Choir stalls and kneelers, Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal
Tomorrow, it begins: semaine sainte, Holy Week. It's always a complex time for me as a choir singer, with the time-commitment of rehearsals and daily services to juggle along with normal life; larger-than-usual congregations; physical fatigue; and the emotional toll of that much repetition of suffering and horrible death, along with my own doubts and questions, fears, desires, memories...
My music folder is bulging with a huge amount of repertoire; we're always somewhat under-rehearsed for this period, so I already expect to have to concentrate hard. This year we've only got six sopranos in a choir of more than thirty voices, and a lot of music divided between two soprano parts, so that ratchets up the responsibility, plus, midweek, J. and I will be returning to a chaotic home with one functioning bathroom, sheetrock dust everywhere, and our bed piled with boxes and covered with plastic, but the renovations are unlikely to finish before Easter. Wish me luck!
On the other hand, the annual Lenten retreat two weekends ago clarified some things, and I’m continuing to think about it. It was the first time I’ve been asked to teach meditation in a Christian context, and I led three introductory hour-long sessions, and one that went into somewhat greater depth and detail.
I had worked hard to prepare, re-reading some texts that had been helpful to me, thinking about how to talk about what meditation and contemplation are, their history within the Christian church, our debt to the East (both Eastern Orthodoxy and the Eastern religions), what meditation is not, and why it’s worth doing. All that had to be simply introduced in thirty minutes or so. And then the practice itself needed to be explained, demonstrated, and tried for about fifteen minutes, with a brief discussion of distractions and how to deal with them – followed by time for questions. Of course the first session was the hardest, since there was no way to be sure about the timing, but it got easier after that.
Other people -- including the Dean, a soon-to-be-ordained seminarian, a licensed spiritual director, and a professed Anglican nun -- led other workshops on different types of prayer during the same retreat, which took place over a Friday evening and all day Saturday. With a friend’s help, I set up a space for my own sessions using a beautiful rug she lent me, a wooden bench that held candles, a small spray of white freesias, and a little porcelain bowl filled with rice from my own meditation space at home: I use it to hold incense, but it’s also symbolic to me of the rest of the world’s people. We used some of the kneelers shown in the photo above as makeshift meditation cushions; the less flexible participants were welcome to use chairs. We were in a conference room, but when the lights were dimmed and the candles burning, the space became inviting; by the end of the retreat it felt holy.
The Dean has recently introduced several periods of silence into our services, and a number of people told me that, before these sessions, they had no idea what to do during that time, no idea what wordless prayer or meditation might feel like or how to do it. Several people said they had tried to meditate before but had been discouraged and overcome by their mental activity; one said he thought he was the only one whose mind was so noisy and busy, and felt very reassured to learn that was normal. Others had had trouble staying awake, or had never tried some of the techniques I suggested for bringing the mind back to a centered, quiet place. But most of the people were totally new to it: new, and curious to try. I was honest about my own background – my teacher was a Tibetan Buddhist and I learned through that tradition and Zen, gradually finding my way back to Christianity through Thomas Merton, and the advice of many Eastern teachers to find the parallel teachings in one’s own cultural tradition. No one seemed to object!
I stressed the importance of humility on any spiritual path, and mentioned the paradox I’ve learned through this thirty-year wrestling match with my own ego: that not one of us is any more special than any other, and yet each of us is unique, loved, and completely special -- and that we are all connected. Meditation has shown me how desperately the ego tries to hold on, and it’s taught me what happens when we are able to let go. It’s not a path for the faint of heart, nor one that ever ends. Any honest introduction to meditation needs to say that.
I’ve always been clear with myself that I wouldn’t do this sort of teaching until, or unless, I was asked. Now I’m not sure where it will lead, but in conjunction with my friend I’ll be offering two additional sessions at the cathedral on Wednesday, leading up to the most contemplative and serious days of the liturgical year. Through all of this I’m listening to the process, watching the faces as I speak, and thinking hard about the questions that are asked. I know, for sure, that sitting with these participants for many hours gave me a degree of calm I haven’t felt in a long time, and it’s lasted; I’m grateful to have that, on the eve of this Holy Week.
As part of my own practice, I’ll be posting a photograph and some sort of reflection – much shorter than this one! -- each day for the next week.