A little more than a year ago I planned a study leave. With a completely open and free choice about what I might want to spend the time on, I planned to address one or two of those pesky little questions that have been bothering me for a while: what and who am I and why am I here? There was also the side issue of what on earth the Anglican Church had to do with those questions. I had a plan of action: visit the Holy Land, make a tour of New Zealand Anglican churches and read some fairly heavy duty books by people like Emmanuel Levinas and Jaques Lacan. I suspected that the Medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart might be useful in providing a Christian framework in which to work out the philosophy of Being described by the French philosophers.
Of course, as those of you who have read this blog for a while know, the best laid plans of mice and men etc etc. In the week after I had taken leave of my parish to do all this thinking, my doctor told me I had dry rot and it might be rather a good idea to let him take to me with a can opener and a spoon. They say that the longest journey in the world is the two feet from the head to the heart, but in the moment of that conversation, all of that stuff in the fat French books about Being made that journey instantly. It's taken a bit of time for my head to catch up, mind you but I have now completed the Sabbatical which has let me make a start on that. It's been quite a ride and I can hardly believe it's been only one year. It has been so full and rich, and in retrospect, it has all the appearance of having been meticulously planned. But not by me. I have learned quite a bit about Being all right, but the books are still sitting on my shelf, unopened. I won't bore you by rehearsing all that I have already spoken of on this blog, but there have been a number of key sources of learning.
My friend Richard Sutton was the Dean of Law at Otago University and had one of the biggest clearest, sharpest, minds I have ever had the privilege to encounter. He shared with me the experience of facing serious illness and we met weekly over a soy latte and a friand to compare notes. In those times he carefully explained Levinas and Lacan to me, as well as his own ideas on Transcendence and how it related to the law...and to life, the Universe and everything. He was a meditator from a long way back and an Anglican. I had the benefit of some great theological conversations, a private weekly tutorial from one of the best minds in the country, and the companionship of a dear friend to boot. Richard died while I was away. I miss him.
My two Buddhist brothers and my sister in law both gave me practical help and guidance in developing my meditation practice.
My time in the Gawler Institute in Australia was prompted by a desire to find ways to beat cancer. In that respect, the time in the Yarra Valley Living Centre was a rip roaring success, but the main learning was a serendipitous surprise. The daily meditation sessions gave me the experience of spending substantial times every day in silence; I learned that it was possible.
Travelling in Italy, France and Spain I attended many Roman Catholic services. I could not understand the readings or sermons and could only vaguely follow the liturgy, yet I encountered some warm, supportive communities and witnessed some spectacular pastoring from some of the ordinary rural parish clergy. I had an encounter with the church that was entirely non cerebral.
In England I met the Anglican Church, for better or worse.
In Scotland I met the countryside and the remote shores where the Church first took root.
There were some things which were helpful: the forming of networks and the gathering of resources connected with Christian meditation, but the learning was not so much what as how. I have a lot of books. I generally read three or four at a time and have tastes which are annoyingly and expensively broad. I read because of the insatiable drive to find out why; to answer the little questions that make up the big ones: the ones listed above. Every book offers the promise of moving me along the path but alas most books answer a question, only by asking two more. Truly, the more I learn the less I know. This sabbatical has been about different sort of learning. I have dimly begun to understand that deep learning comes not so much from reading and thinking as from doing. Of course, I am still an Amazon.com junkie but now I can put all those words into a different, perhaps truer place.
Only a year ago, I wanted to read about Being in order to understand it and wrestle it into conceptual shape so that I could conquer it. I wanted to understand the process of meditation and its relationship to consciousness. I wanted to know the ways in which the theory of meditation related to the doctrinal structure of my church. I thought I might be able to come up with models for incorporating all this into Anglican ecclesial structures. In one year I learned something better: that all that stuff is bullshit. There are other avenues for finding truth which are going to be a whole lot more fruitful: Facing death; talking to a wise man about arcane philosophy and the fear of incontinence, all in the same conversation; watching a Spanish priest love his flock; carrying home a stone from an Iona beach; walking a long long way across the Spanish countryside; and above all sitting still and doing nothing, just Being. Far, far more than in what you know, truth will come to you in what you do, but more so, in what you are.
So I try to allow the great questions to answer themselves in me by daily being more conscious - of what I do, and what I Am. I sit still and allow the thick surface stone to be chipped away - to reveal the truth that is there, and always has been.