Áilín Quinlan speaks to Fr Laurence Freeman, a former UN official, as he hosts a music and silent meditation weekend at Bere Island in West Cork
From Friday some 200 people will converge on a quiet island paradise off the coast of West Cork - in effect doubling its population.
Lying just two kilometres off Castletownbere, Bere Island is ruggedly beautiful destination. Overlooked by the towering Caha Mountain range of the Beara Peninsula it’s a popular destination for hikers and birdwatchers.
Against this dramatic backdrop a 65-year-old former banker, UN official and freelance journalist, now a Benedictine monk and one of the world’s leading experts on mindfulness and meditation, will provide visitors with the chance to reflect, contemplate and, essentially, refresh their senses.
From Friday September 16th next to Sunday September 18th, the Bere Island Music and Silence Festival programme combines musical concerts and workshops with optional periods of silent meditation, providing an opportunity for members of the public and musicians to share their experiences, learn how to meditate, and discover how meditation can enhance their creative lives.
For Fr Laurence Freeman OSB, who will lead the meditation, it’s a welcome return to his family’s roots – his mother was a native Bere Islander and he’s been coming here on a regular basis since 1989.
He first visited the island at the age of 12 in the early 1960’s, and, he recalls now, for a young London schoolboy, life on Bere as it was then was a bit of a shock:
“It was a simple life; it didn’t have all the mod cons. I think the lack of indoor plumbing was the biggest shock - that and being in a rural environment.
“It woke me up to a broader experience of life and community and I came to love it.” He never actually intended to become a monk at all – after school he worked first as a merchant banker, then with the UN and later even tried his hand as a freelance journalist.
In his mid-twenties, however, John Main, a Benedictine monk with roots in Kerry, whom he had known at school, offered him a chance to learn meditation.
“I had met him as a boy in school and had stayed in touch with him over the years,” recalls Fr Freeman, who says Main introduced him to meditation during his first year at university. It didn’t take at the time.
“Oh, I wasn’t very disciplined and I found it hard to practise on my own,” he confesses.
However, a few years later, when Main set up a special Meditation Centre on the grounds of his Benedictine Monastery in London in the mid-70s, Laurence Freeman, now a young journalist aged about 28, was wildly intrigued: “The original idea was to bring in a group of young lay people who would spend six months sharing in the life of the monastery and learning to meditate under his guidance.” “I was fascinated because from a young age I think I always had a hunger for God and a longing for a deeper spiritual life, yet I lacked the means and the discipline of pursuing that. This seemed to be an opportunity.
“I felt meditation was the deeper spirituality that had under pinned everything that the church is about.” It was a tough six months, he recalls:
“It was hard, it was very focused, very disciplined,” he says, adding that the group was surprised by the number of people who suddenly started turning up, knocking on the door of the centre, wanting to learn how to meditate.
“These were very ordinary people with young families, who were working.” John Main decided to start teaching meditation on a much larger scale.
“It really took off – people came from all over London and later all over the world to see him.” His six months over, Laurence left the Meditation Centre to return to his fledgling career as a journalist but, he found, the attraction of the newspaper world had melted away.
Eventually he decided to return to the monastery – but this time, to join it.
“As soon as I had decided that I felt a great peace come over me,” he recalls, adding that he initially worked with John Main, teaching meditation in London. In 1977 they travelled to Montreal in Canada, where they founded a monastery dedicated to Christian meditation.
Laurence was ordained in 1980, and two years later John Main died of cancer. He was only 56. For Laurence, the loss of his old friend and mentor, was devastating.
Eventually he began to travel, teaching meditation all over the world.
“The Christian Meditation community began to form as a monastery without walls.”
Laurence became Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, an ecumenical community supported by the Catholic Church, the Benedictine order and other Christian denominations .
Then in 1989, he needed to write. He also needed to go on retreat:
“I wanted to go someplace that was quiet, fairly isolated, and make a long silent retreat.” Sure where else would he go, but Bere Island?
“I rented a house with electricity and a cold water tap and no plumbing for £5 a week. I stayed for two months, got to know the community and fell deeply in love - with the island and it’s beauty and its people.” After that he kept coming to make silent retreats.
Then in the late 1990s the World Community for Christian Meditation acquired a house on the island. They started a meditation group on the island – one of what was by then a network of 300 Christian Meditation around Ireland.
“We introduced meditation to children in the island school and they loved it.” In fact he still meditates with the children of the school.
He enjoys attending the Music and Silence festival – this is the third to be held on the island.
“There’s a fluctuating group of people who come. The numbers have been increasing over the years. There’s a very wide range of music and in fact, music and meditation are woven into the week, so it’s really about having something for everyone.
He’s passionate about helping people recover the experience of the spiritual in the hectic modern world – and the Bere Island festival is, he believes, a perfect way to do it:
“Music opens that door for many,” he explains, “and meditation is the way in that changes how we see the world.”
To find out more about the festival and retreat, see http://westcorkislands.com/event/music-and-silence-festival-2016/ and http://westcorkislands.com/event/health-meditation-retreat/.
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