Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Retreat Day with Two Nuns

Yesterday I spent a restorative day with others in the Marin Interfaith Council at one of our quarterly retreats. The theme was balancing the inner and outer life, taught by Dominican Sister Marion Irvine and Brahma Kumaris ("daughters of Brahma")* Sister Chandru.

Sister Chandru, who speaks very quietly with a melodic Hindi accent, told us about the founding of Brahma Kumaris by Brahma Baba (Lekhraj Kripilani) in 1936 in an area that was then in India but is now part of Pakistan. At that time Hinduism was dominated by males, and Baba thought there would be benefit in giving women charge of a group dedicated to peace. The movement began with 300-400 young women aged 16-21 years, and has now grown to 8,500 centers in 100 countries.

Brahma Baba
The Brahma Kumaris sisters at Anubhuti Meditation and Retreat Center**, the location of the retreat, were in mourning for their late leader, Dadi Prakashmani, who had died only a few days earlier. (Dadi means respected elder sister.) Dadi Prakashmani was one of the original sisters to whom Brahma Baba entrusted his entire worldly estate and the administration of the order; she joined when she was 14.

Born in Mumbai, Sister Chandru uses the masculine form of her given name, Chandra, because in her youth when she joined Brahma Kumaris, Brahma Baba told her she was like a son to him.

The Brahma Kumaris practice a form of meditation called Raja Yoga. It is a method of relaxing, refreshing and clearing the mind and heart. It helps you look inside to rediscover and reconnect with your original, spiritual essence. Meditation enables an integration of your spiritual identity with the social and physical realities around you, restoring a functional and healthy balance between your inner and outer worlds.

We spent the latter part of the morning, through lunch (delicious fresh vegetarian lovingly prepared and served by residents of the retreat) in silent meditation. We sat, and later walked the grounds or the labyrinth.

Sister Marion is a hoot. Really unshakable. When she was 47, overweight and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, she took up running to relax after her workdays as principal of a grade school. Soon she became the oldest to ever qualify for the Olympic Trials. She even made it into Time magazine. Here's a photo (about halfway down the page) of her in her running days. She's now 77, with the spirit of a youngster and the sass of a woman who knows who she is and enjoys life.

She told us a bit about the founders of her order, the 12th Century CE Spaniard, St. Dominic de Guzman, and St. Catherine of Sienna (the youngest of 25 children!). In general, Dominicans seek to purify themselves from 'evil' by asceticism. The sisters established places of retreat for itinerant friars during the Late Middle Ages.

Dominicans have three orders. Sister Marion is in the third, or active, order. The second is contemplative, and the third is completely cloistered.

Dominican sisters, also known as the Order of Preachers, live their lives supported by four common values, often referred to as the Four Pillars of Dominican Life, they are: community life, common prayer [both liturgical and contemplative, according to Sister Marion], study and service.

Of course, we Witches know the Dominicans as the propagators of the Inquisition, the authors of the Malleus Malifacarum (published in 1487), torturers and burners of heretics, and she did mention the Dominicans' persecution of the Albigensians. I actually considered mentioning Kramer and Sprenger, but just didn't think it was a good time to get into that particular discussion.

Sister Marion is a native San Franciscan and product of Dominican schools. In high school, she observed that her teachers, all Dominican sisters, seemed happy in their lives and work, and since she considered herself to be a rather upbeat person, she was attracted to that life. She claims she never had a mystical experience that lead her to join, and she's never had one in the sixty years she's been in the order.

I did manage to jump on a potential teaching moment when we were talking about the power of collective prayer, chant and meditation focusing on a common goal. I pointed out that this is another name for what we might call 'spellwork.'

Sister Marion showed us a teaching method used in her order wherein a short passage of the Bible is read aloud slowly, and really listened to. After a brief period of silence, they are read a second time. I volunteered and found myself in the odd position of reading just a few verses of the Gospel of Luke.

We Pagans don't have a sacred text, per se; however, I intend to try this practice with a few lines of poetry, lyrical words about Nature, or maybe part of The Charge of the Goddess. I think it could enhance our understanding. As I get older, I find I enjoy contemplative spiritual practices at least as much as more active practices, if not more.

There were some things said that were mistaken assumptions on the part of the teachers, particularly assumptions about monotheism from Sister Marion.

Although we usually think of Hindus as being polytheists, the Brahma Kumaris seem to pay little heed to individual deities. Instead, their focus is on world peace. The artwork at the retreat was comprised of a surprising number of white sculpted angels -- a large angel stood at the edge of the labyrinth -- plus photographs of temples and assemblies of people, and mystical paintings of colors and images drawing the eye into "the one."

I find enrichment in every retreat I've attended. This is the fourth. I missed the one at the Vedanta Society in West Marin, but attended two at Santa Sabina Center and one at Green Gulch Zen Center, plus several International Day of Prayer breakfasts at Congregation Rodef Shalom.

Our director, the Rev. Carol Hovis, has a real talent for putting together interesting spiritual leaders to present on topics relevant to all of us. She's someone other interfaith folks might consider looking to for creative ideas leading to greater religious tolerance and understanding.

*Brahma Kumaris means ‘daughters of Brahma.’ Seminal to the vision of world renewal was the revelation of the important and prominent role of women as spiritual teachers. Brahma Baba correctly foresaw that core values based on traditionally feminine qualities – patience, tolerance, sacrifice, kindness and love – would increasingly become the foundation of progress in personal growth, human relations, and the development of caring communities. To maintain the emphasis on this vital core of leadership, he named the organisation the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University.

** Anubhuti means 'to experience."

No comments: