In a YouTube worth watching the charmer Leonard Cohen charms a glittering Spanish audience during an award ceremony for his poetry. First, he said, he felt false in accepting a prize for something he had no control over: poetry came from a place which ‘no one commands and no conquers’.
Then he confessed his debt to Spain. What little he knew of the guitar he had learned from a young Spanish musician whom he had met briefly before he took his own life. Cohen confided that all his music was based on the few chords he learned from this doomed teacher. “This land” had given him that much; and then, a momentous throwaway line for that audience, ‘I know that just as an identity card is not a man so a credit rating is not a country’.
What does ‘Europe’ evoke today if not an intractable financial crisis arising from rampant greed and the exploitation of the weak? The ‘union’ is made up of intense centrifugal forces of national colours. A battle between two looming fates awaits: a German Europe or a European Europe. The stereotyping of great cultures pits the hedonism of southern Catholics (and Orthodox) on one side of the Alps against the grim Protestant work ethic on the other. And European football, despite its multi-racial teams, still expose politically unspeakable loyalties and hatreds between the tribes Caesar tried to Romanise.
There is good reason today for identifying Europe with the euro crisis and someone has to pay the bills. But economics haruspicates and makes abstract. Abstractions lead to tragic-comic inhumanities and policies that fail: to the extinction of the jump on-and-off buses that Londoners enjoyed taking risks on; to the prohibition of traditional sausages or cheese because of new health and safety rubrics. European culture, layered up over centuries, is undermined by abstraction and centralization. Where it survives is on the ground, in daily lives, in eccentricities not actuarial tables - even in what little remains of European religious culture.
Flanders is a good example - the bureaucratic heart of Europe that finds it so difficult to elect its own government yet runs smoothly. Speaking the same language as her bigger boned Dutch neighbours, it is revealing to see how contrasted and conflicted these two adjacent tribes of Northern Europe remain.
When I visited our meditation groups in Belgium I stayed in the beautiful university town of Leuven. I lodged in a b&b, immaculately clean but weirdly posturing as a museum of not so beautiful liturgical artifacts. Clearly the owner had a thing about stoles, chasubles, thuribles and holy pictures. They were displayed in the bedrooms, bathrooms and breakfast room. The toilets on the ground floor were identified by figures of our Lady and our Lord. The cheerful host had, I guess, a post-modern humour in the midst of all this. It was not typically Belgian, of course; but only in a few places of Europe could such an eccentricity, a stray fragment of a long lost religious world appear and be tolerated. Certainly not in England, the land of stripped altars and the decapitated statues of saints.
Beguines were a Northern European movement of Catholic spirituality and lay communities that disdained ecclesiastical control for centuries. Beguinages - the walled urban dwellings - are the visible memory of this thread of European religious culture. Now moth-balled, their cobbled streets and neat houses still breathe the peace and gentleness of the life they once nurtured. In the Leuven beguinage I met with a group of their modern descendants, brave, unembarrassed Christians working, not to proselytize but to insert a Christian perspective in the anti-church media through a cadre of respected secular experts.
At my talk in the Abbey of Grimbergen near Brussels I joked that I had come to speak about meditation but also for the beer. ‘Grimbergen’ is one of the best strong Belgian beers, once made by the monks and I imagine still supporting them as the Euro wobbles. After the talk, the abbot asked me to wait and returned with a gift pack of two bottles of this excellent beverage. I carefully packed it to share with the community in London on my return.
Each of these ordinary encounters were specifically European in a way that no theme park could reproduce. Few non-Europeans would identify the rich layering and shaded nuances of this cultural context. Yet there is pleasure and meaning in the self-recognition and in the sense of belonging to a non-monetary union of such a rich, even if bankrupt culture.
What I had not remembered was the new Europe. My beer was x-rayed at security and confiscated before it left the mainland. I told the guard to keep and enjoy it. He looked shocked and said that was against regulations and that it would be destroyed.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)