Extra Online Content - International Newsletter, October 2011

Meditation and art 

Above, in slideshowImages of works by Anne Rolfsen and Hilmar Fredriksen, excerpts from poems Erlado Amay. Music by Kerry Taylor:

John Main Seminar 2011

See pictures form JMS2011 in Cork


Poverty of Spirit at the June 2011 International School Retreat, Fara Sabina, Italy 

Joseph Clarkson

Fr. Laurence led a silent School retreat with assistance from Kim Nataraja and Kath Houston  at the tranquil Poor Clare Monastery in Fara Sabina, Italy.  Coordinators, leaders and teachers from around the world  joined them for six days.  Participants focused on deepening their experience of silence and meditation to become more attentive to the self-communication of the Spirit.  Fr. Laurence gave daily talks on Poverty of Spirit which were reinforced by daily scripture reflections from Kim.  

“Blessed  are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3).  Poverty of spirit involves leaving everything  behind, being free to pay attention to God,  to love God,  in the present moment.  This shift in attitude requires us to leave behind or become free of our social conditioning and our attachment to  ALL of our most cherished accomplishments, our family ties, our ideas, images  … to become as free as is pictured in the scripture passage when Jesus asks “who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” ( Matt 12:49.)  We need to leave EVERYTHING that defines us and limits us behind to become  free to live with complete openness to the Spirit

The kingdom for the “poor in spirit”, clarified  Fr. Laurence, is not a place and it is certainly  not a reward for being good.  Living in the kingdom is living in the presence of God, a place of grace given freely.  Understanding the concept of poverty of spirit helps us to understand who we really are.  To do this, we need to step out of our social identity to understand that there is much more depth to us than this limited vision can ever support or provide.   In fact, explained Fr. Laurence, something within us is calling us to know ourselves so that we can know God.

To clarify this important point, Fr. Laurence cited Meister Eckhardt’s sermon on Matt 5:3, summarizing that one who is poor in spirit “is a person who wills nothing … who knows nothing … who has nothing.”  Fr. Laurence suggested that these three points are a good description of meditation.  Applying this emphasis to contemplative prayer, Fr. Laurence cited Julian of Norwich who suggested that we are called to “a condition of complete simplicity…requiring not less than everything.”

At this point in the retreat, with the poverty of spirit that we were being asked to embrace becoming clearer and clearer,  we felt like the desert father who let go of his preconceptions and conditioning about everything, including his notion of God, to find that “they have taken my Lord away from me and I do not know to whom I am to pray.”  Through poverty of spirit we become free of everything that holds us back from  hearing and accepting the relentless call of God to go deeper in the bottomless well of the gift of our own being.  

{A personal reflection} These first talks would strike fear into the faint of heart or those who were not prepared to commit totally to contemplative spirituality.  It is the norm, on a retreat,  for the talks to enlighten, strengthen, encourage and direct the participants;  but, this time, the retreat was really a very direct challenge to give ourselves utterly  to contemplative spirituality.   And at this point, realizing how much was being asked of us,  my natural reaction was to remember the ironic words of Juliet, “thou has comforted me marvelous much” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, scene V.)  

To encourage us,  at this point in the retreat, Fr. Laurence reminded us that when this authentic  spirituality  asks for more and more and then wants more again, we have to “love the meditation practice.”  With perseverance and discipline of mind and body, acesis,  will come the fruits of peace joy,  calm,  kindness … that would get us through the cycles of ever-challenging, ever more difficult stages of growth in faith and contemplative prayer

In sum, the topic “Poverty of Spirit”  is really at the heart of desert spirituality, the historical all-or-nothing source of contemplative spirituality.   Poverty of spirit, as presented by Fr. Laurence and reinforced by Kim, could be a good umbrella description for contemplative spirituality.  For this writer,  Fr. Laurence’s  latest book, First Sight,  contains this same emphasis,  woven into  the context of his exploration of what faith is and what it is not.




Paul Harris 

The last survivor of six children in John Main's family, Ian Main, died in Southern France, May 23, 2011, at 89 years of age. Born in London, England in 1922, he had been living in France in retirement with his wife Judith. His survivors also include six children,

William, David, Marie,John Leila,and Donald.

John Main once said "we were very happy in our home life, and as well as being brothers and sisters we were all good friends". In fact it was in the heart of the Main family that Ian, John, and the other children, first experienced a love that would give them such psychological stability and strength later in life.

Saturday night was always family night in the Main family, for neighbours as well as friends, and usually included singing and games. In one game the participants wrote down the subject for a one minute speech. Ian was once enraged when John gave him the subject "Early Byzantine Architecture".

In the book "John Main By This Who Knew Him", their sister Yvonne commented on the involvement of Ian and John in practical jokes and Irish humour. Says Yvonne: "one day my mother and a friend were listening to the funeral of King George V on the radio. The commentator was saying "Now the funeral bus has arrived at Euston Station and the Royal family are following the hearse and the coffin." A voice then rang out, "Oh good gracious, a terrible thing has happened, the coffin has fallen off the hearse and the King is rolling down the steps". My brother and John had rigged up another piece of radio equipment and managed to interrupt the royal funeral broadcast with their horrific announcement. The rest of the children were in the hallway in hysterics".

At the beginning of the second world war in 1939 both Ian and John Main were evacuated to the countryside north of London, and stayed with the Ernaelsteens, friends of the Main family. The Earnaelsteens provided a stable and warm environment in the early war years for the teen age boys Ian and John.

Ian was "A Man for all Seasons". In his youth his passion was for soccer, high jumping and long distance running. He qualified for the Irish Olympic team for the 1940 Olympics in cross country running, but due to the war never saw the opportunity to fulfill that dream. He was an avid reader, a lover of music, and had a great sense of humour which seemed to run in the Main family. Throughout his life he was political left wing and his favourite political catch phrase was "What about the workers".

Towards the end of the war while living in London, Ian forgot one night to put up the mandatory shutters that aimed to hide London from the nightly bombers. He received a visit from the police as a result and was told to report to the police station the next day to face the consequences.  However as he approached the station the following day he discovered the station itself had become a bombing victim of an air raid.

With his interest in mechanical engineering Ian attended university in Belfast. During one class the lecturer forbad the students to discuss the subject of sex, religion or politics. Ian quipped, "What else is there to talk about". "Main stay quiet", the lecturer replied. His

Belfast studies included time at sea with the Royal Navy.

Ian and his wife Judith practiced Christian Meditation and became Benedictine oblates in 1988.  While living in retirement in Greece and France they followed the Main family tradition of their evening meditation followed by gin and tonics.

In the book "John Main By Those Who Knew Him", Judith commented: "I have been meditating for over 20 years. I come to it each time as a beginner and know that I always will be a beginner. For me it is not a skill I can progress in. In fact I have no skill at all. Most of the time it is shamingly difficult to concentrate for even a short time. But just sometimes when I am already in a peaceful frame of mind, I get an inkling of what true faithful meditation could mean. In spite of this meditation is an important part of my life without which a day is incomplete, unsatisfactory and somewhat wasted. I feel I must keep on trying".

(With assistance from son's of Ian Main, Donald and John)




Carla Cooper

Marina Singh, the protagonist of Ann Patchett’s latest novel, STATE OF WONDER, “put her faith in data.” After a traumatic accident during her medical school training, when Marina blinded a newborn during a botched caesarian section, Marina fled to the safety and predictable order of pharmaceutical research, where she has spent the last 12 years relatively risk-free, studying  cholesterol  for a  Big Pharma company  

Some months after her colleague, Anders Eckman, is sent to Brazil in search of Marina’s 73 year old former teacher, Dr. Swenson, to try to engage her about her decade of elusive but exceptionally promising fertility research, Marina and her boss and company CEO, Mr. Fox, learn from a brief and cryptic note from Dr Swenson that Anders has mysteriously died. Mr. Fox then asks Marina to go to Brazil to investigate both the death of Anders and the status of Dr Swenson’s work, in which the company is heavily invested. And so begins the novel’s journey:  from Eden Prairie, Minnesota to the darkest heart of the Amazon jungle, from innocence to experience, from knowledge to wisdom.

Marina painfully realizes that she needs “an entirely different set of skills” to navigate the exotic primal jungle and the equally exotic scientific research occurring in its midst. Almost a garden of Eden, the jungle is crowded with life in a dazzling variety of forms and Patchett paints the atmosphere and landscape with extraordinary skill. Dr Swenson , Marina realizes, has been conducting scientific experiments among the gentle native Lakashi tribe that promises a world historic and unfathomably lucrative pharmaceutical breakthrough: lifelong fertility. By regularly eating the bark of a singular indigenous tree, Lakashi women deliver healthy babies well into their 70’s and 80’s. No wonder, Vogel, Marina’s company, is so desperately interested in the outcome and application of Dr. Swenson’s work.

Dr Swenson not only discovers the fabulous secret of the Lakashi, she avails herself of the fruit of the tree, and at 73, after a life of sacrifice and isolation, is pregnant for the first time. While we never know for certain who the father is, we do come to know as does Marina, the temptation of knowledge that overturns the natural order and cycle of life. And we come to know as do both Marina and Dr Swenson, that the tree of knowledge is not the tree of life. 

By presence and attention, Marina discovers the humanity of her teacher and the pathos of her longing for meaning and connection. No longer the icon of intellectual precision and rational arrogance, Dr Swenson comes to need her student and indeed learns from her. Those lessons form the heart of this wonderful novel, at once a compelling mystery and a spiritually-charged  fable. Patchett takes on the meanings of resurrection and brings each major character to some kind of liberation and new life, albeit with pain and loss and, often, a good measure of terror. And she teaches us that the best teacher  does not replicate herself; she sets us free. 


ISBN: 0062049801 (ISBN13: 9780062049803) Hardcover, 353 pages
Published by HarperCollins Publishers



The Business of Spirit: A Conversation on Leadership

Videos about the talks in Georgetown:

Peter Ng


Sean Hagan