Lent Reflections 2022
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 reflections 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 ra na 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 (2 - 5 March)
Asked ‘what do you feel about beginning Lent?’, one person said he felt quite a joyful anticipation of engaging with it and expanding his spiritual horizons. The next person said he felt resistance to an ‘arbitrary’ period of time called a ‘liturgical season’. We are all in the same boat at the same time, traversing the same short distance and brief span of life that sometimes seem endless. Yet, we look out at the surrounding ocean, the distant horizon, the immediate weather, the sense of direction, in very different, very personal ways. And what we say now.. well, we may change our minds in an hour or two.
Thank God for diversity and human changeability. They make the boat-ride interesting and constantly challenge our tendency to complacency. Especially when we have fixed routines we tend to sleep-walk through them and so miss the best challenges of life. St Benedict says the monk’s life should be a continuous Lent. We should always be fresh, alert, ready for the right response. But as it’s hard to keep it up, the 40 days of Lent offer a special opportunity.
Liturgical seasons begin and end on specific days. All religious traditions have them in some form. They are linked to the seasons of the year which tend to ease their way in rather than come on a fixed day. The weather is changing, however, and maybe developing a sense of ‘sacred time’ as well as stressful chronological time would make us more actively aware of it. (The latest report of IPCC speaks of ‘an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership’.) ‘Lent’ in English means ‘spring’ or ‘March’. In Latin languages the word is ‘quaresima’ forty. So we have forty days to see Lent as a fixed time for spiritual awakening, starting now...
Traditionally it is composed of interior and external practices. You give up something especially if you feel you have grown unhealthily attached or dependent on it – chocolates (of course), dessert, alcohol or addiction to your smart phone. The point of these external practices is not to be painful but liberating. It usually hurts to be set free and we have to accept that when necessary. To balance this giving up you can also take on: extra reading, another meditation or being more consistent with the twice a day, doing something for others (preferably anonymously), practising kindness and thankfulness moments morning, midday and evening.
When I was a boy we were told it was a good thing to ‘offer something up’ when it was difficult or unpleasant. You could offer it up for the souls in purgatory for example. Before you scorn that, remember it was just trying to make you more other-centred. Today I would think of ‘offering up’ something for the suffering of Ukrainians. This opens a channel of consciousness between us and with them on the mysterious and mighty wavelength of compassion. Immeasurably, on that wavelength, there is a transfer of energy. But in any case, it would keep us alert and feelingly connected to what they are going through.
On March 26th we can join our Ukrainian meditators for an online sacrament of unified consciousness: a good practice interiorly and externally.
The fresh shine of anything new wears off quickly. The novelty of Lent doesn’t last long either, so we don’t have much time to decide what it is going to mean for us this year.
Whatever we decide ‘to do’, to ‘give up’ or ‘take on’ for Lent the most important thing is to be Lent. This means allowing the spirit of Lent to percolate and surface in our consciousness. What is the spirit of Lent? Using time to simplify, focus and centre our minds. This inevitably involves our bodies as well because mind and body dance and weave together continuously so that one dimension always impacts on the other. Giving up smoking, alcohol or mindless media consumption will challenge our mental state but before long for the better. Taking on an extra time for meditation and reading will enrich our physical well-being by reducing the build-up of physical tension. They say fifty percent of people prescribed medication don’t take it. Maybe fifty percent of meditators who think they meditate, don’t.
Asceticism is part of any healthy spirituality of life but it is not just about cultivating our private inner garden. This is why Jesus says that whatever we ‘do’ in this respect should be informed by a higher consciousness by which he means less self-consciousness. ‘Do not let you left hand know what your left hand is doing’ and detach yourself from concern about impressing others. This releases a lot of energy, puts spring in our step and even improves our physical posture.
That energy is the joy of being, the energy of creation flowing direct from the source. We cannot think it into being. We need to remove the habits of body or mind that block or pollute it. Then joy begins to flow everywhere and we won’t be able to stop it even when things are not going well for us or if we are carrying the burden of the suffering of others – as we all are for Ukraine these days. Joy is ultimately what defeats oppression and the powers of darkness: whether they are tanks rolling in to kill the innocent and strip people of their peace and freedom or whether they are our own dark shadows welling up to overwhelm us.
Simone Weil said we cannot learn anything except through joy.
A most surprising discovery that pure prayer leads to is that renouncing our imagined position at the centre of the universe is not, as we fear, destructive but life-giving. Today’s gospel says this:
If you want to be a follower of mine, let yourself renounce yourself and take up your cross every day and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, that man will save it. What’s the gain, then, even if you win the whole world but lose or ruin your true and very self in the process? (Luke 9:22-25)
To get a more or less accurate blood-pressure reading one has to take an average from several taken at regular intervals over a few days. In an annual medical check-up recently I discovered that there are frequently sharp spikes and falls even in three consecutive readings just a few minutes apart. I was also interested to learn that it’s normal for blood pressure to be higher in the morning. I would have thought after a good night’s sleep it would be lower but the circadian rhythm of the body clicks on in the last part of your sleep – I suppose to push you out of bed as soon as you wake up.
All of which shows that measuring things is not as easy as it sounds; and that there are mysteries in the universe of the human body that lie far beyond our understanding. Just like the cosmos with its vast areas of dark energy and mysterious expansion taking place within the same visible space. We call it dark because we can’t see or analyse it. In the same way we speak of the ‘dark night of the soul’ because, as the great mystics point out, we are blinded by the light of the spirit. Evagrius said that a sign of some progress in meditation is that we come ‘to see the light of one’s own spirit’. Maybe, in the variable patterns of our inner and outer universe, we see it and interpret it as darkness. We cannot look directly at the sun. Yet as the psalm says ‘in God’s light we see light’. We need to have surrendered our separate power of vision and understanding to the divine if we are to see things as they really are.
As when we compose a photo before pressing the shutter we zoom in and out in order to get the best shot in what feels like the best median range.. The moment of decision – ‘this is the best one’ – is an intuitive one rather than one based on technical measurements. I think I occasionally take a good photo but when I think that, it’s a surprise and, of course, others may not see it as I do.
The ‘median’ is preferable to the ‘average’. The average is the total divided by the number of entries. The median is the middle value, for which half the numbers are higher and half are smaller. I think I understand what this means and it feels as if it frees us from the tyranny of thinking the truth can be simply caught and measured. It has to be found in the middle. Please tell me if I’m wrong.
In any case, intuition works best when the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. Jesus said this concerning doing ‘good works’ without falling into the trap of doing them for the good feeling it gives us. Other-centredness, altruism, freedom for attachment are needed for goodness to thrive and keep it safe from the ego’s possessiveness.
As the 60 kilometre Russian convoy snakes towards Kyiv to lay siege to the capital in a primitive act of inhumanity these are not ideas that many people there will be discussing. But for us at a safe, though not unfeeling distance, perhaps it is important to think how we find and hold to the truth in the centre of reality. As for Lent, holding to the centre releases wisdom and intuition about what is appropriate: when to fast and when to feast as Jesus says in today’s gospel:
the bridegroom’s attendants would never think of mourning as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come for the bridegroom to be taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matthew 9:15)
Jesus noticed a tax collector, Levi by name, sitting by the customs house, and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And leaving everything he got up and followed him. (Luke 5:27)
Immediately? After the dinner he invited Jesus at his house? After he spoke with his accountant? How long does it take for the penny to drop and the life-changing call to be really heard? Perhaps we hear it immediately but superficially and then, when it drops to a deeper level of consciousness, it bursts open and action follows. The same happens with meditation. A long-time meditator suddenly realised ‘O, I see, I don’t have to think about the meaning of the mantra. Actually, I don’t have to think about anything, do I?’
Anything we do reflects the level of consciousness we are operating on at the moment. We constantly flicker on and off or slide up and down the scale. This shapes our sense of right and wrong and our interpretation of justice. It’s hard for most everyone – but not everyone – not to see that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is off the scale of anything reasonable or just. Yesterday of the 193 members of the UN 5 supported the action and 35 abstained. Majority, like might, doesn’t mean right. But on occasions it’s overwhelmingly hard to deny the impact that injustice has on us and the majority, even when they lack might, can be right.
Full justice doesn’t flower until we are able to see ourselves in the other and the other in ourselves. The desert fathers and mothers said this was the sign of a true monastic. It’s fruit that grows with meditation over the years. Until that level of awareness – where othercentredness and compassion become irresistible – our sense of right and wrong can be highly subjective and false. Then there is a deeper level where we not only see ourselves in the suffering and maltreated but put ourselves in their place to the fullest degree possible. When people approached Jesus for healing it seems he could not resist the force of compassion that rose in him towards the person asking. He felt one with them and the spirit of oneness that flowed between them was redemptive.
Justice without equality is flagrantly false. This is because at the deepest level of awareness we know we are all equal. Justice demands that this be reflected in all circumstances, material and social. The privileged who believe that their privilege - enjoyed at the expense of others is justified – become agents of in justice and oppression. Sadly it is they who run the social institutions of justice and the armies.
All are equal and all are universally accountable. Yet God, who has no favourites, is more visibly present on the side of the oppressed and all victims of force.
Simone Weil was passionate about justice and outspoken against force and oppression, not just intellectually but wholeheartedly and in the way she lived. A rival acknowledged of her that ‘she had a heart that could beat across the world.’ Justice requires that universality and passion.
First Week of Lent (6 - 12 March)
He was hungry. Luke 4: 1-13 Jesus tempted in the desert
This is the account of Jesus fasting in the desert for forty days in preparation for going public with his dangerous teaching. It shows him in his humanity. Not only did he fast, he felt he had to fast. And afterwards he was hungry.
What does it mean to fast? More than dieting – although we may hope that we will lose weight or feel fitter after a Lent practice (getting extra points for the journey). We give up or reduce things like smoking, alcohol, smart-phone use, or mindless internet browsing because we see we may have an unhealthy dependence on it or even the early stage of addiction. This also has side-benefits. But the essence of fasting is focusing. It means training the mind, keeping it on a shorter leash in its ‘default mode network’. That’s the technical term for our wandering mind and it seems humans spend nearly half their time thinking or daydreaming about something unrelated to what they are doing or who they are with now. Monkey mind or chronic distraction is the first thing the meditator encounters.
An outer practice like giving something up or taking on something new, or a daily inner practice like meditation, works on this problem. Otherwise, left unchecked it separates us from all levels of reality. It is made worse by self-isolation as many found during Covid. It seems Putin was terrified of infection and kept himself in extreme isolation for the past two years.
After his spell in the desert Jesus was hungry. When we are hungry we become weaker and more vulnerable. Feelings that are usually kept under control may surface violently and tempt us to excess or to indulge in fantasy. Jesus was tempted sensually, egocentrically and spiritually. Seeing him confront and dismiss these typical ploys of a false self gives us confidence that we can do the same. Afterwards Jesus was ministered to by an angel. Don’t we all need angels, companions and friends so the desert doesn’t overwhelm us?
I was on a train coming back to Bonnevaux recently from London. It had been a nightmare Sunday journey, missing my plane because of traffic, rerouting to another French city which seemed to believe that no one should eat on Sundays as every supply of food was closed. The train to Poitiers was delayed, then re-routed and complicated announcements made about how to re-connect were delivered in a way that was unintelligible to non-native speakers. In my carriage, there were a few fellow-passengers also tired and fed up and longing to be home. I asked one of them if he could explain what to do. He did, and then kindly noticed I wasn’t sure I had understood. He came and sat beside me to explain in more detail. I was hungry for information and guidance and, as it was the last train, I couldn’t afford to make a mistake. He was my angel. At the station where we changed trains, his destination, he waited and pointed me in the right direction making sure I had understood. Then like all angels he disappeared.
Let us hope that the hunger for justice and for food in Ukraine will also produce angels, locally and in the international community.
Fear. And how not to be afraid of it.
Fear is a useful natural reaction to whatever threatens our survival or well-being or those we care for. Hopefully we care for everyone, albeit in different degrees and ways, and we would not want harm to come to anyone. But fear can sap us of life more effectively than danger itself.
Some years ago I went to India with a group of young American adults. I think they were scared to go alone. They had grown up post 9-11 in a culture increasingly manipulated by a cocktail of political fear and excessive concern for security (= control of the unpredictable) in every area of life. As I saw their nervous response to the different health and safety standards and customs of touching, I recalled by own early travels, even younger than them. I wondered why I had been able to throw myself into new, strange situations so unguardedly. Their anxiety came to a head when we were staying at an ashram. Some local villagers of their age, obviously attracted to these bright, attractive Americans, invited them to their home. They approach me and asked what I thought. I said it was a great opportunity and not to be missed. What was their concern? They were frightened of being offered food or drink that was unhygienic or being in a germ-filled house. I said I thought that was their grandparents speaking to them when they were very young but what now, at their age, did they think? Most of them didn’t go.
An older person was facing a transition in his life and had to make a serious decision about his future. He had done his research and taken wise advice but was paralysed by indecision in fear of making a mistake that could not be unmade. I said I understood that state of mind well because it had often caused me to delay and postpone important decisions. I discovered that the longer I delayed the worse the fear and the more anxiety was heightened. But when I got to the place in life where I was expected to be the decision-maker in many situations and it was my responsibility to do so, something shifted in me. I still felt a certain fear of making decisions but was less frightened of mistakes. I had made many and felt the shame and regret they can cause. But no mistake or failure is final because another sun rises the next day and you can confess your error and re-route. He looked at me and said, ‘ah yes but you’re a monk. It’s different for me. This is a really important decision’.
The world is being taught many lessons about fear by Ukraine these days. Not to indulge tyrants. Not to become over-dependent on them for your energy supplies. To stand together on basic moral principles even if it loses you votes or hurts your economy. Listening to the first-hand reports from the shattered cities, the women, children and old people fleeing and the able-bodied fighting for their freedom, we see different ways of listening to and controlling your fears. If you are frightened for your children’s lives or your grandparents, listen to the fear and run for safety. What if you are able but frightened to stay and defend your home against the invaders? It’s a different decision for someone committed to non-violence and another for someone whose conscience urges them to fight. Each must transcend their fear and put their life on the line.
As one young woman said, ‘I’m not a soldier. They’re bigger than us. But I must stay’. It may not be rational but it has a nobility that one day will blow the viciousness of violence into the waste-dump of history and enhance the memory of your people, your culture. Culture is what we collectively remember of ourselves.
And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us. (Matthew 6:7-15)
It will be hard for the Ukrainians or for the rest of the world to forgive the Russian leadership and their supporters. We need to start now before the dark force implodes and destroys itself – and how many others as collateral damage – as it always does. Only forgiveness born of real insight and wisdom prevents or delays that force from re-grouping. Remember how the devil who tempted Jesus in the desert left him ‘to return at the appointed time.’
Forgiveness in an individualistic mentality is virtually impossible to achieve. The individual sinned against becomes arrested in a state of outrage at the injustice they have suffered and see themselves primarily as a victim. This is natural and must be treated with great understanding and sensitivity. But it is inadequate and prevents full healing and the restoration of healthy relationships. It is the trap of the vendetta culture and fuels the ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ attitude to life.
All deep religious wisdom sees the need for forgiveness, the truth inherent in cancelling debts. Jesus made it the central pillar of his unified moral teaching of love which grew directly out of his mystical consciousness. Like everyone else, his disciples struggle to apply the teaching of forgiveness.
The doctrine of the Body allows them to not give up trying and to keep advocating it even when they fail. In the Christian mystical tradition – which is its soul and foundation – Christ is not an external teacher, set up on a pillar to worship and admire. That imagination keeps him at a safe distance and prevents him touching us awake.
The truth is we are Christ.
Glimpsed, even half-understood, this truth resets our view of everything, beginning with ourselves.
“The truth is we are Christ.” What does this mean? What difference does it make? And how can we develop this insight?
It challenges the autocracy of any ego-centred universe. We don't need to look far today to see the consequences of autocracy. But inasmuch as each person is a microcosm of humanity, we can be ruled by the ego’s belief in its absolute individuality. Seeing the individual as a customer rather than a citizen is pumped into us from childhood by our system of wealth competition and acquisition and the consumerism it uses to achieve it.
What does it mean to be a citizen? We are parts of the whole: but the whole is equally part of us and in this reality we are all diversely one. This insight flooded into the minds of the early Christians. If what they were beginning to understand about him was true, then the world as they had known it before was forever changed. ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor master, male or female’. All the distinctions upon which hierarchy and autocracy depend dissolve ‘in Christ.
St Augustine saw this when he examined a line of Psalm 60: "I cried out to you from the ends of the earth while my heart was in anguish". He asks "is this an individual speaking?" No, he said, it is no longer one person: or rather it is one in the sense that Christ is one and we are all his members. It is ‘this unity that we are’ that cries from the ends of the earth.
This is the shift of perception that answers the sceptic's question, ‘how can God allow all this to happen?’. Don’t look for God behind the cosmic computer. Find God in the cry of the poor, the troubled, those resisting tyranny. God’s presence is grace working in the mud and mess we make for ourselves in the illusions of individuality.
Lent is a time to concentrate on the details and immediacy of the spiritual quality of our lives rather than on big abstractions. Grounded in that reality, we can better see grace at work, not in the geopolitics game, but in every small act of kindness which expresses our intuition that ‘this unity is what we really are’. Even when our individual lives or interests are threatened, or simply stuck in our sadness, we are miraculously capable of such acts of kindness that say ‘you are my kin’.
John Main once said that the best way to prepare for meditation is by making small acts of kindness in daily life. Through them we see the whole picture in which we exist.
Pope Francis recently called on people to fast for a day in solidarity with the suffering of Ukraine. To some it may have been a sign of the helplessness we all feel. Fasting would then be a milder version of Buddhist monks burning themselves during the VietNam war. To others it would have been suspiciously magical: sacrifice something and God will answer your prayer.
I think it rather needs to be heard in the tradition of Christian asceticism, which Lent asks us to reflect on. The mystery of the Incarnation leads us to think differently about human existence. It opens us to the conclusion that the human body is a temple of the spirit. The human spirit, however, is not a ‘ghost in a machine’. We are embodied spirits and, furthermore, our bodies are continuously being spiritualised. Descartes and many of his dualistic followers who think that consciousness is the brain miss the wonder of the insight of unified consciousness implicit in Christian faith.
Asceticism (literally it means ‘exercise’ or ‘training’) in the monastic tradition is not about the subjugation or punishment of the body. It assumes instead the indissoluble link between body and mind and spirit. To treat one badly is to offend them all. There is a sign of this in the near universal outrage against the Russian invasion. Probably if most of Putin’s supporters in Russia knew what is really happening they would feel the same. If we felt as strongly as this about climate change we would be able to act more quickly. Maybe Covid and the Ukraine crisis are dark angels reminding us of our unity as a human family.
If asceticism is not magical self-inflicted suffering, then what is it? It is a self-healing. It exposes the false idea that body and soul are at war with each other and it restores their lost or forgotten harmony. Asceticism is therefore a wakeup call to our beautiful human condition and unlimited potential for life. Think of how an athlete looks beautiful in her physical form after training and her performance is wondrous and delightful. Walking through a shopping mall or DutyFree at the airport reminds us of the consequences of the loss of this harmony and the excess and insatiable craving that results from losing consciousness of our unity.
Desire and fantasy invade, covertly replacing joy and the sense of reality. Without our realising it, the compulsion of imaginary wants takes over. Lao Tse said, ‘there is no worse calamity than the unrestrained increase of needs’.
Asceticism exposes the disordered feelings and thoughts that the desert teachers called ‘passions’. Their wisdom shows us the links between asceticism and both violence and environmental abuse. Fr John simplified it further for a complex age by saying that the essential ascesis of life is found in the practice of meditation.
If the essential spiritual training of life (ascesis) is found in meditation, as John Main believed, why is this and how does it work?
Leaving religious language aside to answer this question, we can still see how meditation works comprehensively across our lives. No corner of mind or character is left untouched, eventually, by the ascesis of the mantra. People may start to meditate for very self-concerned reasons. Then they realise that it is far more relational a practice than they thought and the fruits are more evident in their relationships than they imagined.
The implications of this insight are tremendous for the future of the world – as is the insight that ‘meditation creates community’. Does meditation really matter beyond the individual meditator? Does it make a difference to the outcome in Ukraine or the climate crisis? Compared with art as an influence on the world, how does it rate?
The poet W.H. Auden said that ‘poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making, where executives, Would never want to tamper.’ The world continues indifferent to the greatest poetry. I once asked a great musician if he believed that music made us better people. He thought for a moment and said ‘maybe.. at least for an hour or so after they have listened to it.’
Can meditation ‘make things happen’ or ‘make us better’ in ways that poetry or art cannot? Yes, because the art of prayer is the ‘art of arts’. It does not merely change us. It triggers a process of transformation that gently, irresistibly slips into every crack and corner of our being. Such deeply personal and permanent transformation becomes a transfiguration. As we change it changes the environment we dwell in. Our relationships, our work, every chance encounter reflects this influence of the inner on the outer world.
Last night the theologian Jane Williams gave the first of our Evening Speaker series on women mystics as theologians. She spoke powerfully of the prejudice against women that led to them being seen as merely ‘describing their personal experience’: women were not seen as having the capacity to think deeply. She illustrated through the work of three great women mystics how they were also profound thinkers within their theological tradition. Dr Williams spoke of how meditation leads directly into the space made by God where we know God’s self-sharing. We renounce thought and images but intuit God more than we are aware of at the time. This experience can be interrogated afterwards but not during the time of prayer itself.
This suggests how meditation makes a difference. We don’t see how it changes things directly but we see things changing and that must be spoken about. That is true theology. To speak about it quenches the thirst the world is feeling today. In a place where we cannot observe, we taste a reality necessary for changing the human collective mind. This restores the common sense of reality and unity we have tragically lost.
The long and deep process of forgiveness needs to start as soon as the harm is done. This is not a matter of will but of being prepared. John Main said once that the goal of Christian education is to prepare the young for the experience of betrayal they will meet in their lives.
In the first instant of seeing harm deliberately directed at us, we feel shocked and sad. ‘Angry and sad’ as Cain was when he felt that he was being badly treated by God. God told him to wait and process these feelings. Otherwise the beast of violence would spring out of the shadows and overwhelm him. We are angry firstly because any act of injustice assaults the delicate balance of the universe. The ripple effects of our justified outrage extend far and wide and through generations. This is visceral, before we rationalise and blame. The beast itself is visceral and deeply stained into our psyche. Vladimir Putin described himself in childhood as a street thug who had learned that if you felt there was going to be a fight make sure you throw the first punch. Our tendency to be overwhelmed by the beast, like a predisposition to alcoholism, lies deep in our cellular memory even before our personality has formed.
We can be prepared for it. Like many viruses it may lie dormant in human affairs but it cannot be eradicated. Our visceral outrage against the unjustified violence allows the process of forgiveness to start immediately even as we resist and defend ourselves as Ukrainians are doing. No one expects them to say how likeable Russians are. But they, like us in less extreme daily situations, can learn not to turn the enemy into a demonised object. This is why it is important for us to hear and admire the many instances of Russian opposition to this war, which are being brutally punished and repressed. They remind us that because of fear for oneself or because one has been brainwashed one may obey inhumane orders. And horribly, in the self-hatred of knowing that we have been ‘turned’ we may begin to enjoy it. None of us can say for sure that we wouldn’t find a way to justify our doing the same if our lives or those of our family were being threatened.
Similarly in daily life, when someone betrays us or our trust we must remember the good things they have done in the past. We are then dealing with a weak and unreliable human being not an evil figure in a video game of our fantasy who we can blast off the screen. Many of the young Russian conscripts tremble on a knife-edge of conscience as they decide to obey and fight or be punished as examples to others. The trenches of the First World War showed many examples of this. War spreads injustice like a pandemic in full spate. We are all polluted by it.
Once the balance of the universe has been upset with one act of injustice many innocent, ordinary people are forced to do things against their conscience. Injustice clouds our moral vison. But the process of forgiveness releases insight, wisdom and compassion which alone can restore the clarity of charity. There is no greater teacher of this than Jesus.
Second Week of Lent (13 - 19 March)
As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. (Luke 9:28)
The feast of the transfiguration is August 6th, the date in 1945 when the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima created a blinding light: these are the extreme poles of the human potential.
I wrote yesterday about the powerful process of forgiveness and how we need to be prepared to enter it immediately if we become victims of injustice. The alternative is too horrible: to be sucked into it and become like the injustice we are suffering. In resisting injustice, as we must, we may at times lose our innocence and commit injustices ourselves. To prevent or moderate this ripple effect of evil – mirroring what we are fighting – we must struggle, heroically, and against all the odds, to love our enemy even as we fight him. Being on the right side does not give a moral carte blanche.
The Allies’ demonisation of the ‘Hun’ in the first world war fuelled the horrors of the trenches and the deaths of ten million soldiers and ten million civilians. China’s demonising of the Dalai Lama, as absurd and mendacious as Putin’s justification for his attack on Ukraine, justifies the rape and pollution of Tibet. Years ago I went to a cinema to watch a Lord of the Rings movie. In the digitalised battle scenes, hordes of ugly Orcs poured out against the good guys and were mown down in huge numbers to the delight of the children around me. This was repeated in several scenes until finally I had to go out for air. Netflix series use even more devious ways of hooking you with graphic, sadistic violence which both shocks and addicts the viewer.
A Russian in France and who opposes the war told me of being attacked and rejected by fellow-Russians calling her unpatriotic and also by non-Russians lumping her with all Russians assumed to be Putinists. Some symphony orchestras have removed Tchaikovsky from their repertoire.
In the Statements of the Ukrainian resistance I do not hear such a blanket, racist denunciation of Russia. I sense their motivation is not hatred but a courageous love of their own homeland. In their suffering in face of overwhelming, surreal brutality we see how love of enemy and forgiveness can be manifested. It is not surrendering to or imitating the Beast but an expression of love and fidelity : keeping one’s attention on the Good even while we are battered by Evil.
It is this which changes the ‘aspect’ of the human face, transfiguring hatred into the light of God even in intense and helpless suffering. Then we can see where God is in these moments when humanity becomes inhumane. God shares in the suffering and God is unable to be anything but God. This transfigures suffering itself. It is what Blaise Pascale understood when he said that ‘Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world’.
If there is one thing this particular Lent should be doing it is to check the condition of our heart. We have enough stress tests available in daily life and in our response to the global crisis.
In all the mystical traditions the heart is understood as the portal between this world and the next so that they can merge and become one. But the door of the heart needs to be open and opened wide if this is to happen. The consequences of a heart shut against others wreak havoc interiorly and eventually in the outer. Yesterday I was reading a geo-political assessment of the Ukraine crisis and understood how excessively intellectualising a situation of human suffering bangs the door of the heart locks it. Abstraction makes us heartless and heartlessness worsens any situation. No doubt diplomats and strategists in some countries dismiss the bombing of kindergartens and hospitals to concentrate only on the long-term strategic goals of China, the US and the EU. More children and refugees will die as a direct result.
It has warmed the hearts of many to see how countries who earlier shut their hearts and borders to Syrian refugees, like Poland and Hungary, are opening their arms to the Ukrainians fleeing death and destruction. One hopes it is a sign of permanent conversion. Nevertheless, the capacity to develop and defend a heart of stone is powerfully engrained in the human psyche. The human spirit cries for release from this imprisonment. To wish for it is itself to turn towards God:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ez 36:26)
There are moments of weakness in a stony heart when our guard drops and we glimpse what we are doing to ourselves and others by maintaining a pig-headed position. But they are rare occurrences and the ego’s reserves quickly pour in to fill the breach. Recognising the resistance to change our point of view in ourselves, and makes it easier to see what happens in the mind of the geo-political strategists whose hearts have closed and left their minds at the mercy of their egos. The ruthlessness of the tyrant and his resistance to argument is a horrible magnification of our own reluctance to give way in domestic or local conflicts.
Four hundred years ago the philosopher Francis Bacon said, "Once a human intellect has adopted an opinion (either as something it likes or as something generally accepted), it draws everything else in to confirm and support it."
We cannot change a person’s mind without touching their heart.
You can’t go to a party saying, ‘I will fall in love with someone’. Falling in love is another way of opening the heart and it always surprises us. We are disturbed but happy to be surprised like this. But, how do we surprise the tyrant whose heart has turned to stone?
Touching the heart of someone, who cannot change their mind because their heart has turned to stone, is the better approach. If it fails, you may be saddened but probably not enraged. When the feeling of failure passes, hope will spring up again and push you even against your better judgement to try again even when it makes you look like a bigger fool than before.
But how do you touch the heart of a tyrant, a psychopath or a fanatic? For them to see the suffering they are causing will not achieve it. But surprising them can. As I said yesterday, it’s like the surprise that accompanies every manifestation of love. We may have imagined it or yearned for it but we couldn’t ever be prepared for it. This is one of the aspects of poverty of spirit or emptiness that we develop in meditation: the capacity to be innocently and genuinely surprised by reality.
When you confront an opponent with a closed heart you need to open your own heart wider. This is much more than an emotion or a good intention. It is opening yourself to their rejection and ridicule. You will not look heroic or noble, at least to yourself or the people around you at the time. In the moment of confrontation, when the opponent is looking for the next punch or dirty trick you are going to throw at him, you instead welcome suffering from him. He will inflict more and more waiting for you to react with hatred or violence. But the more you suffer the more your heart opens. The only chance of opening a closed heart in another is to open your own heart to them.
Be practical? Does it mean the Ukrainians should roll over without defending themselves? I don’t believe so. It means that in defending themselves because of the love they have for their country but without closing their hearts in hatred of the individuals hurting them, they are opening their hearts even wider. And seeing an open heart in an opponent surprises you and may become a breach in the stony heart that cannot be filled and the stone wall shutting off the heart just may begin to crumble.
In terms of Lent this is fast-forwarding to Good Friday. It is not a political or military strategy but a mystical one arising from profound faith in the goodness of human nature. It is a powerful weapon, eventually the only one that doesn’t run out of ammunition.
On many occasions in their desert trek the Hebrews rebelled against their leader Moses. They complained of the conditions they were enduring. Why didn’t you leave us alone in slavery when we were able to eat anddrink and watch Netflix when we wanted? It wasn’t perfect but it was better than this freedom. Moses replied, well don’t blame me. Blame the Lord your God. It was his idea and you agreed to it.
You might think the Lord your God would send down a thunderbolt on his people for their lack of faith and insubordination. Instead, He told Moses that he would rain down bread from heaven (their daily bread). There will be sufficient for everyone and on the Shabat there will be a double portion for everyone. The purpose of this generosity, He adds, is (not to keep them quiet) but to test them and see if they can follow Him better in future. God is giving them what they need –and a bonus –not tin order to treat them like spoiled children (which is how they were acting) but to teach them. We are taught best when we are surprised by love when we expect and feel we deserve punishment.
This is not how our ego thinks. And therefore, it is not how our image of God acts because every image or idea of God we have is, in some degree, a false god. We have to be surprised -and dis-illusioned -to see the truth.
In the story (Exodus 16) at this point God throws in a daily portion of meat in the form of quails. God says that each person must collect what they need according tothe size of their family. This meant that those who gathered less and those who gathered more were equally satisfied. Anyone who knows the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in the gospels will see a resonance with this story. It highlights the Eucharistic meal as a symbol of unity and justice for all.
The principle of equality and fairness is the secret of contentment. Without contentment we lose proportion and justice and are consumed by the illusions of greed.
We usually think of the first aim of justice as a process of identifying and punishing the guilty. But what if this were the outcome of the process while the first aim was to discover the innocent? Would not the world be a gentler place and society better oriented towards the essential human tasks of learning the sacred disciplines of love and of celebrating beauty in all its forms?
Whether Putin decides to destroy Kyiv or not we should be thinking now how we will hold him and his willing henchmen to justice once his orgy of death and destruction has turned upon itself as violence always does.
In the Exodus story in yesterday’s reflection the Hebrews moaned and rebelled because their journey of liberation was uncomfortable. God did not punish their guilty ingratitude (the eighth deadly sin) as one might assume He would. Instead, He sent them manna (and threw in a quota of quail meat as well). Manna is also mentioned in the Qur’an as a medicine for the eyes. It was a light flaky substance to be consumed fresh daily because if stored it quickly went rancid. Only on the Sabbath, when there was a double portion, could it be stored for a day. It appeared on the ground at night, like dew, and had to be collected before it was melted by the heat of the sun. It tasted like wafers with honey. The word manna seems to derive from what is it?, suggesting the element of surprise and wonder we feel whenever we are nourished and cared for, especially when we expected to be punished. It is the food of forgiveness. It turns the state of guilt and shame into innocence.
In Catholic and Orthodox Christian spirituality manna was associated with the thin wafer-like host used in communion and consecrated as the Body of Christ. Manna, like the Eucharist, is a physical symbol that transcends the realm of appearances and surpasses ordinary understanding. I was brought up with a reverence for the Mass and a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle. Originally it was reserved to bring to the sick in the community who couldn’t come to the Eucharist in person. Later it became a more static object of devotion in itself. Sometimes this can border on the idolatrous as Protestant Christians often remark. But if we avoid this danger - and keep the manna fresh - it bestows a physical and spiritual delight that no pharmaceutical company can even come close to. As the Book of Wisdom says of manna:
.. Instead of these things you gave your people food of angels, and without their toil you supplied them from heaven with bread ready to eat, providing every pleasure and suited to every taste. For your sustenance manifested your sweetness toward your children; and the bread, ministering to the desire of the one who took it, was changed to suit everyone’s liking. (Wisdom 16:20-21)
This describes an experience: a state of mind and so transient. But it can also become a progressive healing force in the still depth of the person beyond conscious experience.
Tomorrow we will reflect on how the meditator might understand this.
Meditation corresponds nicely to the nature of life as a journey on which we never totally pause. There are many highs and lows, periods of intense struggle and times to relax and enjoy. But because we are passengers on the river of time we are always on the move. As with every journey, we need guidance, reassurance at times, companionship and food for the journey. And, meaning: because without meaning we are not pilgrims but aimless wanderers.
The desert with its oases and strange fertility has often been used to describe the interior aspect of the journey of life. Remembering the manna in the desert of the Exodus, we can think of the mantra as our manna just as many think of the Eucharist as ‘our daily bread’.
The mantra, like the light flaky substance of manna, doesn’t sound like a substantial feast. Rightly in one sense, because in the interior dimension of the human journey, as in the relational world of quantum physics, we are subject to different laws. Here a feast can be famine and hunger a feast. Here poverty is the key to the treasure-trove of the Kingdom. Here letting-go is the sure way to achieve our goal. Here even death is the door to fuller life. Failure transforms into flourishing through the many hidden springs of grace.
The meditator learns to live with paradox on a moment-to-moment basis whatever we may be enduring or enjoying.
We say the mantra lightly, learning to listen to it with full attention, rather than wielding it as a weapon of mind-control manipulated by our will. The mantra in its simplicity and delicacy is a lever that moves the mountain of the ego. Any meditator who has developed a practice, however imperfect it may seem to them, has learned to surrender to reality willingly, even though this means the renunciation of many cherished illusions.
Ask a meditator of long-standing why they practice and they will often find it difficult to answer at first. Where to start? On the other hand, every meditator for whom their daily practice has become a strand of the inner journey wound together with the work of daily life, will say ‘it’s a gift’.
This is the meaning of manna, that it fell freely, daily from heaven (twice as much on the Shabat). The same for everyone, it could not be hoarded. It could only be received by those who received it as a gift that proves their equality with all. It therefore pierced a funnel of perception deep into the nature of reality. It shows that each of us is destined for the equal degree of happiness but that this will take different forms for each. It ‘provides every pleasure and suits every taste’. And yet it is not for sale. It is, like our being itself, pure gift.
Law one-o-one about God: God never takes back a gift. Law one-o-two: God’s gift includes the means of accepting it.
An obvious truth that applies equally to personal and political patterns of behaviour: unless we learn from the mistakes of the past, we condemn ourselves to repeat them.
Lent is a season of grace giving an enhanced opportunity to discover what this means. Grace is the influence of God felt within the autonomy and freedom that is essential to our being. We exist: in our daily problems, joys, sorrows, ageing, mistakes and good luck, moods, impermanence and faithfulness. But we wouldn’t exist if we didn’t first have Being. Our existence depends upon the gift of Being which is the self-sharing of God who is the source of being. Grace is the influence of Being felt and working through our existence. When we mess up our existence, in individual failures or in geo-political criminality as in Ukraine, grace works to restore a harmony between existence and being, Martha and Maria. The strange thing is that because of the divine nature of all being human freedom is respected even under the influence of grace. We are helped but never compelled.
Another strange thing is how the social-global scale of human existence parallels our personal struggles and self-doubts. What is happening in us when we battle with an addiction and repeat destructive patterns of behaviour sheds light on what happens when we try to destroy the freedom of a sovereign country with brutal and mindless violence.
At the core of the teaching of Jesus and other universal enlightened souls is the crystal-clear wisdom that violence is a profanation of our common humanity and a crime against the sacred nature of creation. It dis-orders the cosmos. The consequences of violence point to this truth throughout history and cultures. There are circumstances when violence is tragically necessary, as a response, to defend oneself or the innocent. But even this kind of legitimate violence shames us to some degree. It must be controlled, have consciously defined goals and be ended as soon as possible. In some way it also needs forgiveness.
To resolve this moral question requires clear and deep consciousness. To maintain a conscious state of mind even as we are justifiably defending ourselves, it helps us to see the connection between the individual and the social, between existence and Being. For example, a self-harming addiction like drug or alcohol abuse, over-work or self-trivialisation produces the same pattern of failure as when a stronger country invades and lay waste another. The addiction patterns of vodka or violence point to the same failures and call for the same experience of learning from our mistakes.
Thought, reflection and conversation help us to understand. But meditation directly unhooks us from daily existence and thinking and drops us into the heart of Being. There, the truth we need to learn awaits us and grace helps us to use our Godlike freedom to accept it.
Third Week of Lent (20 - 26 March)
It may bear next year. If not you can cut it down. (Luke 13:1-9)
Recently I was listening to an inspiring woman speak about power and gender. She reminded us that when a man is strong in handling power he is called decisive or people say he knows what is needed and he goes for it. A woman who does the same will often be accused of being bossy. Behind the inequality and under-representation of women in most areas of society (except midwifery and primary education) there lies a prejudice, a caricature of male and female power. Behind the caricature is an assumption that power is force used over others: acting responsibly and leading effectively require an external force to make people do something.
The speaker had successfully held many positions of power during her career, dealt with prejudice and bullying and often been the only woman in a room of decision-makers. Meditation had also helped her to be aware of another kind of power used not over but with others, an energy coming from a personal interior space rather than in the political forces controlling external relationships. This more inward power, in her experience, connects us to another, higher source of power beyond the individual. As she described this, I thought of Jesus saying to Pilate, ‘you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above’.
Seeing power as force is an uncreative understanding of power because it locks into the egoistical vision of reality. Lacking the creativity of the higher connection it becomes destructive. It uses a left-brain model of how power should be accumulated and stored. It ignores the fluid nature of time and attempts to hold and possess it, leading to self-deception. Reality is in continuous flow. True power also flows from a source beyond the individual, which combines the male and female aspects of power: strength and gentleness, decisiveness and patience.
The fluid nature of power unites the impermanence of reality with the freedom of knowing that ‘here we have no abiding city’. What we have accumulated might evaporate in an instant. We can be derailed at any instant by accident, sickness or death. Time flies but every second of existence contains the truth of the beginning of the universe.
Meditation is the best teacher about the nature of power and how to use it. In the desert Jesus was tempted to use his already profound knowledge and relationship to reality for his own purposes. He knew how powerful people can be misunderstood by those who feel its influence and that power perceived as force leads to abuse. Autocratic leaders fall into this trap of linking crowds and power.
The power to strike down an unproductive fig tree is one kind. The wisdom of giving it more time and using failure as manure to nourish is the other kind. It may look like an abdication but it is the only healthy way of using it.
Russian-speaking Ukrainians who have a database of telephone numbers in Russia are calling them randomly to speak with whoever answers about the worsening nightmare that is part of our Lent this year.
Most hang up as soon as they hear the foreign accent. Others engage cautiously with the callers who try even more cautiously to start a conversation. They often hear the party-line with which the Kremlin has occupied the news media: this was started by the Ukrainians, they are bombing their own cities, President Putin is protecting us, Russia only uses force defensively, we support the operation.
The Ukrainian callers know it is useless just to say you’re wrong, you’ve been brainwashed. Instead, they learn to listen. And to ask questions. In most cases the attempted conversation doesn’t last long. No conversation can flow unless both sides risk to listen. Listening means being prepared to see the topic from the other’s point of view. To do this is dangerous in an authoritarian state that punishes dissent. But it is also putting your sense of self in danger: leaving self behind, letting go of who you think you are. Meditators risk this every day.
To try to change another’s mind without patiently suffering the rejection of your offer to listen is another kind of brainwashing. Prisoners of the last cold war were often ideologically brainwashed before release. They then had to be un-brainwashed. It is like dangerous brain surgery. To invade and occupy the minds of others is like the violent invasion and colonisation of a sovereign state. Russia is attempting this in Ukraine and China succeeded in Tibet.
To occupy territory is inseparable from attempting to occupy their mental space. Both desecrate the human and assault civilisation. if they succeed it is by a regime of fear. The most powerful resistance to alien occupation is to keep on asking questions. We cannot change people’s minds. But we can open their hearts by opening ours to them: through questions that show a non-violent way to truth.
We also need to ask questions to ourselves. Have I been deceived? Our way of life in western consumerism is built on a form of deception called advertising. It has occupied many areas of life especially visible in those politicians who market themselves and brazenly refusing to listen to the questions they are asked. I have also met many cradle Christians who need to be de-programmed from an occupying force of beliefs in their childhood: a punishing God, the rejection of other faiths, the criminalisation of sexual identity or manipulation through guilt. Only after being deconditioned from this can they revisit the pure essence of what they were taught and decide for themselves.
Such comparisons require perspective and common sense. But if we do not ask ourselves radical questions about our own assumed freedom, how can we help others? The prisoner becomes the gaoler until he is free. Listening to the questions that liberate the very truth that sets us free is not only about conversation and exchange of ideas. It is also achieved – and perhaps most powerfully this way for those who risk it – through the habit of bathing in interior silence.
Letting go of all words and thoughts washes the mind in another and better sense.
Many people who rejected their early Christian conditioning feel a combination of freedom and homelessness. If we have a home to return to, roots that are deep and authentic, then going on a trip to explore another country and different beliefs can be exciting, expanding and enriching. We are glad to return home to see it in a new light.
But what if we have no home, or if, what was our home, has been wiped out and there is nowhere to return to? The refugees from Ukraine are estimated to rise to as many as ten million. Russian forces are doing there what they helped the Syrian regime to do in Aleppo, Damascus and Raqqa since the attempted revolution in 2011. Millions of Syrians cannot return even to their old homes that are still standing because the buildings could collapse at any time. We can only welcome the refugees and help them to start new lives or wait until they can return.
Not 'only'. We can also work for a change of mind and heart in the global consciousness such as Paul of Tarsus underwent on the road to Damascus. We can work for the unified consciousness that not only opposes the dark forces but prevents them.
The Lord said to Moses..You must not oppress the stranger; you know how a stranger feels, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
If you feel helpless and don’t know what to do, meditate and you will see precisely what you can and should do. Of course, we have then to decide if we will do it. In meditation we take nothing for granted. We don’t destroy anything, but we risk everything including our beliefs and assumptions. There is nothing we aren’t prepared for the work of silence to probe and prove. ‘Meditation proves the truths of our faith in our own experience’, said John Main echoing the contemplative wisdom of the desert which reminds every generation that ‘experience is the teacher’. This is the way to authenticity which leads to truth.
Yesterday I met with our Meditation With Children council to plan for a webinar on June 24th. We have recently published a new program for schools. Anything we can do to bring meditation to children in schools is worth doing. To give children this inner resource – which they take to with evident relief and happiness – vaccinates them against the brainwashing of our consumerist values and assures them experientially that the authentic is real and lives within their own minds and hearts.
I have met several young adults recently who have shared with me in different words their feeling ‘I feel lost’. When we are lost in a strange land our first reaction is probably to consult our smart phone. But what if there is no signal or the instructions make no sense. We ask a local for directions.
The unified consciousness we must work for shows us we are all locals to and for each other.
I have a very nice wool-knit sweater that I have had for years and become very fond of. It fits well and is warm but not too heavy. I don’t think about it much but I feel very familiar with it. A warning there, you’ll agree.
I was wearing it recently and a friend looked at it. I thought he was going to say ‘what a nice sweater’. But he said ‘that sweater is very dirty’. I was slightly offended, as who likes to be told they are wearing dirty clothes? But I looked at it differently and admitted he was right. I had worn it too often collecting wood for my stove on Bere Island.
Washing certain kinds of clothes is a mystery to me and I have had several disasters – favourite pieces emerging from too warm a wash now suited only for leprechauns. But I knew I needed to wash it and did so very cautiously. I let it dry not too close to a radiator. It didn’t shrink but the stains were still there.
As I dealt with this domestic crisis, I thought about meditation as a washing of the mind. Perhaps this is originally what the ritual of baptism by immersion symbolised. It is different, as I said the other day, from brainwashing. Brain-washing is not washing, it is staining. Meditation is about washing out the stains left by propaganda or self-deception that we don’t see until someone or something makes us aware of them.
There is an art and a science in purifying the mind just as there is in laundry. Until we have learned the basics we should not be surprised if the stains don’t disappear at the first or even the fiftieth wash. But they get less and we feel cleaner in perception as a sweater also takes time to restore to its original state. To be aware of the existence of the stain is the necessary first step.
Discussing this profound subject with my friend he agreed and recommended a stain-remover to add to the wash, which I have not yet done. He told me that some years ago he had taken a favourite white blanket together with some ordinary clothes to be dry cleaned. When he picked it up it the blanket was now coloured and the clothes faded. The shop refused to take responsibility and so he embarked on a long patient path of frequent re-washings. This helped finally to restore the whiteness of the blanket, ‘dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them’ if you get the reference.
Who needs daily reflections with such lessons as these constantly coming from daily life?
I went to get my eyes tested recently and was given a new prescription. I waited for my new glasses to arrive and was then surprised to find how different and how strong the new lenses were. Basically, I was seeing double and trying by will to correct my vision. I thought it was the fault of my brain not to adapt. I trusted the doctor more than my own eyes!
Eventually the reason emerged: the doctor had forgotten to put a prism in the lenses that I needed in order to see straight. Without it. I was living in a world of dualism. When the corrected glasses arrived, my vision became more attuned with the unified consciousness that I am trying to live. Clarity and unity of vision: we have three eyes, body, mind and heart
The domination of materialistic science has had many consequences for the way people see and interpret things. It claims ‘objectivity’ – meaning the exclusion of the subjective factor– but this is unproveable and unachievable in its own terms. It also creates an impersonal, false ego-centred reality which lies behind many inhumane uses of technology – shelling Mariupol, bombing civilian targets or using chemical weapons among them. Materialistic science, fanatically applied, does not respect the truth that true science serves because it denies the wisdom and science of love.
Materialism is short-sighted and will always see double. For example, it denies the disturbing effect of the observer in any experiment. It does not see its own shadow. And it rejects evidence of a higher level of consciousness – mind and spirit – existing distinct from the brain. Today many brilliant scientists see the duplicity of materialism but dualism is still embedded in dominant scientific – despite all the discoveries of quantum physics.
In western Christianity materialistic science divided religion and science. But unlike the Church in the modern era, Sufism never had a problem with acclaiming the new discoveries of science. It saw science as exploring the immense diversity which God created in order to manifest His unique oneness. Mystics of all traditions understand that science, contemplatively practiced as it should be and as our own Marco Schloremmer explains – is another means to love and understand God better.
As we watch the technology wreaking death and misery in Ukraine each day there is no clearer lesson of how we can be imprisoned in double vision. And it shows the need to restore the prism of contemplation that we need to see one and see straight.
Tomorrow global meditators will be joining our Ukrainian community on their day of retreat. You are warmly invited to show our solidarity and support during their intense suffering that now moves and concerns the whole world. As you have seen from these daily reflections, our Lent this year is shaped by this crisis. It would be hard to reflect on Lent without feeling the real exodus of millions from the attack of a leader who, like Pharaoh, has cruelly hardened his heart. These are times we live the teaching in the darkness of faith.
Yesterday I met online with Maria and Albert Zhakarova in Lvev who are the WCCM National Coordinators. They will host tomorrow’s meeting and speak of their feelings and thoughts and of the care they are giving to the refugees from Eastern Ukraine. They run a web-design company but are finding other ways of support; Albert is riding a motorcycle delivering food. They have already been shelled and air raid siren sounded during our conversation.
I asked them how they understood meditation in this nightmare. They said it was an essential lifeline. It keeps their minds calm and maintains the balance they need to serve the refugees. ‘It is like going through a dark tunnel,’ they said, ‘but we know we can survive.’
Everything around us is dying but in meditation we find in ourselves what cannot die. We see meditation as a narrow way taking us through the clash of oppositions that create chaos around us. Meditation has never been more precious. We see what it means more clearly than ever.
A few years ago I joined them (they speak Ukrainian and Russian) to introduce meditation in both countries. Many Russians in several cities still attend the online meditation groups which are meeting through the invasion. An Orthodox priest joins from the depths of Siberia. Maria said,
Meditation seems the last connection between Russians and Ukrainians now. The last link. Religion can’t give this connection. In churches the priests seem in a state of shock. And in Russia the church has been politicised.
We must all ask what prayer means and does contemplative prayer make a difference. Maria and Albert have a response.
‘The victims of war need people to listen to them and care for them selflessly. Meditation helps us to help them. We are seeing the power of illusion and how dark and deathly it is. How badly the ego disconnects from reality and works everywhere. Reality is giving us a hard push. The mantra seems, like John Main says, feels a plough clearing a rough field.”
Join Maria and Albert and others from around the world tomorrow, Saturday 26 March (from 12:00 CET) with this link https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89085786565
Francis Bacon, one of the founders of modern science, said that ‘experience is the best proof’. But what is experience?
If I have some bad news and feel depressed and pessimistic that is an experience. It’s proof that I am affected by what happens or people say. It doesn’t mean my pessimism is proven right. The same applies when the wheel of fortune turns and brings me good news and a positive outlook on things. Experience in itself does not prove very much except that I am sensitive and up and down. What matters is the depth of experience. The deeper it is, the more it will reflect a level that can be better trusted as true because it is less liable to changing circumstances and mood swings.
I quoted Maria and Albert from Lviv yesterday saying that as ‘everything around us is dying we are finding in ourselves what cannot die’. This reflects an experience born not of ideas but insight. Ideas like feelings are very changeable. Good ideas can excite and then disappoint us when we see through them. Insight is more like Bacon’s sense of the kind of experience that proves the truth. To prove means to test something, to try or to demonstrate. Even great, staggering insights need to be tested. We shouldn’t believe anything unless we accept the process of testing. The word also has an old sense of ‘being out in front’. Experience in relation to truth is always leading us to know and understand more deeply.
So we don’t stop meditating and think we’ve arrived the first time we have a really ‘good meditation’. Experience will demonstrate that there are patterns and cycles we will pass through as we go deeper. Our relationship with meditation over an extended period of time reveals the nature of our connection, relationship and ultimately our union with God. There is no arrival. Only an ever renewed beginning, a boundless I AM.
Lent is a reminder to test our experience and challenge our complacency and shake up our half-conscious habits. A Lent where we accompany the suffering and outrage of Ukraine has the strange potential to take us deeper than we would otherwise go. Maria and Albert’s remarks demonstrates this as does the heroic resilience of the national resistance. In whatever I have read or seen about the mood of the country and the leadership of President Zelenskyy I do not remember any deranged hatred of Russians but rather a sacrificial love for their country and of freedom.
The insight they are manifesting to the rest of the world is a proof of something hopeful about humanity, a deep-level teaching about truth.
Fourth Week of Lent (22 March - 2 April)
But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found. (Luke 15 1-32)
The Prodigal Son is one of the greatest short stories ever told. It is one of the best of Jesus’ parables. A good story creates characters that feel real because they allow us to identify with them and so learn about ourselves. After immersion in a great story – think of a Shakespeare play or even a good Netflix series – we feel we know more about our life and the world. We have recognised something new. The characters who make this possible seem ‘real’ to us even though we know they are imaginary. But they are imagined from life. A characteristic of real-life people is that they are variable and surprise us. They are not bound by the stereotypes we assign to them. Above all they have a life outside of us.
Think of the characters in the parable. The younger son (the let’s have it now ego) wants his inheritance and runs off and wastes it. In the pigsty he comes to his senses. But it’s not genuine repentance. He just realises he can go home looking sorrowful, make his soft-hearted father believe that he has changed and start living comfortably again. He must have been surprised when his father didn’t even listen to his pious words but ecstatically hugged and kissed him. The older brother (the I am better than you ego) realises what has happened and is furious. He feels jealous and resentful because he has not been shown the love showered on his prodigal brother. His first-cousin is probably called Martha.
And the Father. The story expands his immense reality in three stages. He respects his younger boy’s freedom without question and gives him his inheritance to do what he wants. He welcomes him home with overflowing relief and all the joy of love expressed in yet another feast – of which the gospels are full. He teaches his jealous older boy that he is not loved less than his brother and that he has no favourites (as St Paul says of God). With a few strokes Jesus compresses great theo-psychology as coal is compressed into diamonds. They go together because self-knowledge is the basis of our knowledge of God.
Why does God allow Putin to do what he wants? The Qua’ran says God made humans free so that we will perfect ourselves. I was fantasising the other day about Putin waking up with self-knowledge. Having given us his own free nature God nevertheless influences and saves us by transforming love which we only learn to recognise painfully slowly. And he pulls out the decaying tooth of egotism by showing that we are loved uniquely but, sorry, not exclusively. Nationalism makes wars, ridiculously, because they are not necessary. There is enough of everything to go around to satisfy everyone. Diversity and freedom feed the feast of existence, they do not threaten it.
When I come away from a great story I feel sad. The real world is not so simple or positive. But then it looks different when I feel that what absorbed my attention changed the way I see and am in the world because every character in the story was me and every situation was one I have been part of.
There was a man who felt constantly overwhelmed by the ‘ten thousand things’ that Lao Tse said – and all meditators know – rush round the mind. Some of these things were of very little importance but could nonetheless be very irritating. He would feel a surge of disproportionate anger when, for example, his cell phone ran out of charge in the middle of a conversation or even when he dropped his soap on the floor during his morning shower and had to get his head wet before he normally did in his washing routine. When a waiter forgot what he had ordered and had to come back after a minute and ask him to repeat it he would feel a flood of anger and sadness. He wasn’t sure where the sadness came from but he really didn’t like to see how much anger he had.
He was detached enough to diagnose the modern condition of stress. He knew he was still a fairly nice person. He would kindly help people who were lost in a train station but a few minutes later could feel like pushing another person over if they pushed rudely in front of him. He didn’t know what to do.
He decided to attend to the small details of life and ensure that they were perfect. This way he would reduce the occasions of stress. He had calculated how much time a week he spent correcting the spelling in email or text messages he wrote. That made him feel his life was leaking away in endless irritating trivia. It reminded him of a leaking pipe in his bathroom he kept forgetting to get fixed. He called the plumber who said he was too busy but would call him back and that only added to the man’s feeling that everything was collapsing.
He watched the pictures of the destruction of cities and homes in Ukraine and felt something like this was happening inside his mind. And then he blamed himself for comparing something so monumentally tragic with his own petty concerns. That guilt and feeling of silliness only added to his seeing life as an unstoppably expanding ball of stress.
He decided to be extra mindful about all occasions where he felt stress and its curiously deep sadness. He added many other small things to his more careful texting. His repertoire of perfection grew every day. ‘If I can achieve control over these details’, he thought, ‘I will feel better about the big issues’.
For a while this seemed to work and he felt a better level of calm and mastery. Then one morning, when he was to leave early for a very important meeting, he overslept and missed it because he had forgotten to set his alarm. He felt the forces of chaos he had been trying to resist surge through his defences and he felt he was no longer in charge of himself. He knew this was disproportionate but what he felt was what he felt.
Then in the worst moment of his feeling of powerlessness and failure, it came to him. In a moment of clarity, like glimpsing blue sky through storm-clouds, he saw what he should do. And, I am glad to tell, you he did it.
Know that the pure and changeless self-awareness in the heart is the knowledge that, through the destruction of the ego, bestows liberation.
Ramana distils in a few words the perennial wisdom of millennia. Take it or leave it. We might fail to listen and trust it because of its irreducible simplicity. It doesn’t say everything about human consciousness and destiny. What can? But it expresses a truth that opens the self-illumined mind to itself if we trust it. The gospel word pistis that we translate as faith also means trust.
Trust is the first step towards the serious practice that may take us a day - or a lifetime - to fulfil. It doesn’t matter how long. All that matters is that we are taking that first step - each day - until we know we are already there.
With the legion of whirling crises storming around us these days, this kind of expression of truth might seem aspirational, idealistic but, well, not just for now. Naturally, our first concern should not be to write daily readings and think about these things but to do what we can to reduce the suffering generated by these crises. But this is not what Raman is expecting, that we should just think about it. If we listen attentively, faithfully and trust then we will see the self-illuminated. And we become what we see.
St Peter knew this:
And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:19)
Just to think about it, compare it, analyse it, store it away in memory is to act like the addict who knows she has to quit or die but still postpones the moment of truth and real conversion.
If one person on the planet each day could listen to the degree where they allow the ‘mystery of Christ in you’ to be self-luminous, the cause of the suffering of the world would be reduced. It shines by itself because it does not depend on thought or proof. It just is and nothing can contradict or invade it.
When Jesus told his disciples that it was as harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, they were shocked and confused. Like many today they assumed that success and wealth in life was a sign of God’s favour just as poverty or defeat in life’s struggles are punishment or maybe just a sign you weren’t ready yet.
How much do you need to have to be ‘rich? The difficulty of answering that question means we have a way of wriggling away from the truth of what Jesus says. There are rising numbers of working families in the UK at present who cannot keep their children warm at night because of energy costs and have to supplement their food from charitable food banks. These are not rich but there are those in Ethiopia who are dying of hunger. Vladimir Putin is reported to be personally richer than anyone else on earth, with an estimated 200 billion dollars, and anyway he is obviously rich. But there are those in between, doing their annual budgets carefully to see if they can afford to educate their children or afford a holiday.
The simple definition of rich in the sense Jesus is using might be: to have much very more than you could ever need but not sharing nearly as much as you could. This is the curse of wealth. The more you have, the more you fear to lose, the more possessive you become and so the more isolated. Those twisted mental states keep you battering on the door of the kingdom, which is one thing, like love, that money can’t buy. What do you do if you are rich in this depressing sense and yet would also like to be friends with God or even with Jesus? The national Russian Orthodox church which Putin has bought has given unqualified support to the invasion of Ukraine. God and even Jesus, it seems, can be bought - but only as look-alikes.
How to have enough and avoid the curse of being rich? Philanthropy helps but it can also be a clever tool of the rich. The only real way to handle money is to invest heavily every day in poverty of spirit. It is a risky investment because it will turn into authentic wealth in the knowledge of God. And what then with your mansions and super-yachts?
This means that every ruse and deception your ego uses to justify its double-vision is exposed. You are left coping with the discovery that to have everything you have to let go of absolutely everything. Whether this happens suddenly, as in a crisis, or gradually over thirty years of learning to meditate, the discovery of reality is the same.
Jesus disturbs us by saying the rich cannot enter the kingdom. Ramana Maharshi says the same - and similarly disturbs our sense of values - about learning.
By yoga, in these words of his that follow, he doesn’t mean just physical yoga but the integral life-science embracing body, mind and spirit, morals and insights:
For the practice of yoga, academic learning is as much a hindrance to a scholar as family attachments are to a layman. Mere academic learning reduces a person to the status of a reproductive machine, if he does not seek to transcend karma. Those not learned are saved from many an ill to which the learned become victims.
The Taliban might selectively quote this to justify their refusal to educate girls. Those who think clerical celibacy is a higher state than marriage could also misuse his reference to family attachments. This is not his meaning. To seek to transcend karma, to burn through the web of the past controlling the present and the future means to have a contemplative practice. Without that the business of ordinary life and intellectual knowledge become obstacles to the path to unified consciousness.
He is showing how much learning and an essentially intellectual approach to the spiritual path become hindrances just as material wealth can. A big fortune can isolate you by making you suspicious and fearful. Book-learning and ideas can deceive you into thinking that you know more of the truth than you actually do. They can even build an erudite cathedral of thought which is in reality just another look-alike of true knowledge blown down one day by the wind of experience.
You don’t have to empty your bank account each time before you meditate. You will come to think differently about your assets if you do invest everything in poverty of spirit twice a day. Yet we are called to ‘renounce all the riches of thought of imagination’ (John Cassian) every time we meditate. The mantra is like the pebble in David’s sling that overcame the Goliath of the ego.
This is why poverty of spirit – radical detachment from our selves – is a deeper and fuller process of transformation than anything we can do on the material level. This is the heart of Lent. Know nothing and your relationship to what you possess or to your social status will be transformed.
I have nothing. I want nothing. I know nothing. So sang the English itinerant mystic Richard Rolle in the 14th century. How many highly-defended centres of power in the world, political or intellectual, can this song penetrate?
The sparkling of truth devoid of I is the greatest austerity
News of the peace talks in Turkey between Russians and Ukrainians are top of the news. A welcome glimmer of hope. Any ray of hope helps to prevent cynicism and hardening of the heart. Yet it is a relief to hear that the Ukrainians are not grasping at false straws. We will judge Putin, they say, who said he had no intention of invading Ukraine until the day he did, on the actions of his invading forces not on his words.
When the mind succumbs to its shadow forces - despair, rage, jealousy, pride, lust to name a few – it can no longer be trusted to make good judgements. Inevitably, decisions we make in such states of mind make matters worse. Matters are already worse when we cannot identify and name the dark forces occupying us. How do you negotiate with someone with no critical self-awareness? It is the dearth of trust and without trust human relationships dissolve.
In our slow emergence from the Covid era we are waking up to the changes it has made. Not only to work-patterns and ways of communicating but to general mental health, not least among children. We have medicalised mental health, as we have done with most aspects of health, often reducing it to a problem that medication can solve. A student once told me that she went to her doctor to explain how depressed she felt after the death of her grandmother to whom she was very close and the infidelity of her boyfriend in whom she had put her trust. Before she had finished talking he had written her a prescription and told her to come back in a month.
As humans we are compound entities governed by physical, mental and spiritual laws. If we leave any one of these interwoven dimensions out of the equation it becomes unbalanced in all dimensions.
Some years ago the Vatican, in a particularly unhealthy phase, expressed its disapproval of having women spiritual directors in seminaries for priests. A sister I knew, who was a much loved and respected spiritual guide in a large seminary, told me they were told to prepare for an inspection from Rome. When the bishop-examiner arrived the seminary staff assembled to greet him. He entered affably and went round shaking hands with everyone, except the women.
How do you negotiate with the fanatical, the dishonest, the untrustworthy, the mentally-ill? By not pretending things are normal when they’re not. By speaking truthfully, as the Ukrainians are doing in their negotiations today. As Jesus did during his trials.
By understanding the saying of Ramana above. Truth sparkles when the shadowy forces of the ego are put away. Then in a simple, transparent space with no dark corners for shadows to hide, a great and corrective austerity reveals itself.
My reflection yesterday was about mental health and ended with a reference to austerity. Ramana had said ‘the sparkling of truth devoid of I is the greatest austerity’.
I was surprised and confused by the word ‘austerity’. If he had said ‘freedom’, ‘peace’, ‘bliss’ it would have been easier to understand. I associate austerity with harsh economic measures intentionally hurting the poorest and most vulnerable more than the rich and powerful. But on reflection I marvelled at how much this word expressed about the conditions necessary to restore the dynamic balance of human health. Reduction of excess to just what is needed, self-control and simplicity. Truth is like this and so is health.
At Bonnevaux in May we are welcoming people of all backgrounds to a health seminar which will not just speak about health but ‘experiment’ it. Within the daily rhythm of meditation, we will be reminded by a doctor, a herbalist and a therapist – and by our own experience – that restoring balance to our personal system as to society as a whole requires a gentle, healing austerity. We know it is a just austerity when we realise we are loving it and grateful.
By ‘experimenting it’ I mean the seminar will lead us to see personally how sleep, nutrition, exercise and bodywork along with times of meditation and sharing together are the essential healthy ingredients of human life. The fruit of this health is generosity of spirt and the capacity to love.
Before reaching too quickly for the prescription pad and before starting to despair at our state of mind or the chaos of the world, why don’t we learn first-hand the power of self-healing. Jesus often says to those he healed ‘go home, go in peace. Your faith has healed you’. This is what we hope people will feel as they go home after the seminar.
The first step in restoring our mental health and the health of our planet is to have faith in the powers of how we are made.
Fifth Week of Lent (3 - 9 April)
The daily news from Ukraine during this Lent has highlighted the role of military and diplomatic ‘intelligence’ about how the war is going. This kind of intelligence means knowing what each side doesn’t want the other to know. It’s also about interpreting the information for one’s own advantage (in the hope it is ‘good' intelligence). This is an interesting word to use about a situation that betrays the depths of human stupidity: delusion, hubris and brutishly cruel force.
Together with many issues like Covid, the environmental crisis and the predicament of democracy, the conflict in Ukraine teaches us – as Easter will - through tragedy. The lesson to learn is that humanity now must evolve in consciousness, far beyond what it thinks is ‘intelligence’ and way beyond its pride in technology. How we think and how we use our tools relies upon our level of consciousness. Lent gives us a new perspective on the daily news from the edges of Europe that is touching human hearts everywhere as well as upon these global questions.
Normally we focus on scientific, rational, measurable and (supposedly) provable knowledge. Our obsession with ‘deliverables’ and ‘outcomes’ shows how narrow and myopic this can be. It blinds us with a fear of mystery, uncertainty and intuition, which we consider to be forms of ignorance rather than the sources of wisdom they really are. We believe what we can measure everything with cognitive tools – measuring, predicting, systematising everything, until the spirit and joy of life have been sucked out. We become like the drained victims of vampire.
But there are three other springs of knowledge that flow directly from the source of consciousness and that await our rediscovery. Faith is relational knowledge generated by mutual trust and loyalty to a common good. Hope is the implicit knowledge that even our failures and losses in life are part of a pattern leading to the flourishing of humanity. Love is the supreme knowledge of union that overflows the brim of human consciousness, extending our horizons with the pure light of spiritual intelligence.
When these three ways of knowing fire together they boost us out of the orbit of stupidity and self-centredness. Then we recognise what we are seeing, just as the disciples of the risen Christ once did in every one and in every situation.
Humanity is struggling to rise to this higher consciousness before we do fatal harm to ourselves, our descendants and our planet. It is the collective responsibility of all the wisdom traditions to advance this evolution. It is no less our personal responsibility, each of us, to do the inner work necessary and to deposit in a common fund whatever small progress each of us can make.
Yesterday I ended by saying that raising the level of human consciousness is a common responsibility both of all the wisdom traditions and of each of us personally. Individually we may not feel we have much to contribute in terms of wisdom and individually that may be true. But, as a supermarket chain slogan tells its customers, ‘every little counts’.
A week after the inspiring online global gathering of our global community with Ukrainian meditators, many of us have reflected on what it means to participate, to share in and collaborate with each other. It was a vaccine for the virus of individualist isolation spreading in our materialistic culture. We all felt this but in a way hard to put into words.
A few years after the Resurrection, Paul of Tarsus argued with Peter and James and the other leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem about who could be allowed into their community. The dispute came down to: do you have to be a Jew to belong in this movement? The struggle was – archetypally – between universalism and separatism. Eventually, the more spacious and inclusive mind of Christ prevailed.
As a sign of this inclusive unity of the two points of view, that Christ was big enough to include everyone, Paul agreed to raise money for the suffering Jesus followers in Jerusalem. This became an important part of Paul’s later mission. A large sum was collected from gentile Christian communities for their Jewish brothers and sisters. It was only money but a powerful, sacramental sign of love.
After our time of meditation and sharing with the Ukrainians last week we reminded people of the needs of the Ukrainian refugees fleeing from the invading forces. Albert and Maria, our coordinators in Ukraine are helping the refugees flowing into Lviv. Yesterday I heard from our Hong Kong community that in less than three days they raised more than 30,000 euro to support this work flowing purely from the spring of contemplation. This gift is a sacrament of love and unity. It is an example of how communities around the WCCM are showing, in many different ways of generosity, the thankful wonder they feel in knowing that we are one – a knowledge that is a fruit of our daily meditation together.
An ongoing discussion among New Testament scholars concerns the translation of the Greek phrase ‘pistis Christou’ in a number of passages in St Paul. Does it mean faith in Christ or the faith(fulness) of Christ.
You might say, as the world seems to be falling apart, does it really matter? Well, yes and no. Not so much, from the point of view of dealing immediately with the crises of economic justice, Covid, the environment and Ukraine. But from the point of view of how we can develop a new consciousness through Christian and other wisdom traditions to deal with the aftermath of these crises and to change our direction, yes it does matter.
The difference in the translations highlights the difference between putting the emphasis on ourselves or upon Christ. If the faith that moves mountains and heals humanity means predominantly our faith in Christ, the meaning of faith might be reduced to something controlled in human willpower or just to concepts and belief. This attitude has weakened the living connection of personal Christian faith with its source, the person of the risen Christ. If, on the other hand, the emphasis falls upon his faithfulness, the chemistry of faith and the alchemy of his relationship to humanity is changed. We are no longer trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Instead, we experience an additional force working with us from another dimension. The faithfulness of Christ generates and releases this force through all the dimensions of time and space: the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
What or who is Christ faithful to? This is the key question and the many ways of answering it eventually resolve, not in an answer but in a fulfilled relationship. To himself, to his calling, to the Father, to his love for humanity, to the innate faithfulness of God.
To be faithful manifests the greatest potential and beauty of humanity. Think of how our often damaged faith in human nature is renewed when we celebrate a marriage that has endured through decades, or of a person who has stayed faithfully committed to a work for a lifetime, or of someone who keeps a pledge even though it will cost them far more than they had thought it would.
As in most disputes about this or that, there is a truth in both positions. The faith of Christ empowers our faith in Christ. But it takes faith in the living mystery of truth to see that the answer lies beyond the division not in the victory of one over the other.
Do you remember the days when you read maps to get to where you were going? Everyone in London had an ‘AtoZ of London’ with every small alleyway named although of course the place you were going always rested illegibly on the border of the page. Now we rest in the great passivity of GPS, guided by a voice of your choice from two satellites circling the planet and correcting you with the implacable patience of the Holy Spirit whenever you disobey its commands.
Maps and instructions help to navigate many of life’s twists and turns. Without the bearings they give we can feel adrift. The young person who told me ‘I have what I wanted. I have made it. But I feel completely lost’ was a wanderer who feels without a way or sense of direction. He had hoped home was his destination. But he had disconnected from knowing home as the direction in which we are travelling from one moment to the next.
We easily over-value maps, systems, explanations and even wise words of direction. What really matters is to be at home within the transitions of life. For example, in spiritual jargon we speak of ‘levels of consciousness’ and draw diagrams which give us a sense of bringing order to the confusion created by everything all sliding and bouncing into each other.
Looking at maps or diagrams or listening to brilliant theories can seem like looking a series of big leaps from one level to another. Leaps we may not have the courage or energy to make. But think of life as a series of interconnecting rooms in a museum full of fascinating and delightful discoveries of the past and teasing glimpses of possible futures. The doorway from one room to another is always open. We are not locked into our present room. There is no reason to fear the expansion of our sense of self in moving from one to another.
You might see a map of the museum on the wall but the experience that really matters is not memorising it but of the quest and discovery. Slowly a sense forms of the shape of the structure we are exploring and it becomes our own shape.
This takes time – forty years of Exodus or forty days in the wilderness. We fear being wanderers and want to go back but the fear evolves into wonder and the past is transformed by what we discover in the present. O happy Lent. O brave Ukraine, hang in there.
In the late afternoon on Sunday after the Italian National Conference I was walking through Rome. A golden light bathed everyone, visitors, locals, immigrants, men dressed up as centurions for photos with tourists. The same light washed the peeling walls that showed many layers of the past, remnants of the pillars of once proud temples and imperial forums, humble churches from the 4th century, Castel San’Angelo, the medieval fortress with its emergency escape route to the Vatican for besieged Medici popes, and PizzaHuts, Gucci window displays and souvenir shops and a street vendor who charged me four euro for a bag of nuts.
Whose light shines on good and bad alike.
When we feel that we are included in the dance of being in which no one and no thing is wilfully excluded we experience peace. Even in suffering and injustice, when nothing is excluded, peace can prevail. This is a peace beyond understanding, not as the world gives it.
The recent images of the murder of civilians in Ukraine sent an icy, nauseous shock through me and through men and women everywhere and the unfortunate children who have to understand this is not a picture from a movie. Real people are capable of doing this. The question soon surfaces: How can we include this kind of unhuman misbehaviour and the people responsible for it in the one reality which bathes in the impartial and equal light of God?
Because it is the same reality in which a blameless man one with God could be falsely accused, falsely tried and sentenced and only too truly subjected to fatal torture? High on a wall of a cell under the operation rooms of Dr Mengele at Auschwitz, I saw an etched drawing of Christ on the Cross. It was the beginning of an answer of ‘where was God while these atrocities were being performed?’
Reality is not coldly objective. It is never better communicated than by compassion. Truth is not mathematical. When it is turned on all kinds falsehood it will eventually exposes and dissolve their unreality.
Jesus said that his Father was like the light of the sun that shines on good and bad alike. He did not say that good and bad react to the light in the same way.
Because it convinces us of the compassionate, total oneness of reality, meditation today has the potential to be the wave that brings peace to our world
When we feel we are in a real and present danger life is suddenly simplified. A man I know was once plunged into this when a dentist spotted a suspicious growth in his mouth and he had to wait a week for the test results. Of a sudden he was in a storm of uncertainty, fear and anxiety. But he also discovered an unprecedented hyper-clarity because the priorities of his life had become self-evident without his having to think or choose between them. As a result, his love of life surged and led him to understand that this was his natural state which he had lost touch with before his routine dental check-up. His physical senses also heightened and the pleasures of life which had dulled in recent years burst into life again.
Happily, the results were negative regarding cancer but sadly negative as he dropped back into his usual semi-vital state. One of life’s little lessons. Nothing has more to teach us than hints of our own mortality.
Perhaps Ukrainians, fighting passionately to save the life of their country, are also feeling this burst of clarity. Decisions of daily life and the squabbles of ordinary relationships are subsumed in a commitment of love and solidarity stronger than the fear of death. Isn’t this the clarity we see in Jesus, especially in the gospel of John, as he goes through his last hours. Passion, the passion of love or the Passion of Christ are passages, transitions to go through. But when we emerge, we have been changed. If we have gone as far into it as death and if we have undergone that blink of the great detachment, the change in us is not less than a resurrection, a complete transformation of consciousness. And the clarity of that never fades again.
Kierkegaard thought that anxiety, what he called angst, is a symptom of human freedom. When it first appears, we may even feel a kind of guilt: O, I shouldn’t be feeling this. Why aren’t I happy, as I should be, like my FaceBook Friends? The existentialists think of anxiety as both an attraction to and revulsion from the unknowns of our future selves. To despair, as we confront them, means that we refuse or cannot be ourself.
Or we may decide to live anyway and step into the uncertainty. Once we accept the gift of our being – which John Main thought meditation allows us to do – we change. We grow. We expand. We feel united with being which is a far deeper, richer state than existential angst and instead we are flooded with the only real certainty we can touch: hope.
In the myth of the Fisher King the young knight-in-training, Parsifal, is told that good knights should speak little and only ask necessary questions. Following this instruction unwisely he fails to take a great opportunity to question a maimed king who is the guardian of the Grail. He should have asked the Wounded King why he was suffering and why his kingdom had become an infertile wasteland. Parsifal spends years waiting for his second chance. After a long wandering he meets the king again, sitting in a frozen landscape fishing, looking at the reflection of his shroud in the stagnant water. Desolate, in a barren world of his own making, his wound fails to heal and its sickness seeps into all his kingdom.
This time the now wiser Parsifal asks what is the Grail and whom does it serve? The mortal spell on the king and the land is broken and health and vitality return.
As we prepare to enter Holy Week here at Bonnevaux we will be welcoming wandering knights and ladies for a retreat to reflect on the mysteries of the Passion and the Resurrection. Lent – and the unity it has taught us to feel with the suffering of Ukraine and human affliction everywhere – comes to its full purpose.
This ancient myth is a key to help us understand what the Christian world will be re-living. The retreat will also be online so you can join us in the cloud of the internet as well as in the cloud of unknowing.
Perhaps the first gift of this story as a key into the Easter mysteries is its stress upon the redemptive question. Parsifal has a destiny to heal the king (later revealed to be his own uncle) and so to restore greenness to the earth. However, his task is not fulfilled either by passive silence or merely by activity alone but by insight.
This wisdom is released by a question, which is itself not born just from curiosity. It is not superficial. It is the heart’s quest for truth - and so it is selfless, other-centred. The Cross is the great question mark hanging over the world. Its meaning cannot be put into words. But what if we humbly ask who is it for? Perhaps we will then see the Resurrection as the great exclamation mark revealing the life and purpose of everything.
Holy Week (10 - 16 April)
He has offered one single sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10)
As we read the Passion Narrative in today’s gospel we do a helicopter view of the story that we will retell intensely during the three days before Easter Sunday. In the coming week we will swoop down into the details and every year, provided we are paying attention, we will find new insights to surprise and delight us.
For many of us the religious language of sacrifice is a problem. It’s hard when we are told that we need to make sacrifices to keep spiritually acceptable. It is especially difficult to understand God asking for sacrifice. It seems hard-hearted, cruel and dualistic. For contemplatives in the making – as we as meditators are –a very different sense of God is forming through the work of laying aside thoughts and images. We don’t speak to God when we are saying the mantra. We are not asking for anything or waiting for reward. Our understanding of God simplifies and purifies even to the point (as the mystics knew) when God seems about to disappear.
Over time and strangely a quite new kind of God-experience develops that is interwoven with ourselves but in a non-spatial way: there is no distance between us and God.
We must remember that the language of sacrifice was common to the religious mind of the time because, in its ancient, literal form of sacrificing animals to the gods, it was such a common part of daily life and a way of dealing with anxiety. Knowing the details of Temple sacrifice in Jerusalem, we probably feel revulsion. Comparing the suffering and death of Jesus with the cutting of the throats of sheep, chickens, goats and sheep – more than 250,000 times a day - seems an immense error.
In fact, when Christian writers spoke about the ‘sacrifice’ that Jesus offered of himself (‘as priest and victim’) they saw it as a watershed moment, a turning-point in the religious consciousness of humanity. After him, sacrifice of that violent kind that filled us with fear became obsolete. ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings, says the Lord (Hos. 6:6)
The mentality of sacrifice results from the burden of karma and the fear of punishment induced by guilt. About the same time as the prophet Hosea the Buddhist Shantideva’s teaching on the Bodhisattva way of life, about 800CE, echoes the prophets and Jesus:
If the suffering of many disappears because of the suffering of one, then a compassionate person should induce that suffering for his own sake and for the sake of others (trans. Wallace: 106)
Mercy burns away karma leaving the background radiation of love.
A centurion standing by the Cross heard the last words of Jesus committing his spirit into his Father’s hands and breathing his last. The centurion said, ‘this was a great and good man’.
It is the least we can say about Jesus. His teaching and his way of living and dying witness to a most rare authenticity in human beings. We look at Jesus and see a great teacher of humanity, a model of what human-ness means and an example of what we can aspire to. But because we feel he is exemplary, and we come late to the work of learning what he is teaching, it is easier to put him on a pedestal and worship him from afar. This is radically to misunderstand his teaching and his example. ‘I do not call you servants...I call you friends’. ‘I in them and you in me, may they be perfectly one’. ‘Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.’
The story we read yesterday and now enter into Holy Week is – should be – very disturbing to everyone, especially to those who think of themselves as his disciples. It changes the way we see ourselves, our life, death and ultimate meaning. It shakes us roughly – just as he shook the sleeping disciples in Gethsemane - to awaken us from complacency. He asks us ‘who do you say I am’. If we choose to listen and consider our response, we fall over the horizon of all that we think we are into a self-knowing that is plunging into God, endless being.
Yet this happens without losing our humanity. But our human-ness must be wholly surrendered and transformed. We become inhuman, less than human, when we fail to see this condition of our existence. Then we are capable of crucifying an innocent great and good man, of bombing innocent women and children and murdering the citizens of Bucha. Without knowing ourselves we cannot be who Jesus teaches us we are.
God is everywhere present and yet unknowable. But, when we slip over the horizon of the ego, so is our Self. To know God and our Self means entering a way of unknowing in which seeing happens beyond the filter of division.
God is always absent – as an object. God can only be known by sharing in his own self-knowing which does not mean to fall in love with God but to fall into the love that is God. For my part, it is the "I" that thinks it is never happy or fulfilled. This is because it is a work in progress, so vulnerable that it could be shut down at any moment for lack of funds - or invaded by an enemy.
In Holy Week the Spirit that Jesus breathed into humanity guides us to look into the abyss we dread. She teaches us about all we find through loss.
Does this week feel holy to you yet? If not, why?
Our journey through these days should first focus on accepting full responsibility for our own existence. Then we undergo the disturbing challenge of our inescapable, unfulfillable longing for the absolute. From this we flow into an understanding of how our passage through time is woven with that of Jesus.
As soon as we wonder who we are, we meet ourselves flowing in time. We feel mortal. Death is essential for human self-understanding. ‘Keep death always before your eyes’ says St Benedict. Buddhists call it maranasati. Before long (if we don’t run away from the path we have started) we think about memory. How long has our memory has been growing? How inaccurate it can be. How easily we forget or mis-remember. For St Augustine we don’t so much have a memory as our memory is who we are.
Then it soon becomes obvious that knowing ourselves objectively is as unrealistic as knowing God as an object. God is present everywhere, yet always unknowable. So, on a smaller scale are we. But we are compelled to seek God in order to know ourselves.
What do we then learn about ourselves? That our lives don’t make sense the way we would like or pretend. That we are incomplete, imperfect, unfinished. And most painfully, that what we want never satisfies us and yet we cannot stop wanting. We desire God yet God always exceeds what we want. Any experience of God we have goes beyond our powers of description even though we still think desire is what it’s about.
God is infinitely desirable, not a fantasy of human fulfilment. As an object of imagination, we always feel God is absent. Yet this absence is a kind of unshakeable presence. This is very disturbing and Holy Week should disturb us deeply.
To seek God means to undergo a transformation of desire which is itself a loss and a death. In the process, what we think we want always peters out in fantasy. Accepting that we are mortal, limited in self-knowledge and ever incomplete is humility.
We don’t fall into love with God. That is romantic nonsense. We fall into love.
Humility is the human step into that transformation into the love that we fall into when we pay our distracted attention to the infinite attention ever beaming on us.
In Gethsemane, after deep prayer, Jesus surrendered his basic human desire to live:
He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” (Mt 26:39)
Often the Cross used to be explained as the sacrifice that paid back to God for the insult of the sin of Adam, original sin. Left like that, this explanation could do more harm than good and certainly doesn’t cut it today. Yet it is a good place to start. But before it makes sense, we have to make some inroads into self-knowledge and self-acceptance.
Holy Week draws back the curtain on human nature, yours and mine and generally. It shows us as sinful. The Greek word is ‘hamartia’ which means missing the mark. Limited, making mistakes, mortal, limited and unfinished. Let’s say ‘sinful’ provided we remember that sin, as Mother Julian said, is not desirable because it causes so much suffering but it is nevertheless necessary.
Everything depends on whether we respond to sin with self-crippling guilt or shame which merely inflates the ego negatively: ‘God could never forgive or love me.’ This self-negation creates a force of negativity and there is such a thing as a solidarity of sin. We see it in the alliances established between inhumane authoritarian regimes. There is another way, however, the self-affirmation of humility, seen radiantly in Jesus even as he is sucked into the machinery of a tyrannical state system that will execute him for exposing its inner workings. His trial was an alliance between religious and political authoritarianism reproduced innumerable times since.
The fellowship of sin is a primitively low consciousness. But also there is, evident in his witness to the truth, a solidarity of grace. Grace deals with sin not by punishment or by exploiting guilt: it simply dissolves it. For example, we can imagine how the disciples might have felt when they encountered Jesus in the Resurrection experience. They would have felt some shame and guilt for running away and maybe anger at him for disappointing them. Yet all of that is entirely and instantly evaporated when he breathes on them and says ‘Peace’. Grace, not punishment, breaks the bond of karma.
To access this solidarity of grace we need only the humility to know and accept ourselves. The conspiracy of sin escalates evil. Grace connects us even to our enemies. This strange and unexpected unity, even with the alien other, is God. It reveals that the essential orientation of human nature – even in its limited and sinful state – is towards God: the God who is infinitely desirable but can only be known through the experience of loss.
This week Jesus manifests this orientation towards God as the common ground of humanity. He named this universal orientation to God by calling God ‘father’, ‘my father’. But he also says, ‘my father and your father' and the prayer that summarises his teaching begins with ‘our father’.
So, Christian community is not a believers’ club. It is the community which – for all its human faults – understands what being human means and what God is like. Jesus died for our sin of ignorance.
Today we begin the Triduum, the three-day kernel of the Easter mystery. Each day has a unique symbolic celebration. Today the Eucharist expresses union, koinonia, friendship rippling through humanity and the cosmos proclaiming justice and peace.
Friday’s elemental force is separation, loss, death and division: no Eucharist can be celebrated but in faith the Cross is venerated.
Saturday is the day after every funeral, the mourners have gone home, the grave is closed, the long void, darkness and emptiness of absence becomes visible in a heavy silence and strange inactivity.
But in the depth of the darkness, the Easter Vigil starts with the lighting of the Easter fire. It bonds us across millennia with our primitive human roots and then we process through the dark, lighting our tiny individual candles from the paschal candle, the light of the Rising Christ.
At dawn on Sunday the liturgy is nature’s own sunrise and then the Eucharist celebrated at the height of the noonday sun. It is the fourth, non-dual dimension that contains and combines the other three dimensions of the human condition.
There’s not much more to life’s meaning than what is contained in these three days except Covid and taxes.
I suggested yesterday to the retreatants here at Bonnevaux that they search in their inner silence for a personal redemptive question, like that I described in the story of the Fisher King on at the beginning of the retreat. It doesn’t have to be invented and like a koan can’t be easily answered but it should be listened found and heard. To find it, it might help to recall some aspects of these three days from your past life-experience.
Have you ever accompanied someone who has gone through their own Good Friday? Of course, we are there for others through the many losses, trials and tribulations of life and we are grateful when others accompany us. But all these are preparations for the final Friday and the ultimate separation, the loss of the physical body. All loss is a form of death or, we might say, death is just the final form of loss. If you have known the painful grace of this accompanying these days might be deepened.
But we can all summon our powers of imaginative empathy to accompany Jesus on the Way of the Cross, to Golgotha and beyond. The beyond is the Resurrection. It has already dawned, otherwise we would not be doing this.
What we are doing is not pretending it hasn’t happened but seeing how humanity is being formed into his koinonia, his community.
Christian thinkers have long linked the Eucharist with the Cross – Holy Thursday, when we celebrate the Last Supper, with Good Friday when the theme of loss reaches its climax in the death of Jesus. When we link them both to the experience of meditation we can see why they both bring healing to the human condition. Why Holy Week is said to be the ‘climax of the history of salvation’.
Eucharist means thanksgiving and shows us how thankfulness is our true nature, arising from the joy of being rather than the satisfaction of having. Our habit of always complaining interiorly and focusing on what we lack is suspended. Happiness, we discover, comes from being thankful rather than thankfulness depending on happiness. Similarly, we may sit down to meditate trapped in anger, discontent and complaint. We start digging through these layers which may be many years thick. But we make up our mind to say your mantra, nothing else, through waves of negativity or flights of fantasy. We let go of the old stuff, let it die the spring of joy flows again.
This voluntary loss leads to poverty of spirit and to the self-acceptance and humility that we need to love God with the same love with which he loves us. Meditation soon shows us that we don’t fall in love with God. That is fantasy. We fall into God’s love. Meditation and the Eucharist are complementary healing and how can a person feeling healing not feel thankful?
The Eucharist has always mean seen as medicine for the whole person. In celebrating it, we feel the care and attention of the divine physician moving within a community united in koinonia. Trust in a healer makes healing happen through the medium of relationship. Yet, without the loss that Jesus accepted on the Cross he would not be present in the Eucharist or in the silence of our heart at meditation. He would not be available for the unlimited relationship which is made possible by the continuous releasing of his spirit.
Today Christians everywhere venerate the Cross. Here at Bonnevaux we will kneel and touch it as a humble sign of reverence at its power, which is far beyond anything we can explain. This is deeper than seeing the Cross only as a tragic, noble example of the integrity of which human beings are rarely capable. With more insight than that, the act of veneration, a light kiss or finger on the wood of the cross acknowledges it as an event in history that touches and heals human nature backwards and forwards in time.
That is saying, trying to say, a lot more than words can handle. The long silence that follows tomorrow is necessary. What rises out of that silence is the torrent of health, fullness of life, to which healing restores us, changing the way we live, see everything and love.
Crux est mundi medicina: the cross is the medicine of the world.
The lion roars in an empty tree.
St Bonaventure and the Buddhist koan combine on Holy Saturday.
Today is a vast plain of silence: a roar of silence whose echo leads us to the empty tree of the Cross after the body of Jesus has been taken down and laid in the tomb. If like Mary Magdalene we look for the body, the physical proof of the person we once knew, we will be disappointed. We will weep the tears of emptiness. We will be stuck in the past, with a Jesus we can know no longer. But if we wait, our tears are turned to laughter, the song of emptiness reveals presence in absence, fullness in emptiness.
The further we go into the silence of emptiness we will hear where the roar begins.
Space is not a void. It is a ‘plenum’, a fullness. In spacious prayer, in which we are not filling it with desires, we get a preview of the pleroma, the plenitude of Christ. The deeper we follow, the more we see that all attempts we make to change reality serves firstly to change us and our entire view of reality.
We will see that there is only undivided wholeness in continuous flow and growth and we are inseparable from it. The illusion that we are apart from it, even as objective observers, dies on the cross.
The healing power of the Cross cannot be expressed in terms of a spiritual balance sheet. Where total freedom and grace is at work there is no debt to pay, no spreadsheet to balance. But the Cross, on which the universal neighbour, brother, teacher died, still holds us accountable when we betray our neighbour.
The UK government announced on Good Friday that refugees who in desperation risk taking small boats across the English Channel to beg for refuge will soon be shipped off to Rwanda, in the middle of Africa 6000 miles away. “When I was a stranger you invited me in..”
The silence of Holy Saturday, however, is not concerned with judgments or answers. But the mysticism of the Cross exposes our own intricate complicities in the crucifixion of the innocent.
The only power we can trust absolutely is the power of the one who humbled himself absolutely. Remember the death of Christ to enter this humility because the message of the Cross is the power of pure love arising from total selflessness. Love alone has the power to redeem and absolute love redeems absolutely.
They had watched Jesus on the cross, seen the burial, prepared the spices for his anointing and they are the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb. They hear the amazing news from the two men in dazzling clothes they see in the tomb. (Except they were neither men nor women but angels).
Why look among the dead for someone who is alive? He is not here; he has risen. Remember what he told you when he was in Galilee…
They remembered and went straight to the remaining eleven disciples. Who dismissed what they said as nonsense. Except Peter. He ran to the tomb, found it empty and returned home amazed. The women were the first witnesses and communicators of the Resurrection. Christianity begins with them.
This is a surprising aspect of the Resurrection story. It indicates that what happens through it will not be confined to Jesus and his little dysfunctional community. It will spread everywhere like a forest fire starting with a match or a global virus with a single microbe. Wherever it goes it will shake the foundations of power and pride. It will bring the teaching and living spirit of Jesus to challenge and change our view of reality and our way of living.
In our divided and violent world, in Jerusalem, Kyev and Moscow, it is our unfailing hope and our true peace.
Let our first words to everyone today be :
“Christos Anesti!‘ (Christ is Risen!)
And may they dare to respond :
“Althos Anesti!” (He is Risen indeed’
Here endeth the Lenten Reflections for this year. My warmest thanks to the faithful teams of translators around the time zones who did their work uncomplainingly even when they should have complained at my late delivery of the next day’s. And thank you gentle readers who have been part of this pilgrimage and for your comments and messages which have enriched and encouraged me. Enjoy the silence. Happy Easter!
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