The sisters at Stanbrook Abbey reminded me this morning that it’s Dame Gertrude More’s birthday today–March 25, 1606!
Though she was a totally enclosed, contemplative nun, her friends and her spiritual father all said that she was a very personable, energetic, and friendly woman. Always wanting to talk and joke–even with her great respect for silence in the Benedictine tradition too. Reminds me of many monastics I know!
If you’re on the hunt for down to earth but still intensely profound writing on the mystical life, Dame Gertrude is a good bet. Here‘s a link to my new book of her shorter works.
In this very strange time in the world, I’d like to offer at least a small bit of good news: my new book, an edition of the poems and shorter prose works on prayer and contemplation of Dame Gertrude More, is now available!
Dame Gertrude was a seventeenth-century Benedictine. A great-great-granddaughter of Saint Thomas More, she left home at 17 to co-found the Abbey of Our Lady of Comfort in what is today Cambrai, France. This monastery was part of a movement to revive monastic life among English Catholics after the Reformations and was so successful that the community continues today as Stanbrook Abbey back in England.
Dame Gertrude More was a strong, talkative, and likable woman who, under the tutelage of Dom Augustine Baker, also became a great lover of contemplation. She wrote poems, several shorter prose works, and a longer work sometimes called her “Confessions,” all of which were published in 1658, years after her early death. This book made her one of the earliest women published in the English language.
Her works celebrate and describe the nature of contemplation and divine union. With a plain style that was unconcerned with technicalities and intellectual hair-splitting, Dame Gertrude’s teachings on prayer and contemplation are beautiful testaments to the value of pursuing, as she puts it, “the one thing necessary” (experiential intimacy between the soul and its Maker).
She, Dom Augustine Baker, and the community at Cambrai more generally were instrumental in passing on the ancient and medieval teachings on contemplation in the Christian west, and I am delighted that both the community at Stanbrook Abbey and Gracewing have helped me to make Dame Gertrude’s works more readily accessible to a new generation.
I hope that in this uncertain time, we might find some solace in the kind of unwavering attention Dame Gertrude gives to what is most pressing and important in this earthly life.
This coming Tuesday, November 26th at 7 pm, anyone in the Milwaukee area who wants to support translators and/or the literary arts in general should come on down to Boswell Book Company on Downer Ave. (more details on their homepage).
I’ll be talking about and reading from my translation of Swami Abhishiktananda’s French poems (In the Bosom of the Father), along with Dr. Lorena Terando of UW-Milwaukee and former Boswellian Caroline Froh.
After brief readings from each of us, we’ll have a Q&A about translation in general and the works themselves.
My wife and I just returned from the Big Sur coast where I led a retreat at New Camaldoli Hermitage with Fr. Cyprian Consiglio on Swami Abhishiktananda‘s life and wonderful legacy. The weekend was filled with deep conversation and joy in the Spirit.
The Hermitage offers nourishment for soul and body, with a tremendous view of the Pacific (and attendant cloudscapes) from its mountain perch. The liturgy, meditation, and space for silence and presence of mind and spirit were all exactly what my wife and I needed after a busy school year and the recent publishing push and . . . everything!
My sincerest thanks to the Camaldolese monks at New Camaldoli, and especially to all the retreatants who came along for the ride–I hope our paths cross again soon!
In continued celebration of Swamiji’s work, here is a translation of a poem from Swami Abhishiktananda’s journal that is in my collection; I read this at the retreat during a session on Swamiji’s use of poetry to gesture at his profound advaitic and mystical experiences.
“You have seen the lightning” addresses its own author and all those who have glimpsed the root unity of things beyond appearance, with a kind of fatherly caution. It speaks to the intimacy of such experience and the inadequacy of words in its face–and yet our desire to speak or sing of it despite this. Enjoy!
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be co-leading a retreat this summer in lovely Big Sur, CA at New Camaldoli Hermitage. Along with Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam. I’ll be sharing a weekend of poetry, music, cinema, liturgy, prayer, and meditation with any and all who wish to join us. Good times will abound, the Spirit willing!
The description of the retreat is below, and you can see the Camaldolese monks’ site here and register for the retreat by following the directions here. I’m very much looking forward to spending the weekend with the monastic and oblate communities at the Hermitage.
And a quick note to thank the monks and oblates of The Monastery of the Ascension in Jerome, ID for hosting me late last year for a retreat on the deep Benedictine contemplative tradition!
“Wake Up! The Legacy of Swami Abhishiktananda in Poetry, Song and Film”
Swami Abhishiktananda (Fr. Henri Le Saux) was a Benedictine monk who spent much of his life in India immersed in the contemplative traditions of Christianity and Hinduism. By the time of his death in 1973, Swamiji had become a prophet of interreligious dialogue, an accomplished spiritual writer, and one of the twentieth century’s great mystics. Swamiji sought and desired to lead others to the realization of Absolute Reality, drawing together Christian teaching on the Trinity and Hindu teaching on non-duality (advaita).
Though he, like so many of the great mystics, called seekers to go “Beyond!” (beyond concepts, beyond words, beyond images), he also understood the necessity of words and signs in our everyday reality. In that spirit, New Camaldoli Hermitage is excited to offer a retreat focused on Swamiji’s life and teaching. While we will make space for the silence Swamiji loved so well, we will also celebrate his life and teaching in various arts: New Camaldoli’s own Prior Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam will lead us in chant and song, Benedictine oblate and poet Jacob Riyeff will give a reading of Swamiji’s newly-translated poetry, and we will view the new documentary of Swamiji’s life, *Dawn of the Abyss: The Spiritual Birth of Swamiji*.
In addition to these multimedia sessions, traditional conferences on Swamiji’s teaching will offer a more detailed encounter with his profound insights into the contemplative life. Please join us for this joyous event!
After an unpremeditated hiatus, I’m back to posting. I’ll be posting some audio files of my own poems from my first poetry collection, Sunk in Your Shipwreck, that came out in October very soon. But for the moment here’s another from Swami Abhishiktananda, the Benedictine-monk-turned-wandering-sannyasi whose poems I translated last year.
In “Shri Ramana Was Great,” Swami Abhishiktananda wrestles with Christ, wondering how this sage of modern India could have such grace though clearly he was not in any formal sense part of Christ’s community that is the Church. (The ashram community responsible for Shri Ramana’s legacy is here; for more on Swamiji’s relationship to Shri Ramana and the holy mountain Arunachala, see my previous post.)
This realization of Shri Ramana’s greatness in the S/spirit was Swamiji’s first real leap into exploring the great Awakening that goes beyond religious affiliation and doctrine. In Shri Ramana, Swamiji found embodied the deep self-realization that he found recounted in the Upanishads, and this challenged his French Catholic upbringing and monastic and priestly formation. The poem here follows his searching, guiding the reader (and, one assumes, himself) to a precarious peace with a situation that doesn’t seem to have an obvious resolution along traditional religious lines. Here it is:
Here is another reading of one of my translations of Swami Abhishiktananda’s poems. This piece, “Bhairava,” is one of my favorite of Swamiji’s poems. The Sanskrit adjective “bhairava” means “frightful/terrible/etc.” and it is also the name of a deity recognized in Hinduism and various schools of Buddhism, especially associated in Hinduism with Shiva. Bhairava is then a frightful face of Shiva, having to do with dissolution and annihilation. Swamiji composed this poem during his month-long silent retreat at Kumbakonam, a town in Tamil Nadu, India in November of 1955.
Swami Abhishiktananda uses this title of Shiva as a novel way into some well-trodden tropes in the mystical poetic toolkit: abandonment, ravishment, desolation and dissolution, union-as-annihilation-of-the-self. The poem speaks to the terror and lonesomeness of the radically contemplative life and the experience of non-dualism within human consciousness–even as union is experienced, a lingering sense of the individual endures and can cause disturbance.
But beyond the surface of these frightful images and emotional states, one can also see the playful use of such imagery to paradoxically gesture toward profound states of consciousness that simply don’t “come out” in direct expression. Though Swamiji’s imagery here is distraught and painful–even calling his addressee an “Ogre” at one point–it points to a state of unknowing that is “tender and heartrending at once,” heartrending as long as there is some part of the identity that is clung to, at any rate.
In 1948, Dom Henri Le Saux, a Benedictine Monk, left his native Brittany and arrived in Southern India. He intended to establish the contemplative monastic life in the Indian church, a life dedicated to sacred silence in a land imbued with sacred silence.
Though he was sympathetic to Hindu philosophy, especially the ideas and experiences described in the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads, he still assumed that he would be converting others to the Christian way during his time in India. Yet when he encountered the simple faithful and the contemporary sages in his new homeland, he found the Spirit at work there, beyond the borders of institutional Christianity and any Christian faith whatsoever. This led him to dramatically reevaluate his “mission” in India and his very understanding of all R/reality.
This reevaluation was especially spurred by his encounter with the Self-realized sage Shri Ramana Maharshi (shortly before Shri Ramana’s leaving the body in 1950) and the sacred mountain where Shri Ramana lived, Arunachala. In Shri Ramana, Swami Abhishiktananda saw the heights of contemplation and divine union of his own Catholic Christian tradition lived in an authentic way, and he spent several retreats living in the caves of Arunachala and getting to know the hermits who lived there, the members of Shri Ramana’s ashram community, and those who lived in the adjacent town, Tiruvannamalai.
In the caves of Arunachala, Swami Abhishiktananda spent long hours in silence and experienced deep states of meditation. As Swami Atmananda Udasin, the director of the Abhishiktananda Centre for Interreligious Dialogue, says, “there [he] had his first great mystical insights. Later in his life, he would refer to the Mountain as his place of Awakening: ‘But as for myself, like Shri Ramana, it was Arunachala that awakened me. Oh, that Awakening!'”
The larger part of my new book, In the Bosom of the Father: The Collected Poems of a Benedictine Mystic, is comprised of the poems that Swami Abhishiktananda composed in light of his experiences in those first few years in India, especially in his encounter with Arunachala as well as Swami Abhishiktananda’s “renderings” of Shri Ramana’s Tamil poems. The first in the collection, Aruncachala, he described as being “sung to me by Arunachala one night before I went to sleep, and I relit my lamp several times to catch it. Perhaps it will convey some of the spell cast on me by Arunachala.” Below is a reading of my translation of Swami Abhishiktananda’s poem, and Swamiji’s own note for context.
“Arunachala is a holy place of particular veneration in Tamil Nadu in the South of India. The Puranas . . . tell of its origins. There was a quarrel between Brahma and Vishnu, each claiming that he was the First and Greatest. Suddenly, a Column of Fire appeared in the space between them. They decided that whoever first found either the foundation or the summit of this mysterious Column would be accepted by the other as the superior. Brahma dashed to the summit, while Vishnu began to dig into the earth, but both had to admit the vanity of their efforts. It was Shiva who had manifested themselves to them, convincing them of the futility of their former claims, for the greatest and first in Being is Shiva. The Column of Fire later turned into a Mountain of sapphire, and finally a Mountain of stone. Each year during the full moon of the month of Karttikai (15 November-15 December), an immense fire is lit on the summit of the Mountain, which is called the feast of Dipam (“dipa” in Sanskrit; “lamp” in English). The Tamil name for the city there is Tiruvannamalai.” (In the Bosom of the Father, 23.)