Lent Reflections 2017
These daily readings by Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk and Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, are to help those following them make a better Lent. This is a set time and preparation for Easter, during which special attention is given to prayer, extra generosity to others and self-control. It is customary to give something up, or restrain your use of something but also to do something additional that will benefit you spiritually and simplify you. Running through these readings will be an encouragement to start to make meditation a daily practice or, if it already is, then to deepen it by preparing for the times of meditation more carefully. The morning and evening meditations then become the true spiritual centre of your day. Here is the tradition, a very simple way of meditation, that we teach:
Sit down, Sit still with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Breathe normally. Silently, interiorly begin to repeat a single word, or manta. We recommend the ancient prayer phrase ‘maranatha’. It is Aramaic (the language of Jesus) for ‘Come Lord’, but do not think of its meaning. The purpose of the mantra is to lay aside all thoughts, good, bad, indifferent together with images, plans, memories and fantasies. Say the word as four equal syllables: ma ran a tha. Listen to it as you repeat it and keep returning to it when you become distracted. Meditate for about twenty minutes each morning and evening. Meditating with others, as in a weekly group, is very helpful to developing this practice as part of your daily life. Visit the community’s website for further help and inspiration: wccm.org
Ash Wednesday to the Saturday after Ash Wednesday (1 - 4 March)
Today, with the gritty feel of ash on your forehead, (that is, if you like the ritual, or in a more conceptual mood if you don’t), we begin a journey. If you would like to receive the ashes today but don’t have time to go to a church, or if you don’t like church, ask a friend to put it on your forehead. They can do it with the sign of the cross and a few words. ‘Remember you are dust and unto dust you will return’. Or, a little less starkly but no less radically, ‘Turn around and live the gospel’.
The journey is the thing, not the way you begin it. It is a journey of forty days, a number which symbolises many things – a time of transition, correction, purification. According to the Talmud at the age of 40 one becomes capable of another level of wisdom. The forty days before Yom Kippur are seen as a special time for personal growth.
First, decide if you really want to make this journey. As with starting to meditate, just decide if you want to begin, without worrying about whether you will finish it. Spiritually, there are no winners of the race, only those who kept going. And those who dropped by the wayside eventually get carried the rest of the way. The universe is friendly to all, in the end.
You may enter this season of Lent with a sense that you are in a bit of a mess and that you need to be re-balanced and to shed unnecessary inner baggage, attachments, addictions, regret, guilt, anxiety. It’s enough to know this is possible and that there is a plan for achieving it. Or you may feel balanced enough to know that you still have a long way to go. So you can start this year’s journey with the positive intention to go into deeper self-knowledge and brighter clarity.
Any journey can begin with a mixture of intentions and motives. These may then change, as you change, into a pilgrimage (no goal except that of arriving) or a dive from the world’s highest cliff-edge into a sparkling blue sea (the arriving is in the travelling) . The ash is a reminder that despite our complexity we have a radically simple core. Our common mortality reminds us of this as an opportunity for heightened realism and relish for life rather than fear and neurosis. As the ash is an outward sign, saying the mantra is an interior sacramental. They are acts that allow us to stop thinking about it all and to be one with it all.
The desert that Jesus entered for his forty days is our template for Lent. He was ‘led’ there. On this journey we don’t so much choose as consent. He was ‘tempted’. If we aren’t tested we remain blocked by our limitations, seeing ourselves as frustrated rather renewable beings.
Why doesn’t everyone jump on this interesting band-wagon and make this journey? Because the way is poverty. Detachment and simplification. This scares us because we fear we may end by having nothing. Actually, that truly is the goal. Let’s not follow the perverse gospel of prosperity and success. If that fake news, that is not good news, becomes our way, well, forty days later we will find that we haven’t even left base. The goal (after forty days of variable length) is that we desire not to have possessions with just the same fervour as people generally desire to have them. This poverty is the meaning of freedom. It is meditation. It is the journey into the desert.
Let’s recall the archetype of Lent we are being nourished by on this journey, which is the time Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”
When you are truly attentive to something, fully absorbed in it, you are not distracted by anything as minor as not having eaten for forty days. To be fully absorbed in anything is a form of bliss. If on the other hand we are constantly snacking, consuming, digesting or spewing texts, twitters and emails we may well forget what a great sauce hunger is. I am not referring to the hunger for the necessities of life, which it is a scandal and shame that anyone should have to face. I mean the hunger for reality that our addictive consumption blocks and denies. The sign of over-consumption is a lack of compassion for the needs of others.
In a world of Brexit and Twitter politics the only certainty is uncertainty. This makes the financial masters of the universe tremble because growth depends on investment and risk is the great fear. So, this is the time to wonder if we have to turn every stone in our path into a loaf of bread and jam.
Life is growth and change. Tradition serves life, it doesn’t stifle it. Goals and objectives for growth need to be tempered and trained by the filaments of meaning and wisdom that connect us to our roots, both historically and spiritually. The ‘tempter’ breaks those filaments by awaking the perennial seeds of greed and lust. Soon we are running crazily around the desert, turning every stone into an unnecessary loaf of bread. We can’t consume them all, which frustrates us, but we have also lost the hunger for truth that makes bread meaningful and enjoyable.
If a country decides it has to go to war it should declare its war aims and stop when they are achieved. If the globalized world is aiming at economic growth it should declare its goals, how it can be distributed and its limits. Unlimited growth is cancer.
Moderation really cures. The middle way of the Buddha or St Benedict, the ‘narrow little path’ of Jesus that ‘leads to life’ is the journey. The hunger for reality also comprehends hunger for truth. As Orwell foresaw, and Goebbels proved, truth can be altered by manipulation. ‘Alternative facts’, or lies, can be thrown into the innocent eyes of any sincere statement. As espionage agents are said to discover after they have learned their craft of deception, it is soon hard to tell what side you are really serving.
When we feel the hunger for reality, we taste the word of God. Yesterday’s ash may have disappeared but the journey has begun. Each time we meditate we repeat Jesus’ response to the powers of self-deception.
The journey of forty days begins afresh, from the beginning, every day. All achievements or failures are deleted or become unimportant archives in the story of the self. Not that what happened yesterday doesn’t count for anything. It does. But its meaning is only understood when we view it with the eyes of mercy and humour. The self-important judging and condemnation, the praising, self-preening and nasty blaming of the ego, have no connection with the reality of how the past becomes the present. The temptation to turn stones into bread is greed. Today’s temptation that we will encounter on this journey, as Jesus did before us, is vanity and pride.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Many a successful project has collapsed because of a last but quite unnecessary burst of egotistical pride. Over-reaching oneself. Testing to see just how omnipotent is your power over others. It’s the gambler’s last hand with which they put everything on the next throw of the dice, torn between hoping to win and hoping to lose. Every temple of the ego is destabilized by the desire to test its stability and the feeling that one’s acclaimed achievement might actually be illegitimate. Putting God to the test is self-destruction.
Jesus wasn’t tempted by bread. But the highest pinnacle of the holy city and its greatest religious ego-construction could be the downfall of any ascetic close to the end of their forty days. The devil quoting scripture happens whenever we twist the truth in our self-deluded minds in order to install the ego where God should be.
And where should God be? At the summit of our ‘value-system’? That would be no more than the strange little god of fundamentalism or superstition.
The word ‘templum’ originally meant not the structure we build – St Peter’s, the Abbey, the Ka’aba, the White House. It meant the empty space of worship. In meditation we acknowledge the unstructured, wholly simply, nature of God. If we can stand on it and look down on everything, it isn’t God.
Scriptures invite a literary interpretation not a literal one. The literal is easy because it shows everything as two-dimensional, right and wrong being the two most popular dimensions for people whose religion is a firewall against God rather than a way of worshiping. Eventually, in two-dimensional reality, you don’t need God at all, just the scriptures and the man-made rules invented to define and defend your interpretations. But the forty-day journey teases this religion apart, allowing the dimension of transcendence to escape.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
The third temptation is the big one, not greed or vanity but naked egotism. In political terms this is the difference between a society built on self-serving corruption, or on an honours-based power system, and one revolving around a demagogue whose narcissism enthrals or cowers any ego weaker than itself. This is the brute ego, secretly wounded as any bully is, exposed in a flash of evil that is the more frightening because from one angle it is so ridiculous.
Meditation is the journey of the forty-days in the desert that gets us securely positioned in this angle where we can see the utter vacuousness of the ego. Then something moving and utterly tender can happen. The dark satanic ego crumbles and good angels are set free. These are no longer twisted in the crystallised forces of self-centredness. They run around unleashed, looking for good things to do, griefs to console, people to listen to, hungry mouths to feed, lonely souls to bring into community.
When you see these things happening anywhere in daily life – a small act of kindness on the subway, a smile where you expected a stare, another second chance - you feel you see a force at work. It is greater than the visible agents who are performing them. Yet there is no visible messenger (the meaning of angelos is ‘messenger’).There is only the primary, perennial message of human kindness being transmitted from one person to another.
So the devil left him, to return at a later time, St Luke’s gospel ominously remarks. But before that happens... we know the tests we should be on the watch for in the coming days.
First Week of Lent (5 - 11 March)
First Sunday of Lent
I met a Hindu woman recently who told me she was looking forward to Lent. She was not a Christian but had a great love for Mother Mary and Jesus. Observing Lent in her view was a wonderful opportunity for personal renewal and a deepening of her devotion. Her understanding of this season was refreshingly lacking in any punitive sense of penance or guilt about sin.
The essential principles of Lent express a basic human intuition around the need for reduction, moderation and purification. One side of us, of course, seeks to acquire, hoard and possess. But as soon as our clutter and possessions reach a certain level we begin to find them oppressive and seek to detach from them. That’s when the struggle starts. We want to be poor and simple. But not quite yet. We enthusiastically read about the state og poverty and simplicity. We watch movies and listen to talks about it. We may do a PhD about it. But we continue to acquire and hoard and even our spiritual life becomes another aspect of this cult of desire.
The Hindu woman reminds us that it is good simply to celebrate and obey the instinct to divest ourselves of what we have, but what we no longer need. Fasting – or its modern equivalent in dieting - is a means of doing this, even while we are still secretly clinging to what we are trying to let go of. What matters in the practice is not the perfection of our efforts or our self-grading but our motivation. In dieting our motivation is likely to be our self-image – what do I feel when I look in the mirror or what do others think when they look at me. In fasting the motivation is not what we look like or feel like but the degree to which we have shed the illusions swirling around our egocentricity. In Lent our focus is on what we can never see objectively: our true self. (So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Cor 4:18)
What’s so special about these forty days? Aren’t we meant to be doing this every day? Yes and that is why St Benedict says the monk’s (= the meditator’s) life is a perpetual Lent. We should keep our houses clean all year; but in the Spring we give them a special spruce-up and feel better for doing so, although it’s an effort.
At the end of his forty days’ fast what had Jesus achieved? (We find it hard today to do anything without thinking we are achieving something). He felt hungry. Which was understandable. He was able to receive authentic, not false consolation. And above all he was able to distinguish without a blink of doubt or delay the difference between illusion and reality.
I’d like to explore in this first week of Lent how we, like Jesus after his forty days, can better distinguish between illusion and reality. But first, let’s look at the means of doing this, what Buddhists call ‘skilful means’ and which is the meaning of what Christians have long called ascesis.
‘Asceticism’ rings the same bells as ‘austerity’. But when you meet a true ascetic, it’s like meeting a trained athlete in the peak of condition and loving their freely-chosen discipline of exercise and lifestyle. They radiate joy and well-being and make us feel slightly envious in our sluggishness while also, hopefully, motivating us to get off the couch and start living. The means of the ascetic are fasting, almsgiving and prayer.
How can we understand these today? Fasting involves a willing giving-up, saying ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ to our natural or habitual desires. This, like the other two companion pillars of spiritual living, is an abstract principle, an ideal, a value. It needs to be associated with a practice to take flesh and be real. We can only truly live as embodied beings Humans being can’t be too abstract for long without imploding. Yet from my flesh I shall see God, said poor Job after his ordeals. (Job 19:26). Fasting is necessary for spiritual health. So, what are we going to give up?
Almsgiving is about letting go. What we let go of may be money, time, the attention we take off ourselves and put unconditionally on another. It’s not just how much or how often. For the meditator, attention is obviously the key to this pillar of spiritual living. Simone Weil said that attention is the rarest and highest form of generosity. The quality of selfless attention proves the sincerity of what we give and truly let go of. What are we letting go of?
Prayer takes many forms but is essentially about pure attention. Its effect is to make us feel – however distracted we are, however long and far we have wandered, however separated from our base we feel – that we have come home, relieved, maybe surprised, to find a warm, a loving welcome. To sit in meditation is to come home. This pure prayer - that radically purifies the imagination and fantasy, loosens the grip of desire and fear and simplifies us to be able to accept authentic not false consolation – is simply about coming home.
A home is a centre, emotionally and spiritually. It is the reference point of meaning for wherever else we may go on the map. If we come home and find an empty lot, our grip on reality is exploded. We have to start again, from scratch. But if there is, essentially, one centre of all reality; if reality is essentially simple and whole, then that centre is everywhere. We discover it first by finding our own centre, entering what Jesus calls our ‘inner room’ where we are embraced by the presence which embraces everything and fills everything.
A nice idea. But, like the other pillars of spiritual living, as our means of becoming free from illusion and free to be real, prayer requires a practice. For the current meditator, a renewal of commitment and refreshment of motivation. For the meditator starting out, the courage to begin.
What do we get out of spiritual practice? Not much, hopefully, that we can turn into cash or use to make our CV more enticing. When Jesus speaks about prayer, fasting and almsgiving, he disappoints the ego by the way he places it off the radar, away from any source of pride or self-congratulation. ‘Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’, when you give alms, he says. Not only are we not allowed to bargain for recognition by others, even the self-observing ego isn’t allowed into the game. ‘Secret’ is the word he uses more than once – in Greek it’s ‘mysterion’. Don’t extract spiritual practice from the realm of mystery, of unitive knowledge where there are no actors and no appreciative audience.
This un-self-consciousness is in reality a higher form of consciousness. Hard though it may be for us to give up our position in the control tower of the ego, we actually see and know much more when we do so. Just how hard it is to let go of self-consciousness is evident as soon as we sit to meditate and keep our attention on the mantra. Just how ‘rewarding’ this is, is evident from the fruits that pop up all over our life surprisingly and wonderfully, like simple but heart-breakingly beautiful spring flowers emerging from the barren ground in the change of seasons.
Many religious people think that reward is a fair understanding of what we get from spiritual practice and the exercise of virtue. But it is only a metaphor. God no more rewards than He punishes. The very idea of merit that fills the minds of many Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Jews is dodgy. It is a commodification of what is spiritual, that is immeasurable, and resides only in the secrecy of mystery. Merit is hard to separate from self-satisfaction. What we get, then, from Lenten observance and our daily practice is simplicity. There is no end to simplicity and so it is not a goal to achieve. At a certain point the desire to be simple dissipates and we only become truly simple when we stop thinking about it. Thomas Aquinas thought that ‘God is infinitely simple’. (What a relief to know we are created, redeemed and loved by a God like this).
The meaning of our practice is that we become like God, simple, (by becoming like Jesus). The ego is wary of this at first as it only wants to be like the glitterati at the Oscars or the successful icons enthroned in the media. But the ego, like a greedy child, can learn to grow up. We learn that simplicity happens through the hard but necessary process of dis-illusionment.
When we say ‘I feel disillusioned’ or ‘people are disillusioned with politics, religion, journalists, bankers..’, it sounds sad and disappointing. We have to think about what it means so we can say, ‘hooray, I am disillusioned.’
If we could see and understand how illusion starts we would have a great advantage in the campaign for reality. It is, in some ways, like an election campaign, a long process of persuasion, with ups and downs in the polls, many misleading arguments and some dirty tricks; finally, our last encounter with mortality is the day of the election when the chips fall and we are what we have become.
Diadochus of Photike was a fifth century Greek monk who had sat long enough in the work of silence, and also watched his mind in daily life for long enough, to see how illusion arises. However different our conditions of life today and the way they shape modern consciousness, the mind itself works in the same basic way. He speaks to us. His great work is called ‘On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination: One Hundred Texts’. The texts are short paragraphs, wisdom insights distilled into gems of truth that need to be savoured through many re-readings. (You don’t read a book, you re-read it). With each reading the flavor, enjoyment and nutritional value grow stronger. Diadochus begins by affirming the irreducible goodness of reality including the human realm, because God makes nothing that is not good. So what goes wrong? Why isn’t everything always good? Where does the serpent creep into the Garden of Eden?
Through the side-door of fantasy.
When in the desire of his heart someone conceives and gives form to what in reality has no existence, then what he desires begins to exist. (3)
It begins with desire. And desire arises from the awareness of something lacking, in the endless human longing for something more. This is a gift because it allows for evolution and change, for a raising of consciousness, but it has a concomitant danger. However well we have been loved and raised, we still feel that there is something more we need. Imagine how much more complex our needs and the desires they generate if we are thrown out of our home in Aleppo, abused on our long trek westwards, rejected as scum at the borders where we arrive to beg for a peaceful home and a new start, and hope turns to despair as the illusion is shattered. Desire is always linked to need. In the best of scenarios, desire mirrors need. We don’t desire what we don’t think we need but we often desire what it is impossible to achieve.
Imagination makes the need known to the conscious mind. We form an image that we pursue as a desire, hope, ambition or goal. Augustine thought that the spiritual journey is all about holy desire. John of the Cross thought we need to let go of all desire even our desire for God. Both are right, depending on how we understand desire in relation to need and fantasy.
Imagination is bound to desire. For good if desire is directly linked to what we need. For ill if it spins out of control and develops a virtual life of its own. This easily happens where there is severe pain and especially when we have suffered alone without the ministry of human love to console our loneliness. Fantasy arises in the dungeon of lonely suffering. It differs from creative imagination because what it ‘sees’ is not a real potential that can be made to happen. Instead, it experiences a phantom pregnancy. The symptoms are there but the actual new life is not.
Prayer is necessary. It exists, not to tell God how divine He is, nor to give us a platform for dramatising our desires. It exists to help us see this vital distinction between need and desire, reality and illusion. On the clarity of that seeing our life depends.
When illusion begins to exist it can be, at first, very uplifting. Like a candidate who promises everything for nothing, one of the false messiahs we get through regularly today, or like a glittering celebrity whose sleek success we envy and imaginatively make our own, illusion gives temporary relief from the pain associated with our unmet needs or frustrated desire. But always, in the end, it explodes. The process of disillusionment is painful, according to how long and deeply we have allowed ourselves to be seduced. The bigger the crowd around us buying into the same illusion, the more likely we are to be sucked deep into the destructive vortex.
We strengthen the false existence of illusion by focusing on it and by acting as if it were real. The unreal can then become very powerful in this way and even assume an autonomous life that affects people collectively. Tyrannies begin with the defiant fantasy of alternative facts.
Diadochus says that we resist this growth of illusion, which would eventually swallow all freedom, simply by paying attention to the ‘remembrance of God’. Simone Weil said something similar: in the face of an evil that you cannot defeat pay attention to the good. Of course, when our perception of reality has been so clouded by illusion that we are not sure what is true or false, this is challenging to understand. It means more than thinking about what might (or not) be good. In meditation we pay attention to the good, firstly to our own goodness, by transferring attention from thoughts and images and by dropping all evaluations. By saying the mantra, we pay pure attention - not to anything we think or bring into existence by desire and imagination - but to the silence of being, of what really is. In existence (meaning everything that steps out of being and becomes visible) there is always the danger of falsehood. In being (meaning contemplation) the radical simplicity of pure attention filters the unreal and disposes of it.
Diadochus says we can do this provided that we can ‘persuade our soul not to be distracted by the false glitter of this life.’ Let’s leave the reality-illusion question there for a while. Where would you say, in this first week of Lent, that this false glitter accumulates in your life?
Interiority – the first step in how Jesus describes the meaning of prayer – is today quite a rare commodity. From early days we are trained to see life as a series of external goals and achievements. We may succeed or fail in them. Either way, our focus is trained outward to the next mountain we have to climb, hurdle or opportunity. Then, one day, perhaps we get knocked off our bike.
This happened to a student of mine with a very disciplined life and military background. He spoke about it when he came back a year later as a guest speaker to the class. He had been hit by a truck and went flying, hurting his face seriously and suffering brain damage. He showed the class photos of himself and it was hard to believe he had recovered as well as he had. Apart from the bone damage which had been repaired, he still suffered from terrible headaches. He had found that meditation was the only way to stop them. The doctors told him to do nothing, sleep as much as possible and added, ‘try not to think’. This last advice puzzled him. How can you stop thinking? Then he remembered that meditation was all about not thinking, right?
His determination to get better and his lack of self-pity or negativity impressed us all. But even more was the change in him personally, after his ordeal had showed him that life was not only about outward goals. He had discovered his inner life. He knew himself to be the subject of the mountains he wanted to climb and the opportunities he had to make the most of.
He was not the first person to say that a tragedy, that we would all cringe at even imagining, had taught him something more valuable than the suffering that accompanied it. With the awakening of the interior dimension of consciousness came discernment and perspective. Everything in life could then be better valued and prioritized. And illusion and reality stood out from each other much more obviously.
Highlighting this, Diadochus, our friend of sixteen hundred years ago, describes the distinctive energies of wisdom and spiritual knowledge. According to him, both are pure gifts of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual knowledge comes through ‘prayer, deep stillness and complete detachment’. It unites us to God through experience. But it does not lead us to talk about it. What happens in silence stays in silence. So, we can consciously illuminated by interior knowledge without needing to express it outwardly. But wisdom can come, mnore rarely Diadochus says, as a complementary grace to articulate this knowledge especially with the help of scripture.
Spiritual knowledge has priority. To find it, times of stillness and practicing detachment are necessary as we have the opportunity for in Lent. They prepare us for this knowledge. Alternatively, we can always wait to be knocked off our bike.
This week we have reflected on how to discern illusion from reality. Diadochus has been advising us that this comes as a gift rather than a result of study or just our own mighty efforts. But he also emphasises that a deliberate choice is needed to direct ourselves only towards what is real and to consume the attraction to illusion with our attention to what is good. As spiritual knowledge grows, he says encouragingly, through effort and grace combined, we become more confident in our quest for love.
I have suggested, predictably, that this profound advice can be put into practice through meditation. Somehow, anyway, we have to find a way of balancing the effort needed on our part with the gratuitousness of grace to bring the change we desire and need.
If you are not a particularly religious person, you may be more attracted to the idea of effort. You don’t need a lot of talk about God helping you. Nevertheless, the truth is that the essential shift happens at a level where our conscious will disappears. If will there is, it is more about seeing and consenting to the truth than trying to achieve it. If, on the other hand, you like the idea of the active presence of God in your life, you may think you don’t have to do very much, just hang loose, be passive, and let God do it all. The bonded elements of the human and divine, in this ascent to reality are both involved. Together they reveal more than either of these extreme attitudes (self-sufficiency or leaving it all to God) about effort and grace. Grave and human effort should not be separated because their separation promotes illusion. Christ makes all this make sense. He is the marriage in the paradox.
As in a good relationship, each side of the human-divine partnership slides into and back from the other, imperceptibly. They form a whole greater than we can imagine as the sum of the parts. This wholeness, which is Christ, sheds light on the distinctiveness of the human and divine but also on the cosmic need they have for each other. They are, at least from our perspective, incomplete without the other. Does this mean that God needs us? Technically, no, of course but lovingly, because God became His own creature, why not?
This is what is at stake in our Lenten reflection based on the personal practice we have committed to for these forty days. We don’t want to get too heavy about it (or we will lose the spirit of truth) yet it is sacred and most important to us. Life will go on if we don’t reflect on it and if there is no insight from our sustained practice: Trump will Twitter, Brexit will happen, the Cardinals will squabble, the economic forecasts will change, some will be cured and others won’t, Netflix will invent more series. Yet Lent does matter. Not only to ourselves in our separate digital universes, but to us as a whole, as we awaken to the great meaning of the human which God has risked on us and whose outcome the universe eagerly awaits. This is why it is important that we learn periodically to wipe our lenses and see clearly what is real and enduring and what is illusory and ephemeral. Because we matter.
Second Week of Lent (12 - 18 March)
Second Sunday of Lent
We are presently participating in a clinical trial observing the influence of meditation on a group of doctors and nurses working in a very stressful emergency department of a large hospital. At the last session, in the early morning, I was impressed to learn that some of those present had just come off a thirteen hour shift that started at 8pm the night before.
One of the interests of the study is the high rate – up to sixty per cent – of burnout among the medical staff. Temperamentally they are strong and resilient people. They share an intense, deep (dangerously deep) motivation to help others in need. But I wondered if their coming to the four hour session immediately after a full night of emergency medicine was going to reduce or add to the occupational danger of burnout. Clearly they felt it was going to help them. Despite the challenge of daily meditation that they faced in their over- demanding lives, with work and family pulling them to give ever more, they saw the course as a wonderful opportunity and they were determined to make the most of it.
They had felt a call and they had started a pilgrimage. This is the theme of the Exodus readings of Lent that describe the imperishable myth of the Israelites led out of Egypt and wandering for forty years in the desert, getting ready for the promised land where milk and honey flowed. Recorded history shows no evidence of such an enslavement and escape but the myth is forever embedded in the culture and imagination of the Jewish and Christian traditions.
In the first of the readings for today we read of Abram hearing the call to ‘leave your country, family and father’s house.. for the land I will show you.’ For him as for the Irish monks, who believed they couldn’t be a monk in their own country and lived lives of self-imposed exile, the challenge to leave the family home and set out into the unknown is deeply embedded in the psyche. It competes with our need for home, security and familiarity, just as our desire for rest or death tangles with eros, our lust for life.
St Paul describes the interior contradictions he struggled with, torn between the hardships and rejection he exposed himself to and the peace and joy released in him through his discovery of Christ. He speaks of this as a grace granted ‘before the beginning of time’. We existed in the divine imagination before the Big Bang brought time and space, peace and burnout, home and wandering into existence.
The gospel today is about the Transfiguration. In The Good Heart, where the Dalai Lama comments on this passage he refers to the Tibetan idea of the rainbow body, which explains how the physical body is transfigured in those who have achieved the highest enlightenment and yet remain in this world to continue to help those in need.
So day by day we make our pilgrimage, even if it is a commute, leaving home and family, exploring the strange world of others and encountering their needs with our limited resources. We either burn out or we are transfigured. The difference lies in whether we have been still for the one moment necessary to be touched by the grace existing before time.
Burnout is more than a breakdown. You can appear to continue to function but inside you are shutting down and bailing out, emotionally isolated and lacking any sense of joy or meaning in the motions you are just going through. The light of life has been extinguished that shines in the eyes, illuminates conversation with playfulness and highlights the hues and colours of the world. Instead you stare at the world rather than gaze at it. Your exchanges with other people become informational rather than creative. And the world is increasingly saturated with a single shade of grey.
Lent is a time to scan for any symptoms of burnout. They may reveal themselves in patterns of irritability and withdrawing from contact with others into a false solitude. True solitude refreshes our relationships. It helps us to see if some of our relationships are really mutual time-wasting, using each other to avoid deeper levels. But in true solitude, where we are exposed to our mysterious uniqueness and don’t run away from it, we see our connections with others becoming more meaningful and mutually open to depth. Meditation is this true solitude.
The practices of Lent – our giving up, letting go and praying more seriously – are the way we scan for burnout, a leaking of faith and a tiredness with life. They clear the mind by rewriting old mental patterns, intuitively empowering us with the self-knowledge we need to keep playing interiorly, not just pretending to. It is a paradox of human balance and well-being that detachment and engagement go hand in hand.
If we don’t know how to step back, to open our clasping hand and let go, how to make time for prayer, for going off-line, we soon experience that something is going wonky with our life and relationships. In fact it is something going wrong in ourselves but, as usual, we first blame others, fate or God. We are, in fact, slowly slipping off the wavelength of the spirit that gives life its capacity for growth and transcendence. Without these, experience itself - in absolutely everything we are engaged in – begins to implode and deconstruct. The vital reciprocity of being collapses into an autonomous, self-centred state.
Jesus told his disciples – which means all those who could listen – that the way back from burnout, depression, half-life is to restore the reciprocity to life. Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.
Giving and receiving then become a single rhythm. We pass beyond the politics of fear, segregation and hatred into a sharing society, a community that enjoys being human, a life that overflows.
Progress is an interesting illusion which Lent invites us to revisit. Hope that we have really learned a lesson from life or achieved a long-sought objective is very seductive. We tend to assume that as soon as things change on the surface, the same change has thoroughly worked its way all the way down. And then we are surprised and disappointed to discover that is not the case. Old patterns often return, sometimes with a vengeance.
After long periods of persecution the Christian church, in the fourth century, must have felt God had let it win the lottery when the Emperor of Rome announced his conversion. Constantine saw the Christian god as a powerful ally in his domestic and military policies. He had no spiritual interest in his new faith. But it seemed to the small, scattered, marginalized congregations of the empire that the great exorcism of the Cross had eventually spread to the highest realms of power. As the churches swelled in numbers their faith was diluted. Before long, whenever possible, Christian leaders used their upper hand to destroy the temples and chop off the heads and legs of their statues of the old gods, with all the intolerance of the Taliban today or the Puritan reformers of the sixteenth century. They did not martyr the pagans because they were still numerous and widespread, but the Christian leaders ridiculed their beliefs and outlawed their rituals. We are not very pleasant when we are so sure we are right and even less so when we think we have won.
This tide of arrogance and disrespect, however, also called forth a different kind of Christianity exemplified in the monastic movement of the desert. Here Christians came to live the mystery of Christ in the deepest and most humble personal way. Even on their deathbed, the old teachers of the desert reminded their disciples that the inner struggle with one’s own demons and especially the demon of pride and self-deception was what mattered. And that struggle continued, for us all, to the end. Even Jesus struggled with the demon of fear on his last night.
Lent humbles us in this way. It is most effective when what humbles is something small and trivial. It only takes a sudden craving for what you gave up, or the surge of attachment for what you had let go of yesterday or a struggle to sit through the whole evening meditation, for us to land with a bump. As the self-woven illusions with which we clothe ourselves unravel, we are embarrassed to discover we are naked and that we don’t look as good naked as we do when we are dressed up. We see that progress isn’t forever, nor is it as linear as we thought. Perhaps the real progress is in discovering this.
Shakespeare didn’t waste his energy inventing stories. The plots of his plays were already on his bookshelves. He had only to read them and by the power of his creative imagination to utterly transform them, lifting old tales and soap operas into the realm of timeless and unforgettable reflections of nature and the infinite, interactive shades of human character. In one scene he can show how a number of personalities respond differently to the same events. He was also a theatrical businessman and shrewd investor and when he had made enough to retire into obscurity in his hometown he did. Like Bach, he became an incomparable genius by being rather ordinary, always perfecting his craft, faithful to his gift, and keeping his feet on the ground.
We don’t all have this kind of talent. But we all have the genius of holiness in our capacity for wholeness. Lent is a time for being rather low key, undramatic and unflashy. These days, we focus on the small details and routines of our observance and see what they are teaching us as they rub away a little of the accumulated grime of bad habits and blow off the dust of laziness.
The ego is being serviced during Lent. We give it a performance review and tell it to behave better. It doesn’t like this at first and after a few days, when the glitter of novelty wears off, it gets fidgety and looks for ways to assert itself. It may do this in predawn tweets that embarrass us in the light of day or during the day when it wants to grandstand. Fidelity to the practice will easily undermine these hackneyed old attempts to be original.
Originality is not something we can manufacture. The ego likes to stand out in front and be applauded, even by itself if the audience won’t. But if we try to fabricate originality we are shown up as third-rate. Originality, creativity, the goodness and wholeness we call sanctity, has to happen by itself and take everyone, ourselves included, by surprise. Jesus reminded us on the first day of Lent, not to be self-conscious, to take the attention off ourselves. Can we imagine how surprised and humbled Shakespeare or Bach must have felt when they wrote the last line or note of a new masterpiece? Because they were also ordinary they must have felt a ripple of self-satisfaction before sensing the next tidal wave of their imagination arriving.
Lent helps us recover our original innocence. It refreshes our capacity to be surprised and to live in the ever-amazing present. It makes us see that our life is a work of art and our way of living it our genius. That is why we can think of the mantra as a continuous Lent.
Lent gives us the opportunity to see life as more than coping, more than an endless sequence of problem-solving. Under stress, that is often how it can seem, because time contracts, energy is dissipated in short bursts of imperfect attention and a feeling of failure and missing an important appointment grows stronger every day. No wonder burnout is such an issue in so many walks of life today.
If we think of life as an exponential series of problems clamouring for our diminishing attention we are heading in the wrong direction. A Chinese saying of staggeringly obvious wisdom says ‘if you keep going in the direction you are going, you will arrive where you are going.’ In other words, repent and believe the good news: or else go over the edge of the cliff. Repentance is a change of direction, saving ourselves from disaster.
Instead of seeing life as impossibly problematical, why not see it as artistic? The three pillars of Lent we have looked at are ways of developing the art of living, for the rest of our life as well as this special season of simplification and focus. The outcome of any art is beauty.
‘Late have I loved thee, Beauty so ancient and so new. Behold, you were within but I was on the outside, looking for you. And I pounced on the beautiful things you had made.’ St Augustine’s describes his great turn around as a discovery of the nature of beauty. Like Dostoevsky, he felt beauty as a personal salvation. But facing the violent chaos of his time the Russian mystic said more: the world will be saved by beauty.
Not technology, not ideology, not politics, not power or economic growth, but beauty. This cannot mean only aesthetic beauty, art, music or poetry. Nor just the beauty of the natural world that so entrances and delights the artist and the mystic but remains invisible to those whose interiority has, like Augustine’s before his conversion, been shut down.
Beauty is the breaking out of the whole in a part. It breaks the rules. It is exceptional. It can happen in a poem or a piece of music, in a beautiful face or voice, but equally in a gesture or a moral act which astounds and delights us and makes us say ‘wow, what a beautiful (and unexpected) thing to do’. We are wowed by beauty because it cannot be manufactured, only created and creation is the source of wonder.
The most urgent problem we must solve is a lack of perception. Our perception of beauty in art, nature or human behavior depends upon our having discovered our own beauty and goodness. If we do not see that we are beautiful we cannot see the beauty of a rain forest, music that becomes us when we listen to it or the heroic humanity of those who forgive and show compassion for no reason other than that this is the right and natural thing to do.
Meditation is a continuous Lent because it constantly cleanses the doors of perception, opening us to this primary level of beauty. This is knowing ourselves, not just as parts of the whole, but as a manifestation of the whole.
A bit more about beauty. And how important it is to see our own beauty if we are to act and respond rightly respecting the beauty of the natural and human world. Justice, the fair distribution of wealth, immediate response to a famine, whatever caused it, holding true to the democratic principles we profess even when it is not to our political advantage: these are beautiful things too. They save us from chaos, inhumanity and the breakdown of civilized values.
But they depend upon our having seen our own beauty. Our capacity to see this is partly a matter of social and psychological conditioning. This struck me once when I was teaching meditation in a developed Asian country. I noticed two students sitting apart from the rest looking and listening with a strong sense of detachment from the group. After the session they came up and shyly introduced themselves. They were on a business scholarship from North Korea. In good English they told me that they had not understood a word I was saying. That, I thought, explained the way they were looking at me during the talk. I must have seemed like an extra-terrestrial. All the concepts I was developing were strange, foreign and meaningless. They had no religious, spiritual or intellectual framework to make sense of them.
Until, at least, they heard me say that meditation is transformative because it makes us aware and brings us into contact with our own essential goodness. This is a relatively familiar idea, even a platitude, for most of us. But for them, from a culture of what seems a devastatingly bleak, fearful, and oppressive landscape, where the art of living is replaced by the monochromatic art of survival, this simple idea hit them like a meteorite.
Lent is a time where the skills of the art of living are refined. Pencils sharpened, instruments tuned, words rinsed out. One of its benefits may be that we, too, get a healthy shock when the platitude becomes an original insight. My true nature is a work of beauty. It resonates with beauty in all forms around me in which I participate. I am not perfect, but beautiful. My many imperfections even show up the beauty more clearly and, perhaps, more heart-breakingly. Like a stain, a tear or a break in the pattern of a beautiful carpet. (There is no beauty that hath not some imperfection in it).
Politics and sport together make up most of what we call ‘news’. Most of us feel that we need to keep in touch with what’s going on. Yet, sometimes, we somehow get hooked addictively to the global stream of consciousness that the media keeps flowing constantly. Not only our opinions but even our emotions are then manipulated or injected into our passively receptive minds that become increasingly less capable of thinking for themselves. We get the news we like to hear to keep the dose of stimulation high. Critical thinking even seems subversive in some societies. Reacting against this we may then reject ‘news’ and media altogether, like parents who opt for home-learning.
As always the best is the mean, the medium, the moderate. This, Lent remind us, is not the primrose path of the easy option, the route of compromise or the evasion of hard questions. It is a knife-edge, a high-tension tightrope, a fragile rope bridge across a deep abyss. Jesus called it a ‘narrow path that leads to life’ and he added the unpopular remark, ‘and few they are who find it’.
Somehow that added disclaimer has always made me feel reassured. Not because I can dance on the wire of moderation for very long before wobbling dangerously or falling off, because I can’t, but because it shows me there is a true way. It does actually exist. Oddly, it is because I can’t properly find it, that I know it exists. Even if I can’t walk this path very well, at least it is there and even if I lose it periodically, like dropping the mantra during meditation and solving the problems of the world instead, I find it again. Or, perhaps, it finds me again.
Politics and sport and ‘other news’ are uncomfortably similar to our psyches and unconscious. We project onto the screen of ‘local or world news’ what is happening in our own inarticulate depths. All politics is psychic politics, which is why it is so easy to psychoanalyze politicians – no wonder we don’t trust them anymore – but also why we find it so hard to know ourselves as we really are.
This week we have been thinking about beauty – how the asceticism (spiritual exercise) of Lent – awakens and refines our sense of beauty. Fear is the great enemy of beauty - perhaps because fear is the antithesis of love and we cannot perceive beauty without loving it. So, whenever we see the rise of a politics of fear (and hatred is always hidden in fear), we should sound the alarm, because it spells the desecration of the beauty of life and, with it, the innocence, the readiness to be taken by surprise, the childlikeness that is our way – however imperfectly followed – to the fullness and meaning of our short human life.
Third Week of Lent (19 - 25 March)
Third Sunday of Lent
Time is flying – third Sunday of Lent – and what have we learned? What have we lost, or renounced, or let go of, that we should have? Has our level of fear decreased a bit? Have we understood better that the ‘fear of God’ that we hear so much about doesn’t mean fear of God as we were taught it meant – fear of getting punished when we get caught. It means what the Samaritan woman at the well discovered it meant one sweltering noon.
Today’s gospel draws us into one of the most Shakespearian dramatic encounters we have of the life of Jesus. One day, hot and tired by his walk, he stopped to rest by a well. His disciples went off to the shops and he was left alone. A woman from an alien racial group appeared to get water. From what she says later in the conversation that ensued, we guess that she didn’t want to come to the well in the evening when the other woman of the village liked to come and gossip. Because she herself was the object of their gossip. Like Jesus, she was alone.
It’s worth reading the whole story: John 4: 5-42, which must be one of the most examined and commented upon texts of any tradition.
Her solitude had not turned her into a bitter or frightened woman. But she was sharp-tongued and (having had five husbands) unfrightened by men even in one of the most misogynist of cultures. The verbal sparring between her and Jesus at the beginning, shows her spunkiness and his openness to people where they are, without any condescending sense of his own superior importance. This clash of personalities, as equals, produces a dramatic result. She returns to her original innocence (and to her community) and she recognizes, even in a male figure, the truth, wisdom and love that was (we might imagine) what took her through her serial relationships.
She was fearless but she had not, till that hot noontime, yet found the partner in intimacy who allowed her to use this fearless freedom in order to love.
If not, are we looking in the right place? Might a well be a good place to start?
One of the graces of Lent is the chance to grow in self-knowledge through a relatively low-risk exercising of the will. For example, you decided two weeks ago to give up something, to let go of something and to do more prayer or to do it more faithfully. If you are a marine you will have no difficulty in keeping to this regime. If you are not, you may have a more or a less well-trained will. You may therefore have already wobbled or fallen off. It is how you deal with that which will be the occasion for deeper self-knowledge.
It is probably not the greatest moral crisis of your life if you did decide, in a weak moment, to have a glass of wine, have a dessert or miss your Lenten daily reading – if any of these were your chosen ascetical exercise. What matters is how you deal with the failure of the will and whether you start again.
A young meditator who has a very modern (and healthily guilt-free) approach to discipline illustrated this for me. He believes strongly in meditation and knows how it helps him at all levels; and he sees how, through the daily discipline, grace silently builds on nature. I was surprised then when he told me that he had quit for a week. I asked why. He said that he had struggled with his meditation because he could not get rid of his expectations and demands and self-examination of his progress. This was dragging him back. He knew he should let go of it all but he couldn’t. He knew meditation is about detachment, so he decided to practice detachment from meditation - for a week. He thought this was a cool idea and, for him fortunately, it seems to have been. The desert fathers said we should not make the way to become free of the passions into a passion.
First of all, he had a very difficult week without meditation, which taught him just what a necessary and beautiful gift meditation is for him. He felt old patterns of anxiety and irritability surge back and the sense of connection weaken on all fronts. This sense of connection is the measure of meaning in anyone’s life. It arises from the connection between our surface and deeper self, from the connection to those close to us and then to those we meet as strangers or even as enemies. After this week of turbulence he resumed his meditation and found, as he had hoped, that he could practice it now with more detachment and a less anxious measuring of results.
John Main also gave up meditation in full stream, though for different reasons and for longer. He was obeying his novice master who did not understand this way of prayer. But when he came back to it, after rediscovering of his own tradition, he said he returned to meditation ‘on God’s terms, not my own’.
These examples point to the question of the self, through very particular personalities and circumstances which are perhaps to be learned from rather than imitated. This is the central question for any spiritual path. Who (really) am I? And this question is lit up by our experience of desire and the will that we usually identify with freedom. To be free is to do what we want, surely? So, the question ‘who am I?’ also means what does it mean to be free? We will continue to explore these during our third week of Lent.
(If you did fall away, why not just start again?)
We cannot know God without knowing ourselves. Otherwise, God would be only the successful result of a scientific experiment that we were conducting, not what God means as the source, ground and goal of being itself.
The awkward thing is that the path of self-knowledge takes us (as we saw in the first week) through valleys of death. These are the painful dis-illusionments of our maturing. How can we get to know ourselves without sometimes being ashamed and hurt by discovering that we are not what we (or others) thought we were? The outcome of these painful unveilings of the deeper levels of ourself is always good, in the long run. But, because there is suffering involved in self-knowledge, we often resist, deny or evade it, maybe for decades. A typical example is an addict coming to recognise and humbly admitting his problem. But it may also happen to an acclaimed philanthropist who slowly realises he helps others mainly because of the good image of himself it gives him.
One reason that the process of self-knowledge is difficult is because it exposes the deep, often deeply buried conflicts within ourselves. Falling off the Lenten bandwagon (like breaking our promises or new year’s resolutions) achieves this exposure of a division within our will. If what I am is what I want, what happens if I have to admit that I want different things, simultaneously and irreconcilably? Wife and mistress. Family life and major business travel. Chocolate cake and a slim waist. God and mammon. Netflix and the evening meditation.
For the well-constructed ego (a ‘successful’ or popular person usually has built one), this discovery of the divided self can be devastating. The inner eruption, which put St Paul out of business for a few years, turned him from a persecutor into a victim who then saw a transcendent glory that transformed victimhood into the highest human dignity and humility. Even after he had started the new life and become a teacher of it, and touched mystical heights, he suffered from a visceral conflict of desire. What he wanted he did not want. What he did not want he wanted.
For him, this rude awakening shattered his self-righteous ego and helped him to see that rules and legalism will never lead to self-knowledge, the knowledge of God or to the freedom of the new life. Oddly enough, it is often in breaking a rule that – at least for the righteous or the guilt-ridden – the purpose of the rule is revealed. Perhaps that’s why St Benedict’s wisdom is built around a Rule that is so full of exceptions.
As we will sing on Holy Saturday: ‘O felix culpa’. O happy fault of Adam. Or, as Mother Julian of Norwich took the risk to say, ‘sin is behovely’. This rare word has a Scrabble value of 19 but possesses a more valuable meaning for the spiritual seeker. Necessary, advantageous. The root meaning of the word combines the sense of ‘grasping’ with ‘something profitable’.
So, if your Lent hasn’t been perfect; if you feel you have failed in your discipline or that you fail consistently in your meditation, all is not lost. Indeed through this very sense of failure all may be won.
The danger of the spiritual journey is self-absorption, thinking too much and too often about our progress, success or failure. This is our default form of awareness. We can hardly help seeing the world as a solar system revolving around me as the sun. On the occasions where we are redeemed from this and become other-centred, we often don’t know what happened. Later looking back to the happiness and peace it brought us, we don’t remember it was due to the fact that for a while we had involuntarily stopped being so damned self-centred.
It is easy to try to repeat the conditions that led us to such happiness – a person, a place, a delight – oblivious to the basic condition of selflessness that caused it. Happiness, when we remember it as a past event, is seen as a result of a cause. In fact, happiness is always present and it is the cause of the results. Lent allows us to see that the secret of happiness and the dynamic of the spiritual journey are one. This is such an obvious secret we should call it ‘mystery’ instead. As long as we think it is a ‘secret’ we will search for the code, the password, the key, the esoteric trick that will get it for us. When we see it as mystery we realise we have only to walk into it and not look back. Lent can be just this determined step through this portal of mystery.
Diadochus, who we consulted earlier in Lent, understood this in terms of loving others. Because ‘loving’ has so many meanings and overtones for us, let’s simply call it paying genuine (that is, selfless) attention to others. Diadochus says that when we experience the love of God in its richness we begin to love others with an awareness that arises directly from our spiritual dimension. Sometimes when people meditate for the first time, in a trusting and childlike way, with no demands or expectations, a trapdoor opens in them and they fall into an experience they have never known before and have no way to describe. They rarely call it love, because it is different from what we imagine love to be. But it is in fact the rich and enriching love of God at the centre and source of our being.
Touching – or being touched – by this, even for an instant, triggers an ongoing conversion. A major effect of this is felt throughout all our relationships. Diadochus says the new quality of attention we bring to our relationships is the love the scriptures speak of. Friendship, as we normally experience it, is quite fragile. Betrayals, disappointments, distrust or jealousy can shake or break the best of them. But, if this rich love has been awakened in us, we are better able to weather the storm and the relationship may survive. ‘When a person is spiritually awakened, even if something irritates him, the bond of love is not dissolved; rekindling himself with the warmth of the love of God, he quickly recovers himself and with great joy seeks his neighbour’s love, even though he has been gravely wronged or insulted.’
We saw yesterday that the spiritual art of living is not about will-power. Forgiving, healing and renewing relationships is also not about being superhumanly detached and saintly. It is the natural response for anyone who has drunk from the deeper spring of love within. We may describe this as an enhanced capacity to pay attention. It is in fact more: a greater capacity to love. Or, as Diadochus, says ‘the sweetness of God completely consumes the bitterness of the quarrel.’
A very old Chinese meditator told me once that even at this late phase of his life he was sometimes beset by what he called ‘fearful thoughts’. They came from his past but still felt very powerful in the present. They might concern his health, his guilt for things he had done wrong, the fear of failure, rejection or exposure. They would surge up but, since he had been meditating, they were far less capable of overwhelming him.
I was reminded of an experience I had for a while as an adolescent, when I would often wake up in the morning initially fresh and clear-minded. But within a second or two of consciously remembering who and where I was and what I had to do that day, I would feel a tight, heavy, dark knot grow in my chest. Not quite a physical pain, yet, but it could easily have become one. I had to ignore it, get out of bed and then quite quickly, my activity pushed this knot of fear back into its hiding hole.
The old meditator told me how his old fearful thoughts periodically rushed out of their hiding places during meditation. He would say the mantra as faithfully as he could through these storms, feeling he was not having a ‘good meditation’, but also knowing that he was doing just what he had to do. He knew that these fears were illusory; but they were nonetheless disturbing and he feared the effect of the fear on him should it become unmanageable. After the meditation he had regained his freedom and a sentence would often form in his mind: ‘It’s so good to return to reality’.
The Samaritan woman at the well might have felt that after she had confronted the fear and anger that she projected onto Jesus and the rest of the world at the beginning of her encounter with him. At the end of the story she has regained her place in the community of the village and has re-sourced the inner freedom selflessly to give others something good that had touched her and that she knew she could share. Jesus had called it a stream of living water welling up from within.
A few days ago at Bonnevaux I was walking through the grounds with some visitors. We visited the two springs, each at either end of the property, which I find very holy and pure places. At each of them, the ground around has been opened up to expose the stream of clean water flowing from some secret and mysterious place deep in the earth. Maybe this was done by the twelfth century monks who came they to build their monastery there, but probably also by much earlier, unrecorded dwellers on the land. Springs are timeless. Ever-present, constant and new. They heal the wounds of the past.
The French for ‘spring’ is ‘source’.
The art of living that we try to refresh, or even discover for the first time, in Lent is to live from the source. The spring of consciousness flows into visible existence as naturally as water bubbles up from the ground or a new born baby appears. The closer we are to the source the more innocent we know we are. Inevitably, though, the water acquires a certain cloudiness, impurity or even toxicity after it has been flowing for some time. It is sad it has to be like this, but it is one of the ways that we actually become more conscious. So, we might say, impurity, loss of innocence is both inevitable and has a purpose. It makes us conscious of the effect of the ‘distance’ between us and the source and what our relationship to the source really is.
We have to put ‘distance’ in inverted commas or else we take the metaphor too literally. If we’re not careful (attentive), we can easily fall into feeling that we are out of touch with the spring of being. That we are lost, alienated, separated. We become nostalgic for a primal purity and innocence of being. Experience, age, time, feel like a sad decline that overshadows even all the real benefits and delights that life brings. Unchallenged, it would lead into a bitter old age. This despair can strike down even the young.
The truth is that every moment we are carried along on the stream of existence that flows from the spring of being. Even when blocked it will force its way through and flow again. Being (like the Father in the Christian idea of God) remains always invisible, a hidden source. Existence (like the Son) is the visible expression of being. It unites the source to the other end of life, the goal, the ocean of being that first becomes knowable in the little spring bubbling up in a corner of a field. The unity of the source and the goal is the Spirit of wholeness.
The visible stream of being in daily life mysteriously mingles purity with impurity, joy with suffering, innocence and guilt, peace with stress, love with fear. In Lent, through giving up, letting go and making more time to pray, we learn to see and accept and actually rejoice in this mixed up mixture that is human existence. We are not angels, thank God. We are not exact answers to mathematical questions. We are not mechanical models. Through our growth in self-knowledge, we see that impurity is useful because it makes us better able to taste the freshness of the spring.
The Kingdom is very close to you, Jesus said. The wisdom of the ages is that the sense of distance, however real it feels and however crippling it can be for our psychological performance in the world, is in fact illusion.
Meditation convinces us not to identify ourselves with the impurities, the flotsam and jetsam that the stream of life accumulates as it becomes a river. We have a wonderful variety of words to describe the different sizes and manifestations of the flow of the spring: words like brook, stream, rivulet, river, ruisseau, courant, fleuve – sorry translators, please add words from your own language to the list... Silence, fortunately, does not need translation, because it is neither conceptual nor linked to the pictures that words embody. Meditation purifies our minds by the always fresh experience of discovering that we are the source as well as the stream and the river. We have this wonderful oneness which makes us essential spiritual beings. In fact, even when we are most impure we are still divinely fresh.
I was showing a woman around a house that she had once known well. When we came to an ordinary bedroom she stopped and looked at it with evidently deep feeling. I let her ponder it and when she realised she had shown her feelings she apologised. Then she began to explain, became a little embarrassed but eventually told me it was the room where her first child had been conceived. For her it was not an ordinary room. For me it was a moment to see something special in the ordinary, from another, and for me unusual point of view.
There’s nothing special about the 25th March except that it is the day (in scriptural time) when Jesus was conceived. We recognise this in the Feast of the Annunciation when Gabriel came to visit Mary and she gave her consent to being over-shadowed by the Holy Spirit. Nine months exactly to Christmas Day. Who is thinking about Christmas at this time of the year except marketing departments?
The days of our actual conception usually pass unremarked and perhaps (I’m not sure) cannot be exactly calculated. Yet they are undeniably important moments in our journey from the Being-mind of God, where we exist from eternity, into being terrestrial and temporal existences.
Meaning, like truth, emerges. It doesn’t just explode and land fully developed and labelled on our lap. One part of us does tend towards wanting fixed points and answers and sees meaning merely as an explanation of things. But the deeper mind knows that meaning is about connections; and the more interwoven and comprehensive the network of connections, the greater the experience of meaning. This takes time. At a business school, as the students approach graduation and look for jobs, they are busy networking. This becomes an increasingly important priority for them and it can become very stressful if they feel they aren’t making enough useful connections to launch their new career. Often I feel they are trying too hard.
A network of meaning-full connections cannot be built on one or two encounters. Trust - is like knowing someone beyond the charm (or otherwise) of their persona. It has to grow and mature. Growth is not a conceptual but organic process, dependent on the environment and the acts of God also known as accidents. Every relationship, even the most fleeting, opens us to a whole parallel universe of potential connections, which we best meet with a light touch. To try and grasp it too quickly is to damage the connection and create mistrust. So much of any intimacy that survives and grows relies upon detachment and the wisdom of the optimum distance.
Lent is characterised by the same ordinariness that made the wandering Israelites periodically so idolatrous. It is a daily lesson in the art of living from the centre outwards, from below the surface appearance of things. Meditation – which is really Lent and Easter combined – also teaches us not to dismiss the significance of a half-hour of silence in which nothing particular happens. As John Main said this actually is preferable. ‘In meditation,’ he said, ‘nothing happens and, if it does, ignore it.’ There is obviously both a paradox and a meaningful joke hidden in this enlightening remark.
Fourth Week of Lent (26 March - 1 April)
Today’s gospel (John 9) is about the healing of a man born blind. Like the story of the Samaritan woman last week, it is told on many levels of meaning opening on to each other. Despite the apparent obviousness of the story it has Shakespearian depths and, like our experience of life, reveals how multi-faceted reality is.
The disciples ask Jesus who was responsible for the man’s condition – his parents or himself? It’s hard to see from this question how either was to blame without having inherited karma. Anyway Jesus dismisses this approach by saying the meaning of the man’s suffering is found in the way God is revealed through healing. This may not answer all our rational questions, but it gives us a definitive direction. In other words, look ahead, not in the rear-view mirror, for the connections that yield meaning. Then, as if to illustrate a point, rather like a busy Emergency Department doctor, Jesus heals him (thereby breaking the union rules by working on the Sabbath).
Jesus merges back into the crowd, hardly giving the man time to see him. However the people and then the authorities hear of the event. Some sceptics are not convinced it is the same individual they knew as the blind man who was hanging around the place. The parents are dragged into the controversy and, for fear of getting involved, disclaim any knowledge and leave their son to fend for himself – the first glimpse of the solitude which the man is being plunged into. Under questioning, the man holds his ground about the healing and is quickly condemned as a troublemaker, dismissed as someone ‘born in sin’. If you answer us like that (they are saying),being handicapped was your own fault and you don’t deserve to be healed. He was excommunicated. A good example of how often religious people don’t welcome the power of God meddling in their affairs. But Jesus hears of this and seeks him out.
The next level of meaning and intimacy in the story begins, as often with this healer of humanity, with a question. Jesus asks if he believes (has faith) in the Son of God. The man honestly replies, well I might if I knew who he was. Then, just as he did with the Samaritan woman, who was another outcast, Jesus simply identifies himself. You’re looking at him. The man spontaneously opened to faith, believed and bowed down in spirit.
In these few moves we have passed from a cure to a healing. The man crossed rapidly from a place of affliction through a testing of his character and the painful experience of exclusion and rejection into a life-transforming relationship of faith.
As the experience of silence and presence deepens over time, we might see the journey of meditation as taking us along the same trajectory, though probably less quickly.
The Christian imagination saw the biblical account of the Exodus – the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert with Moses as their GPS – as a symbol of Lent. Quite regularly, they would rebel. First they craved the food they had left behind and found their desert diet unbearably boring. Then, when Moses disappeared up the mountain into the cloud of unknowing to speak with God and receive the Ten Commandments, they felt abandoned and lonely.
Although they complained endlessly about their fate and blamed Moses for everything, when he went away they were leaderless and confused. Their inner compass lost direction. Aaron, one of the false leaders who are always at hand when the people get restless, took them in the wrong direction. (Leavers and Remainers in the Brexit schism in Britain would disagree on how to apply this story to their present situation). Maybe Aaron felt he had to do something and that he didn’t have Moses’s charisma to keep the people steady. For whatever reason he did the terrible thing that the Israelites were always prone to do when things got bad for them. He turned them towards false gods. He asked them to hand over their gold jewellery to melt down and fashion as a golden calf. This suggests how much we are prepared to sacrifice for the false consolation offered by illusion.
Having made the new idol they began worshipping it but soon the worship turned into revelry. This makes for good television if the censors permit. Perhaps it shows that what we really want when we are desperate is not a god but entertainment. Our own culture is less about idolatry, although we absolutise many foolish things and create celebrity as an alternative to sanctity. It is more about entertaining ourselves continuously with whatever stimulates, titillates or distracts us. We stay up late at night gorging on entertainment. We cannot make a short train journey without watching a film and having a snack. And of course we feed our children a diet of animated distraction delivered by various electronic devices.
This is understandable and also forgivable. The wisdom necessary for survival is that we have to forgive ourselves for our own stupidities. Simone Weil said that consolation is the only resort of those who are afflicted. And to lose direction, to feel abandoned, to have lost our good leaders and to feel that even God has left us is to be sorely afflicted. The only problem is that this kind of consolation is illusion and illusion eats away at the very foundations of our sense of self. In trying to escape the darkness, it t opens the abyss. It leads to disorder of the psyche and to chaos in the community.
Every so often, from time to time, we all find fidelity boring. Unless we are encouraged and inspired from some authentic source, these moments of weakness lead us to crave variety for its own sake. We become impatient. We lose hope that fidelity to the path we are following will produce the richness and delight that, at other times, we believe it will. This weakness in human nature is also a source of strength. But it is a design fault in everything we do that needs patience, fidelity and commitment, from saying the mantra to marriage, from seeing a project through to completion to waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain.
Mark Rothko became the great displayer of pure colour in the last period of his life. Several of his huge canvases form the Rothko Chapel in Houston (near to where we are holding the John Main Seminar in August). They are not in the chapel. They are the chapel and there is no other work or sign in the circular space except these fourteen dark-hued canvases. The experience of presence is vast and personal and almost oppressive, at least until you yield to it.
In answer to a question about what his paintings meant, Rothko once said ‘my pictures are not pictures of an experience. They are an experience.’ After seeing them, I think we listen to these words as a simple description and not as an expression of self-importance of any kind. They remind me of one of John Main’s characteristic teachings about the simplicity of meditation. He wanted people not to imagine what the ‘experience’ is like or to discuss it but to enter into it. He would say ‘don’t try to experience the experience’. In our modern mind’s very self-conscious and self-evaluating approach to everything this is an important point to listen to and try to understand. (How often do we read a political story and realise it is not about the issues but the personalities or the opinion polls?) If we are not alert to this habit of mind, we are driving along the meditation highway with our handbrake on, wondering why a red light is flashing on our dashboard and why there is a smell of burning rubber. The same truth is found in the remark of Jesus at the beginning of Lent not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing when you perform a good deed. (Don’t sacrifice the flow of life to fixity of observation).
The movement of thought and feeling in the 19th century that we call ‘Romanticism’ has little to do with Hollywood romantic comedies. It was protest and reaction against the increasing left-brain bias of modern life, that subjects all experience to microscopic examination and analysis and, in doing so, loses the gestalt, the wholeness, or as we might say the spiritual dimension. Many of the Romantics had suffered clinical depression because of this. They found their way through by opening to a new way of perceiving the world in its beauty and fresh immediacy. Thomas Carlyle expressed it like this: "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation exhaust themselves on that."
Once you see this for yourself it is the simplest and most obvious thing in the world. Other-centredness - not seeking one’s own happiness as an end in itself – is the way. Saying the mantra as an expression of this awareness takes the handbrake off.
It is the meaning of whatever practices we are observing during Lent, however successfully or poorly we may evaluate them.
John Main thought that the besetting sin of Christians was to underestimate the full wonder of their faith and potential. It is incredible. This is a faith that presents such mind-expanding perspectives about the infinite capacity of human nature and about the relationship between God, nature and the whole human spectrum of tenderness, joy and suffering. Yet in the old Christendom of the West it is now largely seen as dull, socially conservative, moralistic and over-concerned, if not obsessed, with genital sexuality. In other areas, it is distastefully fundamentalist, impolite to other faiths, exclusive and as intellectually restricted as the White House. What went wrong? And, can it be turned around to bring its measure of hope and creative energy to our modern crisis?
If I had to say yes or no I’d say yes. But, of course, I don’t know and the question in this form is probably too grand and abstract. Perhaps at this stage we need a contemplative rather than an ecclesiastical approach. I like the distinction, for example, between ‘ecclesial’ and ecclesiastical’. Both refer to the ‘church’ but with quite different meanings. Ecclesial suggests an emergent awareness of depth and meaning within a welcoming community opening access to something greater than the sum of its parts. It is a living, symbolic world in which we are freed from legalism by the discipline of worship. Ecclesiastical means, well , churchy, which the best religious people would agree is at least unattractive if not actually repellent. Nevertheless, there is such a thing as religious love and it is a wonderful form of love to discover. But it is not churchy.
What we can say is less about ‘how to make the church relevant’ or ‘how to get young people more involved’. We can act from and on the truth that an extraordinary yet universal experience remains latent in every human being. Even without words to explain it, this experience can be awakened to show each of us the wonder and depth of what Christian faith is all about. For example, peace. This peace that the scriptures speak about all the time is there. Or joy. Joy is an inner spring waiting to be untapped, way beyond the temples of consumerism. If we focused more on awakening this experience the future shape and meaning of the church would unfold and we wouldn’t just be counting the numbers of bums on pews.
In fact, though, we can’t awaken this experience for others. That is the mistake of putting all the emphasis on ‘going to church’. Going to most churches makes sense as a response to this experience rather than as a way of finding it. Although, if you’re lucky, you may find a church with a good and loving community that helps a wide range of people to find this experience for themselves and together.
I’m not sure what this has got to do specifically with Lent. I’ll think of a connection for tomorrow. Except that one of the least churchy expressions of Christianity was that of the early desert monks. They lived and breathed Lent daily with joy, compassion and spiritual intelligence. And, after the words of Jesus, that’s where the wisdom of meditation most powerfully flows into the Christian way of faithful living.
Here, I hope, is the connection with Lent from yesterday.
I was recently meditating with a group of doctors and nurses working in a very stressful branch of public medicine. They are an extraordinarily generous and compassionate collection of individuals who form a powerfully supportive team of professional friendship. They also really want to meditate. They express their motivation differently but it is, not surprisingly, related to the dangers inherent in their work. Dangers such as burnout (shutting down internally, while going through the motions on the surface) or even various forms of self-harm, from losing the balance of the personal and professional aspects of their lives or the physical and psychological consequences of unmanaged stress.
Most also struggle with finding time to meditate. This struggle shows them how meditation leads to self-knowledge even in the learning process itself. We understand and see ourselves better when we fail to do what we want to do. Of course, this may lead us to give up. But, more positively, it may help us review our goals, to overcome our resistance or just to manage time more sensibly. Most people admit they could find the time to meditate if they set their mind to it.
Similarly, our Lenten observance encourages self-knowledge, whether we are satisfied with our measure of observance or not. This self-knowledge leads to what the desert teachers called ‘discretion’. Nothing is more important than discretion on the spiritual path we refer to as ‘life’. It obeys the eternal laws of things without falling into the trap of being legalistic. That is why the teachers of the desert said that acquiring self-knowledge is more important than the ability to work miracles.
The purer level of self-knowledge, however, is what I wrote about yesterday as the experience that cannot be experienced. Does this sound rather astral and esoteric? Not if you listened to the medics who are learning to meditate. We were speaking about stillness – of body and mind - as an essential element of meditation. I asked if any of them had experienced stillness. Up till then they had spoken of their meditation largely in terms of distraction and failure. But, given a little push, some of them acknowledged that they had glimpsed, for a fleeting moment, what stillness meant. Almost immediately they began to think about this experience and, of course, it was lost.
Most of what we call experience is simply memory, the impression left by a pure moment in which we were freed from our usual self-consciousness. The experience in itself is an unveiling that takes down the structures of time in our thought and imagination. It is purely present. As soon as we call it an experience it recedes. Over time, our memory of it fades and often becomes inaccurate. Only the pure experience ultimately matters. It cannot be repeated at will, but we can always be open to it. Our ungrasping openness is faith. As faith strengthens so does the awareness of the continuous presence, even if we are not actually in the experience.
The doctors are on a time-limited introduction to meditation. Like Lent the time-limit gives us the incentive and the discipline to wriggle free of time and to touch the present.
In Westminster a few days ago a British-born man in his fifties, with a long history of criminal violence and instability ruthlessly killed four people in what was called another terrorist attack. The savage and pointless infliction of suffering on innocent people breaks one’s heart. It fades from the front page, security barricades are increased and the infection of fear worsens. But the personal grief of relatives and friends of those killed or injured by such an impersonal expression of hatred will last a lifetime.
The deranged murderer had converted to Islam and also changed his name several times. Like many who kill in the name of Allah they are really converted to a perverse religious vision hiding under the label of this faith that allows them to vent their personal rage at the world and to be applauded, by some, for doing so. Most of these terrorists seem to be mentally ill, repressed, social and psychological failures in life who are easily turned by ruthless radicalisers. We are told these events will continue to happen. Many can be stopped but some, like this one, will always get through the net. It is something the West will have to live with until complex political and religious conflicts that we cannot understand and are happening a long way away, are resolved. In the meantime we will live through this ‘terrorist’ age as people have lived through other, and in fact even worse, periods of violence and chaos.
The media reports it all in graphic detail, giving the high publicity that the terrorists crave. Politicians and religious leaders denounce such acts searching for the most condemnatory terms to use. But there is increasingly a feeling of deja-vu, of fatalism in the repetition of shock and fear that slowly eats away at the heart of any society. This is, of course, what the perpetrators of terrorism want.
Is there a contemplative response to these tragic events of our age of terror?
Contemplation raises the levels of wisdom and compassion in individuals and in the community. Wisdom is practical and knows that it has first to protect the innocent from attack. But it has also to look into the causes of what seems mere madness, to ask the uncomfortable questions. Compassion can exclude no one, innocent or guilty. There is no deeper way to prevent the erosion of society by fear or hatred, than to explicitly extend the power of compassion to the guilty. St Paul (Rom 12:21) says that it is excruciating to be forgiven, like pouring burning coals on the head of your enemy. He is echoing the Book of Proverbs (25:21) that says, long before Jesus made it central to his teaching: If your enemy is hungry give him food to eat, give him water to drink. For you will heap burning coals on his head. The Lord will reward you.’
Forgiveness is not an easy virtue to understand or justify politically. But it is essential to healing and moral survival. Our faith tradition is committed to it. The West is, ostensibly, being attacked by terrorists because it is Christian. How Christian is the testing question. How we express it is our challenge. In Lent above all, in this season of simplification and reduction, and even under attack and in grief, we can draw on the wisdom and compassion present in the human heart and which is also the source of our faith.
It’s a good bet that any time we turn on the news we will hear of an atrocity, a tragedy, a horrible accident or a crime that reflects the worst mutation of human nature. Ireland, I notice, is particularly fond in the daily news of car crashes and murders. These things happen and we should not be in denial about them. But if we are exposed to them so disproportionately in the media it must be either because the media are trying to depress us or because we derive some satisfaction or stimulation by hearing about them. The little scraps of good news items we are thrown at the end of the broadcast only highlight the overall gloom of existence on this planet.
It is hard to respond to the question, often asked by someone you haven’t met for a while, ‘so what’s been happening in your life?’. You start scanning and feel helpless. How and what do you select from the flow of events and impressions? How really interested would your questioner be in an answer that tries to represent the diversity of happenings, or in anything more than the usual evasive answer, ‘everything’s good, fine, thank you’.
It’s easy to feel that only big things and dramatic outcomes (good or bad) are worth talking about. There’s something in this, in fact, as talking of minutiae and trivialities or the small things that went wrong can be boring. ‘Well, yesterday I was making a cup of tea and turned on the kettle. It took ages to boil and then I realised I hadn’t shut the lid of the kettle properly. It has a new failsafe mechanism that won’t let the kettle work unless it’s tightly closed. Even saying ‘amazing’ won’t make that interesting. Boring is the really bad news.
We can also, however, experience liberating meaning, beauty and wonder in something generally deemed dull and ordinary. This is really good news. If you have been genuinely moved by a change in the weather, for example, rather than seeing it as a sign of how uninteresting your life is, people will be grateful for you sharing such a discovery. The very English poet George Herbert shows this in his great poem The Flower:
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing
This is the kind of deep news found also in the great scriptures. What is amazing is how dull religious people can be in possession of such a treasure. Even if, for example, it happens to be wrapped, as in tomorrow’s gospel, in a miracle of healing, it’s not just the cure that is interesting. It’s how the cured person’s experience of life is changed and what they do with the little extra time for living it gives them to see the depth dimension of the ordinary.
Lent should be attuning us to this kind of deep news that really makes us new.
Fifth Week of Lent (2 - 8 April)
Churchgoers today have another long gospel to stand through. The story of the healing of Lazarus in John (11:1-45) really needs to be sat down to appreciate its many rich layers. It describes the sudden death of a friend Jesus loved and his sharing in the grief of his two sisters, the active Martha and the contemplative Mary.
The story shows Jesus both at his most powerful and his most humanly vulnerable. He was gripped viscerally by the loss, deeper than words. We are told he gave a sigh that came straight from his heart. What can we say in the face of the disappearance of someone we love? We don’t know if they have evaporated into nothing or plunged into some deep level of reality that we are still too gross and unenlightened to penetrate. The feeling of being left behind evokes endless layers of pre-conscious memory. The wordless sigh expresses a pain of absence from which tears come. And we are told, in the shortest full verse in all the four gospels, that ‘Jesus wept.’
Some people include these potent two words in the repertoire of minor blasphemies that colour their speech when driving or mistakenly deleting an email. It might understandably be offensive to the pious, but it could also be seen as an invocation, however unconscious, of the empathy that Jesus has with suffering humanity. The tears of Jesus for Lazarus, we feel, arose not only from the personal anguish he felt at the loss of someone he loved but from his immersion in the whole ocean of human pain. When we hurt, we hurt with all those who are hurting or have ever hurt through both dimensions of time and space.
When Aeneas gazes at a mural depicting war scenes and the death of friends he is moved to say ‘There are tears in things and mortal things touch the mind.’ The tears of things. Our humanity is diminished if we cannot feel and honour them whenever and however we encounter suffering. Perhaps that is why we relish bad news, to make us feel that we can still feel even in the over-stimulated and distracted state of media culture.
This empathy or compassion form part of the deep news hidden in the ordinary, whether the breaking news feels good or bad. Tears are a wave of energy that brings healing and new life. After his descent into the silence of deep compassion Jesus ‘calls in a strong voice’:
‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’ The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’
Tears prove our attention to be real. Sustained attention heals; regenerates what is dead; warms what is cold. And it puts colour back into what has turned a lifeless grey.
Machiavelli, the archetypical politician, said that the ‘most difficult thing is to change the order of things’. It is a typical western idea, a left-brain habit of mind, to assume that we should and could change things. It is the game of politics without wisdom that we are all disillusioned with by now. Somehow, though, we take it for granted that if we have a strong enough will, if we are clever and have a bit of luck, we can do anything. We can control things.
East and West today have met, crossed over each other several times and in many ways blended, at least for certain classes of society. But there remain some typical Eastern assumption and mind-sets that offer great challenges to the western mind. One of these is to allow oneself to be changed, into something better, by accepting the way things are going, going with the flow rather than changing the course of the river by explosives and heavy engineering. Being still rather than impulsively interfering. Being rather than doing.
Either approach carries a price. The activist, will-centred attempt to change the order of things can be frustrating and offer only short-lived victories. The contemplative approach demands a training of the mind and emotions through a continuous practice of attention. Change begins within before it affects the external world. The price for this is higher because the change involved is authentic and enduring. It demands a condition called pure prayer, of ‘complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.’
I was talking with someone recently who was facing this price. Someone had told him that when strong forces arise during meditation and stop you from saying the mantra, it was alright to choose to take the attention off the mantra. Or, if you are saying it and become blocked, you stop saying it, identify and name the distraction responsible before returning to the mantra. The advice of the school of meditation we follow advises us to simply say the mantra and return to it, not to stop to label the distraction.
If you don’t know what saying the mantra means (to see the mantra as a happy Lent), this distinction might seem like spiritual hair-splitting. In a way it is, the distinction is so fine. But, if you do know what the mantra is, you will see the point of the fine difference. You will sense its importance to the kind of practice and experience that meditation will be for you. I think it also makes a difference to the kind of change it produces.
I am not saying one way is good and the other evil. One should never diminish or disrespect another person’s practice. There are many tracks winding up the hill of truth. But I think it is important to see that complete simplicity means a shift of attention from the power of the fixed will to the power of the flow. To stop and resume the will’s work of labelling and naming is not the end of the world but it is a stopping of the train. Even when a train is slowed down it is still moving. There will be time enough, when you get to the next station (after the meditation period), to review what caused the slowdown. But again, don’t spend so much time doing this that you miss the train when it starts again.
Letting go of our ego-centric will in complete simplicity is the first, and continuously repeated, step of the journey. We are always setting out and once started , why stop?
In the first of the readings for today we see the Israelites again finding the trek through the wilderness overwhelmingly tedious. They crave for variety and novel stimulation, just as they longed earlier to return to familiar food even at the cost of resuming the condition of slavery. If you know your addictions, you will easily recognise this recurrent tendency in the will.
In recompense for their inability to remain bored and so transcend their will, they got fiery serpents to bite them. It is a powerful symbol of what it is like being controlled by your desires. And again it is something we can all recognise, at gross or subtle levels. Woe to anyone who thinks they have complete mastery over themselves.
The second reading continues to expound the painful cry of Jesus in the wilderness of his relationships with those who contested and could not recognise him. These people personify the short-sightedness and bloody-mindedness of the resistance to the desert. It shows the conflict between their ignorance and his failure to communicate to them what he longed, with the eternal longing of the enlightened part of ourselves , to share completely. ‘I have shared with you everything I have learned from my Father,’ he tells his disciples on the eve of his death.
When his detractors ask him ‘who are you?’ they are stopping the flow in order to label the experience. To receive what he tries to share they would have to let go of the illusion of control, the modelling of reality, that is our worst addiction. It is one degree of poverty too far for them, as it is for us in life most of the time and in meditation much of the time. He cannot answer their question in their terms and remain truthful. He would have to lie to put it in a way that would satisfy them and feed their self-justification. So he keeps in the flow and responds by invoking the ‘one who sent him’, who is truthful and who has taught him everything that he wants to ‘declare to the world’
In this breakdown of communication and the beginning of hostilities that will lead to his death, he reveals a vast tenderness. Whether his Father has a long white beard and sits on a throne, or not, he is an ocean of truthful tenderness. It is accompanied by the ever-vulnerable gentleness of self-recognition that happens when we are absorbed in the truth, in beauty or in love. In God.
He is not trying to paste one label over another in a war of ideas. He is not trying to win, to control, to establish theological mastery. Confronted with the worst of religion (that hatefully denies God in God’s name), he abandons religion and all we can see is the burning luminosity of his spirit, his relationship to his source.
As we come closer to Holy Week, I need to get something off my chest. It is my problem with religion, religious words, ritual, symbolism, belief. From childhood these things have been quite precious to me and frequently a source of deep enrichment. They have been, and still are, bridges from the surface of things to the deeper levels of reality. For me, they have been a way of avoiding the mundane horror of living on the surface, as if one were a stone skimming across the waves, before sinking like – well, like a stone. I feel a natural affinity with the language of religion. A life or world-view that ridicules or excludes it seems to me very incomplete. Attempts by twentieth-century totalitarian regimes to eradicate religion failed, as would attempts to ban music, art, or (as Plato wanted to do in his ideal world) poetry. Nevertheless, we should expose and avoid bad religion which is just as much a possibility as bad music or bad art. We won’t get here into how to decide what good and bad mean. Most people would agree that American TV evangelism that exploits the poor and promises favours from God in return for donations to the evangelist’s luxurious lifestyle is an example of bad religion. Or a religion that disrespects other religions.
Yet, Lent for me feels in some way a refreshing break from religiosity, a reduction in the dosage. The emphasis is on the desert rather than the church, silence rather than words, stillness rather than ritual. The monk’s life, as I quoted from St Benedict some weeks ago, is a perpetual Lent. I take it in this sense, not only walking the tightrope of moderation but not allowing religion to get out of proportion. For example, Benedict (who was not a priest) said that the work-tools of the monastery should be treated with the same reverence as the vessels of the altar. Religion should not be sequestrated, isolated from ordinary life. The sacred and the profane must merge in a religion centred on the Incarnation and the humanity of God.
This does not mean the desert monks or St Benedict were Quakers. A life without the Eucharist, for me, would feel like walking in the desert of life without manna. But it is a sacrament not magic, a sign of a reality whose source lies within us, not a way of manipulating things, or a compulsive activity. This is why the contemplative experience, as awakened by daily meditation, although threatening to some pious people, actually helps those who are put off by the church’s religiosity to reconnect to its symbolic life and language in a new way. You don’t need to be religious for meditation to lead you into the experience of contemplation. One can’t say that meditation will make you religious, in the conventional sense of becoming a regular church-goer; but it will reveal the true nature and meaning of religion.
Aquinas said that ‘creation is the primary and most perfect revelation of the divine’. To be in communion with nature is therefore a form of worship. Creation, the beautiful world, is the essential church. I came across this quotation from Aquinas in a book I would like to tell you about tomorrow. Not a book of Lenten readings, I hasten to add, but still a good book for Lent.
I went recently to hear a talk, at the launch of her new book, by a friend of mine who lives in a small village in East Anglia. Rosamond Richardson has written several books about the countryside, on the cultural history of wild flowers and trees and about food. She loves to walk. She writes from a place you trust and would like to know better. Her talk was about birds and meditation, though she never mentioned meditation.
Surprisingly, it was only recently that she discovered the world of birds. During a time of personal pain this new world brought her an expansion of awareness, a new relationship with the natural world (that Aquinas said is the ‘primary and most perfect revelation of the divine’) and with a new source of healing. As a true herbalist will tell you, if you know anything about nature, you will always discover more about how nature itself is the source of health.
Rosamond’s new book, my recommendation for the last week of Lent especially for those who feel they have had too much religion, is ‘Waiting for the Albino Dunnock: How Birds Can Change your Life’.
Her writing about the countryside and the bird world she has discovered there conveys to us, her readers, more of the full experience of creation than any TV wildlife documentary. It shows how words are more powerful than a thousand pictures, though in our media-frenzied world we believe the opposite. She is, as she confesses, a busy and curiosity-driven personality. She took up running. But birds introduced her to contemplative walking and to the joys of still, patient, silent waiting.
In her talk I learned that the verb ‘to saunter’, meaning to walk in a slow, relaxed manner, to stroll or amble, derives from the French ‘sainte terre’ or ‘holy land’. The pilgrims who walked to the Holy Land to visit the sacred sites where Jesus lived, taught, suffered and died, sauntered there. They didn’t go to Gatwick or Newark and shop, drink and consume while waiting for the over-packed plane. Then take a bus waiting at the next airport to the hotel. They sauntered. The burgeoning number of modern pilgrims on the Camino to Compostella, whom we hope to welcome soon at Bonnevaux which is on that ancient way, are rediscovering this.
Everything in modern culture is about speeding up. This has many advantages, of course. But we lose much in the process. Slowing down opens up. Discovering Nightjars taught Rosamond this. They are nocturnally active birds with a vast range of dramatic song. Sound-recordists have analysed nineteen hundred notes to the minute, showing how limited is our human hearing. Visually too: ‘Unearthly his streamlined beauty, a bird the size of a small hawk, spectral, elegant and mysterious.’
To walk slowly is not to stop. To be still is not to be unproductive or disconnected. Rosamond has learned much from Thoreau, the 19th century American radical naturalist who knew the spiritual value of walking, whose ancient wisdom is caught in the Latin adage ‘solvitur ambulando’ – roughly translated as: ‘sort it out by walking’.
So, if you need a new Lenten practice, try sauntering. If you feel too restless and stressed to meditate, go for a walk first. And to help you say the mantra, listen to the birds, morning and night.
Clearly, the level of conscious attention in daily life in the world is dropping. You give an order at a restaurant or deliver information to someone, clearly and concisely, and in their reply they ask a question about it, blatantly not having listened to what you said a few seconds before. Some people may not have enough attention even to notice that the other person wasn’t paying attention. That is particularly worrying as the ensuing conversation resembles that between two mentally disturbed people who are so isolated in their own imaginative worlds that they cannot listen to or see anything outside it. They end by speaking at others not to them.
This chronic inattention in our world exposes the lunacy of over-action and excessive mental stimulation. We feel compelled to do many things simultaneously even though it is obvious that multi-tasking damages the quality of the outcomes of what we are doing. Behind this compulsion may be the desire to escape from reality, avoiding difficult truths. Or, perhaps, anxious competitiveness and the fear that others, by doing more than us, will make us look second-rate or losers. The first thing that goes then is the joy of work and the satisfaction of creation. We become merely doers, measuring quantity and covering up our shortcomings and inattention with jargon and, of course, ever more low-quality work.
Naturally the amount of activity that we can do, without losing sanity and attention, will vary – from person to person and according to external factors. Some thrive best on a busy life. St Benedict said idleness is the enemy of the soul and was the first great consultant on time-management, scheduling each day in order to get things done in a balanced and enjoyable way. But he knew that some are slower, which does not mean duller, than others and that community (a good team) must accommodate many kinds of personality.
When a monk is praying his office there are many texts that he knows by heart. He doesn’t need to read them from the page. But this means he can easily drift into multi-tasking. While repeating the Benedictus in the morning, he suddenly realizes he has lost the thread of the lines because he has started to plan the day or solve a problem or even think of the next Lenten reading. This is the cue to start again, to go back and repeat the Benedictus from the beginning. Perhaps the spiritual value of the exercise is more in strengthening his own power of attention than in telling God what God already knows.
Simone Weil learned the mantra in this way. She set herself to repeat the Pater Noster regularly with absolute attention. As soon as her mind drifted she would return to the beginning. This is the basis for her insight that the essence of prayer is not intention but attention.
Prayer is not only an explicitly religious action. A waiter taking an order at a table on a busy night is turning his work into prayer if he listens, gets it right and delivers the right food to the right person. And the tip he gets may reflect this, provided the customer was attentive enough to notice it.
Having a good Lent might mean just feeling pleased with oneself for not having fallen off the wagon of one’s observances. Jesus sharply warned against this pharisaic error. It might also mean that we feel lighter and more present simply because our attention has been strengthened and purified. As I said yesterday, doing something habitual (like reading texts we know by heart) can easily lead to automatic pilot and inattention. But there is also a joy in having these embedded bridges of familiarity and friendship connecting different levels in our daily existence.
Rosamond Richardson found this when she discovered what became for her an expansion of what she was already very familiar with, the natural world of trees and plants, into the parallel world of birds. They slowed her down and gave her admission to a new way of being attentive and present. In her book she quotes Kierkegaard who speaks of this attention in the present as a discovery of joy. ‘This joy is achieved by being in the moment...Joy is the present tense with the whole emphasis upon the present.’
Rosamond says ‘I soon discovered that the attention required to watch birds was a form of meditation: the stillness and absorption it required took me out of myself.’ When we pay attention we may be stimulated to do so by discovering something new. The modern world however is often deceived by false novelty. New packaging and advertising campaigns drive consumerism. But we learn something as soon as we slow down our consumption. In doing so, we may be reducing economic growth but we are also preparing the way for a more just distribution of resources.
When we become present and attentive we discover that even the most familiar is not really a mechanical repetition. In real life we can’t copy and paste. We can’t duplicate images as we can while editing our photo gallery. A snow-covered landscape or avalanche is composed of a countless number of individual snowflakes. From the time that snow first fell on the earth, no two flakes have been identical. The same is true of people. And birds. And everything.
After she had entered her new bird world, Rosamond describes seeing a flock of yellowhammers emerge from a thicket, rising and falling, ‘gaining ground again and again, dispersing in a burst of gold each time.’ She had not yet learned the name of this bird. A year later she knew what these lovely birds were called and could recognise a yellowhammer’s song. Familiar and fresh simultaneously. Like all birds they are attentive. They don’t bump into each other when they perform these celestial performances. They are individual and one with each other. Those who watch them learn from them, their attentiveness and their adjustment to each other in community.
To meditate develops attentive presence in all things. (If you won’t meditate, try walking or watching birds). It is not only a source of joy but indispensable to our sanity. Earlier thinkers called it Natural Contemplation. Merton thought it was what modern novices lacked when they arrived at the monastery. It is certainly lacking in the latest US Presidential executive orders on the environment.
Holy Week (9 - 15 April)
One of our deepest needs and desires is for security. In early life, physical and emotional security are essential for healthy growth. In a good home the child has space to test and provoke, to push against the limits imposed by loving parents. These limits are both the predictable security we need but also, eventually, the lines we need the courage born of security to cross. As with all growth and health, and immigration policies, the secret is the right measure of creative tension.
Children are deeply affronted and hurt by injustice and betrayal. But these failures of the human do not only shake the secure lines of our world; they also raise our awareness to see the meaning of justice and fidelity, the world of virtue rather than merely the systems we defend in order to keep us safe within our limits. If, as adults, we are only preoccupied by the security of our borders we have not matured as human beings capable of real freedom, of seeing the happiness of being citizens in the world of virtue – goodness, kindness, humanity, compassion. In this world of grace there are no borders.
Today, in Christian gatherings around the planet, the story we have been preparing for during Lent is told again. We only have a limited number of opportunities in life to hear this story, told in this way: in a community of faith and in days where the sacred symbols are particularly irradiating. Each year, during Holy Week and according to our capacity to pay attention and be present, we listen to and interiorise the story of the last days of the life of Jesus. How he – and we – face the great insecurity of death is the big test of virtue and spiritual maturity. He shows it can be done; and, if we listen to the mysterious end of the story, the bursting out of light and life from the deepest darkness of death, we see that this is a story whose end is, in fact, a new beginning in which fear itself has been transcended. It is the story of all stories.
It pivots on the most terrifying and painful of insecurities, which is not physical pain but the extreme suffering of betrayal. There is nothing worse than being let down by someone in whom we have placed trust. Anger and profound sadness ensue with a disillusionment that cannot be consoled. We may also glimpse how we too have let them or others down. Betrayal usually has a reciprocity that we are forced to recognise over time. There are always contexts. But there are also betrayals where we are the innocent party. The suffering here is acute because it threatens our very sense of self. This is why abuse is such a crime against children, usually committed by those who have been abused themselves, because in the depth of the psyche sin is contagious and requires deep healing. This story is about the universal healing of karma.
As you listen to the story today – this year it is Matthew’s account (Matthew 26:14-27:66) – spare a thought for Judas, so close, even in the spelling of his name, to Jesus. We don’t know why he betrayed him, only that he felt remorse afterwards. His character in the story is the archetype of the worst in human relations. Yet, he was included in the great forgiveness that from the Cross Jesus extended to humanity in all our private and public guilts. It was a force of mercy that split the Temple in two: temples are so often places which deny forgiveness. So, let’s work on forgiving Judas and we have then got the point of the story.
I was at the theatre recently and half way into the first act a latecomer was allowed in. She caused general consternation as we made way for her to squeeze past everyone to get to her seat in the middle of the row. Once the show is underway, we should try to keep our attention focused because it is the uninterrupted flow of events that leads to the fullness of our response when the climax comes and the curtain falls.. and rise again. The same applies to Holy Week. If we get distracted from the quickening pace of the story, don’t waste a moment complaining but restore your attention to its focus.
Looking at a number of paintings of the Last Supper recently I noticed the different ways that Judas is positioned. In Leonardo’s famous mural, he is sitting, with a very criminal look fifth from the left, holding a revealing bag of silver (Peter is holding dagger with which he will later cut off the servant’s ear). In Ghirlandaio’s, Judas is sitting alone facing the rest of the group. In some pictures Judas is stereotyped as the most Jewish looking of them all. Generally, Judas is singled out as an unattractive and isolated figure, although in the narrative he has the moment of strongest, even mysterious intimacy with Jesus who knows what he is going to do and who quietly tells him to get on with it. (‘Night had fallen’)
Faces reveal and expose us. We recognise with happiness a familiar face in the airport crowd of welcomers waiting at Arrivals. Suddenly the crowd of strangers dissolves as a smiling face and friendly wave dispel the anonymity which is the worst part of travelling .
When we see a photo of ourselves we think, do I really look that like? From our faces, we understand uncomfortably, people may know us better, or at least differently, from how we know ourselves. If differently, who is more right?
In an instant a face may morph from a tense and anxious dark look into a radiant and childlike joyfulness. A wave of emotion sweeps over the soul and the muscles of the face involuntarily mirror it within moments. It takes time before we can regain control over what our facial expression is telling the world.
Even when our face is in repose and we are in between strong feelings of any kind, it always shows to everyone, though maybe least of all to ourselves, the sum total of all we have been. Formed over decades through countless muscular contractions, through frowns, tensely held jaws, phases of anger and sadness, pain and grief – and good things too – we have the face we deserve. It is all we have lived through. No amount of cosmetics or surgery can really hide the character of our face. Ageing is the least we have to worry about.
The face of Judas is our own worst fear about ourselves and it can therefore trigger the deepest, most transformative compassion. True conversion happens from a place far from the control of the will, a redemptive place of grace. When it happens we are rejuvenated and, if only for a moment, our original face, our truest self is visible to ourselves and to those who may still be looking at us with any interest after all those years.
In the face of Judas as of less obviously complex people, the face of Jesus Christ can suddenly flash forth, like a treasure held in earthen vessels :
For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God's glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Cor 4:6)
In today’s gospel (Jn 13:21-38) St John describes the discussion of betrayal that took place at the Last Supper. We need to remember this dark side of the story if we are to recognize the light that dawns at the end of the story. It is as disturbing to us as Iago, the corrupter and traitor in Shakespeare’s Othello, is to watchers of the play. At the end of the play, after he has destroyed his master, Iago is exposed and condemned but refuses to explain his motives. He only says: ‘Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak a word.’ If we want meaning we have to look deeper than mere motives. The truth of this mystery is not found in explanations.
In today’s reading from Isaiah we are reminded of the identification of Jesus with the ancient prophetic, indeed archetypal figure of the suffering servant and the wounded healer. Isaiah says:
..pay attention, remotest peoples.
The Lord called me before I was born,
from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name.
The secret we are looking for is always about our origin. Who am I? means Where do I come from? And, only then, ‘why?’ But just as the answer to our origin lies in a pre-linguistic state, before I was born, so the question of meaning lies in the silence that follows after language.
Like ours, the story of Jesus enters time with his conception and birth, with his body that was formed in a womb and was then pushed out into the world. The same story, like ours, ends with his last breath and burial, when he was pushed back into the womb of mother earth. In no faith tradition is the body more important. It is true that western Christian moralists often gave the body a junk bond credit rating. It was full of temptations and drives. These ran counter to an idea of holiness, which was itself so far removed from the vision of wholeness that the angelic, bodiless state seemed higher.
There were exceptions as any theology of the Incarnation made inevitable. The puritanical, gnostic impulse in Christianity could never wholly denigrate the body. Jesus was raised ‘in the body’. ‘In my flesh I shall see God’. Angels were closer to God, but we were more like God ‘because we had a body’. And so, in Jesus, did God. In him, too, God wept, got tired and impatient, drank wine and loved, was betrayed and suffered.
Other wisdom traditions take the body more seriously as an instrument of spiritual development. Yoga, Tai Chi, Tantra have a practical, body-based wisdom that Christian spirituality has generally undervalued. But the Asian traditions, while also conceiving of some kind of transformation, tend to see the physical body as a packaging, a vehicle, an aggregate that dissolves back into its elements. The body of Jesus, evolves into the Body of Christ. It evolves through a resurrection that reveals the bodily destiny of each of us. We have a spiritual body to look forward to. But, as Teilhard de Chardin , says ‘spirit is matter incandescent.’ We will glow and we will be embodied for eternity.
Sounds good. But then, who knows for sure, until we know? For now we reflect on Jesus as a bodily person: like us anchored in the world and the present moment through a changeable body that does not work like a machine and that is always our interface with the deepest nature of reality.
Jesus was popular for a while and then rejected. He seems never to have courted the crowd, only to have loved the ordinary people whom he saw to be mistreated, demeaned and manipulated by their leaders. Like a modern western electorate the people projected their hopes for a strong leader onto him for a short while. Success breeds success. The more people praise, the more the bandwagon starts rolling. But then it crashes as it did for him.
Modern populism, which is as fickle as any mob has always been, raises and pulls down its great leaders once they fail to deliver on its dreams. Love can turn to hate as quickly in politics as in romance.
Jesus shatters the myth of the strong leader who habitually needs to create a myth around and about himself. It is this myth that leads to self-corruption. Jesus is an incorrupt leader who does not pretend to be what he is not. He carefully and guardedly reveals the full truth about himself because it is so easily misquoted and exploited.
In today’s gospel, as we approach the climax to the story, we are given another angle on the central theme of betrayal. In the reading from Isaiah we are given an unexpected insight into the nature of the suffering servant who is to lead us to a better life through the paradoxes of failure and rejection. This insight sheds light on the mystery. Strange or offensive as it sounds, the great leader is a servant who suffers and a teacher who is a disciple.
‘The Lord has given me a disciple’s tongue. So that I may know how to reply to the wearied, he provides me with speech. Each morning he wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple. The Lord has opened my ear.’
He has been telling us this about himself all along. ‘For I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak... My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me.’ This doesn’t sound like the Christ of the Sistine Chapel or the stern Pantocrator (‘Almighty’) of later imagination. It is the opposite of the great leader’s inflated ego.
Modern management theory tends to dismiss the great leader idea, preferring the more corporate and collaborative model. If any one model can, this one fits Jesus better. He wishes to empower those he leads and to show the way and blaze the trail by example rather than by coercion. He is the kind of leader who transforms the landscape he is working in, to open new horizons and to lead by a force of inspiration interiorised by his team rather than imposed from outside.
This is not how the church has always understood it; and it is not an easy model for anyone to follow. Power seduces us all. It is why the church is most like Jesus when it is most lacking in ego.
If we can hold onto this truth about him, we can confidently follow him wherever he leads.
Bede Griffiths was a great advocate of the Second Vatican Council. However there was one sentence in one of the documents with which he disagreed and which said that the ‘source and summit’ of the church’s life is the Eucharist. He loved the Eucharist and celebrated it beautifully, every day in his Benedictine ashram in India. But he felt it was better theology to say that the source and summit of the Church is the Holy Spirit.
The different implications of each version are great. If it is the Eucharist , which is a sacrament whose form of celebration the church authorities control, this means the source and summit of the Church is dependent on church law and its lawmakers. But if we say the Holy Spirit is the source and summit – well what a lot of dangerous freedom that releases. Where the Spirit is, there is liberty.
Today, Holy Thursday, we remember – we make present through a concentrated act of recall – the moment when Jesus took bread and wine and called them his body and blood. He was reclining at table for the Passover meal with his companions, not standing behind an altar. The ancient ritual of this living transmission of wisdom was also a meal for friends and family. The meal opened with a surprising and for some shocking event, when Jesus insisted on washing the feet of his disciples, whom he called his friends not his servants or disciples. This reversal of hierarchy mirrors the flip that takes place in what became the agape meal of the early Christian house churches and eventually the more formal sacrament of the Eucharist. The sacrificial protocol was flipped around; it was not, as was customary with sacrifices, offered by the priest to God on behalf of the people. The sacrifice was the person offering the sacrifice and it was self-offered to the people around the table, none of whom were refused the bread and wine. Even Judas was not excluded, was he?
If we don’t approach the Eucharist conscious of this radical reversal of roles and unexpected flip in the archetypal idea of sacrifice we may easily turn it into another religious ritual, affirming group identity, with predictable roles performed in front of a passive audience. Sadly this often happens. This misses its mystical nature. One way to rescue the nutritional spiritual value and transformative power of the Mass from this banality is to open up its contemplative dimension – to add silence, to share the readings two-way not just one way downward from the pulpit; and to meditate after the highest mystical moment after the bread and wine have been consumed.
Some Christian churches downplay the importance of the Eucharist, others have over-exploited it at the expense of other aspects of Christian prayer. My own experience has been that over the years I have come to love and grow in wonder at the ever fresh mystery of the Eucharist. The more I share it in a contemplative way, giving it sufficient time, holy leisure, listening to the readings and breaking the Word as we break the bread, linking the real presence in the bread and wine to the same presence in the heart of each person present, the more it touches and satisfies my spiritual hunger and thirst. It is meditation made visible.
Do you remember Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent?
Good Friday is the end of the line we have been following since then. We need to feel its finality in order to enter into the epilogue which is a new beginning.
Many of those who remember why it is a Bank Holiday but don’t usually darken the doors of a church come to church for the special service. Like non-observant Jews with Yom Kippur, it has a religious mystique that cannot be ignored and demands some measure of devotion or recognition.
This is why we call this Friday Good. What is good about it? A good man and great teacher is arrested in secret, dragged through a quick fake trial, rejected by his people, deserted by his friends, crucified by an occupying enemy force. He dies on the Cross with his mother and a handful of friends beneath him.
Why does such another tragic waste and failure deserve to be called good? Why do we line up, the great and the small of us, to kiss the cross in silence at the ninth hour, 3pm, today, aligning ourself in solidarity with its silent victim and his humiliation?
Do we see the smaller crosses of our own lives within this one great bare Cross that casts its shadow over the world, uniting its collective suffering in its anonymous embrace? In the simplification of this unifying symbol, do we not find a healing of depression, a redemption from the isolation and loneliness that death, suffering, rejection, failure and humiliation repeatedly plunge us into?
‘It is accomplished’, Jesus said, one of his seven sayings from the Cross. It is a relief to feel that the worst is over. From this relief, even in the dead end alley, comes a hope. For something we have as yet no imagination for.
For once, silence is easy.
Death is always dramatic. It is the ultimate closure. The days after death may be anything but dramatic . They are often mundane and colourless, the beginning of a slow, relentless depression. Those who feel left behind on this empty beach of existence begin to adapt to the empty space, the void left to them by the one they loved. Their lives once revolved around that person in ways they were only half-aware of before, and at depths in themselves that they had never noticed before.
This must have been the case for those personally stricken by the death of Jesus on the Cross. The bystanders and bloodthirsty mob forgot him quickly, just another victim of the violent times they lived in. His family and friends would have moved backwards and forwards across a spectrum ranging from shame and guilt to disappointment, fear and anger.
We need this time to mourn and grieve and occasionally despair or rage. Holy Saturday symbolises this time, a watershed with no water, a bridge broken midway, an empty chair, a half-occupied bed.
Anyway, this is true on the surface. But, from the depths below, we hear the missile of Christ’s spirit penetrating into all the hidden, forgotten and buried layers of consciousness. They are present in us, if only we knew, from the beginning of the evolution of the human. But we would rather not know because it would confuse us to know how many stages of pre-human development still remain in us, how many ancestors we have.
As the not yet risen Jesus harrows hell, we wait for his resurgence into the human realm, where we recognize ourselves. But will we recognise him risen? Soon we will see how we have changed, how once heavy chains are lighter, loosened if we wish to test them. We will begin, over the coming centuries, to feel how a new peace replaces the old fears, a new gentleness the ancient violence. We will see connections growing between the preconscious and the conscious. Insights into justice, human freedom and dignity, religion and human relationships emerge from this new consciousness as the human is understood in the light of its source and goal.
But will we recognise him risen? He who said ‘you and I form one undivided person’?
Easter Day (Sunday 16 April)
For forty days and nights – and more – we have been in the desert. And now, on Easter Day as the sun rises we have put the most difficult part behind us.
The way we see the desert is now transformed. We see the same things, life’s routines continue as before, the trees and clouds are what they were before, politicians and bankers, artists and therapists and monks do their thing as before. Nappies still need to be changed and petrol tanks filled. The pilgrimage of meditation morning and evening continues.
But our Resurrection – and it is ours no less than his - has changed the way we see life in this realm of existence. The veil between us and all the other realms of the cosmos is now shimmering.
If we still have fear, we do not need to. If we are still clinging to resentment, we do not need to. To fully change, we need only to see him. Not hear about him or talk about him but see him. It is he who makes the new creation shimmer.
“For anyone united to Christ, there is a new creation.”
It has been good to travel with you through the desert this Lent. It is good now to see with you how we recognise the risen Jesus in all the shimmerings of life.
Three days ago we began the formal process for moving to Bonnevaux, our new home and centre in France. In the summer, we hope to begin the move and to begin the renovation work.
I look forward to seeing the shimmering Christ there in Bonnevaux with you one day. Please keep this step into a new life for our community in your heart.
Happy Easter and blessings on all the coming days!