‘The sage travels all day yet never leaves his treasure’
Reflections on Prof. Celia Kourie’s visit to Hong Kong
and her course on ‘Carmelite Spirituality in the 21st Century’,
(Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre, Hong Kong, November 02-06, 2014)
Judy E. Lam
December 04, 2014
Letting go of the comforts of South African spring, and travelling east into subtropical autumn, Celia Kourie arrived in Hong Kong on Tuesday, October 28, 2014 with saintly books in hand luggage, and bearing gifts of a calm sage-like stature and a joyful second naiveté. ‘I feel like Alice in Wonderland!’ exclaimed the retired British-South African professor, after a glimpse of the colourful landscape and cultural diversity of ‘Asia’s World City’. Confronted, however, with chopsticks and a wholesome array of Chinese dishes, ‘plain Jane’ came to the fore. Evidently, the local food was a little too wonderful and exotic for ‘Alice’.
Eighteen days of ambling alongside my M.Th. supervisor (UNISA, 2008-2012) panned out like a dream – day by day observing how humbly, artfully, and mindfully a sage carries her treasure. Whether at a silent retreat centre in Shek O, enthralled by the South China Sea; strolling emotionally among the colourful tents of the Umbrella Movement in Admiralty, emanating love and peace as she engaged young protestors and elderly supporters; relaxing in the ‘cloud of unknowing’ on a misty cable car ride to the Big Buddha on Lantau Island; or plunging into sisterly conversation on overnight visits to Shenzhen and Macau – I was deeply touched by my mentor’s endearing presence, interior stillness, and openness to the Spirit who is love. Deo Gratias!
Celia Kourie is a life to be shared, not a guru to be revered. On meeting local people, she would enquire after their Chinese name, try immediately to mimic the sounds, and then spice it up with a personal anecdote. Her warm charisma naturally won many hearts on this first visit to Hong Kong. Invited by Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre to facilitate a course on ‘Carmelite Spirituality for the 21st Century’, the professor opened her treasure trove before our eyes, like the precious unfolding of a lotus flower poised on a clear pond. Rooted in something formless, tranquil, vast, and supremely free (a la the Tao Te Ching) – without attachment to the embellishments of ego – the ‘mystic and mystagogue’ radiated the reality of the Eternal Now. O the emptiness/fullness of her life in God!
What was the crux of the course? Celia focused on the mystical teaching of eternal life as a present reality, not just as an eschatological realization. Citing Paul the mystic (e.g. Col 3:1-4) and his leitmotif of ‘in Christ’, she lifted our sights to the ‘weight of glory’ in John of the Cross’ Living Flame of Love and Spiritual Canticle, and Elizabeth of the Trinity’s prayer life and sanctity in suffering; and led us to see the resonance between Pauline texts and two Carmelite mystics’ illuminatory use of Scripture. Speaking of the divine essence, Christian mystics are reduced to ‘a stuttering and a stammering’, and invariably sing of the beauty and ineffability of the Triune God, the Mystery. Their poetic, mythic, and erotic symbolism attests to the limits of language, inviting the reader to open out to ‘an excess of meaning’, as conveyed in Celia’s key words: WHATness; NOWness; HEREness; ONEness – interspersed with: epektasis (Phil 3:13, meaning ongoing and never ending, cf. Gregory of Nyssa); kenosis (Phil 2:1-11, on emptiness, detachment, and letting go); and theosis (2 Pet 1:4b, growing in the divine nature, cf. the Early Church Fathers and Eastern Orthodox tradition). Highlighting theological assumptions which defer our experience of the present reality through the dynamic work of the Spirit, we also came to appreciate Celia Kourie’s ‘Mystical Reading of Scripture’ which returns to the transformative experience of reading, and effects transformation on deep psycho-spiritual levels. In this return to the spiritual/mystical, it was exciting to learn that the pre-modern reading of Scripture has now become part of postmodern interpretation.
A prolific writer and consummate scholar in mysticism and spirituality, Celia cited verses from the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, Sufi poetry, and Japanese Zen meditation, to name a few; thus sensitizing us to other spiritualities and enriching our experience of God. Her friendly ruffling of feathers also challenged our presuppositions: dualistic thinking, diachronic approaches to Scripture, literalistic interpretation of salvation and eschatology, limiting God to our religious traditions and biblical texts, the divorce of sexuality and spirituality, etc. Left with more questions than answers – and an extensive list of ‘new’ English words and incoherent names of mystical writers – our creative (right) brain cells were vitally activated. Quite refreshing for the pragmatic and systematic!
In terms of the value of Carmelite Spirituality for spiritual praxis, the key aspects of solitude, silence, prayer, contemplation, inner life, sharing, and Scripture provided stimulus for our informal evening discussions, where provocative topics such as sexuality and politics were raised. Regarding the latter, it was especially meaningful to share our personal responses to the Umbrella Movement which has dominated Hong Kong since September 29th – a momentous uprising which is causing ruptures in child-parent and marital relationships, splitting many churches at the seams, inciting hurtful argument over spiritual and political concerns, and overloading pastors with precarious situations. It is significant that many of the 27 course participants are pastors/church workers (including three from Singapore and Taiwan). Contextualising Carmelite teaching, the dark night of pain heightens our awareness to ‘stay close to our treasure’ through spiritual practices which calm, ‘detoxify’, and rejuvenate – such as silence, meditation, deep breathing, tai chi, Chinese calligraphy, etc.
On a lighter note, searching for the correct translation for key words and quotations from ancient texts like the Tao Te Ching, the class often erupted in laughter at discrepancies in Cantonese and Mandarin usage. At one point, conflating Chinese and Japanese, the Orientals seemed a blur in the professor’s vocabulary – a slip of the tongue, a senior moment, or mystical oneness? Lo and behold, out popped the ‘muddled’ Afrikaans word deurmekaar from the British-South African’s colloquial repertoire, landing on blankly smiling Chinese faces – a classic moment which called for a strong coffee!
In conclusion, Rev. (Jeff) Tak Him Shu (許德謙), Spiritual Director, Licensed Psychoanalyst, and Head of Spirituality Division at Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre, who extended the invitation to Prof. Celia Kourie a year ago, sums up his impressions of the course, as follows: ‘In listening to Celia and enjoying her loving and generous presence, we are shown a God who is encountered in many different lives and cultures. Celia is indeed a mystic with an open heart to God. As evident in her teaching on John of the Cross and Elizabeth of the Trinity, she richly embodies the message of mysticism which contemporary people need to hear.’
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