Previously published as The Slacker’s Guide to Stream-Entry: A Journey of Christian Meditation and Awakening to No-Self
Copyright © 2016 Derek Cameron
Author of the Audio CD
Christian Meditation: Learn How to Meditate in the Tradition of John Main
I was on a ferry from Vancouver to Victoria. Rackloads of brochures alerted the visitor to the many attractions on offer in Victoria. Absent from them was any mention of afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel. This was a ritual too well-known to need any advertising. Indeed, a glance at the brochures, with their Royal London this and Ye Olde English that, gave the impression that Victoria had forever been a city of tea-drinkers from the motherland. In fact, in its early history, the city was a whole lot rougher than its genteel image suggests.
Victoria’s reason for being was an influx of Americans several hundred miles to the south. After the Treaty of 1818, the region the British called the Columbia Department, and the Americans called the Oregon Country, was jointly administered by both the British and the Americans. The chief British presence was the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at Fort Vancouver on the mouth of the Columbia River.
Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, predicted that this odd arrangement could not possibly last. He identified three problems. First, the Columbia River was not the best place for a port, since ocean-going vessels would founder in its shallow waters. Second, he doubted that London would be willing to defend its claims in this remote region. And third, Americans were now pouring into the Oregon Territory by the wagon load, tempted by cheap land grants from their federal government.
On one of his supervisory voyages up the Pacific coast on the Beaver, Governor Simpson noticed the southern tip of Vancouver Island. He thought this unexplored place attractive and referred to it as an “Elysium.” Given that he wanted to establish a position north of Fort Vancouver, he sent his Chief Factor, James Douglas, to build a new fort on Vancouver Island. In spring 1843, Douglas arrived to construct the fort, securely inside British territory. James Douglas, too, liked the look of the place. He called it a “perfect Eden.”
The summer of 1843 was a good one. Though Douglas’s work party was poorly equipped, construction went well. By the end of the year, the new fort was complete. It was named after the young Queen Victoria.
Sir George Simpson’s prediction proved prescient. Three years later, in the Oregon Treaty of 1846, the British surrendered the territory south of the 49th parallel to exclusive American control.
Fort Victoria rapidly became a center for trade. At first, the principal merchandise was fur. But beaver hats were going out of fashion in England. Salmon, potatoes, cranberries, and timber became the goods traded. Visiting Royal Navy ships needed supplies, and enterprising traders began to fish and farm to provision them. A sawmill exported finished lumber to San Francisco as early as 1849.
The British settlement of Fort Victoria developed into a self-conscious effort to form a colony. Farm land was sold for a pound an acre. For every hundred acres, the purchaser was required to bring with him five men, or three married couples, to work the land. Small and affordable city lots were laid out for laborers, with larger and pricier suburban lots for the middle classes.
To be a colonist at that time required a serious commitment. With no Panama Canal, and no overland route across the continent, it took six months to get to Victoria from England on a Hudson’s Bay Company ship.
By 1858, Victoria had become a village of some 300 people. Its industries included not only fishing, farming, and lumber production, but also mining.
What changed this picture were the rumors reaching California that gold had been found in the British territories north of the 49th parallel. One Sunday morning, astonished Victorians saw the Commodore pull into the harbor carrying 450 men armed with spades and wash-pans — the same tools as had been used in the California gold rush nine years earlier. But this was only the beginning. After the Commodore, some 25,000 prospectors were to pass through Victoria harbor.
This horde of humanity overwhelmed the village. Bakers ran out bread. With no accommodation for such large numbers, tent cities sprang up. Demand for building lots was so great that people wanted to buy them faster than surveyors could lay them out. When lots did become available, purchasers began lining up outside the land office at 4 a.m. A ship’s carpenter, who a few years earlier had bought a property for forty pounds, was able to lease it out for four thousand pounds a year.
Most of the 25,000 moved on to the gold fields, but many returned to Victoria for the winter. Over a thousand settled permanently to start businesses. The little village suddenly sported two hundred brand-new stores. Victoria had become a city.
Gold there certainly was. In the summer of 1858, half a million dollars’ worth was shipped from Victoria. This was double the quantity produced in a similar period in California in 1849. News of the early finds prompted even more fortune-seekers to arrive. The steamship company tripled the maximum passenger load on its vessels. Wells Fargo opened a financial office. Two newspapers were established — The Victoria Gazette and The British Colonist.
In 1862, the former village officially incorporated as the City of Victoria. Along with government buildings and stores, it now had its own theatre, four newspapers, and an enormous number of drinking establishments.
But the gold rush and its attendant prosperity did not last. Government income from land sales dried up. The administrations of both Vancouver Island and the mainland colony of British Columbia became indebted. In 1866, the two colonies merged to reduce their costs. Though the capital of the combined colony was briefly at New Westminster on the mainland, in 1868 Victoria — which in any case was the center of commerce — was designated the official capital of the combined colonies.
Secondary industries began to develop, including iron works and even shipbuilding. In this working city, where men vastly outnumbered women, brewing and prostitution were profitable activities. The major crime was public drunkenness, and the chief cause of admission to the local hospital was venereal disease.
Victoria remained British Columbia’s largest city until it was overtaken by the upstart Vancouver in 1901. The relocation of trade to the mainland left Victoria wondering what to do with itself. It decided, among other things, to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. To this end, the Empress Hotel opened its doors in 1908. At the same time, well-to-do retirees began to move here from chillier parts of Canada. At last, Victoria could boast a class of leisured gentlefolk who took their afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel.
In the ferry’s forward lounge hung a portrait of Her Majesty. When I went up on deck, I half-expected to see the Red Ensign. In fact, the ship flew the flag of British Columbia. Introduced in 1960, it featured the Union Flag over a Pacific sunset. Some early prototypes had these elements reversed, but this idea had to be discarded, implying as it did that the sun might one day set on the British Empire.
After disembarking the ferry, I drove the twenty miles to downtown Victoria, then out along McKenzie Avenue. The buildings of Queenswood retreat center, like those of the nearby university, dated from the 1960s. But Queenswood’s roots went much, much further back into the early days of Fort Victoria.
The officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company were largely Scots, but its employees were French-Canadian Catholics. In 1847, four years after the establishment of Fort Victoria, a new Catholic diocese was carved out from the Oregon Territory. Its first bishop was a priest from Quebec named Modeste Demers.
With no immediate help in his new diocese, Bishop Demers looked to Quebec for assistance. To this end, he left on a trip to his homeland in 1857. His request for help was turned down by many. He finally found willing volunteers among a recently formed teaching order, the Sisters of Saint Ann. From among these, he recruited four French-speaking Sisters. The overland route being “not suitable for ladies,” the party had to reach Victoria by sailing all the way down the Atlantic coast to Panama, then crossing the isthmus by land, then sailing all the way north up the Pacific coast to Vancouver Island. By the time they reached Victoria, in June 1858, the small village Bishop Demers left had become the chaotic city of the gold rush.
The Sisters arrived for dinner on a Saturday and were then taken to a disused log cabin, which was to serve as both convent and schoolhouse. It had neither locks in its doors nor glass in its windows. The Sisters were undeterred by this lack of creature comforts. On the Monday morning, they pushed back their bedding, laid planks on top of boxes to form desks, and opened their school. Twelve girls attended. In November the Sisters enlarged the cabin, cutting down nearby trees and sawing wood for the construction of the extension. By the end of the first year, they had fifty-six students.
To meet the needs of English-speakers, Mother Mary Providence joined them from Quebec in 1859. In that same year, Bishop Demers invited the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to come to the still-new diocese to evangelize the native population. The Oblates would, as the years progressed, establish many missions in the interior of British Columbia.
The log cabin now being ridiculously cramped, Mother Mary Providence acquired larger premises on Broad Street to form a second school, then added a third on View Street. In 1863, eight more nuns came from Quebec. The original log cabin became a school for young boys. Yet another new school was established on Humboldt Street in 1871, and this brick building eventually became St. Ann’s Academy. In 1875, the Sisters of St. Ann opened Saint Joseph’s hospital, to which the first patient was admitted during the opening ceremony.
It is to these energetic Sisters of St. Ann that we owe the Queenswood retreat center. As I entered the driveway, I kept a lookout for the deer promised in Queenswood’s literature. I saw none. On the left side of the wooded property stood a residence for the nuns, and on the right what used to be a residence for postulants attending the University of Victoria, and what is now the retreat center. All these two-story buildings were modern, but pleasantly modern.
Since it was midweek, there were no group retreats, and there was an ample choice of parking spots. As I left the car, I noticed that, while a university has a softer atmosphere than a commercial or industrial area, Queenswood’s atmosphere was even warmer and gentler still.
I followed the signs to the office and was reassured to discover my name on the list of expected arrivals. The room allocated to me was on the ground floor of one of the bedroom wings. As we entered the bedroom wing, I saw a sign on the hallway door that said silence should be maintained in the bedroom area at all times.
At the end of the corridor in the Queenswood bedroom wing were two shared bathrooms. Since there were few guests, and the majority of them female, I had the men’s bathroom to myself.
After settling in, I made my way to the dining room. I discovered a smaller dining room off to one side for those who preferred to eat in silence.
After dinner, I explored the retreat center. Queenswood was constructed to follow the lay of the land, and the area behind the offices and dining room happens to lie on lower ground. An enclosed walkway lead down to the double doors of the chapel — a retreat within a retreat.
The chapel was a womb-like space. In its main body, or what would be called the nave in a more traditional church, stood rows of maroon chairs on the hardwood floor. Looking at the size of this chapel, I wondered if it were ever completely full. Off to the left was a smaller chapel for prayer, and on the right was a meditation area, with a circle of chairs in the same maroon fabric. Though the chapel was large, it was perfect for meditation. With silent outer surroundings and plenty of time, I came to a place of inner silence.
The next morning, I explored further and discovered the library. The Sisters of St. Ann started the library forty years ago. In its early days, it was a standard theological library, but year after year they added to their collection and broadened the range of its subject matter.
In the library, I met a Sister from Ireland. She was making a sabbatical at Queenswood, though it turned out her job was managing a retreat center in Ireland. Once, she went to a conference of all the retreat center leaders in Ireland. On comparing notes, the leaders discovered that none of their institutions was economically viable. All had to be subsidized by income from elsewhere. I wondered what it meant that these retreat centers were not fully used, even with their modest pricing.
Just before lunch, some Victorians — meaning people from the city, not the period — arrived for the weekly Christian Meditation group. Though I had not met any of them before, I was happy to join these kindred spirits.
Christian meditation goes back to Biblical times, though this was not meditation as most people understand it today. “I meditate on all thy works,” says the psalmist (Psalm 143:5). This was meditation in the sense of reflecting on a chosen theme. Since the English word “meditate” now has multiple meanings, some modern translations clarify by substituting “ponder.” Undoubtedly this meditation was less analytical than we might suppose today. Greek philosophical thought was unknown to the Hebrews, and in any case the approach of Plato and Aristotle did not exist until many centuries after the composition of the psalms.
The New Testament rarely mentions reflective meditation but frequently mentions prayer. Luke is the evangelist who emphasizes how much time Jesus spent in prayer. Before calling the twelve, Jesus “continued all night in prayer” (Luke 6:12). At the time of the transfiguration, he “went up into a mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28). The disciples ask Jesus if he would give them instructions on how to pray, in the same way as John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray (Luke 11:1). When Jesus finds the disciples asleep during the Agony in the Garden, he tells them, “Rise and pray” (Luke 22:46). Continuing into Acts, we are told that after the Ascension, the disciples “continued with one accord to prayer” (Acts 1:14).
Most importantly for the development of the Christian contemplative tradition, Paul urges the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It is Paul’s call to continual and constant prayer that will be cited again and again by the generations of contemplatives that follow.
These New Testament verses all indicate that long periods of time were spent in prayer. Jesus expresses astonishment that the disciples could not even “watch one hour” (Mark 14:37). This suggests he thought of one hour as a bare minimum period for prayer.
What the New Testament does not tell us is what difficulties one might face in praying for long periods and how one should deal with these difficulties. For detailed accounts of Christian prayer life, we will have to wait several centuries.
The early Christian community consisted for the most part of ordinary people with ordinary responsibilities. Nevertheless, from the beginning, a few were called to leave these responsibilities to devote themselves full-time to the Gospel. The Twelve are the first of these. They leave their nets by the Sea of Galilee so that they can follow Jesus. After Pentecost, they appoint assistants so that they can “give [themselves] continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). In the mid-50s of the first century, Paul writes to say that he is taking a collection for the “saints” in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-3). In the absence of any other evidence, it is reasonable to think that these “saints” were the successors of the Twelve, and a collection was needed because they continued to devote themselves entirely to teaching and prayer.
In the third century, we have the first full-length portrait of the life of a Christian monastic. This comes in Athanasius’s Life of Antony, written in the fourth century by one who had known him. While the work undoubtedly belongs to the hagiographic tradition and is not a biography as we might understand it today, it does provide the best early description we have of the life of an anchorite — one who abandons worldly life to focus exclusively on prayer.
Antony was born into a wealthy Egyptian family. As a young man, he thought about how the disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. He was struck especially by Jesus’s instruction to another wealthy young man: “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and you thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Any doubts Antony might have had were resolved when he heard the text, “Take no thought for the morrow” (Matthew 6:34). Taking these verses as a personal guide to what living the Gospel meant, Antony removed himself from society and went to live in the desert, at some distance from the nearest village.
When Antony got out into the desert, he found there were already other people doing the same thing. In other words, removing oneself from society to pray full-time was not unique to Antony. There existed in Egypt a cultural precedent for this way of life.
An intriguing question is whether this precedent had any continuity with the Therapeutae. These were Hellenized Jews who also withdrew from society for religious reasons (although, while Antony lived as a hermit, the Therapeutae lived as a community). Philo of Alexandria, writing at about the same time as Jesus walked the earth in Palestine, describes the way of life of the Therapeutae. They lived in simple huts in the region outside Alexandria and spent their entire day in prayer, singing psalms, and meditating on scripture. With their frugal diet and frequent fasts, they resemble the Desert Fathers, for whom Antony would become a model. There is also the more remote question as to whether the Therapeutae were somehow influenced by fleeting contacts with the spirituality of South Asia. The Old Testament paints no picture of a long-established tradition of anchoritism among the Jews. On the other hand, like renunciants in India, the Therapeutae left their former households to devote themselves wholly to the religious life. Alexander the Great was in India in the fourth century B.C., and it is known from inscriptions on stone pillars that, in the third century B.C., the Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to the Greeks. Whether these missionaries disappeared without trace, or whether their influence lived on in the form of the Therapeutae, there is too little evidence to say. Similar questions have been raised about the Essenes and John the Baptist.
The Life of Antony gives us the first detailed picture of the difficulties one faces when attempting to “pray without ceasing.” Having removed himself from the distractions of society, Antony comes face to face with the distractions in his own mind. He keeps thinking about his family and his former possessions. Above all, he is tormented by thoughts of food and sex.
Antony’s experience of mental distractions turns out to be the common experience of the Desert Fathers. When a party of travelers visited Egypt toward the end of the fourth century to meet with these now well-known ascetics, John of Lycopolis told the visitors to make sure, above all, that “your mind does not suffer from distractions.” He goes on to explain: “The entire undertaking becomes pointless, when in conversing with the Lord, one is seduced by opposing thoughts.” To introduce the method for dealing with these “opposing thoughts,” John of Lycopolis quotes a line from the Psalms: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). What this means, says John, is that one needs to actively cultivate “stillness” (Greek hesychia) as a precursor to the more intense forms of prayer.
The value of cultivating of stillness is confirmed by another late fourth-century visitor to the Desert Fathers, John Cassian. Cassian was a young monk, originally from Europe, who had spent some time in a monastery in Bethlehem. Not finding the spiritual formation he was looking for, he set out to visit the Desert Fathers of Egypt, accompanied by his friend Germanus. On his return from Egypt, Cassian wrote two books. The Institutes deals with the organization of monastic life, while the Conferences deals with the inner or spiritual aspects of this life.
The Conferences is written in the form of interviews with the Desert Fathers. Conferences Nine and Ten deal with the subject of prayer and are based on Cassian’s and Germanus’s talks with Abba Isaac.
Following again the dictum of Paul to the Thessalonians, Abba Isaac explains that the goal of the monk is continual prayer. Success in this endeavor depends on the removal of obstacles, and these obstacles include one’s memories and one’s concerns for the things of this world. Only a soul thus purified will be able to “pray without ceasing,” he says. Once the obstacles have been dealt with, the soul will naturally rise upward. It is only worldly concerns that weigh it down.
Abba Isaac describes to Cassian the different types of prayer, including prayer of thanksgiving, prayer of petition, and so on. But the Desert Fathers have discovered that beyond these is a purer form of prayer that consists solely of the loving contemplation of God. When inspired by the Holy Spirit, says Abba Isaac, the experience is as if the soul is on fire with love.
The question is then how to go about removing the hindrances of worldly thoughts and distractions. Cassian’s traveling companion, Germanus, has noticed that one can become distracted without even being aware that this has happened. “One thought follows another, arriving, coming to being, ending and going away — all without the mind noticing,” he says.
Abba Isaac congratulates Germanus on his insight in having made this observation at all. Then he recommends the repeated use of a simple “formula” to remind oneself of the goal of focusing entirely on God. He suggests that one repeat a single verse from the Psalms: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O Lord” (Psalm 70:1). Abba Isaac then emphasizes: “The soul must grab fiercely onto this formula, so that after saying it over and over again, after meditating on it without pause, it has the strength to reject and to refuse all the abundant riches of thought.”
One consequence of the resultant simplicity of heart, says Abba Isaac, is that the scriptures now reveal their full meaning. In Conference Fourteen, Abba Nesteros gives an example of how extended meditation on scripture, by one who has previously cultivated stillness, can reveal multiple levels of meaning. Nesteros uses the example of Paul’s meditation on the story of Abraham having one child by Hagar the maidservant and another by Sarah the freewoman. He identifies four levels of meaning. The literal meaning of the story is that these births happened in history. But Paul himself explains that this is “an allegory” (Galatians 4:24) — in other words, there is a second level of meaning. These two women, says Paul, represent two covenants. Those of the old covenant are born into slavery; those of the new are born into freedom. Then there is third meaning, which Nesteros calls the “anagogical” meaning, by which he means a pointing toward “the higher and more august secrets of heaven.” This higher or spiritual meaning is explicitly recognized by Paul: “The Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26). Finally, there is a fourth or moral meaning, which Abba Nesteros says is a “teaching designed for the amendment of life.”
Abba Nesteros emphasizes to Cassian and Germanus that to attain this level of insight into the multiple meanings of scripture, they must first “wipe out all the concerns of this present world.” He continues, “For it is impossible that a soul which is in the slightest way taken up with worldly cares should win the gift of knowledge.”
My time at Queenswood had certainly removed my worldly cares, but I was not above enjoying the scenery of Vancouver Island. After leaving the retreat center, I drove back along McKenzie Avenue and headed north on the Island Highway. It was surprising how quickly Victoria gave way to wilderness. The terrain by the side of the road was too steep for either agriculture or urbanization. Goldstream Provincial Park, with its river flowing through a forested glen, might easily have been somewhere in Perthshire.
The Malahat Drive section of the Island Highway climbed to 1,000 feet, allowing fine views over the coast and islands. I decided to take a detour along the older road that follows the shores of Shawnigan Lake. The land by the lakeside was flat enough for farming.
Horse-drawn wagons once plied this trail with produce bound for Victoria, but once you get away from the lake the road is hilly. Both man and beast must have been pleased to see the arrival of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway in 1886. The railway not only supplemented the wagon trail but also replaced a steamer service from Victoria to Nanaimo.
When first conceived, the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway was not going to stop at William Duncan’s farm. But enthusiastic settlers built a celebratory arch and crowded on to the tracks for the train’s inaugural run. The train came to a halt. This established a precedent. There would be a railway stop at Duncan’s farm after all. The community that grew up around the station took the name Duncan. The Sisters of St. Ann, to whom we owe Queenswood, also came to Duncan, and here they opened a school for girls.
Duncan has expanded around the site of the Victorian railway station in a proliferation of strip malls. The original downtown Duncan remains pleasant enough. The market square has been revitalized and features art, gifts, and a handmade soap store. Off the square runs the improbably named Lois Lane. The original railway station is now a museum depicting everyday life a century ago.
Just north of Duncan is a community of Poor Clares. These came to Victoria from New Orleans in 1912. In Victoria they planted an orchard, kept chickens, and operated a printing plant. Being enclosed, they lived behind a nine-foot concrete wall. By 1973, their premises in Victoria had become too expensive to maintain, and they moved to Duncan. Their new monastery was originally a private home and includes a self-contained hermitage for personal retreats. Although their way of life has been modernized, they remain an enclosed community, and I did not visit.
Next came the small town of Ladysmith, whose First Avenue is a well-preserved example of old-time British Columbia. By the time I got to Ladysmith, I was getting hungry. Downtown appeared almost deserted, so I headed back to the highway. There I found only fast-food franchises. In contrast to the empty downtown, the fast-food outlets were a seething mass of humanity. After lunch in this hectic environment, I continued north to Nanaimo.
It is astonishing how rapidly the colonists expanded from their base at Fort Victoria. As early as 1852, the Hudson’s Bay Company bought 6,200 acres at Nanaimo to establish a coal mine. To work the mine, they brought in miners from Staffordshire. Much of the coal was exported to meet the growing needs of San Francisco. Other settlers harvested timber and farmed, growing in particular cranberries. The ubiquitous Sisters of St. Ann also came to Nanaimo, where they established a girls’ boarding school.
From downtown Nanaimo, I headed inland along Jingle Pot Road. On the far side of the Nanaimo Parkway, the city turned into a mix of suburban and semi-rural lots. Once I reached Arbot Road, I saw the House of Bread Monastery. The Benedictine Sisters who live in the monastery arrived here in 1972 from Queen of Angels in Oregon. Arousing the curiosity of occasional passers-by, llamas are among their farm animals.
I arrived at the Bethlehem Retreat Center. After the frenzy of the fast-food restaurant at lunchtime, it was a welcome relief to enter the peace of the retreat center. The main building was a private home until the diocese acquired the seven-acre property in 1987. The Benedictine Sisters added more green-sided buildings in a similar style and built an octagonal chapel. At the rear of the property, the retreat center overlooks Westwood Lake.
Once settled in at Bethlehem, I took out The Good Heart, a record of talks the Dalai Lama gave to the World Community for Christian Meditation in 1994. The talks consists of a commentary on certain passages in the Gospels. In passing, the Dalai Lama remarks on other matters. Just as I was struck by the frenetic activity in the fast-food restaurant, so too the Dalai Lama has noticed that life outside of monasteries is one continual rush.
After dinner, I went down to the chapel — not the large, octagonal one, but a smaller chapel in the basement of the main building. Here was everything the meditator could possibly need. A small prie-dieu faced the tabernacle; benches with comfortable padding lined the walls; and at the back was a reading lamp and a chair with armrests.
When I closed my eyes, I felt as if I were in a cave. It was, though, a carpeted and air-conditioned cave. And there I saw for myself the reason for all our ceaseless activity: We want to turn ordinary caves into comfortable caves.
It seemed to me that the silence and solitude of this tiny chapel offered a cure for all the ills of the world. Nothing needed to be added. Yet I recognized that this retreat center was an artificial island. Someone else had planned the menu I ate at dinner, shopped for ingredients, prepared the meal, and washed up. I, in return, would make a donation to the retreat center, paid for with money I had earned in the resource-extraction industries. These industries, in turn, earned their income fulfilling the demands of the population at large. It takes an entire industrial economy to support a retreat center.
While there have been monasteries since ancient times, the retreat center is a modern invention. Its origins begin with a French cannon ball. On May 20, 1521, said cannon ball shattered the thigh of one Inigo Onaz Lopez de Loyola, better known to us as Ignatius of Loyola. During a long convalescence, Loyola had time to contemplate his future. To assist in his discernment, he designed a sequence of spiritual exercises. Later, he would teach a structured, thirty-day version of the exercises.
Loyola’s spiritual exercises became extremely popular. You could do them anywhere convenient — a college, a seminary, a monastery — but in the seventeenth century, the French began to construct purpose-built retreat houses. Laymen and laywomen, as well as priests, came to do the spiritual exercises. The Jesuits built a whole network of these houses across northern France. It is these Jesuit retreat houses of seventeenth-century France that provided the model for all subsequent retreat centers.
The next morning, after breakfast, I followed the footpath down to Bethlehem’s main chapel. Once inside the octagonal chapel, I sat down and set my meditation timer. Meditation was so much easier here than in my urban apartment. After the timer had gone off to mark the end of my meditation period, I felt refreshed.
When I left the chapel, I saw that the sunlit morning promised a glorious day ahead. Westwood Lake was calm. Even the tree tops were still. Occasionally, a walker or jogger passed by on a trail that circled the lake. A couple of canoeists floated by on the water. Gazing out over the stillness of the lake, I too became still.
This experience of pleasure made me wonder whether retreats are not the spiritual endeavor they purport to be. Perhaps they are simply an exercise in indulgence.
As I entered Bethlehem’s main building, I saw in the lobby a door marked “Bethlehem Counseling Center.” This amused me. I reckoned that anyone who spent a few days in this beautiful retreat center would find all their problems disappeared anyway.
I took up The Good Heart again. The Dalai Lama uses the material of the Gospels as a launching point for a discussion of Buddhist doctrines. But the discovery of a shared, cross-religious morality is not the most interesting aspect of his talks. It is his asides that provide the most food for thought. For example, he remarks that when he visited Lourdes, he could feel a tangible sense of the sacred. Holy places become “charged,” he says. He also remarks that the way Jesus would sit with his disciples around him is precisely the way a traditional Indian teacher would teach. Still, the Dalai Lama does not want to force similarities. His view is that doing so leads to vague generalities about everything, which end up saying nothing about anything in particular.
The audience for the talks transcribed in The Good Heart raised the issue of our now being aware of multiple, competing claims to describe reality. When religions meet, two outcomes are possible: syncretism and relativism. The Dalai Lama rebuts the first possibility with the colorful remark, “You cannot put a yak’s head on a sheep’s body.” The second possibility is more slippery. Doctrines protect and sustain spiritual communities. Without them, things fall apart. The fundamentalist and the liberal are mutually interdependent.
Just before lunch, I returned to the octagonal chapel for a second meditation session. With all these issues to think about, my mind had become quite busy. John Main was fond of quoting Abba Isaacs’s teaching that, in our meditation, we should “restrict ourselves to the poverty of a single verse.” That expression, the “poverty of a single verse,” and its opposite, “the abundant riches of thought,” hit the nail on the head. In my meditation, every thought that came to me seemed so much more attractive than the mantra.
After twenty minutes of patient sitting, I became still. The stillness was a kind of prayer, and in it all questions disappeared.
The value of stillness was discovered and rediscovered by generation after generation of pray-ers and meditators. In their quest for “prayer without ceasing,” the Desert Fathers interviewed by Cassian developed methods for cultivating this stillness. They had learned of the need to free themselves from worldly thoughts.
In the fifth or sixth century, a more uncompromising teaching emerged. It is not merely worldly thoughts that come between ourselves and God; it is all thoughts. God, according to this point of view, is beyond anything the intellect can conceive, and any form of thinking can only get in the way.
This point was expressed most forcefully in the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius, so called because he wrote under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite, mentioned in Acts 17:34. “Beloved Timothy,” he writes, “in the earnest exercise of mystical contemplation, abandon all sensation and all intellection.” Dionysius describes the initial movement beyond intellection as being, from the point of view of the intellect, like an encounter with an area of darkness or unknowing. He wrote: “Moses then, going beyond where one sees and is seen, enters the Dark — mystery wholly — of unknowing, there stills all trying to understand, and achieves entire Him that is all-transcending.”
This radical denial of the usefulness of the intellect came to be called “apophatic” theology. It attempts to state only what God is not. Apophatic theology is contrasted with “kataphatic” theology, which attempts to state what God is.
Both apophatic and kataphatic strands occur in the later Christian tradition. A common conclusion is that the kataphatic is a necessary but imperfect precursor of the apophatic. Pseudo-Dionysius’s terminology of a “dark,” or “unknowing,” will influence, and be repeated by, later writers.
Gregory the Great, pope in the sixth century, is best known as an administrator and liturgist. It is he who is credited (probably not entirely accurately) with the synthesis of Gregorian chant. But Gregory’s Homilies on Ezekiel reveal that he was also a contemplative with apophatic tendencies. He rejects both earthly and heavenly images as obstacles to contemplation. Rather, he encourages the soul to “collect itself within itself.”
This vocabulary of “recollection,” in place of the Greek hesychia, will come to predominate in the Western, Latin-speaking Church. But in the latter part of the first millennium, it is the Greek-speaking hesychasts (those who practice stillness) who produce the most relevant literature.
On the subject of stillness, John, abbot of a desert monastery on Mount Sinai, wrote a text called the Klimax (“ladder of divine ascent”). From the title of his book, John is sometimes styled John Climacus, or “John of the Ladder.” The notion of a ladder, or series of stages, in prayer is mentioned already in Cassian. The metaphor of a ladder comes from Jacob’s dream of a ladder from earth to heaven in Genesis 28:12.
John Climacus describes the way of life of the monks in the seventh century and gives his insights into the life of the hesychast. For John, “stillness” can be seen as a guarding of the mind. One knows one’s thoughts but is not enthralled by them. While a monk’s body may go out into the world, his soul remains inside and does not go out to become involved in the world.
Climacus sees continual prayer as both a conversation with God and a union with God. There are three steps in his ladder. “The beginning of prayer is the expulsion of distractions from the very start by monologistos; the middle state is the concentration on what is being said or thought; its conclusion is rapture in the Lord.” Monologistos, “one word,” is by now the standard term for a short prayer intended to free one from distractions, even if this prayer actually consists of more than one word. The Desert Fathers interviewed by Cassian, for example, had used the verse Psalm 70:1.
A new tradition now emerges, though we are not sure exactly when, of using a prayer based on the cry of the blind man, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” In its simplest form, the wording of what is now called the Jesus Prayer is “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47). It is possible to change the wording to “Jesus Christ, Son of the living God” and to add at the end, “a sinner.” Diadochos of Photike, in the sixth century, is probably the first to mention this prayer.
The tradition of hesychia, or “stillness,” became progressively better established. Isaac the Syrian was a bishop who left his responsibilities to live as a hermit in the desert. Isaac notes that very few are graced with the higher reaches of contemplative prayer. These reaches are quite different in character from what most people know as prayer, he says, though they may still be called prayer because of their continuity with the earlier stages. He observes that, in these Spirit-filled stages, “A man’s nature is deprived of its free will.” One feels guided by the power of the Spirit and can no longer voluntarily control the mind. Rather than praying, one feels that one is “being prayed.”
Despite the growing predominance of the hesychastic tradition, the contemplatives and theologians of the Eastern Church were becoming less well-known in the Western Church. One simple reason is that, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, travel became much more difficult. A linguistic divide emerged, too. Fewer and fewer people in the Latin-speaking West were able to read the writings of the Greek-speaking East.
The formal date of the “Great Schism” between the Eastern and Western Church is A.D. 1054. In that year, a Roman delegation to Constantinople and the Patriarch of Constantinople mutually excommunicated each other. The split between East and West was far from as sudden as this single event makes it sound. The two halves of the Church had been growing apart for centuries, and there would be many attempts at reconciliation after 1054.
The large number of Greek writers should not be taken as evidence that lives of intense prayer and meditation were unknown in the Latin-speaking West. Far from it. One can mention, for example, Richard of St. Victor, theologian of the contemplative life, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who managed to combine the roles of statesman and contemplative. Although not as well-known as these last two, Guigo, prior of la Grande Chartreuse Carthusian monastery in the twelfth century, defined what would become the standard taxonomy of contemplative prayer in the West. (This Guigo is known to history as “Guigo II” to differentiate him from another Guigo, who lived about the same time.)
In fourteenth-century England, Richard Rolle wrote: “I was sitting in a certain chapel, and being much delighted with the sweetness of prayer or meditation, suddenly I felt in me a strange and pleasant heat.” Rolle’s description is from his book, The Fire of Love. His description of an infusion of warmth, pleasure, sweetness, and eventually a complete “fire of love” is typical of those that recur throughout the literature of Christian mysticism. Interestingly, although there is no reason to think Rolle might have encountered the Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Church, he goes on to say: “If you think of the name ‘Jesu’ continually, and cling to it devotedly, then it will cleanse you from your sin and set your heart aflame.”
Richard Rolle was one of many mystics in fourteenth-century England. Although they are often grouped together, they do not really form a group except by virtue of the fact that all were mystics and all lived in fourteenth-century England. The one with the most enduring influence is the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. This writer has managed to preserve his anonymity over the passing centuries. His book is a practical instruction manual on contemplative prayer. This is not a book for everyone, he says at the beginning. Rather, he advises anyone who comes across the book to share its contents only with “a person deeply committed to follow Christ perfectly.”
In an early chapter of the Cloud, the author gives the essence of his instructions. “This is what you are to do. Lift your heart up to God, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake, and not for his gifts.”
In a direct line from the Pseudo-Dionysius, the author of the Cloud then refers to the initial sense of God as being like a “darkness” to the intellect or a “cloud of unknowing.” He gives no quantitative indication of the length of time to be allocated to this “work,” as he calls it, but he must mean substantial periods, as he deals with the subject of distractions. One must put between oneself and all worldly things a second cloud, which he calls the “cloud of forgetting.” To help overcome distracting thoughts, and to express the desire for God alone, he suggests choosing and repeating as necessary a single word. “A one-syllable word such as ‘God’ or ‘love’ is best,” he says. “But choose one that is meaningful to you.”
Contemplative prayer in this period was not unique to England, of course. The German mystics, too, practiced the art of interior “recollection.” Also in this same century, in the now separate Eastern Church, the tradition of the Jesus Prayer reached its fullest form in Gregory Palamas. Although he was a monk of Mount Athos, Gregory spent several years living as a hermit in Thessalonica. Here he would remain in solitude five days a week, constantly repeating the Jesus Prayer. For the remaining two days, he would rejoin his community. It is Gregory Palamas who develops a full theology of the Jesus Prayer which, in the Eastern Church, lasts until this day.
In a state of inner quiet (hesychia), Palamas says, the mind descends into the heart, effecting a re-unification and a divinization of the soul. He, like so many others, quotes Paul’s call to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and interprets Jesus’s instruction to “go to your inner room” (Matthew 6:6) allegorically, to refer to a turning within. The mind is dissipated by its involvement in the world of the senses, he says, and must return within so that it rests in the heart. It is the Jesus Prayer that will banish worldliness from the mind. “In this way,” says Palamas, “our mind remains free from all worldly attachment, and by its secret and inward prayer is united with God our Father.”
Our modern Christian meditation periods are relatively short. The hesychasts would repeat their mantra all day, every day, while we modern Westerners make do with twenty or thirty minutes at a time. Our culture of busy-ness precludes setting aside more time for stillness, except when on a retreat such as this.
John Main often referred to meditation as a coming back to oneself. In the absence of doing, one discovers being.
There is spiritual power in this being-ness. After Jesus had spent forty days alone in the desert, he returned “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). That power is still available to us today. Yet despite the long tradition of stillness in Christianity — all the way from the Desert Fathers through John Cassian, who brought the desert monks to the attention of the Latin-speaking West, and then a millennium and a half of the Eastern hesychasts — some remain suspicious of meditation for Christians. Not being familiar with its history, they regard it as something new.
Settling into Bethlehem retreat center had been easy, but the transition from stillness to the activity of the outside world was a positive shock to the system. At Nanaimo’s Departure Bay harbor, I had a two-hour wait for the next ferry. I was astonished to see so many people.
Everything at the ferry terminal was about straight lines and functionality. Concrete boarding ramps rose from the parking lot’s numbered lanes. In the Q Market, everything was for sale — T-shirts, sunglasses, ornamental gifts, books, magazines, ice creams, snacks, and coffee. All were offered from booths branded with graphic-designer logos and signage. The only artifact I saw that spoke of the human experience was a totem pole carved by natives of Alert Bay. It depicted a salmon, a bear, and an eagle. From it emanated impressions of British Columbia itself — the forests, the mountains, the rivers, the wild ocean, and the dark gray clouds that so often threaten rain.
With an hour left to wait, I succumbed to the commercial pressures and descended from observer to participant-observer. I purchased a Grande Mocha. Just as I finished the coffee, the welcome sight of the huge Coastal Renaissance appeared in Departure Bay. We boarded and departed.
Captain George Vancouver of the Royal Navy surveyed these waters in 1792. It was Vancouver who named many of the landmarks. The seaway between Vancouver Island and the mainland he called the Gulf of Georgia (he did not know at the time that you could sail north back to open ocean). Looking at the landscape from the ferry, I could see his point of view. The “Gulf” had to be renamed to “Strait” when Vancouver discovered the insularity of Vancouver Island. In naming it, he honored the reigning monarch, King George III — the same George sometimes known as “mad” King George. Since this happened on the King’s birthday, Captain Vancouver allowed his men double their usual ration of grog, had them fire off a royal salute, and went ashore to claim the land for His Majesty. He named the surrounding land “New Georgia,” though history would over-rule him on this choice.
As it neared the mainland, the ferry passed Point Atkinson, named after a Mr. Atkinson, and entered Howe Sound, which Vancouver named for Admiral Howe. At the time of Vancouver’s visit, heavy clouds hung over the landscape, and a gale blew up, causing him to view what is now West Vancouver as a “dreary prospect.” There was, he wrote, not a single bird in the looming, cloud-covered sky.
On the final approach into Horseshoe Bay, we passed Anvil Island, which Captain Vancouver named not for a Mr. Anvil but for its shape. In these waters, Vancouver met some natives who were eager to trade with him, with each other, then back again with Vancouver’s party. Despite the complexity of this series of transactions, the natives managed to turn a profit at every turn. So eager were they to conduct business that they even included their own clothes among the marketable items. In exchange, the natives were particularly eager to obtain objects manufactured from iron.
We pulled into the ferry terminal on the mainland. From there, I took Highway 1, which climbed along the mountain-side on the north shore of Burrard Inlet. Captain Vancouver named the inlet after Sir Harry Burrard. Until 1938, when the Lion’s Gate Bridge was built, relatively few people lived on the north shore of Burrard Inlet. If you wanted to go to Vancouver, you had to wait for a ferry.
I drove on past the view of the Lion’s Gate Bridge. From high on the mountains of North Vancouver, the freeway suddenly swooped down to sea level. It crossed Burrard Inlet at the Second Narrows Bridge, also named the Ironworkers’ Memorial Bridge for the dozens of workers who died constructing it.
Highway 1 briefly sliced through Vancouver. There were very few people here until the coming of the railway in 1885. The land had been denuded of trees, and a few sawmills turned out finished lumber, but the only commercial establishment was a tavern belonging to one John Deighton. As every tourist is informed, Deighton was nicknamed “Gassy Jack” — not for his beer, but for his garrulousness. Gassy Jack catered to thirsty mill workers in the area that became known as “Gastown.”
A year after the construction of the railway, the city of Vancouver incorporated. The next year, the first train arrived from Montreal. By the time of the 1891 census, Vancouver was suddenly an unexpected rival to Victoria. By 1901, just fifteen years after the coming of the railway, Vancouver had become British Columbia’s major city.
After leaving Vancouver, the freeway passed through mile after mile of suburbs whose grayness was thankfully masked by the green of trees. The highway crossed a bridge across the river to reach the south side of the Fraser and passed into the flat, agricultural land of the Fraser Valley.
The Fraser River is named for Simon Fraser, who explored these parts in 1808. Fraser worked for the North West Company. By the early nineteenth century, the company was depleting the supplies of beaver east of the Rockies. Not only this, but the supply routes from Montreal now stretched several thousands of miles. In consequence, the company wanted to find a land route to the Pacific. After Alexander Mackenzie’s expedition of 1793, and Lewis and Clark’s of 1805, Fraser’s was the third attempt to find a route across the North American continent.
Though he is known as an important Canadian explorer, Simon Fraser had connections to both Scotland and America. He was born in Vermont of Gaelic-speaking parents, who moved to New York in 1773. Since they were loyalists, the Frasers migrated to Montreal after the Declaration of Independence. The family were highland Catholics; despite the centuries of persecution, Catholicism survived in remote and inaccessible parts of northern Scotland.
As a young man, Simon Fraser apprenticed with the North West Company in Montreal. (It would not merge into the Hudson’s Bay Company until 1821.) His party of two dozen Nor’westers who left Fort George in four canoes in May 1808 included Fraser himself, John Stuart, Jules-Maurice Quesnel, a young clerk named James McDougall, nineteen North West Company employees, and two natives.
Fraser’s group managed to cross the Rockies. They then made a fortunate choice from among the confusing array of rivers west of the mountains. After a difficult journey, they reached the valley that now bears Fraser’s name, the same valley I was traveling along. They erroneously believed they had found the mouth of the Columbia River.
They were almost at the Pacific. The natives had all along been friendly and helpful, supplying the party with salmon, and trading with them for other requisites. But on July 2, 1808, as he neared the mouth of the river, Simon Fraser got into an argument with a Salish chief. Due to the intervening rapids and canyon, Fraser’s party had stowed their own canoes further up river. The local chief had promised the day before that Fraser could borrow one of his canoes. When Fraser ordered the canoe to be carried to the water, the chief promptly ordered it to be carried back on to dry land. This to-and-fro was then repeated. It transpired that the chief was concerned about the ferocity of the coastal natives. Eventually, Simon Fraser prevailed, and his party took to the water.
Fraser’s group passed what is now New Westminster and came ashore at a bay on the Pacific coast. While they were ashore, the tide went out and left their canoe stranded on dry land. As they laboriously dragged it back into the water, the coastal natives took advantage of their predicament to attack. Fraser’s men fended them off — though without a shot being fired — and Fraser’s party fled back up river, assisted by the now incoming tide.
The next day, Fraser checked his latitude and found that this could not possibly be the Columbia River. He was at just over 49 degrees north, while the mouth of the Columbia was known to be at 46 degrees and 20 minutes north. Not only that, but the climate here was too warm to support the beavers that were the main object of his expedition. Fraser’s only consolation was that surveyor David Thompson named the river after him; Fraser reciprocated by naming the Thompson River after David Thompson.
Around the town of Langley, the freeway reached the first signs of open countryside. Until very recently, Langley was a small town in this agricultural area. Now it is rapidly becoming a distant suburb of Vancouver. New townhomes and strip malls appeared by the side of the freeway.
As I headed inland, I saw the Fort Langley exit from the freeway. In 1824, Sir George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company had sent a scouting party to this region. Led by James McMillan, the party surveyed the area, looking for a possible site for a northerly trading post. When they had progressed far enough inland to find a sheltered spot, they marked a tree trunk with the initials of their company, “HBC.” They were the first Europeans to see this part of the world since Simon Fraser had visited in 1808. Three years later, in 1827, James McMillan returned aboard the Cadboro with a work party to build a new fort here.
As well as serving as a trading post, Fort Langley became a supply point for the Hudson’s Bay Company forts in the interior. James Yale turned 240 acres of land around the fort into farmland. Here he kept cattle and fished for salmon to supply the interior trading posts. This role in provisioning the interior would enhance the importance of Fort Langley.
At Fort Langley, too, in 1858 James Douglas became first governor of the new mainland colony of British Columbia. The Act creating the colony received Royal Assent on the first Monday in August, a date now commemorated as “British Columbia Day.” But Lt. Governor Colonel Moody thought Fort Langley too close to the American border, so he moved the British Columbia capital north of the river, to a location named New Westminster. The name was chosen by Queen Victoria herself.
In the meantime, Fort Langley continued to be an agricultural center. More trees were logged, and forests became farmland. When Governor Musgrave toured the Fraser Valley in 1869, there were already 300 farms of at least a thousand acres each. The successors to these farms line the side of the freeway as it continues up the Fraser Valley.
Following the gold rush of 1858, the Royal Engineers surveyed this area and built the Yale Road from the coast to the goldfields. The area was known then for its dairy farms, though farmers here also grew tobacco.
At Abbotsford, I left the freeway. Like Langley, Abbotsford was also once a small agricultural town. The construction of the freeway from Vancouver to the interior caused Abbotsford to grow rapidly.
I crossed the bridge leading to the north shore of the river and arrived in the city of Mission. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, invited to the diocese by Bishop Demers of Victoria, came here in 1867 to establish St. Mary’s Mission. It is from the Oblate mission that the town of Mission takes its name. The Sisters of St. Ann were here, too, and opened a school for native girls that later also accepted boys. The school taught not only academic subjects but also carpentry, blacksmithing, shoemaking, and domestic science. The city of Mission dates from 1891.
Continuing east to the village of Hatzic, I turned left on Dewdney Trunk Road. On the way up hill, I passed a Poor Clare monastery. Then the road headed further up the hill and around the back, until I came at last to Westminster Abbey.
There was something exhilarating about arriving at this branch of a 1,500-year-old tradition, the Benedictine monastery, the very soul of Europe, transplanted to a hilltop in this distant land.
The name Westminster Abbey invites comparison with the famous one in London. British Columbia’s Westminster Abbey is, of course, modern.
A party of Benedictines had already come from Oregon to British Columbia in 1900, then a later group arrived from Mount Angel in 1939. They founded a priory and took over running the Seminary of Christ the King. At that time, this seminary was located on the coast. In 1953, the Benedictines began constructing a new monastery and seminary on this hill overlooking the city of Mission and the Fraser Valley. The monks first lived here when the original buildings were completed in 1954. They gradually added more buildings as funds allowed. The monks finally completed the Abbey’s church in 1982. Now around thirty Benedictines live here.
It is the church itself that attracts the visitor’s attention. Outwardly, it is only a concrete stylization of a traditional church, but on the inside, abstract stained glass windows light up in multiple colors as sunlight floods through them.
I parked my car and headed into the hallway. At the entrance was a scale model of the Abbey. The church in the model was larger than the one that I had seen outside. It turned out that the monks’ building fund had not stretched as far as their architect’s imagination.
Father Mark, the guestmaster, received me and showed me to my room. This was on the second of the three floors in the guest wing. Inside was a bed, a desk, a chair, and a private bathroom.
Chapter 53 of St. Benedict’s Rule covers the reception of guests. “Let all guests arriving at the monastery be received as Christ himself,” it famously says. Somewhat confusingly, it then adds that “no brother who is not commanded to do so is permitted to associate with the guests or to converse with them,” a principle that seems to contradict any notion of hospitality.
The Rule also envisages that guests will be much more involved in the life of the monastery than seems to be the case nowadays. “After the guests have been received, let them be accompanied to prayer,” it says.
Guests at Westminster Abbey eat in a separate dining room. St. Benedict himself recommended this arrangement, so that guests “may not disturb the brethren, coming as they do at uncertain hours.”
After dinner, I went to the Abbey’s church to meditate, but it was absurdly large for my purposes. Besides, the monks would soon be arriving for Compline. Looking at their daily schedule, it became apparent that a monk’s life is a constant round of planned activities. During Compline, a few of the older monks yawned as they neared the end of their long day.
Since it was still light, I took a stroll in the grounds, following a trail through the woods. The trail came to an abrupt end on the edge of a sheer, vertical cliff. From this spot there were breathtaking views across the Fraser Valley.
Next morning, the schedule included Matins, Lauds, and Mass — and all before an early breakfast. Later in the day, I met an old monk who was part of the original group that came to look at the property in the late 1940s. I asked him what the site was like then. “There was absolutely nothing here,” he told me. “Nothing.”
The monks at Westminster Abbey were members of the Order of St. Benedict, founded in the sixth century A.D. Six centuries later, many new orders would be founded. Among them were the Carmelites, who in the sixteenth century gave Christianity two of its best known mystics.
At the start of the sixteenth century, there were two schools of thought in Christian spirituality: the school of “abandon” and that of “recollection.” The proponents of abandonment argued that, since everything depended on the unmerited grace of God, there was no point in doing any spiritual or religious practice whatsoever. The only thing necessary, they said, was to abandon oneself to the grace of God. The other school taught recollection. This had suddenly become popular among the Franciscans. In part, the popularity of contemplative prayer may have been a reaction to the growing amount of time occupied by multiplying devotions and little offices. Taking time to be apart in quiet recollection was justified on the grounds that Jesus had withdrawn to the wilderness to pray for long periods.
Detailed instructions for practicing recollection were given in Francisco de Osuna’s Third Spiritual Alphabet, so named because the chapter titles in Spanish are arranged alphabetically. De Osuna was a Franciscan from southern Spain, though little else is known of his life. He explicitly says in the Third Spiritual Alphabet that he views recollection as a practice for everyone — not only for hermits or monastics, but for married people, too. Moreover, he says, those who learn recollection have received a gift and then have a duty to pass this gift on to others.
The Third Spiritual Alphabet begins with the premise that communion with God is the most valuable thing in the world. This communion is open to all, provided only that they set their sights solely on God. This entails, on the one hand, an attitude of continual gratitude toward God, and on the other hand, a guarding of the heart against the onslaughts of pride, avarice, and lust. By “unburdening and clearing [the heart] of all created things,” says De Osuna, “the one who created it may emerge.”
Using the allegorical method of reading scripture, De Osuna compares recollection to the widow offering an empty vessel to receive oil (2 Kings 4:1–6), and with the Blessed Virgin emptying herself in order to receive the Holy Spirit with a pure and immaculate heart (Luke 1:38). To do this in practice requires a continual process of self-examination and purification. Having separated oneself psychologically from the outside world, he says, one is ready for the practice of “recollection.”
De Osuna considers it important to be very clear what is meant by recollection, and so he gives multiple definitions and synonyms. Recollection “gathers together the exterior person within himself,” he says. Recollection “is also called concealment, because God hides in the secret recesses of the heart.” God is to be found in the inmost part of the soul — in silence and in peace. Recollection could be described as the practice of waiting for God in the heart, much as one stays in the house when expecting a visit from the beloved. In doing so, says De Osuna, we become arks of God and temples for the Spirit.
As with his forerunners in the contemplative tradition, De Osuna notices that the first problem will be distractions. Disturbing thoughts and feelings he attributes to the devil, while inspired thoughts, he says, are guided by angels. Sense-experiences, emotions, and memories can also disturb one who would be recollected. The solution is having the strength of character to endure these distractions and temptations for as long as they last. One should not attempt to think about the distractions, he says, as this leads only to more distractedness.
De Osuna encourages the reader to persevere. On a practical level, it has been found helpful to remain in one place, he says. The Christian practicing recollection is advised to stay in his cell or in some private room reserved solely for prayer. De Osuna cautions the novice against wanting to run off somewhere else and become a hermit!
He points out the limits of the intellect. Though understanding has its uses and leads to knowledge, understanding can never lead to peace, he says. One knows God only when intellectual attempts cease and give way to inner silence.
For formal periods of prayer (“special recollection”), he recommends one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. The exact times should be chosen for their quietness. One should, above all, approach God with love. The prayer of recollection, he explains, could also be called the practice of love.
Francisco de Osuna’s book is well known today because it is mentioned by a more influential figure, Teresa of Avila. Teresa says that she did not know how to pray until her uncle gave her a copy of De Osuna’s book. Though she followed his instructions for “recollection,” she was temperamentally unable to meditate in the traditional, discursive manner. She would therefore substitute either the practice of reading from a book of pre-written meditations, or simply gaze at an inspiring scene, such as a favorite picture or statue, or even the beauty of nature. In creation she was reminded of the Creator. Teresa agrees that in the higher reaches of contemplative prayer, “the intellect ceases to work, because God suspends it.”
She explains the progress of prayer by means of the analogy of different methods of watering a garden. It may be watered by drawing from a well; by a mechanical water wheel; by diverting water directly from a river; or by rain. In the same way as the early methods involve much effort and the later methods progressively less effort, so too with contemplative prayer. The beginner must make much individual effort, while later on, prayer becomes more and more a God-given grace.
Later in life, Teresa gave another analogy for the progress of prayer. In the seven mansions of the Interior Castle, the progress of the soul is compared with moving into a series of ever more inward rooms. We will mention only two of these dwelling places. In the first mansion, the key is self-knowledge, in parallel with the Desert Fathers’ teaching on the importance of inner vigilance. Then, in the fourth mansion, Teresa deals with the critical transition between the efforts of the individual and the grace of God. This point she terms the “prayer of quiet.” In this state of repose — reminiscent of the hesychia of the Desert Fathers — the will of the individual gradually gives way to God’s will. Ordinary recollection then becomes what she calls the “supernatural” recollection.
Teresa writes in a spontaneous manner, putting down words as thoughts occur to her. A more systematic (and perhaps the definitive) treatment of contemplative prayer is provided by her fellow Carmelite, John of the Cross.
John was born Juan de Ypes in central Spain in 1542. After studying with the Jesuits, he entered a Carmelite monastery in 1563. In 1567, he met Teresa for the first time. At that point, he was wanting to find a more contemplative way of life. John thought he would find this by joining the Carthusians. But Teresa, with her plans for a reformed Carmel, convinced him that he could find all he was looking for within the Carmelites.
The opening book of the Ascent of Mount Carmel deals at length with the danger posed by appetites for the experiences presented by the five senses. The need here is to mortify these appetites if the soul is to make progress. In saying this, John is in a direct line of descent from the Desert Fathers and from Paul’s point that the “carnal” must give way to the “spiritual” (Romans 8:6).
The second book presents the subject of faith. John observes that faith, from the point of view of the intellect, represents a kind of darkness. He goes so far as to say that intellectual knowledge and imaginings can never lead to divine union. While discursive and imaginative meditation can be helpful for beginners, he says, at a certain point one must abandon them, lest they hold one back.
John then offers three signs that indicate the point has been reached to abandon intellectual meditation: (1) Discursive meditation is no longer satisfying; (2) imagining is no longer satisfying; and (3) one begins to enjoy the silent, loving awareness of God. All three signs are necessary, he says. One may go back to discursive meditation as necessary, but one should not artificially prolong that stage. “At the proper time one should abandon this imaginative meditation, so that the journey to God may not be hindered.”
The original purpose of discursive meditation, he explains, is to come to some basic knowledge and love of God. Beyond this, it serves no purpose. Yet the early stages of true contemplation — what later tradition would call “infused contemplation” — are difficult. This is one of the stages he terms a “dark night” — again, a term reminiscent of the Pseudo-Dionysius. “The fire of love is not commonly felt at the outset,” he says. In fact, one is likely to experience only a void. But this is a time of purgation and of reform of the soul. Still, some signs are apparent. One remembers God more, and one is strengthened and feels encouraged to continue.
It is only after this period of purgation that one reaches infused contemplation. Here, divine wisdom is imparted to the soul directly, without the intermediary of words.
These lofty heights of advanced prayer seemed far removed from me as I left Westminster Abbey, following the Fraser Canyon up to Cache Creek. There I turned east along the Thompson Valley.
These river valleys form the natural routes across British Columbia. Today’s highways often follow the same route as the post-goldrush wagon trails, which in turn follow the routes discovered by the old-time fur traders.
In some areas, the Thompson Valley is flat enough for agriculture. One farm I saw billed itself as the world’s largest ginseng grower.
Down in the valley below, the river suddenly broadened into Kamloops Lake. At the city of Kamloops, the South Thompson and North Thompson joined to form the Thompson River. A trading post at Fort Kamloops was established in 1812 by David Stewart, who worked for what was then the Pacific Fur Company, a year before it was acquired by the North West Company. The NWC then merged into the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1842, the Hudson’s Bay Company built a new version of Fort Kamloops on the opposite side of the river.
South from Kamloops runs a new highway, which avoids the limitations of river valleys by simply heading straight over the top of the mountains. The road climbed to 4,000 feet, rising so rapidly that my ears popped. I noticed that, in contrast to the dry climate of Cache Creek and Kamloops, trees had now returned to the landscape. The highway descended into the Nicola Valley and headed for the town of Merritt. The grasslands in this valley were long ago discovered to be suitable for ranching. The ranchers called the area where the Nicola and Coldwater Rivers met “The Forks,” and they wanted to name their community “Forksdale.” But this name did not catch on, and the town was subsequently named after mining engineer and railway promoter William Merritt.
From Merritt, the Okanagan Connector highway lead up to another high mountain pass. Highway 97C reaches its peak of 5,700 feet at Pennask Summit then descends on the far side down to the shores of Lake Okanagan. The Okanagan River is a tributary of the Columbia, its valley shared between Canada and the United States. The spelling changes to Okanogan south of the 49th parallel. Fort Okanogan, in Washington State, was founded by the Pacific Fur Company and so eventually became part of the Hudson’s Bay Company network of trading posts.
David Stuart reached Lake Okanagan in 1811 as part of the post-Fraser quest for a route to the Pacific. By crossing overland from the Fraser River to the Okanagan, he at last discovered the connection the traders had been looking for. His route was used to bring supplies and goods for trade into the interior of the region then called “New Caledonia.”
Highway 97C reached the shores of Lake Okanagan at Peachland. This turn-of-the-century town was established by one John Robinson. He borrowed $75,000 from Canadian Pacific Railway president Sir Thomas Shaughnessy to buy up land then divided it up and sold it in ten-acre parcels. Robinson gave his towns cheerful names to match the mood of the new century: “Peachland” here, and “Summerland” to the south.
The earliest farmers in the Okanagan had to confine themselves to the lowlands around the lake. Elsewhere, the region was too dry for agriculture. But in the first few decades of the twentieth century, modern irrigation reservoirs and canals allowed the dry grasslands to be turned over to agriculture.
Kelowna is reached by a floating bridge across Lake Okanagan. During the gold rush, some 8,000 people used the north-south route along the river valley to reach the interior. Even in the early twentieth century, the easiest way to get up and down the region was to take a steamer on Lake Okanagan. When the Canadian Pacific Railway opened a spur line in 1925, rail transportation supplanted the stern-wheelers. With its dry summers, the Okanagan region became an attractive vacation spot for dwellers on British Columbia’s damp coast.
In 1859, Father Charles Pandosy of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate settled in what is now Kelowna. There had been a Jesuit mission in the area in 1847, but this had been abandoned by the time Father Pandosy arrived. The missionaries called the area L’Anse au Sable, or “Sandy Bay.”
Father Pandosy was a Frenchman from Marseilles, who first came to the Pacific Northwest in 1847. His initial mission was at Fort Walla Walla, Washington. There he learned the Yakima language. But in May 1858, war flared up between the United States, and the Yakima and Spokane Indians. The Oblates withdrew Fr. Pandosy to their new base on Vancouver Island. Then they asked him to open a mission in the southern interior of British Columbia. During the summer of 1859, Fr. Pandosy came to the Okanagan with a small group of helpers to establish this mission post. They spent the first winter living in tents. In the spring of 1860, they began to build a house and chapel.
Pandosy was a giant of a man with a big bushy beard, and he was extraordinarily popular both with his colleagues and with his parishioners. Although the mission’s official name was Immaculate Conception, it is still known locally simply as “Father Pandosy’s mission.”
With the initial buildings in place, Fr. Pandosy established a small orchard. In 1891, the Earl of Aberdeen bought 480 acres near his Okanagan mission and planted apple trees on a much larger scale. The great problem in this dry climate was getting enough water. The simplest way to irrigate higher land was to dam a creek and divert its water along a flume. Channels between rows of trees allowed water to reach the trees’ roots. But in the twentieth century, a more efficient system of pumps, pipes, and sprinklers made possible a commercial-scale fruit industry. Planting grapes allowed, in turn, for the manufacture of wine. With fruit-growing now a staple of the economy, the pioneering Fr. Pandosy became something of a local hero.
I drove through downtown Kelowna on Harvey Road. The road was jammed with slow-moving traffic. In the last few decades, Kelowna’s permanent population has blossomed from 10,000 to over 100,000. Its many tourists in the summer add to these numbers.
My original plan was to spend a few days at the Seton House of Prayer. When a group retreat cancelled, Seton called me to say they had decided to close the entire retreat center during the period I had intended to visit. Fortunately, I discovered an alternative at Emmanuella House of Prayer, just north of Kelowna. As chance would have it, a meditation retreat was scheduled for the time of my visit.
The contemplative tradition of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross came to be seen as exhaustive and definitive. This situation might have remained unchanged for several more centuries, had it not been for one thing: the growing encounters between Christianity and the spirituality of south and east Asia. These gave Christians the opportunity to view their own heritage from a new perspective.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, there was a period of a thousand years when contacts between Europe and Asia were few. Beginning with the trade empires and missionary activities of early modern times, contacts gradually increased.
The first linguistic and cultural discoveries were the work of scholars. In the eighteenth century, Sir William Jones studied Sanskrit sufficiently deeply to see that Indic and European languages were related. In the nineteenth century, notable translators included Friedrich Max Mueller for Sanskrit, and Thomas William Rhys Davids for Pali. Finally, in the twentieth century, easier travel and communications lead to a much larger popular awareness of Indian and Far Eastern culture. After exploring these Eastern traditions, Christians were to rediscover their own.
In the early 1970s, Fr. Thomas Keating noticed that young people in their twenties were being drawn to Eastern spirituality. What disturbed Fr. Keating the most was that he had devoted his whole life to the Christian tradition. Could Christianity not be conveyed to young people in a way that would appeal to them?
About this time, his colleague Fr. William Meninger discovered the Cloud of Unknowing. Despite the fact that the author may have been a Cistercian, neither Trappist had read it. On the basis of the book, Meninger then “put together a method he called the ‘Prayer of the Cloud’.” When Fr. Basil Pennington presented this teaching program to a group at a “large retreat house in Connecticut,” someone in the audience, who was familiar with the works of Thomas Merton, noted that Merton had sometimes described prayer as a movement “into the center.” On this basis, the Prayer of the Cloud came to be known as “centering” prayer.
Fr. Keating was invited to give a talk on prayer to a local parish. To his surprise, dozens and dozens of people showed up. Some of the early participants in his prayer classes formed a body called Contemplative Outreach to coordinate the growing interest. In 1986, Keating published a widely read book, Open Mind, Open Heart. This attracted even more interest.
The essence of centering prayer is, as in the Cloud of Unknowing, the use of a single word to express the intent to surrender to God’s grace. This is seen as an alternative to discursive meditation as a preparation for contemplation.
Once it was understood that he was not teaching a sort of “instant infused contemplation,” a question arose among those familiar with the history contemplative prayer. Where was the preliminary discursive meditation, generally held to be a necessary prerequisite? To this, Keating replied that a certain familiarity with the truths of the faith, and with the meditation on lectio (reading), was already assumed. “Our contemporaries in the Western world would have a special problem with discursive meditation,” he said. This problem is that over-educated Westerners might continue with discursive meditation to an extent unimaginable to John of the Cross.
Slightly earlier than this, in about 1971, Fr. John Main had stumbled across the writings of John Cassian. Again, in his entire formation as a Benedictine, he had never read Cassian, nor was he aware that there existed in the Christian East a tradition of monologistic prayer. When Cassian talked about repeating a single verse, Fr. John was reminded of the mantra meditation he had learned as a young man in Malaya in the 1950s. He had abandoned this when he joined the Benedictines, but now he was astonished to find a similar tradition within Christianity. He resumed meditating in his monologistic manner, and his experience was the same as that of the Desert Fathers interviewed by John Cassian: Scripture suddenly revealed its meaning in greater clarity.
One consequence of his resumption of meditation was that Fr. John saw a new significance in the one-word prayer of the primitive Church, “Maranatha.” Maranatha appears, in the original Aramaic, toward the end of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in the passage Paul writes in his own hand. It means “Come, O Lord.” The fact that the Aramaic is retained demonstrates that it was a familiar prayer in the very early Christian community. This importance to the community is corroborated by the fact that it appears, too, at the end of the communion prayer in the Didache. Maranatha might also have had a second sense, “The Lord is come.” The choice of “Come, O Lord” as the primary meaning seems to be confirmed by its use, in Greek translation, at the end of the book of Revelation: “Come, Lord Jesus.” Yet for a native speaker of Aramaic, Maranatha may have had echoes of both meanings: “The Lord is come,” and “Come, O Lord.” Hearing both these meanings turns Maranatha into a shorthand summary of the entire New Testament.
Given that it was a prayer of the early community and that it was addressed to Jesus, “Maranatha” connects the community with Jesus.
John Main began to informally teach people the monologistic or mantra prayer, “Maranatha.” Meditation was, though, only one side of his spirituality. He was also a firm believer in community. These two aspects came together in 1975, when he was given permission to start an experimental lay-monastic community in a house on the grounds of Ealing Abbey. People from outside the community began to visit for periods of meditation. In 1976, John Main was invited to give three talks at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, famous as the home of Thomas Merton, and in 1977 he was asked to start a new Benedictine priory in Montreal. Fr. John’s exploration of meditation and community continued in Montreal. As in Ealing, people from nearby parishes began to congregate around the meditation periods.
John Main died in 1982, but at the annual John Main Seminar in 1991, with keynote speaker Fr. Bede Griffiths, the possibility was raised of forming a worldwide community around his work. This was named the World Community for Christian Meditation. At the time of writing, there are believed to be about sixteen hundred weekly meditation groups associated with the WCCM.
Fr. John places himself firmly in the apophatic tradition when he writes about the use of Maranatha as a prayer word: “I prefer the Aramaic form, because it has no associations for most of us.” He goes on to explain that this “helps us into a meditation that will be quite free of all images.”
Finally, in this new springtime for contemplative prayer, during the twentieth century the Eastern Church’s Jesus Prayer also became popular in the West. It became better known through English translations of a nineteenth-century Russian book, The Way of a Pilgrim. This tells the story of a young man who, like so many before him, wishes to understand how it is possible to “pray without ceasing.” On his travels around Russia, he is introduced to the Jesus Prayer. The book tells the story of how his prayer life then develops.
Summarizing the effect of all these encounters with the East on the Western Church, Fr. Bruno Barnhart observed that they “lead us back to our own East” — an “internal East” within Western Christianity, which for many centuries lay lost and forgotten.
The retreat at Emmanuella House of Prayer was in the centering prayer tradition, but they told me I would be welcome to continue in the tradition of John Main’s Christian Meditation. The house consisted of a private home, set in a quiet area high on the east shore of Lake Okanagan. The non-profit society that runs the house opened in 1999 after its founder had spent three years studying at the Vancouver School of Theology. The house overlooked the lake, and its seven acres were, until recently, shaded by ponderosa pines. Unfortunately, most of the pine trees had been stricken by mountain pine beetles. These insects have infected large areas of British Columbia.
After settling in, the three of us on the retreat gathered for sung Evening Prayer. A taped choir and music accompanied us. Then we began our first, twenty-minute meditation period. When it was over, we had a dinner of spaghetti, sauce, garlic bread, and coleslaw, with a brownie and ice cream for dessert.
We gathered again at seven in the evening, this time for a triple-sit. The famous “triple-sit” consists of three periods of meditation, broken by short breaks for stretching and walking.
In The Selfless Self, Father Laurence Freeman compares the repeated failures of meditation — the drifting away from the mantra — with the experiments of Thomas Edison. Edison would try 5,000 ways of getting something to work before he finally hit on one that did. Yet the “failed” experiments were part of his process of success. So it is with repeating a mantra. You might drift away from it 5,000 times, but so what? Fr. Laurence suggests that we have an exaggerated fear of failure. The fact that something must be patiently tried 5,000 times should not put us off.
After our triple-sit, we had a discussion comparing different translations of the beatitudes. We were running late by the time we finished, and so Compline was shortened to a single chant.
The next morning, we began again at 7 a.m. with another triple-sit before a breakfast of porridge with toast, butter, and peach marmalade. A fourth retreatant was due to join us at ten, but she did not arrive, so the three of us resumed our meditation with the 10 a.m. triple-sit. By now, the triple-sits were becoming excruciatingly difficult. My back ached. Whoever thought twenty minutes could feel like an hour? I was afflicted by an incredible restlessness, longing for the break between sits to arrive, and counting my way through the meditation periods — one, two, three — that passed so agonizingly slowly. A cushion wedged between myself and the back of the chair during the third meditation period provided only temporarily relief. I dreaded the thought of more triple-sits to come.
After the morning triple-sit was finally over, I went outside and walked up the hill to look at Emmanuella’s labyrinth. It was laid out with stones over the course of two weeks after much carrying of stones and careful measuring.
After lunch, we rested before the three-o’clock triple-sit. As I sat down to begin in the afternoon, all I could think about was how long it would be until the next break.
In the event, it was easier than I anticipated. Perhaps the cushion was helping. Or perhaps I was calming down and settling into the stillness.
The three of us gathered for Evening Prayer and a single session of meditation before a roast chicken dinner. The final triple-sit of the day passed without incident, and we continued our discussion of the remaining beatitudes. By coincidence, as I was reading after dinner, I happened to come across a passage where Fr. Laurence discusses the beatitude, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.” He relates this purity of heart to a still mind and the resultant clarity. Our day ended with Compline.
The next morning, I woke at six and had coffee before our early morning triple-sit. Despite the difficulties of the day before, I was looking forward to starting afresh. The meditation began with stillness but then gradually became busier as I woke up and felt the effects of the coffee. All sorts of fantasies of future retreats passed through my mind, an ironic substitute for the experience of actually being here on this one. When the third meditation period was over, I miraculously felt as if I could have gone on for a fourth.
After breakfast, the third member of our group had to leave, and we continued with the final, official triple-sit of the retreat. Again, my back was sore, no matter how I positioned myself or where I placed the cushion. I was glad when the gong rang to signal the end of the meditation.
We had lunch, and then at three o’clock I went back for another triple-sit, even though our formal retreat was now over.
Fr. Laurence talks about this ability of silence to draw together a community in Light Within. In his introduction, he points out that communities need not be based around exchanging words. They can also be based on shared silence. A group of people can come together in prayer, without having first discussed all their “news and views.” A community can grow out of silence, rather than having an established community arrange a time for silence. He says, too, that “the depth of our community is directly proportional to the depth of our prayer.” A community that does not pray together will eventually not be a community at all.
But this depth of prayer has to be real. Talk without the corresponding reality is unconvincing. As evidence of the need to have something real to offer, Fr. Laurence points to the growing number of people who have no kind of religious background at all. There will eventually be a need to establish a capacity to reach such people, says Fr. Laurence. He wrote this in 1986, over twenty years ago, and Fr. Laurence’s future is now. At the last census, over a third of British Columbians reported no religion at all. Not only the liturgy but also the entire vocabulary of Christianity say nothing to them.
Later in the book, Fr. Laurence returns to the need for community. Disciples always exist in community, he says. Without the support and strength of a community, we tend to settle for mediocrity. It must be a community of prayer, he says, because otherwise it becomes only a venue for socialization.
Just after four o’clock, we finished this unofficial triple-sit. Now that I was used to it, the triple-sit had begun to seem like a single, hour-long sit, punctuated by two brief breaks for stretching and walking. My back was less painful than it had been in the morning. I felt as if I could have continued with four triple-sits a day indefinitely, but the retreat was now definitely over. I awoke the next morning feeling refreshed.
I left Kelowna for Johnson’s Landing, where I was booked on a workshop with Dorothy Maclean. The route would take me from the Okanagan to the Kootenay region of British Columbia. From Emmanuella House of Prayer, I headed north on Highway 97 to Vernon.
As elsewhere in British Columbia, the fur traders were the first Europeans to visit these parts, followed by the gold prospectors. Many of them saw the region’s potential for cattle ranching and so settled here.
Forbes Vernon, the city of Vernon’s namesake, had a ranch in the area. The Earl and subsequently Marquess of Aberdeen purchased 13,000 acres from Vernon and planted orchards. This confidence on the part of Lord Aberdeen drew other families.
After Vernon, I turned east and came to the small logging and agriculture community of Lumby. Many of the early settlers in Lumby were French-Canadian. In particular, a family of seven brothers named Christien came here from Quebec in 1862. One brother, Louis Christien, found gold at Cherry Creek then took up land to farm.
At that time, the British Columbia government had a system of “pre-emptions,” by which any settler who cleared land and put up a building could claim the land. Christien subsequently became the foreman on the construction of the wagon trail that was the ancestor of the modern Highway 6, along which I traveled. Another Quebecer, Pierre Bessette, donated land for a church in Lumby in 1893. Prior to that, Mass had been said in Pierre Bessette’s dining room by a priest from Father Pandosy’s mission in Kelowna.
After Lumby, the landscape became greener and hillier. The road climbed into the Monashee Mountains. These form the natural dividing line between the Okanagan and Kootenay regions of British Columbia.
At this early hour, I had the road to myself. When I stopped for a break at 3,800 feet, it was blissfully quiet. I realized why monasteries must always built in remote areas. One’s spirit expands in this silent, forested, mountainous kingdom. Besides, pine trees smell nice on a sunny morning.
North of here, still in the Monashees, surveyor Walter Moberly found and named Eagle Pass as he searched for a possible route for the new railway across British Columbia. The famous “last spike” in that railway would be driven at Eagle Pass in 1885 — fourteen years after British Columbia had been promised the railway as its reward for joining the Dominion of Canada.
I descended the far side of the Monashee Mountains into the town of Needles on Lower Arrow Lake. Upper and Lower Arrow Lake are widenings in the Columbia River. At Needles, I stopped to wait for a ferry across the lake. As in several other places in British Columbia, the ferry counts as part of the highway system and is therefore free. The ferry took me to Fauquier, and then I drove on to Nakusp.
At Nakusp, I broke my journey for an early lunch. This pleasant small town sported a New Age gift shop and a health food store. From there it was on to New Denver, originally called Eldorado City but renamed after Denver, Colorado. New Denver is unfortunately best known as the site of a World War Two internment camp. Over a thousand Japanese-Canadians were forcibly confined here during the war. Their makeshift cabins were constructed from new wood. When the wood dried, it left gaps in the walls that allowed the winter winds to blow through. The only sources of heat were oil lamps, designed for lighting rather than warmth. The Japanese-Canadians had to scrape the frost off the inside of their cabin walls each winter morning.
From New Denver to Kaslo, the route consisted of another snake-its-way-through-the-mountains road. From Kaslo, I drove up to the head of Kootenay Lake then round to Argenta. A group of Quaker families came here in the 1950s to establish a more wholesome life than they thought possible in McCarthyite America. The roads were gravel at this point. Finally I arrived at the Johnson’s Landing Retreat Center.
Our kind and thoughtful hosts for the week were the owners of the retreat center, Richard and Angele. The story of how Richard came to be running the retreat center is fascinating. He was a schoolteacher in Kaslo, and he loved to hike in the surrounding areas. One day, while out in the woods, he stumbled across a small, little-known, and neglected retreat center. In a moment of clarity, he knew he had a job to do revitalizing it. Richard bought the property, and in the summer of 1999 he put together a complete program of workshops and retreats. He had 5,000 brochures printed up. No one came. But Richard persisted, and by the time I visited Johnson’s Landing, he had a full house for the workshop with Dorothy Maclean. I was staying in a “tent cabin,” which is a tent erected on top of a wooden, cabin-like foundation. It was hot in the tent-cabin, exposed to the sun all day, but it cooled down by nightfall.
Over dinner that first evening, people were excited to meet Dorothy. With their many questions, they almost pre-empted the subject matter of the workshop. It is astonishing how many people have been touched by the Findhorn story. “To the four corners of the Earth,” their guidance told them. Though they had faith in intuition, this they found difficult to believe.
The next morning, we gathered, fifteen women and five men, to share our stories of divine moments in our lives. Then Dorothy told her story.
In 1941, she had just graduated from the University of Western Ontario. Her first job was with the British Security Coordination in New York. Dorothy’s chaperone for the rail journey from Toronto to New York happened to be Sheena Govan, daughter of the founders of the Faith Mission. This encounter did not mean much to her at the time. After the war, Dorothy settled in London, and there she reconnected with Sheena Govan.
It turned out that Sheena had a spirituality of her own that was rather different from that of her Evangelical parents. Her practices included listening for divine guidance. This was popular at the time: the Moral Re-Armament movement reached its peak in the 1940s. But Sheena discovered the practice of listening for guidance naturally, though she may have been influenced by her father’s membership in the Society of Friends.
By the late 1940s, Dorothy’s wartime marriage to John Wood had become difficult. Her husband was taciturn to the point of secretiveness and was often absent for long periods. Dorothy wanted to find the most loving way she could to deal with this situation. Her conclusion — shocking at the time — was that, in his own best interests, she should divorce him.
Convinced that this was indeed the most loving choice, Dorothy initiated divorce proceedings. Her motivation — a commitment to living life in a loving way — had an unexpected side-effect. Shortly after her decision to act in the most loving way possible, she had a “God moment” in her flat in London. Then she began to get the urge to take time away from all her usual activities, sit down, and listen for guidance. By remembering the felt experience of the God moment, Dorothy found she could enter an intuitive state of consciousness. Even so, she would not have continued with the practice of listening for guidance without the encouragement of Sheena Govan.
Dorothy took up Sheena’s suggestion to listen three times a day. She sat for thirty to forty-five minutes at a time. Fortuitously, she had a private office at the London newspaper where she worked, so she could include a midday session in her schedule. “The answers always worked,” Dorothy told us. And so she built up confidence in this new source of inspiration and direction in life.
Dorothy met Sheena Govan’s then-husband, Peter Caddy. In the early 1950s, they were joined by Eileen Combe, soon to be Peter’s third wife. When Peter and Eileen Caddy were appointed to manage the Cluny Hill Hotel in Forres, Dorothy followed her inner guidance and joined them as the hotel’s secretary. After the three of them lost their jobs some years later, while managing another hotel, the Caddys moved to a caravan (trailer) park near the village of Findhorn. Again following her guidance, in 1963 Dorothy had an annex built to the caravan so that she could continue to meditate with the Caddys.
Dorothy’s story was familiar to me from her book, To Hear the Angels Sing, but was much more powerful when I heard it from her in person. Reading transcripts of her guidance in Come Closer, I was struck by the extraordinary sensitivity with which she recorded her inner promptings.
Her method of receiving guidance differed from Eileen Caddy’s. Eileen would mentally “hear” definite words and simply write them down. Dorothy, on the other hand, would recall the God moment, tune in to this state of consciousness, and then notice any impressions or meanings that suggested themselves. Her active part was confined to finding the right words, sometimes with the aid of a thesaurus. She calls her method the “Doorway Method.” Expressing its essence, Dorothy told us that it is simply a matter of choosing to be loving.
As the days went by, Dorothy gave us opportunities to experiment with the Doorway Method for ourselves. Our evenings were filled with various unofficial, extracurricular activities that retreatants spontaneously offered to facilitate. On the first evening, we had Sacred Circle Dance, a Findhorn staple.
Dorothy was accompanied on the retreat by her assistant, Freya. “Did you brush your teeth with God?” Freya asked us one morning. She reminded us that God is not a hobby, nor a means of escape from everyday life. God is life. Likewise, divine guidance is not separate from everyday life; it is, rather, the driver for everyday life.
By the mid-1960s, when Dorothy’s guidance told her to tune in to the forces of nature, she had built up trust in its accuracy. She gave us time to experiment for ourselves. Someone placed a petunia in the center of the group room. We all contemplated the plant and wrote down whatever thoughts and feelings occurred to us. Dorothy explained that the idea is to gather within oneself all known qualities of the petunia and then examine their resonance.
By this stage in the workshop, I was in the habit of taking a nap after lunch, as best I could in the sauna-like heat of the tent-cabin, then showering and taking tea. During those hot afternoons, I talked to many people. There was much interest in the subject of intentional communities, and some had made differing degrees of progress toward this ideal. Our host, Richard, told me there was an intentional community aspect to the Johnson’s Landing retreat center, too.
Our afternoon sessions began at 4 p.m. I never thought of myself as a “tree-hugger,” but one of our exercises involved doing just that. The results were unexpected. As soon as I placed my hands on the trunk, all the mental chatter fell from my mind. I realized why our treeless cities are filled with neurotic activity.
The workshop was not all seriousness. Freya gave us a humorous impression of Peter Caddy supervising a meditation session at Findhorn — documented, she assured us, on video.
Early the next day, I walked in the summer sun to the Johnson’s Landing group room for early morning meditation. It was hard to believe it was a weekday in the outside world. Every day at the retreat center was as peaceful as every other day. At breakfast, taken in the open air, I positioned myself at a table with a view of the mountains on the west side of Kootenay Lake.
After repeated practice, the thoughts that came to me in the intuition practice sessions had a glowing, luminous, translucent quality to them. A momentum was building up. None of this tuning in is mental, Dorothy reminded us. It is based on a physical, felt connection. The quality of the light in the group room seemed to become more intense as the days went by. Richard’s and Angele’s responses to guest queries were always generous and giving.
One morning, we worked in the retreat center garden. While Dorothy was at Findhorn, visitors would arrive haphazardly. Peter Caddy would assess them — he was particularly fond of hard workers — and if they passed muster, he would let them stay and work. But as the numbers grew into the hundreds, it was no longer practical for Peter to deal with them personally. He initiated a program called “Experience Week” to introduce them to the community. And here we were, somewhat anachronistically, doing our very own Experience Week with Dorothy Maclean.
My job was to tidy the greenhouse. As soon as I saw the gardening gloves, my mind went back to my very first job — assistant gardener at the Officers’ Mess at Royal Air Force Halton. Curiously enough, Squadron Leader Peter Caddy had also been posted to RAF Halton during the war. To keep everyone informed of social activities, he erected a large board titled “What’s On.” I can distinctly remember seeing that board, several decades after Squadron Leader Caddy erected it. Little did I know that I would one day meet the board’s architect, the former Squadron Leader.
It is unusual for me to get into an argument with anyone, let alone someone I have just met, yet somehow I managed to get into an argument with the Peter Caddy. I saw what Dorothy meant when she talked about the man’s immense energy. Whatever his faults, Findhorn would not have happened without him.
Our gardening was carried out in silence. After the silence ended, Susan gave a talk on herbal medicine, and there was a thunder shower.
On the last evening, we met in the retreat center Tipi for an evening of fun led by the Tipi’s occupants, Clayten and Charles. Richard and Angele had offered the use of their collection of percussion instruments for the evening, and we made good use of them. Later, the thought occurred to me that I should have memorized Marriott Edgar’s “Albert and the Lion” to recite on such occasions.
After a week of sitting in the sun, my car started first time. I headed back along the gravel road to Argenta. That road must be hard on the tires for those who live full-time at Johnson’s Landing. Getting to the nearest town for groceries takes an hour, and the first dozen miles are gravel.
After passing the head of Kootenay Lake, I turned south toward Nelson. Nelson is a product of the silver rush of 1886. After the silver had been depleted, the city became a center for the forestry industry. When forestry declined, it turned to tourism. Business owners stripped the modern siding off their buildings to reveal turn-of-the-century exteriors. The town is reputed to have been a haven for American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War.
From Nelson, I continue south to Salmo. This town’s odd name is an abbreviation of “Salmon Siding,” as in town-on-the-banks-of-the-Salmon-River. There are precious few salmon today, since the Columbia River was dammed during the 1960s. The road from Nelson to Salmo was part of the gold rush trail, laid out in the nineteenth century by Edgar Dewdney.
After Salmo, I joined Highway 3. This road passes through the Purcell Mountains, the last range before the Rockies. I continued through Creston and Yahk, after which the road followed the Moyie River. This river is a tributary of the Kootenay, whose spelling changes to Kootenai after it crosses the American border.
The town of Cranbrook was originally called Joseph’s Prairie. In 1864, the government of British Columbia situated a lookout post here to watch for Americans illegally entering British territory. When Colonel James Baker bought the property in 1887, he renamed the town Cranbrook after his home town in Kent. Lying in a valley between the Purcell Mountains and the Rockies, Cranbrook claims to be the sunniest spot in British Columbia.
Colonel Baker was a man of immense capabilities. He had fought in the Crimean War, and after settling in southeast British Columbia, he turned his energies to business. There was coal in the area, but while you could carry out hundreds of dollars’ worth of gold in your pocket, transporting coal was a different matter.
Baker had himself elected to the British Columbia legislature. He then used his political influence to see to it that not only was a railway built, but the railway would stop on his land. The Canadian Pacific Railway line from Lethbridge to Nelson opened in 1897. Its arrival allowed Colonel Baker and his business partners to carry Elk Valley coal to market. With a railway station on his land, Baker became the owner of a city in the making. He opened a hotel and sold off lots for building.
Before going to Marywood retreat center, I stopped at Cranbrook’s Wal-Mart to buy requisites. Even on a Saturday afternoon, there was plenty of room to park in this human-size town. I briefly toured old downtown. The main street was, of course, named Baker Street, but little remained from Cranbrook’s early days. Much of the downtown was built in a utilitarian, mid-century style. Still, the setting was spectacular — a wide-open valley surrounded by forested hills, with views of the mountains beyond.
To get to Marywood, I crossed the railway tracks into an industrial area then headed uphill to the semi-rural lots beyond. At the very end of Westwood Drive lies Marywood Retreat Center. Since this southeastern slice of British Columbia observes Mountain Time, I set my watch forward an hour. For some reason, entering a new time zone made me feel as though I had entered a new country. The eastern border of British Columbia was only ninety miles away.
Marywood is a small retreat center with only seven guestrooms. It offers directed and undirected retreats, along with day programs for the local community. They have a system of scheduled weeks for silent retreats, allowing guests to retreat in silence yet with the support of a group. It is staffed by the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame.
Like the Sisters of St. Ann, the Congregation of Notre Dame was founded in Quebec, though at the surprisingly early date of 1653. The order’s founder was St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, who had come to Montreal from France. The Congregation of Notre Dame is a teaching order which now has communities in both North and South America. Its Sisters came to British Columbia in the twentieth century.
The retreat center has been on this site for twenty-five years. Though purpose-built for retreats, it was intended to have a warm atmosphere and so was designed in the style of a private home. Several of my fellow retreatants were from Spokane, which was only a three-hour drive away. Above all, the kindness and thoughtfulness of the Sisters made Marywood feel welcoming.
Since it was Saturday evening, the Sisters took us all back into downtown Cranbrook for Mass. This arrangement would allow Sunday to be a complete day of rest. After Mass, we returned to Marywood for dinner. The dining room overlooked a forested valley, beyond which soared the British Columbia Rockies. Classical music played softly in the background.
Before breakfast the next morning, I took a walk along an old logging road that adjoined the property. When I got back to the retreat center, I discovered a group of deer on the grounds. By the time I went for breakfast, the deer had moved round to graze on the lawn in front of the dining room. A fawn came right up to the window. It began munching on the Sisters’ carefully tended plants. I supposed that the Sisters must be used to this by now.
For morning meditation, I went to the room set aside as a chapel. Again I was struck by the beauty of the experience of silence and loving prayer.
I was re-reading at that time Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. Merton warns of the dangers of attachment to spiritual pleasures. When I first read Merton, over twenty years ago, I liked him, but I thought no more about what he was saying. Re-reading him now, I was astonished by his insights. Quotable quotes appear on almost every page. “The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self,” he says. “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” Little did I know at the time that, on my next visit to Marywood, the truth beyond the false self would begin to be revealed to me.
Merton says in the book that our real work is not to convert the world to our point of view, but to allow God’s will to do its work within us. And what is God’s will? He answers: “The very nature of each situation usually bears within itself some indication of God’s will.”
In his position as novice master at Gethsemani, Thomas Merton gave lectures on John Cassian. His lecture notes have now been published. Merton notices Cassian’s remark that the source of all our problems is worldly distractions. Cassian asserted that without such obstacles, the soul will rise naturally toward God. Merton thinks this “optimistic.” Perhaps it is optimistic for one whose “job” is to be a monastic, but for the lay retreatant, it is an easily verified reality. Get away from your work, your house, and your city, and the mind settles and clears itself after only a few days.
I returned to the chapel, not to reflect on these points, but simply to sit in stillness.
In a book about the Desert Fathers, I came across a story about three friends in the desert, who each made different attempts to lead the holy life. One tried to become a peace-maker; one visited the sick; and the third became a contemplative. The first two became discouraged and sought out the advice of the third.
The contemplative gave his answer in the form of a demonstration. First, he poured some water into a bowl and showed the other two how turbulent the water was. But after a while, the water settled and became calm. His two friends saw their faces reflected in the clear, still water. This was the contemplative’s way of demonstrating the value of stillness.
I appreciated the stillness of Marywood so much that I returned two years’ later for one of their week-long silent retreats. Though I was the only person who had registered for that week, the Sisters kindly allowed the retreat to go ahead.
For the first six days, my practice was the Christian Meditation of Fr. John Main. I did not sit for very long each time — twenty or twenty-five minutes — but because this was a retreat, I sat for six or seven meditation sessions each day.
On the seventh day, which happened to be a Sunday, I decided I would try something different. Now I sat for an hour at a time, but without any specific practice. I simply sat still with my eyes closed. I did three of those hour-long sits that Sunday.
That evening around 6:30 p.m. — it was May and still light at that hour — I had a sudden mystical experience. All the chattering in my mind stopped completely — all the thinking and all the planning for the future. While this was happening, I perceived myself to be a “servant of the universe.” Those were the words that came to me. The universe I perceived to be a huge, perhaps even infinite, being around me.
This being — the universe — was alive and intelligent, but not in a human way. It was alive and intelligent in a bigger than human way, a trans-human way. And it was this universe of which I was the servant. In that condition, there was no need for me to think of anything, because my role was simply to respond to orders, in the way a servant does. This state of mind lasted for about a half-hour.
That summer I decided to get more serious about meditation. At the time, I did not relate this urge to the servant-experience in May. I see now that they might have been connected. Like Piaget’s child who has reached the stage of object permanence, I now knew the ball was there. This is from the point of view of the conscious mind, with its central “I” character and all its strivings. From the point of view of the unconscious mind, the servant-experience had loosened the grip of the defense mechanisms. Repressed energy now pushed to find a way to come forth.
I took some time off work to meditate at home. After researching on the Internet, I settled on a method I had encountered earlier in life. The “noticing-and-naming” technique, I learned, promised quick and certain results if practiced correctly. So began a routine of several hour-long meditation sits each day.
At this point I had a coaching session on the noticing-and-naming technique from Kenneth Folk, who offers meditation instruction by Skype. Now, this form of meditation is called vipassana, which just means “insight.” After my session with Kenneth, I went out to a strip mall. There I had an extraordinary experience. Parked next to me was a commercial van with the name of a business painted on its side, “Insight Plumbing” or something similar. At that exact moment I had a sudden and inexplicable urge to look sideways and up. There my eyes fixed on a second-floor optician’s office with the words “Insight Opticians” painted on the window. The combination of these events, together with my having practiced “insight” meditation at home with Kenneth that morning, challenged my notion of reality. The “naive realist” view is that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter. Now it seemed possible that it was the other way round — that matter is an epiphenomenon of consciousness. Or perhaps both could be true, in the same way as subatomic physicists find that both wave theories and particle theories produce results that fit the observable facts. Whatever the explanation, I began to sometimes get the impression after this that all I was aware of was my own mind — that there were no real, external objects, but only the sensations in my mind.
Over the winter I read a short passage from the book Emptiness Dancing by Adyashanti every evening before I went to bed. I would then reflect on what I had read. It began to occur to me during the day that some of the thoughts I observed included the word “I,” and the realization dawned on me that this word “I” was really no different from any other word.
At this point a certain fear seized me. I began to suspect that, if I carried on with this program of inner observation, I would come to a place where there would be “nothing left of me.” This was a horrifying thought. It was only out of sheer curiosity that I decided to press on. I do not know how much of what was happening was related to my reading of Adyashanti and how much was related to the meditation.
In early March 2011, I drove down to Seattle, Washington, for a weekend seminar with Adyashanti. We had a pleasant enough weekend at the Shoreline Conference Center, just north of Seattle, but nothing more than that. Certainly, nothing special happened that weekend.
On March 22, 2011, I was driving along the Coquihalla Highway in southwestern British Columbia, a newish highway that climbs the Coast Mountains from almost sea level to 4,000 feet. It was late afternoon in spring, and the sun was shining in a clear blue sky. With very little traffic on the road, I could relax and enjoy the scenery.
All of a sudden, for about half a second, I experienced the feeling of having recognized something very obvious. In the next half second, the thing recognized came to me. The sky and the mountains and the trees were me, smiling back at me. This glorious experience of unity, of recognizing the world as myself, lasted about a half-hour.
This kicked off an eight-day period I call “the turbulent period.” As I lay in my bed that night, insight after insight came to me about the nature of life. I slept for only two hours that first night. The next night, despite being tired, I slept for only four hours. This pattern of little sleep continued for all eight days of the turbulent period.
Sometimes I would wake in the mornings and feel unfamiliar to myself. The image that came to me was that the person I used to be was being burned up from the inside out. Insights about God, the universe, and the nature of life continued to come to me each day.
For much of the eight days, the only kind of music I wanted to listen to was gentle, Christian music. I would lie on the couch listening to one particular CD, Sounds of Healing by Julie True, over and over again.
On the eighth day, in the morning, a single word came to me: “completion.” Sure enough, later on that day — it was a Friday — the turbulent period came to a completion.
The perspective that emerged during those eight days was that there was no “me” to be separate from all of life. There was, in fact, no separateness at all, anywhere in the universe or the world. There was only one thing happening in the world, and that was life as a whole. It felt as though the idea that I was something separate from life as a whole was something I had woken up from, like waking up from a dream.
The words that fit the experience best for me were words from the Bible, and in particular a couple of expressions from John’s Gospel. One was the expression “born again” (John 3:3, 3:7). It felt as though I had been born again. And when I say “I” had been born again, of course I am using the word “I” in its conventional sense, where we pretend that there is some separate thing to which the word “I” can refer. The whole point of the realization was that this word “I” did not really refer to anything with an existence of its own. The other expression that meant a lot to me was the expression “eternal life,” again from John’s Gospel (John 3:15, etc.). Eternal life, it seemed to me, was all that there was. Everything was eternal life; eternal life was all that existed.
The first benefit I noticed was that I was able to do simple tasks without having something else happening in my mind at the same time. For example, I could carry a plate into the kitchen, and that would be all that was happening — “carrying a plate into the kitchen.” There was no thinking happening at the same time. I was not wishing that things would be other than they were, I did not have an agenda, and I was not planning for something to happen later in life. I was just carrying a plate into the kitchen. I had heard of attending to the moment being taught as an intentional spiritual practice, but now it was happening by itself. Occasionally a wispy thought would cross my mind, only to disappear as quickly as it had arisen.
The subjective experience was that the mind was “clean,” with no “stickiness” in it. I was no longer struggling to make something in particular happen in life. If things worked one way, they worked that way. And if they worked another way, they worked that way. I had no preconceived plan for what direction I wanted events to flow in.
During the turbulent period, I could only plan for just the one day that was happening now. At some points I could think only of the present moment. My mind would not go to anything other than the present moment. This made it difficult to mix with other people, since I could not plan ahead. That phase did come to an end, however, and my ability to put dates and times in my schedule returned. It was as though the cognitive part of my mind had been temporarily torn to pieces and took some days to rewire itself.
In Bernadette Roberts’ account of a Christian journey to no-self, she asks where Christ is in all this. She concludes, “Christ is not the self, but that which remains when there is no self.” I would use different words. For me, what remains without a self is life — eternal life.
Even while it was happening, I knew that this awakening was the event all the mystics talk about. Though I was something of a slacker, I had been graced with what the Buddhists call stream-entry. With my inquisitive mind, I wanted to understand this happening.
My knowledge of awakening until now had come from religious and mystical books. It was the psychology section of the library that now gave me the most satisfying answers. There I learned that the belief in a separate self is not something any of us is born with. It is something that is constructed as the human mind develops.
For the first few months of its life, an infant lives in a world of fleeting sensations. Nothing is solid. This is known from the experiments of Jean Piaget. He discovered that a very young infant will lose interest in a brightly colored ball as soon as it is removed from sight.
Somewhere between the age of three and six months, the infant will continue to look in the direction of a ball even when it is hidden under a blanket. The infant “knows” the object is there, even if it is not visible. Piaget named this stage “object permanence.” The child’s mind can now grasp the concept of an object, even without immediate sensory input.
A few months after object permanence, the child will not merely look at an attractive object, but will attempt to grasp at it. This is a telling development. The child is no longer simply experiencing life; it is attempting to manipulate that experience.
Around the age of eighteen months, a toddler will pass the “rouge test.” Here, a smudge of rouge is covertly applied to the child’s nose. The child, seeing itself in a mirror, wipes the smudge from its nose. The conclusion is that a rudimentary notion of self now exists. Given that this is well after object permanence, we can conclude that the sense of self is something persistent and solid.
Soon language will develop. The child’s mind learns to represent objects by words. A word becomes a symbol for the object. And, in the course of time, it will learn to use the word “I” as a sign for its solidifying concept of self.
At puberty, the “I” concept hardens. In adolescence, the self-concept changes from one who simply experiences the world into one who is an autonomous agent or doer.
For adults, this notion of “I” as the doer has become so ingrained, and has been with us for so long, that we forget we ever experienced the world otherwise.
At the same time as the sense of self is developing, the mind is forming habits. Our reaction to one early situation becomes the way we react to all similar situations in the future. The strivings of the past are superimposed on the present.
One particular kind of habit is particularly constricting. These are the defense mechanisms. We discover that we can mask our feelings by producing thoughts in our mind. The thoughts feel more pleasant than the uncomfortable feelings they muffle.
This, then, is our ordinary situation before awakening. We live in a world where the constructed “I” character is continually suppressing our real feelings, while acting out the battles of the past. Of course, we are unaware that we live in this mind-constructed false world.
Miraculously, it is then possible to see through the fabrications that have built up over so many years. This direct seeing is what happens during an awakening. The “I” is seen to be the mental fabrication that it is. Once this happens, the defense mechanisms and mental habits dissolve. The lynchpin holding them in place has been removed.
I now realize that some parts of this anyone can see for themselves, in their own experience, with a couple of simple exercises. If you sit down long enough to get calm, you can watch the way thoughts bubble up uninvited. You can see the way the word “I” does the same thing. And if you watch carefully enough, you can feel the visceral sense of self mobilize itself around some thought, all without deliberate intervention.
You can even see the defense mechanisms in action if you pay close enough attention. To do this, you have to become aware of what you are feeling immediately before a thought involving the word “I” arises. What you will so often see is that the mind is seeking to push away uncomfortable feelings and experience something more pleasurable instead. You can notice that the mental thought, whatever it is, feels subjectively more pleasant than the feeling it attempts to suppress.
Awakening is the full realization that this is an ownerless process, taking place entirely under its own steam. The “I” is seen to be not the controller of events but a product of events. The self has no substantial existence of its own.
In my reading, I learned, too, that these awakenings can happen for many reasons. Some of these reasons can be quite different from the conditions that brought about my own awakening.
One type can be seen in the classic Christian “born-again” experience. This is always preceded by a moment Christians call “the conviction of sin.” Here an individual is both afraid of the consequences of their past actions, and at the same hates themselves for what they have done. In a moment of extreme self-loathing, the mind simultaneously wants to perpetuate the self and to destroy the self. This is too much pressure, and the self “bursts,” as it were, resulting in the born-again experience.
Even before Jesus, we can see this combination of fear and self-loathing among the audience of John the Baptist. In Luke 3, John warns his audience about God’s wrath. People are then afraid that something bad is going to happen because God is going to be angry. This is the fear. And then comes the self-loathing — John calls them sinners, “generation of vipers,” i.e. the children of snakes. This produces self-loathing. Those two together — the fear and the self-loathing — produce the conviction of sin that precedes the born-again experience.
It is not just in the Christian tradition that we find the conviction of sin followed by the born-again experience. At the beginning of Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now, he describes his experiences at the age of twenty-nine. He reached a point of utter self-loathing, and the thought came to him, “I can’t live with myself anymore.” There he experienced the same self-loathing as occurs in the Christian conviction of sin. This was followed by his awakening, and the next morning, he woke up feeling as though he had just been born into the world. Eckhart Tolle actually uses that expression, “just been born into the world,” though without connecting it with the Christian “born-again” terminology from John’s Gospel. Thus began a five-month period of post-awakening bliss for Eckhart Tolle.
These born-again awakenings are typically unintentional. But for many centuries, a few people have intentionally cultivated transformations of consciousness, though perhaps not knowing at that time that awakening was a possible result.
Both Christianity and Indian spiritualities have their traditions of asceticism. Here the practitioner tries to wear themselves out, to the point where they do not have enough spare energy to maintain the defense mechanisms. In Christianity, this meant fasting, vigils, and mortification of the flesh. Hunger, exhaustion, and the discipline were constant companions.
This ascetic tradition began with the Desert Fathers and continued through into early modern times. Ascetic awakenings — because the method involves wearing out the body — tend to produce awakenings where the defense mechanisms appear to be frayed and leaky rather than dissolved. Practitioners in ascetic traditions have visions and hear voices. The whole method seems somewhat unhealthy, and it has gone out of fashion in recent centuries.
The catalysts of awakening I have mentioned so far all involve intentionally or unintentionally putting pressure on the system. Oddly enough, you can also have an awakening from the exact opposite — from no pressure on the system at all. This is the case of someone who has plenty of time and who goes away on their own, so that they do not have to deal with other people. They live in silence, and in this silence they practice methods such as meditation or loving prayer. If this environment can be kept up for long enough, it as though the defense mechanisms have nothing to do and so extinguish themselves. When the defenses have been thinned out sufficiently, awakening can happen.
Practitioners both Buddhist and Christian have discovered that a combination of pressure and release works exceptionally well. The pressure comes from hesychia, or stillness, such as results from repeating a mantra. This is repressive. The release then comes from nepsis, or watchfulness practice. This allows de-repression to happen. It is as if the repressive practice allows material to emerge more forcefully when one starts a de-repressive practice.
Hesychia and nepsis practices are sketched out in the collection of writings known as the Philokalia. The Buddhist equivalents are called concentration and mindfulness, and the Buddhist tradition takes an almost scientific approach to documenting them.
In the previous chapter, I showed that awakening is a natural possibility, open to everyone, given that human psychological development is common to us all. But if spiritual awakening is universally accessible, I wondered whether this was what Jesus was really teaching.
In my search for evidence, I relied most on the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) on the grounds that their traditions are likely the most authentic. I was cautious when dealing with John’s Gospel, where it is especially difficult to disentangle the words of Jesus from the understanding of the early church. To make my task here easier, I adopted the stratification of Urban von Wahlde. Wahlde identifies three layers, or editions, which he denotes by “1E,” “2E,” and “3E.” Edition 1E is the original historical account; edition 2E is a revision produced during the period of controversy between Christian Jews and the synagogue; and edition 3E is the final revision, produced after an internal conflict within the Johannine community.
With this in mind, I immediately ruled out a couple of statements that I do not see as pointing to awakening. “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) is sometimes cited by those who argue that Jesus’ position resembles advaita vedanta, the nondual philosophy of Indian. This verse I see as primarily a Christological statement and typical of the concerns of 2E. Similarly, I ruled out “that they may all be one” (John 17:21), which is most likely a plea for Christian unity following an internal conflict; Wahlde places it in 3E rather than with the historical Jesus.
Some of the strongest evidence that Jesus at least moved people in the direction of post-egoic consciousness comes from his ethical commands. It might be thought that an ethical command is a simple “should” or “shouldn’t.” However, from an internal point of view, ethical commands are behavioral practices to bring about the end of egoic consciousness. As Pope Benedict XVI remarks, “[I]n this world, marked by sin, the gravitational pull of our lives is weighted by the chains of the ‘I’ and the ‘self.’” While the culture of India favored a propositional mode of spiritual discourse, that of the Bible hides its assertions in the form of behavioral commands.
Many of Jesus’ ethical teachings undermine egoic agendas. For example, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35; Luke 22:26; Matthew 20:26–27) removes the tendency to self-promote or to think of oneself as important, which is typically a defense against feelings of shame.
It can be seen by introspection that the ego derives its sense of separateness largely from opposition to that which is, and in particular from opposition to others. Hence “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27) is particularly sharp, since it erases the psychological strands from which the ego derives its sense of solidity. A similar consideration applies to Jesus’s teachings on forgiveness. If we forgive, the ego has no place to stand.
At the earliest stage of development, the ego or self (I use the terms more or less interchangeably) is formed from identification with the body. Jesus’ command “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Luke 12:22; Matthew 6:25) erodes the fears related to this identification. It is not that Jesus saw the body as bad in itself; in “This is my body” (Mark 14:22; Matthew 26:26; Luke 22:19), the body is clearly seen as a great gift.
A particularly clear guide to awakening is the injunction that the disciple must “deny himself” (Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). This kind of self-denial is not a recommendation for fasting, vigils, and mortification of the flesh. The Greek verb for “deny,” aparneomai, is the same verb used when Peter denies Jesus three times (Mark 14; Matthew 26; Luke 22). It means to disown or disavow. Hence to “deny” oneself here means to have nothing to do with the ego and its desires — to act as if the self did not exist. It is, again, a behavioral practice for awakening.
From this evidence — and there is obviously much more — Jesus encourages the disciples to move in the direction of transcending egoic consciousness. But did he go so far as to propose full awakening?
The “kingdom” (the term used in the Synoptic Gospels), or “eternal life” (the equivalent in John’s Gospel), in many ways resembles a type of consciousness transmitted from teacher to student. One “receives” or “enters” the kingdom (Mark 10:15, etc.). It is transmitted by the teacher (though not necessarily received by the student), as in the parable of the sower (Mark 4:3–20; Matthew 13:3–23; Luke 8:5–15). There is a possibility that the transmission may be nonverbal and somewhat hidden, as in the parable of the leaven (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:20–21). The goal is something immensely worthwhile, as in the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45–46). This, therefore, is the highest good in Jesus’ teachings.
So far we have seen no evidence that conclusively equates the “kingdom” or “eternal life” to awakened consciousness. Evidence going that far is very slight, and the little that exists is open to multiple interpretations. There is, though, one candidate verse in the Synoptics. Jesus states that “nothing is hidden except to be made manifest” (Mark 4:22; Matthew 10:26; Luke 12:2). On its own, this could be read in a conventional sense as a statement about the coming of the kingdom. However, the saying appears in a different context in the Gospel of Thomas: “Understand what is in front of you, and what is hidden from you will be revealed to you. For there is nothing hidden that will not be manifested” (Thomas 5). This version might point to the psychological integration that occurs with awakening: previously repressed material from the unconscious emerges to be integrated into conscious awareness. “Understand what is in front of you” might also be read as a command to pay attention to the here-and-now, or to focus on material on the point of emergence. Clearly, this is only one possible interpretation, and attributing this verse to Jesus requires making assumptions about the historicity of the material in the Gospel of Thomas. These we need to examine.
April DeConick has done some painstaking work on uncovering the construction of Thomas. Her methodology begins by identifying material that interprets or reshapes more basic content. To this she adds material that addresses concerns of the primitive church. Finally, she adds to this pool those passages that share with it common vocabulary or ideas. All of this taken together, she concludes, forms the “accretions.” What is left without the accretions is a “kernel.” This kernel, she finds, shows signs of being recently translated from the Aramaic. Not only that, but the kernel turns out to include precisely those parts of the Gospel of Thomas that have parallels in Q.
So who is the Jesus of the kernel Gospel of Thomas? It turns out he is precisely the same Jesus we know from the Synoptics. An imminent apocalypse has added urgency to the need to reform oneself, and in the end times to come, Jesus has a unique role to play in saving the few. Any interpretations of the teachings of Jesus must refer to this wider context.
Now, there is a verse found in varying forms in all four canonical gospels, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (Luke 17:33; parallels in Matthew 10:39, 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; John 12:25, 3E for Wahlde). This appears to be a statement about the end times. Yet it can simultaneously be understood as a pointer to post-egoic consciousness. By abandoning the life of the ego — by abandoning all that is “I” and “mine” — we gain the life of all that is.
It is quite possible that Jesus was speaking on two levels at the same time, expressing truths about awakening using the language of apocalyptic eschatology. Jesus was known to speak on two levels at the same time — the parables are the obvious example. One layer of meaning is for outsiders, the other for insiders. The eschatological sayings could be understood one way by the many and a completely different way by the few. This would explain, too, why “salvation” has replaced “the kingdom” as the goal of Christian life. Entering the kingdom and attaining salvation may be two different metaphors for the same thing.
A plausible time for Jesus’ awakening would be the forty days he spent alone in the desert, fasting and praying (Luke 4:1–13; Mark 1:12–13; Matthew 4:1–11). This was immediately after his baptism by John the Baptist. An awakening during this period would be consistent with what we know of the effect of these spiritual practices.
My conclusion from this evidence is that if Jesus was not talking about awakening, he was certainly talking about something very similar.
It might seem that talking about awakening in these purely psychological terms does away with the need for religion. But here is an interesting thing.
I have already mentioned that the eschatological sayings can be interpreted in two ways, one conventional and external, and the other psychological and internal. Let us continue with this approach.
“For nothing is secret that shall not made manifest, neither anything hid that shall not be known and come abroad” (Luke 8:17). If you read that in a conventional, external sense, it is a statement about God’s plan. God has a plan for the world, which has remained hidden until now. In the course of time, God’s plan will come to light. All will be revealed, and the end-times will take place. That is the outer, external, conventional sense.
But you can also read that verse as having an internal sense. It is talking about the way material emerges from the unconscious into consciousness.
You can then take the entire doctrine of the Incarnation and read it as a metaphor for de-repression. The unmanifest has entered into manifestation; the Creator has entered into creation; “the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Awakening is embedded in the entire Christian faith.