Sunday, 29 March 2015


At the end of ten days of silence we all sat in a circle and shared something of what the retreat had meant to us. When my turn came I did a simple powhiri, greeting the house and the land and the mountain; thanking those who had fed us and guided us so well. A powhiri is used when two groups of people meet on a marae as a way of blending the groups together to perform whatever task has caused the manuhiri to turn up in the first place. This was my way of beginning a similar blend: what had happened to me at Snowmass and what I was returning to on the other side of the globe.

Centering prayer is about two things: awareness and consent. As we sit in silence we use some symbol: a word or an inward glimpse, or perhaps simple awareness of the breath to signal our consent to whatever it is that God wishes to do with us. We notice the many and ingenious subterfuges we use to keep knowledge of God at bay, and rather than fighting them, are simply aware of them, and watch them as they drift past in our quietened mind. It is simple but not easy.

In the quiet, things changed for me. My perception shifted in ways which I didn't notice until I got back to Aspen and saw a different town than the one I had left, and knew that actually, it wasn't Aspen that had changed. The issue is, how do I relate these changes to the things which must occupy my time and attention here on the other side of the globe? One way would simply be to stay. The monastic life is very attractive to me, and I could easily imagine spending my last years in the silence and the rhythm of the daily offices, but there are other people to whom I have commitments who might hold contrary opinions. So I spent a night in a little lodge, caught a small plane and then a big one and then a small one again. I went to my daughter's house in Christchurch, played with my grandson and drove 400 km with my wife. And slowly, like easing into a hot pool, I will gradually become accustomed again to the life I have built for myself.

The old habits of mind, the old patterns of interaction with other people and the world are very easy to slip back into. If I didn't watch it, I would find that in a month all the benefits of my long silence would have faded away into nothingness, and, then, what would all the cost and trouble have been for? But the central lessons remain: awareness and consent. And I preserve these by the same methods by which they are always preserved which isdisciplined daily practice. Which, I must say, does seem a little easier at the moment.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Snowmass Notes

At 4.15 the sunrise is still a couple of hours away. The sky is black and the familiar constellations are scattered across it in unfamiliar patterns. The moon is half gone but its light still shines off the snow, stretching to the mountains in every direction around me, with such brightness I could read by it. My breath freezes. The frozen snow crunches under my boots as I walk this most beautiful quarter hour of the day along the dirt road to the monastery chapel. The coyotes call to each other from valley to valley. Is it really only half a dozen times I have done this?

The only illumination comes from the moonlight in the tall stained glass window depicting the Madonna and child. How can a space so simple and bare be so holy, so beautiful? The monks gather on the steps. The old one, whose name I do not know, begins the plainsong, his face aglow with the seriousness of these words he has repeated every morning for, what? Decades? "Whoever drinks the water that I give shall never be thirsty again." I who have heard it only a half dozen times repeat it under my breath and feel my heart lift. I bow with them. "Glory to the Father and to the Son, and to the Spirit who dwells in our and forever, amen."

I look around the table. We have held hands for a silent grace. Although I have dined with them three times a day for a week, I have never spoken to these people, any of them, not once, nor even made eye contact, but I feel connected to each of them. I have watched them pray, and seen them walk and sit each in her own silence. Each, like me, has a reason for being here which is strong enough to justify giving up a couple of weeks. We eat the salad and the still warm newly baked bread, drink the soup. It is so good. Fresh and healing and lifegiving. Prepared for us with such love.

There is still enough time before the afternoon sit. I start up the old road, past the tumble down log cabin and turn left to climb Bernie's Hill. Four Elk look at me, startled, and bound off through the sagebrush. The going is hard in the thin air but I count out my steps, climb 50, stop and rest. Soon the retreat centre is far below me, as is the monastery over the valley. Between them both, perhaps a kilometer from each, is the little stone house where I sleep. Far away, commanding all, is Sopsis. The mountain is shaped like a pregnant woman lying on her back and the Comanche and Ute people told that she was giving birth to this holy place, this valley which is one of the thinnest places I have been in. I acknowledge her, my ancient sister, and wish her blessing in her long travail.

He is stooped with age, but even so, he towers above me. I had not expected him to be so tall. Or so real. What can I say to him who, over so long, has given me so much? His eyes are deep and kind and searching. He knows my name. He knows my name! And where I am from and why I am here. "Thank you for being here," he says, "Thank you for coming all this way." I am lost for words. What do these terms mean? Wise? Holy? Enlightened? Now I know.

Several times in the course of the retreat, tears come for no apparent reason: God's psychotherapy says Thomas Keating. No need for analysis. Something is on the way past and requires no particular thought or action on your part. Consent to God's action, to God's never ceasing presence in your life and in all things.

He holds my hand and smiles at me. Thank you Father Thomas. Thank you.

There is a snowshoe rabbit eating grass in one of the bare patches left by the melting spring snow. She looks at me, nervous like the elk, but doesn't run. I watch her nibble the brown dry blades and realise something which of course, everybody knows because it is so obvious. Every part of her is made of grass. Every atom of her fur and eyes and little beating heart used to be an atom in a blade of grass. So how does this dried mat of last year's autumn growth become a brain, and a spine and those long alert ears? In her, somewhere is a tiny ovum, which holds half the story. If I placed it in my hand I would not be able to see it, and yet it holds all the knowledge required for all the processes to perform this miracle. And I am aware of process. And process enfolded in process. And process which knows itself. And that as I look at the rabbit I am looking at myself. Perhaps one day when I can adequately explain all this to myself I will be able to explain it to you.

I have just arrived. Emmy, from Ohio walks with me down the dirt road to the monastery. She is as extroverted as I am introverted so we make great walking companions, except that we continually stumble over each other's accents. "Pardon?" is our every other sentence. This is my last conversation before I enter the grand silence. She has been here many times and is full of advice. She shows me the bookshop but tells me, "oh, don't read anything. It'll just get in the way. If you must, read something small. Bite sized." I buy a book of poems by Mary Oliver. Small. Bite sized. The first one hits me, wallops me down and I spend the next week processing it.


There is the heaven we enter
through institutional grace
and there are the yellow finches bathing and singing
in the lowly puddle.

It is the last sit. We have all left grand silence. We are seated in the pre dawn around the perimeter of this stunning, strong, airy prayer space. The huge window looks out to Sopsis. Today we meditate for only half an hour. Sherry, one of the wise and holy women who have led us and nurtured us with such expert and careful grace, rings the gong three times to mark the end. None of us move. None wants to break this precious silence, nor end the warmth of this 20 strong community which has formed over the last ten days and which has held us all so softly. But we all have a return to make and gently we begin to stir. Slowly I rise. I pack. Peter, who has shared a house with me gives me a ride into Aspen in his old truck. We share a little, and I realise that he is someone I could be friends with. He unloads my suitcase at my hotel and we hug. He sets off on his long drive to Washington State and I am back; though whether I am back in our out of the real world I do not yet know.

Monday, 9 March 2015


The flight from Auckland to LA was perhaps the bumpiest I've ever experienced. There were no hot drinks served for the duration, but they did get the meals to us on time. I had a good seat - right at the back of the plane where the fuselage narrows there are 2 seats instead of 3 in the side bays and I got one of them, on the aisle with a wide space beside me and extra legroom in front. I managed some sleep.

Then it was LAX, with the terminal looking all modern and clean and neat, and a large staff of uniformed people keeping the swarms of us moving through their system. It was surprisingly and pleasantly efficient, quick and friendly. Then I had about 20 minutes of walking from terminal 4 to terminal 7, a couple of hours in a lounge and a couple more in a Canadair regional jet.

We flew over that vast swathe of California and Nevada that seems devoid of trees and full of canyons. I saw Las Vegas below me, then the dusty grey brown landscape became speckled with snow as it rose higher. We circled and dodged through the rockies for a bit: higher than the Southern Alps but older, and therefore rounder. We flew past the forested slopes and into Aspen, a smallish airport whose tarmac was lined with dozens and dozens of personal jets.

A young guy from my hotel picked my up in a big Chevrolet SUV and I was in my small, comfortable, homely room about two hours by my watch after I left Dunedin.

This is a beautiful town. Simply beautiful. If it reminds me of anywhere it might be Queenstown, but it is gentler, more civilised. The buildings are no more than 3 stories high, and are mostly made of the same red brick and the architectural style is a restrained modernism. The roads are wide so the town feels airy and spacious. It sits at an elevation of about 7500 feet and the surrounding mountains go as high as 12,000 so the difference is not as marked as in Queenstown and the scenery here not quite so grand and steep. The shopping area is filled with art galleries, classy fashion houses, and restaurants: over 100 of them for a town of about 6,000. There is some serious money here. The houses are large and look well built, sitting in their snowy, tree lined streets. In a souvenir shop I could have bought a small fossil dinosaur skeleton for $32,500 or, for an undisclosed sum, a genuine and pretty much intact Tyrannosaurus Rex skull. 

I went to bed at 8, slept fitfully in an overheated room, and woke in time for the 8 am mass at Christ Episcopal Church. Unfortunately I hadn't got my watch adjustment quite right, so had to come back for the 10 am instead. I twice walked the 2 km return journey through the snowy streets. The days here are sunny right now and the nights bitterly cold, so the snow on the footpaths has thawed and refrozen a few times and in places there is 2 or 3 inches of clear hard ice underfoot. I'm glad I brought my big hiking boots with their grippy soles. The service was calm, understated, well done. A woman with a clear  mezzo voice led the hymns, someone played the pipe organ very well indeed, there was a thoughtful sermon. I have spent the rest of the day ambling slowly round this lovely place. I've brought camera number two with me but haven't used it much.

There is always a lead in time in a serious retreat - a couple of days when you have to leave the world behind and get ready to face yourself and face God. This is a time to sleep, and get used to being apart. I'm glad that the necessities of flight timetabling have given me a bonus of two days here, before I go to St. Benedict's, to get used to the time difference and leave behind the unnaturalness of sitting in a vast aluminium tube as it hurtles through the stratosphere high above the Pacific Ocean.

The Aspen Mountain ski area begins right on the edge of town. In fact a gondola up to the slopes begins right in the shopping centre. I looked at the skiers gliding over the slopes above me and I was pretty tempted. But, although I can rent skis here I can't rent clothing. I'd have to buy pants and goggles, and what with lift tickets, ski and boot hire I'd be looking at at least $350 for a day. I thought about how I might explain that particular item on the Visa statement to someone who has her heart set on a new kitchen. I remembered how long it has been since I last skied and my physiological changes since then and calculated the pretty good odds of knee and/or achilles damage. So, very very reluctantly indeed, I decided to be sensible. 

Friday, 6 March 2015

Come To The Quiet

The view from our deck about a week ago, 7 am

Tomorrow I fly to Aspen Colorado, and, after a few days wait will go just out of town to Snowmass, and St. Benedict's Monsastery where I'm taking part in a ten day post intensive Centering Prayer retreat. It's silent, not even any eye contact, and involves many hours a day in concentrated meditation. Am I looking forward to it? Well, actually, no. There will be no escape, nothing that must urgently need attending to, no knock at the door or phone call to save me from facing myself. But I know that's where I need to be. And I know I will be in good hands.

There's no internet and no cellphone coverage, so I'll be out of touch. Clemency and Debbie will have a phone number where I can be reached but I'm not expecting either of them to use it.

Monday, 2 March 2015

I Know Your Face

There is a scene in The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King in which Peter Jackson improves on Tolkien. At the battle of Pelennor Fields, King Theoden leads the Riders of Rohan to assist in the defence of Gondor. His niece, Eowyn whom he loves more dearly than a daughter is forbidden, because of her gender, to fight. She disguises herself as a man and rides to battle where, by a mighty deed of arms she guarantees victory for the men of the West. Her uncle, King Theoden, redeems himself from the cowardice and corruption by which he has been enslaved  but in the process he is mortally wounded. As he lies dying, Eowyn finds him. He opens his eyes and sees her and looks at her with joy. "I know your face....Eowyn...." he whispers.

I know your face. In that tiny phrase is contained all the love between them; all the long years of connection they have. It is a scene which despite my having seen it a dozen times still moves me deeply. I know your face. To know and be known. This is perhaps the real goal of all wholesome human interaction.

I have sometimes thought knowing was a synonym for love, but this is not so. It is possible to know someone you don't love, or even someone to whom you are antipathetic. But knowing is a synonym for connection. The more you know someone, the more you are connected to them for good or ill. So the whole process of bonding in romantic love or in friendship is about acquiring knowledge of the other. The knowledge, of course, can be conscious and cerebral: lists of facts and impressions and memories of the other. It can also be intuitive and instinctive and unconscious: that deep understanding of who the other is, and why they are as they are, that sometimes defies explanation. When people are enemies, or when one person oppresses the other there is also acquisition of knowledge and this knowledge too, bonds the antagonists together. This is one reason why prisoners sometimes are so attached to their captors or a beaten spouse to her tormentor. It is the reason for forgiveness: to relinquish knowledge of the one who has hurt you so that you can cease being connected to them. To dwell on the hated one, obsess over them, think of them day and night means in a perverse sense to know them and therefore to bind yourself to them ever and ever more tightly.

I am deeply connected to my little grandson, but  he is less connected to me. Why? because I am more capable of knowing him than he of knowing me. At 21 months, once separated from me he forgets about me, for all intents and purposes, in a matter of days. I on the other hand who witnessed (at long distance admittedly) his gestation and see in him shades of myself at his age, and who can compare him to his mother and look in him for the echoes of his father, and for whom every word of his and every action is a delight know him well and grieve his absence.

Of course sometimes we think we know someone but don't. Sometimes we have a projection which we have laid on the other: a mask of our own design which fits the other only approximately if at all. We can know our projection and thus be very connected to it, while simultaneously not knowing and not being connected to the one on whom we have laid it. This dynamic is at the heart of many, many relationship problems. 

When someone truly knows us we are validated, affirmed, accepted. If no one truly knows us we quickly lose our place in the world and can eventually descend into madness. We know we are known and we know we are connected. So the recipe for growing in connection is to maximise knowing: listen to, watch, spend time with, think about, talk to the other, dismantle the walls that keep you safe and alone. Share time and experiences each with the other. To disconnect means to lessen our knowing:  ignore, lie to, guard yourself from, forget, unlearn the other. Don't talk to them and don't talk about them. This holds true for spouses, lovers and friends, parents and children.

I know your face. It is one of the most powerful, healing  things in the world we can hear. Or speak.