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LIVING A CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE IN HARVARD SQUARE: A POETRY RETREAT

Today we will take a day’s respite from the theme of forgiveness.  I will return to this theme in a future posting.

Each year, for the past four years, St. Paul Parish’s Lay Committee on Contemporary Spirituality and Public Concern has invited two Chicagoans, Judith Valente, a poet-PBS journalist, and her husband, Charles Reynard, a poet-judge, to facilitate a day of retreat.  The group can draw an inter-faith and ecumenical group of people.  I have attended the past three years.

[Judith and Charles also produced a book, Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul (Chicago: LoyolaPress, 2006).  The book is a selection of twenty poems with commentaries by either Charles or Judith.  It is organized around ten themes: attentiveness, gratitude, acceptance, simplicity, praise, work, loss, body and soul, mystery and prayer.  In the introduction they write, “In this collection, you will see poems that expose [the] grandeur of the ordinary,” and, indeed, you do see this grandeur in the works they chose.]

This year, on Saturday, April 24th, the theme of the retreat day was “Living a Contemplative Life in Harvard Square.”  Judith and Charles struck a chord at the outset by quoting Thomas Merton, a well-known Trappist monk, who lived at in Kentucky at Gethsemane Abbey and died in Thailand (1968), seeking the wisdom of Eastern spirituality.  Once the chord was truck we all attended to the echo of music it sounded in us.

“Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy.”

Judith and Charles always involve us participants, actively encouraging us write our own poetry or reflections on the theme of the day.  Although I am not a poet, I have written poems, and, last year, I wrote over fifteen haiku during the day.

Here are my three reflections from the 24th of April.  The first derived from my hour-long walk in the chill of a New England Spring morning prior to the retreat.

REFLECTION 1

I am walking through the morning chill and my fingers fill with awareness, not always comfortable or pleasant, and alive.

There is a feeling in me despite the deadening forces around me and especially inside me.

I am free to experience the joy, limited less by that which is outside me than by the relentless judging within me.

Inside with Judith, Charles and the other participants in our retreat, “Living a Contemplative Life in Harvard Square,” I listen to “Chelsea Morning” by Joni Mitchell, and tears well up, welcome tears, joy-filled tears, that again remind me that I am alive, deep with life, full with life in all its textures and the chiaroscuro that is my humanity.

[The moment reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon.  God is at his drafting table with a sketch of a man and a woman.  An angel with a cynical smile and sarcastic tone says to God, “Looks good on paper.  Think it will work?  My answer to this question is a resounding “YES.”]

The second reflection was the fruit of my contemplation about a question they posed to the group.

REFLECTION 2

When I think of Judith and Charles’ question, “What would be your ideal contemplative life?,” I think of my recent reflections and work with “ContemplAgeing.” ContemplAgeing is entering the sacred space of the unique circumstances of your own aging; entering them in a way that enhances your spiritual development; entering them in a way that deepens your spiritual life; and entering them in a way that expands the fullness of your life.

But what does spiritual refer to, that is, what is spirituality?  The best I can offer is that given to me by Anthony De Mello, SJ (1931-1987) who wrote the following in his book, Walking on Water (1998).

 Spirituality is being awake

Spirituality is getting rid of illusions

Spirituality is never being at the mercy of any event, thing, or person

Spirituality means having found the diamond mine inside yourself

Religion is a way to get there

The ideal contemplative life would be living spirituality as De Mello describes it.

The third reflection followed on their suggestion to write our own “Beatitudes.”  The Beatitudes, for Christians, conjure up the image of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12), each beginning “Blessed are . . . . ,”  but there is another meaning to the word as defined by Webster, “a state of utmost bliss.”

REFLECTION 3

Charles and Judith asked us to write our own list of “Beatitudes.”  Here are my BE-Attitudes:

BE-Attitudes, Not DO-Attitudes

Be-Awake NOW, un-deadened, un-dead-ended, open to God, to others, to oneself, and to the world  in each and every moment—ALIVE, IN-SPIRED, ON FIRE

Be-Free of Illusions that lure us with that which the desperate hope of fantasy promises, and can never provide, as can the Real, hard as the Real may be to face

Be-At the Mercy of No Person, Thing or Event, submit not to the false power of such persons, things, or events, rather surrender to the ONE who calls us, not his slaves, but my children

Be-In the Moment, in the Presence, in the body, mind, heart, and spirit that is you, truly you, the True You in all your complexity, and “all will be well,” all is well—choose “the better part,” be Mary resting in the Presence, give Martha a rest!

[The Mary-Martha image is a reference to the New Testament Biblical passage (Luke 10: 38-42) about two sisters, Martha, who never stops working, and Mary, who sits still and enjoys the company of the dinner guest.  Thomas Keating, a monk at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, wrote a book about “the better part,” that I found very useful, The Better Part: Stages of Contemplative Living (2000).]

Posted in agingspiritual issuesspirituality on 1 May 2010
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