Musings on Shantivanam (Saccidananda Ashram)

Still the most powerful part of this trip, the five days at Shantivanam were deeply restorative and spiritually refreshing. It was also good to spend it with my sister, who doesn’t belong to the Christian tradition (although, raised in a Christian household, she can speak the language). She found Shantivanam to be an unexpectedly enlightening and positive experience, and was loath to leave. Ellen did not enjoy Madurai as much. Not surprising, I guess. In startling contrast to the ashram’s serenity, beauty, simplicity, and spiritual stimulation, Madurai is chaotic, messy, complicated and deafening.

When I go on a retreat, I usually sleep a lot the first 1-3 days, and even though I had gotten good rest in Chennai I still rested more than usual when I first got to Shantivanam. I participated in daily Morning Prayer/Eucharist, Noonday prayers, and then Evening Prayer; after a day or two I started also attending the Namajapa (chanting the name of God) at 5:30 a.m. and 9:00 p.m., and doing my own Centering Prayer 20 minutes before Morning and Evening Prayer.

Sometimes on retreat I just want to retreat in every sense of the word: I find myself withdrawing from human companionship. I often don’t even want to participate in group gatherings, worship or otherwise and I never want to participate in all of them, even when I do. It tends to be time for recharging, which, for me, requires silence and time away from people.

At Shantivanam, I almost immediately wanted to attend all the services; after a day or so, when I felt rested, I also wanted to do Namajapa as well as my Centering Prayer.

There isn’t all that much to do there, although I got a lot of reading in (I finished Spirit of Fire, a biography of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist and unorthodox theologian, which was very much appropriate).

Despite a lack of interesting activities, the ashram has something better. Its fairly exacting schedule provides a relaxing structured rhythm: pray and eat in silence, chop vegetables and/or free time; pray some more, eat, again in silence, more free time; attend one of Brother Martin’s “Four O’Clock Talks,” more silence and free time; pray, eat, silence, free time, pray, bed. There were two coffee or tea breaks each day; those 15-30 minutes at the Tea Circle were really the only times talking and getting to know other people was formally organized; the rest of the times, even when we weren’t officially in silence we were asked to keep fairly quiet nevertheless, honoring the contemplative atmosphere.

There’s great freedom in such a schedule; I wasn’t bombarded with choices all day, and the simple schedule (fully optional, but I opted in!) allowed my system to power down a bit.

More on Shantivanam later: I took some notes on Brother Martin’s talks which I’ll share.


Shantivanam (Forest of Peace)

“Pilgrimage is wandering after God. That it may be to a definite destination doesn’t mean that it’s not wandering, and it doesn’t destroy its continuity with the . . . kingdom-preaching wandering of Jesus. . . .

“Pilgrimage is a journey back. It can give us new eyes—the eyes of children. And that’s just as well, because only those who come as children can enter that strange kingdom. Children’s eyes see color and significance where we see only grays and emptiness. Pilgrims are dancing, delighting children. In the curious spiritual geometry of the kingdom, you can only go forward by going back.”  The Sacred Journey, xv-xvi

Heading out today to Shantivanam. I am excited about it. Some people can have the eyes of children without a change of scenery, and that might be true for me some microscopic percentage of the time. But mostly I find that pilgrimages and retreats break up my regular schedule in a way that allows me to see things anew, to wander after God, who sometimes feels so absent, or at least so extremely silent. I’m always wandering after God, but on pilgrimage it’s much more intentional.

So. Shantivanam. We don’t know if there will be WiFi. We don’t even know if there’s phone reception. We have had a relaxing few days, some regular tourism and some “religious tourism,” but staying at the Raintree is rather luxurious, a good transition from the rigors of travel.

Shantivanam refers to its accommodations  (on its web page) as “basic, but adequate.” That’s about as much as we know for sure, but I do have a schedule. There’s lots of silence — everything below with an asterisk indicates silence, and so we will be breaking silence with periods of necessary verbal communication (which is, of course, the opposite of normal life). Here’s what we’ll be doing [all from their web page]:

What’s the daily timetable?

*5.00 a.m. Angelus (wake up bell)

*5.30 a.m. Namajapa (chanting), and private meditation

*6.30 a.m. Morning prayer, ( 6.45 on Sundays ) Eucharist, breakfast

10.00 a.m. Coffee break

12.00 noon Angelus bell

*12.15 p.m. Midday prayer, meal, silence

* 3.30 p.m. Tea

4.00 p.m. “Four-O’Clock Talk” by Brother Martin on scheduled days

*6.00 p.m. Angelus, meditation, silence

*7.00 p.m. Evening prayer, supper

(silence suspended after supper until 9:00 p.m.)

*9.00 p.m. Namajapa, silence (see article on Nama Japa)


What is expected from guests?

a) To concentrate on the purpose for which they have come to the ashram, and to observe quiet in and around the ashram so as to preserve the atmosphere of peace and prayer.

b) To refrain from smoking in the ashram and from taking liquor or drugs during their stay.

c) To help cut vegetables after breakfast

d) Guests should not give any money or gifts to the individual. If at all you want give something to a person, It should go through the guest master or the superior. Please co-operate with us well running of the Ashram.

e) To respect the times of silence, which are:

From services until the end of meal times

From noon prayer until afternoon tea

From 6pm (meditation time) until after supper

After 9pm

See youse laters, alligators!


Traveling is a great time to notice preferences, and how they can rob me of peace of mind.

On the Lufthansa leg of the journey, when I was so squashed in, I would have much preferred to have decent leg room. And arm room. And a little bubble around myself. That wasn’t happening, so I did a bit of a check and realized I was frustrated but not in any discomfort. I could, however, get uncomfortable when I thought, “Nine point five hours of this?” because that future seemed unacceptable and restricted and would probably give me a blood clot and I just might die.

It was good to be able to laugh at myself a little. I did have compression stockings, in an attractive argyle pattern, no less, and sometimes when I stretched my legs I happened to knock up against the feet of the woman whose reclined seat was restricting my movement. Yeah, mildly retaliatory. The real problem? My preference for space wasn’t being met. My preference for reading and writing weren’t feasible. My preference for Quatar Airways certainly wasn’t being met.

But I had no real discomfort. Not physical, anyway. And I wasn’t dying of a blood clot, although my heart felt restricted in a spiritual way. So, I recognized, it was just preferences. Reminded me of a recent New Yorker cartoon: a mother and her young backpack-wearing child are entering an office, the door labeled “Special Services,” and Mother says to the woman at a desk, “My child has special wants.”

One of the great things about traveling is noticing preferences. When I realized I was dealing with a special want and not a special need, I felt better. (I still don’t plan to travel via Lufthansa when I can avoid it.)

P.S. – Judgments: A few years ago I thought a woman was genuinely stark raving mad on another flight because she grabbed the seat in front of her, angry at its occupant for reclining all the way, and shook it aggressively. I was shocked and very judgmental: This lady is crazy! Wow! Terrible! On the Lufthansa flight, I realized I was entertaining a fantasy of doing the same thing, but in my case it seemed far more reasonable and justified. I still suspect the woman was unbalanced, but she simply expressed an unfiltered, primal desire lurking somewhere deep and unacknowledged in my own mind.

Adventures in India

Here we are! Or here I am, until sister Ellen gets here shortly (she had a longer layover). Going from Philadelphia to Chennai had its good and bad, or I could say advantages/disadvantages if I want to avoid attributing moral virtue or lack thereof. Advantages: checking in went very smoothly, and the few delays didn’t affect my ability to make transfers, so they weren’t really delays at all.

Also, I sat sort-of-next-to a woman, the Rev. Dr. Patricia Keel (we had an empty seat between us; yay!), on the long leg between Dulles and the Frankfurt airport. She was taking the same flight from Frankfurt to Chennai, India; I don’t know the chances of sitting by someone going the same place on a connecting flight, but I do enjoy and expect synchronicities when I’m traveling. She’s a Unity pastor who now leads trips, mostly to India, attends courses at O&O Academy, formerly Oneness University, and lectures/speaks about it. I don’t know much about O&O, but I certainly liked and connected with Patricia.

Sadly, the flight from Frankfurt to Chennai, 9.5 hours on Lufthansa, was physically quite miserable. The seats were smaller than American domestic seats (already tiny!) and I literally could not eat most of my dinner because I had no movement of my arms except with elbows kept to my body. The woman in front of me immediately put her seat all the way back and then sat at the front of it most of the time, not even leaning back against it. It was frustrating, because I had nice reading and writing materials, which were out of the question, so I watched movies. I had already watched Lion King between Dulles and Frankfurt (a favorite, beautiful and uplifting), so I watched Lala Land (romantic and beautiful; hard to hear), then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (closed captions!; amazing performances by Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell) and then fast-forwarded through much of the artsy A Ghost Story (I had 60 minutes for a 92-minute movie). The movies kept me entertained and distracted from my discomfort. But note to self: avoid Lufthansa in the future.

I’m now at the Raintree. My brand-new Belkin Surge Protector blows the fuses in the room; whether it’s the wiring here or the Belkin I’m not sure. It’s part of the fun of traveling in India; it tests resilience.

I love being a Food Traveler; at the breakfast, the dining room staff asked repeatedly if I wanted waffles, omelettes, pancakes, cereal, etc. I chose instead a lovely dish of creamed mushrooms, peas, and corn; idli bread (made of fermented black lentils and rice) with one of the condiments; stewed figs; steamed vegetables; a Japanese omelette (small); coffee; a lovely slice of toast with butter and marmalade. I’m trying to remind myself not to overeat; and if I’m tempted to overeat, make it mostly vegetables and some fruit.

I got all organized (Why am I so much more organized when I travel? Perhaps it’s because every item has been carefully chosen, and I only have to decide how to organize the relatively few belongings). I’m proud of how few items of clothing I brought.  Now I will do some journaling and read some of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (I’ve read it at least three times before), which I hope to donate to Shantivanam when we get there.


November 3, 2017

Why do I want to go places? And why do I want those journeys to mean more than sight-seeing and photo-taking and exotic-stuff-purchasing? And why use the word “journey,” instead of some more eloquent, literary-sounding, word — “sojourn,” “expedition,” “excursion,” even the more perky “jaunt”?

journey  |ˈjərnē|
noun    (plural journeys)
an act of traveling from one place to another: she went on a long journey
                            a long and often difficult process of personal change and
development: her spiritual journey towards Roman Catholicism
I was excited with my character’s journey in the film.⌋

verb (journeys, journeyed) [no object]
travel somewhere: they journeyed south

journeyer    noun

As a journeyer, I travel from one place to another with the purpose of personal change and development. Or, at least, I seek to see the world in new ways, and, crucially, I seek to see myself in new ways, which a drastic change of scene can facilitate.

What about “being” and not “doing” (I sometimes think I might throw up if I hear one more Super Spiritual Person say, in a particular tone of voice, that we are “human beings, not human doings”)? Yep, there’s something to that: the fully realized person, the one who has Awakened (whatever that means), probably doesn’t have an urge to go someplace else. They might be so enlightened that sitting in a smelly subway means as much as sitting on a mountaintop. Good for them. I’m not there yet, wherever “there” is, and maybe they aren’t either.

So. India again. My first sojourn there (see? I can use more lovely terms when referring to one particular journey), in January 2017, gave me a taste of south India. I went with a group from Journeys to the East, a group of mostly Fourth Way students of teacher John Bennett‘s approach to G. I. Gurdjieff‘s teachings, and we saw many temples (to say the least: there are lots and lots of temples in India, and I’m pretty sure we saw all of them! I was excited about temples, but by the end I was experiencing temple overload), as well as a few ashrams.

This time I will go with my sister Ellen; more intimidating because we won’t be in the protective cocoon of a travel group, with all the logistics handled by someone else. That trip required surrender to group dynamics and group togetherness, far beyond my comfort level (especially the constant expectation of group participation). This trip will require surrender to uncertainty, flexibility, even peril.

The first peril? Getting visas. Talk about uncertain and grueling! Last year I got my visa on the very last possible day. So I think we should start now!

Blessing and Praying

January 1, 2016

This year, I wish to bless and pray. Bless and pray – moment after moment, day after day.

If I want to bless others, that blessing must come out of a life of prayer. A life of prayer trains me to welcome God’s presence each moment, one moment at a time.

Can I bless everyone I encounter? What about people who challenge me – those who dislike me, who bother me, who stress me out? Bless them. As Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? . . . But love your enemies, do good to them . . . .” (Luke 6:32, 35

What does it mean to bless? To me, it is a sacred wish for their complete well-being – prosperity, peace, happiness, spiritual connection, physical health. Most of all it’s a wish for intangible spiritual qualities like peace, joy, kindness, patience, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, hope, and of course love. To the degree that those qualities are present in our lives, the other blessings – health, wealth, wisdom, etc., those things that none of us are guaranteed — become less crucial to our well-being.

So when I bless you, I wish all good things for you.

The Bible has beautiful blessings:

“May God give you the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine” (Genesis 27:28).

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26)

Jesus offered blessings such as comfort, mercy, righteousness, seeing God, even the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3-9).

So when I bless those whom I encounter, it’s a simple version of a lot of goodness: “May God give you the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. May God look upon you, be gracious to you, and give you peace, joy, comfort, mercy, love, and every other spiritual blessing.”

And then may those whom I bless, bless others and become a blessing to them!


On Cheating.


On Cheating.

I’m a cheater. Or a backslider. Or a relapser. Or maybe just a mistake-maker, or an expert starter-over.

So far, my addiction to sugar seems to be gone, or at least seriously diminished. I’m not craving sugar, but when it’s right in my face there’s still a possibility that it’ll go right into my mouth.

Confessions: On Friday morning I needed to be ready for an 11:00 funeral and finish up the church newsletter. Two things of almost equal importance. (Multi-tasking is overrated, if not completely fictitious. Who among us really does more than one thing at a time? We just try to do too many things in rapid sequence and call it “multi-tasking,” when often the more appropriate appellation is “insanity.”)

When my Mac completely froze and I hadn’t saved for the past 30 minutes, I was beside myself. Out of my mind. Certainly not present! So when…

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On Cheating.

On Cheating.

I’m a cheater. Or a backslider. Or a relapser. Or maybe just a mistake-maker, or an expert starter-over.

So far, my addiction to sugar seems to be gone, or at least seriously diminished. I’m not craving sugar, but when it’s right in my face there’s still a possibility that it’ll go right into my mouth.

Confessions: On Friday morning I needed to be ready for an 11:00 funeral and finish up the church newsletter. Two things of almost equal importance. (Multi-tasking is overrated, if not completely fictitious. Who among us really does more than one thing at a time? We just try to do too many things in rapid sequence and call it “multi-tasking,” when often the more appropriate appellation is “insanity.”)

When my Mac completely froze and I hadn’t saved for the past 30 minutes, I was beside myself. Out of my mind. Certainly not present! So when I stomped off to take a break and passed the remains of some cake in the dining room (leftovers given to my son and granddaughter, who had visited for a week) I grabbed some and gobbled it down. Frustration. Anxiety. Panic, even.

On Saturday I was at a 6-hour program on strategic planning, with piles of bagels and donuts provided. During the fifth hour I felt I would fall asleep any minute, or more likely die from inactivity and tedium (good program, but still too long), and I ate a donut filled with Bavarian cream. It may have saved my life. At least I can claim with certainty that I didn’t die of torpor.

These incidents don’t negate my fast; I just have to start all over again at that moment. I’m glad to say that I didn’t take the “screw it, I blew it so I’ll just go crazy and start again tomorrow” approach. It’s not a matter of the fast “working” or “not working.” It’s practice. It’s asking God to help me break the bonds of sugar addiction, or anything that acts as a continual pull from self-remembrance.


Lent Reading I

Lent Reading I

March 13, 2014

“Our ability to understand resurrection, our experience of both a personal Easter as well as the Easter of Christ, is shaped by our stance toward life and what it brings our way. Herein lies the purpose of Lent. Whether it is imposed by circumstances or chosen through spiritual discipline, Lent is about nurturing a posture that holds all things lightly, that ensures that our passions are subject to us and not the other way around.” Pennoyer, Greg & Gregory Wolfe, ed., God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, Paraclete Press, Brewster, Massachusetts, 2014, p. x.

Nurturing “a posture that holds all things lightly,” ensuring “that our passions are subject to us and not the other way around” — these describe the focus and purpose of Lenten practices as well as any description I know of.

I discovered God For Us just a week or so ago through the BookNotes Blog of my very favorite bookstore (a shout out to — Hi, Byron and Beth!), and it’s the best book of meditations for Lent I’ve ever used. The book is designed exceptionally well, with tons of great art to contemplate as you read the meditations. This is an excellent idea for those of us who tend to have far too many words bouncing around in our skulls and can benefit from an exercise of quiet, non-linear resting in the beauty of images.


Tuesday Confessional Booth

Tuesday Confessional Booth

As I had decided, I broke the fast on Sunday. To my relief — and also to my regret! — I didn’t go wild. A few Jelly Bellies (that was an accident; one of the kids put them in my hand while I was teaching and I popped them in my mouth), three Oreos, and a cup of my usual coffee-ish morning beverage (Maxwell House International Coffees Orange Cappuccino, which is more sugar and creamer than coffee) after my post-church nap. No binging on sugar; not even dessert after every meal, as I had planned. I regretted that a little on Monday when I was in Whole Foods and could smell chocolate and baked goods everywhere.

Yesterday’s breakfast (which is what the photograph shows, although it’s not the best photo) was Root Vegetable Hash (parsnips, carrots, shallots, nitrite-free bacon, and yummy spices) with two eggs. I would have told you I didn’t like parsnips, but they were quite good. I think my tastebuds are all freaked out. They’ve forgotten their clear preferences.

Confession: I had candy on Saturday. Not just candy: a whole Snickers bar with coffee. I didn’t crave sugar so much as I desperately wanted to wake up; I was so sluggish. Magi wasn’t home, and I was a little aimless. Nothing like chocolate and coffee to wake me up! Then Sunday arrived, and the temptation was to say, “No, you don’t get to break the fast, since you cheated yesterday.” But cheating *yesterday* has nothing to do with the feast day; it’s like saying, “I’m not going to celebrate the resurrection because I ate chocolate yesterday.” or “No communion for cheaters!”

Definitely feeling ready to incorporate the other two elements of the usual Lenten discipline. The usual three are fasting (check), prayer (hmm; half-check?), and almsgiving (giving to those in need). After a week focused on getting through each day without sugar, I realize that all the preparation I did was in regards to the fast. My best spiritual retreats involve equal preparation for prayer and almsgiving.

Today I will plan for Week Two, and decide how to incorporate the prayer and almsgiving into Lent.