Lent Reflections 2020
Click on the headings to open or close the Introduction or the week's readings and then use the tabs below the picture to select the day.
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 (26 - 29 February)
The real mystery of the human is that we are so convinced that we have to get somewhere, failing to realise that we are already there. We wouldn’t be thinking of goals and objectives unless they were already activated in our personal consciousness. So, let’s start Lent today with the Resurrection.
Without the Resurrection, Lent would be a dull, self-centred time devoted to cultivating one’s own spiritual garden. We would be concerned only with giving things up that we like or doing difficult things that we think would be good for us. Maybe they would be, but motivation is everything. Many, Catholics especially, today will be having conversations about what they are ‘doing for Lent’ often with a humorous tone and a little bit of religious competitiveness. “If he is giving up alcohol for Lent, maybe I should as well..” Jesus’ teaching on all this is clear. Don’t publicise your ‘good deeds’ and even ‘don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’. If this sounds very complex and challenging, in fact it is ridiculously simple.
When spiritual practice is covertly run by the ego (and most things are) we unconsciously slip into thinking that progress, coming closer to God, is linked to suffering or to voluntary discomfort. It’s like thinking that we have to do something unpleasant to make someone who already loves us continue loving us. We don’t feel worthy. We don’t trust. We hedge our bets. God must be having a good laugh at our reluctance to believe the obvious.
Like meditation, Lent isn’t about spiritual leverage over God or about taking back control of our spiritual journey. As we begin Lent, let’s decide, with the simplest motivation, whether we will do something or do nothing. (Her mother told the young Queen in the TV series The Crown that doing nothing is the most difficult thing.) The gift today is to determine to more deeply believe the gift of God’s love. This is impossible until we feel that God actually likes us.
Let’s try this Lent to shed whatever remains of our pagan, ego-coloured idea of God and so prepare for the resurrection by living in the new light of Christ. The old gods died when devotion to them dried up. They looked powerful but, like celebrities, they feed off human attention and wither when it fails.
The true God is far more real and interesting and infinitely friendly. So, something or nothing? Simply being more faithful to our daily times of meditation and to the simplicity of the mantra combines both options. (As John Main said ‘prayer is the essential ascesis of the Christian life’).
I was recently on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. As the next forty days can be seen as a kind of interior journey to the sacred time of Easter, I thought we could begin these Lent reflections with a link to the holy places associated with the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Meditation, like a physical pilgrimage involving travel, varied companions and a combination of constant change and steady purpose, is a journey within a journey. Indeed the path of life is composed of pathways beyond measure, sometimes crossing, sometimes blocked, sometimes rapturous, at other times frustrating. Always surprising. As everything is always passing, we learn to be good pilgrims by adapting to reality, shedding the half-baked illusions with which we often try to cope with change. The first illusions to drop are about God.
Normally we imagine God as way above change, as an extra-terrestrial outside the traffic flow of human history. If God ever does come down to the human level, he travels like a powerful person with a motor-cycle escort (clergy for example), while ordinary people are pulled over to let Him pass. To disabuse us of this idea, God happened in a unique and inexplicable way through a young woman called Mary in a town of about 150 inhabitants, called Nazareth, a backwater of a backwater of a land with inhabitants always fighting with each other and occupied by a ruthless pagan power. The Jewish joke is that if a Jew was stranded on a desert island he would build two synagogues so that he could have one which he refused to go to. God was translated into the human in an all too human place. A holy land of immemorial territorial disputes.
Jesus of Nazareth was born into an artisan class. He worked with his hands. His teachings on the deepest of mysteries were couched in the language of farming and village life. He did not speak in abstract sutras trying to verbalise the subtleties of the divine. He used down to earth symbols like a treasure buried in a field or a wayward younger son who comes home with his tail between his legs. Instead of conceptualising the truth, he tried, usually unsuccessfully, to help people discover it for themselves, allowing it to emerge through their own ordinary lives. Later some people realised he was not giving an answer but that he embodied the truth. The medium was the message.
In Nazareth there is a bronze plaque on the ground of Mary’s house where (believe it or not) Gabriel happened to her and she said yes. The plaque says “And the Word was made Flesh”. That’s a good sense of direction to begin Lent with. The sacred language of Christianity is the body. Mine, yours, everybody’s body. Alike and unique.
The first recorded ‘sign’ that Jesus gave in public was not a lecture in a synagogue, a tweet or an acclaimed first book. It happened during a wedding in Cana in Galilee, that he attended with family and friends. His mother told him that the wine for the reception had run out. Without making a big fuss, he turned a lot of water into very good wine
Whatever ‘actually’ happened on that occasion - and how it became symbolised in the oral transmission that later became the New Testament tradition - is hidden in history. But the setting is important, especially for the third day of Lent. Wine is forbidden for Buddhist monks and in other religious traditions as an artificial stimulant that clouds the mind’s pure state. In the biblical tradition, a psalm happily praises God for wine because it ‘cheers man’s heart’ just as oil makes his face shine. St Benedict thought that monks should not drink it but as he was in Italy he could not persuade them, so he was content to advocate moderation. At the climax of his life Jesus chose wine, as part of a religious ritual, to symbolise how his body was indeed the sacred language of who he was and all that he was teaching.
On our pilgrimage to Cana, the married couples renewed their marriage vows. Liz and Albert King held the record at 60 years. We had the church to ourselves and we had a great time even though the only wine was in the chalice. There was a lot of fun and laughter and story-telling which was part of a Christian reverence for marriage as a symbol of Christ’s relationship to his followers.
The smiling faces at the mass must have echoed the expression and mood at the wedding Jesus attended. A miserable wedding would be a nightmare. Was Jesus attending as a solemn-looking spiritual friend who didn’t really want to be there, couldn’t enter the fun and was only valuable because he saved the day with his first miracle? Or was he enjoying himself as part of a community of friends?
How often do we see or imagine Jesus laughing in a simple, human way, not to symbolise anything but because that’s what he really felt? We all know how suddenly a smile can transform and light up a face and change the mood of a whole group. Simone Weil says that that smile of Jesus is now extended, beyond the wedding day at Cana and is spreading throughout the cosmos. She says his smile is the beauty of the world.
Our perception of beauty and its varied forms can be fleeting. But what we see is a glimpse of the true nature of reality. I was watching a flight attendant recently. He was serving a full flight and looked stressed. Yet he smiled whenever he was supposed to, even though the smile faded quickly when the moment of contact with a passenger was over. There is something sad about a smile that disappears too quickly. Genuine smiles linger on the lips and in the eyes when the signal they give is no longer needed.
Long after Cana, the smile of Jesus that irradiates us in every meditation, is still human and not an empty sign.
In the spirit of pilgrimage – whether meditation or the life quest - we repeat things so as to better understand the meaning of what we remember. In doing so we re-present the past as a dimension of the now we are in. Time is thus telescoped and the peace we feel in doing this shows that we have, at least for the time being, passed beyond the fear of time which is essentially always the fear of death.
In trying to follow Jesus in all aspects of our life, as teacher, friend and embodiment of truth, we remember key moments of his life. This is not to fixate on the historical Jesus: ‘what would Jesus do if he were here’ is not really a question of faith. Faith says he is here. We re-member ourselves to the historical Jesus in order to become more acutely aware of his Resurrection presence. So we felt one morning when we renewed our baptismal promises at the River Jordan.
As Mark Twain was quick to point out, the Jordan is not the Mississippi. It is a very modest little river, which has an imaginative presence in many biblical stories far beyond its actual size. Similarly the field of Armageddon, which is part of the American Christian Right’s Middle-Eastern politics, where the final battle of good and evil is to happen when the Jews have all returned to Israel, is about the size of a football field. When I returned to a childhood home after many years I was massively disoriented by how small it was, as if I was a giant in a dolls house.
Religious imagination needs to be controlled, which is why an apophatic, non-image based kind of prayer is an essential ascesis in a healthy religion. The fact that Jesus was baptised by John seems to have been difficult to explain for some early Christians. How could the Messiah, the Son of God, need to be baptised? For us it is obvious why, when we renew the ancient promises and bow our heads to let another person pour water over us. Because we need others. That Jesus bowed his head as we do, reinforces his humanity and illuminates ours.
Physical pilgrimage, which is a dramatic form of lectio, brings home to us what the Word becoming flesh means. It is not only the descent of the divine into the human, but a revelation of what humanity is capable of and destined for. God became human, as the fathers of the Church oft repeated, in order that human beings might become God.
That this does not require a cosmic battle or the destruction of our enemies is evident in the glorious ordinariness of the life of Jesus. The one in whose footsteps we are walking knew the life of a village, enjoyed the company of friends and family, went to a wedding party. The significance of his sign is that the divine is fully alive within all the human experience of life from birth to death and everything in between.
First week of Lent (1 - 7 March)
The modest Jordan feeds the Sea of Galilee, which is the lowest freshwater lake on earth. The site is also one of the first human settlements in the world. On our boat ride I felt that there is something we can call the spirit of place. There is a spirit of the Sea of Galilee, as there is a spirit of Bonnevaux, some energy and presence found intensely in certain places that make them feel long-familiar when you visit them for the first time.
It was here that Jesus walked on the water, saved Peter from drowning in his doubt and here that he cooked a fish breakfast for his friends after the Resurrection. Early morning, out in the boat in the middle of the lake we turned off the engine, read the scriptures referring to the lake and then sat in a large silent presence.
When Jesus calmed the storm here, he was woken up by his terrified companions who couldn’t believe how he could be asleep in such a tempest. He rebuked them for their lack of trust. In the peace of the Sea of Galilee, as in the silence of the desert, our usual endless questioning and the mind’s restless demand for certainty and reassurance are stilled for a while. In certain times of meditation, too, we can enter a space of deep silence and stillness, free from thought, only vaguely aware that thoughts are chattering off stage, behind the curtain. We could turn our attention to this mental noise, but why should we? We will be back there soon enough.
These times we might call ‘good meditations’. But in the big picture, they are no better than the times of turbulence or struggle that we call the ‘bad’ or ‘hard’ ones. The Resurrection peace we seek and yearn for and can taste is different from both. It underlies both and contains both. This is the peace that is not shaken even when storms hit us in life or inner turbulence suddenly arises as an unexpected phase of our inner work.
The more familiar we become with this peace that we cannot understand, the more free we become from depending on ‘good’ meditations and fearing ‘hard’ ones. This freedom allowed Jesus to move through turbulence, rejection and finally of affliction and violence with the kind of detachment that does not isolate us in a bubble of self-sufficiency but strengthens our solitude in deeper relationship to others. In his case this unique identity made him present to all others, from the earliest human settlers on the shore of the lake, millennia before, to his friends and disciples with whom he walked from Galilee to Judaea.
In the peace of non-duality we are compassionately present to all. Out of his equanimity Jesus recognised the source of the temptations that he was prey to after his forty days in the desert. When we are awake to the universal Self it is not so difficult to face down the voice of the ego - as we see in todays Gospel (Matthew 4:1-11)
‘After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them up a high mountain apart, and he was transfigured before them: his face shone like the sun, and his clothing was as white as the light.’
We drove up the mountain of the Transfiguration, competing as kindly as we could with other pilgrims for the buses. On the way back, while we were waiting a long time for the van to take us back down my feet became very cold. I was reminded of the cold winders of my London childhood, waiting for a bus while my face, hands and feet froze. The glorious human body is prone to many afflictions and limitations. It can be transfigured into light, become like a rainbow, even raised from the dead and yet have chills, aches and pains. It can flourish and have its life-term extended and it can sadly fail.
Health and fitness is a knife-edge, a tightrope that we can easily and quickly fall off. For the first time in a hundred years life-expectancy in the UK, after ten years of very unfairly distributed austerity is declining, dramatically so among women in poorer social groups. Yet the human body, for all its fragilities, is still the sacred language of Christian faith just as Sanskrit, Pali, Hebrew and Arabic are for other communities. Latin, Greek, Aramaic were not the language that the Word of God was translated into in Nazareth or what exploded in the pure energy of light on the mountain. It was the body that knows cold feet, pimples as well as ecstasy.
In his chapter on the observance of Lent and many other places in the Rule, St Benedict describes the attention and discipline, the respect and care that the body deserves. Unlike other spiritual teachers, he does not denigrate the body or suggest that suffering should be induced in order to bring us closer to God. The body is an ever-changing companion and an instrument of the spiritual journey. Treat it badly, over-indulgent or too severe and it will not be able to play the music it is meant for. At the end of the journey we treat the physical body with honour because it has served us as well as it could and because we have now been clothed with another body. Spirit, said Teillhard de Chardin is matter incandescent.
When we come to the end of Lent we hope to be ready to enter the mysteries of the Resurrection and see how the body of Jesus manifests in different forms, one of which is ourselves. The Transfiguration reminds us that we are even now, in this physical form, earthen vessels carrying the light of God which will in time transform us entirely into itself.
Lent is best understood as learning to do what we want. What we truly want. Sometimes, it is hard to know what that is. Often we get what we want and discover it is not what we thought and that we allowed ourselves to be deceived by a false want, a wispy desire. Many decades can pass in addictions to things we don’t really want. We are scared just to blow the desire (for example, for security, wealth, status, approval) away.
Knowing what we truly want is best achieved by letting go of all desire, at least for a few breaths during your meditation. In these times we want to want nothing except to say the mantra with pure and generous attention. External Lenten practice also supports this: because Lent invites us, not to punish ourselves for our bad deeds or failures, but, instead, to make an effort to do something we really want to do and to let go (or reduce the influence) of something we really don’t want to do. It’s fairly easy to identify these in some of the small elements of our ordinary lives. We should then take a fairly playful attitude to put these (true) wants into practice.
The problem arises when our dark, self-rejecting side gets hooked on a small ascetical exercise. If religious understanding is involved this can get very unbalanced. It would be like someone who decides to go the gym regularly to keep fit and then becomes manically compulsive about his or her muscle size or weight. In a good Lenten attitude, we do what we truly want (developing good habits) and don’t do what we don’t want to do (reducing bad habits) with a serious but light effort. It is not about paying off debts we have accumulated. Nor is it about trying to be perfect. Or about making up for failures.
Materialistic cultures gets spirituality wrong. They turn it into a commercially conditioned lifestyle choice. Or, they expose spirituality to the contagious mood of compulsive perfectionism and hunger for approval that they call success or sometimes even ‘well-being’. The false asceticism of religion can then mutate, for example, into the self-harming which is growing among the young today. In the past religious perfectionists wore belts that made them bleed. Today many cut or burn themselves. Both aberrations are desperately self-defeating. They are attempts to feel something where we feel only numb or dead or fundamentally disconnected. They are rooted in false ideas about sin and grace and an extreme separation from the wisdom of moderation.
So the small things that ‘we do for Lent’ have a good influence on awakening fundamental values we need to recover. A balanced life, for example, is essential for good human development. But it cannot be sustained without asceticism, the moderate effort we make to stay in touch with our essential goodness and separate true desires from false ones. When John Main, speaking about meditation as ‘pure prayer’, said that the essential asceticism of the Christian life is prayer, he was delivering an insight of great value for modern culture that brings immense relief to those who see what it means.
Meditation is a universal wisdom. It is at the heart of all great religious traditions as a challenging recognition of humanity’s true nature. It expresses a radical insight into our essential simplicity. It is not about theory – although ideas and systems of philosophy abound around it. But meditation is not about mastering a complex theory or delving into arcane knowledge. It is not linked to any particular belief system, yet we can validly talk about Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian or Buddhist meditation in a way that affirms both its universality and its diverse manifestations. With some reservations (for example, separating it from consumerism) we can also speak of secular meditation.
Practiced in this all-inclusive light, meditation develops a community of faith composed of people of different beliefs. In a world fragmenting into divisions that frequently deny even the right of the other side to exist, meditation is a perennial wisdom of supreme value. Distinguishing between faith and belief, which are so often confused, helps to see the underlying common ground we stand on with all humanity.
The challenge is, on the one hand, not to dumb down this wisdom in order to boost sales; on the other, not to make it sound either esoteric or specialist. The discovery that children can meditate, having an unrecognised gift for interior silence and stillness that their elders have forgotten, is a major asset to anyone wanting to share the gift of meditation widely. Who can ignore the silence of a group of children in deep meditation as a vivid sign of the spirit coming to teach us? Who can fail to be touched, moved to wonder?
A contemplative practice is something we do for its own sake, for simple love, not for reward. Any benefits are by-products not the reason for the practice. From childhood, then, it can prepare and form children for a balanced and harmonious life in which they will be prepared to avoid the dangers of extremism and addiction. It is also re-formative for those who have already lost their way and fallen into dysfunctional, often self-abusive lifestyles. Contemplation rebalances us. It supports us in the life of the of the via media, the ‘narrow little path of Jesus’ teaching, that leads to the source of life..
All wisdom traditions affirm the value and the necessity of living a middle way. Avoiding extremes is not opting for a life of banality, however, as a culture like ours, addicted to stimulants and novelty, believes. The middle way between extremes becomes increasingly sharp, a fine knife-edge of moderation. Eventually the edge disappears entirely, just as a ‘point’ in mathematics is said to have position but no magnitude. The very small, when it falls over the knife-edge of the middle way, becomes the very great, indeed the infinitely expanding.
The inability to forgive, when we would like to, is one of the heaviest crosses we can carry. It can weigh us down in spirit and burden our emotions with a sense of failure and guilt. How can we help each other to carry this cross, until we realise in a moment of liberation, that the weight of the cross is the only the burden of illusion?
The desire for vengeance (sometimes we call it ‘justice’) is understandable when someone has hurt us. But it is rarely a choice we make. Sometimes it is a sense of duty (in a vendetta culture) or our instinctual, hurt response when an offer of reconciliation has been rejected. As the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission showed, most victims do not primarily want revenge, to see their oppressor suffer. They want to hear a confession, an acknowledgement that the offender was responsible for the pain inflicted. Apparently, then, the refusal to admit guilt is what triggers the extreme anger of vengeance, which ironically hurts the victim even more than the perpetrator.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are two distinct stages in the process of healing human hurts and betrayals. Forgiveness is not a pardon that we bestow but an integration of our own feelings (as a self-perceived victim) of rejection and outrage with our deeper, true self. Forgiveness is a healing of the victim’s own sense of being betrayed – a feeling that frequently leads to self-rejection and a sense of unworthiness. Deep in human nature is the expectation that we should, and will be, treated justly. Whenever this expectation is betrayed, we are thrown into confusion and do not see clearly where responsibility lies. We demonise the person who has hurt or disappointed us. We blame the wrong person. Or we blame ourselves.
All this creates turmoil in the soul. When we try to meditate, we soon run into this turmoil as a major obstruction, like a plane hitting air turbulence. If we can persevere the power of pure attention can penetrate and begin to dissolve it. But we will still probably need to share it with someone who can pay attention to us or whom we pay to give us their attention. Forgiveness then advances by the withdrawing of our projections. Next we ask, interiorly, to the person we are in conflict with, ‘why did you strike me?’ This is the question Jesus asked the soldier who hit him during his trial. This begins to change our mind.
Insight into the other person opens and, before long, understanding is deepened by compassion. We only have to catch a glimpse of the pain, the turmoil in her soul, the cross that the person who hurts us carries in herself. Desire for vengeance or to ‘ghost’ her out of existence then yields to the compassion we call forgiving our enemies.
Lent is a good time to make an inventory of our relationship history to see if we have the need for this forgiveness. It is a season when we simplify. In doing so, we understand ourselves in relation to others better. And what we usually run away from can be faced. Emotional freedom, lightness of heart and a liberated conscience result.
Adult survivors of child-abuse often describe a coping mechanism that they developed when the repeated abuse was about to happen again. Hearing the steps coming down the corridor and their door open, they would deal with the terror, disgust and shame it would soon inflict by separating from their body. Imagining that they were floating up in a corner of the ceiling, looking down at what was happening to someone who was not really them, was their only way of escape.
It worked at the time, but the solution evolved into the problem in later life when they realised that now they never felt themselves to be real and were never embodied with the people they were with. Fear, distance and an irrational but unshakeable feeling of self-alienation accompanied them and wrought havoc in every aspect of their life.
How cruelly abuse in childhood influences and distorts one’s future life is now widely recognised, after millennia of thinking that children simply got over it as they grew older. The twisted perception of oneself as the guilty victim in the most ordinary situations of life, snatches away the ordinary joys and wonders of the adventure of life in each of it chapters.
Yet at the heart of that adventure is the healing process. Within it, grace unpredictably arrives, often when the situation is about to become intolerable. Grace may manifest in a conversation overheard, a word dropped into silence, a look, a book, an almond tree in early bloom backlit by sunlight on a chilly spring day. Or in a person. Grace does not use force, but it is powerful. It does not further erode our already limited freedom, but it is, gradually, irresistible. When we reject it because it is exposing a pain we prefer to repress, memories we cannot fully call to consciousness, grace does not take offence and spurn us. It expresses a far deeper love than that.
In the desert of our heart, ‘where the healing fountain starts’, grace springs up, penetrating through the densest layers of pain and the fear of reality. Whatever can lead us to this desert, where true encounters, occur is sacred. For the person who meditates, this most simple entry into the desert is a repeated, but always disturbing discover. It initiates a long process of letting go and a transforming re-evaluation of the whole map of our life we had made.
Of course, the fruits of meditation then guide us to the other sources of grace and healing we need: the safe place where one can share the shame, the sense that people who, despite their own weakness, can channel an intimacy that seemed forever lost to you, that the saviour one fantasises about does not exist. But the saviour who knows you and has known your own pain, is gently touching you into a new life.
Contemplatives may not have many gifts to boast of, but they need to be good at dealing with the demon of acedia. Demons are semi-autonomous forces in the psyche that block grace. Acedia is a strong one because it can be pushed away but then return at unexpected moments. Its symptoms are common: discouragement, restlessness, hopelessness, giving up the work of letting go. This is being put to the test, the recurrent temptation for every pilgrim. According to one gospel’s account of Jesus’ forty days in the desert, he was tempted by a powerful trio of illusions that he saw through. But the ‘devil left him to return at a later time’. Maybe it returned in the garden of Gethsemane.
When he was there in the early hours of the morning of his last day, he underwent the fear and trembling of death, the abyss of loneliness, even when his friends were sleeping deeply close beside him. ‘My heart is ready to break with grief’. St Luke, one of the most realistic of the gospel writers says that at this point of exhaustion, on the brink of despair, an ‘angel from heaven appeared bringing him strength’. Angels may not stay but, when you can face your grief, they come when you need them.
Our heart breaks when we feel apart. A loss, a tragic misunderstanding, a demon we cannot send away convinces us that we are helplessly apart and asunder: separated from everyone and everything. Whatever seems to connect us to others or to the world appears to be superficial and transparently a false consolation.
This inner brokenness can overwhelm, or it can lead to compunction of heart. The grace of compunction happens when we keep the broken heart open despite the temptation to deny and resist grace, to protect our wounded self with the separateness of the ego. Compunction punctures the illusion of being apart that it seems safer to cling to. Then, from the heart that stays open despite its pain, compassion streams.
From the fear and nightmare of being apart from everything we emerge seeing that, no kidding, we are a part of everything. For a while, maybe a few decades, we flip between these two versions of reality until the forty days are completed.
Second week of Lent (8 - 14 March)
In today’s gospel, on the Transfiguration, Jesus takes his closest three disciples with him up the mountain ‘so they could be alone’. It wasn’t for a financial planning or strategy meeting but in order to pray, to be truly together. Having myself been on the same mountain recently, I can confirm there is no phone signal there. You have to be. For them, it was the moment when they saw him as a being of light.
In another time and place, when he was ‘praying alone in the company of his disciples’, he asked them the life-changing question ‘who do you say I am?’. They were sufficiently awake then in community to listen to the question in solitude. On other occasions in the gospels solitude and community, such apparent opposites, are integrated. This is also experienced through regular meditation and by living the community it creates. The dance of solitude and community, as two sides of the spinning coin of life, is essential for health of mind and soul. When the dance works and we are healthily balanced, we neither fear solitude nor feel trapped by community.
Life today is excessively outer-directed and over-busy. As our information overload and the demand for instant response increases, so does the feeling that we are overwhelmed by everything that insists to be done or answered now. Community, life-balance, the delicate support groups of friends and family, will feel the strain if stress increases. Many business people unconsciously begin to sacrifice their family to their career before realising what is happening to the most precious part of their lives.
Under the pressure of all this, the contemplative element of life - the capacity to be rather than do and to enjoy rather than acquire – is the first fatality. You won’t be surprised that I recommend meditation on a daily basis to resurrect it and save the day. But there’s another little ‘practice of the presence of God’ (aka mindfulness or recollection) that can both help to prepare us to meditate and is a fruit of meditation. It is also a good thing to do if you are just too busy to meditate.
St Benedict, in his lifestyle manual, The Rule for Monasteries, opens with a piece of good advice: every time you begin a good work, you must pray to God most sincerely to bring it to perfection. For people for whom the idea of God is a serious one, it’s possible to read this as a call to full presence of mind and heart in the work we do in a spirit of other-centredness. Even for the person who thinks this is an example of the mythical imagination, the message is useful – reflect on the meaning of your work before you drown in it.
All we have to do, at each new task during the day, is pause. Then call to mind the why question. ‘Why am I doing this? Where is my motivation coming from? Can I feel the meaning of my work as a connection between what I do and the people who will be influenced by it? In this way, we find ourselves working for others and doing, if not perfect then certainly good work.
It is hard to meditate when we have a toothache, or are burdened by sadness or anxiety, hunger or even a runny nose. In the days of collective faith people better understood the advice to keep healthy so that they could pray. Today, when we find it hard to get beyond ‘my experience’ as the test and meaning of everything, we come to meditation as a tool for ‘wellness’.
Perhaps the problem is that we have to jump in at the deep end. We have such little good religious or spiritual formation to prepare us for suffering or for the discipline of an other-centred practice like meditation. Yet, having lost so much that gives meaning and balance to life, we have to get in the deep end and start meditating when and for whatever reason we can find. Then eventually, if we persevere, we will find that the experience itself teaches us a pricless lesson: to go beyond our experience.
Say you are meditating regularly. Life is calm and regular and has brightness and promise. Then an affliction – death of a loved one, personal loss, separation or rejection, illness - breaks over your life and an iron bolt enters your soul. You keep meditating because the practice – regardless of what part of the growth cycle you may be in at that time – has worked its way into your skin and biorhythms. You are a meditator now: it is as much part of you as breathing. But when you sit down and try to say the mantra your mind seems worse distracted than on your first day at the job. Trailers from scenes that have not yet happened flash through your imagination. Anxiety, grief, anger, sadness are let loose and like a gang of thugs they invade your inner room and wreck your ordered personal space.
You know it’s happening and that it will pass. But when? There are moments, like a sunny interval on a stormy day, when you find yourself in the peace of the Lord and you know that joy is ever-rising there. Nevertheless, the battle of thought and feeling is being lost. The turmoil of thoughts is unstoppable because they come from feelings that cannot be controlled. They cannot be reasoned with. We say, ‘that’s a nonsensical idea’ or ‘it’s not worth worrying about, there’s nothing I can do now’. But the feelings in the heart zone and the solar plexus that manifest these thoughts have a life of their own.
In such times we learn why Jesus said’ do not worry, set your troubled hearts at rest, have faith in me’, knowing perfectly well how hard that is. Yet for the person of faith it makes a world of difference to remember these teachings. It is so hard to wait without, demands or expectation, fears or hopes, so hard not to plan for an unreal future which first we have to construct imaginatively before we can fantasise about it. It is the unreality of it all that is so heavy. And tiring. We are conflicted: helplessly imagining what might happen, tossed from hope to despair; but also dreading the end of the waiting time because it might actually be the worst we imagined.
Somewhere in all this the mantra is sounding. And something is teaching us.
The Judaean desert that Jesus knew and where John the Baptist baptised is not far from the ever-ancient modern city of Jerusalem. It is located on a plateau 800 metres above sea level between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean, two bodies of water as far apart in nature and personality as one could imagine. Israel is a small land of big extremes and polarities, including its geography.
We persuaded our guide and driver to take us to the desert which meant a high quiet spot where we looked over hills that, as it has been a wet winter, had an unusual slight wash of green. You can still feel the aridity and bareness which the sun would soon parch. We sat and looked down at the monastery of St George, clinging to the walls of a steep valley. Like Skellig Michael and other remote monastic sites, one wonders why the search for God in the heart of the self and in creation so often calls some people to such odd and even dangerous extremes.
One thing is certain, that the search for God is not for tourists. It turns us into pilgrims. It is an inner pilgrimage that in the end ‘demands not less than everything’. This isn’t such a bad deal as we get everything – called the kingdom. We may go our own natural pace - even take time off - without getting punished for it. But it still requires us eventually to see all aspects of our life as relentless revelations of the sacred, whether through a joy that dissolves our being into the universe or suffering that drives a bolt of iron through the soul. The life of Jesus retraced in the Holy Land leads the pilgrim from the green hills of Galilee where, among birdsong and the lilies of the field, he delivered his version of universal wisdom, the sermon on the Mount, to sweating blood in Gethsemane, abused and tortured and executed in Golgotha.
Package tourists enjoying idyllic resorts may also go through dark nights of the soul, but this is not how the tour operators advertise them – a ‘wonderful holiday on the beach where you will touch the heights and depths of human experience.’ I am not saying that suffering is desirable but inevitable and always meaningful. Hotel guests at a hotel complain when they don’t get everything they want. But life is not so much about complaint as interpretation.
To see the meaning of the spectrum of experience we need to hold the ends together so the unity can be felt. We then see and feel the harmony between our own nature – the personal and inner sense of self – with external nature, the world as it is.
Except, learning how to wait in pain without fantasy in the desert and how to dance on the boat in the silent Lake of Galilee, is more than harmony. It is being one. ‘When you make the two into one, and the inner as the outer… then you will enter the kingdom’, says the Gospel of Thomas (22).
When what we are going through interiorly is not integrated with the people and nature around us, we have an ecological emergency. When they are one, we are peace and beauty, the sign of God’s presence, bathes everything in itself.
When was the last time you read a novel? Or watched a Netflix series, which is taking the place of novels in meeting our story-telling needs?
Western literature could be said to originate in the teeming imagination applied to all the things that fill the passage of life – from the daily chores and routines to the tragedies and times of bliss. In yesterday’s reflection I thought about how the mind, especially in times of great distress, jumps from scene to imaginary scene trying out different versions of reality. A great writer selects from this overwhelming choice of parallel universes and focuses on creating a convincing version of one of them. A very great writer also leaves a trace of the teeming mind in the order he creates, a sense of all the possible other ways in which characters and the storyline could have developed. This, oddly, is what makes a good story seem ‘real’ and therefore satisfies us
For many modern writers, story and making order out of chaos, seem secondary to portraying the reality of the restless imagination. They leave us with a. sense of flux and without an ending. This too is vanity, the pursuit of the wind, as Ecclesiastes say. Even stories that don’t satisfy our expectation of a beginning, middle and end, help us make sense of life. Poems and photography are forms of this too and even music tells a story without words or images.
Living in the moment may not be good for novelists. They need to float and wander among different possible presents. Yet they too need the discipline of sitting down regularly and taming the mind. Like us meditators.
Despite rapid economic globalisation and the contagion of Hollywood culture the world remains an enigmatic, infuriating and wondrous mosaic. If our minds and lives are teeming, what about the planet? So, despite the westernisation of the ‘East’, the erosion of its wisdom cultures by materialism, and the cultural collapse of the ‘West’ we can still speak of these two hemispheres and add to them the North and South manifestations of humanity. Western mind and culture is shaped by storytelling, from Homer and the bible on, as a way of knowing the unknowable and expressing the ineffable. Without stories we would be as lonely as Adam without animals.
At many times and on different levels, we share our personal story with others as a sign of trust and growing love. The gospel is a story of a person in whom the inner and outer became or always were extraordinarily one. That oneness, his Spirit, continues to move among us in our own inner and outer universes. It embraces humanity, offering itself without force or blame. If we recognise this, we are walking our life in his footsteps, and he in ours, in a wisdom always entwined with love. His spirit teaches us to accept whatever is, now, to separate fantasy from reality. To be faithful and not to run away from ourself.
An atheist intellectual I met once said to me, ‘I wish I was a Catholic who could believe that lighting a candle for someone in trouble did any good.’ It’s an attitude to faith that many non-believers have, wishing they weren’t so intelligent and free of illusion so they could have the false comfort of believing in an illusion.
What difference does lighting a candle make? Or the Eucharist? Or any of the kinds of prayer that might seem to relieve our anxiety or loneliness but don’t make any difference to the cause of the problem. Like buying a lottery ticket, we know we won’t win but buy it anyway.
‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.’ In times of distress, especially, these words can be fatally misinterpreted. What they truly mean can only be understood when we have discovered what they don’t mean. Discovering their truth shakes our idea of God to its roots, and dissolves long held and cherished illusions about ourselves as a child of God. Children have strong expectations. For example, you cry out in your valley of darkness for an end to the pain, for relief or a good outcome of all you are going through. During the First World war the solders in the trenches would hear their wounded companions dying alone all night in no man’s land. At first, they would cry out to God to save them. Just before they died, they would simply be calling for their mother.
Appealing to God, from a sincere heart, to change things when they become unbearable may bring relief. But when the prayer comes back unanswered, ‘return to sender’, and things continue to get worse, relief changes to bewilderment and despair. How can God be so cruel, so unresponsive to his children? It is then that our version of God begins to die.
The gods of the ancient world, who depended on human devotion and credulity, began to disappear as people ceased to believe in them and transferred their loyalty to the new gods. False gods are always dying and new ones being born. But it is very hard to discover and accept that the God we are praying too with such heartfelt hope is silent because he doesn’t exist.
Yet that same terrible, negative silence can turn into the true silence of the living God. We have to endure it, sit in it, learn to wait without hope because hope would be hope for the wrong thing. The sterile emptiness of the dead space of our old faith becomes pregnant, how or when we don’t know. As the new-born and true God grows in us we feel a hope and joy in the stirring of life. This is the desert spirituality of Lent – allowing the newly-conceived to be formed in our enduring waiting without anything we may think of as hope. And finding, against the odds, joy even in the midst of suffering.
Joy in the grip of despair: a contradiction. Paradoxes are positive contradictions by which truth slips out of our sealed preconceptions and packaged thinking. The Greek for ‘truth’ (aletheia) means disclosure or a clearing. Whenever we have the truth wrapped up we are in for a surprise, sometimes pleasant, sometime hard. God always takes us by surprise when we see Him or Her happening. We catch a glimpse of an imperceptible presence that doesn’t fulfil our wishes but lets us know it is there.
Some years ago a young woman told me of how she had once felt this in so ordinary way that it seemed silly to speak of God in it at all. She was in a deep sadness and felt quite desperate. A relationship in which she given all of herself had gone through a meltdown and seemed destroyed.
She was numbed by emotional waves making her dizzy with a sense of unreality. She felt guilt, anger, and abandonment, darts of denial and foolish mental bargaining, deep grief. It was a death agony. To really die while still alive is so awful that, understandably, thoughts of choosing to end it all arose. Why not die now rather than hang on a cross with nothing to hope for but death?
One day. on her way to work, she realised that her sweater was full of holes and decided to buy a new one. In a shop she saw a range of sweaters she liked. As she was looking, a sales assistant appeared. As the young woman was getting a respite from her heavy emotions, looking at the colours and styles, she felt irritated But the assistant didn’t go away and turned out to be genuinely helpful and concerned and had good taste. Between them they made a choice.
Pointing to the holes in her old sweater, the young woman said she would wear the new one immediately. As they went to pay, the assistant, an older foreign woman, said that if the woman had twenty minutes, she would repair the old sweater for her with no charge. The young woman was totally, wordlessly taken by surprise. Less than twenty minutes later, it was repaired so well she couldn’t see where the holes had been. She offered money to the assistant but was strongly refused. As she sought words to thank the older woman, her own emotions welled up uncontrollably and she began to weep. She looked at the older woman, pressed her hand and hurriedly left the shop.
I thought of this story a few weeks ago walking with the pilgrims early in the morning on the Via Dolorosa. Three times on his way to the Cross, Jesus fell. It was physically, emotionally all too much. At the first fall, a passer-by, who entered history that day, Simon of Cyrene, was made to help him carry the Cross. His helping didn’t prevent the Crucifixion. But we remember it two millennia later.
Entombed in her despair, what did the young woman feel, surprised by that extraordinary grace from a shop assistant? A stranger, who sensed her customer’s overwhelming sadness and was moved, not to intrude, but to manifest a presence greater than herself in an uncalled-for act of kindness.
There are no heroes any more, only celebrities. That is how it seems, anyway, in a culture where we project perfection on those we put on pedestals. Then, the exposure of human weakness, sinfulness or historical misdemeanour, incites mob rage on social media and a public execution on a virtual scaffold. How are the mighty fallen and how, secretly, as the media sales show, we enjoy their disgrace, their fall from grace.
Leaving the personal sin aside for a moment, the blame for this social state of affairs falls on both sides. There are those who create false gods and then idolise them. And there are the idols who exploit the privileges they receive, power, attention, wealth. Then there are idols who don’t want the privileges but just passively go along with it. Anyone who feels they are being idolised has a responsibility to declare and show they are only human. When Cornelius fell at Peter’s feet and worshipped him, Peter replied ‘get up. I am only a human being like you’. His own previous weaknesses were of course part of the story by them.
There is a lot of forgiveness, repentance and new beginnings in the Bible stories. But no perfect characters. Well, we would say there is one; but holiness and authenticity are better terms to describe him than perfection, which is more of a mathematical term than a human one. Perfection dehumanises us. Wholeness, integral humanity, loving-kindness, non-violence: these are the qualities we see in him. They are not superhuman or supernatural but simply fully human, revealing our own actual true nature. What we can be and what we are called to be is our true nature. We are not perfect but we can aspire to wholeness.
And what is this elusive wholeness we feel ineluctably drawn to through the never-ending healing of our serial imperfections and failures to be our true selves? Freedom from self-deception, freedom to love to the fullest human capacity, unflinching clarity of mind and a gentleness of heart taken to the most vulnerable degree, the humility to try again.
Moses was refused entry into the Promised Land because his faith had once faltered and he had failed as a leader. King David lusted after another man’s wife and killed her husband so he could have his way with her. Solomon the Wise ended his days as an old lecher with a thousand women in his harem. Elijah the prophet slaughtered 850 of his religious opponents after he had showed them the superiority of his God.
And so on, until our own times and the revelations of endemic sin and hypocrisy in the religious leaders of many traditions in whom people put their faith and, perhaps unconsciously, expected them to be more perfect than they were. Not surprisingly, the only sinners whom Jesus pointed angrily to were not the public sinners but the ones who hid their sin under their religious persona.
Lent is not a time to play at being more religious but for purifying our religiousness until it better conforms to the truth about ourselves. This cannot be done firstly in public but only in our inner room with the doors closed.
Third week of Lent (15 - 21 March)
Today’s gospel is about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman. She was a marginalised person both with regard to him as a Jew and to her own village because of her marital history. She didn’t put him or anyone else on a pedestal. Maybe this is why they became so intimate in telling the truth about themselves to each other.
The first time I heard Jean Vanier teach, when he gave us a memorable John Main Seminar in 1990, it was about this story. I was moved and enlightened by how deeply he identified with it and spoke from a place of humble, spiritually intelligent wisdom. It was a difficult time in my own life and in a couple of personal meetings he gave me insightful and healing advice that helped me continue on my path.
Over the years Jean’s friendship with the meditation community continued and just a few years ago he gave his second seminar from Trosly. I cannot deny or rewrite the history of the grace of this connection or the good he did. He had a profound sense that religion was not about control but healing and leading people to fullness of life; and that each person, however marginal, was wholly worthwhile. His theme was human woundedness; and, as the more he expounded it, more people called him a saint. I don’t think he wanted to be put on a pedestal; but, although people might have wondered what his own handicaps and wounds were, he was widely regarded as better than most people. This made his posthumous fall from grace all the more an awful surprise.
When I heard the truth, about the pattern of his sexual relations with a number of women whom he was guiding, I disbelieved it. But the evidence and the conclusions drawn from it are now hard and clear. L’Arche must be commended for the independent enquiry that it conducted into these cases where lasting harm was done to vulnerable women. He was, it seems, not just a wounded but a wounding healer. The way l’Arche leaders have handled this revelation about their founder reflects the best aspects of his own teaching though not of his personal behaviour. In time I feel l’Arche will be stronger and wiser.
I asked a Buddhist friend recently for his perspective on this breaking of an icon. He mentioned the number of teachers in his own tradition who had also been exposed in similar ways. On one of them the Dalai Lama spoke out because of a personal connection. He said how easily the power and influence given to gurus in their tradition could go corrupt, as power of any kind risks doing. But, he added, how disappointing and how inexcusable is the failure, when this power gives the one who holds it a sense of exceptional privileges and entitlements and exempts them from the normal standards of decency and probity.
Before tomorrow, when I conclude this sad reflection, I would ask you to reflect on the issue in itself. And also on the language we use to think and talk about it. How can we respond to the revelation of sinfulness in those brothers and sisters in whom we once naively saw only grace?
Religious status or spiritual influence in any power structure is a source of temptation. Most of the dark side of the history of Christianity, since the edict of Milan in AD 313 (when the Empire stopped persecuting of the followers of Jesus), can be attributed to giving in to temptations of power. This was the illusion that Jesus so clearly saw through and refused during his own Lent.
I find it hard to believe that Jean Vanier was tempted by this kind of power.
I don’t know his inner world, but on the basis of his teaching and personality I would venture to say his self-inflicted wound that led him to wound others was not crude hunger for power but self-deception around his own handicap and hunger for intimacy. Clearly he did have power and misused it with people whom he should have been caring for, not using. But, my guess, is that it was not driven by the desire for power or acclaim. It was closer to what he often spoke about: weakness and handicaps. When these are not acknowledged they become dark forces.
But does this even make a difference? What matters for those he hurt is not his motivation but the consequences they suffered and the attention they now receive. I am not sure; it is uncomfortable for anyone to reflect on and get it right. But trying to understand it helps us to correct the mistakes we make about the important meaning of holiness. All religion proposes the idea of holiness, the enlightened, liberated state of individuals who have plunged more fully into the processes of human transformation. We may assume this process of sanctification is complete in someone when it is anything but finished. Don’t we all have good and bad, self-less and self-sacrificing, enlightened and shadow sides? When it is obvious that our process is not complete, no one calls us ‘holy’. If it is more advanced, people can jump to the conclusion we have arrived. And then up goes another pedestal and our human clay is re-used to make a plaster saint.
The only safe approach is to call no one holy (for Catholics not even the ‘Holy Father’). Jesus warned us to call no one ‘Father’ or ‘Teacher’ or ‘Master’. There is only one Father and one Teacher. Only God is holy. Only God is good. His warning to ‘judge not’ includes over-positive judgements of others as well as the total condemnations we like to make. It is complicated when someone we have learned from and whom we saw as a friend is exposed and we see how they harmed others. The first concern then is caring for those who have been hurt, the human collateral damage. Second, is being careful (for our sake and that of the truth) how we judge the offender. Even if, relatively speaking, we have only a splinter in our own eye, we need to take it out before we can see anything clearly. For example, how far were we, even unconsciously, facilitating a lust for power or the game of self-deception, which became, in a basically good person, an irresistible temptation?
It’s hard when heroes, especially our spiritual heroes, are shamed and downgraded. So maybe it’s good that there are no heroes anymore. Or only one hero. It’s better and safer for all concerned.
There is a false view of Lent - and spiritual ascesis (exercise) generally - that associates it with being or pretending to be solemn to the point of miserable. Jesus addresses this by saying, when you practice a discipline of self-restraint, don’t publicise it and look hard done by or pious. Go out of your way to be relaxed and cheerful.
There is a guilt dynamic embedded in our psyche. And another upsetting factor in the ego is the magical feeling that every happy moment uses up limited credit, like on a phone plan, and this has to be topped up by doing something hard or difficult. You pay for happiness. Happiness is a product not our natural state. We don’t have the right to be happy while the world is disrupted by a global virus, or there are a million refugees displaced in Syria or a friend is suffering.
What is happiness? For religious people, this slides into the idea of a God who only wants you to be happy on his terms, when you are worshipping him in a way he approves. And this God, a complex form of the idea of karma – you get what you deserve – then becomes a petty god who rewards and punishes. Religious training and cultural ideas of God often reinforce these ideas, but they are first formed in childhood as we observe how adults treat us. Good boy, here’s a present. Bad boy, go to bed.
Meditation has a surprising power to break up every self-reinforcing complex of ideas and compulsive loop-thinking. This works directly on all our thoughts and images about God – which are not just intellectual items but strongly emotional. If you believe that God will punish you for your faults you are emotionally affected in everything you do and in all your relationships. Then, as ideas of God change, so do our fundamental views of reality and our relations with other people.
Religious people are often made uncomfortable in the first stage of this process. They feel that God is disappearing, that meditation isn’t really prayer or that they may end up as an atheist. A man once told me he meditated faithfully but was not convinced it was really a form of prayer of which the Church or God approved. So, he would begin each meditation with a prayer: ‘Dear God I am going to meditate now. But believe me, I am not really a Buddhist.’
As old ideas of God fade, nothing solid immediately comes to take their place. Time and faith however help us to realise that the nothing is poverty of spirit, that emptiness is the space of fullness and that the loss is the first part of a cycle that leads to a surprising fresh kind of discovery. We find what we have lost but it is changed because it was lost. In the distance it took from us while it was lost it or we changed. Sometimes we do have to lose our beliefs about God, even to stop believing and wait. Until we believe again in a new way. Faith is deepened in the tunnels of time. And time is transcended by faith.
In the last war, while England was expecting to be invaded as other European countries had been, the government took measures to make things difficult for the enemy when they arrived. They used camouflage on coastal installations, set up a Home Guard of old men and boys with outmoded rifles, which the English today still feel nostalgic about; and they took down all road signposts. It is a funny idea that the mighty German army would have been seriously impeded by not knowing whether to turn right or left at a crossroads in the English countryside.
When I read about this I thought it reflected a feeling we have on any journey of faith – starting a marriage, beginning a new community, finishing the writing of a book or raising children. These are all journeys on which faith – personal commitment and trust - has to deepen at every juncture. And yet, often there are no signposts pointing clearly to reassure us we are on the right road or will take the right turning. Sometimes the signs are there but not very helpfully: like the time my decision-making powers were paralysed. I was driving from Bere Island to Cork. I came to a fork in the road. There was a sign. But one side pointed left saying ‘Cork’ and another pointed right saying ‘Cork’.
In the spiritual dimension the path itself is everything. The deeper we go into the silence and let go of words, thoughts and imagination, as we do with the mantra, the fewer conventionally reassuring signs there are. There is simply the path, the way we are treading. And there is the treading, taking the next step. At first we protest at the absence of reassurances and re-confirmation of our direction. Our senses of direction and confidence are challenged or confused.
Slowly we realise that the path itself is the reassurance. There comes a sense of relief that there is a way, through the jungle, through the maze of options that overwhelm people today. We have found it. There’s a big life-changing difference as we realise that we are on a way. We may feel, too, that it has found us because there is a sense, coming from the road itself, that we are being led by a direct, intimate connection with it. It knows us better than we know it. The connection is simply our treading the path, always taking the next step. You did not choose me, I chose you… I am the Way. This sense belongs uniquely to the spiritual dimension. It allows us to follow those stretches of the road that have no signs.
All this might sound flaky and impractical. The sign that it is real is read in daily life, on the parallel pathways of action and decision-making. In material matters there are difficult decisions to make with insufficient time or information. The faith of our inner journey is surprisingly useful here. We don’t panic, when necessary we wait and endure better. When we make a decision we have more clarity and make the best choice we can. We trust. If it turns out we were wrong we adjust by direction again.
If we are faithful in the deep issues of the inner journey we will be more faithful in the material issues of life as well.
I’d like to send this reflection to our community in Italy as they, with their 60 million compatriots are in lockdown because of the coronavirus. All our community worldwide would like you to know that we are thinking of you in these extraordinary days. More than just thinking about you, we are holding you with loving friendship in our hearts at meditation and in our prayers.
It is for you to tell us what you feel and what it is like for you and your families – and we will happily welcome your posts on our website or blog. I will speak with our national coordinator to see if they would like this connection with the wider community. But if I imagine what it must be like for you I think of two comparisons. The first is a Hollywood disaster movie. Much of the media coverage of the pandemic encourages this and indeed the scenes of empty streets and the cancellation of transportation suggests it.
But the other comparison I think of is a retreat that starts in one way and ends in another. The obvious difference is that a retreat is a free choice about how and where we spend our free time. Yet when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was released from the Gulag forced labour camp where he had been imprisoned for eight years, he said he looked back at it and wept. His tears were a mix of relief at his departure and gratitude for what the camp life had taught him about himself and the human heart. The experience he underwent and the people he met there inspired his books for years to come
Sometimes, when we are forced into something and feel imprisoned by a coldly impersonal, external force, we may burn up in rage at it or go into depression. And yet sometimes, just sometimes if we are fortunate, the experience of being compelled liberates us into new and surprising views of reality. We encounter something unexpected, a hidden grace that could not otherwise have been able to find us.
As in meditation, there are times when we sit in a desert, dry and endlessly distracted by our anxieties or losses. An empty desolation stretches as far as we can feel in every direction. Better, we think, to do something useful or self-indulgent. The solitude is not the open space in which we feel connected to a greater whole but aloneness, constriction, abandonment or the feeling of being forgotten. The spectre of affliction haunts our soul.
Then from an inner point, without location, an invisible ray of light touches and restores our shrivelled soul to life and hope. Not that all our wishes are fulfilled, in fact none of them may be, and the pain or loss may still be only too present. But a joy emerges that opens a pathway to the source of being, our being.
I hope that in some way for all our Italian friends, who are feeling trapped by external forces, some peace of this inner freedom may at least occasionally arise. We hope that the time of the shutdown and quarantine may be short. We hope this for your sake and because the rest of us need the beautiful things - of your temperament and your country - that makes us love you.
Today, after a few days away teaching, I have back home to Bonnevaux where I will stay put for the foreseeable future. While I was away, we took the difficult but necessary step of suspending the Bonnevaux retreat schedule until we see how the global health crisis unfolds. The streets and railway stations are quiet. People are different. The first security person at the x-ray machine at the almost empty airport joked that today she would be giving me a personal welcome. The person after the x-ray looked delighted to have someone to investigate and took his leisure to empty out my backpack and hold up the offending Kindle.
When we meet in a crisis we look at each other differently. It affects us all equally and we know that none of us have control over events. This double awareness inclines us to be more friendly towards strangers. Life slows down. We look at each other more attentively. We become more present. We see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. All these changes in our ways of seeing and connection – in perception - surprise us at first. (Of course we may still be nervous and frightened.) These brief insights can fade quickly and we fall back into anger or anxiety. But a crisis can also awaken us to how a disruption of life like this is more than just an inconvenience, more even than a danger. It is a possibility. In time it will pass (what doesn’t’?). But it might also be a catalyst for a deep change of direction that we have known we needed for a long time, but never had the time to truly enact.
The corona virus is such a crisis – danger, certainly, but also opportunity. The great majority of those who catch it will recover completely. But there will be deaths and losses and suffering, which the most poor and vulnerable are always most hit by. We will find opportunities to be simply kinder, nicer, more reassuring to each other, especially to the lonely and frightened. We will better handle our fear and anxiety by thinking of others, making us discover that our neighbour is whoever we give our attention to.
We don’t know how long this social disruption of life will continue. Let’s hope we can look back on it as a ‘creative disruption’. However long it lasts, let’s not waste time. It can become our central Lent practice. I am consulting with several of our teaching faculty about how to develop an online programme adjusted to the conditions of the crisis. Most of us will be travelling less, maybe working from home, so we will probably have more time on our hands. This could be scary at first because, when our diaries are full, we don’t have time to use time well. We blame our being busy on our being busy, which translates into stress.
Lets make a life inventory. What have we run out of? What are we doing too much of? What has been pushed to the back shelf? What are our genuine priorities? What would I do today if I fully felt how uncertain, changeable and short life can be?
Good questions at any time, especially in a Lent when life is disrupted by a pandemic.
Taking stock of our priorities is never a waste of time. But where do we start? From the bottom up, the ground on which the house of life is built, and from the heart from which all growth comes: relationship.
Relationships are the sacred ground of human life. We have to take off our shoes when we turn our attention to them: to be simple, humble and truthful. Are we nurturing the happy, sustaining relationships, the friendships and intimacies we may be blessed with? Or do we take them for granted and lose touch with their inner life? And, to be realistic, if we don’t have the relationships we want and need, or if we have damaged relationships, some in crisis or on life-support, we should see that these too are sacred Just because they are suffering doesn’t mean they are not sacred. They need attention. Have we withdrawn, are we running away, are we blaming rather than forgiving? Like plants, relationships take time, pass through seasons in order to die and, somehow or other, be restored.
There is no relationship in life that is not rooted in absolute reality. We call this God. It is not mathematical, or philosophical but personal. Being the person we are and relating to others, depends upon insight into the personal nature of reality. Without a living relationship with the living God (named or unnamed) we have only dreams, memories and reflections.
Which is why any proper life-inventory involves an assessment of our spiritual life. Here, relationships with others, in God who is the common ground, converge with our self-knowledge and self-acceptance. How convenient for the ego if we could compartmentalise these without the painful awareness that we were being false to all of them.
Spiritual life is nourished by times of practice, thinking or studying as we can best, selfless work, and sharing the journey with others by exchanging support and teaching. We receive by giving and sometimes we give by receiving. For the meditator, the practice of sitting in silence is the key, the litmus test, that shows us where we really are: seeing life as a spiritual journey or seeing ‘spirituality’ merely as an element in the mix on our terms, something to find time for and the first thing to drop when we get too busy.
And so a life inventory highlights the actual values that make up life’s meaning: this is the most important thing. Are we celebrating what we should celebrate, grieving what needs to be mourned for, sharing everything that we can? If so we will be touched by the peace that passes all understanding, the power that leads us through the many deaths of life and the divinely foolish Hope that dispels fear and self-negation. This is more than enough to get us through the Corona crisis.
We are preparing a programme you might find helpful. Visit our international website (www.wccm.org) and your national website. Here, for example, all audio-visual media are collected in one place: http://www.wccm.org/media-page/ .
Fourth week of Lent (22 - 28 March)
Perhaps the question ‘why do catholic priests wear pink vestments this Sunday of Lent?’ is not the most pressing concern for the world just now. But it offers a glimpse behind the anxiety and inner and outer turbulence that our human family is suffering. Today is ‘Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday’ and the traditional liturgical colour for joy is pink.
What is there to be happy about? Not so much, but joy is different. Happiness (treasure it while you have it) depends on external circumstances or forms of relationship. While they last, we easily slip into a gratitude that assumes that the time of happiness will be permanent. And what, after all, is permanent? Joy, however, is not dependent on external circumstances and passing forms. It flows continuously from a source, a pure spring, from being itself. Nothing can block it except our own dark tendency to bottle the spring water, to possess, to pollute the sheer innocent reality of it with the illusions of our own making and greed.
Nothing is so painful at first as the transition from lost happiness to sheer joy.
For some decades now we have been aware that the unprecedented material happiness, identified with affluence, came at an unreasonable and unsustainable price. Our personal humanity, civility and social justice, sanity and our global home itself were being polluted and abused. But what could we do about it? The people who sounded the alarm were dismissed as cranks or exaggerators. The moaners and groaners also became a class, an industry. Politicians were among the people who held power. But we came to see that politics was increasingly a public mask of power. Trust and respect for politics and law, necessary for any form of civilisation, plummeted. We saw elected chaos and government by barabarians.
The joy of life was grdaually siphoned off and bottled in worsening degrees of unfairness and surreal selfishness: the richest one percent today own half of the world’s wealth - even now, as we are socially distancing and quarantined and the most vulnerable are suffering worst. Some of the one percent are generous and good people but even the worst of them were slowly realising it was a little too unreal to last. Anger may build against them – as it did in the passive aggression of populism. But demonising them is unfair and unreal too.
In today’s gospel Jesus cures a man born blind. His disciples asked him who were to blame for his misfortune, and he declined to point the finger of blame. He said the healing itself was the meaning – it revealed the divine fullness of life, the joy of being, pushing through human limitations and handicaps. Jesus cured the man by spitting on the ground and making a paste with the earth, applying it to the man’s eyes and telling him to wash in the spring-fed Pool of Siloam. Later the man said, ‘all I know is, once I was blind and now, I can see.’
Words used in 1772 by John Newton, the reformed slave trader in his hymn Amazing Grace. ‘And grace will bring us home’, the hymn also says.’
Meditators come to know that ‘experience is the teacher’. As they stop relying too much on external sources of authority and trust their own heart, they come to know what experience itself means. Not just what happens but what happens because of what happens. I mean, not just what happens during the meditation but what happens in our self and in life as a whole because of what happens in meditation, even if we don’t see it happening all the time.
Meditation is a source of wisdom because it teaches us this truth so simply. It helps us read the signs and patterns of life and to read the book of nature itself. In a relatively short time people around the world have been forced to stay at home, not rush around, fly, drive., shop, buy the latest model and go home and throw away the old, waste resources and time. A bit judgemental but I don’t exclude myself either.
Sometimes what we read in the book of nature is childishly obvious. Since these restrictions have been imposed their impact is apparent in the pollution readings in N. Italy gathered by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel Satellite. Emissions of nitrogen dioxide (vehicle exhaust) have dropped considerably. Pollution in China, especially in Wuhan and Hubei Province has also dramatically plunged.
This is what is happening but what is happening because of what is happening?
After the first meditation this morning I had as usual twenty minutes before the second. Usually I read in this time but as the morning was so fresh and beautiful, I walked around and found myself reading the book of nature. It wasn’t difficult. I didn’t have to measure nitrogen emissions or theologise. The birdsong was enough, the purity of the air and the lucidity of the silence. One sound I had heard but not identified before, became clear as a bird swooped down towards and emitted an odd raspy note. The frogs are beginning their cacophony. And because of the rain the lake is wonderfully full, and the fish look plump. Jean Christophe cut the grass and the smell of it is promising us the warm days to come.
With the Coronavirus is nature punishing us for how we have treated her? That’s one way of putting it. That’s what is happening karmically. But what is happening more is that we can be awakening to the infinite beauty of nature and the animal kingdom. Who doesn’t fall in love with the beautiful? And who can do harm to what they love while they love?
So, I walked in the fresh morning air, scents and sounds, thinking too of the dangers around us and the loneliness and fear that so many are suffering. I thought of my own sins. But more, I felt the amazing grace that restores our sight when we have become blind.
Beauty will save the world.
Attention is a like a muscle. If you don’t use it – or just imagine you are exercising while in fact you are not – it will atrophy. People who have an accident and are laid up in bed for an extended time say how quickly their muscles weaken. When they are able to get up at last, they find they can’t do the most ordinary things without great difficulty. The road back to mobility and health may be a long one and will certainly require regular exercise.
In our (at least until Coronavirus) overloaded and distracted culture we can be so distracted that we don’t even know we are distracted. This state may last until we try to pay attention to something new and unwelcome such as a global crisis. It flies off the news sites into our families and daily lives as an inescapable disruption. The global invades the personal. The disaster movie we watched for entertainment becomes a chilling reality in urban lockdown, deserted streets and customers fighting for hand sanitisers. Who wants to pay attention to something as unpleasant as that?
Becoming obsessed with something – whether pleasant or distasteful – is not the same as paying attention. To be merely addicted or fixated is an extreme form of compulsive distraction. So, we may be glued to news updates during the day, most of which contain nothing new. Better to ration our intake of news. Stay in touch, keep informed but don’t binge as we do with most of the distractions we use to distract us from distraction.
We exercise a physical muscle by alternating contraction and release. Tighten, let go, tighten, let go. Gradually it becomes stronger and we can do more things with it. Similarly, with the muscle of attention, we find we are becoming more attentive in more and more aspects of our lives – to the people we are with, to our immediate environment, to the simple miracles of life – birdsong, cloud formations, the greening of the trees. These are not distractions, but they give us the variety of content we need to keep our minds healthily flexible, receptive and focused.
Attention that can’t remain on an object for long enough for us to appreciate it for itself – not just for what it gives me – slackens into distraction. It flits from sensation to sensation or endless browsing. Attention can focus and enjoy for the sake of delight or relationship; it can move across a spectrum of consciousness calmly. We move from thing to thing without panic or chaos. The variety is healthy and nutritious.
So, during these days when life has changed for us all, meditation is a great, simple, available way to rebuild our power of attention. Not that we sit and meditate 24 hours a day. But we build in the set times and find we can live in-between these times with more peace and appreciation of the beauty around us – and within us. Attention without a thought or image is pure prayer. But exercising it like this, at meditation times, means we can think, read, look, listen, touch and smell, the rest of the time, in a truly prayerful way.
In our community worldwide we are working together to offer a ‘contemplative path through the crisis’. As you will have seen from our website or other mailings you have received from the community, we will be proposing a healthy variety of resources and events from which you can select whatever you find helpful to you personally or to your family, or to a group that you may be meditating with online.
If you belong to a regular meditation group and are missing it because it’s suspended, think about meeting together online at the same regular time. It’s not hard to set up and you can get simple advice if you’re technologically challenged. There’s a large list of online groups already meeting you can select from as well.
This Path has already begun with an online series of ‘inter-contemplative dialogues’ between Alan Wallace, an old friend, and a well-known Buddhist teacher and myself with Eva Natanya, a Catholic Buddhist scholar and myself. I will be sitting in the library at Bonnevaux with some of our community here. He and Eva will be sitting in a Carmelite monastery in Colorado. And you will be wherever you are. We will all be in the same moment, paying attention together. Each session will conclude with a meditation session. We will be together then in the one place that unites us all through the dimensions of time and space. These conversations will be posted online after their live transmission. We will be celebrating a contemplative mass on Sunday.
All the updates for this path will be posted on our website which will be your one-stop point of call:
Many of the teachers in the World Community will be involved in making and contributing to this Contemplative Path. And I invite you to contribute your ideas and suggestions of what you feel would be useful and nourishing.
Quite regularly, but not overloading you with choice, we will be updating resources and events that you might find helpful in order to follow a contemplative path through this difficult, anxious and, for many, lonely time. We have all heard that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ means both danger and opportunity. I hope this Contemplative Path will help make the opportunity clearer and easier to grasp.
The essential purpose of all this is to strengthen your daily practice of the muscle of attention - which is pure prayer. Petitionary and intercessory prayer are authentic forms and we need these too. Just as we benefit, too, from worshipping together. But it is pure prayer, the prayer of the heart - that is not ‘mine’ alone but my entry into the one, unifying prayer of the Spirit - that is most potent and transformative. Change your heart and you have already begun to change the world.
Our Coronavirus crisis will last longer than Lent. But it adds an urgent, personal dimension to the main themes of this spiritual season. We looked at these after Lent began but perhaps now, they seem more existential, less merely spiritual. Or, putting it another way, we are discovering that the spiritual is not as abstract as we often assume and that life itself is a spiritual journey that brings together every aspect and kind of human experience. When we forget this, we forget a core element of our humanity. We risk becoming not only spiritually undernourished but less than human.
I was shocked recently to receive a letter to the Virus from a twenty-year-old. I won’t quote from it because it could be upsetting to those who have lost friends to the virus or are deeply concerned for their loved ones and themselves. It was a letter of thanks, provocatively and intelligently written but, as one might expect from an intense young person, lacking as yet a full empathy for others who suffer. The letter painfully saw the crisis as a wake-up call, and the indictment of an unsustainable lifestyle.
As I said the other day, this is not a time merely for blaming and finger-pointing, even at ourselves. But there is a teaching hidden in this crisis and if we can find it, we will recognise the opportunity for change it offers. The terrible suffering and death-toll by the end will not be justified but will be part of this hard-to-swallow meaning. For anyone alive at this time, whatever their generation, whether they were infected or not, the world will never be the same. The human family will be weaker, and recovery will difficult. In such times the dark forces of politics and finance may seek to take advantage and it will never be more important to have a critical mass of people in whom the contemplative mind has awakened. Not heroes or saints but human beings who have recovered the spiritual dimension of reality, so often missing, ridiculed, neglected, rejected or trivialised in our present culture.
When we put spirituality into another category, or reduce it materialistically to neurons and myths, we begin the process of dehumanising humanity. Peace is sought by force, wealth is stockpiled by the few, political structures are hijacked, and religion becomes merely another personal identity or an aggressive ideology.
Even if it wasn’t expressed perfectly, the young person who wrote the letter understood well that we are not just facing a human crisis of suffering that requires compassion and action, but also an opportunity to live better. Opportunities can be more challenging than failures. John Main once asked me as I began this path if I was prepared for all it would bring. I thought he meant what I would be giving up. But he corrected me: ‘I mean the joy.’ Etty Hillesum wrote, as she was helping the Jews being rounded up by the Nazis for shipment to Auschwitz, “Today I feel total despair. I will have to deal with it’.
We are now in the days of the spring equinox, the most powerful force of resurrection in nature. It is the right time for us to deal with joy.
The global virus is teaching us all many things. Each person is receiving this teaching individually through the context of their own history and personality. And of course, we are learning hard and necessary lessons collectively. As the financial impact of the crisis causes deep concern, we are forced to ask unwelcome questions about fundamental values – are we going to continue insanely believing that GDP has to increase continuously? Will we learn to live within our limits? Can we discover what ‘enough’ means? Will we teach the next generation that being content with enough is the condition of the ‘happiness’ that we have been seeking in the wrong places and in the worst of ways.
Firstly, though, the virus is teaching us realism. We cannot control the spread of the virus by going on warm days to crowded beaches or parks. What we are seeing on the screens is real in our personal lives. With a strong dose of realism, we become ready to learn patience.
Patience is a precious virtue because it is a basic element of learning anything at all. Maybe after the crisis when schools and colleges open again, we will remember what patience means. We will not approach education as something to be heated up quickly in a microwave and delivered as a qualification. We will find it repulsive that education, even at the elementary level for young children, produces stress, anxiety and mental illness because of its competitiveness and obsession with quantified evaluation. Will we remember that the raising of children requires time spent with them because they need to be soaked in personal attention not put in front of digital babysitters. Maybe we will learn that it takes time to learn anything: that our millennial impatience to become expert at something in an overpaid fast track does not lead to good work.
Maybe we will remember that meditation was not invented and packaged to help us cope with stress; or to solve problems merely so as to continue lifestyles that cause those problems. We meditate, as John Main said, because we are made to meditate. Meditation is about opening our eyes to reality in its colourful diversity and wondrous simplicity. Meditation teaches us patience and we need patience to enjoy.
WE also need it to know how to suffer. Those who have become patients at home or in hospital, having caught the virus, learn how patience teaches, as the root of the word itself shows, that patience is the quality of suffering. Thinking that patience is just about waiting for something to come or go, only makes us finger-tappingly impatient. Patience teaches us how to accept and grow through suffering. How to endure, be resilient, be peaceful, caring for others even in our own distress.
In a hedonistic world, pursuing happiness in the wrong places, we create suffering without learning how to suffer. The inescapable secret of life is to know how to suffer. So, let’s remember this is the second half of Lent. We are preparing to contemplate the Passion of Christ. Passion, in this sense, is the deepest patience, the bridge between suffering and joy.
A good friend may give you consolation and a comforting word when you feel desperate, but a true friend will never give false hope. Politicians who want to get re-elected, parents who just want to be liked, employers who want to avoid confrontation may decide to deceive those who look to them for leadership by throwing them scraps of illusion. It’s like throwing something you don’t want to a cat who looks excited but after it has sniffed it turns up its nose and looks at you with disgust.
Simone Weil never minced words and so many find her insight too concentrated a form. She once said, ‘all consolation is deception’. I think she meant false consolation and false hope all of which come from the ‘father of lies’ not the ground of being.
‘The virus is fake news; we’ll be back to normal by Easter. Business will boom again very soon.’
‘Of course, meditation doesn’t need discipline. Do it when you feel like it.
‘It was all their fault, obviously. Blame them.’
‘You don’t need to suffer. Live as if you’ll never die’.
In one form or another, from legislators, pulpits or lifestyle gurus we swallow lies all the time. After a while, we need bigger lies. When false hopes aren’t realised, we need more outrageous ones to make us believe them. But as the stakes get higher the stronger becomes the addiction and the denial of reality. I’m not saying we should be grateful for the virus or for suffering in general but we should acknowledge that it can teach us to see reality more clearly and change patterns of self-deception that allow others unscrupulously to deceive us.
The Desert Fathers understood acedia as one of the major blocks to human development. It means discouragement leading to negativity and cynicism, the rejection of anything that doesn’t give us what we want. It denies that we have to pass through tunnels before coming out into the light. It distorts our perception of truth and tells lies we want to hear because we have heard them so many times before. They have only the virtue of being familiar, having been replayed from our internal archives perhaps for decades. Acedia is not our fault.
If people feel this while in isolation during the great shutdown, they don’t have to blame themselves. It’s the same with boredom. You can’t help being bored. But we can do something about these unhappy states of mind. We can recognise them and try another remedy from those we have used before. Stillness rather than activity. Silence rather than raising the volume, Simplicity rather than looking for something new. The collective terms for this alternative approach to living is contemplation. The contemplative path may look like a narrow one compared with what we were doing before. But once tried, we find it ‘leads to life’.
Fifth week of Lent (29 March - 4 April)
So much of our training in how to approach life is about achievement, so little about realisation, so little about actually just living. It was helpful for me to learn yesterday that one hard working bee in its busy bee life makes no more than one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. Of course, it has many companions (up to 60,000) so, together, they may make enough to cover a piece of bread. But as they seem to enjoy their work, presumably they have different ways of assessing the meaning of existence and they must be less obsessed with quantity and individuality.
Today’s gospel is about the raising of Lazarus, a friend whom Jesus loved, brother of the sisters Martha and Mary whom he also loved. When Jesus arrived at their home, four days after his friend had died, Martha, a busy bee, came out to meet him. She did the same in the story in Luke where she becomes distracted by her many tasks and shows the classic symptoms of stress. Jesus reminds her to balance her over-achieving personality with the qualities of her contemplative sister, who is more into simply being. In today’s extra-ordinary and yet movingly human story, both sisters seem relieved that their friend has come to console them in their grief. When he sees them ‘Jesus began to weep’ and people say, ‘how he loved him’.
He then calls Lazarus back to this life. The dead man emerges from the tomb still wrapped in his funereal cloths. Jesus says, ‘unbind him and let him go’. Like other experiences that we recognise as authentic and yet cannot explain, we either dismiss it as a fairy-tale or we fall silent before what it is saying, in dense symbolic realism, about the person of Jesus.
As in his other extraordinary deeds, Jesus shows no interest in using his achievement to impress or recruit people. It seems to have no quantifiable meaning, nothing you can cash and bank. It is what it is. It changes a life and the lives of those people who share the individual’s life. For Lazarus it was a reprieve because he would die again eventually. So, it is not rising from the dead, as Jesus was to do. For him, the cycle of death-and-rebirth, which is the repetitive pattern of our everyday busy bee lives, was broken and transcended, giving us hope that we are not condemned to repeat the failures-and-successes of life endlessly.
Was this great act an achievement? Is Resurrection an achievement? Although the story of Lazarus made him famous and led to his arrest and execution, it is not described as something to add to Jesus’ defence. It was a sign rather than an achievement, a revelation rather than a proof.
This is another way of measuring the sweet honey of life, which is not always so sweet. In our slow-down and shut-down, social isolation and quarantine, can we make use of the time to do a life-itinerary in these terms? Forget the achievements we get credit for and the failures we are debited for. Look instead at what events, relationships, outcomes, sweet or sour, revealed meaning and illuminated our true nature.
What’s normal? Once I was talking with someone who had been greatly angered and felt deeply betrayed by a friend. The friend had, I thought, acted badly. Yet, it was easier for me to be ‘objective’ and think ‘well, maybe they didn’t want to hurt this person and maybe they didn’t really know what they were doing’. This is much easier to say when you’re not on the Cross yourself.
Jesus reached the highest objectivity, not the false one most of us claim to speak from. It is reached at the base of the greatest subjectivity – when he knew himself totally and was about to give up his spirit to his source, ceasing to be separate in any way, and abandoning any clinging to himself. He was on the Cross at that moment and said, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.’ Interestingly, he didn’t say ‘Father, I forgive them...’
When it is “I’’ doing the forgiving, there is too much personal attachment to the pain and the drama of forgiveness. In calling forth forgiveness for his enemies’ appalling and vicious ignorance, from the ground of being, he was connecting to the source itself. His last words teach us where he had reached and what we should aim for.
Anyway, back to this life. The person I was speaking to, who felt betrayed, was analysing and condemning the person who had hurt her. We all do it, trying to understand how this could have happened, explaining it in a way that blames but pretends to be objective. We use psychological language for this today most of the time. Maybe there is some truth in the psychological assessment we make of others. But it may not yet be a truth we have earned the right to use. This becomes obvious when we say something like, ‘it’s just not normal. There’s something wrong... abnormal about them.’ Jesus didn’t say of his final predicament, ‘it’s just not normal.’ In fact, it was only too normal: that we blame others and crucify them in order to protect ourselves from the truth. There’s nothing more normal in human relationships and institutions than scapegoating.
It’s hard even for the most devoted Christian to say exactly what the Cross does for the world and why it matters. In fact, outside the radiance of the resurrection, it’s impossible to do so. But, one helpful particle of the total truth of the mystery of his suffering and death is that it exposes the falsehood, the self-deception, the terror of the truth that hurts us, which scapegoating others is one way of running away from.
Suffering, and we are all experiencing it in this crisis, should be avoided or reduced, if we can. But if we can’t, let’s learn from it. Let’s hope that after this passes and we begin the recovery, we will have a better understanding of what ‘normal’ really means. Normal use of time, normal weather, normal relationships. How we use this time can help us find the centredness and balance that the Cross also symbolises. Then we will be less prone to blame and more ready to act well. Just by being who we are (like Jesus did) we will be agents of change for the normal that is real.
Where is our memory stored? The materialist’s answer is in the hippocampus of the brain for long-term memories and the neocortex of the brain for what I had for dinner yesterday. A more subtle answer that takes the spiritual dimension for real (not just as an accident of the brain) would say that all memory is stored in the deeper level of consciousness. As our Buddhist dialogue partner in the recent inter-contemplative dialogues, Alan Wallace, said we don’t think that the memory of a computer is stored in the keyboard. Why should we think the brain makes us conscious?
An old aunt of mine suffered Alzheimers for ten years and could not communicate at all. Her daughters decided they would tell her that her husband, their father, had died although they knew she would be unaware and unresponsive. She continued to jabber meaninglessly as they told her, but then, tears rolled down her cheeks. That may not prove anything scientific about memory; but it suggests something about consciousness surviving the atrophy of the brain just as it has been shown to survive the clinical death of patients under medical care.
To see someone whom we have lived with and loved for a lifetime lose their memory and drift away from us is dying while alive. We pass through deaths at many levels of intensity in a lifetime, but this must be one of the worst. And yet, in this too, there is a substratum of consciousness that connects us, even when all the signals we exchange to show that we recognise and care for one another have flickered out.
The persistence of deep memory – and love is a kind of memory continuously remembered and renewed – does not negate death. In a way it makes death all the more final and terrible. Yet it transcends death and shows life as the great constant. Life is inextinguishable. Consciousness itself is life and memory shows love to be stronger than death.
Personal relationships teach us this. So do great spiritual traditions which are a transmission in a stream of consciousness of a living memory that connects us to our source while it carries us forward on our individual journey. For all of us today our individual journeys in life are connected by the threat and fear of the coronavirus. For some of us it has already meant the death of loved ones. For all it triggers the awareness of our mortality and the uncertainties of change we cannot control.
In such dark times, however, a collective memory, suppressed by hyper-distraction, becomes conscious again: the memory of life experienced as a spiritual journey beginning and ending in mystery, full of inexplicable pain and joy but full of wonder. It is wonder in the end that frees us from fear. We are first exposed to our real predicament: of not having a spiritual path in times like this, lacking a source of meaning, not seeing the spark of life hidden in the darkness of our deaths. All these are symptoms of another virus rampant in our materialism and delusion. To remember this is to beat the fear of death and dying.
Many people today are becoming oddly aware that in life before the virus they had forgotten something obvious. That above everything else life is, a spiritual journey. Many are remembering that a spiritual path is necessary to remain conscious through all the excruciating uncertainties and extremes, that life is a spiritual journey.
And for those who before struggled to be faithful to a regular spiritual practice, to meditate twice a day, it is clearer that a spiritual path is more than a lifestyle choice: it is the ‘one thing necessary’ (Luke 10:42) To remember this is to become conscious again. To be conscious is to be alive. Our best chance of surviving is to be awake. This is the work of the humble practice of daily meditation and the mantra.
Thank God for the internet and social media. Whatever bad use we made of them before the virus we are now discovering how they can be a lifeline to meaning, to connection. Depth and meaning come through inner connection with others, being reminded by them of the necessary grace of friendship. Shared spiritual practice does not make us perfect; but it builds community.
Feeling connected to a community builds resilience and deepens peace through these lonely, often bewildering days of social isolation. The response to the WCCM’s A Contemplative Path through the Crisis has been amazing. A surge of people have been signing up to join the path and receive the teachings, short videos, audio and print media from which you can choose what will best help you at that moment. Above all it supports practice with a sense of community. We follow a spiritual path and take the responsibility for ourselves. But the solitude to which it leads, reveals the deep connections we have with all others. It is not a club, but an inclusive community is especially felt between who follow the path together, supporting, being supported, now giving encouragement, now receiving it.
To have a spiritual path enriches us with the gift of spiritual friendship. No price, no membership fee can match this gift, healing the isolation and loneliness which are also viruses long at work in our culture. A path also feeds and calms the mind, giving us essential tools and insights to help us endure when we encounter suffering, disruption, loss or fear. Without a path we are so overwhelmed. Yet we are never far from it. We have. A sense of homecoming when we connect with it again.
For the first time most churches in the West are closed for public worship because of the coronavirus. They have been becoming emptier for a long time because the spirit and form of worship increasingly seemed, especially to the more free-thinking younger generation, empty of meaning, lacking connection with an inner spiritual path. Religion without connection to a contemplative practice, eventually merges with external ritual and outward works. It lacks heart, the most precious dimension of human existence.
Not so long-ago experts and specialists were out of fashion. They were rejected as part of the ‘establishment’ and replaced by ‘the people’, the ordinary people who wanted their views heard. Now in a full-blown global health crisis that is changing the world as neither the establishment nor the people could have done, experts have become the ones we trust. We trust them because, unlike those leaders who are preaching denial and false hope, these medical experts, statisticians and epidemiologists, admit to a large mix of uncertainty in their opinions. They don’t claim to have all the answers and generally they recognise this is not the time to point the finger of blame.
Living with uncertainty is a right brain function. It is part of the contemplative path through life, including all life’s crises. In an un-contemplative lifestyle, where everything is done to excess and at unnecessary speed, we leap from one false certainty to another. The sudden slowdown and shutdown affects us all – from people working alone from their computers in the suburbs, to those who have lost their jobs and cannot afford to feed themselves or their families, to the millions of migrants workers in India forced at four hours’ notice to walk hundreds of kilometres to their home villages. Suffering and fear can isolate us, but they can also become a bridge when we see how we are feeling the same things as everyone else. The shock is to find how radical uncertainty is. So, how necessary it is that we know how to live with it wisely. The shock, too, is a suddenly altered sense of time.
One good source of wisdom is the 6th century monastic rule of life written by St Benedict that we adapt to our life here at Bonnevaux. Benedict knew about uncertainty: one community he founded tried to poison him, the great city of Rome (the Washington DC of its day) was invaded and sacked by barbarians and he lived with a group of people of greatly differing temperaments who could fly off in different directions any day – or several times a day. His main solution to uncertainty was to make a daily schedule and – with reasonable flexibility of course – stick to it.
Maybe that’s a first step for many people isolated at home with others or alone: make a realistic timetable including the things you need and want to do and post it on your fridge door. Look at it and see if it feels balanced. Does it represent ordinary common humanity – physical needs, mental needs and spiritual needs?
Adjusting it to reflect basic human needs is a first step to getting a handle on the feeling of fear and panic that uncertainty and slow-down. It is step to curing the virus of fear and panic. It helps us to see health differently even in the midst of a pandemic. When we have re-connected to the sense of the present we will find that peace – the peace we lost in all that stress – is closer to us, deeper within us, than we had ever imagined.
Although the response to the Contemplative Path programme has been keeping us online and in touch with the meditators around the world, we have been living a regular, quiet life here at Bonnevaux. But yesterday I disturbed the peace by setting off the fire alarm in the house trying to light a fire in the fireplace in my study because it suddenly got colder here. My failed attempt produced clouds of smoke that blew inwards rather than up the chimney. I thought I had learned by now how to start a fire with wood in a small fireplace. But once again I discovered again how little I know and how easy it is to repeat mistakes.
Of course, to light a fire you start with paper. How much to lay down is always a difficult decision to make. Then you add kindling, small pieces of wood or cardboard. You can’t be sure the wood is dry enough and sometimes it rejects your advances to ignite it. The firelighters I then add are annoyingly temperamental and usually go out as soon as you place anything on top of them. Or. they fall between the wood and the paper and I attempt to save the fire by lighting the paper. This produces an initial gratifying blaze and a flickering sense of achievement. I feel successful, or to be honest, just lucky. But it is a false hope.
Some of the small pieces of wood eventually catch fire half-heartedly. I hope this will spread to the larger pieces of wood that I have waiting nearby to add. As I am very impatient, I usually put the bigger logs on the new flames too quickly. I hope, I imagine, I pray they will catch the fire. But after a while everything dies down. I have made too much of a demand on the small flames and expected too much. Soon there are just a few burning embers left. At this point it’s easy to despair. It’s not a big issue in life, lighting a fire, but the smallest disappointment can trigger darker moments of despair. Just misplacing your car keys can trigger a series of previous more painful losses in your life. Why not just switch on the electric fire?
But my Irish determination fights against despair. I run outside to pick up a new supply of small pieces of wood. When I get back the embers are almost dead, but I carefully put the new kindling on top of them. I throw in one of the useless firelighters as well. What’s there to lose? Lying on the floor I blow long and hard into the glowing embers and eventually a few glorious flames appear. Encouraging but not to be trusted.
An hour or so later, after frequent interventions and near-death experiences, the fire is burning merrily. The secret of course is not what you put on top but what lies underneath. When the foundation of the fire is hot and glowing, anything you add will be consumed. Fire like love consumes what it feeds on. There is a glorious union and then it’s over. The room is almost too warm and it’s time for bed.
I won’t bore you with an explanation of this poor parable. I think it’s obvious. For Lent. For a pandemic. For daily meditation.
In a crisis, feeling uncertain of how or if it will end, hearing myriad opinions and predictions from people who have just heard something they want you to believe, what is there to do except simply ‘do the next thing’?
Quite often we find the courage we did not know we had, simply by doing the next thing trustingly and without delay. The big enemy is always postponement driven by fear. Obey without delay, St Benedict says. In crisis times we hardly know what we are obeying. Yet often, not knowing what the next thing after the next thing will be, makes things turn out better than we could have hoped or imagined.
Crisis arrives in many ways. It can creep up on you slyly or suddenly hit you sideways and send you into spin on a slippery road. A real crisis though is always more than a temporary challenge or upset. It is there the next morning and the morning after that and for as far ahead as you can see. No amount of imagining or wishing will reverse what has happened. That is its stomach-turning finality, its unavoidability.
Despite this it, it keeps on taking new shapes, new fears, new questions about why and will there ever be an end to it Will you survive it? In a temporary upset this question can bring you to your senses: ‘well of course in time I will recover’, we say to ourselves. But in a real crisis you don’t know. You just know there is a real possibility you won’t survive. Maybe this is the last one. Hope depends on facing that possibility.
Increasingly, in a real deepening crisis, you realise there will never be a going back to the way things were and yet you are not sure if what lies ahead is a cliff-edge or a new world. Time will tell what kind of crisis this coronavirus has been. Many feel that life will never be the same, that the recovery will be hard and there may fundamental change for good or ill. Nor can we know if or for how long we will remember the lessons learned during the worst of it.
All of that is in the medium or long-term. What is facing us now is the next thing to do, in the shut-in, working from home or depending on others to keep us alive or provisioned. Will we go stir-crazy or will we gently, bravely dive into the present moment by doing the next thing with presence of mind? We have to hold on to mental balance while learning to let go of so many of the habits of mind that unbalanced us in the past. This is what I mean by finding a contemplative path through the crisis. It’s not about becoming suddenly religious or pious.
It means letting go of anxiety and fear and of our always trying to peer around the corner, predicting the future so that we can control it. Meditation is the way to train to do this. The fruits of meditation are many and quietly revolutionary. But don’t expect dramatic experiences or revelations. Wait till you see that you are doing the next thing with calm and clarity, despite feeling fear and anxiety. That shows you are on a contemplative path and that life has purpose and direction. Twice a day, meditation is the next thing.
Holy Week (5 April - 11 April)
Today at Mass we read the whole of the Passion story, from the Last Supper to Jesus yielding up his spirit on the Cross.
Most of you who read this last sentence will know what I mean. Let’s remember the generation among us who haven’t the slightest idea what I am referring to. Yet all of us have known or will know what it is suffer the loss of someone we care for deeply and what it means to live with their new and strangely endless absence. I spoke this morning with a friend whose father died suddenly of a heart attack. She and her mother, who joined us on WhatsApp, have been transported in the few minutes that it took for their beloved father and husband to die, into a different world. There are very few words that one can say to those who are so fresh in grief. It is easier to speak of cosmic mysteries than personal loss. Yet the simple, caring presence of others in times when life has been upended and turned inside out can prevent us from collapsing or going mad.
As we see just how far-reaching is influence of this sudden pandemic and how it has stopped the world so suddenly, sending shuddering shocks through every aspect of our lives, the need for personal connection has never been more precious. Here at Bonnevaux the regular rhythm of our daily life, meditation, work, reading, conversation and friendship sustains us as we try to share the gift of a spiritual practice with others around the world through online events and messages. This morning I met and meditated online with the workforce of Singapore’s DPA Architects – who are overseeing the renovation of Bonnevaux - from their offices around the world from Shanghai to London. The Contemplative Path programme website will be up online shortly.
In our new slowed down, shut in world the way we oscillate between the global and the local has never been more obvious. Whether browsing or talking online or walking into the next room or the garden we feel how we are creatures who exists because we are connected, or seek connection, or grieve lost connections. We live on presence not on bread alone.
Suddenly losing what makes us flourish punches the breath out of us. Because it hurts, we may think we have done something to deserve it or feel picked on by an alien force. We also feel dis-illusioned because we took for granted that things would stay as they were for as long as we needed them that way. No blame in feeling this. It’s weird but eventually it makes some sort of sense.
But then there is the banality of grief. The suddenness of the loss is melodramatic, climactic. But climaxes slow down to routines of living with loss, more slow-moving, dull-ache sadness This is when we most need a path, a practice that gives hope through experiencing connection to an eternal spring of being in us. This is the dawning of the age of Resurrection.
This is the meaning of the Holy Week (whether you know what that means or not) that we begin today. Here at Bonnevaux, we would be happy to share that with you online, day by day, connected. (www.wccm.org)
Here at Bonnevaux I have a great view from the window of my study. It looks out on the lake and the valley leading down to what we have named the Resurrection Tree. This is the old oak where we lit the Easter fire on Holy Saturday night last year for the first time. We hope to do the same again, the same ritual in a very different world, in a few days. I’ll see if we can put a picture of this view and the tree on Daily Wisdom for today.
As the weather is warming up and the trees are greening rapidly, I am opening the window more often as I write here. As I did this just now I saw one of the Bonnevaux cats prowling around looking for prey. It looked up at me and emitted a pathetic mew and then resumed its search. On the lake the frogs are working up to their springtime love-making with great noise and sudden silences. The birdsong has become more 3-D. All animals, even the creepy centipede that frightened me when I went to the kitchen last night, are our friends. We need their companionship as well as our human friends. Perhaps we will treat both better from what we are learning in solitude these days.
Through the fresher, cleaner air after the reduced pollution, come waves of new scents. Our friend, the natural world, is able to share itself with us and remind us how we belong - together - to something greater.
Today’s gospel story opens with a dinner among friends, Jesus, Martha and Mary. Their brother Lazarus had been raised from the dead. Like all those raised, restored and resurrected, he was restored to this same life of companionship, knowing where we belong, but in a new way. He’s at the dinner too.
Mary brings into the room some very expensive ointment, pure nard. It grows in the Himalayas of China, Nepal and India. When I was in Israel a few weeks ago I was given a small tube of it and have just smelled it again. It is amber-coloured and used for medicine, incense (in the Temple in Jerusalem) and as perfume – three purposes with connected meanings.
Mary used this precious thing to anoint the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The four gospels tell the story with variations. In Luke, for example, the woman is a sinner, often taken to mean a prostitute. Anointing of the feet was a gesture of respect, although the detail of the hair is different and unusual. In John’s version Judas, reducing mystery and ritual to the material level, complains at the extravagance. Jesus defends the woman, connecting it to the day of his burial, which we know will be only too soon. These different accounts create a sense of uncertainty, the impossibility of rational precision: a transition period approaching a climax and new time.
Uncertainty – such as we are experiencing now in this pandemic – can also be richly mysterious and meaningful. If we know how to live with uncertainty and open to mystery we may smell the meaning, as they people in the story smelled the scent of the nard filling the whole house.
Today’s gospel (Jn 13:21-33,36-38) is very strange. It is a mysterious moment in the story that is absorbing us this week, a story in which we are meant to find ourselves. If we do not find ourselves in the story, we will not find Jesus either.
He is at supper and falls into ‘deep agitation of spirit’. He is not approaching the end of his life with cool stoicism. But nor is he panicking. Philosophically, death is something we can objectify, distance from ourselves. It is out there, something affecting others. But, as the present crisis has shown us, it is not out there. Now or later, it is coming for all of us. Better be prepared and what better way than to practice dying? A spiritual path does not isolate us safely above the hard fact of our mortality. Jesus trembled before it. But deep prayer shows us what death the great unknown, really is. Meditation whether you believe or not is deep prayer.
We get a glimpse into the mind of Jesus whenever we see, in ourselves, how meditation makes us both more sensitive and vulnerable to suffering; but also frees from the instinct to lash back at those who hurt us. Suffering comes in many forms: at this moment in the story it is as the rawest pain of an intimate betrayal, the death of love.
Jesus tells the disciples directly that one of them will betray him. They are bewildered and start whispering among themselves who it might be. Peter asks John, the disciple most intimate to Jesus, who was reclining next to him, to ask him who it would be. Jesus complies; as an intimate friend he shares everything. He gives a piece of bread to Judas signifying that he is the one whose name will be forever cursed in history after this night.
At that instant ‘Satan enters Judas’. This is a dark inversion of what should happen. The bread Jesus gave Judas is the same with which Jesus identified himself: ‘this is my body’. By giving the bread he gives himself, as every Christian who celebrates the Eucharist in some way feels. But Satan? Suddenly, though, this becomes like a black mass, the kind that Satanists celebrate. Not the receiving of holy communion but blasphemy, the unleashing of the dark perverse of self-destruction.
The human heart is good, Godlike. People give themselves, like the 600,000 in Britain recently who in 24-hours volunteered to help others during the crisis. But there is also a heart of darkness to reckon with. There are splinters of this darkness in each of us. In human beings, even between those who are intimate, darkness can become personal and conscious: the people who coughed into the faces of the police who told them they were breaking the social distancing rules; the paedophile who grooms his victims; he serial killer; the addict; those whom power or wealth have corrupted.
The same darkness is waiting, unconsciously and impersonally, in the billions of Covid-19 virus that could fit into a space the size of this full stop. We don’t know much about the virus or why Judas betrayed his teacher and friend. Darkness is dark. The gospel says when Judas left table to betray Jesus, ‘night fell’.
The virus may have been physically present in humans for a long time. Circumstances came together that made the terrible mutation we are experiencing. Eventually, we will understand the science and find a vaccine. We don’t personally blame the virus itself for what it is wreaking, any more than we blame meteorological conditions for natural disasters. We would be foolish however, not to ask about the human element – disrespect for the environment, social injustice, exploitation of the weak - in the creation of these disastrous circumstances. Because every effect has a cause.
But at the human level – yesterday I was reflecting on the character of Judas and our capacity for betrayal – personal responsibility cannot be avoided. We always point a finger of blame somewhere. The husband of a friend of mine gave her an unwelcome Christmas present one year by confessing that he had been having an affair with her best friend for the past decade. In an instant (the same time it took for Satan to enter Judas) he transmitted the virus of the infidelity that shattered her world, inwardly and outwardly. It does not take long to kill someone. But later, as her life had begun to re-form, she told me she was still mad at him, but that she could see how it had happened and her own involvement in the circumstances behind the collapse of their relationship. He had become highly stressed at work, emotionally distant, and she had allowed him to become increasingly separate, convincing herself that this was the best way she could love him.
This week we are living the story of the last days of Jesus. It is a root story in humanity’s collective memory. It helps us read the story of our lives and see sense in the senseless, light in the darkness. To see darkness is the beginning of spiritual vision. What the story will not allow us to do, is evade the truth or deny reality. Unless we come to insight into the meaning of our own story, we will be condemned to repeat the works of darkness until the story of our life ends. So, we don’t know why Judas became the archetypal betrayer. And, if we did, it would make the story too personal and prevent it being the root story of humanity.
All we can say is that our dark deeds are bound to what darkness has previously touched and traumatised us. Who betrayed Judas? Why could he not bear the light? Whatever its cause, his betrayal lead to the climactic triumph of the dark forces of the Passion of Christ. From this moment of darkness Jesus becomes the Christ : his suffering has become universal.
We read the story by allowing it to read us. We see how our suffering and darkness are already contained in the story. We simply accept what we cannot avoid. With the wisdom this brings we penetrate the darkness. We need only a path to guide us into it and through it.
The path is our guide through the dark. ‘The Prince of this world approaches. He has no rights over me; but the world must be shown that I love the Father and do exactly as he commands; so up, let us go forward.’ (Jn 14:30-31)
‘Do this in memory of me’. Jesus says this during the Last Supper, which evolved – and is still evolving in Christian life - as the Eucharist. We ‘remember’ him as members of his mystical body and this remembering nourishes us and helps us to grow. It is food for the journey, a healing of the human condition, a celebration of life as it could be lived with the powers of forgiveness, equality and sharing. Of course, it is symbolic. But symbols are forces of transformation.
There are different kinds of acts of memory. There is a remembering of anger and resentment we call vengeance. There is nostalgia, of regret and sadness for what is lost in time. These kinds of memory keep us looking backwards. They fail to incorporate the past in the present. They cannot prepare us for what’s coming next in the flow of time, the unknown future. These forms of remembering do not guide us to the present moment. They are not the way of ‘calling to mind’ that the Eucharist is about.
In a contemplative Eucharist, such as we celebrate at Bonnevaux (and do online every Sunday), it is easier to feel the presence of Christ in the eternal now, the present moment where the past is healed, and we are renewed to build the future.
Many of the readers of these daily reflections have been forced to become more solitary and even isolated since the beginning of Lent. I was talking today to a meditator who has been in quarantine for two weeks in a hotel room. He is coping well, he told me. He hasn’t turned on the television at all. Some days he adds a third meditation to his regular morning and evening sessions. He keeps in touch online with family and close friends and he started a creative work project which is absorbing him. He began the enforced solitude and dramatic slowdown with the advantage of an already established spiritual path. He is glad to be going home soon but he has learned a lot from the experience and is grateful for it. He feels he will life differently, more simply and gratefully.
For many others the slow down or solitude have not been so easy. Time has hung heavy on them. They have felt restless, lonely, isolated, forgotten, abandoned. When we are in pain it is natural to seek distraction, to “take your mind off it.” But distraction can become a problem in itself, giving only temporary relief. As it becomes more addictive, higher does are needed to achieve the same result.
Many of us are addicted to some forms of distraction already. Finding ourselves in house arrest may mean we automatically increase the dose or look instinctively for other ways of fixing the problem – which they don’t. It can also be an opportunity to discover what a spiritual path and practice mean.
Meditation doesn’t solve the Covid-19 problem. If the virus is contagious before meditation, it will still be contagious afterwards. But a simple daily practice of meditation will, without doubt, change the way you approach and cope with the crisis
It matters how we die. And how we die depends upon how we approach dying. How we approach that inevitability depends upon how we have lived. How we live depends upon how much we have learned love.
In many wisdom traditions death is associated with a crisis – the word krisis means judgement. A reckoning has to be made and, like doing tax returns, no one looks forward to it but it is not as bad as it seems once you set your mind to it. The more complicated your affairs, the longer it will take. But unlike tax returns you cannot pay anyone to do it for you. Dying, we all become hermits and if we haven’t understood solitude before we will learn in this last crisis of life.
The Egyptians saw the last judgement as a weighing of the human heart against the feather of truth. If the heart of the deceased was too heavy, too impure, the goddess of truth would devour it and the unfortunate soul would be arrested on its journey into immortality, stuck in some intermediate limbo or netherworld.
So, scared of the unknown afterlife, people used to pray for a holy death. This meant letting go of life and one’s attachments and loved ones peacefully. Even when pain was acute one could achieve a dignified equanimity, no thrashing around dramatically complaining about that ‘dark night’ which the romantic poet Dylan Thomas said we should not go gently into. Rather, he said we should, ‘rage against the fading of the light’. But beside the witness of a holy death this sounds embarrassingly adolescent.
What about Good Friday in the middle of this pandemic in which so many have died, and which will take away many others before it has run its course? If we have been following Lent – and what a Lent it has been in 2020 – we should be a little readier to look death in the eyes and face our deepest fear. When fears are faced, they crumble. It is only when we run away that they become monstrous and wreck our lives and our capacity to love.
Even the death of the unjustly accused, of children, victims of genocide or of social inequality (as we see in the figures of Covid 19’s victims), even the most disturbing deaths teach us about life. Yama the mythical god of death in the Katha Upanishad is a teacher of humanity. So is the fully human, historical Jesus, not only in what he preached but in how he lived and died into his teaching, indeed becoming what he taught. If we die as we lived, our dying is a gift, an authentic teaching in itself, to those we take leave of. Even in grief we can feel the grace of a holy death and its joyful, birth-like expansion and release. Every death, Jesus shows us, can be redemptive.
He did not rage against the fading of the light. He saw the rising light. Spoken from this incommunicable awakening, his last words enlighten us: I am thirsty. Today you will be with me in paradise. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. It is accomplished.
Family or loved ones waiting beside someone on life support or - as in the corona crisis – not allowed to be beside them but waiting for news at a distance – as long as there is breath there is hope. However close the inevitable may be, it is another age, another world away. But when it comes, and the last breath is drawn, when there is no next inbreath, we enter the summum silentium of death. The great silence.
In monasteries this refers to the silence monks are supposed to observe strictly after the night prayer. It’s not unknown, however, for monks to get on zoom or chat with someone in the community after the great silence. With death, however, there is no choice, silence can only be observed. We can’t cheat death. And it is shocking how powerless we are. Like children who think they can get what they want by insisting, by charming, by crying, by threatening, we finally give up and admit we are defeated. What is gone is gone.
However much we replay conversations with the dead we will never again hear or see them as we did. Photos, old letters, personal objects we treasure are all meagre consolation and after a while they become impediments to the new relationship that is being formed in the tomb that slowly evolves to become a womb.
The unyielding, uncompromising silence of non-communication, the failure to make contact, to know what the dead person might be seeing or feeling – if anything. The silence of wondering if they care – if they are anywhere or in any kind of existence in which they could care about those who miss them. Eventually the grieving process allows the bereft to accept the obvious and the inevitable. Albeit with another weight in their heavy heart to carry, they move on. As we die into the death the summum silentium shows signs of life. Green shoots from dead soil.
This doesn’t mean that messages from the dead are getting through on a busy network but that the silence becomes deeper. We become better able to listen to the silence without populating it with our desires and fears and imagination. It becomes simple presence. Simple but more intensely present than anything we thought was real before.
Inbetween the lines of this pandemic and the painful, not meaningless disruption it is causing, we should be able to hear this great silence. If we don’t have one, or if it has fallen into disrepair, this is the time to start or re-service a spiritual practice. It is time to see how necessary for survival is the silence of things. The silence which empowers life through death.
Here at Bonnevaux I have noticed on my walks how much more present and friendly the birds and animals seem. I imagine this is my projection. It is I who have changed, not them. But who knows? Maybe it is after all, all about relationship, not just observation or being observed. It is time to start Lent again.
Easter Sunday (12 April)
As I write this, I am still feeling the surprise of feeling the brilliant light of the huge moon in the early hours of this morning. Moonlight always feels as if it gently floods your body and then strokes the mind. I am distracted, however, from thinking about the lunar feast of Easter, the link with oestrogen and the forever melting and growing phases of the moon. Distraction comes from a continuous raucous noise, like a football crowd celebrating a championship win that is pouring into my room through the open windows in front of my desk looking out at the lake at Bonnevaux. Frogs in full choral disharmony. As the book I consulted puts it, boy frogs awaken from their hibernation with one thing on their minds and lady frogs swollen with spawn lay it and before you can blink it is fertilised.
I rose from the dead after drawing the sting of death and loosing the bonds of hell.. for lo the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. I have risen from the dead, I have offered peace (Origen: Homilies on Song of Songs)
Spring. The calm peaceful, influential cycle of the moon which shape the religious and farming calendars and our moods. The frenzied fixation and impatience of the mating rituals. Energy passing upwards in the body and bursting into spirit.
Resurrection happens both in nature and in our psyche which reflects it. Mis-stepping in the dance between the inner and outer rhythms disturbs everything. Many have understood this through their harsh encounter with the virus, one face of nature during the past weeks. The difference between the Resurrection of Jesus and the biological cycle of nature is that in him the cycle of death and rebirth is not repeated but transcended. True, we continue to experience many deaths and rebirths, as always, the deeper the death the higher the rebirth. But through each cycle in our personal and collective lives, we can better breathe in the light of the risen, never to die again, Jesus and lose and find ourselves in him.
The corona crisis has meant death for many individuals, myriad kinds of suffering and perhaps the death of a way of life. We have long known it was unsustainable. Growth out of control is cancer. Easter reminds us that we do not need to fear change or death once we are committed to real life. Our spiritual path, whatever form it takes, is that commitment. As we
enter into the cycle of death and resurrection more thoroughly, we become more aware of its universal truth, that it is the model of all being. We begin to appreciate what Mystery is…It is the cycle upon which each half-hour of meditation is based: death to the possessiveness and triviality occupying our ego and a rising to the liberty that dawns when we find ourselves by looking fully at the Other…We are dying and rising to new life every day.. Yet it is also true that there is only one death and one rising which Jesus underwent for all creation. (John Main Word into Silence)