Lent Reflections 2019
Click on the headings to open or close the Introduction or the week's readings and then use the tabs below the picture to select the day.
These daily readings by Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk and Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, are to help those following them make a better Lent. This is a set time and preparation for Easter, during which special attention is given to prayer, extra generosity to others and self-control. It is customary to give something up, or restrain your use of something but also to do something additional that will benefit you spiritually and simplify you. Running through these readings will be an encouragement to start to make meditation a daily practice or, if it already is, then to deepen it by preparing for the times of meditation more carefully. The morning and evening meditations then become the true spiritual centre of your day. Here is the tradition, a very simple way of meditation, that we teach:
Sit down, Sit still with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Breathe normally. Silently, interiorly begin to repeat a single word, or manta. We recommend the ancient prayer phrase ‘maranatha’. It is Aramaic (the language of Jesus) for ‘Come Lord’, but do not think of its meaning. The purpose of the mantra is to lay aside all thoughts, good, bad, indifferent together with images, plans, memories and fantasies. Say the word as four equal syllables: ma ran a tha. Listen to it as you repeat it and keep returning to it when you become distracted. Meditate for about twenty minutes each morning and evening. Meditating with others, as in a weekly group, is very helpful to developing this practice as part of your daily life. Visit the community’s website for further help and inspiration: wccm.org
Ash Wednesday to the Saturday after Ash Wednesday (6 - 9 March)
Reading: Matthew 6:1-6,16-18
I recently returned from the Holy Land. I was with a group of contemplative pilgrims from many countries who had different styles of expressing their faith; but they were unified by the common ground of the holy land and, even more, by the common ground of being that we touched together through silence in our daily meditation.
Israel is a small, intense country with as much variety in landscape – desert, green hills, vineyards, mountains - as in religious and political opinion. It has been a place of violent contention from the dawn of history. I felt if its conflicts were ever to be truly resolved the ever-divided city of Jerusalem - where King David built the temple, Jesus died and rose again and Mohammed ascended to heaven – would instantly become the Heavenly Jerusalem described in the Book of Revelation. We are assured there will be no need for any temple or religious activity in that transfigured place because God will be all in all. The ‘peace of Jerusalem’ would inaugurate the peace of the world, the transformation of swords into ploughshares as Isaiah imagined would happen one day. Until then we each choose whether we work for peace or increase divisions and violence.
This is a choice we are able to renew in the daily practice of Lent. We make the choice to be peaceful, not on the global but personal level, not through external action but through interior work. It should as Jesus says be a modest and ‘hidden’ work so that the ego has less occasion to hook on it. Whatever we ‘do for Lent’ is a sign of the synergy between the inner and outer dimensions of reality. Personally and collectively we are a microcosm. As we are so will our world be. Be calm and you will create calm. You may give up alcohol or candy or Netflix or gossip or checking your phone before you meditate in the morning. You may make the two meditation periods a non-negotiable part of your day or add an extra short meditation at midday or read the daily gospel at the top of each of these reflections, or choose a book as your companion through the desert of the next forty days (you could do worse than ‘Sensing God’ which is designed for developing meditation this season of Lent). Perseverance and consistency work wonders in our state of mind and for the harmony of inner and outer: and because we are not perfect and not machines perseverance includes starting again when we fail.
These Lenten practices increasingly become sources of peace and delight as we try to be faithful to them. They are in fact among the simple, free pleasures of life - not burdens or bores. Through them, throughout Lent, we remember the virtues that are often downplayed or ridiculed in our culture – moderation, self-restraint, repetition, respect for our limitations. These are elements of universal, contemplative wisdom as we see in the Tao Te Ching: Simplicity, patience, compassion are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.
Give up something and do something extra. This is the heart of healthy exercise, called ascesis in the spiritual vocabulary. The fruits of Lent will not appear if you try to force them or just by thinking about them. They bud and flower and fall subtly, surprisingly and therefore delightfully. This is a wonderful season. I hope these reflections will help you enjoy it.
Reading: Luke 9:22-25
In today’s gospel Jesus calls us, as he called the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, to follow him by self-renunciation. He wisely doesn’t tell us how to do this. It is for each of us to decide: i) shall I listen to this call? ii) does it lodge in me somehow and not go away? iii) how can I ‘lose my life’ so I can fulfil it? His concluding question then puts every person in every generation on the spot: iv) what’s the point in gaining the whole world at the cost of ruining your true self? Lent is about listening to these questions so attentively that we don’t have to answer them: the power of attention itself makes the answer pop. Of course it may be a slightly different answer on different days but this is not because the truth changes but that every day is different and so calls forth the truth in different guise.
Seen like this our life these next forty days itself becomes a pilgrimage in a holy land. When I was in Israel I thought what a tiny piece of real estate, without oil or natural resources, and with such huge pretensions. It has the lowest place on earth – the Dead Sea. And during his forty days in the Judaean desert Jesus was swept up to the top of the temple parapet to view and be tempted by all the kingdoms of the earth. The three faiths that try to co-exist with each other while waging their own internal conflicts have stories and myths that still drive global politics. Here details matter for life and death. Every pebble and drop of water claims significance and indeed they are meaningful.
When we are really on the spot, making the land holy because we touch it here and now and not in our fantasy or through ideology, something amazing happens. We see how everything, however small or insignificant, is connected to everything else through all dimensions of reality. The smallest and the greatest respect each other. There is hierarchy of course – some things demand more of our attention than others – but there is no power-game, no oppression of the small and vulnerable by the great and mighty. This is a contemplative vision of reality and if enough people in the world could share it for a moment at the same time the world would begin to change without the need for force.
During Lent as we try to harmonise ourselves – inner and outer, mentally, emotionally and physically – we should try each day to observe our role in the power structures of the world, work, family and in public spaces. Harmony with ourselves makes for integrity and so for peace of mind. But the consequence is a greater integrity in the world we live and work in – politics, business, education, medicine, science or finance. In all of these we hear the words of Isaiah warning us not to let our spirituality become self-centred and ego-dominated. If you can steer clear of this (hard in our age of spiritual materialism and false ideas of integrity) the quality of action changes. Don’t oppress your workmen or strike the poor with your fist. Instead break unjust fetters and let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor. Build bridges not walls.
Then, he claims, you will feel the guidance of the Lord giving you relief in desert places. Remember, for Lent we focus on the microcosm in order to better understand the cosmos. These things are true and they prove themselves in the holy-land experience of our daily lives. If we take a time each evening, after meditation, to examine what the day was like, we will usually be surprised by the meaning that emerges. It’s endlessly surprising how self-renunciation restores us to ourselves and our place in the wholeness of things.
Reading: Matthew 9:14-15
Today Jesus says there is a time to fast and a time not to fast. At Cana in Galilee where he performed his first ‘sign’ at a wedding feast that he was attending with his family and friends, he was certainly not fasting. He must have had a good time. But Lent is a time to fast – digitally as well as in food and drink – and we can have as good a time in doing so as when we are feasting. Jesus walked and talked across the valleys and mountains of his home land but he also took regular times alone in solitary places and often prayed through the night. There are many dimensions of goodness that need to be respected if life is to be whole and our land holy.
Conventionally we live in three dimensions of space and in a fourth of time. These are different ways of being and knowing the world. We should be turned on to all of them if we are to have a good time of life and make time itself deep, broad and long. Stress or depression are signs that time and space have not been harmonised in us. When Jesus took his forty days in the desert before beginning his public life he would have been intensely aware as well of the divine dimension of reality. This may not be a good term because it suggests the divine is just another dimension instead of the reality that contains and fills all dimensions. Let’s call it the spiritual dimension, then, and we see quickly how we have become tuned out from this by the hyper-activity of the four-dimensional world we think we inhabit.
In our narrow fixation on the material world and science, the spiritual dimension has been relegated to the margins or excluded altogether. Yet science itself – when it is conducted with the contemplative principles of attention and selflessness – shows us there are more dimensions of reality than we had imagined. A string theorist in modern physics will say there are at least ten dimensions by which we can ‘measure’ reality (up to 26 I think are proposed). If so, where are they? The physicists say they are just as real as the ‘big four’ we are familiar with; but they describe them as ‘curled up’ out of sight. This has been compared to the way we see the wires strung between telephone poles. From a distance they look one-dimensional, a single line. Up close we see they are round and three-dimensional. As the poetic visionary, William Blake reminds us: If the doors of perception are cleansed everything would appear to Man as it is, Infinite. For Man has closed himself up till he sees all things through narrow chinks in his cavern.
The purpose of moderate spiritual exercise during Lent is not to force altered states of consciousness to happen but to enable us to see more - and more clearly. Our daily discipline during Lent is like spring cleaning.We are not trying to see what we think isn’t there but the everything that is there. The spiritual dimension then can be seen as that dimension in which all dimensions of reality are known. It is the dimension of wholeness and integration: the Way, the Mystery beyond name, God. It is in this dimension that healing, flowing from wholeness and overcoming separation, repairs the damage done by conflict as it enters our own microcosm of and the cosmos.
This doesn’t mean we have to be able to name and understand all dimensions but we can ‘see’ them using the enhanced power of our cleansed perception. To those of us in the Northern hemisphere it is the pure joy and sense of revelation of finding a crop of crocuses under a wintry, still bare tree.
Reading: Luke 5:27-32
In today’s gospel Jesus is criticised for being around the unrespectable, the ‘sinners’. He replies that it is the sick who need the doctor not those who are well.
We are unconsciously selective about where we place our attention, who we follow. And so often we are secretly manipulated by the glamour of success, approval and good appearance. We gravitate towards those who seem to have these attributes and bask in their glory even as we envy them. It is merely the way of the world. The Oscars ceremony doesn’t pay attention to those whose name wasn’t in the magic envelope of fame but only to those on whom the searchlight is briefly but intensely focused.
Maybe the elusive secret of happiness is found in this dimension of reality that lacks glamour and doesn’t cover up the signs of human weakness and mortality. It is the dimension that Jesus prioritises and invests with his presence. (We are present where we place our attention). We should pay attention to his example and in our own small way try to imitate it.
His most influential followers have discovered this secret dimension of the mundane and ordinary. Today is the feast of the patron saint of Benedictine oblates ( St Frances of Rome). Oblates – such as those of the World Community for Christian Meditation who will be helping to run Bonnevaux, are men and women who without taking monastic vows live in the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict – in obedience, stability and the conversion of daily life. Like the Rule itself it is not a glamorous path but one in which the doors of perception are gradually cleansed showing more and more strongly the luminous presence that is in every detail and moment of each dimension of reality. It is not based on the heroic holiness of the individual but on the contribution each makes and receives within the spiritual family. It is not ideologically driven but energised by mutual obedience and compassion for each other’s weaknesses whether, as St Benedict says, ‘of body or mind’. Unlike the brief blaze of glamour it is sustainable and opens up ever more dimensions of reality – the ‘infinite riches of Christ’ in unexpected and surprising places. We lose glamour but gain the glory of the divine dimension.
Jean Vanier found this in his life with the intellectually handicapped. Mother Teresa with the street people. Frances of Rome came from a privileged and glamorous background in which she married and raised her children. But she turned her homes into hospitals for the sick and used her resources to help the deprived. When she was free of family responsibilities she founded a new kind of spiritual community to share and implement these same qualities of care and compassion within a contemplative life of prayer and meditation.
The secret it seems is not to look where the searchlight of others’ attention is pointing but to the shadows where reality is illuminated by the pure light of our own attention. Our daily rhythm of meditation helps strengthen, as a matter of habit, our capacity to place attention where it should be and to see what really is. The habit of this attention is what we call wisdom.
First week of Lent (10 - 16 March)
First Sunday in Lent
Reading: Luke 4:1-13
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan and was led by the Holy Spirit through the wilderness, being tempted there by the devil for forty days.
The Jordan is not the Mississippi or even the Nile. It isn’t much bigger than the little River Beaune that flows through Bonnevaux. Great or small, we never go down to the same river twice. Like our own identity over the decades, it flows ever onwards and yet we always recognise it. When recently, early one fresh morning, we renewed our baptisms in the Jordan, it was a very moving moment. The dimension of time separating us from the baptism of Jesus became less important than the spiritual dimension which the sceptical might dismiss merely as imagination. It opened us to a presence that stretched through all four dimensions and went beyond space and time. That particular space, the Jordan, however, was meaningful. And time is always precious: we squander it whenever we don’t let it intersect with the timeless.
After his baptism Jesus was ‘filled with the spirit’: his spiritual capacity had expanded. It propelled him not to the shopping mall or back to his carpenter’s workshop but into the Judean wilderness for forty days. (Forty is a Biblical shorthand for a period of time that separates two epochs. We catch something of it in the way we say we are ‘in transition’.) The Greek word for wilderness where he spent this time – it is our Lent - is eremos. It gives us the word for hermit, the solitary life. This is more relevant to all of us than many think, however busy with family, friends, fun and work we may be. We are more solitary than we care to admit. But if we ignore or deny it, we contract rather than expand, we avoid rather than meet our whole and true selves. Meditation is a time-respecting way of accepting and recognising our solitude, which is why it helps us understand the inner meaning of Lent. As a part of each day, it sends us back to our life, work and relationships clarified, purified, recharged and energised – as it did Jesus. But it also awakens us to the eremos dimension within.
Eremos can be translated in unattractive words: wilderness, desert, lonely region, uninhabited, desolate, bereft. Nonetheless, we might ask ourselves why are we drawn to it when we are filled with the spirit, or need to be? What is there in this kind of space – physical or mental eremos – that promises us something that other locations and activities do not. I had to spend three hours in a mall recently getting my phone repaired. After twenty minutes of over-stimulation I felt ‘wilderness’ or ‘lonely place’ described it well. But this is a different kind of desert from the one Jesus ‘was led’ into. Lent highlights this difference.
In the desert he was tempted by the forces of the ego that most of us spend at least forty years wrestling with: desire, power, pride. The time we spend in our eremos is not easy, just as meditation is not easy. Malls are easy. If meditation seems easy perhaps you are only shopping or browsing not meditating. Not easy but simple and empowering. Each meditation period, in which we try to be simple and choose to be free from the ego, lasts ‘forty days’.
Finally, having ‘exhausted all these ways of tempting him the devil left him, to return at the appointed time’. To guard the heart, until the next time, the meditator understands why we need eremos every day.
Reading: Matthew 25:31-46
For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was a stranger and you made me welcome….in prison and you visited me.
After his desert experience, not just ‘filled’ but overflowing with the Spirit, Jesus set out to do his work. Happy are we if we have found our work in life and if we see that our real work is not what we get paid or praised for. The Upanishads show how to recognise our true work, saying that whoever has found the ‘work of silence and knows that silence is work’ is happy. This work produces all the lasting fruits of our life and takes time. It also slowly penetrates the whole dimension of time we inhabit, helping the ego to let go. Then, it produces in a natural way, the fruit of wisdom in the unselfconsciously good deeds described in today’s parable. Goodness has no trace of ego.
The first known instrument for measuring time is an Egyptian sundial from 1500BC. Mechanical clocks appeared in the 13th century. Today we measure time with sub-atomic precision but the more precisely we measure it the less time we feel we have. It takes time to undo this self-entrapment. ‘Only through time, time is conquered.’ There is a moment when we know we are really seeing what meditation is about: when we see how absurd it is to begrudge the minimum twenty minutes twice a day by claiming we are too busy and too impatient to unhook from the stress of being time-dependent. The process of learning to meditate is universal but each of us has a unique way of living its pattern. Some dive in with two daily periods from day one, others slowly measure out the meditation time in teaspoons – five minutes a few days a week. Ultimately what matters is not how much we do or succeed but that we do - in physical fact not mental fiction - start to sit and be still and do the work of silence.
Sitting. Half-way between standing and lying down. You can meditate in any posture or activity but you will be very unusual in achieving this continuous state if you have not first learned to sit. Sitting still in a calm environment allows the mind to settle. At first we feel the opposite of settled: anxious, restless and confused confronting the pounding waves of mental and emotional agitation. We see how distracted we are but instinctively seek distraction from distraction by more distraction. Letting go of thoughts is the simple response for overcoming this reaction. But we confuse it with the goal of blanking out the mind and so feel we have failed if, after forty seconds, we are still distracted. So we then decide instead not to waste our time, do something useful and postpone meditation for another forty days.
In order not to surrender to distractedness, we need two things: encouragement that we can trust and that comes from outside ourselves; and genuine openness to something new and unimagined. As these take time, we need the virtue of what Japanese call gamon: perseverance, the determination to carry on against the headwind, enduring defeat with patience and dignity and so transforming failure into wisdom. When Japanese-Americans were interned during the war their fellow-American gaolers misinterpreted their gamon as passivity and lack of initiative. Similarly, today we can see the good work of meditation as unrealistic, replacing it with ‘well-being’ or relaxation. But we then miss the real fruit of the work of silence: the unselfconsciousness of genuine compassion.
Reading: Matthew 6:7-15
In your prayer do not babble on as the pagans do….
Babbling means long-winded, empty chatter such as, unfortunately, we find in many a church, temple, mosque and synagogue, not to say in most political discussion.
We are on the seventh day of Lent. Quite possibly the energy of the fresh resolutions of Ash Wednesday (to give up something and do something extra) may already need renewal. Knowing what it is we need and consciously looking for it puts us half-way to finding it. It’s true, if we truly seek we will really find. Finding means seeing now that what we were hoping would appear later is already here, just waiting to be recognised. The dimension of time undergoes an alchemy once we and the present moment touch each other here.
Between good intentions and action there is usually a short-lived connection. It quickly disconnects before the fruit has ripened. Addiction is existential. Unhooking from its patterns is healing. The good intention to meditate is a good idea that makes us happy we decided for it. But, when we run up against a glass barrier between intention and action, the optimism of our will crumbles. We see clearly what we want to do but an invisible force comes between us and what we want and feels impenetrable. This is where the babbling starts as we talk, read or think too much about what we are still not yet doing.
We come up with infinite reasons to justify this failure which lead us to reject as fake the very thing we had until then been trying for. This betrayal of trust explains why relationships can suddenly plunge from bliss into misery. The glass wall is reinforced by noisy, often malicious babble, until we become deflated. Anyone listening to the Brexit debate knows the feeling. We are left with the unsavoury experience of shame and disconnection that follows all division and violent conflict. Divided against ourselves, failing to do what we want, we experience the meaning of ‘sin.’ Far from being the mere breaking of a rule, human or divine, sin is only understood when we confess how powerless we have been made by our own inner divisions and self-rejection.
Whatever we do in this collapsed state of egoism brings little good to us or others. Many hands will be extended towards us when we ask for help in escaping it. Some of them ask for an agreed price to be put in them, before they will pull us out. Happy are we who grasp a hand that asks for nothing except the honour of helping us. Our sense of worth is already restored. These are the elements found in that interior movement of consciousness called metanoia (change of mind) and often badly translated as ‘repentance’. Not guilt but a change in consciousness.
This is what Jesus starts to say after he leaves the desert, empowered by all that he has transcended. We begin the process of change not by building a steely will but simply by changing the direction of our attention – giving our attention elsewhere. Reality is where we place our attention. It cuts through the babble of the mind and dissolves the plate glass wall of inaction.
Reading: Luke 11:29-32
This is a wicked generation; it is asking for a sign.
Craving for signs is like demanding that one answer will resolve all the aspects of a question. It locks us into the most superficial dimension of reality. We miss out on the deeper and more satisfying significance of life and the tangible truth of full experience. Get over it, Jesus says to the superstitious and their near allies the fundamentalists.
Through direct experience meditation teaches us what thinking and talking cannot. Communication without this dimension of silence becomes babble and leads to the conflict that arises from confusion. ‘Let’s sit down together and get things cleared up’, we say in difficult personal situations. That is precisely what we do in meditation. It doesn’t look like this, however, until you have tried and tested it.
Why does going into the desert (eremos) help us live better in the world of the city? The desert is more real than we imagine. The city is more illusory than we like to admit. In the desert there is nothing real to contemplate except nature itself in its simplest, barest forms. How do we know - what is the sign – that what we are doing is real? Perhaps it is the experience of beauty, meaning the instantaneous penetration of our being by the whole mysteriously present in a part which touches and changes us. We don’t think beauty or decide to feel that something is beautiful. We cannot deny beauty or explain it. We surrender to it. Imitation beauty seduces us but its fakeness is soon exposed. The real thing , like the beauty met in the desert, exposes the glamour of the mall. Once the false has been seen we need to drop it quickly. If not, illusion gets a grip and addiction will ensue.
This is why we need eremos, to sit and be. Children, to the amazement of their teachers and parents, can and love the interior desert. For us it involves a re-learning. Unless you become like little children... The learning begins with physical posture. The body is the greatest of all signs, the primary sacrament, the beauty (even after it has started to decline from its physical peak) that is truth. An emaciated, wasted body is no less sacred or essentially beautiful than the fit and firm because the body never lies. Even more than being a sign, the body is our primordial symbol. A sign merely points. A symbol embodies. Not body image. But the body that embodies you.
The way you sit in meditation expresses your mental attitude to the session you are beginning. It frankly reveals to you the truth of your mind and expectations. If you are slouching or slumping that’s where your mind is and it will make the interior uprightness of meditation more difficult. So sit upright. This will also help you to breathe better which helps you to be calmer and more awake. If you are on a chair you might shift forward, towards the edge of the chair to keep the back straight. Maybe put a small cushion behind you. If you are tall sit on a cushion. If you are short put something under your feet letting your feet form a 90 degree angle with your knees. Sitting on the floor, you probably need a cushion so that your back is straight and your knees touch the ground. If you kneel with a prayer bench, keep the back straight, hands on lap or knees. Shoulders relaxed, jaw loose, breathing normal, chin slightly bent to straighten the back of the neck.
What could be more beautiful? What a sign to you and others around you that when we sit and are who we are we don’t need to look for signs.
Reading: Matthew 7:7-12
Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened
The confidence in these words is compelling. But we might feel they describe an unreal world of fantastic hospitality, a world of always happy endings. The universe is not so welcoming and accommodating as this. Every day children cry for food and perish of hunger, the innocent pray for justice and are treated badly.
Even so, his authority compels us to dig below our scepticism for a deeper spring of meaning. Seek deeper and it soon seems we are plunging in freefall, toward a bottomless ground. From this point the journey into the silence of the desert becomes both more demanding and more rewarding as we undergo an awakening we did not bargain for.
So far, we have just learned to sit still in the four familiar dimensions of space and time – with an upright but comfortable posture. At the morning meditation thoughts fly around us like gales. In the evening, like mosquitoes and itches. But soon we see that the stillness itself is revealing another dimension: a journey into meaning deeper, stranger, more familiar, more self-verifying and richer than we could have imagined. We feel welcome on this journey: a sense of homecoming, despite the strangeness, a genuine hospitality not a false consolation.
Each step on this path advances the transformation being worked in us. Our mind itself becomes more lucid and more loving. To sustain this journey step by step we say the mantra: a word we repeat first in the mind superficially and eventually in the heart resonantly. With practice we evolve from saying it to listening to it. This interior evolution is reflected in the far-reaching changes in how we interact with people, work and time. We see meaning in what seemed to us before as merely contradictions or absurdity. From deep within the apparent nonsense of saying that we will always receive what we ask for, there arises a light-winged wisdom.
The word we recommend is maranatha: a sacred word in the gospel tradition, Aramaic, the language the historical Jesus spoke. The word means ‘come lord’. But as the mantra is for laying aside all thoughts even the thought of its own meaning and because saying the mantra is the work of silence, we don’t think of the meaning as we say it. To the babbling mind this is refreshingly challenging. You can choose another word but the same principles apply to any word used as a mantra – it is better if it is not in your own language and best to say the same word continuously throughout each meditation period from day to day. This plants the seed deep and allows growth to happen, ‘how, we do not know’ as the gospel says.
Meditation takes us through the jungle overgrowth of all our thoughts, imagination and feelings. It is a narrow path – but better have a narrow path in a jungle than no path. The mantra is a short step and a giant leap of faith. Each time we return to it, we take another step on the path. For however long we may wander off it, into the undergrowth of fears and desires, we are happily never more than one step from re-joining the path: we simply start saying the mantra again. This immediacy introduces us to the dimension of the present moment. Here, asking and receiving become one.
Reading: Matthew 5:20-26
If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven
In defence of hypocrites we ought to remember that much hypocrisy derives from a lack of awareness even when we half-choose to remain unaware. Waking up, especially if you have been asleep a long time, is always hard. We resist the transition to a bigger, less passive dimension of reality. We push away the hand shaking us awake or press the snooze button and turn over. This reluctance to be awake is also perceptible in how we vote and spend our free time.
The value of anything can best be understood in reference to its opposite. We value sleep because it helps us be more awake during the day. We value silence so we can communicate better. We value wealth so we can give it away. The relationship between opposites produces balance, healthy living and nice people who are kind and just to those in need. Clinging to one side of the equation – staying in bed all day, talking nonstop, clinging to possessions – drives us deeper into the one-dimensional, illusory world of self-absorption, where we are unaware of the many other dimensions we live and move and have our being in. In such a world life then becomes a continuous selfie shot. Instead, ‘stay awake’, the gospel tells us. The Buddha was walking along one day when a passer-by was struck by his radiance and powerful presence and asked him ‘Are you a god?’ ‘No’. ‘Then are you a wizard?’ ‘No’. ‘Who are you then?’ ‘I am awake,’ the Buddha replied.
Wakefulness is part of the universal wisdom found in all true teaching. To be truly awake is beyond what we think of as morality or, let’s say, it is the fundamental basis of moral judgement. The hypocrite in us is quick to condemn others, enthroning itself on the moral high ground from which it can act with amazing cruelty. But it is in the dimension of dreams, not the real world. We see the effect of wakefulness in the difference between good work that brings out the best in us, producing benefits for others, and work that leads to burnout and divisiveness. In another sense, wakefulness shows the difference between a beautiful artistic representation of the human form and an obscene image.
It is hard to see how in the speed and information overload of modern life we can stay awake without a contemplative practice integrated into daily life. Lacking this, how (even with the best intentions that the hypocrite in us often starts from), can we avoid being swept into the torpor of over-activity, the dream-state of the half-awake?
The same balance that keeps us awake also reduces our hypocrisy. The key is accepting our limitations. Lent is not about putting ourselves down or denying the gift of simple pleasures. It is about accepting that our limitations are the way we steer steady between extremes. Physically we are limited by biological limits that we must fulfil adequately – for example in sleep or food. Intellectually, we are limited by how much data we can take in and also by the need for healthy content, not endless entertainment. Only in the spiritual dimension are there no limits.
Reading: Matthew 5:43-48
He causes his sun to shine on good and bad alike and his rain to fall on the honest and dishonest alike.
The idea that God doesn’t and cannot punish can be very offensive to some people. It challenges a widely accepted idea of justice in which wrongdoers should pay for their crimes and the good be rewarded. It upsets their view of the universe as a morally coherent system in which good and bad are in perpetual conflict. The truth is far more simple than that.
The fault lines among religious people run along this divide. A godly world of reward and punishment reinforces the security of those whose religion plays a big role in their life-insurance policy and need for safety. Everything is clear and simple in this dimension but it comes to depend upon a scaffolding of definitions, rules and rituals to keep this world-view standing. In this dimension, excluding other people on the margins, followers of other faiths, and sexual minorities makes you feel safer. In extremes this kind of religious dimension resolutely blocks out all trace of the free and living Spirit of God – like the Christian faith that blessed apartheid and napalm bombs and turned a blind eye to the holocaust. Shake the scaffolding and it may seem as if the whole building will collapse. If they catch you shaking it, watch out. The vision of God that Jesus embodies, and Lent helps us find, is more challenging but less obviously secure.
I hope that by now you will have failed enough in keeping Lent to be able to see through this two-dimensional state of mind to which we all are at least partially attached. It thinks that God is like us whereas the gospel sees human destiny as becoming like God. There is an important difference in perspective here. To embrace the more challenging reality of a multi-dimensional universe we need to puncture in several places our self-righteousness and confidence of being on the right side. Each puncture, each failure in life is potentially a window onto this more expansive and inclusive view of reality, an escape route from the harsh conditions of the prison of fundamentalism and duality.
But doesn’t the Bible show us a God punishing the wicked (even sometimes a little excessively perhaps)? And doesn’t Jesus also speak on occasions about the bad being cast out into a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth? How to square this circle? Looked at impersonally the universe is a system in which the law of karma rules: good deeds produce good results, bad deeds you pay for. But wake up more, seeing yourself in a universe pervaded by the spiritual dimension, the mind of God. You then see a higher law than karma.
This is the ultimate dimension of love, to which we can - for all our failings, perhaps because of our failings - awaken. Karma and love co-exist but karma dissolves on conscious contact with love. Does the father of the Prodigal Son punish? Can he? We expand into this greater dimension through loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, turning the other cheek. All the idealistic, impossible things that we are incapable of doing, unless we become ‘like God’.
Second week of Lent (17 - 23 March)
Second Sunday in Lent
Reading: Luke 9: 28-36
As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning.
Some years ago, a very discontented young woman used to come regularly to our meditation centre in London. She looked resolutely on the dark side of life, habitually focusing on everything she lacked rather than on the positive side. She was hyper-sensitive, reactive and everyone trod very carefully with her. One day she told us – as if it was proof of her long-held conviction that the universe was determined to get her – that she had been diagnosed with an aggressive and terminal cancer. Over the next few months she continued to come to the centre and meditate with us and some members of our community in particular showed her great kindness and patience. Her bitterness in life increased but at least she didn’t wholly reject the patience and compassion she was shown. We helped her find a place to end her days. When she was taken into hospice care we used to visit her.
One Sunday after our community mass I took her communion in hospital. She looked terrible and her pinched expression held a lot of anger. When I said I had brought communion she grimaced unpleasantly and said ‘well that won’t do me much good will it? No thanks.’ But she said she would like me to sit with her a while. We chatted a little as she complained how some celebrity of the moment who had a notorious life style was revelling in fame and success. She, by contrast, had been ‘good’ all her life, obeyed the commandments and ended up like this alone and dying young. I listened. She then took out a notebook, looked at me and asked if I would like to read her poems. I dishonestly said yes and looked in the book but couldn’t read her handwriting so I asked her if she would read them to me.
She began to read a poem called ‘whale-song’ describing the songs that whales sing to each other across vast distances deep in the oceans. It was true and deeply moving, rendering her intense lonely suffering into words of beauty. She sang herself beyond herself. She shot me a quick look to see how I was reacting and saw I was moved. In that instant she too, like Jesus on the mountain in today’s gospel, was physically transfigured. Her thin emaciated face radiated beauty and a kind of glory. Her eyes shone joyously with a vision of a reality beyond the veil of flesh and its attendant woes. It was brief but timeless. She had had her communion after all. Soon her normal expression descended again, though more thinly now. She died a few days later.
Pure prayer flows in the human heart deeper than words and thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it breaks the surface and the body itself thrills and is physically changed. This season’s spiritual practices remind us that the body is an instrument and a sacrament. It doesn’t play this music every day. But you never know.
Reading: Luke 6:36-38
Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.’
Yesterday we reflected on the physical transformation that accompanies deep spiritual reality. This has more meaning than the thickening of the brain’s grey matter observed by scientists studying regular meditators. The gospel links this flooding of the spiritual into the physical to compassion – ‘be compassionate as God is compassionate’. This is what triggers the overflow. Nothing could more pervert this than the ‘prosperity gospel’ of rewards and punishments that seduces so many today by linking it to opportunistic greed in a financial transaction. (‘Send a donation to the preacher and God will double it for you.’)
I was once visiting Mother Teresa's home for the dying in Calcutta. The beds were all occupied, and the overflow of suffering individuals covered the floors. The Missionaries of Charity ran a compassionate but efficient and immaculately clean operation. One of them asked me briskly to go over to a very slight body, whether male or female you couldn’t tell, lying on the ground with its back to us and give a blessing. When I knelt down, I saw the thinnest of young men and by his stillness I assumed he was already dead. I touched his shoulder and was shocked when he moved and with surprising quickness turned towards me. He lifted himself on his thin arm and looked into me with wide-open eyes filled with bliss. I weakly wondered for a moment if I had distracted him from what he was contemplating. But he was undistractible. It was I who had been blessed as his look penetrated through the walls of our distinct identities and brought me momentarily into the vision.
St Augustine says that the vision of God, which is the goal of human destiny, does not consist in watching God as a separate being at a great distance. This is the image we see in many old paintings, the hierarchy of human society repeated in heaven with the haves sitting in the best seats up front and the rest in receding importance behind them. Instead, Augustine says, the vision consists in turning towards each other and looking into each other’s eyes where we see God. That produces in us a bliss which the other perceives and understands better because they have seen it in our reflected look. That makes them more blissful which increases our happiness – and so on until forever.
The ‘giving’ in the quote above is unquantifiable. To quantify it is to fail. But the proportionality is real. The more we give the more we receive until we fall over the waterfall in a cascade of joy. It lasts until we start to wonder how long it will last and if we could lose it.
Compassion, like goodness, is not rewarded. It releases and is the reward, the flowering in unbounded generosity, of itself. It begins with a mutual look and goes forward into infinite feedback .
So, perhaps, Lenten practice for today: make and hold eye contact without fear.
Reading: Luke 2:41-51
‘Why were you looking for me?’ he replied. ‘Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?’ But they did not understand what he meant.
There’s still a lot about what Jesus said that we don’t understand. We can cope with this failure by i) thinking he is not saying anything relevant to us because we don’t like being brought up against the limits of our understanding. Or, ii) we reduce his meaning to what we can handle easily – ignoring the deeper spiritual sense by settling for a black and white moralistic message. Whichever of these approaches we take towards the spiritual dimension will be reflected in how we find meaning in the events of our lives.
A few days ago a white supremacist rampaged in a quiet civilised city in a decent social responsible country and committed an appallingly insane massacre of God-fearing men and women at prayer. For a while the whole world feels one, one with the families of the victims and all the people of Christchurch and New Zealand in their traumatised grief. Once again, we are reminded by an outburst of inhuman hatred of the need to affirm the common ground of humanity. We remember that what unites is more meaningful than what separates. Then, somehow – this is the paradox – the worst evokes the best.
Darkness can invade and flood the human being, singly or en masse. We call it dark because it produces behaviour that makes us want to close our eyes. We would prefer not to see it. It is darkness become visible and the demonic become tangible: a nightmare. Worse still, it demeans humanity everywhere. Just as heroic virtue or holiness lifts our self-esteem by reminding us what we are capable of, so inhumanity makes us question if perhaps we really don’t possess buddha nature, we’re not created in God’s image, we cannot be ‘other Christs’.
Unless we choose to see otherwise. ‘Seeing the darkness’ implies the presence of some dark, invisible light. We cannot see without light because seeing – consciousness – is light. Just as the universe is suffused with a mysterious dark energy that we do not understand, so a certain kind of light that we cannot understand shines in the densest darkness and the dark cannot quench it.
If we hate those who hate us what reward can we expect other than an escalation of hatred, the orgy of self-destruction that eventually concludes every triumph of evil? When people at prayer are mown down by a madman, the innocent imprisoned or the poor routinely exploited we should feel the pure anger of prophets. But if this anger leads to deeper hatred and violence the darkness merely thickens. When in the short formal remand ritual, the judge called the arrested man ‘Mr’, he refused to dehumanise even people who deny the humanity of others. The light shines in darkness. We see, through tears, how evil’s triumph evil can be reversed by humanising forgiveness, the ultimate winning card.
Reading: Matthew 20: 17-28
‘You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you.
The gospel imagines. It summons up before us a new, extraordinary vision of humanity and society. If we don’t feel a bit confounded by this we haven’t imagined it. It perplexes us because it sounds both absolutely right and yet highly improbable ever to be realised. Even if it is unrealistic, if we reject it, we are diminishing ourselves. Are you serious? A world order in which those who hold powerful genuinely act as servants, where they love people not lust after power? Among other things, Lent is an opportunity for us all to audit our ways of using any power we have and review our sense of service to those who have none
We cannot begin to imagine at this level unless we have been pulled up short by the limits of what we can see and understand. Religion is about doing this. Confronting us with questions not ramming answers into our heads. This is why the great religious geniuses had the genius of simplicity and make us gasp with wonder rather than just cheer at victory. Take the parables of the Kingdom for example.
The reign of God is like someone who found a treasure buried in a field. She buried it again and for sheer joy went and sold everything she had and bought the field. Thirty-three simple words describing a clear sequence of events that can keep a group of intelligent people talking for hours and come back the next day for more. To interpret the multiple meanings in the elements of this passage is to expose yourself and, if you are willing, to know yourself better than before. Why did the person bury the treasure again? (To prevent others from knowing about it. To keep it safe. Because it belongs in the field. Because she wanted others to come and enjoy it. Because it needs to be there to grow) Why did she feel such joy? Why did the joy lead to the recklessness of selling everything? What does ‘buying’ the field mean? Are some answers right and some wrong? Are some more right or wrong than others?
After morning meditation we jump up and go into the world with an open mind, not to impose pre-set answers on every situation, forcefully converting others to our view, but feeling for the truth with a questing, spiritual intelligence. By the evening, interiorly more dishevelled than we were in the morning, we sit down and let the inner space tidy up, not just evaluating the day as good or bad but testing its meanings. In this rhythm, we replenish the power of Imagination and restrain the perennial tendency of Fantasy to lead us astray.
Reading: Luke 16:19-31
‘There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even came and licked his sores.
Our material, physical well-being is a sensitive issue. We feel it every time we pass a beggar in the subway or street. Aware of our privilege, for a moment, we forget our normal complaints and problems: it could all be much worse, we think. If we keep the thought for more than a few seconds we might consider the not impossible scenario in which our roles could be reversed. The mighty are sometimes pulled down from their thrones. But then we think, do we give something? Why are we really doing it? Who are we being kind to? Does this brief encounter with the other side of society have lasting impact on our way of living, our lived values?
Once on a lovely summer day I came out of a building into bright sunlight. Everyone was looking happy. Even the young man sitting on the pavement with his hand out. Our eyes met and without thinking I said, ‘what a lovely day’. He nodded enthusiastically and said, ‘yes fantastic…hope it lasts.’ It was a momentary confusion of roles but still part of the lovely day.
In today’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus we hear of ‘a great gulf (that) has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.’ It refers to the karmic consequences of self-isolation, being so preoccupied with improving or protecting our own well-being that we, in effect, wilfully ignore the opportunity to improve the condition of those in greater need or even to simply relate to them. The ‘great gulf’ in the karmic (afterlife) realm is visible and tangible every day to those who have a minimum of sensitivity. It is a major cause of the instability and turmoil of the modern world – the protest of the humilated. ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ Jesus said but the size of the gulf has become our big issue.
In our Lenten practice – giving something up and doing something extra – we hope to re-sensitise ourselves to reality. Unfortunately, we tend to be selective about the aspects of reality we recognise and relate to. Some bits we highlight and enjoy. Others we deny or choose to forget: ‘deliberate hebetude’ (choosing not to see) is a phrase of TS Eliot’s that exposes our mind games and exposes the fragility of any false peace built upon it: The serenity only a deliberate hebetude. The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets. Useless in the darkness into which they peered. Or from which they turned their eyes.
We cannot be selective about reality without compromising everything. Essentially the ‘holiness’ we aim for in Lent is not a moral virtue but a matter of perception, how we see the whole we belong to. And saving ourselves is not about avoiding the punishment of eternal hell-fire but saving time now. (Springtime begins today).
Reading: Genesis 37: 3-28
‘Here comes the man of dreams’ they said to one another. ‘Come on, let us kill him and throw him into some well; we can say that a wild beast devoured him. Then we shall see what becomes of his dreams.’
This passage comes from the story of Joseph’s brothers, jealous because he was their father’s favourite, plotting to disappear him. They wouldn’t kill him – that would have been bad luck – but planned to leave him to die slowly at the bottom of a well. It exposes the hidden history of the world and much of our family life and religious and civil politics. It is disturbing how often jealousy operates as the deciding factor in our behaviour. Even God is a ‘jealous God’. One zealous commentary, defending the literal meaning at all costs, says, ‘God’s jealousy is appropriate and good’. Jealousy is an inevitable consequence of favouritism: a chosen race, the prophet who trumps all predecessors, the saved, the elect in any form. Yet, how hard it is for the monotheist, longing to be loved more than others, to believe (like St Paul) that ‘God has no favourites’.
You probably have a virus scan on your computer. It protects against the digital terrorism of hidden, isolated individuals who have probably come to feel they connect to others only online. The online persona is a risky gamble. So, we need an interior scan, too – examination of conscience, spiritual alertness, guarding the heart. Viruses like jealousy, racism or perfectionism lurk in dark attachments in our deep hard drives. Meditation searches them out. We have to be prepared for the struggle they will put up before they are deleted – or their energy is converted back into our original goodness. Lent is a time for this kind of spring-clean.
Modern affluent cultures give great attention to lifestyle choices and ways of improving our physical and psychological well-being. How many topical conversations revolve around food that’s ‘good for you’, the latest celebrity vegetable, diets that will save the world, new nuggets of esoteric wisdom revealed for all. These ‘discoveries’ and the reactions they evoke in the modern consumer-of-news feel like a flock of birds rising together and swerving in ever changing directions. Much less attention is given to our mental state.
We care less about what we allow our minds to absorb and become concentrated on or addicted to. So, the healthy-liver and eater today can resemble the ‘proud virgin’ of earlier centuries. We can be so careful (and right) at one level and yet blow it all away in another. Pride, like jealousy, is our common downfall. All that’s needed to make this double-standard a concealed lifestyle is enough people who agree with you.
Why do we love our own ‘dreams’ so much and so often despise or ridicule the dreams of others? To share a dream can inspire self-sacrifice and service. Or it can unleash a collective nightmare and the scapegoating of the most vulnerable. Watch your dreams.
To scan our deep mind for possible viruses and to test the mettle of our dreams – this is the work of pure prayer. The only sure test is to let go of all representation of our hopes and beliefs – conceptual, verbal or visual. Whatever regularly survives this radical cleansing of our mind can be trusted (most of the time).
Reading: Luke 15: 1-32
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.
An intriguing concept in modern cosmology is the existence of an uncountable number of parallel universes. But there is no evidence or proof of this. There is probably more evidence from science itself of a creative intelligence visible in the beauty of mathematics and the elegance of the universe at the cosmic and microcosmic scales. An implicit order exists in reality, of harmony, beauty and connectedness – that it is possible to perceive despite the existence of chaos, mass killings and innocent suffering.
‘We can never know God by thought but only by love’. In this characteristic statement of mystical consciousness, love means not just an emotion or excitement contained in the range of human pleasure and pain – though it exists there too. Love means the intelligence of spirit, indeed the mind of God itself, which can only be known by sharing in its own being. We all know that when we fall in love the world looks and feels quite different. When we go deeper into love our very sense of self progressively undergoes a massive transformation. We don’t know where it will take us. (The mystic says we eventually become God). But any true form of love, even the most self-centred at first, contains a fragment of the whole, a taste of the beautiful harmony of all things.
Too often the lower levels of human consciousness intervene at crucial transitional moments. Instead of deepening love we opt – or are sucked into – possessiveness, sadness and rage. ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’ But when the father in the parable of the two brothers (the prodigal son is one, the unwelcoming elder brother is the other) throws aside his dignity and right to rebuke his wayward son and instead embraces him with a kiss, we glimpse that the whole universe is friendly. Who cares then whether it is one or one of many? Despite the clashing together of galaxies, volcanic eruptions and human badness, when we come home, we are always welcomed.
Think of what you feel when you come back to meditation after a time of not doing it. Maybe you have been postponing it because you imagined there would be an inner penalty to pay for having given it up or being late. Instead there is a wonderful sense of ‘no blame’ (as the I Ching puts it) and an unconditional welcome at coming home to our true Self.
It is hard to believe this until you have felt it. And it hard to draw on this feeling because human beings are only rarely so Godlike. How often, between us, does unconditional forgiveness and reconciliation happen? Yet, even as children we have an innate sense of justice and intuitively hope or believe (which, we cannot say), that this is what reality is like. Our inner microcosm thus reflects the whole. We would know it if only we could be real. Until then, God is as imaginary, as out of reach, as parallel universes.
Third week of Lent (24 - 30 March)
Third Sunday in Lent
Reading: Luke 13:1-9
Unless you repent you will all perish as they did.
Remember, ‘repent’ does not mean to feel guilty and become cringingly submissive, but to have the strength and determination to change your mind. There is a saying of Lao Tzu that echoes the gospel of today’s parable of the fig tree that won’t bear fruit: if you don’t change direction you may end up where you are heading. This description of the consequences of refusing to change is not a threat but a simple warning. And yet, it is frighteningly difficult to change something in which you have been long-invested.
Early one fall morning I left with some companions for a long car trip home. The roads were empty and it was barely dawn. We were heading East and I thought we had taken that direction when we joined the highway. After thirty miles or so, I looked in the rear mirror and saw the beautiful colours of sunrise. I remarked on this and the others looked back and said ‘wow, that’s beautiful’. Then an uncomfortable silence descended on us which no one wanted to break. ‘The sun rises in the East, doesn’t it?’ some brave person asked. Even then, at first, it was hard to swallow the truth and turn around.
In the myth of the passage through the Red Sea the Israelites are escaping into the wilderness and freedom but are being pursued by the Egyptians who have changed their mind about letting them go. The Israelites panic and blame poor Moses, not for the first time, for leading them into disaster and start talking about going back. Then the pillar of cloud, that had been leading them up to that moment, changes position and takes up the rear of their caravan, hiding them from their pursuers and preparing for the great sign of the parting of the waters. There’s a lot of change going on in the story – the Israelites change their minds, the Egyptians change theirs, Moses thinks about changing his and even God seems to change his mind about where to put the cloud.
Repentance, changing the way we are heading – metanoia – is not only about making a decision. That can be agonising if we think that’s all there is to change. But behind the decision to change is the motor of assent, seeing what is and assenting to it, saying ‘Yes. Sorry. That’s right’. Seeing what actually is happening means stripping away and discarding all our most familiar and well-justified illusions. Hard to do at the best of times, it is most difficult in the worst of times when we fear change and long most for the security of being right. It takes time, as learning to do Lent takes time. It’s better to have a habit of doing it regularly each day, so that the wrong ideas and the behaviours they produce don’t get time to harden.
Seeing what is, experiencing the incontrovertible isness of the truth, is the essence of good judgement and, amazingly, it even gives us the energy needed to choose it.
Reading: Luke 1:26-38
‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’ And the angel left her.
For those who like advance planning, Christmas is nine months away from today, which celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation, the hidden moment when the Word began to take flesh. It has meaning for everyone, believers and non-believers alike. For the non-believer it affirms the fact that truth grows in us in an integrated way. Truth is more than an idea. For the much rarer breed of believers it signifies the opening of a new era in human affairs when the transcendent Source of the material world merges with it, in, through and as a particular human person who his parents called Jesus. The Source of everything that exists, who says simply ‘I AM’ is both revealed and hidden in this event. We cannot truly call this source He, She or It, but only I AM.
Angels come and go. The Bible often sees them not only as messengers, in the literal translation of the word. The world is full of messages carrying meaning (connection to what is always a bigger picture) if we take time to listen and sort them out. But, more, the Bible sometimes also identifies the messenger with the one who sends the message. This is like quantum physics where the usual dualities and boundaries are suspended. They can form and re-form according to the nature of our observational point of view. Objectivity thus takes on a new and more playful meaning. Prejudices and uptightness loosen up and a new way of seeing and interacting in the world emerges. The Annunciation signifies that this actually happens. Lent helps us to clarify our perception of it happening by giving us the optimum distance and the right focal length to see it influencing daily life.
Like atomic particles divided by great distances yet operating as one, this can be a bit weird. I walked around the abbaye at Bonnevaux yesterday, struck and moved by the way it has been transformed, simply but beautifully, with immense skill and effort and yet producing the sense of ‘just rightness’ that deeply satisfies the soul. I thought of the 900 years that have passed since the first community came here to ‘truly seek God’ and love the world by loving each other. It gave me the weird feeling that Bonnevaux was grateful to have been saved.
I thought of the words of Isaiah: Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. (58:12)
If Lent is a time to repair personal spiritual foundations, this feast is about the evolutionary restoration of humanity. It’s another way of looking at things – maybe there is a time to tear down and start from scratch but a deeper truth is the continuity of things, revealed in seeing the time to rebuild and restore.
Reading: Matthew 18:21-35
How often must I forgive my brother or sister if they wrong me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.
Like most of us, I have known at times how painful it is not to be forgiven. Maybe I am deluded, but I don’t find it as hard to forgive (given a bit of time) as to feel that I am refused this wonderful grace that changes not only relationships but the world and advances the reign of God.
When you seem to have resolved in yourself a mistake or a fractured relationship; when enough time has passed and people have got on with their lives, moved on, you might then feel ready to reach out and try for reconciliation. Until forgiveness happens, the unhappy feeling of something blocked and unfinished stops deep healing from beginning. For peace and justice it’s not enough just for hurt feelings to subside. Forgiveness is ontological, deeper than feeling. There is no going back to the past: some relationships stay there, in personal history. But our natural thirst and hunger for justice is not about either forgetting or apportioning blame. It is about conscious restoration and re-balancing.
When Jesus says not 7 but 77 he shows the attentive listener that there is no justice without forgiveness. No hope of justice restoring our humanity unless we are truly open to forgiveness. When I hear people confess they ‘cannot forgive so-and-so for this-or-that’ I often detect a sense of shame and self-justification. Behind it is the sense ‘it’s not my fault and I would if I could.’ Of course we need to forgive those who cannot forgive. For that matter, we have to forgive ourselves for not forgiving. But also we need not to confuse forgiveness with a self-justified attachment to a grudge or victimhood (for the sake of the injured party first and for the injuring party second). How do we tell the difference? Perhaps by seeing how we feel if the party who offended us moves on and flourishes.
Forgiveness is inner healing not the bestowing of pardon. One day we understand it’s happened already when we weren’t watching. We receive the grace of forgiveness subtly (and can then share it actively) after we have passed through the 77 questions that penetrate all the dark corners of our heart: What do I really feel? Why did X act the way they did? Am I seeking wholeness or clinging to retribution? Do I ‘love my enemy’ meaning that they are no longer my enemy (even if I wouldn’t choose to go on holiday with them).
This insight into forgiveness comes from the one who would say on the Cross ‘Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.’ For him this was the last of the keys that opened his door to paradise.
Reading: Matthew 5:17-19
Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them.
It is hard to let go of the past. Even when it was flawed, we tend to whitewash it, to avoid admitting our mistakes. It is hard to change our mind (metanoia), and the more people shout at us to do so the more entrenched we become.
But circumstances change. What was right yesterday may not be best for today. We can always say ‘I am sorry’ and let go, but the left hemisphere of the brain finds this hard to do because it constructed all the good reasons for previously-held opinions. It enjoys fixity. (I won’t make a comparison with Brexit). But even when we do admit that a new approach is called for, we are not condemning ourselves for past mistakes: we did the best we could with the information at hand at the time. The right hemisphere of the brain is in the flow of reality and finds it easier to accept change. Only then can we make peace with the past and see the best of it, the law and prophets, carried over into the new.
Even gods, like the cultures they once supported, change and die. Today we live in the twilight of the old gods. They depended on their devotees to keep them alive with the offerings of petition and sacrifice. When the devotees stop believing the gods wither on the vine. Even the mighty gods of Olympus were downgraded. Before they die, they become local, vestiges of nostalgia or objects of amusement for the new generation.
But we cannot live without gods. (Even the atheist has to deal with them.) We need the symbols and charms they provide to express hopes and needs that we cannot put into words. The change of the pantheon of gods, however, is a time of loss and crisis such as we are going through now in Christianity and other religions. The new gods are worshipped on screens from Hollywood and Bollywood, in the temples of shopping malls, trading rooms and newsrooms. There are gods of misinformation and division (and some good new ones). Some old gods try to re-invent themselves and become relevant while others just fade and disappear. Consensus - the certainty that the old gods gave - is eroded and replaced by conflict and controversy until something new is born.
This is why the desert and our forty days there, or our twenty minutes there twice a day, are so liberating. There are no gods, dead or alive, in the desert, no temples except the heart, no sacrifices except our attention. There are, of course, our inner demons and a few necessary angels. Without gods, all that is left is the God who is, but has no name: the ‘religionless Christianity’ that Dietrich Bonhoeffer caught a glimpse of through the wreckage of the old order?
Reading: Luke 11:14-23
Others asked him, as a test, for a sign from heaven
There is a story of the Buddha meeting with a group of Brahmins among whom there is a sixteen-year-old, insufferably prattish, prodigy, who knows all the texts and challenges the enlightened one’s authority. Gautama fields all his questions and eventually checkmates him. The happy ending is that the youth has learned his lesson and becomes a disciple.
Becoming a disciple for most of us is a longer business. The ego, like Lucifer, in the cosmic struggle that led to the civil war in heaven, wills not to serve. It prefers defeat and exclusion from the ranks of the blessed to acknowledging a higher power.
In more down to earth terms, this is reflected in our struggle with addiction. The first of the Twelve Steps that leads to freedom is the most humbling, to acknowledge our incapacity to free ourselves and the need to recognise a higher power. This eventually leads to the eleventh step by which time we have learned what prayer really means: ‘conscious contact with God as we understand’ what God means. Only then, after the ‘spiritual awakening’ that results from mastering the ego, are we ready to help others suffering from addiction and to begin to live what we have learned in all parts of our life.
We cannot teach until we have learned from a teacher whose higher power we have acknowledged. As long as we see this relationship as a battle of wills, competing with our teacher, impatient for our graduation with honours, we have not even taken the first step. Ultimately, however, we do not surrender to our teacher. We love our teacher and therefore the teacher of our teacher... Students graduate and set up on their own. Disciples enter a community stretching in all directions in space and time.
At first, testing our teacher is not a bad thing, provided it also brings our ego out into the open where it can itself be tested and tamed. I guess the Buddha wasn’t really angry with the prattish Brahmin prodigy or offended by his attitude. He understood where it was coming from. Finally, with his help, the youth understood himself and saw that his true self would only be freed, and his talents put to good use, by what perhaps seemed like a humiliating defeat but was, in truth, the mutual acceptance that exists between a true teacher and a true disciple.
But this can be a long and difficult game until we encounter this kind of teacher, one who can make us this kind of disciple. Until then, the ego has innumerable red lines that it refuses to cross and will even seek to defeat and humiliate the teacher on whom it depends for freedom. This is made explicit later in the story of Easter.
Reading: Mark 12: 28-34
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.
As he lay dying, the disciples of the Buddha were discussing how they would keep all the 227 monastic rules he had given them. They asked his closest disciple to ask him to prioritise a more manageable number. When he returned, the disciple told them unfortunately the Buddha had died before he could answer the question. So they were left with a lot of rules.
When Jesus was asked what was the most important commandment of the Law he replied as above – the three dimensions of love of God, self and others. Three in one. Theologically it makes sense to place the love of God first. Psychologically, we have to start with love of self. The devoutly religious person, who is focused on loving God by obeying all the commandments and winning divine approval, can easily be a conflicted and divided individual who has never integrated their shadow and had the humility to accept their imperfection. The person who has done their work in the desert and learned to love themselves humbly, may appear quite unreligious, while fulfilling the greatest commandment. The unloving always bring religion into disrepute. But whoever obeys the ‘first and greatest’ commandment of life – to love wholeheartedly – doesn’t have to worry about the little rules. ‘Love and do as you wish’, said St Augustine.
Loving fluffy kittens, children, sweet-tempered old people, those who do what they say they will do, who make your life easier, great cooks, those who appreciate you adequately, people on all kinds of pedestals of your own making – these are the easy ones – friends - to love. Your enemies are a different matter. People who let you down, stop a decision going through by complicating the issue unnecessarily, the dishonest, unfaithful, manipulative and animals like rats and cockroaches: these are the ones who really help us obey the commandment. The difficult to love expose our hidden conditions and agenda. They reveal the inadequate degree of our self-knowledge and self-acceptance – our love of self. Thus ‘our enemies are our best spiritual teachers’, just as failure trains us better than success.
Sometimes, it is hard to see what one person sees in another who they love deeply and selflessly. It is hard to feel the love that St Francis felt for the leper he embraced or the dying that Mother Theresa rescued from the streets of Calcutta and tended as if they were Christ. A modern journalist would question whether they were each doing it for the camera. But to love wholeheartedly is to see what others, who can only love those who love them, cannot see.
We could say the truly loving see God or Christ in the unloveable. It would be as true to say that they see themselves in the other and the other in themselves. This enfolding of persons is God. When a person loves another there are always three involved.
Reading: Luke 18:9-14
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.
I have met a few lovely people who quite naturally seem to have their ego under control. It doesn’t appear to cost them any effort and it even seems they have no ego. Of course, anyone you can relate to has an ego because this is what makes us distinct. If we weren’t separate we wouldn’t be capable of dying to ourselves and rising into deeper union.
Most of us have relatively wounded egos. Through the long process of psychological development and individuation, the ego accumulates painful memories and fears that form patterns that form our personality. No separation occurs without pain and pain leaves a scar in memory. Without great love surrounding it to heal this repeated wound, the ego builds distrust and learns to dissemble to protect itself. Sometimes it becomes inflated and aggressive to compensate for its imbalance. Sometimes it becomes timid and insecure, terrified to be seen or heard. Sometimes we flip from one type of ego to another.
Whoever has grown up with minimal damage has been wrapped from the beginning in love. They have a more balanced inner world, in which the lever of the ego operates gently – as a medium of communication rather than a weapon. They are nicer people. When they go to a social event they don’t worry about whether they will be get recognition or upgraded to a higher table. They might be curious about what will happen but won’t feel the egotistical anguish of those who need and crave applause or who are terrified of being noticed.
As most of us do not have such well-balanced egos, today’s gospel offers a practical and compassionate wisdom. Make an extra effort to avoid what the ego craves or fears and then, do not feeling proud because you have done the right thing. Thus you will be ‘exalted’. This doesn’t mean becoming the latest star of X Factor. A YouTube clip of you facing an adoring audience, astonished at your talent, won’t go viral.
It’s quite another kind of exaltation, in which, detached from success or failure, your ego can laugh at itself. Freed from the grip of self-fixation you can give your attention, your self, to others, with the delight of seeing the transformation that pure, selfless attention can work.
Fourth week of Lent (31 March - 6 April)
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Reading: Luke 15:1-32
‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
To be rejected, to be cast into the outer darkness away from the group sitting around a tribal fire, is one of humanity’s deepest fears. The rejected suddenly become the enemy of the group rejecting them. To associate with them is a sign of disloyalty and makes them toxic and infectious.
In the British film Apostasy, a Jehovah’s Witness church excommunicates a young woman for breaking their rules and her family confront (and fail in) an agonising choice between rejecting her and remaining members of the elect. The most diabolical aspect of the drama is the inverted religious language of self-justification and the false, creepy tone of hard-hearted self-righteousness. The word ‘diabolus’ implies the state of di-vision, throwing apart. The opposite word is ‘symbolum’ which unites and brings the separated together. The diabolical attacks in the name of God. It divides, using every trick, including quoting scripture, to make it seem on the side of the angels.
Cliff-edge moments come around from time to time when we are forced to choose where we stand. Do we stay in the security of the crowd baying for blood, or stand in solidarity with the outcast? Take immigrants for example. In some parts of affluent society today it is dangerous to speak compassionately about immigrants. Once your head of state has accused them of being ‘drug dealers, criminals and rapists’ their dehumanisation has begun. The bar on abusing them, the most vulnerable, has been raised.
‘Sinners’ is a common term of rejection in religious vocabulary, even though it is often used wrongly. Jesus associated with ‘sinners’, people off the purity radar. He saw that the sin that matters is not being unacceptable, like the untouchables in the cast system. The Greek word for sin means ‘missing the mark’. Not in the sense of not getting into respectable society, but in the human sense of failing. When we try to throw a piece of paper into a basket and miss, should we rage and curse or pick it up and try again?
To understand sin we need to be straight about our own interior divisions and contradictions, the universal symptoms of human weakness. Otherwise, we plunge into the collective hypocrisy which is the binding force of any mob.
Those who dine with sinners put themselves at risk. But, even when they in turn are despised and rejected, they pull the plug on the power of hypocrisy. They expose the real sinners in the human drama – not the victim but the victimisers, dividers not the divided. It becomes clear how easily we slide from the side of angels to demons. It is the casters out not the outcast who really sin.
Reading: John 4:43-54
While he was still on the journey back his servants met him with the news that his boy was alive.
Desire is a two-edged sword. It can cut through confusion and doubt and help us commit wholeheartedly to a direction and course of action. Or it can turn on us and incapacitate us. Be careful what you pray for in case you get it, is ancient wisdom. Be careful about what you desire is equally important because it decides whether we make progress or get stuck in the trajectory of transcendence which is our true life.
Parents anxious for a sick or wayward child feel an overwhelming desire to help the child, to sacrifice themselves for the child in any way necessary. This desire is so instinctive it is hardly desire as we usually think of it but a need rooted in deepest nature. Compare this with the overwhelming desire of a politician to be elected, someone climbing a hierarchy to get higher or an athlete poised to compete and win. In these cases desire will also lead to a willing sacrifice of time and even health in order to fulfil it. Whether this ambition is largely motivated by ego or a desire to do good is a matter of self-discernment. Managing the desire, so that it doesn’t become an all-consuming obsession or a destructive force, requires courageous self-knowledge.
With all desire comes attachment. This means that a deep part of our identity becomes fused with what we desire. With attachment comes suffering, the pain of hoping to succeed or the fear or pain of loss or failure. Even with the euphoria of success the relief of pain doesn’t last long before we wonder how long it will last. So we are well advised by the wisdom of the ages to develop a habit of detachment in order to manage desire. We cannot live without desire but, unmanaged, desire can suck the joy and freedom out of life. Meditation is the simplest and most natural way to develop this habit of detachment, the best insurance against the equal perils of success or failure. Times like Lent and particular practices of self-restraint and deeper commitment also help to loosen the grip of attachment. They free up some of the identification we have made between our selves and our object of desire. We still accept that we have things to desire but we don’t over-invest. However great the desire, we remember that we are not what we want. Good discipline sets us free.
Then there is the desire to be enlightened, for God, for holiness, the desire to be without desire. This needs to be managed very carefully. It can produce great fruits and liberation. Or it can cause us much distortion of soul and make us insufferable bores to others. The greater the good we desire, the greater the detachment needed to manage it. Then, as for the man in today’s gospel, what we desire can arrive when we least expect it with the transcendent force of something utterly free of us.
Reading: John 5:1-16
‘Do you want to be well again?’
Some statistics about Jesus. From the gospel record we know that he asked 307 questions. He was asked 183 questions of which he answered 3.
One of the dispiriting aspects of modern public discourse is the familiar one – the new norm in politics – of politicians speaking a lot but saying nothing. The art of not answering the question is fundamental to political life today. No wonder politics is losing the people’s trust.
In the case of Jesus, by contrast, his refusal to answer most of the questions he was asked deepens our trust in his authority and integrity. Many of the questions were traps. So, even if he didn’t answer them he did respond to them, correcting them by telling a story. Honest fictions, like a parable, help to get us to the truth more directly than purely ‘factual’ replies. On some occasions, he was simply silent, refusing to be drawn into the maze of words; but at these times his silence exposed the falsity of the questions in order to reveal the depth of the truth.
He taught, that is, more by asking questions than by giving answers. This highlights the difference between the contrasting motivation of a teacher and an instructor or an officer of orthodoxy of belief. A teacher is driven by the desire to awaken direct knowledge in the student. Just downloading the information or the answers does not lead to understanding, however well they are repeated.
I was once reading a student’s essay. Her English skills were poor but I was trying to put that aside and see what they were trying to say. Then a passage suddenly appeared, in perfect English. After a while the language collapsed again.– a not very subtle case of plagiarism. There was more truth, more direct knowledge in her struggle with language than in the dishonesty of another’s words. Politics, religion, business, medical discussions, all human communication, break trust by hiding behind words.
Why do questions, better than answers, awaken direct knowledge? Because they lead us to accept personal responsibility, practice integrity and to be humble. In this state of mind, the answer we find, even if it is ‘I don’t know’, can come as a revelation and breakthrough. We become part of a learning community, a disciple, who sees that any answer, however right, is a step on the journey not yet the destination.
The question ‘do you want to be well again?’ rings true. It focuses attention not on the speaker but on the other person, which always opens the door of truth.
Reading: John 5:17-30
... my aim is to do not my own will, but the will of him who sent me ...
Other-centredness: a more difficult idea than self-centredeness. We are all more familiar with the self-centred state of mind, although usually readier to accuse others of it than to see it in ourselves. Its opposite is at the core of all wisdom teaching and the basic dynamic of meditation itself.
The truth - that we are most fully alive and most truly ourselves when we are oriented towards others rather than our own interests - is hard to practice. Yet, little by little and with many relapses, as the re-orientation of our minds, feelings and motivation moves us in this new direction, we discover a new form of happiness. A new level of meaning in life emerges. Meditation, properly understood, embraces this change of mind wholeheartedly as we learn to take the attention off ourselves.
At first, and for some time, it seems we are battling against a powerful head-wind. Attention reverts frequently to the thoughts, plans and memories that we are trying to lay aside by saying the mantra. The mind, like a puppy that is being house-trained, keeps on making the same mistake. It requires, not force or punishment but a great patience that reflects the love we feel for it. Current concerns, with old familiar anxieties, keep coming back demanding our attention. It seems very plausible that we could use our time most profitably by solving our problems or re-analysing them. Soon we see, however, that unless we learn the art of directing our attention, every thought or plan, including even those that concern the well-being of others, is quickly hijacked by self-centredness. The mantra gently but consistently retrains our mind with a higher level of other-centred attention which brings true benefits to ourselves and to all aspects of our work.
It is good work because it brings out the best in us and produces benefits for others. What we do in our training sessions of meditation thus bears fruit across the whole range of our conscious choice and activity; but it also transforms our unconscious habits of mind and feeling.
So a new horizon comes into view. We see the innate moral order of reality, the essential goodness of the universe which is itself the ultimate good work. This is reflected in our instinct for consistency – in faithfulness, justice, truth and kindness – in everything concerning us, in body, mind and speech. Even as we recognise the consequences of our words and actions and see our responsibilities as they really are, we sense that it is not only our own will that we are following. There is a will in the universe that is other-centredness itself, established in the nature of reality. Lao Tse called it the Way. Jesus knew it as the Father.
Reading: John 5:31-47
As for human approval, this means nothing to me.
I have been tempted, no doubt like many in recent times, to stop following the news. First there is the endless accounts of failures: of leadership, building consensus, respecting the common good, caring for the vulnerable, protecting the dysfunctional and corrupt. There is also the sense that what we hear as ‘news’ is a considerably distorted and incomplete version of events and of what the main players really think. I concluded that, however frustrating and disappointing the present state of affairs in national and global society, we have a responsibility, as a member of the family, to maintain a certain level of knowledge and involvement in it all even if it seems like a bad soap opera at times.
Maybe in a hermitage deep in the woods, off the grid, we could be excused from following the news but that would be because at the deepest level of human fellowship we would be present to all and, in a mysterious way, even influential. Ramana Maharshi, who was for most of his life in an unbroken state of samadhi, of contemplation, never left his ashram. He followed the same personal routine every day. Many came to see him and sit with him in his loving silence. Once a visitor asked why he didn’t travel and bring his peace to the far corners of the world. Ramana smiled and replied ‘how do you know that I don’t?’
But for ordinary mortals like ourselves we need to balance, in the fluctuations of time, both contemplative work and active work. If we have no time for contemplative work – for being rather than doing – we run the risk of becoming increasingly busy and noisy and less and less really useful. We run a lot but cover little ground. We work intensely but produce less good work.
So much of modern busyness and confusion revolves around the un-integrated ego. Personality issues and gossip occupy more and more of the news concerning those who have responsibility on our behalf to run institutions and keep the world safe. Excessive anxiety about human approval - what people think about us – disrupts the detachment we need to make good judgments and serve on their behalf. This is dramatically true in the case of leaders but applies mystically to all of us because we form a single social body in which each individual is connected to everyone else.
To be detached from human approval has a positive but also a very negative sense. Negatively, it means we do what we like, lie, cheat, extort and destroy and don’t care what anyone says because we can either simply deny it endlessly or eliminate the opposition. This is the fate of lonely leaders who have lost their solitude, winning the world at the cost of their true self.
But the positive sense means that we are detached, not disconnected. We are not absorbed in the heaving crowd of humanity, we stand outside it. But we live consciously in the community of humanity. The more detached we are, the more compassionately we are at the heart of society.
This is the wisdom the story of the last days of Jesus conveys – a story we are preparing to re-tell and listen to afresh as Lent draws to a close. It is a unique story. But, even if it doesn’t meet with much human approval, the wisdom is universal. As Lao Tse says, the wise ‘knows without having to stir, accomplishes without having to act.’
Reading: John 7:1-30
... but I know him because I have come from him and it was he who sent me.
In the long movement towards self-awareness, human beings have come to recognise different levels of consciousness. It seems that dogs dream but they don’t seem to be interested in the difference between the waking and dreaming state. We have grown in awareness of different kinds of knowledge and operations of mind. Whether all this evolution of consciousness has made us better than the dogs and gods we worship, or what it means, is another question.
Perhaps we need to take two steps forward and one step back. I mean, as we grow in self-awareness, we need to remember directly the difference between levels of consciousness. For us and our relationships it is important to distinguish between dream and reality. In a media-saturated culture where we easily become addicted to our devices and deprive ourselves of even ordinary degrees of peace – let alone the peace of God that passes understanding – it is crucial that we remember the existence of a level of pure consciousness. This is why we go the desert every day to do the work of silence. ‘Abandoning’, as John Cassian said in the 5th century, ‘all the riches of thought and imagination’, we find the royal road to poverty of spirit – detachment and the capacity to enjoy and understand without possessiveness and the illusions that carries. The meaning of Lent and daily meditation.
Socrates told of a scholar who approached an Egyptian king with a wonderful new product called writing. He claimed it would expand people’s memories: ‘my discovery provides recipe for memory and wisdom’, he claimed. The king was too smart to sign up immediately for a subscription to this wonderful new medium. He concluded that the invention would have the opposite effect because ‘people will cease to exercise memory’. Instead of drawing directly from within themselves they will come to depend on the ‘means of external marks.’ He sounds like a modern person complaining that with Google and electronic calculators we have lost the habit of memory, mental work and the art of learning.
It's hard to be completely convinced of this extreme position, especially as Socrates’ words had to be written down by his student to reach us today. But the differences between direct and indirect knowledge have never been more important to address. However wonderful a TV nature documentary it is not the same as real trekking. Discussing meditation or doing research into its benefits is not the same as meditating. Coming to an experience of God through ideas, symbols or ritual has immense value. We are weaker without this language. But to know that ‘I know God because I have come from God and it was God who sent me’ is a form of knowledge that cannot be digitalised in a binary system or even the most beautiful writing.
Reading: John 7:40-52
So the people could not agree about him.
At Bonnevaux there are three springs. In each, one a continuous flow of pure water bubbles up from the invisible world below, of water tables or underground streams. When I stand beside them, seeing the gentle disturbance breaking the surface from the hidden source, I sense a long history. Springs have always attracted human beings not only as a source of the water on which life depends but as sacred places, life-enhancing symbols of the meaning, the connectedness, of life. ‘Believe in miracles, cures and healing wells’, Seamus Heaney wrote in his poem ‘Cure at Troy” and repeated in an address to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.
World mythologies contain many stories of the quest for the ‘fountain of life’. In dreams, water is said to symbolise consciousness itself. Jesus wanted us to discover the stream of living water that flows from our heart. Every person’s heart is a spring through which the life of consciousness flows from a common source of being. It enters this tangible dimension of reality where at this moment I write and you read. Hearts, however, close when the negative states of mind with which we all contend, until the end of time, distract and overwhelm us. It may take some years to notice that your heart has been closing. But when you do see it, it explains a lot of what has gone wrong. It exposes the habits of character and patterns of behaviour that have gradually entrapped us and with which we falsely identify ourselves.
When the heart closes, we separate from our source and from the flowing nature of reality. We take rigid, fixed positions. Opposition follows and before long, conflict and varied forms of violence. Closed and separated in the pride of being right and condemning those who disagree as wrong, we can never agree. We then lose touch with the mysterious pathways between the dimensions of reality. These connections are not tangible or conceptual in the way we are used to, and so are easily dismissed as imaginary. The price we pay is to become stranded, inflexible,. Without the spring of new life our ideas become stale and our arguments monotonous. We fail to agree about anything or with anyone except ourselves. Finally, we cannot even agree with ourselves.
Fifth week of Lent (7 - 13 April)
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Reading: John 8 1-11
... he looked up and said, ‘If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.
In the small Sultanate of Brunei recently the national leader felt the impulse to introduce stronger religious laws for the well being of his people. These included amputation for thieves and stoning to death for homosexuals. I wonder how he would have responded if he had caught the eye of Jesus as he looked up from writing in the dust while the woman caught in adultery was awaiting her fate. Her judges were punishing her by the book. Jesus un-wrote all books when he knelt and wrote his silent words in the dust.
Religion has moral and intellectual dimensions, which bring the benefits of ethical principles and healing symbols for the misfortunes of life. They also help align personal faith and social mental health. But there is a hidden, additional dimension to religion - the mystical - which is ignored at our peril. Without the influence of the contemplative experience, religious belief and behaviour slip into slow decline, becoming either insufferably superficial or moralistic. Or simply monstrous.
When you are convinced God is on your side you start speaking on behalf of God; and then, if others listen to you, before long you come to believe you are God. The paradox of true religious experience is that, when you have faced the infinite difference and distance between God and yourself, you discover that God is closer to you than you are to your self. You are then pulled into a process of transformative union on the other side of ‘identity’. Union differentiates. The distance of this intimacy beyond difference evokes the truth of what Meister Eckhart said: ‘there is no distance between God and me’.
This is less abstract that it may sound. The integrity of religion has to be protected and promoted because religion cannot be eliminated. Like politics it must be continuously purified by truth if it is to avoid corruption. Like music it should be played well. But I am not thinking immediately of the benefits this would bring to the Sultan of Brunei. I am thinking more of all the victims of retarded religion, the women caught in adultery, the homosexuals and robbers, the scapegoats of false religion and those sitting alone in prison cells whose lives have been blighted by the cruel piety of the self-righteous.
The woman caught in adultery strikes a universal chord of sympathy. Like the Golden Rule (treating others as you would like to be treated) it has an irreducible, incontestable simplicity as moral as it is mystical. Yet, so easily, we disconnect from its meaning: which is why we must practice the contemplative dimension and, for this, need both Lent and meditation.
Reading: John 8: 12-20
I know where I came from and where I am going.
Many people today live in long-distance relationships. Because of work or other complicating factors they text, skype or call sometimes several times a day. Long absences can weaken and undermine relationships, or they can strengthen and mature them. Every relationship has an optimum distance. This focal length in which we ‘see’ each other is not a fixed measure. It adjusts to conditions. It is indeed tough for people who love, to be apart. They miss each other; but sometimes it’s a ‘good miss’, as someone I was close to once told me.
Ways of being in relationship have been radically affected by technology, globalisation and the internet. Love itself hasn’t been changed; but love grows through forms and habits especially in the early stages and in childhood. A child may be thrilled to skype with its frequently absent parent when he calls from an airport far away to say goodnight, but it’s not the same as being there every night.
During these reflections I have been returning to the different dimensions of reality. I keep harping on about the contemplative dimension because I feel that this one, which is weakened and frequently ignored in our fast-paced and fragmented global culture, is essential for dealing with the dehumanising aspects of life ‘on the grid’ today. Being online, available, instantly accountable, with little time to reflect and ponder, has its dangers as well as its positive aspects. It can, for example, become addictive. Meditators, like anyone else, find it hard to turn off their phones although they may better understand the need to do so periodically. People frequently say they want ‘to get away from it all for a while’. But when the opportunity comes they find an excuse not to. If we forget how to live in the contemplative dimension – still, silent, simple and now – we risk losing everything we have gained through technology and social progress.
The most distant of all relationships is with God, if we live exclusively in the three dimensions of time and space. We skype with him at church and squeeze in other appointments in our busy schedule. This makes God feel always distant and as real as a child’s imaginary friend. To the non-believer this proves God to be a human creation, a crutch, a drug, another source of false consolation, rather than Being, consciousness itself.
The power opening new dimensions of reality is love. (Meditation is the work of love.) For a couple separated by time zones and geography, love proves that they are always present with each other.
This is now bringing us closer to the purpose of Lent – which is to understand Easter better. And to see why meditation opens new dimensions of reality.
Reading: John 8:21-30
... he who sent me is with me, and has not left me to myself ...
I was on a crowded platform recently, waiting for the tube train. Usually I would read or listen to the mantra. Then I watched intrigued as a woman immortalised herself repeatedly on a selfie. It was quite a performance, as she was determined to get just the right smile and tilt of the head and just the right background. She would pose, smile winningly at herself, then check the result on her screen and try again. She was blissfully absorbed in this operation and wholly unaware that she was standing in the middle of a moving crowd on a narrow platform. When my train arrived she was still aiming for the perfect shot.
As a result of intensive scholarly research on Wikipedia I discovered that the first known selfie was a daguerreotype taken in 1839 and now on the photographer’s tombstone. Lacking a smartphone, he would remove the lens cap, run into shot and stay still for a minute or two, before running back to cover the lens again. A more contemplative selfie. Artists have always liked to paint themselves and mirrors have been around since 6000 BC. We love to see ourselves even when we don’t like what we see.
Like anything relatively harmless in itself, it can become an obsession and shape a whole way of life. To control it, we need to practice other-centredness. To make this a habit alerts us to see when self-fixation is desensitising us to others nearby. It rescues us from entrapment in the self-consuming loop of narcissism. When we embrace the work of other-centredness we glimpse the ultimate dimension enfolding all dimensions, which Jesus called the ‘Father’, his default other-centredness throughout his life. It is the secret of distinguishing between reality and illusion and ‘seeing God’. As I was raised in a city, I have to try hard, when I am out in the country, to read the book of nature. Bonnevaux is teaching me and so have many people who loved this book all their lives.
The English poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote some of the most beautiful poems about the natural world. He also used the word ‘self’ as a verb. To destroy beauty (one poem is about cutting down a group of aspen trees) is to ‘unselve’ the world. He saw God selving himself in the countless beauties of the world where ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places’. This recalls the Tao Te Ching’s ‘10,000 things rising and falling’, which we can also interpret as endless distraction. What turns distraction into the vision of God selving the world is othercentredness: not what we see but how we see.
Now, with our doors of perception just a bit cleaner after Lent and the polishing of the mantra, what is more intriguing than to see things as the Mind of Christ - playing even on a crowded platform - sees them.
Reading: John 8:31-42
Yes, I have come from him; not that I came because I chose, no, I was sent, and by him.
Yesterday, I was watching some new-born lambs. Like young children they bounce wildly along a spectrum: at one end, obsessive attachment to their mother, at the other boundless energy in exploring a brave new world. They are adorable, endlessly fascinating and delightful. Well, maybe not endlessly, but very charming. I thought ‘who could ever wish them harm?’ It must be their very innocence that makes them such a powerful symbol of innocence abused. From the paschal lamb sacrificed in the dark days of the Exodus to the ‘Lamb of God’ acclaimed at every mass.
Everywhere here the world is greening. Fertile smells long buried in the cold earth are emerging. Winter’s long solitude is expelled by endless new relationships of all kinds of living things appearing from nowhere, emerging into light and bringing light with them. Even on a chilly spring day there is the warmth of life. It’s all happened since time immemorial but it’s always fresh and new. The English poet George Herbert caught it in the opening lines of his great poem, The Flower, comparing the cycle of nature with the cycle of his spiritual d arkness and rebirth: ‘How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean are they returns...’
In contrast to the oppressiveness of dark forces, like fear and oppression, or violence and rejection, with their secret history of guilt and shame, a new authority appears: the authority of innocence. It can look oppression and fear directly in the eye and disarm them. Spring is very tender compared with the brutishness of winter but it is irrepressible. At the right point in its cycle it is irresistible.
In the gospel of John, Jesus’s words often reflect what early Christians’ dawning realisation of who Jesus really is. Taken out of context, some of the words sound overbearing. They are spoken in the echo-chamber of the community that was discovering the Christ dimension. Today’s gospel includes the words I selected above, which show not self-fixation but a person in whom the dimension of eternal springtime is dawning. In the consciousness of Jesus, his innocence of pride is his authority. It is not constructed by him, but drawn entirely from an other: the one who ‘chose’ and ‘sent’ him.
‘Chose’ and ‘sent’ are words to describe an experience that awaits us, too, if we penetrate deeper than ego-consciousness. When we become our true self, we see that we are already living in a network of relationships as wide as the cosmos, a communion of being, a community of beings immersing us in ultimate reality. It makes us as humble as we can ever be. In Jesus that same humility flashes out as authority and self-knowledge. As an innocence of powerful vulnerability.
Reading: John 8:51-59
‘Before Abraham ever was, I Am.’ At this they picked up stones to throw at him.
You might have thought that anyone hearing such a statement, even if you didn’t like the person, even if you thought they were either mad or a genius, would have said ‘explain what you just said before I stone you to death.’ However, in this and in the other great “I Am” sayings, Jesus is revealing another dimension of reality so disturbingly different from our familiar way of seeing, that his very words threaten the existing order.
Under totalitarian regimes poets and artists are the greatest threat. Those resisting the power-holders, by political or violent means are more easily repressed. Great thinkers, however, change firstly, not structures. Their vision, insights born of direct experience, open new dimensions of reality for others. One of the greatest of modern mathematicians, for example, was Emmy Noether. On a par with Einstein, she opened new ways of perception in algebra and physics that forever transformed the way things in these fields are seen. Her original ideas entered so deeply into the basis conceptual framework that she is rarely even quoted. She didn’t just add words to the vocabulary but expanded the language itself.
Jesus does this to the whole human view of the world. This is why it is so depressing when his revolutionary sayings, born of his direct experience of the Father, are diverted from their true intent and used to defend particular moral opinions or religious structures. Not only are contemplatives the true revolutionaries. True revolutionaries, in any field, are contemplative by nature and mystical in their vision of reality.
Rightly, he was considered dangerous to the prevailing order but at an even deeper level than his critics imagined. It took his death to free him from the repressive power of his critics and to liberate his vision (his spirit) which continues to enter into human consciousness to change the nature of reality for us. It would have been nice if he had been recognised and listened to by the authorities. But that is bound not to happen when to accept such a new way of seeing threatens not only your institution but all that you have built your life upon. Nobody wants to undergo total transformation. We like change that we can control. So, his violent rejection by his contemporaries was bound to happen and, if we feel there was a plan, it was even part of the plan. Even those who loved him misunderstood him.
Our daily spiritual practice and the coming days of the Easter mysteries attune us to seeing this and to understand what Jesus meant when he used the ‘I’ word. Jesus was not saying – as those who wanted to stone or crucify him confusedly feared – ‘I am God’. He was saying ‘God is I am. This is what I am saying’.
Reading: John 10:31-42
If you refuse to believe in me, at least believe in the work I do
What might that work be – then and now?
After St Anthony of the Desert meditated for twenty years in solitude his friends came to find him, expecting him to be dead or deranged. Instead he emerged physically and mentally radiant, healthy and rational. For the rest of his life he was known for healing the sick, comforting the sorrowful and reconciling the divided. These are not bad ways to understand what good work and a meaningful life means. But these works express a deeper state of being. Whoever touches that in themselves and stays there, becomes capable of changing the minds of others – turning them towards the same depth in themselves. It doesn’t matter if you ‘believe’ in that person or not. Or, at least, your opinion of them is secondary to your being touched and changed by them, through them. Believing what you see their work makes it easier to see who the person behind it really is.
This implies a certain kind of leadership. Not the kind that is merely defined by results and success or charismatic powers of persuasion. But the kind that exposes the hidden dimension of goodness both within us and at the heart of all human relationships. This is disturbing, indeed revolutionary, because so many of our assumptions, about ourselves and others, are constructed on a major under-estimation of our essential goodness. Often it is even worse, we have a low sense of self and a basic distrust of others.
The court is corrupt, the fields are overgrown with weeds, the granaries are empty; yet there are those dressed in fineries, with swords at their sides, filled with food and drink and possessed of too much wealth. This is known as taking the lead in robbery. Far indeed is this from the Way. (Tao Te Ching LIII)
The socially destabilising impact of vast discrepancies of wealth in society is increasingly obvious. Is it unreasonable to think that Brexit might be related to almost four million children living in poverty in the UK? When Lao Tse was writing, in the sixth century BC social expectations were very different but the wise person’s insight into essential goodness was the same as ever. With that insight comes outrage and the deep sadness of the prophet when they see how deluded we can all become and how unmerciful and unfair we can act in that state of delusion.
The mystical meaning of Easter we have been preparing for nearly six weeks cannot be separated from its works. It is not, firstly, about belief but experience. Belief grows from experience. To be touched by the Resurrection sends us back to life with new ways of seeing and a radical challenge to our values.
Unfortunately, for those who think the guide book is the journey, how this happens can only be understood by passing through the whole process that leads to resurrection. Suffering and ultimate loss cannot ultimately be avoided. That’s the good news.
Reading: John 11: 45-56
You fail to see that it is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be destroyed.
As a young boy I was brought up in the richness of Catholic faith. Its powerful symbolism opened new dimensions of reality for me. I had as mature an image of God as I could at that age. Increasingly, though, I related to this distant, elevated ever-observing, supposedly loving and yet terrifyingly cold construct of our collective imagination a bit like a bank robber would to a surveillance camera.
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." St Paul insists that we have to grow up religiously and break through into the reality, not the construct, of the divine dimension. These words from today’s gospel come from the High Priest who, with a political ruthlessness ever present in the corridors of power, gives us a key to this maturation of our understanding about the Easter story. This re-telling is soon to go into high gear for those of us following the liturgies.
As a child I was given a simple, in fact a greatly over-simplifying, explanation of this myth-shattering story. Debt-redemption. The suffering and death of Jesus, the innocent lamb-sacrifice, was explained as the paying off a debt that humanity owed to a good and loving Creator. If you asked what the debt was, you were told the story of Eden and the fatal piece of fruit that brought death and misery into the human condition. In that form it was an inversion of the Santa Claus story. Father Christmas gives you something for nothing. God the Father punishes people for things they didn’t do and calls it original sin. Like a credit card debt you can’t pay off, the guilt just kept getting bigger and bigger.
After a certain age and level of reflection this becomes an insult to most people’s intelligence. They look for a better explanation or they go off looking for the truth in another direction altogether. The High Priest’s comment helps. It exposes a universal dynamic in every human society and all communal relationships. Rene Girard, the French thinker, recognised it as a scapegoat mechanism whereby in a time of crisis a group in conflict blames its woes on an innocent victim – who is sacrificed, brings a temporary peace and is often later divinised. We still do it with Jews, gays, immigrants, anyone who is ‘other’ to the majority.
The Passion of the Christ reflects this universal dynamic, but does so uniquely from the victim’s perspective. The mask is exposed – although, because it is such a useful mechanism, we continue to use it, choosing to be unconscious of what we are doing. Lent and meditation are able to change this choice and make us conscious of what we are doing and what our true relationship with the Father is. The problem is not with the divine nature but with the human psyche. How can you help people to grow up and take responsibility for themselves? By treating them as adults. The Easter story is for grown-ups.
Inside the crowd mentality, however, humans act like animals or young children. We go with the strong and trample the weak if that seems the safest thing for us to do. The story we will soon be re-telling reveals the huge solitariness of the alternative to the crowd. It shows how personal experience and myth merge. Rejection, suffering, death and the tomb are solitary ordeals. Let’s face it. But it is not the whole story, nor, happily, is it the end of the story.
Holy Week (14 - 20 April)
Reading: Luke: 22:14-23:56
Yet here am I among you as one who serves!
The story opens with a triumphal entry and ends with total rejection and failure. Between the beginning and the end comes the great unravelling. It is the recurrent pattern in life that we prefer to ignore. Success, completion, contentment come with a graciousness that we could not have imagined filling us with the delightfulness of gratitude. There is nothing more wonderful than the gift of feeling full of thanks. Instead of asking or imagining we only have the need to receive.
But before gratitude has had time to be fully enjoyed, the wheel turns. We are usually taken by surprise by a new turn of events in which celebration is replaced by anxiety or anger. The rejoicing crowd melts away and a mob surges forward intent only on causing us harm by depriving us of the ability to thank.
Meditation and personal discipline certainly train us in some measure of detachment so that we can be better prepared when we discover the gash leaking the contents of the bag of flour just received as a gift. But meditation and asceticism do not solve or avert problems. They only bring us to an encounter with the mystery in which the pattern repeats itself and which enables us to transcend it only by going through it. Today I saw a photo circulating everywhere in the media, the first photo of any black hole which was taken from a hugely distant galaxy called M87. It has a dark centre, the event horizon beyond which not even light can escape, surrounded by a halo of brilliant, joyful light. The co-existence - or sequencing - of opposites seems to be an integral part of nature everywhere. Life and death cannot, apparently, exist separately.
In human consciousness this mystery would crush us, as surely as a black hole would swallow us, if it were not for the miracle of the spirit of service. Self-giving is the only way to survive the roller-coast ride of life. Jesus rode in triumph into Jerusalem, like a successful political candidate. Everyone loves success. Crowds are at their most adoring when they are high on success. But he seemed unmoved, unattached to it all.
Before he was sucked into the black hole in Gethsemane, he celebrated a last meal with friends among whom he knew the one would push him over the edge. The mood was not sombre but serious. Seriousness, as John Main said, leads to joy. The tone of the evening was surprising, set by a leader who had always been a man for others, who would serve to the end even those who betrayed him and his hopes. Service reveals a different kind of thankfulness, which cannot be obliterated by its opposite.
Reading: John 12:1-11
The house was full of the scent of the ointment.
This week is a penetration of the mystery of Jesus of Capernaum who is the Christ for those who see him with the eyes of faith. Travelling into any mystery involves encountering new dimensions of reality where the logical mind and common-sense protest at the infringement of absurdity. This doesn’t make sense. It’s all a myth. All nonsense! These reactions may indeed be well-founded, so we should give them a respectful hearing: dialogue with atheists is better than preaching to the converted. But they may also be the signs that we are making progress across the inter-stellar spaces and encountering a reality that contains us rather than the image of a reality we observe through a telescope.
On this journey of faith – such it is – we can flash backwards to past events and see what they reveal of the present and of our direction into the future. I met someone once who had almost drowned and did indeed see his ‘life pass before him’ like a movie being rewound – or fast-forwarded, he couldn’t say which. One day we will find out for ourselves.
The stories of this week do the same. Today we flash back to a meal. Jesus ate a lot – or at least frequently. At dinner once with friends and guests, Mary of Bethany broke open an expensive jar of ointment and anointed his feet. The house was filled with the perfume of the nard and of her spirit of service.
Two people can look at, or go through, the same thing and yet react in polar opposite ways. Some people at the dinner must have been transported by Mary’s spontaneous, symbolic act of tender homage and, then, felt it touching their senses through the scent of the perfume. Judas – who will be an important guide for us through the meaning of the Holy Week and Easter mysteries – and whom we are all closer too than we like to think – reacted differently. He looked at the price tag on the jar and complained about the waste. There is a time to bargain and a time when true value transcends dollar value.
Perfume lingers long after the moment it is released. In the spiritual dimension it spreads beyond time and space, unfading in the air forever. A good deed of pure service, a smile and tender touch in a moment of failure and grief, a chance gesture that illuminates the whole truth and opens the heart to what it never knew before: in the depth dimension that enfolds all dimensions and in which past and present merge, these impossible to forget. Mahatma Ghandi once compared the gospel to the perfume of a rose and pointed out how far institutional Christianity had travelled from its teacher. “A rose does not need to preach. It simply spreads its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon…the fragrance of religious and spiritual life is much finer and subtler than that of the rose.”
Reading: John 13:21-38
He dipped the piece of bread and gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. At that instant, after Judas had taken the bread, Satan entered him. Jesus then said, ‘What you are going to do, do quickly.’ None of the others at table understood the reason he said this.
The Last Supper was a stranger meal among friends than it may at first appear. In the opening sentences of its description we confront an insight into the intense drama of human relationships through which we are all led to our ultimate awakening to relationship – oneness – with the ground of being.
Jesus begins the meal by saying one of those present will betray him. Not the best way, we might think, of starting an evening of friends together. His comment, however, throws the obvious, familiar dimension of life, of conviviality and relationships open to a dimension the boundaries of which are unseeable. What does it mean? Why did he say this now? St John says that the disciples looked at each other wondering what he meant. Their exchange of glances further complicates the texture of this community. Jesus appears isolated, intensely solitary. He has exposed a radical flaw in their fellowship. But he is only drawing attention to it not giving details about it. It must be something they need to be aware of.
Peter, the leader of the disciples, asks John, the one Jesus was closest to, to find out who the traitor is. As in any human group there are layers of intimacy and these create the danger of rivalry and jealousy. The disciples are often described arguing among themselves about their respective positions. Jesus responds by giving a piece of bread to the traitor and ‘at that instant’ Satan entered Judas. The moment of direct communication between them triggered the shadow, the dark force. What it was, what motivated it or how we can explain it psychologically, we will never know. ‘At that instant’ Judas began the process by which he became a byword throughout history for betrayal, the eternal shame of bad faith. And yet, he is not only an integral part of the plot. He also illuminates the meaning of the story
Why then do we feel such a strange sympathy with him, the outcast who betrayed his friend and then committed the ultimate rejection of himself? Why is there this strange intimacy between him and Jesus as they share this knowledge, excluding all others present, of what he will do? An intimacy that seems the opposite of the one with the beloved disciple and yet includes it. This may be the key to the whole mystery.
All the contradictions and oppositions of life, even the great divide between the dead and living, are capable of being reconciled and united.
Reading: Matthew: 26:14-25
The Son of Man is going to his fate, as the scriptures say he will.
The great wisdom traditions hold deep, universal secrets about the nature of reality. But they are not as explicit as we, as literal-minded, scientifically trained people, would like. Our experience in the spiritual dimension today has been greatly impoverished and so we have almost lost the art of reading the ancient scriptures of any tradition. As a result, the modern phenomenon of religious fundamentalism has developed and the unifying awareness of a universal truth expressed in universal symbols has been undermined. Whoever wrote the account of creation in the Book of Genesis might well be astounded today by the 42% of Americans who reject belief in evolution and think that it all happened in six days. God’s ‘word’ for them has become linguistic rather than existential.
By reading the scriptures of his tradition in the light of his own experience, Jesus was able to understand and express himself with unique authority and depth of meaning. This began a chain reaction which eventually became a new tradition. From the Christian reflection on scripture, in the light of the unprecedented experience of the Resurrection, came the ‘new testament’. These short texts of four gospels and the letters from teachers in the early communities themselves became a scripture of primary experience. They emerged directly from a deep and fresh spiritual experience, not fully understood, but which became a perennial inspiration for mystics, theologians and artists.
What emerged is something uniquely characteristic of Christian consciousness, awakened by contact with the crucified and risen Christ. Firstly, it concerns the reality of the person who asks us ‘who do you say I am?’ – a question that can only be authentically answered from the frame of our own self-knowledge. Secondly, or at the same time, it concerns an understanding of God as Trinity, a three-way communion. Jesus speaks of the Father as his source and goal and he proclaimed his non-dual unity with it. But he also speaks of the Spirit whom he will send to continue and to guide the development of his teaching, the Holy Spirit who is the real successor of Jesus.
Yet trinity has long been an intuition of the human mind in its seeking of God and ultimate reality. Whether this is because the mind, reflecting its source, is structured in this way – we think in threes – or the other way round – has to be an open question. But it is more than coincidental that ancient Egyptians, the Vedas, the Indian tradition of sat-cit-ananda (being, consciousness, bliss); the three manifestations of Buddha; the Greek philosophical idea of humanity (intellect, soul, the body of the world); Lao Tze (non-being, eternal being and the great oneness that produce the ten thousand things multiplicity of the world); that all these and Christianity’s vision of God as Father Son and Spirit, speak of ultimate mystery in this three-dimensional way.
We encounter this truth both within ourselves – the ‘immanent trinity’ that lives the exploding life of its love within the human heart. But we also meet this interior reality in what theologians call the ‘economic trinity’- in the external processes and events of daily life, provided we have learned how to see them. ‘When you make the two into one then you will enter the kingdom,’ says the Gospel of doubting Thomas. What makes the two into one is the three. This is not theory. It is life.
Reading: John 13:1-15
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?
In St John’s account of the Last Supper there is more emphasis on the washing of the feet than on the bread and wine. But both points of view focus on the body.
To understand how central the human body is to the meaning of Easter – indeed to the essence of Christianity – we need to think of our own body. Thinking of our body usually has two options. One is, how attractive or unattractive I feel myself to be physically. There is a brief, even gloriously immortal, period in life when we (never with a hundred percent certainty) realise that we are young, fit and may even be actually competitive with other bodies in the market place. There are a few among our contemporaries who are gloriously certain of this for a time. If they were in a slave market in ancient Rome, they would be the most popular item for sale. This – hopefully - is only a minor key in our self-estimation; and for most of us it is subdued. But for a certain period of time we may be confident about our physical being. Increasingly, today, however, and tragically, young people feel alienated from their own bodies, as self-harming and eating disorders show.
The other option comes later, when we think of our bodies, not as being attractive or unappealing, but in terms of performance or survival. When our bodies become medicalised – and trapped in a dualistic medical system of tests and experiments – ‘my body’ becomes alienated from the person who says ‘my’ or ‘mine’. In fact, every use of the possessive pronoun suggests a degree of alienation from any true relationship. What can we ever say, for sure, is really ‘mine’ or ‘yours?
At some point – as when we are being cared for in hospital, or when we sell oneself on the streets - somebody else may even own it. When Jesus says, ‘this is my body’, however, he owns his own body. That means, not ‘possesses’ but that he is his body. How else, except with this degree of self-incorporation, could he give it to others – give himself as an embodied being? He is fully embodied and accepts this incarnational truth of himself, regardless of what his body may look like or how well it may be performing. It is not possessed and managed by specialists and insurance companies. Only in that state, when we enjoy bodily freedom, without our bodies being possessed by others – whether for medical treatment or for the pleasure of others – can we say, ‘this is my body. For some people, in the middle ages or today, the words of consecration ‘hoc est corpus meum’ are words of power and include the deepest meaning of the community in which they are spoken.
For others, these words may be merely remnants of a magical past. The truth is found in between, in the web of relationships that make up the body. We all, uniquely, belong to a greater body than our private body which shrinks and withers in its individuality. The other body dies but is raised in its uniqueness, to a new and greater intensity of life. For those who have the taste of the Eucharist this is something we can share day by day. Even for those who don’t have this connection, meditation gives access to it.
Reading: John 18:1 - 19:42
One of the guards standing by gave Jesus a slap in the face, saying, Is that the way to answer the high priest? Jesus replied, If there is something wrong in what I said, point it out; but if there is no offence in it, why do you strike me?
The account of the Passion of Christ stands as one of the greatest texts of all time that reflects the depth of human meaning. It is utterly personal – the innocent, falsely charged individual, scapegoated and treated inhumanely, tortured and barbarically executed. It is an old story showing the worst side of humanity’s use of power of each other; and it is happening as I write, and you read this. Each case, however, is unique. The very particularity of each is what reveals the universal meaning and with meaning – the sense of connection – there is paradoxically always hope.
Good Friday expands the human sense of the spiritual dimension. It brings us to the side of the scapegoat so that the mechanism by which we blame others, and make them suffer for us, is exposed. The secret of how power works is outed. We see the world as it is. Violence is irrational. When Jesus responds to the guard who strikes him, we see reason disempowering the facades of violence. We don’t know the guard’s response. The only real response is to admit the self-deception behind such violence. Unable to admit this, he probably slapped Jesus again.
There is another dimension of meaning, even more transformative than the exposing of our addiction to violence. It concerns the meaning of suffering. In Santideva’s ‘A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life’, a Buddhist classic dating from the 8th century after Christ we see how this meaning became universalised. A bodhisattva is a human being who devotes their whole being to the well-being of humanity, to relieve suffering everywhere. The Dalai Lama comments on this text that when a great bodhistava suffers they generate no negativity.
The Gospel goes further when it brings us the last words of Jesus on the cross: ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Not only does the Cross generate no negativity. It generates boundless wisdom and compassion. If Jesus had said ‘I forgive them...’ it would have been weaker because of its individuality. Instead, he called forth forgiveness from the ground of being on which he - and his tormentors and those who betrayed him – all stood. This is not a judicial reprieve, a mere act of clemency. It comes from insight into the cause, the ignorance and lack of self-awareness, of those responsible. In an instant we see the meaning of forgiveness, towards ourselves and others.
The death of Jesus generates a wave of enlightened love that washes across all dimensions of reality, all times and spaces. Whether recognised or not, his suffering touches us all. It exposes our human faults but without blame or guilt. It does this by revealing our essential goodness and potential. That is why in the ancient cloister of Bonnevaux this afternoon we will chose to come forward, bow before the cross and kiss it.
From a second century homily:
Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence...
Death is a hard teacher. But a good one. It seems at first like the great enemy – as the great teachers always do. Yet, when we have learned from it, it becomes our friend. In the Katha Upanishad the boy Nachiketas is resolved to find the meaning of truth and knows that he must penetrate and question death if he is to succeed. Laving his home and family he starts his quest across the threshold of the known world. Every wisdom tradition recognises the importance of remembering that we will die and reminds us that resisting the temptation – however understandable it is – is to deny reality.
Today, Holy Saturday is the day after. We can no longer deny it. Facing this, we also learn the meaning of silence. Nothing is more silent than death. Not only is death silent, but to become silent is to die - to our self. The only way we can approach the dimension of the divine is through the silence of all our faculties. There is no observation platform for the ego to take refuge on, to say ‘how silent it is here’. What it is like to be dead, the living can never know. We glimpse, with some degree of fear, that our body is not private property.
To live with this uncertainty makes contemplation unavoidable. Otherwise we construct false certainties and securities that rob life of its dignity and joy. In meditation, the work of silence, all our ideas about God become obsolete. God dies – as modern secular society well knows. Yet God survives his own death. It is not God who dies but our most precious images of God.
However painful may be the abyss of absence in death, if we embrace silence, we learn that neither death nor silence is not negation or an evacuation of meaning. It is emptiness, which is simultaneously utter fullness: the poverty of spirit that makes us full citizens of the reign of God.
Silence says nothing. It has no message except itself. Silence grows through all dimensions of reality. The silence of the body happens not through oppressing or humiliating it but through the discipline of moderation and love. The body has a million things in operation at the same time. Unless we are sick, we are not and do not need to be aware of them all. But it’s more difficult to meditate and do the work of silence when you have toothache or a runny nose. The silence of the mind is also achieved not through force but the repeated gentleness of training our attention – setting our mind on God’s kingdom. Not the idea or image of the kingdom but the kingdom which is silent. More even, which is silence.
Everything, including language and imagination, proceed from silence. To live and truly seek, we need to return frequently to the work of silence until it becomes like our biological operations a blessed natural rhythm we don’t need to think about. Jesus dives into the deepest mind of the cosmos and explores every corner of human nature and history. He touches the singular point of origin and simplicity, which science believes in but cannot find. Holy Saturday is the feast of the universal stillness at the heart of reality. When our mind opens to learn this, it does not become silent. It becomes silence: beyond all thoughts, words and images. It is the great liberation.
As silence, in silence we wait for the great event that manifests the life of love from which everything that is has come and to which it returns.
Easter Day (21 April)
Reading: Luke: 22:14-23:56
And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road.
He comes to us hidden; salvation consists in our recognising him (Simone Weil)
It has been a long road from Ash Wednesday to the morning of the Resurrection. It is not finished yet. Anything we have missed we will revisit as many times as necessary until we recognise it. But, from now, on the road is bathed in his light. Above all, there is nothing more to fear.
Our invitation to die is also one to rise to new life, to community, to communion, to a full life without fear. I suppose it would be difficult to estimate what it is people fear most – death or resurrection. But in meditation we lose all our fear, because we realize that death is death to fear and resurrection is rising to new life. (John Main).