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Teresa of Ávila s a young woman by François Gérard, 1826

Last March 28, I saw on a website that it was the birthday of St. Teresa of Ávila. I’m not a “religious” person these days in the sense of an organized religion, but I have an odd relationship with St. Teresa.

It started when I was 13 and attended “Sunday school” at St. Leo’s Church in Irvington, New Jersey . The year I was 13 I had for my class a young and kind nun. Those two qualities set Sister Teresa Avila apart from all the other nuns.

I knew nothing about the real Saint Teresa of Ávila whom she was named after until many years later. The Saint Teresa (28 March 1515 – 4 October 1582), was a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite nun and author during the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer.

Teresa grew up in a wealthy household in the province of Ávila, Spain. She was a beautiful and social girl who loved her privileged life, perfume, jewelry, and elegant clothes. Her mother died when she was 14, and her father sent her to convent school to protect his beautiful daughter.

Perhaps surprisingly, she found the religious training very appealing and she decided to become a nun.

After twenty increasingly important years, she established her own monastery, She then traveled around Spain on a donkey, setting up 16 new monasteries for women. She also wrote several books, including The Way of Perfection (1566) and The Interior Castle (1580).

One day in my thirteenth year, I had forgotten a homework assignment for Sunday school catechism class. Sister Teresa told me to go home, get the assignment, bring it to the convent and ask for her. The nun who answered my knock at the convent door went to get Sister Teresa.

When Sister Teresa Avila appeared she was not wearing her nun’s habit. I can only imagine how my face must have looked.

She was beautiful. She had long, dark, shiny hair. She asked me for my assignment which was in my hand. I was frozen. It probably took me a few seconds to respond but it felt like a lot longer.

I was in love with her in the way that a boy of 13 can be in love with an adult woman. I don’t know in what way a boy can be in love with a nun.

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini , 1652

In college I took a course about religion in literature and although it was taught by a religion professor, it was the most influential literature course I took as an English major. Along with novels, we read religious works including The Wisdom of the Sufis, The Dark Night of the Soul  by Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa’s The Interior Castle.

The Interior Castle was inspired by a Saint Teresa’s mystical vision of a crystal castle with seven chambers, each representing a different stage in spiritual development. She immediately wrote her book which is divided into seven parts (also called mansions, dwelling places or chambers) Each level brings you closer to God.

Entrance into the first three mansions is achieved by prayer and meditation. The fourth through seventh mansions are considered to be mystical or contemplative prayer. The soul achieves clarity in prayer and a spiritual marriage with God in the seventh mansions.

Of course, as I read the book my thoughts often returned to Sister Teresa rather than Saint Teresa. The two have remained blurred in my mind. I imagine Sister Teresa before she took the veil as a beautiful young girl much like the Teresa of Avila in 1529.

 

Over the years, both Teresa’s have been in my thoughts and have been alluded to in other works. Simone de Beauvoir writes about Teresa as a woman who lived her life for herself in her book The Second Sex. George Eliot compared the character Dorothea to St. Teresa in Middlemarch. Thomas Hardy took Teresa as the inspiration for much of the heroine Tess (Teresa) in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a character who in one scene lies in a field and senses her soul ecstatically above her.

Saint Teresa appears in a few contemporary songs: “Theresa’s Sound-World” by Sonic Youth  and in “Saint Teresa” by Joan Osborne.

But none of those allusions have had as much of an impact on me as reading The Interior Castle through the lens of a 13 year-old boy discovering another kind of love.

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spiral

Do you sometimes feel the need to center yourself? If so, what does that mean?

It is a term I have encountered in a number of situations including meditation, including both in a religious and spiritual sense.

A plain old dictionary definition of “to center” would tell you it means to have something as a major concern or theme, as in “the book centers around how people interact with nature.” Synonyms include to focus, concentrate, pivot, hinge, or revolve.

We even use the scientific term “center of gravity” (or more accurately the center of mass) is that unique point where the weighted relative position of the distributed mass sums to zero. The body is balanced around the center.

If I asked you to be still, close your eyes and “find your center,” what would you do? Possibly you would become more conscious of your body, your breath and the tension in your muscles. Without any training, you would be meditating.

leafcenter

There are books that combine this centering concept with other less spiritual practices, as in Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person.

When I first encountered meditation, through investigating Zen Buddhism, I was given the book Zen Flesh Zen Bones. It is a one volume collection of four original sources for Zen: Zen Stories, The Gateless Gate, Bulls, and Centering Together. That last book shows you that this concept of finding your center is a key part of Zen practice.

The book contains many centering practices and you can find many of them on websites too.

Some of these sources will remind you that “Zen is nothing new, neither is it anything old. Long before Buddha was born the search was on in India, as the present work shows. Long after man has forgotten such words as Zen and Buddha, satori and koan, China and Japan and America – still the search will go on, still Zen will be seen even in flower, and grass-blade, before the sun.”

If you have participated in a meditation class (or if you just watch a ten-minute meditation video online), the introductory portion is generally a kind of centering exercise.

labyrinth

If you move from spiritual to religious practice, you will encounter centering prayer. This is a method of silent prayer that is very contemplative. It is often described as prayer that is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.

Father Thomas Keating has been a key figure in the centering prayer movement since the 1970s. It is not a new practice and it has roots in Christian history. I took a life-changing religion and literature course in college that exposed me to the Desert Fathers and Mothers to The Cloud of Unknowing, St John of the Cross, and St Teresa of Avila.

Religious groups are careful not to allow centering prayer to cross over into a version of New-Age spirituality.

Many religions encourage a kind of “centering prayer.” Catholics are advised to meditate in some form daily — such as on the rosary, or on Scripture (lectio divina). This practice makes use of a “sacred word” which might sound similar to using a mantra to others.

Mantra (a Sanskrit word meaning a sacred utterance, word, or phrase) is believed by some to have psychological and spiritual power. A mantra may not even be syntactic nor have any literal meaning. The spiritual value of a mantra comes when it is made audible, visible or present in thought.

Earliest mantras were composed in Vedic times by Hindus in India, and those are at least 3000 years old. Now they are found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism and similar hymns or chants are found in Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Christianity and elsewhere.

Thomas Keating emphasizes that centering prayer is not an exercise in concentrating, or focusing one’s attention on something such as a mantra. Rather, it is concerned with intention and to “consent to God’s presence and action during the time of prayer.”

Centering prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. It is the opening of your whole being. I the sense of prayer, opening to God, but in other spiritual practices it might be opening to the Ultimate Mystery, a life force, energy or the universe.

Keating is a monk in the Cistercian Order in the Benedictine tradition. He has written many books, including the best-selling Open Mind, Open Heart. He lives at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado where he established a program of 10-Day Centering Prayer retreats, which are now held world-wide.

I’m not sure he would be happy with the definition that Centering Prayer is a form of “Christian” transcendental meditation, but he has presented the Centering Prayer method and its related mystical theology to workshops of non-Christians. He has also used it as a kind of therapy and has written a book on centering prayer and the twelve steps.

mapcompass

I used to teach classes in using a map and compass. One of the first things you teach in the field is orienting a map.  You position it so that North is actually pointing north. When you orient a map and know where you are on the map, you can look in a certain direction and see a real landmark and find it on the map. You find your place in the world. For me, it always felt like a kind of centering.

I also like the idea of using triangulation. That is the process of pinpointing the location of something by taking bearings to it from two remote points and find where the lines intersect on a map. Without knowing where you are, you find your place by looking at your relationship to known things.

Compass

If you knew how to use it,
then starting anywhere,
turning any direction,
you could check,
find your bearings,
tell where you came from,
know where you were going.

If you knew when you entered these woods
where you wanted to be
at the end of this journey,
it would have taken you there.
If you knew how to use it.
If you knew when you entered.
If you knew where you wanted to be.


Back a few years ago, the program, Speaking of Faith, did an episode on Reinhold Niebuhr. As part of that show, they had to do some research on where the Serenity Prayer originated. Many people had credited Niebuhr with writing it sometime during World War II.

Most people have seen or heard this prayer which begins “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It seems to transcend religions and has entered popular culture. (You can find it printed on plaques, mugs etc. for better or worse.) It was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs.

I recall it being in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. It was in a good film, Rachel Getting Married, last year. It was on an episode of King of the Hill – the school principal asks Hank “Are you familiar with the serenity prayer Hank? Cause this is one of those things I can’t change.”

I’m not that concerned about whether or not Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the prayer, and I like that the prayer has been adopted and adapted by others.

Every once and awhile, it crosses into my life again. I came across a copy of the prayer today on a sheet of paper folded into one of my old journals from late 2001. I know just why it was in there. A bookmark on my life.

I don’t know if you literally bookmark things in your life with paper in a book very often, but we all certainly set bookmarks in our life using objects. I could create a long list of things that bring me back in a flash to a time in my life – books, ticket stubs, a pebble, a record album, a restaurant receipt, airline ticket, vacation souvenirs…

I guess we are more likely to intentionally bookmark the good times in our lives, but I think we also mark the bad times, perhaps unintentionally.

That folded copy of the serenity prayer takes me back to an early winter that was difficult for many people following the events of September. I would have told you then that those events were not the reason that I had crashed into a depression, but looking back today, that bookmark reminds me how distorted my perceptions were then.

That paper bookmarks not only the start of a really bad period in my life, but also a very early sign of how I would pull out of that period – a process that took about four years.

I don’t follow the prayer as a life philosophy. I don’t accept all my hardships and just trust that anyone will make things rights. I firmly believe that you are the most important cause of change in your life. But the first seven lines of the serenity prayer are an approach that I do try to follow.

There are, for me, two parts to the prayer. The first part (minus God) is almost Buddhist. The second half is more Christian. But I read it as a sonnet – 14 lines of direction, two parallel, but separate paths.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

If all this is not in your philosophy, maybe you can take some comfort in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip version of the prayer: “Know what I pray for? The strength to change what I can, the inability to accept what I can’t and the incapacity to tell the difference.”

global brainI don’t really feel guilty that I have read Dan Brown’s booksAngels and Demons, The DaVinci Code, and last month, The Lost Symbol. As an English major and teacher for many years, I have read a lot of the books that get shelved in the “Literature” shelves, so some fast fiction reads are completely justified.

I like that Brown touches on a lot of other books and topics that I end up wanting to now more about. In The Lost Symbol,  a book that he mentions is The Intention Experiment: Using Your Thoughts to Change Your Life and the World. That book got a nice sales spike , and brought attention to its author’s work.

Dan Brown writes:

“…human consciousness, as Noetic author Lynne McTaggart described it, was a substance outside the confines of the body. A highly ordered energy capable of changing the physical world. Katherine had been fascinated by McTaggart’s book The Intention Experiment, and her global, Web-based study – theintentionexperiment.com – aimed at discovering how human intention could affect the world.”

Some people have compared the intention experiment (and “doing intention”) as a kind of praying without religion.  Lynne McTaggart interviewed many intention masters in her research including Qigong masters, Buddhist monks, master healers – and also scientists.

In simple terms, if a group of people (10, 1000, a million, millions…) direct their intentions towards a single purpose will it have an effect on events? What if the people are disconnected and distant from each other and the event?

I told a friend the theory and he said, “Oh, like the Force in Star Wars movies?”  That makes it seem silly, but it’s not he worst analogy.  A catastrophic event occurs on Earth and millions turn their attention and intentions towards it. Could that be measured?

It seems to me to be related in a way to McKenna’s Time Wave where intention is described (somewhat differently) as novelty.

Is her work real science? I don’t know.  Is The Lost Symbol real literature?

Here’s McTaggart interviewed on quantum physics, consciousness, time and intention, interviewed by Alan Steinfeld.

Even if you are a scientist based at Princeton University, that doesn’t mean you will be taken seriously when you work in these realms. The Global Consciousness Project, also called the EGG Project, is an international, multidisciplinary collaboration of scientists, engineers, artists and others.

On their website, noosphere.princeton.edu, they describe their work this way:

We collect data continuously from a global network of physical random number generators located in 65 host sites around the world. The archive contains more than 10 years of random data in parallel sequences of synchronized 200-bit trials every second.

Our purpose is to examine subtle correlations that may reflect the presence and activity of consciousness in the world. We predict structure in what should be random data, associated with major global events. When millions of us share intentions and emotions the GCP/EGG network data show meaningful departures from expectation. This is a powerful finding based in solid science.

Subtle but real effects of consciouness are important scientifically, but their real power is more direct. They encourage us to help make essential, healthy changes in the great systems that dominate our world. Large scale group consciousness has effects in the physical world. Knowing this, we can use our full capacities for creative movement toward a conscious future.

Can they track something happening in a global consciousness that coincides with an event – for example, the election of President Obama? They believe they can.

The history of controlled laboratory research on interactions of human consciousness with physical random systems tracks the development of microelectronics and computers. The first large database experiments were conducted by Helmut Schmidt, at Boeing Laboratories, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The number of experiments and investigators grew over the next decade, and in 1979, Robert Jahn, at Princeton University, established the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) laboratory to focus on an engineering approach to the question whether sensitive electronic devices including random components might be affected by special states of consciousness, including strong emotions and directed intention. The PEAR lab closed in 2007.

Noetic theory or noëtics is a branch of metaphysical philosophy concerned with the study of mind and intuition, and its relationship with the divine intellect.

Can out collective thoughts change what happens in the world?

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Hands off Hello Not all labyrinths are traps Happy to be inside but already missing summer outdoors.  The plant feels the same way. There’s something in the first cold nights when autumn teases winter that seem to require a fire. Still drinking morning tea in the afternoon.  #teaetiquette

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