Wednesday, June 06, 2007

On Retreat in Steinbeck Country

To get to Mission San Antonio de Padua, you have to pass through a Homeland Security check point at the entrance to Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation. The fort, where soldiers in full battle dress can be seen training for missions in Iraq, surrounds the small mission, built on lands that were the homeland of the Salinan Indian tribe before the Spanish missionary priest Junipero Serra came in 1771 to Christianize the pagans. At its peak in 1805, the mission housed over 1,300 Indians and more than 4,000 had been baptized, but today the current population of Salinans in California is estimated to be around 20. When the Mexican governor put up all the missions for sale in 1845, no one wanted to buy Mission San Antonio, probably because of its remote location two dozen miles east of King City. The Franciscans took over the property in the 1920s and the Hearst family helped to fund extensive renovations. Today the sparsely visited mission includes a retreat center operated by the Diocese of Monterey.

Irony abounds in the valley of the San Antonio River near the small town of Jolon. This is John Steinbeck country; his novel To a God Unknown, which examines what is meant by belief and how it affects different people, takes place here. Despite occasional military activity, like a parade of fire trucks and ambulances on maneuvers, this windswept valley high in the hills of the Santa Lucia Mountains is mostly silent. Large jackrabbits scamper across the dusty landscape when the coyotes are asleep. Hollyhocks planted by the padres grow tall around the mission's inner courtyard. It's a good place to practice what the Buddhists think of as meditation and what the Christians call contemplative prayer.

About two dozen of us gathered last weekend at the mission for a retreat led by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, a musician and teacher, priest and Camaldolese monk. His subject was "The Universal Call to Contemplation: Spirit, Soul and Body," a topic that has obsessed him since his encounter with Bede Griffiths 15 years ago. He wrote his master's thesis on Griffiths' life and writings and has been speaking on this theme for the last three years. Griffiths was a British monk who lived in India for nearly fifty years, mostly at Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu, now a Camaldolese ashram. Cyprian has spent considerable time there and his approach to Christianity through the lens of Eastern, primarily Indian, spirituality is similar to that of Griffiths, and also to another Catholic monk in India who took the name Abhishiktananda.

You might wonder what a newly resigned Catholic Christian was doing at a spiritual retreat that featured morning, afternoon and evening prayer services as well as daily mass and frequent periods of contemplative prayer/meditation. The answer is that I find Cyprian's interspiritual perspective nonexclusive and liberating. While carefully toeing an orthodox line, Cyprian opens the windows of dogma and lets the fresh air in. I can commune with the Divine without giving my practice a label.

As I see it (and I've watched his understanding evolve over time), Cyprian is making two major points. Based on his presumption that "all theology is anthropology," he believes that there is a "need for the whole person to be involved" in spirituality: body, soul (which he sees, following Griffiths, as mind), and spirit. "How we are in the body is how we are in the world, and how we are in the world is how we are with God," he says. Cyprian approvingly quotes Sam Keen who says that "the carnality of grace" must compliment "the grace of carnality" in a full-bodied spirituality; Christianity misunderstood the first and secularity the second.

Cyprian's second point is, I think, even more radical. He believes that every human being has the divine spark within and that we are all called to contemplative union with God. He says that the "contemplative mystical core is at the heart of all religious traditions." The Perennial Philosophy, itemized by Aldous Huxley in a book of that name, is common to all spirituality. This means, I think, that religious texts and teachings are merely hints and guesses, fingers pointing at the same divine moon, and that "salvation" is not the prerogative of any one tradition or faith. "It's all poetry, but I find it beautiful," Cyprian said of the scriptures of "authentic traditions" as well as the writings of mystics. Divine Wisdom, the abyss of the Godhead, is accessible to all; even more, she is within us already, a spark ready to flare up in the breeze of contemplation.

Making use of philosopher Karl Jaspers' notion of the Axial Age, Cyprian talked of the revolution in religious thought during the period between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, of the Upanishads and Buddhism in India, Lao Tzu and Taoism in China, and the Greek philosophers in the Mediterranean. According to Jaspers, "the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently... And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today." The insights of 2500 years ago, however, have fossilized into the exclusive religious institutions of today. But like Ewert Cousins, author of Christ of the 21st Century, Cyprian believes that we may now be in a second Axial Age, and that a revival and transformation of spirituality may be at hand. I think that this 21st century interspirituality (a term developed by the late monk and thinker Wayne Teasdale) would be embodied and available to all, without the religious barriers that today divide believers from each other, and from the so-called un-believers (who may often be more spirituality than the faithful).

I am not sure where Jesus fits into the typology of the Axial Age, either first or second (perhaps I should read Cousins' book). Bruno Barnhart at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur is among those who believe that Jesus the Christ is the pivot around which all history turns, and that his historical birth marked an unprecedented beginning. This is certainly the position of the writer of the Gospel of John. I can no longer go along with that view. On the way to and from the retreat I listened to lectures from a class given by Thomas Sheehan for the Continuing Studies department at Stanford University, "The Historical Jesus: How did Jesus of Nazareth, who never claimed to be Christ or divine, become the son of God?" The entire 10-week class, given in the fall of 2006, is now available for free from iTunes U in the online iTunes Store, and I put it into my iPod which . Sheehan, who wrote The First Coming (which argues that Jesus never intended to come again), is a faithful debunker, like Spong, Borg and Crossan, of the literal interpretations of the myths about Jesus. He says that the synoptic Gospels only see Jesus as Christ, the very-human anointed one of God, "most favored son," and that only John sees Jesus as equivalent to, the same as, God.

On Sunday, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, Cyprian gave a broader interpretation of the traditional dogma of the trinity which has often mystified even the faithful. In this less logocentric perspective, the trinity can stand for three types of spirituality. The first person, or Father, is silent, and can only be reached only by the apophatic path, or Via Negativa. This might correspond to the Buddhist idea of shunyata, or emptiness. The second person, or Son, is "more personalist" and can be understood by the katophatic devotionalist spiritualities of Judaism and Islam, as well as through the bhakti yoga of Hinduism. The third person, the Spirit, is immanent, all-pervasive, and comes close to the advaita (non-dualism) of Hinduism. Griffiths believed that the Trinity corresponded to satchitananda, the trinity of the Upanishads: being, consciousness and bliss. "Words," Cyprian told us, "are tiny little attempts to explain the sublime mystery." And he added: "We are just playing with poetry here, aren't we?"

Now that I've returned from the Holy Mountain of Cyprian's retreat, I'm reading a wonderful book by political activist and lesbian mother Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, which she subtitles "the spiritual memoir of a twenty-first-century Christian." Her parents were both the children of missionaries and rejected Christianity before she was born, raising their daughter to be a good atheist. After political work in Central America, Miles came to San Francisco to raise her daughter and found herself drawn to St. Gregory of Nyssa, a progressive Episcopal church on Portrero Hill south of the city.
"Blessed be God the Word," Rick [Fabian, founding priest along with Donald Schell] would chant before services, "who came to his own and his own received him not, for in this way God glorified the stranger. O God, show us your image in all who come here today, that we may welcome them, and you." His prayer expressed the fundamental theology of St. Gregory's, as did the church's practice of open communion. "Jesus welcomes everyone to his table," someone would announce during each service, "and so we offer communion to everyone, and to everyone by name." Hospitality to strangers -- baptized or heathen, pious or unrepentant -- was at the center of St. Gregory's mission; the church believed that because Jesus ate with sinners, breaking down the barriers between clean and unclean, offering communion to all without exception was the "one true sign of God."
It was communion, the Eucharist, that pulled Miles into conversion, the breaking of bread for all (how unlike the Romans who require indoctrination before admittance to the table!) She had been a cook before a political activist, and found a way to express her new faith by organizing a food pantry for the multinational poor of the neighborhood, distributed to all from the church's altar.
As I interpreted it, Jesus invited notorious wrongdoers to his table, airily discarded all the religious rules of the day, and fed whoever showed up, by the thousands. In the end, he was murdered for eating with the wrong people.
I'm only a third of the way through her book, but I think Sara Miles might become for me the archetype of the 21st century Christian. But I'm not sure we have to preserve the label "Christian." After all, according to Nietzsche, the last Christian died on the cross. Early followers of Jesus called it The Way and I like that, if we need anything to describe our practice of hospitality and love.

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