Category Archives: monasticism

Zen Christianity – Zazen & Centering prayer

For the first in this series of posts which will begin to explain what I mean by ‘Zen Christianity’ – I want to start by looking at the practice of Zazen which sits at the heart of Zen. It is this practice which gives Zen its very identity, and sets it apart from other sects or schools of Buddhism.

It is this practice which means that Zen is not actually a religion, nor even a way confined to a particular religious group.Zazen literally means ‘seated meditation’ and refers to the core of the Zen way, the primacy of stillness meditation. Of course different Zen schools vary in their ways of teaching Zazen, but at its most basic, most fundamental, the practice is of sitting still and disengaging with conscious thought.

Meditation is a discipline common to a variety of religious traditions, and you will find practitioners of various kinds of meditation in all of the Abrahamic traditions, as well as the various streams running out of Hinduism and many others besides.

Fr Thomas Keating

In relatively recent years the Zazen practice has been well incorporated in to Christianity by means of the Centering Prayer movement, developed by the Trappist monk Thomas Keating and others.

But while the popularity of Zazen may have spurred on the Centering Prayer movement, the practice itself is developed out of Medieval Christian practice as outlined in the spiritual classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. Indeed it is apparently true that Centering prayer was originally called ‘Contemplative Prayer according to the Cloud of Unknowing’ – not quite as catchy.

Put simply and in practical terms, Centering Prayer is a form of meditation which uses a ‘sacred word’ to still the mind. The word is repeated partly in order to simply help the mind keep from engaging in thought. If it is not needed, the word is put aside, but when thoughts begin to encroach again, the word is repeated again until it is no longer needed. I am not aware of many people who have no need of a word.

The difference then, between this and other forms of meditation is simple, a mantra or other form of concentrating meditation seeks to fill the mind, to exclude thoughts by focusing on one particular idea. A similar practice is used for those beginning or learning Zazen.

Centering Prayer is Zen like in its aim of stilling the mind, of disengaging with thoughts altogether, the focus is simply upon gently repeating the word.

When thoughts come, as they continue to do, you simply do not engage. No matter how worthy the thought, your meditation time is not the time for that thought, it is time for meditation.

There are a number of ways that we engage with thoughts, and they basically fall into three categories. You can retain thoughts. Alternatively you can resist thoughts. And very often you can resent thoughts. All of these happen very naturally – but with Centering Prayer the idea is to do none of them.

Retain no thought – so don’t enter in to it. Resist no thought, do not try and rid your mind of anything which enters it, and resent no thought, don’t bother wasting your time getting cross about a thought which has entered your head unbidden.

By simply repeating a sacred word, you have the opportunity to do none of these things.

So much for the fundamental practice, but what is the point of this kind of meditation?

With Zazen one is essentially aiming to achieve a realisation of a greater reality, which exists beyond thought. With Centering Prayer the same is basically true – the difference is primarily how as individual practitioners we understand that reality.

For my own practice, I take as a starting point the idea that there is an ultimate ‘divine reality’ underlying all things, which is most essentially Love. I appreciate this is not a given, but it is an element of faith on my part. I believe it wholeheartedly (and sometimes doubt it almost as sincerely) and it is that which  serves as a foundation for my understanding of the universe and the human condition. I further believe or understand that this divine reality, this ultimate love, which we may know as God, is there to be engaged with. It is there to be loved, and to love. But I acknowledge that as soon as I begin to use words, images or concepts,then my expression of love, and my understanding of God is immediately limited. That is not to say a limited engagement is not to be wished for, but I would rather see it as a way marker than a destination.

Chapter three of The Cloud of Unknowing begins like this: “This is what you are to do. Lift your heart up to the Lord with a gentle stirring of love, desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts.” It goes on to explain the method of using one word, or one syllable to express this love. This explains the basis of Centering prayer: to express love for, and live in the love of, God without limiting that by imposing words upon it.

Meister Eckhart taught that ‘God is a word, a word unspoken’. By this he meant that while God is ultimately or eventually knowable – God cannot be known fully by any word or concept which we can yet humanly articulate.

By engaging in a Centering Prayer type meditation, we draw closer to the point where we can engage with the unspoken nature of the word that is God. We set aside for a time our human understanding with all of its inadequacy, and go towards the light of love.

The Muddy Road

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

‘Come on, girl,’ said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. ‘We monks don’t go near females,’ he told Tanzan, ‘especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?’

‘I left the girl there,’ said Tanzan. ‘Are you still carrying her?’

Writings from the Zen Masters. Penguin, 2009, p 81.

The need for silence

“If nothing that can be seen can either be God or represent Him to us as He is, then to find God we must pass beyond everything that can be seen and enter into darkness. Since nothing that can be heard is God, to find Him we must enter into silence.

“Since God cannot be imagined, anything our imagination tells us about Him is ultimately a lie and therefore we cannot know Him as He really is unless we pass beyond everything that can be imagined and enter into an obscurity without images and without the likeness of any living thing.”

Thomas Merton; Seeds of Contemplation (Burns and Oates, 1957) p 44.

Totally Devoted – reviews

My book seems to be undergoing a small spike in sales, I wonder if that is to do with the review which I am told appears in Christianity magazine this month – and which declares (amongst other kind words):

If the Church is in ruins, then this book is part of the repair kit!

Which is kind of nice. And a little worrying. I mean, y’know – that’s a big responsibility!

Anyway, feel free to write your own review, but only if you are willing to say nice things – if you don’t like it, then shhhhh!

You can get the book here, here, here and indeed here. Apparently there may even be a bookshop or two with it in!

community life – and my sunny weekend

I spent most of Friday and Saturday at the house of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, near Leeds. It’s the second trip I’ve made there this year, and I enjoyed it even more than last time.

For one thing, this time I was joined by my friend James, who blogs here and tweets @n0rma1 – this was James’ first visit, and I was really encouraged to see how much kinship there is between his kind of new monasticism and the older monasticism/religious life that is to be found there.  It makes me think that my book was about right on that.

It’s great to see how links are forged between communities, and principally between individuals who represent different communities. It is sometimes only by making those face to face visits that we recognise the humanity in one another, and see past the preconceptions or societal stereotypes.

I also relished the opportunity to spend some time in quiet, and feel reinvigorated now, ready to dive into more preparations for meditation workshops, MBS fayre stuff, books, community projects and so on.

I was also encouraged by something I read in the Tablet, which was an article by Christopher Jamison in which he wrote about the way that so many people try to minister to those around them by inviting them to Mass – or to a general church service if you’re a protestant. What we are doing, points out Jamison, is adding another level of busyness to already overburdened lives – people genuinely have a lot to do. What we would be better doing is finding ways for people to experience peace in their everyday lives, rather than adding a new level of activity.

I agree with this – only this weekend I heard somebody talking about how we should be inviting people to church, by which this person meant a church service. For many of the people I know though, Sunday morning is about the only time of rest they get, going to church would put the kiebosh on that too. I’m much more interested in finding ways to help people create oases of peace in the everyday, to experience the justice, peace and joy which we talk about often, but dont tend to generate in sunday morning meetings.

Dont get me wrong, I’m not trying to abolish church ‘services’ only trying to encourage us to make more of our ‘service’ to others, and not to limit church to congregational meetings.

People who have heard me talk recently about ‘post congregationl church’ will perhaps see what I mean here – our view of what it means to be church is too often stuck in a rut of ‘meeting attendees’ – lets make our church wider and broader, and turn our towns into temples.  (Also our villages, cities, estates etc, just that towns and temples scan nicely.)

It was so good to spend time at the monastery this weekend, I can thoroughly reccomend it as a great place to visit – especially when the weather is good, as the garden is glorious.

One of the brothers there also mentioned this piece from the guardian by Toby Jones, a lovely chap whose own community is a great example of what it might mean to create something along kind of new monastic lines. His column in the observer is now over, but it makes great re-reading, and you can look back through it to see just what sort of journey Toby and his family have been on recently.

In our case of course, the reality is somewhat less glamorous. We’re yet to see whether we will stay here beyond the summer, or whether there will be pastures new on the horizon. The house we want to move into here hasnt yet become available – although we’re still hoping. But even if it does, there’s no saying what rental price tag it will come with. Presumably somewhat more than our current abode.

We’re also really in need of more people to work alongside us – ours is a new monastic vocation really, and if you’re calling is partly to prayer, partly to study, and partly to service – then you’re in the same groove as us – so why not get in touch.

The great silence – a digital response

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the way that monastic and religious orders, order their lives. I can see great wisdom in the concept of ordering the day around non negotiable times of spiritual activity, and I have been working for some time to try and order my own life similarly.

One aspect I have thought quite a bit about, and found most difficult to implement is the concept of silence. In a monastery, the ‘great silence’ or ‘big silence’ is (depending upon the way of the particular order in question) between Compline (roughly 9pm) and Terce (9am) so for half the day there is a silence, punctuated only by times of prayer.

The silence represents not so much the absence of sound, but the absence of interpersonal communication. The idea is that this time is reserved for meditation, prayer, reflection, and of course sleep where you can get it.

But how do you attempt to implement something like this when you are not in a monastery? In my house, silence between 7am and 9am for instance is not a possibility, nor is it possible between 9pm and 11pm most nights.  I get away with the rest because either I, or everyone else is probably asleep for most of it.

However, on reflection I have been wondering if a suitable solution may not be found in digital silence.

I already practise digital silence – apart from the occasional abberation – during the weekend, surely it couldnt be too hard for me to practise it between 9pm and 9am, or possibly 9.30 to 9.30 too? As I usually work up to about 10pm, this will hack an hour or two off my computer working time, but I sure I could claw that back by less reading of online newspapers and other blogs – perhaps my blog feeds will take a bit of a cut to acheive this.

I know that once my computer is on in the morning, the chances of me taking time out to meditate are gone, I have to do it before I download my email or else I am too distracted. If I miss an early morning meditation slot, then in ordinary circumstances my chances of making space in the morning are slim.

Anyway, just thinking out loud really – in the spirit of looking at computer use as digital communication. I am planning to implement this from next week, and I’ll let you know how I get along.

three interesting blog posts

Here are three interesting posts, the latter two being podcasts related to the topic of new monasticism, and specifically the launch of a new book on the subject – and the first being an excellent article by Carl McColman, who is a blogger and writer on spirituality and mysticism, whom I thoroughly reccomend you check out.

His latest post on being and doing is a particularly good read.

Go here for Ben Edson’s new monasticism podcast.

Go here for the Moot community’s new monasticism podcast.

New and Old Monasticism news

In other new/old monasticism related news:

Today – the launch of a new multi authored book about new monasticism: ‘Ancient Faith Future Mission: New Monasticism as Fresh Expressions of Church’ which looks good. Some discussion of aspects of it here and here.

Out already – a film called ‘The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer’, of interest to many, download it on itunes in the US.

Coming soon – a fascinating film called ‘Of Gods and Men’ about a monastic community caught up in the midst of an African civil war.

And finally dont forget my book, ‘Totally Devoted, the challenge of new monasticism’ , which will introduce the whole subject to you, takes you to meet new monastics here in the UK, and will hopefully inspire you too.fre

The old – new monasticism

I’ve been party to a bit of discussion recently about new monasticism, whether it is in fact new, or monastic. Monastic is of course a word which has different meanings to different readers, and in one sense you might say indeed, there is not much monastic about many of the new monastics.

But when Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of a new monasticism, he called for one which had nothing in common with the old, save an unswerving allegiance to the sermon on the mount.

What has fascinated me, among other things, is what contributed to getting Bonhoeffer to this point. One thing I noticed was that he spent time with the Community of the Resurrection (CR), and following my own visit to them, I began to see a link.

The man who founded CR was called Charles Gore. Gore was a privileged, well educated young man who clearly had a prodigious intellect and a powerful social network. But despite his privileged background, Gore was an iconoclast, an early socialist and as founder of CR a man who encouraged the return of the church to religious life. Even within the church, his Anglo Catholicism set him apart.

Anyway, Gore was fortunate enough to go to Harrow school, one of the best boys schools back then (an maybe today too) – this was in back in the 1860s. Whilst at Harrow, Gore came under the tutelige of a man called Brook Fosse Westcott, another extraordinary character.

Westcott has had a good deal written about him, as has Gore, but the key moment for me, was a sermon Westcott preached to the boys of Harrow School when he was assistant Master – this was in 1868.

In the sermon, which powerfully impacted Gore, Westcott extolled the ‘Disciplined Life’ – but then went on to contend that St Benedict, St Francis and Ignatius of Loyola, founders of the Benedictine, Franciscan and Jesuit orders respectively, had expressed this disciplined life in a form ‘inappropriate’ to the time they were now in.

Wetcott explained:

“History thus teaches us that social evils must be met by social organisation. A life of absolute and calculated sacrifice is a spring of immesurable power. In the past it has worked marvels, and there is nothing to prove that its virtue is exhausted.”

He then went on to call for a new kind of disciplined, monastic, or religious life, which in a ‘pre-post modern’ way was to be a kind of bricolage of other rules:

“We want a rule which shall answer to the complexity of our own age. We want a discipline which shall combine the sovereignty of soul of Antony, the social devotion of Benedict, the humble love of Francis, the matchless energy of the Jesuits…”

Legend tells that when Gore and five others founded CR in 1892, they each took a different rule to study. From each they pulled out certain elements which they took to be particularly important, and pooling them, began to form a new rule, relevant to them in their current age.

An interesting point to note is that now the community is looking again at the issue of the rule. They are now drawing more heavily on the Benedictine rule rather than their own, which they now seem to recognise was very much ‘of its time’.

CR was then founded to be an order of religious life within the Anglican church. This was at a time when these things were being revisited, and it represented a shift in focus. Over the 100+ years of its existence it has shifted a bit and settled a bit, and now resembles something perhaps more akin to a settled monastic order of the old sort – albeit with strong elements of the religious life.

Curiously Gore was also at Harrow at the same time as a master called Rev W D Bushell, who in 1897 bought Caldey Island, a small but significant place in South Wales, just off the coast of Tenby. Caldey has been home to monkishness for centuries, I have personally visited a very ancient  ruined Celtic building there. In an attempt to rebuild some of its ancient monastic heritage, in 1900 Bushell invited a community of Benedictines to live on the island, selling the whole place to them six years later.  Bushell’s more romantic association with medieval monastic history wasnt exactly close to Gore’s progressive and political religious life thoughts, but its a curious cross over.

So when we talk about new monasticism today, and we wonder whether something is new or indeed monastic, lets try and take the long view. CR as a  community exists today as an important part of the older story, but they were once very new – a radical left wing outpost of Anglo Catholicism in the dirt and grime of industrial yorkshire.

I am sure that when Bonhoeffer looked at them he saw something of this heritage, his visit in the 1930s was barely 40 years after the community had been founded (in 1892) and it was still getting going.  He must surely have seen in them the driving force of a desire for a new kind of monasticism, or a new kind of disciplined life, and recognised in them the same motivation as his own.

I’m deeply indebted to Alan Wilkinson’s book ‘The Community of the Resurrection – A centenary history’ for this article. That is where you will find the quotes I give above. It’s out of print, but if you hunt you will find it – I did.

Community of the Resurrection

I had a lovely, but all too short, visit to the brothers of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield this weekend.

Originally I’d intended to meet a friend there, but when he had to cancel at the last minute, I decided to head off on my own, and have a mini retreat. It was wonderful.

I can heartily reccomend the hospitality of the brothers, who live an unusual mixture of the Religious and Monastic life. As well as organised retreats of different kinds, visitors can arrange to visit individually, and its well worth doing.

One of the reasons I originally wanted to visit was the knowledge that Dietrich Bonhoeffer stayed with them when he was developing his own ideas about a ‘new kind of monasticism’ – I think he went to exactly the right place.

I may blog some more about the things which came to mind while I was there, but then again I may just let them percolate for a while. I found the visit really spiritually nourishing, and its good to see that despite the fact that many of the brothers are pretty old, there is a real vision for the future of the community. As one brother said wryly though – “We’re a bit like Pandas in the zoo, people like to come and look at us, but we’re not very good at reproducing ourselves.”

January is nearly at an end – thoughts and revolutions about the coming year are still working through, but this visit has certainly played a part in those workings – one resolution I have made, is that Mirfield, with its large, peaceful gardens, atmosphere of stillness and calm, and ancient/contemporary spirituality –  is somewhere I shall certainly be visiting again.


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