Hold It All

Philosophy/Poetics/Politics

Category: Wisdom Traditions

Vivekananda

Ten years ago, because of a Social Justice theology class, I got to know Melissa Banerjee, a Bengali-American.  It made sense to me to give her a hardback edition of the The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.  Later on, after staying several weeks in India, she brought back to me Letters of Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna’s foremost disciple. Melissa inscribed the book this way: “Dr C., Hope this brings  you a small ‘piece’ of the peace I experienced at Sri Ramakrishna’s Mission and Math at Belur, Kolkata.”

This selection of Vivekananda’s letters  range from 1888 to 1902, and address members of his community as well as  Westerners eager to learn more about Indian spirituality.   The following is a small sample  of passages I noted of the swami’s observations, advice, exhortation, and insight…

On the Buddha: His greatness lies in his unrivaled sympathy. 18

Have faith in yourselves, great convictions are the mothers of great deeds.  64

Every soul is a sun covered over with clouds of ignorance, the difference between soul and soul is due to the difference in density of these layers of clouds.  69 Read the rest of this entry »

Seeing the World/1 [from The Book of Mev]

The second week of that Summer Program at Maryknoll, Mev made an announcement after one of the morning sessions that she was going to present some of her photographs in a slideshow/meditation on a night when there was no scheduled speaker.  Curious about what made this self-promoting impresario tick, I wanted to attend.  Her slideshow, with taped instrumental music to establish a contemplative mood, was a welcome relief from the intense, sometimes strangely cerebral presentations during the day about global liberation theology, the suffering of the poor, and the consequent responsibility of U.S. citizens.  She presented a series of her photos from her travels in Brazil, Mexico, Haiti and Russia, and, as I confronted the faces of Mev’s subjects, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems, Thich Nhat Hahn’s “Please Call Me by My True Names,” especially the concluding lines:

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.

Her meditation lasted about 15 minutes, leading the group of 20 into an awareness that our discussions during the day ultimately were about flesh and blood people, with names, faces, histories, heartaches, resilience and desires.  Afterwards, feeling hesitant to speak directly to Mev, I went up to my room and began to write out Nhat Hanh’s poem, since I had learned it by heart years before and often used it for a morning meditation. I also wrote a note of thanks to her for the presentation, and I pinned the note and poem for her on the community bulletin board.  This was safe, spiritual flirting.

Read the rest of this entry »

Learning by Heart, the Joy of Music, and the Power of the Prophetic

Dear Lauren,

I received your letter today about the online Good News class and your hand-written adaptation of Kipling’s famous poem. The fact that you have had “If” as a companion in your work and life at Casa Maria Catholic Worker reminds me of a short book I recently read. It’s titled, A Long Saturday, and it’s a translation of a series of interviews from French between  journalist Laure Adler and literary critic George Steiner.

Steiner was born in 1929. His father had the prescience to move his family out of Europe by 1940, thus escaping the Nazi juggernaut. He went to New York where his teachers included the noted Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson (whom Dorothy Day probably read at some point!). He later studied at the University of Chicago, was a Rhodes Scholar, worked for The Economist awhile, then joined Princeton’s Center for Advanced Studies. He’s been at various elite universities for decades and published many books (on topics like Antigone, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, translation, Homer). His contemporaries include Elie Wiesel and Noam Chomsky, and I’ve learned a lot from all three. Read the rest of this entry »

Spiritual Passage to India

Love everyone, feed everyone, and remember God.
Neem Karoli Baba

I recently gave Ram Dass’s Be Here Now to Laura,  an exceptional Maryville University  graduate  and psychology major. Previously,  I had mentioned to her that part early in the book about Richard Alpert’s growing disenchantment as an upwardly mobile psychology prof and his eventual breakdown/breakthrough with Neem Karoli Baba (“Maharajji”), who became his guru. I thought she might appreciate both the design of the book and some of the teachings, which she’d probably not come across in upper-level psych courses.

Like Ram Dass a devotee of Maharajji, Parvati Markus has recently compiled ardent testimonies  in Love Everyone: The Transcendent Wisdom of Neem Karoli Baba Told through the Stories of the Westerners Whose Lives He Transformed.  The influential psychologist Daniel Goleman was one of those Westerners, and his experience in India was crucial to developing a more holistic and powerful psychology:  “In the West I had been in the heart of American psychology, and here was a sea of love, totally off the map of Western psychology. It was so clear that we had missed something really important about human abilities, human potential, about the heart. Here was a being who was endless love and presence. It wasn’t some temporary state; it was who he was. That’s what really got me.”

Markus’s book covers the years 1968 to 1973. Many people went  to India at a young age (late teens, early twenties), and eventually returned to the U.S. to integrate what they had experienced in ashrams and following the guru around India. People went into the professions, raised families, got stuck,  got unstuck, achieved fame (e.g., Krishna Das).  All of them had been marked for life by  Maharajji, as the following remarks indicate… Read the rest of this entry »

At Home in the World: A Summer Writing Class 2017

Thich Nhat Hanh is regarded by many as one of the most skillful and pragmatic of spiritual teachers. In 2016 he published At Home in the World, a succinct autobiography of his ninety years of life in Vietnam and in exile. Filled with recollections, teachings, and practices, this book will be our guide for getting in touch with our own stories, wisdom, and resources for mindful living.

Thich Nhat Hanh has been a proponent of Engaged Buddhism for over sixty years. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a kindred spirit to the Catholic monk Thomas Merton and Jesuit activist Daniel Berrigan. He is the author of scores of books, including The Miracle of Mindfulness, Being Peace, and Living Buddha, Living Christ. He resides at his community, Plum Village, in France.

Each class session will allow for quiet time, discussion of the book, writing practices, and paired and group sharing. Suggestions will be offered for further writing and experiments in the week between classes. A class blog will be available for sharing the fruits of our reflection, exchange, and writing.

We will meet on the following six Wednesdays: June 14, 21, and 28 and July 5, 12, and 19. You’ll need a copy of At Home in the World and a notebook or laptop. Our meeting time will be 6:30 p.m. to 8:15 at my home, 4514 Chouteau Avenue in Forest Park Southeast (63110).

Tuition is $135.00. An on-line class will also be available for those interested ($75.00). Email me if you want to join us: markjchmiel@gmail.com.


photo by Jim Forest

I Beseech You, Orianne Aymard

Peace and harmony appear so closely woven in every cell of her being that the spirits of darkness would search in vain for a loophole.

–Melita Maschmann, Encountering Bliss: My Journey through India with Ānandamayī Mā

 

My PhD was in the area of Religion and Society, sociology religion and social ethics, at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Previously, as Master’s student at the Maryknoll School of Theology, I studied with Venezuelan sociologist Otto Maduro, who had written a sociology of Latin American religion employing ideas from Pierre Bourdieu. It was an exhilarating study which made sense of that part of the Catholic Church that had been making a preferential option for the poor.

Over the last several years, I’ve read several works on the life and influence of the Bengali spiritual force, Sri Anandamayi Ma. I was delighted to read a new book by Orianne Aymard, who employs theorists like Bourdieu, Jurgen Habermas, and Max Weber to make sense of how a community and institution continue after the death of the charismatic leader. Her title reveals the stakes of this inquiry: When a Goddess Dies: Worshipping Ma Anandamayi after Her Death (Oxford University Press, 2014). The author investigate topics like the postmortem cult of the guru, the significance of relics, the meanings of the guru’s death, dreams and visions of the guru after death, and the future of the cult, given the struggle over the monopoly of religious power.

________________________

Dr. Aymard interviewed devotees, both Indian and Western, old-timers and new enthusiasts, and I found fascinating what they had to say about her. Here is a small sample: Read the rest of this entry »

Mudra

On Daniel Berrigan

1.

Some of Daniel Berrigan’s Whitmanian multitudes:  Brother, uncle, jailbird, correspondent, chef, Jesuit, retreat master, playwright poet, peacemaker, mentor,  reader, teacher, prophet, son, friend, logophile.

2.

In our age they they talk about the importance of presenting Christianity simply, not elaborately and grandiloquently. And about this subject they write books, it becomes a science, perhaps one may even make a living of it or become a professor. But they forget or ignore the fact that the truly simple way of presenting Christianity is—to do it. — Soren Kierkegaard Read the rest of this entry »

Ninety Years Alive on Earth

On Thich Nhat Hanh, At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life.  Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2016.

Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is a survivor.  Narrowly missing death in South Vietnam  on more than one occasion during the 1960s, he had many students killed in the bloodshed during the American War. He and other Tiep Hien Buddhists could not return to their country for fear of persecution, or worse. Uprooted, he ended up living in France,  where he and friends slowly began to rebuild their  lives.

At Home in the World, published in 2016, offers snapshots of nine full decades of Thich Nhat Hanh’s life.  It bears keeping in mind that his country  was living under a French colonial occupation regime, followed by U.S. intervention and invasion.  He and his friends knew what it was like to live under the U.S. bombs.

Nhat Hanh admits that in his youth he was a “revolutionary monk.”  He and his brothers  wanted to rejuvenate Vietnamese Buddhism, and they had to reckon with a conservative religious  establishment. Their motivation was simple: “Taking action against injustice is not enough. We believed action must embody mindfulness. If there is no awareness, action will only cause more harm. Our group believed it must be possible to combine meditation and action to create mindful action.” [41] Read the rest of this entry »

The Good News of the Barakats, 4.6.2017

Last night, Sharifa Barakat and I had dinner at Central Cafe (along with Imman Musa and Dania Saffaf Atienza).  Sarah Dwidar introduced me to Sharifa her freshman year at SLU on  sunny day on West Pine.  Later, she took a Social Justice  class with me, and we were part of SLU Solidarity with Palestine.  I have long been impressed with her humor,  love of literature, and keen sense  of responsibility.

After dinner, we walked to Left Bank Books to hear author Ibtisam Barakat (no relation to Sharifa) share her philosophy and read from her new book, Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine.  Someone asked her a question about the political solution to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian people, culture, and land, and she said point-blank, there’s no solution politically, there can only be a “soul-lution.”  Accordingly, her contribution is to tell the story of her life as a Palestinian in Palestine and the Diaspora.  She has  published two books so far, and she mentioned at least three others to come, insha’allah.

I was struck by Ibtisam’s clarity, calm, and compassion. Her presence is her message.

It was an intense, gentle, and inspiring evening.