Christmas Eve in Assisi

It is hard to believe we are here in Assisi at last. We are climate refugees, prompted by a series of forest fires during the last several summer seasons in the mountains of northeastern California. We lived in a cedar cabin with my 2500 books and paintings. Each summer the fires seemed to grow closer to our home. In July 2021 the Dixie Fire began. It burned through the forests (including a huge national park) for three months and came within several miles of our home. For weeks the air was filled with ash particles and everything looked grey, the air here formerly was pristine where we lived at 4500 feet above sea level.

The Dixie fire was not put out until October 21, 2021 by which time it had burned a total of 389,837 hectares (1,505 square miles). The fire destroyed more than 1,400 homes and had threatened 140,000 with destruction. We realized we had to leave this region of the world, and soon decided upon Assisi, Italy, where I have had property for several decades.

Nonduality and Contemplation

The word “contemplation” connotes that area in which the Eastern influence upon Christian spirituality is most visible. This is true even when the word itself is not heard. The influence is evident in the greatly increased popularity of various forms of meditation, and of Asian meditation methods. We have found nonduality at the core of the Eastern traditions. Contemplation, understood as nondual consciousness and experience, is the deep pivotal point at which the Asian influence is most decisive. This point generates the central viewpoint from which the unity of other currents of Eastern influence may be seen.

The understanding of contemplation has changed in the Christian West during the past half century, under the influence of the Asian traditions. Fifty years ago, a standard Roman Catholic guide to the spiritual life might define contemplation as “gazing with love upon God,” or “the experience of union with God.” Today we are more likely to understand contemplation not so “objectively,” but as unitive experience or, in Eastern terms, nondual experience. Similarly, “meditation” half a century ago was still considered, in the West, as a deliberate reflection upon revealed truths. Today most people understand meditation not as discursive thought but as a practice of silent deepening which transcends thought.  Here I shall consider contemplation in the latter sense, as we have come to regard it under the influence of the Asian traditions: as unitive experience, nondual experience. Further, we can understand contemplation not as exclusively “supernatural,” but also as the natural realization of a human potential, and therefore as essentially universal in human spirituality as is life or consciousness or love.

Excerpt from Purity of Heart and Contemplation: A Monastic Dialogue Between Christian and Asian Traditions. Edited by Bruno Barnhart and Joseph Wong (New York: Continuum, 2001)

pp. 303-304, Bruno Barnhart, “Christian Self-Understanding in the Light of the East”