Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sobriety and purpose

This rather cryptic photograph is an underground chamber at the ruined nunnery of the Capuchins in Antigua.

The nunnery dates from the 18th century. Today it is a picturesque ruin with charming gardens and--where there were once thick walls, cramped cells, and oppresive ceilings--open spaces that admit air and sunlight in abundance.

All is not air and light, however. Tantalizing hints of a different past remain. Hidden within the labyrinth of walls and flowers one comes across passages that lead downward into womblike darkness.

This photograph is where one of them ends.

No one knows precisely what the circular crypt was used for; speculation ranges from storage to more morbidly fanciful ideas such as arcane punishments, or even torture. The chamber is located directly underneath the cells that nuns lived in while in isolation, in a structure referred to as the tower. Conjecture that it may have been used as a storage room seems foolish to me. Someone went to an awful lot of trouble to build this circular structure; there are much easier ways of creating storage rooms. There is an impression of a more than casual intention behind it.

When Neal and I first entered the room, I was instantly struck by an otherworldly sense that work had been done here; work of a very serious and intimately sacred nature. Right away, it seemed clear to me that the room was designed so that one might walk in circles. To add to that, the acoustic properties were nothing short of extraordinary. The slightest tone uttered within the confines of this room hangs in the air for what seems to be an eternity. (The only other room with acoustic properties approaching it that I have ever been in is the King's chamber in the great pyramid in Giza.)

I came away from the space with an impression of nuns circulating, chanting and mouthing muted hymns, with the sounds of their prayer filtering upward into the tiny, lonely cells of the nuns above them.

Maybe it wasn't that way--we'll never know.

But if it wasn't, it should have been.

Now, as to the nuns. Gurdjieff certainly roundly disparaged the idea of shutting oneself into a cell in order to attain spiritual wholeness, and of course, to our modern minds, the idea seems totally absurd. When Dogen vigorously extolled the virtues of "leaving family life," i.e. becoming a monk, it seems equally unlikely he had anything quite like this in mind. Yet, to be sure, the two men were quite different. Gurdjieff urged us to work within ordinary life -- an approach many of us definitely endorse-- and Dogen urged men to withdraw from it, knowing that it is all too easy to get lost within the attractions of life.

Yes, to inhabit our ordinary life seems to be the correct path: today, the idea of monks and nuns, of withdrawing from life in order to find the true meaning of life, seems antiquated and bizarre.
We live, after all, in a seething new-age sea of work-in-life, where colorful yoga ads hammer us by the dozen from the shelves of organic food stores, and every weekend retreat offers the possibility of attaining spiritual wholeness, as though it was only one throw into the end zone away.

Different worlds, different times.

When one sees the tiny cells that the nuns used to live in, one can't help but be touched by the single-mindedness of purpose that led these women to the nunnery. Now, of course, it's true there were those who ended up in these places through no wish of their own. But for those who came intentionally, their purpose was deadly serious, and their aim was a more powerful force in their life than anything most of us know.

After all, what are we willing to pay? How seriously do we take our work?

How many people would be willing to spend most of their lives in a tiny room in order to achieve their aim of spiritual unity? All in favor, raise your hands now.

I'm not sure that any of us see that we already do this, only involuntarily. Today, in what must be the quintessential age of selfishness, we carry our prisons around inside us. We construct a little tiny cell for ourselves with ego and personality, and we live in it for most of our lives: frivolously, carelessly, often the grasshopper and rarely the ant. Not only that, we inhabit these little cells called bodies, and that on a very temporary--yet generally ignored--basis.

So for those who sealed themselves up in order to contemplate, meditate, and pray, perhaps the sacrifice did not seem so great after all.

Going into a monastery or a nunnery requires a special kind of sobriety. Within it lies the implicit understanding that we are supremely mortal, that a very great deal is at stake, and that almost anything is worth sacrificing in order to align properly with forces greater than ourselves. Rather than scoff at the way these people lived, I stand in awe of their commitment.

One other note. This morning, I was sitting in the employee cafeteria when our resident spiritual guru -- Annie Carmine, who at 62 years old is probably one of the most fully realized Christian souls I have ever met in my life-- walked in to get coffee.

Being in one of those pensive, pondering, questioning moods that I so often find myself in, even in casual moments, I asked her what it meant when it was said that Jesus Christ was a "man well acquainted with sorrows."

Annie is a teacher. She never misses a beat, and somehow she always manages to drive the nail directly into the wood with one blow. Without hesitating for a moment, she affirmed to me that Jesus was "well acquainted with sorrows" because within his willing act of incarnation -- the full, unreserved, and wholehearted inhabitation of our humanity -- he knew everything of us, all our passions, all our woes, and yes-- in the end -- he knew of our pain, our humiliation, our suffering, and our death.

Only through knowing all this was he able to understand fully the position we are in, and bring the help we need.

We might say that Jesus was God's way of saying "I am with you all the way."

To the death.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.

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