Yearning for Transcendence
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Dear Still Water Friends
Twelve years ago, when the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center was being formed, there were discussions in the mindfulness community about the difference between a Mindfulness Practice Center and a Buddhist Sangha. In a conversation at the Green Mountain Dharma Center, Thich Nhat Hanh explained that although a Mindfulness Practice Center is "the fruit of a Buddhist tree," it is also a place where teachings on mindfulness from other spiritual traditions are welcome.
I was reminded of the conversation this week because I was deeply touched by the Zen-like simplicity and the yearning for transcendence in the poems of Angelus Silesius, a 17th century Christian mystic. I received an email with a Stephen Mitchell translation of one of his poems:
God, whose love and joy
are present everywhere,
can't come to visit you
unless you aren't there.
Wanting more, I turned to Frederick Franck's book, Messenger of the Heart: The Book of Angeles Silesius. I learned that Silesius was born Johannes Scheffler in 1624 in Silesia, which is now incorporated into western Poland. It was then Bohemian crown land and a part of the Hapsburg monarchy. Scheffler’s parents were Lutheran, as was most of the population of Silesia. After high school, Scheffler studied science and medicine in France, Holland, and Italy. At the age of 23 he returned to Silesia and served as a court physician. During his years of study and afterwards he immersed himself in the writings of Christian mystics, especially Jacob Boehme. The mystics saw God's presence everywhere, in plants and animals, and in each human being. Although Scheffler's beliefs and his writing were condemned by Lutheran clergy, they were warmly received by the Catholics. Scheffler converted and later became a Jesuit. He took the pen name Angelus Silesius (Silesian messenger). The poems for which he is best known were all written during a four-day spiritual opening. Here are three of them, translated by Frederick Franck:
No sweeter tone
from any lute could spring
this heart and that of God
as with one string.
Prayer is neither word nor gesture
chant nor sound.
It is to be in still communication
with our Ground.
I know, but don’t know why,
that without me
God cannot live
nor without Him
I believe I was especially moved by these poems because as a young person, although I came from an essentially secular household, I had a longing for a relationship with something greater. I didn’t know how to express this longing or embody it. When I tried to talk about it, no one seemed to understand.
Years later I found my way to mindfulness practice, and especially to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. My longing had found a home. Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Living Buddha, Living Christ:
To meditate, to live a life of prayer, is to live each moment of life deeply. ... We enter a spiritual practice seeking relief in the historical dimension. We calm our body and mind and establish our stillness, our freshness, and our solidity. We practice lovingkindness, concentration, and transforming our anger, and we feel some relief. But when we touch the ultimate dimension of reality, we get the deepest kind of relief. Each of us has the capacity to touch nirvana and be free from birth and death, one and many, coming and going.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation, we will share about our longings for spirituality, transendence, peace, and meaning in our lives.
You are invited to be with us.