How They Grow

Wildflowers grow without
rooted in the secret order
of quietness.
Edges get rounded down.
Nature offers no straight lines
or right angles.
Wouldn't you rather run your
fingers through black loam
than scroll through golden rules?
What you really seek
is the fragrance of chaos,
like a moth on a purple aster,
the intimate fragility
of mountain meadows.
Surrender first.
Strip off the armor
of Should.
Then fight your valiant battle
for beauty.
"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow:
they do not toil or spin." ~Matthew 6:28
Took this photo on Mount Tahoma

Searching for the Magdalene

A true story of grace and transformation, 
originally published in the Quaker journal, 
'What Canst Thou Say.' Painting: 'Mary 
Magdalene,' by Cassandra Barney.

In 1972, I was a pilgrim. Not to India, but to the Medieval shrines of Europe, seeking the heart of Christian prayer. I'd spent several years exploring the wisdom of India with my guru, Maharshi Mahesh. I told him that I longed to know the mystery of Christ. I was not a Hindu.

"Be a Christian," he said. "Take this meditation into the Church."

On my pilgrimage, I visited Vezeley in central France. In the crypt beneath the church is the pilgrimage shrine to the Magdalene: there I discovered that her tomb was nearby. I had no idea she was buried in France. For the first time in my life, I prayed through a saint. "O Mary, mother of devotion, guide me to the heart of Christ!" I wasn't even Catholic.

Much later, I learned her mythic story. After the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene boarded a ship bound for Britain with Joseph of Aramethia. On the coast of Provence, where now is the port of Marseilles, Mary disembarked while Joseph continued to Britain with the holy grail. Secluded in a cave in the hills of Provence, Mary became the first Christian mystic.

But as I wandered on, I forgot about my prayer to her. Several weeks later, in the pilgrim church of Conques, I met an old priest with whom I shared my quest. We did not discuss Mary Magdalene. We spoke of Gregorian Chant and the old traditions. I asked him if he knew of a monastery where the old way of Gregorian chant was still practiced. Mumbling about a tiny Benedictine priory in the south, he scribbled a note which said, "Bedouin, near Carpentras." I stuck it in my wallet.

A month later, bound for Italy, I got off the train in Marseilles by a sudden intuition. I took another train to Avignon, where I reached for the crumpled note in my wallet. "Bedouin, near Carpentras." Carpentras was a three-hour bus ride into Provence. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "Be a wanderer." I had no idea where I was going. I had truly become a wanderer.

In Carpentras, I hitched a ride toward Bedouin, which was fifteen miles further into the countryside and not even on the map. No bus, no train stopped there, few cars. I had to walk the last few miles. The village dozed in golden light. Poppies and lavender danced in the fields. Granite hills shimmered in waves of noon-day heat. Everyone in Bedouin was napping: not a soul about town! Was there a priory near-by? A single old man I met didn't know. I started to hike.

Covered with dust and sweat, I walked for hours past meadows baking in the drone of crickets. I came upon a run-down farm where a young British couple leaped through the long grass with butterfly nets. They told me there was no priory near-by and they said that everyone in the region was as crazy as they were. By evening, I was back in Bedouin. With desperate faith, I tried one more country lane at the far end of the village. The sun was an orange candle on the purple hills. I ambled another mile, through apricot groves and a flock of goats without a herder. Then, around a bend, I saw a dome.

It was an ancient Romanesque dome of well-fitted stones, near a farm house and cinder-block dormitory, tidy gardens, no sign at the gate. From the domed chapel came a sound as timeless as the longing in my heart: Gregorian chant.

I knelt in gathering darkness where nine young monks chanted Vespers. An oil lamp flickered from a niche in the granite alter. Carved in relief upon that stone was a woman, wild and naked, long hair covering her breasts. She held the oil lamp in her stone hand and gazed at me.

After Vespers, the monks greeted me in silence and beckoned me to supper: vegetables, cheese, lentil soup and bread without words. Then the prior, a young priest named Father Gerard, returned with me to the chapel, where we could whisper despite the rule of silence. In stumbling French I told Pere Gerard of my quest and he invited me to stay.

"I don't even know the name of this place," I said.

"C'est La Prieure de la Madeleine."

Pointing to the woman in the alter I asked, "Who is she?"

"La Madeleine." It was Mary, and this place was hers. Only then, after weeks of wandering, did I recall my prayer at her tomb. "Her cave was in these hills," said Gerard. "This shrine was built for her in the ninth century. She was the first Christian monk. And you are just in time."

"For what?" I asked.

"Her feast."

A Catholic feast begins with Vespers at sundown. My saint had guided me to Magdalene Priory precisely at Vespers on July 21. The next day, July 22, was The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. As Tolkein wrote, "Not every wanderer is lost."


For months I worked in the apricot groves, sang the daily Latin Hours, rose for Vigils at 3 AM. There was hard work in the gardens, but the real work was prayer. In that ancient dome, before the soft granite gaze of the Magdalene, I prayed for hours each day, using the meditation technique with which my guru had graced me. The stillness inside me grew boundless, then vibrant, then dazzling. I tasted the light at the center of the soul, where the tiny bud of "I" dissolves into the blossoming "Am" of God. Yet I still longed for a personal connection to the Infinite.

Suddenly, doubt shattered my devotion. Can I unite with Christ through a meditation practice from India? Impossible, impure, even adulterous! I vowed to give up meditation and adopt the Jesus Prayer. I would only use the name of Jesus as my mantra. I tried several forms of Christian practice, but none united me with Christ like my guru's subtle sadhana.

Then came the breakthrough. With a single breath I sighed into realization. I saw that the conflict was not about East vs. West, but intellect vs. experience. God cannot be thought, for God is. I must surrender my intellect, and plunge into a darkness without concepts, a silence without thoughts. From this emptiness, love is born: light from darkness, Christ from Mary's womb.

Meditation deepened and softened, softened and deepened, until my longing was fulfilled. I realized that my bija mantra, the subtle Sanskrit sound heard in meditation, was really an echo of the one divine Word, the Logos "through whom all things are made" (John 1). This Word vibrates through every ancient language of prayer: Sanskrit, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic. The Logos is the resonant energy of silence. It is pure consciousness, vibrating as the seed syllable at the root of all language, before sound condenses into matter. As all material creatures are born of one Spirit, so all languages are born of one Logos, and all prayers return to one God.

Those who meditate with faith in the divine Name, in whatsoever religious tradition they are born, enter through one and the same eternal Word into the boundless silence of God.

Gazing into the silent abyss, I gazed into the face of Christ. I saw no form, for his features are dissolved in light. When two kiss, they are one: yet the beloved is nearer than the lover's own heart. One, yet two. I understood the Song of Songs, "For your lips are sweeter than wine, and your name is perfume poured out!" I tasted wine beyond lips, sweetness beyond naming. The person of Christ was essentialized in the sapphire radiance at the center of my soul.

"Taste and see that the Lord is good!" cries the Psalmist. O seeker, trust in the authority of your own experience. For we are led by the heart to understanding, not by understanding to the heart.

LINK: 'Kenosis: Entering Loss'


Billie Holiday & Mary Magdalene

"Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion."
~James Joyce

It’s you, Billie. You are the Magdalene, pouring sweet pangs of sensuality like crystals of frankincense into the fire of Presence, effusing sighs and gazes too fine and mellow for words. You transcend, not by escaping this knotted earthen labyrinth, but by entering its center. You are She who falls so deeply into your own humanity that God becomes your servant. 

It's you, Billie, the Paraclete. Regardless of the impurities you committed in a life of addiction and sexual sorrow, your unadulterated devotion to Beauty uplifts you on spirit wings, and enfolds you in the Bridal Chamber of Christ's sacred heart.

Enough of holy icons and ecclesiastic symbols! This love is real, stretched out in troubled fallen bodies. Addicted to heroine and alcohol, in love with men who abused you, you beat up white sailors with your fists when they mocked your music in a Manhatten bar. You scalded racist hecklers with your gutter-ripened tongue. These were the disciplines that made you pure. And how could such impurities make you pure? Because you endured. You endured the suffering that redounded from each misdeed and offered that suffering to Art. 

In 1957, you and Lester Young performed for the last time together. You had been estranged, in fact, for a few years prior to that date: you could no longer stand to confront your own pain in each other's faces. On that day, you sang “Fine and Mellow” live on a CBS TV special called, "The Sound of Jazz." There is a moment in that performance which captures the entire history of Nuptial Mysticism, the tradition of the Lover and Beloved. For that brief moment in 1957, your eyes gazed back thousands of years through Christian, Jewish, Sufi and Hindu devotional poetry. The tearful radiance in your eye was the glance of Rumi toward the mystical Friend, the glance of Lalla Dev toward Krishna. It was the glance of the repentent harlot Israel, gazing at Lord Adonai, who accepted her back into his heart, according to the prophet Isaiah. It was the glance of the Magdalene toward her spiritual lover, Jesus. 

This is the glance that passes eternally from the Spirit to the Son in the secret embrace of the Holy Trinity. This glance streams from the Shekinah to Yahweh in mystical darkness before the first verse of Genesis is written in flames of black fire on the whiteness of an uncreated scroll. This glance binds creation back to Creator. Yet it is no more, and no less, than the gaze of Billie Holliday toward Lester Young. 

It's you, Billie. You bestowed this glance on Pres, your oldest friend, one-time lover, and spiritual companion in the terrors of dissolution, as he offered a solo during your song. That solo was a one-chorus blues prayer which jazz critics have called "the purest blues ever recorded": the aching heart redeemed through art, the deepest sins distilled, transfigured into unspeakable beauty. Through such secret alchemy, artist and saint have much in common, and we discover the religious quality of jazz. 

In love's glance, you redeemed your oldest friend. In Art, he redeemed you. And in that instant, the two of you were Radha-Krishna, Shekinah-Yahweh, Mary and Christ. 

Even God longs to receive such a glance from one human being brave enough to offer love in spite of pain. In spite of pain! Is that not why we are here? Would our love have substance in the unremitting happiness of heaven? In paradise our love would be a candle at noon. But a candle is only significant in the dark. 

Billie, it's you. Your gaze teaches us that our sufferings mean something, our sensual extravagance is but our first yearning for redemption, and our impurities are hidden prayers for transformation. When we are ready, when we are ripe as you, no matter what shames we carry in our breast, a single glance into the eye of the Beloved heals everything. The Church will never make you a saint, Billie. That's OK. Its none of their business. This affair is between you and God and earth's most fallen lovers.... 

Therefor, I who am most fallen pronounce you a saint. I declare your songs to be a new book in the canon of the Bible, which can never be closed until the heart is closed! And I say that if the Song of Songs is worthy of a place in scripture, then so are your songs.

Scripture says, "What ascends must first descend." You descended, Billie. You and Pres got down so low! It was the secret of your Grace. If God so loves a fallen sparrow, how much more God loves the blues! Your blue gospel-gita-koan teaches us three secrets: falling is our resurrection; empty, we are filled; surrendering unconditionally to our human limits, we transcend them.


Reader: this secret gospel has only one commandment. You must listen to the performance of “Fine and Mellow” by Billie Holliday, from the ambrosial live '57 CBS program, TV’s finest hour. Listen to Lady Day's blue bhajan. Listen to Pres’s Gregorian tenor chant. See this jazz darshan, last meeting of estranged lovers in their moment of reconciliation. (Two years, and they would both be dead.) Pay attention to Billie’s beat sacramental eyes as she listens to Pres's aching naked eulogy to their lost love. The grace in his music is reflected in the icon of her face. Then you will receive the Gnosis of divine union in a secret transmission beyond words and thoughts. Through the blues, you will know the eternal Love that pulses in the broken heart of Mary Magdalene.


Lester Young's solo is the second tenor sax solo in the following classic film.