Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Where's Your Cave?

I hope you will answer this question “Where’s Your Cave?” after reading this post by clicking on “comments” on the blogsite, and following the instructions, which begins with “select profile.” You will not receive spam and you can always reply anonymously! And you might see other readers’ comments. Thanks! -Chris

In his autobiography, Paramahansa Yogananda tells of his childhood and adolescent attempts to escape from Calcutta to the Himalayas to find a guru in a cave and pursue a spiritual path. Even after he has found his primary guru years later, he leaves him and his hermitage near Calcutta to seek out another guru in the mountains, one who humorously chides, “Masters are under no cosmic compulsion to live on mountains only.”

This guru asks, “Are you able to have a little room where you can close the door and be alone?” When Yogananda affirms, “Yes,” the guru says, “That is your cave. That is your sacred mountain. That is where you will find the kingdom of God.”

It reminded me of the psalm that begins “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?” (Ps 121) One of my earliest encounters with biblical scholarship was discovering that there should be a period, dash, or semicolon after hills, because the psalmist is not affirming mountains as God’s habitat, but rather, rejecting hills where other gods were worshiped. The psalmist instead affirms in the verse that follows, “my help comes from Yahweh who made heaven and earth.”

Elijah heard God speak in a cave’s sheer silence on Mount Horeb, and Mohammad had his divine revelations in a cave. Jesus preferred “lonely places” to pray, sometimes mountains, and encouraged us to find an innermost room, or pantry, to pray. A Bodhi tree was sufficient for the Buddha. We all need our “caves,” our “set apart” places to be “close to the mystery, [while] never solving it,” in words from Deepak Chopra’s novel Muhammad.

In all the places I have lived or visited, I have found a “cave,” often outside and usually with a view of the outside, to pray. In addition, two places to which I have longed to return each served as a cave away from home, Mt. Calvary Retreat House above Santa Barbara, destroyed in the Montecito fire a few years back, and the shoreline, which I rarely get to these days living in Atlanta. (I was once astounded to visit a church on a perch with a beautiful view of the sea purposely constructed with no clear windows so as not to distract worshipers!)

I’ve written before of Etty Hillesum, who, facing transport to Nazi concentration camps, wrote in her diary (published as An Interrupted Life), “There will always be a small patch of sky above, and there will always be enough space to fold two hands in prayer.”

“Somewhere inside me,” she wrote, “the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed, just as profusely and delicately as ever it did. And it spreads its scent round the House in which You dwell, oh God.”

Kirkridge is a welcoming “cave” which hosts an annual retreat for gay and bisexual men (scroll down to date after clicking), which I will be co-leading Oct 3-6 this year with Roman Catholic activist and filmmaker Brendan Fay. Register by Aug 31 and subtract a $50 discount, no code required!

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More on Etty Hillesum:

Books that line the walls of my working cave:

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  1. A very meaningful reflection. I must add that when we teach Centering Prayer, we use the quote from Matthew 6:6 "But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Abba who is in secret, and your Abba who sees in secret will reward you." We make several points about this quotation. First, we note that in Jesus' time, many people didn't have a "room" where they could shut the door, so we suggest that closing one's eyes is now, as it likely was then, a symbolic "door shutting". Second, the Aramaic word for "pray" was to "open oneself" or to make oneself available. And finally, the term translated as "reward" is more accurately "cause you to bloom or blossom". This really does open up the options.

  2. At church camp on first day we were instructed to each go find our own special place for prayer away from distraction of others. Is it telling that we each spent the entire allotted time trying to find perfect spot rather than spend any time in it? I now find my "cave" anywhere at any time. It is a matter of consciously stopping and remembering that out of which I come and that to which I will return---not so much as ever being separate from it and everthing and everybody--but simply one expression of all of it.

  3. It's a question I've thought about over the years, and over the years different places have been "my cave." In years past, a small wooded Benedictine retreat center just west of Tulsa - a small community of a few nuns and a Trappist monk - little houses in the woods. When I drove there, maybe every six weeks or so, I found my whole body relaxing. Hitting the bed there, mid-afternoon, I often fell asleep quickly. They said, "We call it sleeping in the Lord."

    At other times, it's been a favorite restaurant that my wife and share - with her, I feel wonderfully alone from the world - the constant nagging of the church and cares of the world slip away for awhile.

    For a few years, I had the pleasure of making an annual pilgrimage to the Abbey of Gethsemane with a dear friend. In the quietness of that place, steeped in the prayers of monks and time, always something profound, but inexplicable. The presence of God? I suppose, if there is a god. But surely the presence of faithful men who've walked this way of hospitality and have sung the Psalms thousands of times.

    These days, in LA, riding bus and rail - watching the people and going to the Last Bookstore in downtown LA. Maybe a cuppa at a curbside cafe. Alone with my thoughts, a prized used book on the table, or tucked under my arm, there's a quietness of spirit, and a joy, too, in the cityscape. I feel close to the people on the bus, and close to the city.

    A cave for me at night these days, hitting the sack, on Netflix, "The Adventures of Tin Tin" - a three-year animation series of stories from the 40s that captivate me, and I'm not sure why, but most often, I drift into sleep easily with these delightful tales.

    As for reading, history and biography - a privilege to peek into someone's life, another era - with a message of some sort, "We did it, and you can, too."

    That's a message I found while biking in cemeteries near my home some years ago in Detroit - quite roads through the graves. Sometimes I'd stop to read a monument - little inscriptions about Grandfather, or a dear mother. And always the encouragement, "We did it, and so can you."

    Where's my cave?

    It's a moveable feast ... I have no idea where it'll be next week or next year. I think mostly my caves have found me, and that's a deeply Presbyterian thing to say. Hee hee ...

  4. My favorite cave is the screened-in porch of my summer place in NH. my cave at home in LA is my bedroom, with a window looking out at a garden and a big hill on the other side of an arroyo.