St. Teresa of Avila and the Interior Castle

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There was a time in my life when I would have described prayer as boring. A time when talking to God definitively felt like a one-way conversation. When prayer had a simple formula learned from childhood and repeated without awareness: close your eyes, bow your head and when you’re done, end with “Amen.” Back then, when others talked about spending hours in prayer, I could not understand it. What would prompt someone to do that? Wouldn’t they run out of things to say? Wouldn’t they fall asleep? I related well to the Psalmist when he cries out, “Don’t turn a deaf ear when I call you, God,” (Ps 23:1), because I had no way of knowing if he heard anything I said.

But this was before my Abba, by his grace, enkindled in me the burning flame of his Spirit. This was before his love for me was not only something I had faith in, but something I had directly experienced. Before he made the simple act of being with him a thing filled with joy and mystery. Before, quite suddenly, prayer gave me a glimpse of how unfathomable and kind he was.

It was before I found the entrance to the interior castle of my soul:

“It came to me that the soul is like a castle made exclusively of diamond or some other very clear crystal. In this castle are a multitude of dwellings, just as in heaven there are many mansions,” (First Dwelling, Ch. 1, Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila).

Once invited to enter, I found that the deeper into myself I traveled, the closer to God I came:

“At the center is the most important dwelling of them all where the most secret things unfold between the soul and her Beloved,” (First Dwelling, Ch. 1).

But the going has not always been easy. I have encountered trials within and without. Looking back, I see the Good Shepherd had used them bring me to greater maturity. Indeed, every manifestation of our Lord’s love that I have experienced has only inspired me to pursue him more, including those very trials. And now, every bit of me is invested in the task.

Interior-CastleIt is this prayer journey towards divine union that is the focus of the book Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila. She begins speaking about those unaccustomed to prayer and unable to discern the voice of God, that “still small whisper” (1 Kings 19:12) that I started out incapable of hearing. She then explains how a desire grows within the soul for God and it begins to journey inward.

From there, the book follows the development of the soul’s relationship with it’s Creator, taking the reader on a mystical journey through seven different “mansions” or “dwellings”, all leading to the very center of the soul, where the Living God is pleased to dwell. In each mansion, she describes the kinds of prayers that the soul experiences, which have more to do with the action of God within it than the action of the soul itself. At the end of the book, the soul reaches the center and is united to its Beloved.

Throughout the book, the overriding theme is humility:

“I was once pondering why it is that our Beloved is so fond of the virtue of humility. Without it ever having occurred to me before, this thought suddenly came to me: It’s because God is supreme truth. To be humble is to walk in truth. It is true to say that we ourselves are nothing. Whoever does not understand this walks a lie. Whoever does understand this is more pleasing to supreme truth, because she is walking in truth,” (Sixth Dwelling, Ch. 11).

A devotional soul whose love of God knew no bounds, St. Teresa freely expresses herself in Interior Castle, often going off topic to praise her King for several paragraphs before returning. Her language is rich and lavish, using countless superlatives. The imagery she paints for the reader makes the shrouded, intangible topic much easier to grasp.

St. Teresa was a nun of the Carmelite order living in the sixteenth century. Seeing the disintegration of the rule and the insidious entrance of sin into her convent, she longed for a pure, ascetic life. Finally, in 1562, she resolved to begin a reformed Carmelite order which later became the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites. Through the course of her life, she founded sixteen convents. She was a contemporary and friend of St. John of the Cross, who helped her bring her stricter rule to the male side of the order. She died at the age of 67 on Oct 4, 1582.

The Interior Castle, written in 1577, is counted as one of her most important works. It is a huge encouragement to those who may not see the point of prayer but inwardly long for a deeper relationship with the Lord, as well as a guide for those further down the path. In it, she not only covers a great variety of weaknesses common in souls, but she shows how God’s grace progressively moves the soul towards Christlikeness. This demonstrates the verse, “…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,” (Phil 1:6).

This progression leads to more and more profound types of prayer which begin with internal discourse and meditation and move through contemplation, spiritual sweetness, the prayer of recollection and beyond. The soul encounters many trials along the way, including but not limited to aridities (being unable to feel God’s presence), loss of stature among men, spiritual counselors who give unhealthy advice, the purifying fire of the Spirit, self-doubt, physical ailments, gossip and the constant temptation to fall into sin.

In our modern, fast-paced world, the contemplative life is increasingly rare. When someone does begin down that illumined path, it is easy to fear that the things they are experiencing may not come from God. It is also easy to loose hope when encountering trials and aridities, because they fear they have lost the love of the Holy One that they desire. Not only are there a multitude of misunderstandings and misgivings that could occur, but there is no one around them to guide them along.

For me, my saving grace was found in the spiritual writers I have read from ages past like St. Teresa. I can read their works and get an idea of where I am and where I am going; I can keep my pride in check by seeing how much of a spiritual giant I am not. The Lover of My Soul has not left me bereft and bewildered by his affections for me, floating adrift at sea. Rather, he has given me a rudder for this little boat by helping me to discover the Interior Castle and other mystical treasures.

“Remember: if you want to make progress on the path and ascend to the places you have longed for, the important thing is not to think much but to love much, and so to do whatever best awakens you to love,” (Fourth Dwelling, Ch. 1).

Eckhart Tolle and The Power of Now for Christians

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” — Matthew 6: 34

I’m a big fan of Eckhart Tolle and his groundbreaking book, The Power of Now. Some people find it a little New Agey but I think it’s a modern spiritual classic well worth a close look.It helped me a lot during a crisis I faced in my own life. I wasn’t a bit surprised when the socialite Parris Hilton was photographed clutching a copy of The Power of Now (along with the Bible) when she was preparing to spend three weeks in jail for what amounted to a traffic ticket.

For Christian yogis, there are many similarities between The Power of Now and such spiritual classics as my personal favorite, Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence – and many important differences as well.

Unlike many “New Age” authors, Eckhart Tolle is very much a part of the “reality based community.”

Aside from his admittedly weird concept of the “pain body,” there are no grand theosophical speculations from him. The Power of Now rings out with the power of common sense. Also, Tolle is remarkably deferential to the western Christian spiritual traditions and few practicing Christians will find much to be offended about in The Power of Now.

What I like about the book is Tolle’s willingness to think through the entire enlightenment process from scratch – and, in a sense, provide a new overview of the human situation outside of traditional (either Eastern or Western) spiritual categories. In a sense, he invents his own synthesis and his own vocabulary. That is probably why people find it such a powerful book. (Tolle does make references to other spiritual traditions, such as Avaita Vedanta and A Course in Miracles, but mostly as a point of reference.)

Another thing I like about it is the radical way Tolle presents his ideas.This makes them very clear and they hit you with incredible force – even if, when you think about things a bit, you’ll probably end up wanting to qualify Tolle’s ideas.

Let me give you an example. For Tolle, time is an “illusion.”He says that over and over again, almost like a mantra.The past no longer exists. The future is not yet. The only thing that actually exists is the Now, the present moment .His entire book is centered around this idea. But of course, even if the past doesn’t exist in the present, that doesn’t make it an “illusion.” An “illusion” is something that appears to exist but doesn’t and never did. The past impacts the present and shapes it – as does the present.But Tolle knows all this. He isn’t speaking philosophically but pedagogically.

Another one of his extreme declarations is that the thinking is a form of mental illness. Like Gurdjieff, Tolle believes that the human mind is almost literally deranged. It spends most of its time dwelling on the past or imagining the future, to the detriment, in Tolle’s opinion, of life in the present. That’s why Tolle can say that, strictly speaking, there are no problems. Most of what people spend all their time worrying about are imagined possibilities for events that may, or may not, occur sometime in the future. In the actual here and now – life as it is lived at the present moment – there are no problems.

One tip: I listened to The Power of Now on CD and I highly recommend it in that way. (I also bought the book to follow along and look things up after listening to the CDs.)Tolle’s gentle, eerie voice – with a tinge of a German accent – is mesmerizing.

For those of you who want a taste of his approach, I am posting a VIDEO of his now-famous talks he gave at the New Age retreat center of Findhorn, in Scotland. It’s really worth listening to.

Lost Jesus Sutras Reveal Ancient Chinese Christianity

It’s an amazing story, one only now being told. More than 1,300 years ago, a Persian Christian monk named Aleben traveled 3,000 miles along the ancient caravan route known as the Silk Road all the way to China, carrying precious copies of the New Testament writings (probably in Syriac). Aleben and his fellow Christian monks stopped in the Chinese city of Chang-au (Xian), where, under the protection of the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong, he founded a CHristian monastery and began the arduous task of translating the Christian texts into Chinese. It was the year A.D. 635. When the Italian explorer Marco Polo arrived in China nearly 600 years later, he was astonished to discover that a tiny Christian community had existed there for centuries.


We know about this amazing Christian evangelist and his genial Chinese hosts because in 1623 graver diggers working outside of Xian dug up a stele weighing two tons and carved with 2,000 Chinese characters. Now known as the Monument Stele and residing in a museum in Xian, It was created in A.D. 781 and tells the tale Aleben and what the Chinese writers called “the Luminous Religion” because it taught of light. Here is what the Stele proclaimed:

The Emperor Taizong was a champion of culture. He created prosperity and encouraged illustrious sages to bestow their wisdom on the people. There was a saint of great virtue named Aleben, who came from the Qin Empire carrying the true scriptures. He had read the azure clouds and divined that he should journey to the East. Along the way, Aleben avoided danger and calamity by observing the rhythm of the wind.

In the ninth year of the Zhenguan reign [A.D. 635], Aleben reaching Chang-an [Zian]. The Emperor sent his minister, Duke Xuanling, together with a contingent of the palace guard, to the western outskirts to accompany Aleben to the palace.

The translation work on his scriptures took place in the Imperial Library and the Emperor studied them in his Private Chambers. After the Emperor became familiar with the True Teachings, he issued a decree and ordered that it be propagated…

… the Emperor issued a proclamation, saying:

“We have studied these scriptures and found them otherworldly, profound and full of mystery.

We found their words lucid and direct.

We have contemplated the birth and growth of the tradition from which these teachings sprang.

These teachings will save all creatures and benefit mankind, and it is on ly proper that they be practiced throughout the world.”

Following the Emperor’s orders, the Greater Qin Monastery was built in the I-ning section of the Capital. Twenty-one ordained monks of the Luminous Religion were allowed to live there…

The Emperor Gaozong [A.D. 650-683] reverently continued the tradition of his ancestor and enhanced the Luminous Religion by building temples in every province. He bestowed honors upon Aleben, declarin ghim the Great Dharma Lord of the Empire. The Luminous Religion spread throughout all ten provinces, the Empire prospered and peace prevailed. Temples were built in 100 cities and countless families received the blessings of the Luminous Religion.

Christianity flourished in China for at least two hundred years. But then, around A.D. 850, Chinese leaders began a purge of foreign religions, including Buddhism. Buddhist temples were destroyed and, according to one source, more than 3,000 monks of the “Luminious Religion” were ordered to return to lay life.

For more than 1,300 years, scholars and missionaries have searched for the lost scriptures that Aleben translated into Chinese — and for his monastery. A breakthrough finally occurred in the late 1880s when a lonely Taoist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered 50,000 lost Chinese manuscripts hidden away in more than 500 caves in Dunhuang. Amazingly enough, it wasn’t until about a decade ago, in 1998, that the full story was told. The Dunhuang manuscripts are sort of the Dead Sea Scrolls of ancient China, a cache of long-buried treasures that reveal a tremendous amount about life in ancient China — including the strange story of how the “Luminous Religion” took root there and blended with Taoist and Confucian elements to create a uniquely Chinese form of Christianity. The discovery of these ancient Chinese texts by western scholars — and their dissemination to museums in France and Britain — along with the many decades it took to get them translated and published — very much resembles the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Of the 50,000 manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang, only eight comprise what are now known as the Jesus Sutras. Nevertheless, they clearly show Christian influence. They paraphrase passages from the New Testament and thus provide direct evidence that the ancient Chinese writers of these texts clearly knew the Gospel accounts:

“Do not pile up treasures on the ground where they will rot or be stolen. Treasures must be stored in Heaven where they will not decay or rot.”

“Always tell the truth. Do not give pearls to swine; they will trample and destroy them. You will only be blamed by them for your actions and incur their anger. Why don’t you realize this yourself.”

“Knock on the door and it will be opened for you. Whatever you seek, you will obtain from the One Spirit. Know on the door and it will be opened for you.”

“Look at the birds in the air. They don’t plant or harvest, they have no barns or cellars. In the wilderness the One Spirit provided for the people and will also provide for you. You are more important than the birds and should not worry.”

The Jesus Sutra texts clearly are attempting to translate Christian ideas and ideals into an idiom that the Chinese people — steeped in Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian concepts — can understand. Thus, the Jesus Sutras speak of the “Higher Dharma” that leads to Peace and Joy. “It is the Sutras of the Luminous Religion that enable us to cross the sea of birth and death to the other shore, a land fragrant with the treasured aroma of Peace and Joy,” the Sutras proclaim. “The Sutras are like a great fire burning upon a high mountain. The light from that fire shines upon all.”

Here is how the Jesus Sutras relate the story of Jesus:

The Lord of Heaven sent the Cool Wind to a girl named Mo Yen. It entered her womb and at the moment she conceived. The Lord of Heaven did this to show that conception could take place without a husband. He knew there was no man near her and that people who saw it would say, “How great is the power of the Lord of Heaven.”…

… Mo Yen became pregnant and gave birth to a son named Jesus, whose father is the Cool Wind.

… When Jesus Messiah was born, the world saw clear signs in heaven and earth. A new star that could be seen everywhere appeared in heaven above. The star was as big as a cart wheel and shown brightly. At about that time, the One was born in the country of Ephrath in the city of Jerusalem. He was born the Messiah and after five years he began to preach the dharma.

… From the time the Messiah was 12 until he was 32 years old, he sought out people with bad karma and directed them to turn around and create good karma by following a wholesome path. After the Messiah had gathered 12 disciples, he concerned himself with the suffering of others. Those who had died were made to live. The blind were made to see. The deformed were healed and the sick were cured.

… For the sake of all living beings and to show us that a human life is as frail as a candle flame, the Messiah gave his body to these people of unwholesome karma. For the sake of the living in this world, he gave up his life.

… After the Messiah had accepted death, his enemies seized the Messiah and took him to a secluded spot, washed his hair and climbed to “the place of skulls,” which was called golgotha. They bound him to a pole and placed two highway robbers to the right and left of him. They bound the Messiah to the pole at the time of the fifth watch of the sixth day of fasting. They bound him at dawn and when the sun set in the west the sky became black in all four directions, the earth quaked and the hills trembled. tombs all over the world opened and the dead came to life. What person can see such a thing and not have faith in the teaching of the scriptures? To give one’s life like the Messiah is a mark of great faith.

Fascinating stuff, no? To see this early form of Christianity — delivered by means of a Nestorian monk in the 6th century — through the eyes of the poetic, Taoist-influenced Chinese translators and scribes is to go back in time. It is yet another reminder of the universality of the Gospel message, how it transcends all culture and language and philosophical concepts. Christian yogis, above all, who seek wisdom from the East as well as from our own traditions, should appreciate this.

As the Apostle Peter tells the righteous Roman centurian Cornelius, following his vision: “I see clearly now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him (Acts 10: 34-5).” We Christians who seek wisdom from the East.

If you’re interested in this topic, you can discover more in The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks, edited by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore (Berkeley: Seastone, 2003).   A much more scholarly work, and without the frequently anti-Christian tone of Riegert and Moore, is Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity (Wellspring/Ballantine, 2001).


Yoga Instructor Reveals Yoga Weight Loss Routine

October 22, 2008 by  
Filed under Sadie Nardini, Weight Loss

New York yoga instructor Sadie Nardini, a columnist for many top Internet yoga sites, demonstrates a vinyasa routine that can help you lose weight quickly and easily. Sadie calls this a “calorie torching” sequence that “tones and stretches you whole bod.”

Sadie critics yoga for keeping her weight down and giving her a healthy, flexible body.

A New Book on Christian Zen by a Jesuit Priest

October 19, 2008 by  
Filed under Christian Zen, Reuben L.F. Habito

I’m a sucker for Christian Zen.  While I ultimately think the yogic techniques of meditation are more systematic and useful for advanced meditators, the simplicity and power of Zen (and early Ch’an teaching) probably explain why so many Christian seekers are drawn to Zen practice.  For years, there were only a handful of guides to walking “the razor’s edge” of Christian Zen, but recently there has been an explosion of new books about Christians who have studied Zen in depth — and lived to tell the tale.

One book I am reading right now is Reuben L.F. Habito’s marvelous Living Zen, Loving God. A Filipino Jesuit priest who has studied Zen since 1971, Habito’s book has a fresh, nonchalant perspective on Zen not seen since perhaps William Johnston’s classic book published more than 30 years ago. 

I found Habito’s ability to integrate Zen practice with his Christian faith to be particularly enlightening, if I may use such a word.  As Habito’s describes them, the Four Vows of the Boddhisattva — the desire to seek the liberation of all sentient beings even before that of oneself — can easily be harmonized with the Christian initiate’s vow to put the will of God before one’s own desires. 

“Be it done unto me according to His will,” as the Blessed Virgin Mary told the angel, in the Gospel account of the Annunciation.  “Not my will, but thine,” said Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

A wonderful book… well worth a read.

Jesuit Teaches Class on Patanjali’s Sutras

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By Francis X. Clooney, S.J.

Several months ago I mentioned that I was teaching a seminar on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This fundamental yoga text, from nearly 2000 years ago, is brief — 195 very succinct verses — but it is the reference point for all the later yoga systems. I promised to report on the results of the seminar (with ten fine students) at its conclusion (this week), and so here (and hereafter) I offer some reflections.

Given the great popularity and accessibility of yoga — I was told recently that 20 million Americans practice some version of it — it may seem a bit too academic to go back and study the Sutras, but I was convinced by my seminar that this is very much worth the effort, even necessary if we are to know what yoga is all about.
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Hindu leaders split over yoga for Christians

April 30, 2008 by  
Filed under Hinduism, Winnie Young

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Hindu religious leaders have strongly criticised a Catholic spiritual teacher for encouraging her pupils to find God through yoga.

Winnie Young, 96, shown above with her teacher and one of the world’s leading yoga practioners, Yogacharya BKS Iyengar, claims to have spent most of her life teaching yoga.

The founder of a national yoga institute in 1975, Young said her institute practices Hatha yoga, which advocates controlled breathing to calm the body and cleanse the mind in an effort to achieve nirvana, an elevated mental state.

She questioned why people misunderstand yoga to be a religion. Read more

The Origins of Christian Yoga

 

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By Ganga Kali Das Jaya

When I was about 25 years old and I was a novice in a Franciscan monastery, we had a monk who worked very hard, slept very little and was always so busy and one day I asked him “what is the secret of your health?”

“Yoga” he said “I practice Yoga”. I asked him to teach me and he lent me a book called “La Voie Du Silence” by Jean Dechanet ( a Benedictine monk) First Edition of this book, published in French, was in 1956.

I cannot speak to you about Yoga and Christianity without mentioning my gratitude to this French Catholic priest who, some 40 years ago gave not only me but many Christians a memorable introduction to Yoga. Up to today, his name is still known, his books are still in their libraries, in many a Catholic monastery and convent because of his rendering accessible the exercises and philosophy of Yoga to Christian contemplative minds. Read more

Christian yogi Bede Griffiths

April 5, 2008 by  
Filed under Bede Griffiths

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By Arthur Jones, National Catholic Reporter

This man, Bede Griffiths, is dangerous. That the Benedictine monk died at his Shantivanam (Forest of Peace) ashram in India in 1993 at the fine age of 86 does not alter the fact — except to the extent his death intensifies our understanding of our own situation.

Griffiths, this Hindu sannyasi (ascetic), a Catholic priest, elegant in his writing, in person charming, in death could too easily be diminished into icon-only status. His is a pleasing lithograph of shoulder-length flowing hair, neatly trimmed swami beard, handsome face, kindly if penetrating eyes bordered by haloes and swirling smoke of incense.

His writings belie the image. They are danger-daring prods, cautions, lures, inducements, challenges, barbs, warnings and reassurances from a man who found nature first, and through nature God, and through God Catholicism, and through Catholicism Benedictinism, and through the monastic life, Eastern mysticism. Read more

Anthony De Mello and Christian Yoga

demello1.jpgAnthony de Mello, SJ, was a famous Jesuit priest, psychotherapist and seminar leader who sought to fashion a “Christian spirituality in Eastern form.” Anyone interested in Christian Yoga should definitely check out his many books — especially his seminal and fascinating text, Sadhana: A Way to God.

He was born in Bombay in 1931 into a large Portuguese Catholic family whose ancestors were converted by the early Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier. He attended a Jesuit high school and joined the Society of Jesus in India in 1947. Following a typical Jesuit course of studies that included philosophy in Spain, theology in India and psychology in the U.S., De Mello was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1961. Read more