The Universal Call to Contemplation

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THE UNIVERSAL CALL TO CONTEMPLATION. D. Bede Griffiths, OSB Cam. Talk given at the Hermitage ‘92.




In this habit, I think you know it's been approved by Kumbh Mali for our ashram in India and it's a sign of inculturation. Today we try to live our Christian life according to the different cultures of the world, Asian or African, American, whatever it may be. And this Kali colour is the colour of the monk, whether Hindu or Buddhist, in India. And it's a sign of renunciation, it's recognised. So it has a meaning in India, in America I'm afraid it has very little meaning at all. But there we are. So it's a sign of inculturation, but it's also a sign of a movement which I want to speak of bringing contemplative life outside the monastery. As you know, for centuries, contemplative life has been seen confined to monks and nuns, religious, usually cloistered, living a separate life.


And it's had a long history in the church. But today, more and more, we're feeling that this called contemplation is not confined to a few people and to religious in that sense. It is a universal goal. And this is something of tremendous significance for the church that we know. And perhaps it only really began in this century. Many of you may remember a book by Father Garry Gulagraj, Contemplation and the Contemptative Life, according to St. Thomas Aquinas. And I think he was the first really to say that contemplation is the fulfilment, normal fulfilment, of the gifts received in baptism. So every Christian in baptism receives these gifts of the Holy Spirit. And Garry Gulagraj particularly emphasized that the gifts of the Holy Spirit


are the work of God in us. They're not simply virtues which God assists by his grace. They're actually the work of God in us. And contemplation is one of these gifts which God works in us if we're open to receive it. It isn't something we do. It's something God does in us. So this called contemplation, I believe, and I'm sure many of you agree, is spreading throughout the world today. Wherever I go, in Europe or America or Australia, I find people searching for contemplation. They may not use that word. They may not know exactly what they're seeking. But they're searching for this transcendence, something which takes you beyond the present world, beyond your normal human life, opens you to God, to the eternal. And in our ashram, I'm sure you know, we have hundreds of people coming from all over the world, year after year, in search of this.


They don't know what they're looking for very often. But once they find it in the setting of an ashram, they realize, this is what I was looking for. And that is happening all over the world. And I think we all need to reflect. I think it has great meaning for monks. You see, I think monks have, and we at Contemplative Malady particularly, have a very special calling. You see, we have preserved this tradition of contemplation in the church. And people need guidance. They need help. They need to know that this is a valid way. And so I think monasticism retains all its value. Particularly, I would honestly say, Kamabhali's monasticism, because we've got a certain freedom in our tradition. I'm very fond of St. Romuald. He was a very free person, you know. He didn't stay in one place. He wasn't at all stable in his location. He had a tremendous gift from God. He went from place to place. Wherever he went, he responded to his call to prayer,


to contemplation. So we're asking ourselves, how can we open this gift and this grace of contemplation to people throughout the world? And I always feel Father John Mayne was one of the leaders in this movement. I'm sure most of you know he was a monk of Ealing Abbey in London and then founded this monastery, which unfortunately was a failure. There's a prairie in Montreal. But he was the first, really, to call lay people to contemplative life. In his monastery in England, he had a group of lay people who used to live in the monastery. And he taught them this prayer, this meditation with a mantra. And then they took it to their homes and the movement spread. It's now spread throughout the world. All five continents are groups of people who meditate in this way. And I should like to mention this.


You see, Father John Mayne was a benedictine monk. But before he became a monk, he was a lawyer. And he went to Malaya. And there he met a Hindu swami. Swami Satyananda, I think it was. And he learned from him to meditate with a mantra. And it had a tremendous effect. He thought, this is the way I've been looking for. And then he went back to the monastery and they said, oh no, that's all painful superstition. You must give that up. You must meditate like a proper Christian. And so he tried to meditate like a Christian. And then he found in Kashan, in the farthest of the desert, this way of the mantra. You remember, the fathers used to take some word or words from the Bible and repeat them. Oh God, come to my aid. Lord, make haste to help me. One of their great mantras. And that became simplified, all using the name of Jesus. And finally it took the form of the Jesus prayer, which most of you know,


particularly from the book, The Way of a Pilgrim, the Russian Pilgrim. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It's the full form, which personally I use. Many find it too long, too complicated. And the name of Jesus or simply Lord have mercy will do. But John Lane introduced Maranatha, that is Aramaic for Lord come. It had deep significance because of course Jesus spoke Aramaic. And there are only about half a dozen Aramaic words in the New Testament and this is one of them. Maranatha, our Lord come. So he taught this way of meditation with a mantra. And the advantage is this, you see, before this, when an oblate of St. Benedict wanted to live a prayer life, we used to encourage him to recite the Divine Office or at least Compline or Prime or some part of it. But that's rather complicated. It's not easy for an ordinary householder.


But the mantra is something which anybody can use. So Father John Lane tried to encourage people living in the world, married, single, men, women, whatever, even children, to sit quietly every day and repeat the mantra, repeat the words. And the principle of it is, I think you know, that you try to first of all to harmonize your body. You like to sit in an upright position. Sitting on a chair is perfectly all right. They say a bathroom is the best. And then to breathe quietly regularly to harmonize the breathing which also harmonizes the mind. And then to try to harmonize the mind to stop the thinking and to let the mind become calm and quiet. And then to become aware of the presence of God. That's what we're aiming at. All these techniques. The way the body and the breath and the mind have to be trained, disciplined, to be still


and be open, to be receptive. And at that point you're open to the presence of God. And of course then it can extend during the day. And that is spreading all over the world. I was in Australia in May and I spoke in several of the main cities. And in almost every city there were groups of meditators from the John Mayne School who organized the meeting. Sometimes ten or twelve groups in one city, like in Sydney for instance. So the thing is spreading tremendously. And it does seem it offers a way for the ordinary lay person, the married person, the person working in a job or whatever kind to devote their lives to God. You set aside two times half an hour if possible, morning and evening, which you leave everything else aside, your family, your friends, your work, your troubles, your anxieties, whatever there are, you let it all go and you be in the presence of God.


You may go to sleep, you may be distracted, whatever happens, you give that half hour to God alone. And it has tremendous effect on your life. You learn how to let go and ready to be in the presence of God. So, that's how I see this call to contemplation. Now I'd like to try to say a little more about what we mean by contemplation. And personally, I see it always in the context of some false understanding of the human being as body, soul, and spirit. To me, this is fundamental. Unfortunately, as I'm sure you know, by the 4th century at least, this theology, which was that of the early Church, was replaced by that of Aristotle. And most Christians today think of the human being as a body, soul. There's no spirit. So God remains here. You've got your body, you've got your soul, your mind, and then God is somewhere outside. And the spirit is precisely the point where God is present in you.


And you are present to God. And I would define contemplation as experience of God in the spirit. You see, we have the physical body and God's present in the physical body, of course, in the physical universe. And I think it is an important part of meditation is to be aware of your bodily presence in the universe. We're all part of this vibrating cosmos. And we should be aware of this energy which is vibrating in us. And that is a physical awareness. And it's a little important, you know, because spiritual life is often seen as beyond the body altogether. You go into higher consciousness and so on. That's all very well, but you've got to be rooted in your physical consciousness. We've got a physical body with its own needs of food and drink and all the rest of it, and which occupies a great deal of our time. And that is part of God's gift. And God is present


in the body, in matter, in the blood, in life. He's present in the body and the blood of Christ, you see. God is present and he's present in our body and in our blood. That is where our contemplation begins in the body. And then, beyond the body, we have the soul, the psyche. And the psyche is the seat of all our psychological experience. Our sensation, feeling, imagination, reason, will, all that belongs to the psyche. And most of people's lives today is spent in that psychological world. And I get the impression here in America and in the West generally, you know, that most people don't go beyond the psychological world. It is their world. For instance, Sam Keane, who I think is editor of Psychology Today, is a very perceptive person with very deep insights. He wrote this book,


Power in the Belly, but it's all in the realm of psychology, you see. It's your psyche. And the problem is, your psyche is centered on your ego, your separated self. And this is the main problem of life. Every one of us grows up as a child, matures as a human being, with a center on the ego, the separated self. I exist as a separated being. And I'm separated from others, I'm separated from the world around me, and I focus my whole life. And my religious life also centers on my ego. I'm trying to get something from God all the time. Even when I praise and thanks God, it's all coming from my ego. Most religious people, I think, still live in the psyche, in the soul, you see. And they don't think there's anything more. That is the psychology today. The soul is everything. But the soul is not everything. And beyond the body, beyond the soul, is the pneuma,


the atman. And that is the point of self-transcendence. Karl Rahner said, you know, a human being is constituted by the capacitive self-transcendence. At that point, we go beyond the body and the soul with all its decorative, and we're open to the divine, the eternal, to God, the transcendent, whatever name we give Him. And this is where I feel the call to contemplation comes, you see. In every human being, there is that point where they're open to the divine. Original sin, in my understanding, is your fall from that point of the spirit into your psyche, into your ego. And once you're into your ego, you're into the separated, divided, fragmented world where we live. And only when you let go of your ego, you're open to the spirit, the pneuma, the atman within. And that is what I think people are searching today.


It's in everybody, you see. And children have it. It's very wonderful. Children of three or four have wonderful insights. We have our friend Rupert Sheldrake, you know, has his two little boys, and one of them, Merlin, is just age four. And he says it's wonderful the questions he writes, you know. Is the wind God, or is my breath God? All these things like that are extremely interesting. So the presence is there, and we're searching. The presence of the spirit is in every human being, but sin has closed it in. And most people in the West today have simply closed the doors there. They don't know that it exists very often. And even Catholics, religious people, live their life in the psyche, which means also in the ego, through grace they try to get beyond the open to God, but they've not broken through


into the world of the spirit. And that is contemplation. It is going beyond your body, beyond your mind above all. See, the mind is controlling you all the time, and the mind centers on your ego. And once you let go of the ego and the mind, then the doors open and you become aware of this presence of the spirit. You become aware. You can't do it yourself. It's there always. God is always present to every human being as to the whole creation, but only when that door of the spirit opens are we aware of the presence. And contemplation is awakening to that presence. And so I do feel, you see, that people today are becoming aware of this presence. And I think that materialism itself is almost forcing them to it. They're so frustrated, you see, with the ordinary way of life, conditioned as they are


at every level, conditioned by the senses, of course, you know, with television and all these things. You're imprisoned in this world of the senses and the reason. Sense and the reason. And the whole scientific world, you see, is a prison. If you're not open to the transcendent. And people today are feeling this imprisonment and they're searching to go beyond that. You meet it everywhere. People of all ages, of all classes and kinds. It's incredible. It's not confined. Unfortunately you get some rather elitist groups, but it's not confined to any particular class or people. And of course in India, you know, and in more traditional countries, this is everywhere. They've not lost it. You see, now western from the 17th century onwards we began to close the doors and they're almost closed for most people. But in India or I'm sure in Africa and other parts that window has never been closed. The ordinary Hindu villager


has that awareness. I'm sure any of you who've been to India know you feel it in their whole presence, their whole behavior there's something in their whole world. When I first came to India, Bombay which is a very secular, modern city, I was overwhelmed with this sense of God's presence there. And they too feel it is there. So, it's there in everybody and it can always come through once we let go of the ego with all the mind and the will of the organization, the activity and all that is holding us down, you see. Let ourselves, let God be with you. So, now we have to discern a little more closely this question of contemplation. Unfortunately, there's a big barrier. You see, once we get beyond the ego and the rational mind and open ourselves to the spirit, we don't simply go into


the spirit, we go into what I call the psychic world. And this is a very real problem. You see, the psychic world still belongs to the psyche. It's the most subtle level of the psychology, of the psyche. And it's what normally goes the name of parapsychology. And now this phenomenon is extremely common today. I'm sure you know, people are having all sorts of amazing experiences of every kind. In India, it's always been common, but now in America innumerable people the near-death experience is one of the typical ones you know. And millions of people have had this near-death experience where you're clinically dead and you see yourself lying on the operation table or whatever and you feel yourself going above this body and this world and many have a vision of a sort of tunnel and light at the end of it and they're being drawn


to the light and then suddenly they begin to be drawn back and find themselves back in the body. Well, it's just one typical psychic experience, you see. Now, that's not contemplation. It's a psychic experience. And the difference between the psychic and the spiritual is the psychic belongs to the world of phenomena, of things that appear. It's the sense, the subtle sense this is true, you see, there are gross senses by which we perceive the normal universe, but the innumerable subtle senses, sense of touch and taste and smell and sight and hearing by which we have these psychic experiences and they are a tremendous problem because people, once you get into that, you think, this is wonderful now I'm in the spiritual world and I can do it. And you not only have the experience, you have the power. There are psychic powers, you see. And once you learn to work on that subtle level, you can


do amazing things. Satya Sai Baba is the great example in India. I expect you know of him. He really is an extraordinary being. He himself pleases to be to Avatara. He's God on Earth and all his disciples worship him as God on Earth. That is fairly normal in Hinduism. But he has these powers materializing things, you see. He walks around the ashram, waves his hand and produces ashes or a crucifix or a watch or whatever you like. One friend told me he gave a little medal with his image on it. But this was a Catholic, this person. He said, no, no, that's not enough for you. He took the medal and he blew on it and the face of Jesus appeared on it. These are miracles, you see. And miracles are psychic phenomena. Jesus had these cities, we call them in India now, psychic


paths. When he turned water into wine or walked on the waters or whatever, all these were psychic paths under the control of the spirit. And this is the problem, you see. The psychic paths are always ambivalent. They can come under the control of the spirit and then they become great spiritual power in the world. Or they can be rather neutral and you can use them for your own advantage. Or they can become daemonic. You see, they're terribly destructive. And when you take psychedelic drugs, for instance, you go beyond your normal consciousness, you open up this deeper level of consciousness and you're exposed to these forces, you see. And they can be wonderful and creative. I remember one Jewish boy, he told me, he had seven years, he took what's the thing, LSD. And they used to meditate on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And he had wonderful


experiences with angels and all this. And one day he said, I had a spirit of absolute bliss. I thought, this is it. But of course, once you got there and the drug fails, you go right back again, where you were before. And he realized this was no good and he'd come to India. He was learning yoga and meditation to try to recover the bliss he'd experienced there. It's just a flash, you see, and it takes you nowhere. But all these things are psychic experiences, you see. And all the great religious teachers have taught us that not to stay in that psychic world. You must always go beyond it, you see. And I must say for Sai Baba, he himself says, I give them this to help them to want something more that I can give them. And he has something more to give, I think. But it's very, very dangerous because people simply go to him because of his powers,


his psychic power. So then, beyond the ordinary psyche, psychic powers of normal psyche, you have these parapsychological psychic powers. They're called both powers to act and powers of perception at every level, you see. And it's a whole world which can be explored. And Sri Aurobindo, who is a very great teacher in India, I think he explored the psychic world. He explored the psychic world more methodically than anybody else. And the Tibetan Buddhists have gone further than anybody. They've explored, you see, I don't know whether it's the highlands, you know, the mountains. You live in that atmosphere, somehow it seems to awake these powers. It appears in other parts of the world. And for centuries they've cultivated these psychic powers to an incredible extent. They can project the gods of people around them and so on


and then bring them back, so on. And they can do, they can use sorcery on people. You see, these powers can be used to destroy people. A terrible power in them. And you would be amazed, I was amazed, in Madras, you know, I know Catholic families who've been devastated by black magic like that. They bury something in your garden or in your house and they put a charm on it, a spell, and you begin to get ill. There was one young man who was in a bank. He had to go out of work for three years at least. And you can often trace it back to the sorcerer who's done it and get him to release you or something. But of course you learn to pray and to overcome it. But this is a terrible power, you see. So psychic powers are always ambivalent. They can be tremendously creative and healing. Sai Baba heals people in an amazing way. Or they can be destructive. So the whole teaching is go beyond. If they're given


to you, St. John of the Cross is very clear on that. If the powers come, then accept them as a gift of God, but go beyond. Never stay with them, never cling to them, but be open to the transcendent. And that is the call to contemplation proper. And don't forget that when the Fathers went into the desert, they went to fight with demons. They knew, you see, the moment you start getting beyond your normal consciousness, opening to the Spirit, these psychic forces will come from the unconscious. Angels will come with a wonderful experience, and demons will come. And the demons will be pulling you back all the time and destroying you. They can drive you mad, of course. So this is a winner's thesis, you know, and I pray many Catholics in the meditation movement don't realize it, you see. And if you keep suppressing these things as they come, they get more and more negative and destructive. You've got to learn to deal with them. And I would say you have to learn to bring them into


your meditation, to open them to the presence of the Holy Spirit, and to allow them to be transformed. They can always be transformed, you see. The demonic and the angelic and the demonic are two aspects of one thing. One is negative and the other is positive. So they can always be transformed. So, now we have to get beyond all these levels of the psyche and enter into the Numa, the Atman, the Spirit. And as I said, the Spirit is the point where the human and divine meet. We are passive to the divine action at that point directly. And St. Paul says the Spirit of God bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. At that point of our spirit, we meet the Spirit of God. It's our point of meeting. Directly. God is indirectly present everywhere, all of us. But directly, God is only present


at that point of the spirit. And contemplation is that awakening to the presence of God at that point of the spirit. Now the difficulty is, you see, that the spirit has no name, no form. And we want some name and some form in order to experience God. And that pulls us down. And that is the difficulty of contemplation. You have to go beyond every name and every form. St. Thomas Aquinas, you know, is extremely clear that every image and concept we form is immeasurably remote from God himself. Let go of your images, let go of your concepts, and open yourself simply to what Dionysius called the divine darkness. That is our mystical tradition. It comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa, you know, the center of Mount Sinai, where Moses goes up into the darkness, meets God in the darkness. That was the


great Christian mystical tradition. And taken up by Dionysius the Aniophagite, probably a Syrian monk in the 6th century, who wrote on the mystical theology about the divine darkness. So we go beyond the light of this world, the light of the mind, and all human understanding into the darkness, you see. And that's why it's a perilous experience. But in that darkness is God himself, the Holy Trinity. And so our contemplation has to lead us beyond the body and its senses and the breath, beyond the mind and its thoughts, beyond the psyche with all its experiences, to the still point where we're simply in the presence of God. And then we're totally empty. It's a kind of death, you see. You have to die to your whole being. And I'm sure death is like that, you know. I'm preparing for death, I'm 86, you know. So you have to be ready to die. And when you die, as I understand it, your body


will begin to get stiff and so on and will begin to disintegrate after a time. And your psyche, insofar as it depends on your body, which it does for all its thoughts, feelings, and everything, will also begin to disintegrate. Only your spirit, your pneuma, your Atman, will remain and in your spirit you will be in the presence of God. So you have to let go of all the physical being and the vital being and be in the presence of God. And then, of course, in our Christian understanding, and this is very important, the body and the soul are reintegrated in the spirit. You see, when Jesus died, he was put in the tomb, and he appeared in the resurrection, those are psychic appearances, you know. He came and went, he disappeared, the doors were locked and all that. They were psychic appearances. But then, of course, he passed beyond the psychic level, the ascension into the spirit. But the body and the soul of Jesus were taken up


into the life of the spirit. And that is our calling. We pass beyond this gross body and this gross soul and mind into the spirit and then the body and soul are reintegrated in the spirit, in the fullness of divine life, you see. And that is the resurrection, that is the fullness which we're seeking. So, it's a little complicated, isn't it? It's very real, you see, and we have to face the difficulties in the way, we have to be aware that the contrary forces are there. All this talk of devils can be very harmful, of course, and it can be very superstitious, but there are contrary forces in the unconscious. Jung called them, what did he call them? Sorry for the word. Something entities, independent entities, something like that, they're forces in the unconscious, you see, which can be positive and can be negative.


And we've got to know that they're there for all of us. They're in the whole psyche and the whole universe. And they're demonic forces and they're angelic forces. But Jesus went beyond all the angels and all the powers, you see, and so in Jesus, as we ascend to his presence, we go beyond all these levels, enter into the divine presence. And that's the last thing I want to mention. When we enter into the divine presence, we enter into the Holy Trinity. And the Holy Trinity is the mystery of non-duality. You know, in Hindu, we have the teaching of Advaita, non-duality. And the teaching is as long as you're in your mind, your rational mind, you're divided. The rational mind always is black and white and conscious and unconscious and male and female and good and bad. It's always dividing, analyzing, fragmenting, you see. And when you get beyond your rational


mind, you enter in the world of non-duality, which is the world of pure relationship. And the Godhead itself, you see, is pure relationship. The Godhead is the... Jesus experiences himself not as the Hindu does as God. This is very important, you know. We call Jesus as God, but it can be very misleading. And it's exactly what the Hindu thinks. He thinks that when you realize this state, then you become God. But Jesus never speaks to himself as God. His experience was the upper experience. He knew himself in this intimate communion with God as Father. It was his communion, a relationship of love and knowledge. I'm in the Father, the Father in me. I love the Father, the Father, but I am not the Father. Jesus is not the Father, you see. And that's the difference between the Christian and the Hindu. For the Hindu, when you


reach that state, you are Brahman. I am Brahman. You are God. And the Hindu's guru, like Satcharita Sarabha, is worshipped as God, you see. But Jesus did not put himself in that position. He put himself as the Son, the Word, who benefits the Father, brings us to the Father, shares the life of the Father with us. And to me, the summit of the Gospel is when Jesus said, praise that they may be one as I in the Father in you and you in me that they may be one in us. That is the end of Christian life. To share the life of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Fr. John Main put it very beautifully. He said to enter into the consciousness of Christ in meditation is to share in the stream of love which flows from the Father to the Son to Jesus and from Jesus to the Father and is the Holy Spirit. We receive that Spirit


through Jesus from the Father and enter into the tributary of life. And that is a non-dual relationship. We are not God and we're not separate from God. It's not one and it's not two. It's a mystical relationship which is the very source of all relationship, which is pure love, you see. Love is non-dual. When you very enter into total love you lose yourself and the other loses himself in you and yet you don't lose yourself. You become one in that unity of relationship, personal relationship. So the Trinity is our model, you see. And by the way, I'd like to mention that there's a wonderful book by a person I know very well, Michael van Broek. He's a professor in Munich University and he's written this book which is really on Advaita and the Trinity. Advaita is non-duality and he shows beginning with the teaching of Shankara


on Advaita, which you can't accept as it is, but how that can be modified by Christian understanding and for me it's a profound light on the mystery of the Trinity. It's a mystery of non-duality. The Father is not separate from the Son, the Son from the Father, and yet the Son is not the Father, and the Father is not the Son, and so on. It's a non-dual relationship which is known in prayer and meditation. The rational mind cannot comprehend this. So as we go into contemplation, we enter into the inner mystery in Jesus, we enter into the mystery of the Trinity and we experience this non-dual relationship with God. I am in God, God is in me, but I am not God. And each one of us retains our own personal being in the ultimate. Again, the Hindu has to go, but in the Christian understanding you reach the full personal being. It's being in relationship. To be a person


is to be in relationship. To be an individual is to be separated in the body and so on. But in our person, we're open to others, to the relationship of love and knowledge to others, and eventually to love and knowledge of God. We become fully persons, you see, and then it's a realized personal being. So this is really our calling, and I hope I haven't made it too complicated or short-term, but as I say, people all over the world are feeling this call, and we should be able to give them some guidance in it, you see, because it's not easy. I've taught in Australia particularly, you know, many Christians feel their ordinary teaching is too narrow, it doesn't answer their deep need, and yet they feel confused when the Buddhists come and the Hindus and the Sufis and so on, and they don't know where they stand. We must be able to show there is a Christian mystical doctrine which is perfectly orthodox, which is central to the Church, and


which is really open to the other religious traditions, but can also use a discernment, so that we don't confuse Christian mysticism with Hindu or Buddhist or whatever. Each has its own distinctive character, distinctive value, which we must recognize, but the Christian mystical experience is a unique experience which Jesus had with the Father and which he communicates to us in the Spirit, you see. So, I think probably I've said enough. I've talked too much. Go ahead with a chant. It's one of our favorite Sanskrit chants. It means I know, it comes from the Vedas, I know that great person of the brightness of the sun beyond the darkness. Only by knowing him one goes beyond death. There is no other way to go. It's a wonderful saying. I know that great person of the brightness of the sun beyond the darkness. Only


by knowing him one goes beyond death. It goes like this. chants in Sanskrit chants in Sanskrit