Catholic priest and Benedictine monk Father Laurence Freeman discusses the role of community, meditation, contemplation, and science in his life and his dialogues with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He emphasizes his trust in humanity and the importance of wonder in our daily lives.
Scott Snibbe: I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Father Laurence Freeman is a Catholic priest and a Benedictine monk famous for helping bring meditation back into the daily practices of Christians worldwide. Many years ago, he organized an influential meeting of Jesuit monks with his Holiness, the Dalai Lama. It was documented in a wonderful book called The Good Heart. There is a great moment at the end of the meeting when the Christian monks famously praise how his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, helped reinvigorate their faith in God.
Scott Snibbe: This interview was produced in partnership with Science and Wisdom Live as part of a dialogue on how to deal with destructive emotions. I hope you enjoy the short interview with one of the world’s great spiritual leaders.
[00:01:06] Scott Snibbe: Father Laurence, it’s a pleasure to have a chance to speak to you today and I beg your pardon of asking quite a few personal questions; because I think you’ve lived quite an interesting life. Thank you very much for being here.
[00:01:20] Father Laurence Freeman: This is a great pleasure to be with you and I’m happy to respond as best I can to any question you want to throw. Thank you for the warning, that helps as well.
Significant childhood events that greatly shaped Father Laurence Freeman
[00:01:29] Scott Snibbe: Sure, no problem. So the first question is about your childhood. Could you share a significant event from your childhood that helped you become who you are today?
[00:01:41] Father Laurence Freeman: If you don’t mind, I’ll cheat a little and offer three. The reason is that as I thought of one, it always seemed incomplete, but these three seem to form three facets of what is essentially one’s life, which is one experience unfolding and the great diversity, but in mysterious unity.
Anyway, the first of these was one of my very earliest memories. I can’t even remember how old I was, very young. I remember waiting for my mother to arrive by car or taxi to take me home. I’d been separated from her for a while, so I was very excited about going home. And it was a very warm summer day and the air was filled with the scent of roses.
I can remember just the excitement of waiting for the car to arrive. When it did, I was just ecstatic, like a little child. And I was actually hiding behind a tree, for some reason, which always reminds me of the cloud of unknowing. It is said about how we meditate.
We hide from God in order to be able to find God.
That was a memory of great anticipation, great joy, and also great sensory memories; the scent of the roses and the smell of the car stayed with me all these many years. It was maybe symbolizing the nature of real desire and the fulfillment of it.
The second memory that came to mind was when I first heard about meditation. My first year at university, I was meeting with my teacher, my spiritual teacher, John Main, an Irish monk. I had gone to see him to discuss various questions in my life. At the end of one of the conversations, he spoke about meditation quite unexpectedly and in a very light way, a light touch.
He didn’t say, You’ve got to meditate, or anything like that. It was really spreading this teaching before me, or around me, in a very light way. But at the same time,
I knew it awakened something in my heart at a deeper level, which was also a desire to enter into that experience of silence and of unity.
It took me a few years after that to develop a proper practice. But nevertheless, that was a starting point.
I suppose the third one would be arriving here—where I am at the moment at Bonnevaux—our international center in France, about three years or so ago. We were looking for a new international center and we had looked at various places and recommendations, but nothing seemed to fit.
We were beginning to feel a little bit discouraged, and then we arrived here. And just when we turned the corner and saw Bonnevaux—which was originally a 12th-century Benedictine monastery—we knew this was it and it had to be here. Unfortunately, it took a lot of work and renovation; it’s still going on.
But it was a kind of clarity and a sense of homecoming. I don’t quite know how you put those three together, but there’s an underlying theme between them.
[00:05:06] Scott Snibbe: Different ways of feeling at home, finding something of deep meaning and significance.
[00:05:11] Father Laurence Freeman: That’s right. Yes, it is about homecoming too.
In the Tibetan tradition, they say the word for meditation means becoming familiar with yourself and I think many people speak about meditation as the feeling of coming home.
Joy, community, and meditation
[00:05:29] Scott Snibbe: It’s like discovering who you are, these moments when you discovered who you are, and how you interface with the greater world, for a greater purpose.
So, very nice stories. Now I want to ask you a little bit more about your everyday life. Today, what do you derive the most satisfaction from and a feeling of benefiting others?
[00:05:51] Father Laurence Freeman: A lot of things give me pleasure and joy: music, literature, and being part of nature. But I think in a more formal way, I would say meditation itself. Meditating is a great foundation and always new, always fresh, and sometimes changeable, of course, in what the outer experience may be like.
But essentially, always this feeling of doing the right work and being involved in the right path. And of course, having your life rebalanced, reset. I think meditation itself, the practice—we meditate four times or more a day here.
Secondly, I think seeing how meditation forms community; that’s been a theme in my life and one of the insights into the work that we do with it.
When people meditate together, it forms a community.
And it also awakens them to a sense of communion with others, wherever they are. So meditation, forming community—and I don’t mean that in a utopian way because community is hard work. But I also see how meditation helps to nurture and heal the growth process of community and relationships.
Thirdly, I would say meeting people—it is my privilege to be able to do that a lot—and to live with people in whom the spirit is perceptibly at work: shaping, reshaping, guiding without dominating. Just that incredible, powerful influence of the spirit that is at the same time liberating and not infantilizing, or not in any way taking away the integrity of the person.
Just in all of those, I would say there’s a way of perceiving the experience of God.
[00:08:04] Scott Snibbe: Beautiful and you’ve been an important part of expanding the role of meditation in Christianity. I’m curious what you mean by meditation from the Christian perspective and how that’s different or the same as prayer.
[00:08:19] Father Laurence Freeman: That’s a good question because it takes you to the heart of the issue, really. I think many Christians haven’t heard about meditation and are not aware of the contemplative tradition within Christianity. Or they think of it only as something outside of Christianity. They may still be stuck in a rather dualistic image of God.
That’s the question that they have to wrestle with, and it’s a good question to face, Is meditation prayer? You often will ask that question. I think the answer is yes and it’s the whole of the contemplative spiritual tradition of Christianity to affirm that very centrally. Although this contemplative dimension of Christian tradition got marginalized or became an object of suspicion at different periods.
So in fact, I was just looking today at the proofs of a book by one of our teachers, Sarah Bachelard, called Contemplative Christianity, some talks she gave at the John Main seminar last year. It’s a brilliant overview of the emergence of contemplative Christianity. Karl Rahner, one of the great theologians of the last century, said the Christians of the future will be mystical or there will be no Christians.
I would say the answer to the question about meditation and prayer is that, yes, of course, meditation is prayer, but it’s the prayer of the heart, what the early Christian monks called pure prayer.
There are many forms of prayer. You could think of prayer as a big wheel with different spokes and the different spokes represent different forms of prayer: worship, scripture, petition, pilgrimage, or many different spiritual practices.
But at the heart of that wheel, there is a hub where all these spokes converge. There you have what Buddhists might call nothing. The Taoists might call it nothing but that nothing is the center of energy. You could also say this place is the heart and the heart is where everything resides. According to the Upanishads, the whole universe is present in this tiny space, the smallness in the heart.
And in Christian language, in the scriptures, we would say Christ in you; the prayer of Jesus is what matters, not my prayer.
Anything that I could call my prayer has to be surrendered along with everything else that I call mine as the ego gradually is laid aside.
What’s left then is just the prayer of the spirit, which is what? A Christian would answer that we’d have to look at the idea of God as this communion of love and this dynamism of creativities and transcendence. Who knows, maybe even in some mysterious way, even suffering, at the heart of the divine which creates everything. Meditation, you could say then is our way into that prayer by making the journey from the mind to the heart.
[00:11:39] Scott Snibbe: That’s very beautiful. It sounds like you’re saying, it’s a way of letting go of your ego and making a direct connection to the universe and to God in some mystical way.
[00:11:50] Father Laurence Freeman: It’s direct. Yes. You could look at meditation just as a way of reducing your blood pressure. That’s not a bad side effect, but as you found your blood pressure being reduced, you probably say, I wonder what else it might be doing?
Has scientific research informed your meditation and contemplation?
[00:12:05] Scott Snibbe: That’s actually a good moment to ask a little bit about science. Has scientific research informed your meditation and your contemplation in any way?
[00:12:15] Father Laurence Freeman: Yes and no, I was not trained as a scientist. I was trained in literature and then later in theology, but literature is my first training, really.
That has led me to see science as rather closer to poetry than many people might feel comfortable with.
I think science searches for language and concepts to express its discoveries, but the act of discovery and the process of discovery and research and so on—and those moments of brilliant intuition that usually come to young scientists which change the whole landscape of our worldviews in science—that is a change in perception. This calls for a change of language, a change of terms.
Scientists also have the language of mathematics, which is beautiful. I don’t speak that language, but I respect it. They also need the other types of language and expression to communicate, articulate, and make conscious what they are discovering.
So anyway, yes. Has science affected me? It didn’t lead me to meditation. But the more I have been in dialogue with other religions and scientists, I’m fascinated by the research that’s done.
It disappoints me when that research becomes reductionistic and it says, This is the explanation. Meditation is simply the combination of these processes or these neurons firing, or these synapses. It always seems to me that these are metaphors to explain an experience that will always be receding. We’ll never be able to pin this down.
In that sense, it’s very close to religion. Because the religious person is seeking God. And the closer they come to God, the more they realize they’re never going to be able to tackle him and get him to the ground. This is very obvious through the discovery of the quantum field in our time and how it relates to the other types of physics and Newtonian worldviews and how they relate to each other.
And they may compete and argue; Einstein didn’t like some aspects of quantum theory and so on. But ultimately, they are one aspect of human curiosity, focused on the scientific.
I think the scientific research into meditation has been really interesting, but I don’t think anybody has started to meditate or meditated for very long because they read a research paper on meditation. Any more than somebody would get married because of reading the profile of somebody.
Seeing how meditation clearly touches the physical and mental planes of human existence is fascinating. I think that awakens a sense of wonder at the human itself and with a sense of the spiritual and the non-dual.
And in our time there are intelligent people proposing that the human race has failed in its project. They say the only thing to do now is to recreate itself by genetic engineering, which seems to me a statement of supreme stupidity. Or that artificial intelligence that we are creating is going to take over and turn us into pets. James Lovelock, I think says that.
So I think these are disturbing ideas that seem to not be very persuasive when you look at them. But they can be very influential ideas and they are really deeply undermining human dignity and human wonder. Meditation has this great capacity to rehumanize us and to restore our sense of wonder.
Science and contemplation
[00:16:43] Scott Snibbe: I like what you said about science—what you appreciate about it is that it’s a language, including the language of mathematics—that opens us up to the variety and wonder of the world. It’s a nice way of saying that.
There’s one other question we wanted to ask, it’s an aspirational question. If you could be granted one wish to solve a problem through the combination of science and contemplation, what problem would that be?
[00:17:12] Father Laurence Freeman: Well, maybe trust.
We’ve become not just skeptical but really at a loss for meaning. We can see the breakdown of trust in the political process and in the communication of the news. We see the breakdown of trust and decency in the financial fields, as well as in politics and public discourse. It’s been happening progressively but seems to have reached a peak at the moment.
If you look at what science—technology anyway—has given us, is this capacity to communicate, to do what we’re doing now on Zoom and what we can do with social media.
Yet how destructive we seem to use our technology—or how self-destructive we can be—and how addictive and undermining of human dignity our reliance on technology can be.
There are extremes either way. We totally reject the spiritual and the human in the way I was just describing. So it’s roboticize the human on the one hand, or on the other hand, we become Luddites and want to destroy the machines that have also brought us a lot of benefits.
So we need the technology. God knows during this pandemic, we need it. We need a cure and need to be able to communicate and do research.
But we need to remember the primacy of the human; this means a partnership between contemplative scientists and scientifically respectful spiritual teachers and seekers.
This is a partnership that will be mutually beneficial. At the heart of it is this extraordinary capacity of a contemplative practice—faithfully practiced—to rehumanize us, help us to love, and revere the humanity in each other.
[00:19:40] Scott Snibbe: Very nice, yeah. So you start out by saying restore trust in each other and in our institutions. You also mentioned respect, which seems essential to re-establishing trust. That’s a very good aspiration and a nice place to end. Thank you so much, Father Laurence, for giving us a little bit of your time.
[00:19:59] Father Laurence Freeman: Alright, my pleasure. Thanks very much.
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