Thursday, December 30, 2010

Being With Basil Pennington

One of the books I received for Christmas is called "As We Knew Him...Reflections on M. Basil Pennington". The book is a collection of various people's memories and stories of their encounters with Fr. Basil Pennington. For those that don't know, Basil Pennington was a world renowned monk, priest, author, and spiritual master. I first became acquainted with his writings in the early 1980's when the now famous Centering Prayer movement was getting started. I continued to follow his work and considered him a true mentor in my contemplative life and I admired him from afar. I wrote to him several times and he always responded. Once he sent me the gift of an Orthodox Prayer Cord used in the recitation of the Jesus Prayer. In the late 1980's I began my own contemplative work as a founding member of a lay associate group at the Abbey of Gethsemani. As I became more involved in this lay movement I traveled to several Trappist monasteries in the United States and abroad. The high point of my involvement was a trip in 2005 to Clairvaux, France for an international conference of monks, nuns, and lay people. On this trip I was also able to visit the still active Abbey of Citeaux, the original monastery of the Trappist/Cistercian order. As one of the founders of the Centering Prayer movement, it made perfect sense that Fr. Basil would also be a strong supporter of what became known as the lay Cistercian movement within the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. This is where our paths crossed. I went to a USA regional gathering in upstate New York at the Abbey of the Genesee and much to my joy Fr Basil was attending the same meeting. Anyone who ever met Fr Basil could not be unimpressed with him. He stood six feet, five inches tall and looked like Santa Claus dressed as a monk. Most people assume all monks are deep introverts. Fr. Basil was quite the opposite. He came across to me as a larger than life extrovert. It was quite an honor for me to meet him. During this first encounter I was able to spend most of a week interacting with him during discussions and meals. I was truly sitting at the feet of a spiritual master. I spent another week with him a few years later at a Cistercian gathering at Holy Spirit Monastery in Georgia. At that time he was the Abbot of Holy Spirit Monastery. My final encounter with him was at the Abbey of Gethsemani when we were both attending the Abbatial blessing of Fr. Damien Thompson. Sadly, Fr. Basil died in June of 2005 from injuries received in a car accident. I received news of his death while I was in France. I know that I was only one of thousands of people who encountered Fr. Basil in his lifetime. We certainly weren't intimate friends. However, I feel blessed to have personally met him and to have spent some casual but quality time in his presence. One of my cherished mementos is a picture of the two of us taken during our week together at Holy Spirit Monastery. It sits in an honored spot on my bookshelf.

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