February is devoted to a time of ‘stopping’, in which residents and guests are invited to enter into a spirit of shared enquiry and deep questioning of what is to be next for the place and our place in it; and establish a culture in which 'being' precedes 'doing', so that all activity and work undertaken here be approached in a contemplative spirit. Then what is necessary can flow from an awareness of the real situation, rather than our attempting to act on the basis of conjecture in a purely doing mode.
Simply to agree to this movement constitutes acceptance of the invitation. It is surely our collective will and intention, wherever we may be, that can create the receptivity required.
Intrinsic in this request to be shown the best way forward for this school is ablution (in the sense of cleaning, clearing and decluttering, inside and out). Five objectives emerged to inform us of the purpose and quality of the ablution we have proposed to undertake:
We have learned that 'First He prepares the place.' It naturally follows then, that ablution must precede the request in order to prepare the place to receive and be informed from the Real.
For how can we be ready to receive help if the place is cluttered with the accretion of stuff both interior and exterior?
The month of February marks the start of this intention and this request.
An important part of this intention is also to spend time every morning in conversation.
Conversation in this context is a devotional practice, particular to the time it occurs and to the people present. What appears below is no more than a summary of some of the salient points that have come up, put together by Robin Thomson.
We will keep this page updated as the month progresses.
One common factor in the conversations has been a restating, a sense of renewal perhaps, of key aspects of service to the Real and proper studentship, i.e. incapacity, presence, cleanliness, and our position in the ‘love affair’ as the basis of esoteric lore. Much of what follows may seem familiar to many of us, yet it has emerged with the quality of news.
The month began with a request that we pray together Ibn ‘Arabi’s prayer, the Hisb al Wiqaya or Prayer for Spiritual Elevation and Protection, to set the intention and to request elevation and protection for the School and those entrusted with its care.
It is traditionally read before travelling or in times of difficulty.
Beginning from a recognition of our incapacity, the question arose of asking how the invitation to education at Chisholme, that is the ‘Beshara’ – the Announcement of Joy' - is to be made?
An indication is given in the prayer mentioned above ‘Admit me, O You who are the First and the Last, to the hidden domain of the unknowable secret and encompassing treasure of 'As God wills! There is no power save in God.’ We were further reminded of the need to be collected as one in the request: ‘Hold fast to the bond of God all together and do not scatter’.
How do we as seemingly disparate individuals, hold together in a unitive vision?
Clearly there has to be agreement from all sides, and that agreement has to come from a real place. Or one can speak of harmony – the science of beauty when multiple tones are sounded together.
How can we be harmonious together?
We begin with our own efforts but quickly discover that these are futile by themselves. For a vision to be unitive, it must come from Unity itself. We cannot reach it, nor recognise it, from our limited perspectives. So it is our task to request vision and clear the ‘space’ in ourselves – which is helped when we clear the space in our physical surroundings.
Monday 5 February
How does Reality educate and how does Reality announce Itself?
How is the education at the School to be presented today?
Do we hold on to old forms because of the orders they once represented, or can we discriminate between order and form, so that the orders (which are realities and do not change) can be pointed to by new forms (that are ephemeral and subject to the era)?
Can we allow ourselves to be informed of this from a clear and empty place and refrain from conjecturing or hurrying to fill the space?
Tuesday 6 February
How does the Real invite to Itself?
What is it in the invitation letter that draws people to participate in this month at Chisholme?
Perhaps that the concerns set out in the invitation are close to the concerns in our hearts? So, can the school offer a real invitation that will reach the concerns of people in the present time and likewise elicit in us a desire to respond?
If there is only the Real, the invitation is from the Real to the Real. The response will match the aptitude of each individual perfectly. This is the principle of the situation. It requires receptivity on the part of the one invited. We strive to hold the conditions in which this can take place, with presence and by ‘keeping everything clean’.
The mode of expression of the present era is fast-changing and new forms of communication may be required. Yet the vision itself, and its meanings, are unchanging, and are as essential to new generations as they were to all humans throughout history.
Wednesday 7 February
Evidence of our presence in vision is the quality of our hospitality. The hospitality of Abraham towards the three strangers exemplifies the hospitality of vision (or of aspiration to vision), in which we see (or accept ‘as if we saw’) that every person is a face of the Real, a divine Name, and thus an aspect of the real collectivity and a revelation to inform our studentship.
Thursday 8 February
We were given the image of a person standing before a curtain, and wanting to draw it back, but unable to reach out to move it. This came with a sense of facing an unknown and a profound sense of incapacity and inability.
Friday 9 February
Out of our incapacity to know the Unknown comes the invitation to be taken ‘beyond the curtain’ by that which can carry us there. The self-revelation of the Unknown to Itself is the divine Love Affair. The world is ever in becoming, and our place as the lover is to enter the intimacy of the Beloved.
In this a merciful action takes place. The ‘tension’ of not knowing and wanting to know is released by the realisation that there is only the Real, and that the Real includes the time and manner of release. Then comes the possibility of vision, and the desire for this is from the Real even more than it is from the student. One can relax, trusting that what needs to happen will be given when the time is right.
Saturday 10 February
Back to incapacity as our starting point and place of refuge. We are invited to invite the Real to be our ‘Trustee’ – the one who takes care of our affairs. In this action of appointing arises the possibility of prayer.
So, if our way is not a religion, what is prayer?
We come to a situation in which we request of the Real because this is the Real’s request of us. Request, gratitude and praise form three strands of a rope that binds to Truth. Equally, prayer is an act of praise in which the praiser, praised and praise are one. The mystery of servanthood is in the participating in this situation. And the realised servant requests that the distinction between servant and lord be maintained so that this situation of requesting can continue.
Sunday 11 February
Since the beginning of the month, Janice McAllister has been working in the attic of the main house. She came from the US specifically with this purpose in her heart, to clear it, clean and paint it so that light can enter as much as possible every corner of it. We spoke of the value of this work being done. Not only is there a symbolic and energetic significance particularly to beginning at the top; the scale and rigour of this clearing out is such that all of us are under its effect.
So what is ablution?
Mere ‘cleaning’ is more than meets the eye. The one who cleans feels benefit, regardless of their level of awareness – it has an obvious, tangible effect and goes far beyond the physical.
It is an ongoing practice, like prayer, and like prayer, it becomes a condition in which we can abide. Like prayer, it is an approach to awareness and the constancy of awareness. So perhaps all the practices and actions envisaged in the School’s courses point to this same objective of maintaining awareness of the Real at all times.
Does all real action in this world directs us to that objective…?
Monday 12 February
T.S. Eliot spoke of the possibility of being ‘at the still point of the turning world… Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is… Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance…. In the dance, at the still point, is pure being, and being is joy.’
By being present to ourselves we become more present to each other, so that, together, we are present to the One Who is present to us.
‘The greatest beshara is that God is the Ipseity (selfness) of all things.’
(Fusus al Hikam ch. of Hud)
Tuesday 13 February
Movement loomed large today, arising from an offer of chi gong sessions. Movement can be understood in various ways. Meanwhile the body needs integration with the mind, and chi gong does this effectively. The body is the receptacle of real experience; in mindfulness practice the body is often a primary focus; the chapter on Moses speaks of the body as the ark in which knowledge resides.
No notes for Wednesday and Thursday
Friday 16 February
How do we communicate what takes place in these conversations to our friends and the wider world?
What happens here is particular to the time and the people present. And yet it has real effect and can thus be effective more widely, particularly given that the recent newsletter invited readers to agree with our intentions for February and for this year. If the effect is real, it will be effective whether one is informed of the detail or not. Meanwhile how is meaning conveyed at all? You yourself are the meaning.
The website, though virtual rather than face-to-face, can play a valuable part in announcement, and this can be explored further. Can we meanwhile allow the site to be used for reports and communication more spontaneously, without protracted editing and official approval?
But what is really needed is face-to-face encounter. The human collectivity and the human singularity, the global human being that has so many manifestations.
We may be inspired in ourselves to come here by reading something, but Chisholme is to support the global evolution of mankind, not personal enlightenment. We invite people here for self-knowledge, but the kind of knowledge – and the kind of self – that they realise is not what they first expected. So, the self we think we want to know is not what we think it is. Yet we have been invited to ourselves and invited to extend the invitation.
Saturday 17 February
Does or can Chisholme have a ‘mission statement’ – to make it clear to people what the place is for? The articles of association give a loose indication, but the true purpose of the school seems difficult to communicate directly. The education here is by taste, and it has to be tasted to be recognised. The words on the website read differently after one has experienced Chisholme directly. So how do we announce in mere words? When the time is right, perhaps, people will find the invitation arising in them of itself; for now, it remains our task to announce in whatever ways present themselves.
And what is our task here, holding this physical place – the house and estate of Chisholme?
It is not that we can offer visions of Unity; that is for the Real alone to accomplish. Our task is simply to maintain and care for the buildings and the land, keep them and ourselves clean, so that what the Real desires can take place when it will. Meanwhile this work of maintenance and upkeep is itself nourishing and educational for those involved in it.
The estate could be worked more intensively so that we grow more of our own produce. This could be intended as a devotional act and as a demonstration of the nourishment of the Nourisher. This approach is commendable for its sentiment of commitment and engagement; but it should still be the case that all this is for the Real alone and not a ‘thing in itself’; an ephemeral form and not the unchanging essential vision.
In any case the intention for a school remains, and the place has been established in a real sense. The spiritual governs the material, so that what needs to happen will happen in a prepared place. Meanwhile our work is to hold the place, keep it clean, pay the bills, maintain its place in the worldly order and be present ourselves.
Sunday 18 February
A larger group today, asking what has come up so far this month. The responses: ablution, clearing the spaces, letting go of old narratives and old accumulations.
And asking what now for the school: how does the Real educate and invite?
The quality of presence and conversation has been strong and affirming.
For taste to educate, it has to be strong in oneself. Our own progress is our objective, each of us, and it is that which will draw others. The need for ablution, and the intention which we can sense within it, is surely to discriminate between what is fresh and of the spirit, from what is old, tired and received. The latter includes both our personal histories with one another and the system of beliefs we have constructed here as a cosy habitat.
Biological evolution has brought us here, and our own form, our body, has brought us together today for education.
Who in fact am I?
Who in fact has come into the room and sat down?
In order to receive the fresh, the ‘gifts of the spirit’, ablution is the primary requirement.
We have to be empty, clean – have no being of our own. There is work in this for us, who are students and who yearn for closeness; this keeping clean, this letting go of histories and narratives and clinging is an ongoing effort.
‘We’ have to keep our relationships with each other clean – who in any case is this ‘we’? Is there a ‘we’, an easily assumed community, in fact?
Another easy assumption is an exceptionalism (that ‘we’ are in some way extra special), the effect of which can be dangerous.
This conversation can become sharp, even confrontational, where real need for clarity is felt. Can we learn to speak to each other directly, within the strong intention for it?
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Join the conversation from where you are.
Send your thoughts and contributions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please use the subject line 'February Conversation' – many thanks!
The Red Sail
Katharine Tiernan writes about St Cuthbert's years
in retreat, for Beshara Magazine
The Twenty-Nine Pages
An Introduction to Ibn 'Arabi's Metaphysics of Unity
is available from Beshara Publications