Saturday, September 6, 2014

Contemplation and the body



Fresh out of university, I went to Taize, the ecumencial community in France, drenched in romantic notions of religious life on which I was to embark...immediately! This was a remarkably unformulated notion that evaporated in the first conversation with one of the brothers.

However, in my second week there, having followed the standard programme in the first week, I went to the retreat house to spend a week in reflective silence and discovered my true home. This was not, I realised, in the church, beautiful as its ecumenical liturgy is (expressed in the chant above) but in the forest that lay on the other side of the valley and in which everyday I went for long walks.

I knew at that time, what has taken a long time to slowly percolate through, that I feel most comfortable amongst trees, that they speak to me of presence much more fruitfully than anything else I know. They are so fully themselves, embodied, unique yet placed in a community. It is there that silence works on me most deeply.

I remember sitting under a tree, a beech if memory serves, one of those days, resting in the stillness of the heat, and a butterfly, intensely blue, came, fluttering onto my knee, resting there, vulnerable yet wholly itself, poised calm, a blessing.

I remember too returning that day to the church and the thronging mass of young people for the evening service. The beautiful chants rolled on, the formal part of the service came to an end, and some of the people present sought to stretch out, lie down, absorb the flowing atmosphere with their bodies wholly relaxed and yet they were discouraged from doing so by the brothers. The official explanation for this being that they may fall asleep (though what difference that would make was wholly unclear).

Here was a fault line that has haunted me ever since - between the reality of being fully embodied and present - the tree, the butterfly, myself poised between the two - and a worship that, deeply moving as it is, fundamentally distrusts our presence, our being there, in the fullness of bodily reality. What could have been more beautiful than to fall asleep, together, into the arms of the living God?

This week I was at a conference discussing 'human dignity' and the highlight for me was not the learned presentations nor even the impassioned descriptions of practical work but an experience and an image.

The first was singing with colleagues, guided, as it happens, by the wonderful artistic director of the Vienna Boys' Choir, where you were drawn into an encompassing enjoyment of your bodies ability to make harmonious sound, together. The second was of a charity in the UK where middle class ladies that lunch (to use a parochial expression) teach long term people in prison embroidery, producing beautiful products out of a deep embodied discipline of care and attention.

Contemplation is not a programme of a rule bound mental life but an unmixed bodily attention in presence.

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