Conversation Notes for February 23-25th
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.
Here below you can read short reports on each day, put together by Robin Thomson, and updated every day or two.
To start at the beginning of the notes, please click here...
Friday, 23 February
We sometimes talk about tests, such as ‘Sufi tests’.
What is the reality of such testing?
Traditional Sufi orders would arrange tests to highlight specific states or requirements in students. But here, where there is no sheikh or other authority to devise such tests, it is primarily an interior matter. Perhaps it arises naturally in response to an undertaking or an aspiration in the person concerned, as a kind of quality control – ‘am I doing this right?’ ‘what are my limits in this?’
We are tested in our desire for closeness and have then to respond and to work. Just as the sick who came to the Asklepion at Miletus had to make their own way along the road before being granted healing, we have to respond to the trials that confront us.
These are like mirrors to us and test our response, our allegiance, our level of education. And in this life of trial and testing, the knowledge that trial and testing are part of its very nature, is a mercy.
What is in fact being tested?
In the situations that we recognise as trials, we may try every possible remedy without success until we make the change of heart or alignment that it was actually calling for, at which point the external situation is likely to change too. Perhaps we are being tested in what we agreed to in pre-eternity, to the being of the Real as our being. In this temporal world this is asked of us again and again, in each moment, and when resistance or ambiguity arises we experience it as a trial, until it is dissolved through our conscious submission, returning authority to the Real. There may also be trials arising from our inability to remember the original pact and therefore not knowing who we are.
No matter how long it takes us to respond to the test by making the necessary change, there is no blame in it. ‘It’s all for you!’ There is no need to speak of regret, of ‘how I should have been long ago’, or how ‘I have wasted time’. This time, this moment now is the time for testing, and it is rightly so.
Is there a testing going on right now, with us here, all who feel a closeness to Chisholme?
Many would say yes, this seems to be what is happening.
There is a sense that the test is for bringing about a movement in the heart. This is something each of us has to do ourselves. And if this movement happens in us, then it can happen collectively.
Saturday 24 February
The end of this February month is approaching.
Can anything be said about what has arisen from our conversation and practice in this time?
While the actions and effects cannot be listed in any linear sense and are perhaps not known, some indications have been clear, such as those described in these notes for each day. We have learnt that our task is to keep the ‘place’ clean and ask for help; to request receptivity itself, rather than specific outcomes; to beware our assumptions and to allow what is to flow unimpeded; that our proper manner of approach is as students and not as teachers, holders of positions or knowers. Indeed the idea of fixed positions within the staff can be dangerous as it can crystallise into a limited arena of ‘doing’. Perhaps we are here as volunteers, or as ‘caretakers’, but in all cases we are here first and foremost as students.
When a student comes here, they are in a sense the teacher. The supervisor here becomes a student and listens. Thus the apparent situation is reversed in the interior. Moreover, education can be given without a teacher; or teaching can come through a person without making them a teacher.
This place – the school at Chisholme – has a special purpose and real establishment. It is universal, beyond forms of religion or culture, and is of extraordinary height. Yet we are not to assume an exclusivity because of this but to draw out the universal in it and to keep the place clear so that the universal flow is not interrupted. It is both a school of the Mohammedian taste and a place for all lovers of learning without fixity.
It is probable that we have limited the potential of what can be given here, through self-narratives and fixing, and the ablution now in progress is a request that this fixing be lifted. Recently two long-standing students met after forty years apart, and what was sensed in their greeting, alongside the historical elements, was the original meeting, in salam – perhaps a meeting or knowledge that had been known before time. Here is a hint of the source of the education and the reality of our relationships with one another.
Sunday 25 February
We received news last night of the death of our friend and co-student Mhairi Macmillan. In the conversation we honoured her with memories and recalled her qualities, notably her veracity and her ability to listen deeply, which found expression in her profession of psychotherapist. She had arranged to come and stay at Chisholme at exactly this time, to participate in the intention for February, then cancelled on the day she was due to arrive because she was feeling unwell; hours later she passed away.
We recalled the Qur’anic text on one of the gravestones of another student buried here: ‘O confident soul, return to your Lord, agreeing and agreed to; enter among My servants and enter My paradise.’ The confidence indicated here stands out: freed of conjecture and doubt, including self-doubt and regret, and fear of death, the soul hears its call and returns with certainty. This is the reality of death, for sure, and it is also the reality of life in each moment: compassion flows from the Real in every instant, otherwise the world would not be, and we can be confident in this.
Another sense of ‘O confident soul, return to your Lord’ is the invitation to be truly oneself and to refrain from imitating others or conjecturing how we ‘ought’ to be. All beings are in service at all times, and for humanity this consists in being our real selves. Being oneself and thus in service is something we can learn from our own body, which is always present and in service and does not succumb to conjecture or doubt.
To read the next notes, click here...
Fresh notes will be posted regularly.
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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