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I found myself in a small French town, in Normandy, after a long journey across North America and around Europe.
I was 22 years old.
Like so many young people, I had always wanted to travel: to discover life, art, beauty, knowledge. I did find that, and much that I learned in those years still enriches my life today.
But I also encountered questions that I hadn’t intended to find.
It started some months before near the steps of Printemps, a large, famous and fashionable department store in Paris. I was shopping for perfume and other French luxuries. I was in a hurry and happy with the thought of all that I might buy.
But a long plaza nearby presented a sight I wasn't prepared to see. The whole area was full of desperate people, refugees, who were huddled under veils and blankets and begging for money. Many of the large cities of Europe had begun seeing large influxes of people from Bangladesh, refugees displaced after the war of independence from Pakistan a few years before.
Not so different from what is happening in Europe today.
What called my attention as I walked up those steps on my way to the department store was the contrast between what I had in my head and the reality of the life of those people. The luxury I was looking for, and the misery they were living. How could it be? What could I do? I felt at once a sense of shame and a feeling of futility. Yet I had to do something, to try something.
I spent the next few days using up my student savings buying food and bringing it to these people, realizing how little impact I could have, and feeling desperately sad.
And that's how I found myself in a small French town, northwest of Paris, out of cash and earning a little money as a nanny to 5-year-old twin boys.
But the questions wouldn't leave me. How could I respond to the suffering that so many had to endure? What was the meaning of their lives and of all our lives? What was I supposed to do with my life?
The little town where I was staying was called Lisieux, and not far from the train station was a hill with an impressive basilica overlooking the countryside.
I heard from the local people that a great saint was buried there. She had been a nun and had died young. But she left writings that revealed her deep inner life and spiritual wisdom.
Quite frankly, I wasn’t very interested. Religion wasn’t my thing. I wanted to know so much more than that.
I spent the next six months, in my spare time, reading as much as I could, studying, thinking, riding a bike around with some French friends my age, and completely ignoring the basilica on the other side of town.
But the last week before I was to fly back to the States, something made me take the road that led up the hill to that impressive church.
It was there that I first saw a photo of the young nun, Thérèse of Lisieux, as I sat for a long while in the chapel below ground under the large church. The small chapel had a beautiful tiled floor. It was quiet and I was alone. And I found myself repeating the question: What should I do with my life? What should I do? It was a moment I cannot really explain, but I felt a kind of presence, and a feeling of peace came over me. Peace and love. I can't describe it, but I knew something deep and wordless, intangible yet real.
Very soon after that, back home, I found a job at Berkeley, as a technical editor of economic papers. Every spare moment I would pull out a book, as I continued my search for direction and meaning. One day, on my coffee break, as I poured over Man and his Symbols, by Carl Jung, a quiet economist from Argentina passed by and noticed what I was reading. "We should talk some time," he said. "I have other books I think you would like. Come to my house and meet my family."
I did, and he gave me a book to read. It was Story of a Soul, by Thérèse of Lisieux. "I know about her!" I exclaimed, and over time I told him everything that I have just told you here.
And in the weeks to come he gave me more books to read: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Suzuki; the mystical poetry of Rumi; The Perennial Philosophy, by Aldous Huxley; and the Cafh course "Mysticism and States of Consciousness" by Jorge Waxemberg.1
He belonged to a spiritual path, Cafh, which is dedicated to the expansion of consciousness. The fundamental idea, as I understood it, was that only by expanding our state of consciousness could we, as human beings, begin to build a better world. And I understood that only by renouncing to my limited preconceptions could I begin this road to understanding, to love, to real participation. Cafh has a teaching and a method of life rooted in the esoteric tradition of Europe and based on universal ideas. It recognizes great teachers from many walks of life and from all spiritual traditions. That sounded so right to me.
It all began to make sense. This was the work I needed to do. And when I first heard that there were Communities in Cafh, where people could live and work together and dedicate themselves to this deep inner work, I thought to myself, "That is what I have to do."
The first day I arrived in the Community, my new spiritual director handed me some small decorative roses. "These are to remember Thérèse," she said to me, "who is a teacher and a protector for us." She then showed me a beautiful photo of her, which still hangs in our Community library today.
Such a coincidence, to again find Thérèse, this time in a small town in upstate New York!
More than 30 years have passed since I found myself in that small French town. Today I continue to live and work in the Community of Yorktown, a place where I have found a way to offer my energy—mental, physical and spiritual—for the needs of the world. It is here that I deepen into the meaning of Renouncement as Presence, Participation and Reversibility.2
2. Reversibility is consciousness of the harmony of the opposites we experience in life. The particular and the general, the individual and the whole, I and humanity are two faces of the same reality.
Note from author: Regarding the photo at the beginning of this article, I have followed the blog of the photographer, Trey Ratcliff, for some time now, finding his landscapes to be beautiful and luminous. When one day he posted this photo of the chapel in Lisieux where I had sat so many years ago reflecting about my life, I was very moved. Once again, a special coincidence that, in fact, made me think I should write my story about that transcendent place. As you will see in what Trey writes below about his open approach to sharing his photos, he has indeed a most generous philosophy of giving. Trey's approach seems to me to summarize an aspect of the spiritual concept of Renouncement very well.
Thank you, Trey.
Note on photographer: Photographer Trey Ratcliff embraces the open approach to the web.
When it comes to sharing your photographs online, you can go in two directions. You can put small images online, watermark them and then spend some or all of the week chasing down people that have used them inappropriately.
Or, you can be like me.
Offer up all your creations in maximum and beautiful resolution to the will of the web. The web, and the universe, has a certain flow to it. You can become one with that flow and enjoy the ride. You can let the opportunity of what-can-be motivate you rather than the more poisonous fear-of-loss.
Patricia Colleran is a member of the Cafh Community in Yorktown Heights, NY.