Saturday, 16 January 2010

Thoughts on Bee Keeping: "The Via Negativa," contemplation/ action and the art of knowing when and how to say Yes!

The beekeeper: Ivan Kramskoy 1872

I've been having a conversation recently with someone about whether prayers are as important as physical giving. There is a undercurrent of feeling that somehow prayers are less valid, fasting less potent than actual physical help. I have to say I may have once thought along similar lines though I now believe that this is not true at all.
I think of the Carthusians a life that seems dead to the world and to many a pointless even selfish sacrifice when their skills could be used in so many more practical ways. Yet the men and women who given up their lives in this way are doing a job that is unseen, invisible, supernatural even. They are tending to souls. They are continuing Christs work on the cross, they are reconciling the polarities between pure, holiness and godliness (innocence too perhaps) and the physicality of the world, both it's beauty and it's ugliness. The balance complete detachment and complete participation with the world at it's deepest level.
For a long time, I couldn't understand the meaning of the psalms. They didn't seem to register with any of my modern reference points. Yet since starting to pray the office, which I do very badly I'm afraid:)
they have begun to resonate with me on a more interior level. The psalms are a dialogue (primarily) between David and God. But there seems to be more there too. They are also the dialogue between man (humanity) of all eras and times and their creator. To pray them is to pray the prayers of others as your own and in so doing, connect with them in their own souls and lives, loving them as a part of your own story. The Psalms are unafraid to confront conflict and balance paradoxes. They are a reflection of life in it's entirety.
So getting back to the original question; are prayers equal to physical acts? Well this make s me think of one thing. When people are about to die what is of greatest ultimate importance to them, peace of body or peace of soul? Life is but a breath. When the veil falls, it is the soul that will have to take it's breath then. The prayers and fasts and sacrifices of those that tend the soul will not have been in vain at that moment.
There is equal importance. We need Martha and we need Mary. Yet, Jesus said that Mary's choice was the choice of ultimate importance. In the end we all need the Vision of Mary to sustain us.
Sometimes we can make ourselves busy for the wrong reasons too don't you think?
It can be a way of dealing with our emotions, guilt, fear, worries etc... Our physical work can almost become our idol. Many good and wonderful things have been built by the hands of men but still less harm was ever done by one who simply contemplated the green blades of grass beneath his feet and said "no, the grass on the other side cannot be greener than this" I am content to simply be where I am.

"LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance."

Here is a quote from poet David Whyte's book "The Heart Aroused"

"Some years ago, during a weekend course I helped to lead in the south of England, I experienced a moving example of how the "via negativa" can blossom. The course was unusual for me, to say the least, in that I was the only man working amongst thirty three Medical Missionary sisters, The weekend was part of a six week rest and recuperation for missionary nuns who had returned exhausted from their work in the hinterlands of Peru, Indonesia, India and whatever other country needed the benefit of their good work and clinics. Their work was difficult and exhausting, delivering babies, inoculating children, caring for the old and the sick. You could not fault their endeavours, yet, as they say in the Christian tradition, they were all Martha and no Mary. They had absolutely no way of replenishing themselves. The medical Missionary Sisters had little or no inner contemplative prayer discipline in their daily work. Every nun who went out worked herself into the ground for two years and then came back completely depleted. Working with the sisters, you could not help but be moved by their work and in despair at the mere shadows they had made of themselves to do it. Down in the kitchen of the convent all the while, like Cinderella among the ashes, hidden away from our seminar room, was the young woman who served our meals every day. I say young, for although she seemed to be about twenty seven years old, it transpired in our conversations that she was in her early forties. I was amazed, not only by her youthfulness, but the glowing spirit of calmness and serenity she had about her work. It became the high point of each day, almost like a privilege to go down there and spend a few minutes with her as she served out the food, She seemed like a bright, shining light in the dim underground dining hall, and she never had a bad word for anything or anyone. It turned out that she had been a member of the Poor Clare order for over twenty years. The Poor Clares are a silent, prayerful order with an almost Zen-like approach to spirituality, spending much of their time in silent contemplation. She had entered the order at eighteen and spent more than two decades in contemplation; even the work of the convent was done by the sisters working in mutual silence. Finally after twenty-three years, alone in her cell, she had heard an inner voice telling her to go out in the world and work on the behalf of others. Following that voice without hesitation, she had joined the order that was hosting our weekend and come to the convent as part of her initial training. The whole experience was something of a culture shock for her, but she had not a bad thing to say about her new order, though its whole approach was foreign to her training. There was not a trace of spiritual materialism in her body. I would hear her apologise to the others for appearing to ignore them when she worked in the silence. "It's hard for them," she would say, " so I must keep explaining that the silence means something else to me." Not a shred of judgement on her part as to their lack in the art of contemplation. Witnessing her profound spiritual presence, I couldn't help but think that there was a young woman who would never burn out no matter how much she applied herself to the outer world. She had inexhaustible inner light that would endure through the direst of circumstances. She had come to that light through the ability to say no to everything except the thing most precious to her, an inner focus based on her personal spirituality and the religious life to which she had given herself. Out of those years of saying no, blossomed a magnificent yes; magnificent because she would be nourishing much more than the physical health of those she would care for - a yes that could be followed fully because after all those years gathering her Psyche into one single body of faith, every part of her would be uttering it Yes!"