As well as being a meditation teacher, I am also a priest. In this interview, which was never published, I answer a series of questions about the spiritual path, and my own sense of calling.
What does it mean to seek God?
To seek God is to seek that which is ultimately real and true. And it is to seek authenticity. It is to strive to become who and what we really are. Christians believe that humankind is made ‘in the image and likeness of God’. This suggests that something about the deepest reality of what we are is in some way related to the divine, or that which is ultimately real and true. Therefore, to seek God is to be true to ourselves in the most profound sense possible. Moreover, if we are to be truly true to ourselves, we must necessarily also be true in our dealings with others. The two cannot be separated. A spiritual practice may be personal, but it can never be private. Spirituality that has no outworking in our actions and behaviour is worthless. The spiritual life – seeking God, seeking authenticity – has to be based on a solid ethical foundation, hence the oft-quoted summary of the Law given by Jesus: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart (…) and your neighbour as yourself’ (Luke 10.27; Cf. Matthew 22.37-39; Mark 12.30-31). If ‘God’ is the word we use when referring to that which is ultimately real and ultimately true, then seeking God implies turning away from what is false and inauthentic. The prevailing characteristic – and I would say problem – of contemporary society is not secularism or godlessness, but idolatry. We pursue and worship images, rather than what is real. Images, moreover, that are projections of our own ego. The more I think about this idea of idolatry, the more I see it seeping through the fabric of today’s world like an indelible stain on the human spirit.
How did you begin your personal journey, where did it lead you?
It’s always hard to identify the beginning of something. Where or when does anything begin? Even the simplest of events can be seen to have endless chains of causes of causes, creating webs of infinite complexity, and disappearing into infinite regress. But that aside, I would say that my spiritual journey began as a teenager when one day at school I heard about the Buddhist teaching of impermanence. It struck me like a bolt of lightning and from that moment on, I was possessed by a restless desire to seek truth, to seek understanding and fulfilment. But perhaps there have been several beginnings, because I can identify another equally significant turning point – and these beginnings generally seem to involve turning, or what in theological terms might be described as some sort of repentance – when in my late twenties, I made a firm and conscious commitment to follow the spiritual path, wherever it might lead me. I had recently begun to practice yoga and meditation, and I was discovering a new way of life that was radically different to anything I had experienced before. I knew it was pointing me towards the only thing that really mattered and, one way or another, I have been following that path ever since. Along the way, I decided to go to university, as a so-called mature student – I ended up with a PhD in Buddhist philosophy – and then following that, I received ordination as a priest in the Church of England. Two things I would never have expected to happen!
What did you find at your stay at a Buddhist Monastery?
I stayed in a Buddhist monastery for six months, shortly after that crucial turning point I mentioned just now. It was one of the happiest periods of my life. I felt, for the first time since childhood, truly free – in spite of living in a community and under the constraint of a fairly strict discipline. I also learned more about Buddhist teaching and practice in those six months than in all the years of reading books about Buddhism up until that point. But it wasn’t always an easy ride. I faced demons of craving and restlessness and, after six months, I left. But in that time, I deepened my practice of meditation, and learned a great deal about discipline, as well as the behaviour of the mind. It was definitely a key formative experience for me. I also realised I wasn’t a Buddhist. Buddhism isn’t just set of rational philosophical ideas: it is a culture as well – just like Christianity, or any other religion for that matter. I found that as I ventured into it more deeply, I came up against the fact that I could not identify with being Buddhist at a more basic, instinctual level. Although who and what we are is all just an arbitrary construct – as per the very powerful Buddhist analysis of personal identity, which, as it happens, I fully endorse – nevertheless that is who and what we are in the meantime. Who and what we are is culturally conditioned, whether we like it or not. It might all ‘just’ be our baggage, but our baggage is what we are. There and then I made a decision to play the hand that I’d been dealt in life, and to start from where I was. The danger, I think, for some people attracted to the teachings of Buddhism as presented in books by Western scholars, is a tendency to adopt a selection of the bits we like, and create a worldview to suit ourselves. If this is the case, then it is not going to deliver the authenticity that I have described as the purpose of the spiritual path.
What did you find at your stay at Worth Abbey many years later?
The experience at Worth Abbey, which was part of the making of a BBC television documentary about the religious life, was also a profound and life-changing experience, though perhaps not in such a dramatic way as some of my earlier adventures. When I went to India, I was really going off the grid, and it was completely open ended. The six weeks we spent at Worth Abbey was really much more of a controlled experiment by comparison. But I entered into it with a real desire to engage with the spiritual life, the search for God, for authenticity, because I felt I had lost my momentum. I needed to find the spark again. And what I ended up realising was that I had to take seriously once more that commitment I had made to follow the spiritual path – full-time and as a way of life, not just a hobby. In other words, I had to pay attention to the idea of vocation; I had to answer the call I had been trying to avoid. And I did. Upon leaving the monastery I decided to take up where I had left off some years previously and reapply myself to the discernment of vocation. I am now a priest, and in spite of the many challenges this calling can bring, I cannot imagine doing or being anything else.
What specifically brought you to Christ and the Christian Cosmology as opposed to any other?
As you know, I have explored various religious traditions and spiritual disciplines, particularly those related to India. I have been deeply influenced in my thinking and approach to life and spirituality by my immersion in the thought-world of Buddhist philosophy. And to some extent, much of this remains part of me. But I also came to realise, as I got into it more deeply, and especially when I was staying with the monks in the Buddhist monastery, that I was not and could not be one of them. It wasn’t an intellectual thing; it was more instinctual. I just realised that the baggage of my socio-cultural identity – albeit ‘merely’ an arbitrary construct – was nevertheless ‘me’. The Buddhist concept of two levels of truth – conventional and ultimate – is quite useful here. Conventional truth is not ultimately true, and the ultimate truth is that all truth is conventional! In other words, the self may be a construct, but that’s what we are. So, I decided that I would try and see if I could continue the spiritual journey I had already begun, but as a Christian. Interestingly, many Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama, recommend exactly this course of action to their Western followers.
The other part of this story is that while I was in India, where there are some very ancient Christian communities, I started to explore the Christian tradition. For example, I attended a church service – for the first time in years – and it felt profoundly liberating after years of feeling nothing but hostility towards Christianity. At the time I was engaged in some quite intensive study of Vedic traditions, in particular the Bhagavad Gita, which exposed me to new ways of thinking and talking about God – including personal and interventionist concepts of God – and perhaps the novelty of this made it possible for me to think in a fresh way about God in a Christian context. I began to see the person of Jesus in a different light. I felt I could relate to Christianity, whereas before I just rebelled against it. I read the Bible. And I resolved to give it a go. Upon my return to England, I started going to church. It was hard at first, but I persevered. I still consider myself to be working it out though!
What does it mean to be still and enter into Christian silence?
I think there are two distinct questions there. Something about silence or meditation and contemplative prayer generally, and something about what that might mean in a specifically Christian context.
Essentially, the idea of being still and silent is about listening. Listening to God – or what is ultimately real and true, if one prefers that kind of language. The thing is, we are for the most part talking all the time. I don’t just mean out loud, but in our heads. There is a voice in our heads that never stops talking. If we want to see things the way they really are, rather than as we think they should or shouldn’t be – which is idolatry again, to be theological about it – then we have to stop, and be still for a moment. We have to stop that incessant chatter, our commentary on life. To meditate, to be still and silent, is to take a step back from all that consumes us and possesses our minds and steals our attention. We have to take a step back from ourselves, ultimately, in order to put things into perspective, in order to see more clearly, to hear more clearly. The etymology of the word ‘meditation’ relates it to words to do with measuring and with healing. Both are apt. Healing, because there is something about meditation that is to do with restoring the balance of nature; and measuring, because meditation helps us put things into perspective. Getting the measure of things is to come to an understanding, to see things as they are.
That’s the general stuff. For the Christian, I think one would have to add that silent prayer or meditation can never be reduced simply to having a deep experience of oneself. It must always be related to something – someone – other than oneself. This ultimately means God. To go into silence, then, is all of the above, plus the intention of making oneself open to God. ‘Be still and know that I am God, as it says in that well-known line from the Psalms. It’s about being still and silent in order to be present to the presence of that which is God.
What was your stay at a Carthusian Monastery like?
Staying with the Carthusians in their monastery at Parkminster was an extraordinary experience. For a start, it was an exceedingly rare opportunity. Unlike most communities, the Carthusians do not normally accept people as guests on retreat – the only exceptions being monks from other communities, or enquirers wishing to explore the possibility of a vocation to the Order. I was treated as belonging to the latter category, even though I had not stated this as my intention, and was rather surprised when I was asked on arrival to fill out a questionnaire about why I felt called to the Carthusian life! But the long and the short of it is that I was essentially granted a one-month retreat – in a proper cell rather than the guesthouse – which is the first test for those considering a vocation. And it certainly was an ordeal. You have to understand the context. I was really very excited about the fact that I had been given this unprecedented opportunity to stay at Parkminster. I’m not even Catholic, so I felt very privileged. The serenity of the cloister is a powerful attraction to anyone with a contemplative spirit, and in my mind, Parkminster was the monastery of monasteries. If you take the principles of Western Christian monasticism to their logical extreme you end up with the Carthusians.
Shortly after my arrival, however, once I had been shown to my bare cell and left to my own devices, I felt a devastating sense of isolation so oppressive that I almost burst into tears. This was not like other monasteries. I realised that a big part of what I enjoy about monastic communities is the friendship and camaraderie of the monks themselves. Carthusians are a not community in any ordinary sense: they are a ‘community’ of hermits. And the solitude is strictly enforced. I was told later that most of the people who try the one-month retreat at Parkminster arrive full of high hopes and expectations, thinking they’re on fire with the desire to become a monk, generally give up and leave within 24 hours. I lasted the full month, but it was hard going at times. The routine is punishing, the lifestyle blisteringly austere. I wouldn’t want to do it again, but I wouldn’t have not done it for anything. It was deeply enriching, while being profoundly challenging at the same time. An experience of the monastic life turned up to eleven, as it were, was exactly what I needed in order to learn that I wasn’t a monk. And that enabled me to throw myself into becoming a priest.
Why did you choose to enter into the silence so deeply, and what made you choose a spiritual path for the rest of your life?
I’m not sure I’d say I ‘chose’ to enter into silence, exactly, but I did respond to some sense of being called to authenticity. It wasn’t so much a choice but a necessity. I think it might be similar to the way artists sometimes talk about their need to create. It’s a compulsion, something they have to do. They don’t see it as a matter of choice at all. For me, and I expect this is true for others, it’s not so much about a choice between this or that particular thing you might be called to – because essentially you are called to be you – but whether and how you respond. You can fight it for a while, but in the end, there’s no choice really. You simply realise that nothing else will do. And once you make that ‘choice’, it’s all or nothing. There can be no going back.
In retrospect looking back, do you believe you were guided in some way towards this position, and that really what is needed is to open oneself to that guidance?
It’s always easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to superimpose a narrative on our life that somehow makes sense of things, even if it may not have seemed to be part of a bigger picture or to have made much sense at the time. That’s just what we do. Having said that, I do think there has been a consistent thread running through my story – a thread of following a spiritual path, for want of a better way of putting it – that was there all along – even before I knew it consciously. And if vocation, being called, is not just about fulfilling our personal wishes, but actually responding to something outside of or beyond the self – which, in some sense, it surely must be – then it makes sense to talk about being guided in some way. I think one mark of a true vocation is that it sometimes calls us to do things we might not want to do. Look at how Moses responded when God called him. He basically said, “Please, no, not me, I can’t do it: send someone else instead!” (Exodus 4.13) So yes, I would say I have been guided in the sense that there has been a consistent thread, and an on-going response to something beyond the self. And it hasn’t always been what I would have expected, or would necessarily have wanted for myself. But I have always – so far, at least – been able to meet the challenge, even when I have felt most inadequate to it. Jesus tells the disciples not to worry about what they will need to say – precisely the thing that bothered Moses – because the Holy Spirit will direct them (Luke 12.12). In order for all that to be possible, one definitely does need to be open to it – because in the way I have described it, vocation is basically a process of dialogue, rather than a subjective feeling – and, more specifically, one has to be open to being open to something that is not all about ‘me’!