Dilatato Corde 3:2
July – December, 2013


Interfaith (Christian/Buddhist) retreats have been taking place at Turvey Abbey for many years. There are at present two each year. One, called “Inner Silence and Awakening,” revolves around the teachings of Meister Eckhart. The suggestion to hold a weekend centred on Meister Eckhart came from a Buddhist friend who thought Eckhart ideal for an interfaith weekend: “Buddhists can understand him without translating.” The participants do a group lectio divina of short passages from Eckhart’s sermons, several times in the weekend, devoting a good bit to time to sitting silently and reflecting on them.

The second interfaith retreat, called “Meditation and Mindfulness,” explores these two practices over the course of a weekend. Both retreats are jointly led by a Turvey nun and a Buddhist nun, monk, or teacher. In the case of the Eckhart weekend, the Buddhist teacher is an experienced and knowledgeable layman, a member of the Eckhart Society. One of his essays received an award from the Society and was published in their journal. For the Meditation and Mindfulness weekend, the teacher is generally a Buddhist nun or monk. The schedule is designed in such a way that everyone is free to attend all the monastic offices with the Turvey Abbey communities of monks and nuns, as well as taking part in the weekend retreat sessions. Those who do not attend the offices have extra time for meditation and reading. There is also time for question and answer sessions, which are always enlightening and often lively. Meals are taken together in silence.

Meditation and Mindfulness, September 20-22, 2013
In the final feed-back session of this year’s Meditation and Mindfulness retreat, those participants who had already taken part in several such retreats all agreed that though the weekend is in some ways the same each year, it is always different, mainly because the composition of the group varies greatly from year to year. There are always a few who come regularly and feel at home, and some for whom the whole weekend is a strange, new experience. And of course, even those who come regularly have themselves changed over the course of a year. Continuity—the word used by one of the participants—is also given by the fact that the monastic community is always here and the monastic round continues year in, year out. Guests are appreciatively aware that the community holds them in prayer, both private and public. By the final session of this weekend the group that on Friday evening had seemed disparate, and even slightly apprehensive, had somehow become one. This particular group included lay Buddhists, Christians of several different denominations, a Humanist, and some people who felt uncommitted to any particular church.

There are two important spaces for the retreatants, the Blessed Sacrament chapel and the Buddhist shrine room in the guest-house, where the teachings and most communal silent meditation sessions take place. The Buddhists bring a Buddharupa (image) for this room, together with mats and cushions for those Buddhists and others who want to sit on the floor. For those with stiffer knees, there are chairs around the outside of the room. Christians and Buddhists value and share the symbolism of candles, flowers, and incense. The shrine is decorated, and candles and incense are usually lit during the meditation times. Following the ancient practice for sacred places, we leave our shoes outside the door of both the Blessed Sacrament chapel and the Buddhist shrine room. This practice, which I have encountered in different places and cultures, is one I always find deeply moving. It brings to mind the account of God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush and the divine words, “Take off your shoes, for the ground on which you are standing is holy” (Exodus 3:5). Through this gesture, Christians and Buddhist alike recognize the sacredness of entering into silent communication with the One Christians call “God” and that Buddhist name “the One Reality, the Unborn, the Undying, the Unconditioned.” Over the years some Christians have commented that they take the practice of removing their shoes back home to their own prayer space.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is available all the weekend for private meditation. On Saturday, at the end of a long day, and usually on Sunday morning as well, we gather together here in silence. Some Buddhists who do not attend the monastic offices that take place in the community chapel like to go the Blessed Sacrament chapel to meditate.

Shape of the Weekend
Those who have registered for the weekend arrive between 3:30 and 5:00 on Friday afternoon. The first event on the program is the monastic office of Vespers in the community chapel; although it is optional, many attend. This is followed by supper, an occasion for meeting, greeting, and talking to each other before going into silence. Supper is followed by monastic Compline after which the group has its first session together. This is a time tor the participants and the retreat leaders—on this occasion it was Sister (Ajahn) Metta of Cittaviveka Buddhist Monastery and I—to introduce themselves. There is a time for questions and practical instructions—especially necessary for newcomers who tend to feel nervous about their first visit to a monastery. There is also a brief instruction about the liturgical life of the communities and suggestions on how to pray the psalms personally. We end with a period of silent guided meditation and then go into silence for the weekend.

Saturday is a very full day, beginning with an hour of silent meditation together in the shrine room soon after 6.00 a.m. To help Christians who are new to this kind of prayer, Sister Metta gave gentle verbal guidance, allowing time for much silence. After a silent breakfast, the day then followed the rhythm of the liturgical prayer of the monastic communities, beginning with Lauds at 8:30, followed by teaching sessions, more meditation, Eucharist, Vespers, and a vigil service. A teaching was given about the practice of mindfulness while walking, standing, and eating. Normally, there is session of walking meditation in the morning, but it had to be abandoned because of rain.

A surprise for some of the new Christian participants, who included recent and more experienced converts to Roman Catholicism, was to learn that both “Meditation” and “Mindfulness” have a long history in Christianity. I gave this teaching, and since I am a “cradle Catholic,” I drew mainly on Roman Catholic sources to illustrate it.

“Meditation” has meant different things throughout the Christian centuries, ranging from “mental reflective prayer” to what we in this weekend call “meditation,” which is often referred to by Christians today as “contemplative prayer” or “Centring Prayer.” The latter term originated in a twentieth-century re-emergence of the contemplative way in America, largely through monastic communities.

“Mindfulness” is what in the Roman Catholic tradition has been called the “Practice of the Presence of God” or the “Sacrament of the Present Moment.” Both terms are well attested in mystical literature. Many non-Roman Catholic Christians are familiar with the little gem by the Carmelite Friar, Brother Lawrence (1614-1691), entitled The Practice of the Presence of God. The “Sacrament of the Present Moment,” or “Abandonment to Divine Providence” (perhaps a more off-putting title?), is an ancient practice popularised by a French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, (1675-1751). The tradition, however, goes back to the earliest years of Christianity and to the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These two books exist in several modern translations and editions and still speak to people’s hearts. Saint Paul expresses the earliest Christian teaching in his admonition, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God, giving thanks” (I Cor. 10:31).

Sister Metta was delighted by my drawing attention to the similarities between “mindfulness” and the “sacrament of the present moment.” “‘The sacrament of the present moment,’” she said. “I never heard that before! That is exactly what it means in Buddhism!”

We were flexible about our schedule, and when the sun came out, drying and transforming our gardens, we decided to have a walking meditation period before Vespers. Everyone “blossomed.”

The last liturgical event of the day was a beautiful surprise for many. Since the Lord’s Day, the day of Resurrection, begins on Saturday evening, many monastic communities begin their weekly celebration of the resurrection of Christ with an ancient Christian ceremony called the “lucernarium.” Sabbath candles are lit to greet Christ, the Light of the Word. In Judaism, it is the mother who lights the Sabbath candles. In our mixed community of monks and nuns, it is the prioress of the nuns’ community who does this to herald the day of Christ’s resurrection. In a practice possibly unique to Turvey Abbey, during the singing of “O Light so joyous” (John Keble’s translation of the ancient Greek hymn, “Phos hilaron”), a monk and a nun do a prayerful liturgical dance with candles. For some people who were participating in this ceremony for this first time, this was the most moving part of the weekend.

This very full day ended with an open-ended prayerful period of meditation in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The weekend is not meant to be a kind of “spiritual Olympics.” Those who needed to rest left quietly after a few minutes, while others stayed together until 9.00 p.m.

On Sunday, the scheduled events of the weekend ended with lunch. As on Saturday, the day began with meditation, Lauds, and breakfast, followed by a final session with Sister Metta, who had to leave after lunch to make the long journey back to her monastery in Sussex.

The final session of the retreat, which usually takes place after lunch, is traditionally a time for closure, evaluation, sharing (if desired), and preparing oneself for “re-entry” into the hurly-burly of daily life and work. I led the group through a “re-membering” of the whole experience, from the time each person decided to register for it. With plenty of silence for individual recollection we “re-read” the weekend following the pattern of Lectio Divina. After recalling the weekend as a whole, we concentrated on whatever had especially touched us, thus internalising the experience. Then followed a period in which anyone could share what they would be taking home with them. We had been sharing deeply in an attentive, aware silence all weekend, so some continued to share in silence now, while others also verbalised experiences that had moved them. We concluded with a period of prayer for “metta” (loving kindness), a short meditation period, and a sharing of blessings. There was a deep sense of unity and presence to each other. Everyone seemed to be aware of how unusual and powerful an experience it had been to connect so deeply with a group of people who were strangers two days ago and now felt like a family, a small “sangha,” a little “church.” Finally we said our good-byes with gratitude to Sister Metta. The group expressed their appreciation to both retreat leaders, and thanks to each other. Then those who were joining the monastic communities went to the Sunday Eucharist, while others continued their meditation privately.

After the Eucharist and before lunch we had a more light-hearted teaching about another kind of awareness exercise followed by a walking meditation offered by the senior lay Buddhist present, George Wilson, who co-leads the “Inner Silence and Awakening” (Eckhart) weekend.

As always at the end of an interfaith experience, I was filled with a deep sense of gratitude to those who had come so far and shared so generously of themselves, I was again amazed by our commitment to each other and to our practice. The silence and feeling of oneness seemed almost tangible. It was a time of great joy.

As is clear from the testimonies that follow, I am not the only one who is deeply moved by these opportunities to accompany and be accompanied by those from other spiritual traditions who search for the light that will give meaning to their lives.

Sister Metta, of Cittaviveka Buddhist Monastery
I spent last weekend at Turvey Abbey, teaching a retreat on Christian and Buddhist meditation practice with Sister Lucy. What a delightful and deeply touching experience it was!

This was my first teaching of an interfaith retreat and even though I have been part of interfaith gatherings before, I went without knowing really what to expect. To my surprise I felt myself being touched and moved deeply, seeing and experiencing first-hand what we can share in such a short period of time, with people we have never met before and with old friends, of course.

I have known Sister Lucy for about 20 years now. This surely helped me to feel at ease and relaxed in this, for me, very new situation. The community at Turvey welcomed us warmly and being able to join in with their services and prayers was such a wonderful, loving framework for this retreat. Being able and supported to touch our spiritual roots in many different ways is such a precious nourishment, meditation and prayers being part and the basis of it all. Meditating together and then being present at the Turvey Abbey liturgy were both special experiences for me. A heartfelt thank you to all of you at Turvey Abbey for making this possible.

Brother Herbert from Turvey
Once again, we have had a very beautiful weekend on “Meditation and Mindfulness” led by a Christian and a Buddhist nun. We saw how very much we, our ways of life, have in common: meditation or contemplative prayer; the search for peace; unconditional love, and unity. We continue to pray for a growing understanding and respect between people of all Faiths.

One of the “regulars”:
I am someone who has attended the Meditation and Mindfulness weekend for some years now. Each is in some ways the same, in that it is a great relief, somehow, to arrive at Turvey, and become part of that very precious community again; and yet in some ways, each year is different. Partly this is because there is always a different group dynamic, as there will be when a new group of people form, and partly this is to do with how I am each time, and what needs or prayers I bring to the weekend. For me it was a particularly joyful time, and I'm not quite sure why. It was lovely to meet Sister Metta from Chithurst; it was lovely to be taught a rather eccentric, but in fact extremely helpful, new way of doing walking meditation by George Wilson. But I think most of all, it is that I have become able to go more deeply into it than I used to, so that it all feels like a gift; the silence, the prayerfulness, the very special way in which the Turvey community live. I was struck this time by the Benedictine Office, and how, even if for the community it is just everyday life, so that they see the mistakes, the wrong notes, the person arriving late, for us taking part it becomes perfect in its respect for its tradition, its deep history, in the wisdom of Saint Benedict still conveyed so simply and so beautifully.

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