercian Abbey, Cappoquin

The Divine Image
To Mercy Pity Peace and Love
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, c.1789.

When disappointed by others, when saddened and frustrated by our own efforts, when it's just tough going - it is a relief to be reminded of the purity and goodness inside all beings, even ourselves. Behind it all, there is Love, Mercy, Pity and Peace. There is Rest. There is Presence.

I can see why Thomas Merton loved the poetry of William Blake.

Wednesday 29 April 2015

The Grace of Surrender

I remember first being introduced to meditation in my 20s, and for some reason, in spite of an often restless mind, I also had a strong sense that I was somehow coming home. As I persevered with my initial clumsiness, I found myself looking forward to the ceremony of sitting, allowing my restlessness to soften, and wait. What I couldn’t name at the time was the experience of Presence which then enfolded me, and drew me back in expectation for the next sitting. I also didn’t recognise at that time the seeds of self-kindness which were being sown.

Twenty years later, I look back at my younger self, and have to admire the humble innocence of a young adult finding her own way in life. I look back amazed at the disciplined practice I enjoyed then. I can still be a little restless. I suppose I am also older and hopefully a little wiser. Surrender comes easier now. Life has brought many joys and storms in the intervening years, each one cracking open the heart ever wider. Life has shown I am not in control of the vast majority of events unfolding in my life. Life has also shown that a force of gentleness and providence was with me throughout these years. The lives of my family were held and a pull towards truth, simplicity and trust was moving through us.

I realised some years ago that it was no longer possible to limit my daily practice to one or two periods of meditation, or regretfully none at all on occasion. I needed more help in the in-between times. I found I needed to reconcile the remainder of my day with the peace and serenity I felt during meditation. Slowly I noticed a inner pull towards a more contemplative way of living, the turning and surrender of each moment into prayer and devotion. This practice became a welcome anchor at difficult moments, and a celebration at times of breakthrough.

I still struggle with the discipline needed to sit in meditation and Centering Prayer. I welcome but no longer cling to the consolations which can come. I don’t always feel the strength of Presence which I felt in my younger years. I now seek to simply rest in Silence, rather than seeking a felt experience of Presence.

Though it may go against our nature, the act of surrendering is Nature itself. One moment and one season surrender into the next. The cycles of life surrender into each other. Birds and animals know this instinctively. They are led by inner rhythms dictated by Nature. We also see this graceful process unfolding in many people. They grow in wisdom and acceptance as they get older, and are often recognised by their strong sense of humour about Life's ups and downs. Surrender has made them humble and adaptable. They have witnessed many people making their final surrender from this life. They know that Life is to be lived, enjoyed and revered, moment by moment.

To welcome and to let go is one of the most radically loving, faith-filled gestures we can make in each moment of each day. It is an open-hearted embrace of all that is in ourselves and in the world.
Mary Mrozowski, Contemplative Outreach Founder