Interview: Dom Laurence Freeman OSB

21 November 2014

'Jesus was primarily a teacher of contemplation'

My vocation is as a monk. In a sense I have two forms of monastery: one with walls, and the other without walls. I'm a Benedictine monk of Turvey Abbey, in the Congregation of Monte Oliveto, and director of the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM). 

The monastery without walls has grown up over the past 35 years into a global spiritual family based on the practice of meditation. As I travel in this monastery, I feel very much that I'm in a spiritual cloister - just on a large scale.

I work in the monastery without walls under obedience to my abbot. I also refresh myself in solitude in a hermitage. So, as a monk, I feel I have a unified vocation although it has these three dimensions and I spend time in each. The peace and happiness of the cloister is meant to be shared. 

A monk in the modern world needs to be a contemplative, but must see the fruits of contemplation as something to be shared with the world. A monastic life that keeps its fruits to itself is, firstly, counter-productive, and secondly, a counter-sign. 

When I was introduced to meditation by my teacher John Main, I was in my first year studying English Literature at Oxford. My response was strong, but confused at first: it didn't make sense intellectually to "lay thoughts aside". But, in my heart, I knew I had been led into something of total integrity, and I yearned to experience it more. 

Meanwhile, I was working at the UN, then in banking and journalism. Some years later, I wanted to be better grounded in prayer of this kind, and made a six-month retreat under Main's guidance in a lay community he had started at his monastery. At the end of this time I felt the right choice - though this took time to see - was for me to become a monk. So meditation led me to monastic life, and from the beginning I was working to share this gift of prayer with people in all walks of life. 

I helped Main in the early days, and when he died I succeeded him. Some monks run farms or schools or make liqueurs for their work. I teach meditation. It is both my inner and my outer work, and that is a privilege and joy for me. 

I led the Bere Island Festival of Music and Silence, because silence and music are closely aligned. If silence were not part of the music - the intervals between the notes - you would just have cacophony. Music comes from, and leads into, silence. Music is a good way of leading into meditation. 

Bere Island is a very beautiful and contemplative place, and also, as everywhere in Ireland, the islanders love music and are very welcoming. The parallel programmes of music and meditation turned out to be a very successful experience. We plan to do it annually. 

Prayer has two dimensions, like the human person. It has a deep, personal interiority; but the deeper you go, the more you break through the walls of the separating ego and realise your connection and communion with others, the world, and with God.

When you meditate alone, you are in the Body of Christ, because the essence of all prayer is to enter into the prayer of the Spirit. But when you meditate with others you realise that you are in solitude. Solitude is the recognition and acceptance of your uniqueness, and therefore the basis of all true relationship. Modern individualism has a problem with this paradox, perhaps, and that is why there is so much loneliness in our culture.

We're teaching Christian meditation in 29 countries now, I think, and there are about 200 schools in the UK alone where the children meditate daily. They start very young - four or five - and, of course, their understanding and experience grow as they develop. 

Children can meditate, and like to meditate. I mean true contemplative prayer: attention, stillness, silence, and, of course, simplicity. They've much to teach or remind us about our own neglected capacity for the deep prayer of the heart. It's an ideal form of spiritual experience in our multicultural classrooms of today, and, to be honest, I can see no reason why every school should not want to make this available for all their pupils.

Teachers and parents benefit directly, too, and principals say that the ethos and mood of a school that meditates is transformed. Apart from the spiritual meaning, meditation is a simple, universal life-skill that we should give every child preparing for our dangerously distracted and uncertain world.

Some Christians assume that meditation is an oriental speciality, shoe-horned into Christianity. The work of the WCCM is partly educational, to remind Christians in all churches that we have this contemplative tradition, and that Jesus was primarily a teacher of contemplation; and, secondly, to share the fruits of Christian meditation with the secular world.

Teaching meditation in the fields of medicine, business, and education, to the homeless or to people in recovery is a form of evangelisation. Not that it means we are trying to convert or change others' beliefs: the Christian's work is to "announce" the gospel in appropriate ways. The Spirit does the conversion.

Of course, Christian dogma and worship are important to me - more so because of what meditation teaches me about the indwelling Christ. It has shown me the beauty and power of these great symbols. The Church needs to reconnect that power to the world today, and is clearly failing because of a lack of spiritual depth and authenticity. 

Do I feel closer to other religions as a result of meditation? Of course. I see Christ as Truth in them more clearly. Religions are not competitors for the market share. 

I was born and raised in London - in Kensington, then Wimbledon - and I still feel a Londoner. Despite the changes of the past few decades, it is an extraordinary and basically friendly city, as diverse and vital as, say, Istanbul, which I visited for the first time recently. London prepares one for a local and global view of the world. 

My mother was Roman Catholic, my father a typical English agnostic. I am half-Irish, and that other half has become more important to me as I have recognised it. Seeing it from the other point of view, I think the Irish have always run rings round the English, despite the terrible history of the English in Ireland. It amazes me that the two peoples can be so amicable.

I love Bach, especially the cantatas at present; Shakespeare; novels; poetry; walking and finding new ways back to where I started; seeing people grow and become free; going to places for the first time; staying at home: it's a long list. 

I am very happy staying in one place. I have a hermitage on Bere Island in Cork, and when I am there I do everything to avoid leaving the island. I usually travel to places where I am invited, but this summer I went to Turkey, as I thought I would never go there otherwise. I loved it because it surprised me and challenged my expectations. 

I'd like to contribute to a new expression of Benedictine life. I think it could help make the world a better place, and we would benefit immensely by integrating a contemplative practice of prayer into the communal prayer. It's not in the Rule specifically, but St Benedict would hardly object, I think. Given the widespread interest in meditation in secular society, and in the monasticism of other religious traditions, I think it's time we caught up. It's hard to turn a tanker around quickly, and existing communities would find this difficult; but smaller, fresher communities, with more flexible ideas about commitment, such as the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace, could pioneer this. 

And I'd like to take up the trumpet again, which I started to learn as a boy.

I love the sound of guileless laughter.

I remember reading The Pickwick Papers as a boy on the train to school in the mornings, and helplessly laughing aloud on every page. It taught me to enjoy reading.

Prayer is a wheel with many spokes representing all forms of prayer. All the spokes lead to the centre, which is the Mind of Christ, the prayer of Jesus. "We do not know how to pray, but the Spirit prays within us," St Paul says. "The monk who knows that he is praying is not truly praying; the monk who does not know he is praying is truly praying," Evagrius writes. If I pray in a petitionary or intercessory way, it's in the confidence that, as Jesus said, "your Father knows your needs before you ask." I pray for the gift of prayer. 

If I were locked in a church? If the church was not too cold, and the pews not too hard, I think I'd be able to feel I was in the presence of all my teachers and friends, and eventually of the whole human family.

Fr Laurence Freeman OSB was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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