Cave of the Heart (ii): PART ONE... Introduction

And after the fire
there came a still small voice.
And when Elijah heard it,
he wrapped his face in his mantle
and went out,
and stood
at the mouth of the cave.

(Kings I 19:12,13)

Preliminary note 
It is  worth mentioning to new visitors to the site that I wrote this booklet in 2005 at a time when I still considered myself a “progressive” Jew (Having converted via a Reform Jewish court in 1992).  Though I am pluralistic and inclusive in many aspects of my thought, I  then  moved towards  a much more traditional Jewish practice and theology.....and in July 2016 I completed the process of Orthodox conversion ki halacha in Madrid with an Israeli Beis Din.  My comments in "The Cave of the Heart"--- on  Sabbath observance and on many aspects of  halakhah---have evolved considerably or have been superseded. Nevertheless: My positive  valuation  of contemplative practice and solitary contemplative lifestyles in Judaism has not changed....but deepened.

There are three archetypal caves in my life and a fourth which is my current home. Well, it’s not actually a cave. It’s a small house in rural Spain built into the side of a hill. In design it resembles a Carthusian house-cell, but the rooms where I work and pray are walled on two sides by a natural rock and they certainly make it feel like a cave. The three archetypal caves that it so often brings to mind are the Cave of Elijah whose draw I felt as a young Discalced Carmelite novice in Oxford, the Cave of Plato which I read of as a Theology student in Ushaw College Durham, and the Cave of Shimon bar Yohai in Israel which I was figuratively led into when I converted to Progressive Judaism in 1993.

Plato’s cave ( which you can read about in The Republic) is a paradigm of perception and reality. If my memory serves me correctly, it was a place where shadows seem real and truth comes only from subterranean excavation, a digging of one’s way out into the true light.

Elijah’s cave on Mount Horeb is the place where the prophet reflected and was encouraged to rely on Providence before zealously bounding into action. “His” cave and spring on Mount Carmel was also the place where tradition holds that Jewish, then Christian, and then Muslim men lived in hermit communities, the Christian group giving rise to the present day Carmelite Order.

The cave of Bar Yohai was the place where the 2nd century C.E. Jewish mystic took refuge when fleeing from the Romans. He lived there for a total of thirteen years with his son, both (reputedly) buried up to their necks in sand during the day to save clothes and subsisting on the water of a nearby spring and the seeds of a conveniently placed carob tree.
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Some say that he lost his temper the minute he re-entered society and felt compelled to return there for a second dose of solitude after his first attempt at social reintegration had failed.

Living in contemplative isolation had etherialised him to the point that he expected everybody to imitate his 24/7 level of meditative prayer and study. Some say he was, as it were, “sent back” to learn that his view was imbalanced and that he needed to learn that his way was neither the only way nor a “purer” one: that most people had to earn a living; and that “worldly” action was not to be criticised as a second best but that it was meditation’s co-partner.

And then there is another cave, the one which has generated this little book. It is neither a dwelling nor an archetype. I will refer to it as the m’arat ha-lev, the cave of the heart. It is simultaneously “where” we meet God and a part of the individual soul. But, more on that later.

I am not blessed with Plato’s intellect, but I have spent many years in his cave. Frequently I have wondered if I was “seeing” illusory shadows or a real but hidden world that eternally sustains and periodically breaks into our world, our world being one whose reality is like that other world’s surface skin.

I am not as short tempered as the venerable Bar Yohai, but like him I made forays out of the cave and found myself thrust back in as “not cooked yet”. When I left the Discalced Carmelites in 1976 my novice master, Fr. John Bernard Keegan said that I “would be back”. He was right.

The contemplative in me would not go away. I worked in order to make a living, but that work was principally the means to support my religious life. Though I was a typicallyworkaholic music teacher for over twenty years, most of that time in pressure-driven International schools, I knew I was a contemplative at heart. Six years ago I decided to take a risk and respond to that intuition. I left my job and bought my “cave”.
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My plan was to simplify my life: to find a part time job and make space for musical composition, religious study and prayer. The routine which quickly developed went something like this:

During three weeks in the year I had visitors. For the rest of the year I lived alone, left the village about three days in a year, and left the house once a day on a regular, short food-shopping trip which doubled as exercise. (The village is on a very steep hill.) The time was spent in almost total silence. The few words of business spoken on the shopping trip, or in a brief greeting with my kind neighbours as we crossed paths in the street were my only “live” human contact. The rest of the time was spent in the house or in its small high-walled garden doing manual jobs, reading, studying, composing, writing letters and praying.

For two years I lived that contemplative lifestyle but I have to say, not altogether happily. The search for part time work to support the venture hit a brick wall. Financial panic set in and when I was unexpectedly asked to return to my old job abroad I leapt at the opportunity.

But it was not to be.

In the second year back in that job I realised that I was going deaf. Only partially, but more than enough to make music teaching both difficult and painful. I eventually accepted and acted on the doctors’ advice to avoid further hearing damage and returned to my “cave” in Spain. That was two years ago,in the summer of 2003. I have to say that I do not think the return was an accident.
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I found myself stripped of the character supportive motivation and prestige that a job-title or job-description brings, saddened by the hearing loss that now drastically limited the musical and educational activities which had been my life, and I found myself set down thus psychologically exposed on a mountain top. The reader should remember I had also landed in a comfortable home, in good general health with enough money in the bank to afford not to work for a few years. I have never for one moment forgotten that enormous good fortune. Any small trials I had I see in proper perspective and I am not looking for sympathy. They are mentioned here as they turned out to be the door which opened into the experience I describe in the next chapter.

Part-time employment remained elusive but I decided not to allow a destructive panic to set in as had happened before. I set about making the best of the situation….by living the contemplative lifestyle with contentment and increased dedication. In this my second period "in the cave", the silences are considerably longer and the solitude very much deeper. I have no idea how long I will be "dining on carob seeds" this time round, but while I am I want it to be of use.

At this point I have to say that I wish I could have written this booklet without all this biographical detail. I would rather have written a scholarly tract adorned with textually referenced arguments and counter arguments. But I am someone who still stumbles over Hebrew vowel-signs and who splutters and chokes over the kind of Talmudic-style exposition that a more genetically or culturally blessed Jew would have for breakfast. My brain simply does not work that way and so I am compelled to make my biographical details my principal “text”. I have to write using my own voice andnot that of others for much of this to make sense. If someone is not already writing the erudite expression of what this booklet sketches, then maybe they will read it and be pushed to pick up their pen.

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I do not expect there to be a multitudinous potential readership of Jewish recluses and hermits who might find this little booklet to be of interest. Though who knows there may be the odd one or two, in which case I’d like to try to encourage them to “come out”. My hope is that there may be other religious “outsiders” of whatever creed or denomination who may, at least, find support or stimulation in these few pages.

I also want to attempt to provoke interest and discussion on contemplative lifestyles within the  Jewish community of which I am an isolated but zealous member.