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“Death is the biggest change we face, so we need to practice change”—so says Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert, atheist and Harvard clinical psychologist. These words carry the weight of his 1967 conversion, followed by his second and ongoing conversion: the 1997 massive stroke with its expressive aphasia and paralysis of his right limbs. Its shock, he likened to Fierce Grace, a DVD that he published in 2001.

In this documentary, Ram Dass shows his disillusionment with psychedelic drugs that led to his conversion through Neem Kraoli Baba who renamed him Ram Dass, Sanskrit for Servant of God, and gave him the mandate: “Love my people. Feed them.” And for thirty years he taught, published, and counseled, attracting a worldwide following. All proceeds went to his foundations, Seva and Hunuman that still serve the blind in poor communities and publish spiritual materials around the globe.

Then came the stroke, followed by lengthy hospitalizations and rehabilitations, together with a brush with death. When Ram Dass was able to resume a limited schedule, he sounded different. Indeed, he had been “stroked” rendering him a consummate teacher of aging and death. His teaching and practice continue.

Ram Dass’s experience of “fierce grace” gives me pause. It suggests a tearing apart, a dragging down, a reversal of my way of living—such as happens with conscious aging, with its diminishments. Such wisdom is far beyond my grasp, yet ever fashioning my psyche in His likeness. I have only to participate in the daily dying.

“Death is like taking off a tight pair of shoes,” Ram Dass once quipped. It sounds so simple.

 

 

 

 

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He was a simple man: He loved his family, was fiercely loyal to his clan, and prospered in trading. Like new city dwellers living in seventh-century Mecca, he, too, sensed the restlessness, the discontent, brought about by too much change, too fast. With dull hearts, everyone amassed fortunes, grew fat. The centuries-old Bedouin ethos of providing for the marginalized, the destitute no longer seized imaginations.

Known as al-Amin, the Reliable One, he was also given to solitary prayer and retreats. Like those around him, he listened to stories shared by Jews and Christians with whom he traded: how their eyes glowed describing the revelations of Moses, of Jesus. And how he yearned for such a prophet from among his own people to confront their malaise and rejuvenate their spirits. But the shock of becoming such a spokesperson for Allah, the Arabic word for God, almost killed him.

We are talking about the prophet Muhammed (c.570-632 CE.), found within the pages of Karen Armstrong’s biography, Muhammad – A Prophet For Our Time (2006).

Her meticulous research, drawn from the four extant biographies composed after the prophet’s death, reveals a man of hilm: patience, forbearance, compassion and mercy; not a man of the sword. For twenty-three years, under duress, the angel Gabriel/ Spirit seized his spiritual faculties and provoked him to recite revelations streaming from the heart of Allah. Inherent within these recitations, later compiled into the Koran, was a rigorous discipline few had the inclination to practice: it was too costly.

As Karen Armstrong points out, Muhammad’s modernity lies precisely in this discipline. Therein, still lies the way to Life’s fruitfulness.

 

Since 1927, a band of men have been living in rural Ireland, their spirits disciplined by prayer, work, and respect for the harmony of nature. Unperturbed by wars and rumors of wars in whatever sector of society, they have quietly excelled in their unique gifts and became teachers in demand, the world over.

 

Mindful of sexual abuse scandals among their clergy and religious men and women heading up varied institutions, mindful of the acute shortage of priests, and mindful of the disaffection of believers, they devised a remedy in 2001. One of these spirited men enlisted the help of six others, including a woman, and they collated a prayer book from their own experience, flavored by their Celtic spirit and love for nature. It was hoped that those who’d purchase it would access their inner priest and again experience communion with the sacred through “prayer stops” throughout the day. This has happened and continues to happen with over 100,000 copies sold.

 

Consequently, their dwelling place has become a vortex of wholesome energies touching the depths of those who visit or to stay in one of their hermitages.

 

Who are these men of spirit? Where can we find them?

 

In two weeks, I will have the privilege of visiting their Benedictine monastery located in the rolling hills of Murroe, County Limerick, Ireland. With forty others, I will participate in a study group devoted to discovering and articulating how shadow components hiding out in our psyches play havoc with relationships to God, to others, and with ourselves. I will also experience their Mass, illumined with Gregorian chant.

 

Note: The Glenstal Book of Prayer: A Benedictine Prayer Book, is still available on Amazon.

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Available on Amazon

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