These daily reflections by Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk and Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, are to help those following them make a better Lent. This is a set time and preparation for Easter, during which special attention is given to prayer, extra generosity to others and self-control. It is customary to give something up, or restrain your use of something but also to do something additional that will benefit you spiritually and simplify you. Running through these readings will be an encouragement to start to make meditation a daily practice or, if it already is, then to deepen it by preparing for the times of meditation more carefully. The morning and evening meditations then become the true spiritual centre of your day. Here is the tradition, a very simple way of meditation, that we teach:
Sit down, Sit still with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Breathe normally. Silently, interiorly begin to repeat a single word, or manta. We recommend the ancient prayer phrase ‘maranatha’. It is Aramaic (the language of Jesus) for ‘Come Lord’, but do not think of its meaning. The purpose of the mantra is to lay aside all thoughts, good, bad, indifferent together with images, plans, memories and fantasies. Say the word as four equal syllables: ma ra na tha. Listen to it as you repeat it and keep returning to it when you become distracted. Meditate for about twenty minutes each morning and evening. Meditating with others, as in a weekly group, is very helpful to developing this practice as part of your daily life. Visit the community’s website for further help and inspiration: UK wccm.uk and International wccm.org
If you prefer to listen to the Lent Reflections they are available on the WCCM Soundcloud.
Doors and windows always seem wondrous to me. I often can’t resist taking a photo of them even when they are actually very ordinary. But anything ordinary becomes wondrous when it catches your eye in some sudden, unexpected way and you look twice at it or even gaze at it. They don’t explain themselves rationally but seem to return the attention you give them.
This is why I thought of using this photo of a door that is just open enough to show us what is on the other side. In this case, a calm ocean the same colour as the clear light blue sky above it, both merging on the horizon. Horizons, of course, are merely illusions in the mind of the observer because when we see with the clear eye of the heart there is no horizon, only unity.
As we start the forty days of Lent, we can think conventionally of giving something up (usually something we may be even slightly, unconsciously addicted to, like sugar) and doing something extra (usually something we think we should want to do more of, like meditation). This is a good thing if it is done as a simple childlike practice. Then it reminds us we are dust and unto dust we shall return. The ashes drawn on our forehead like a temporary tattoo impress on us that we are made of earth and belong to the animal kingdom. But it also reminds us that our short journey in life is towards and beyond every horizon. We are luminous and conscious and capable of ever greater degrees of love.
In the gospel today Jesus teaches us to give up something and to do something. We need to give up the self-consciousness of the performer (or the observer) worrying about what God or other people are thinking about us. This typical concern of the ego blocks us from wonder and closes the door of consciousness. So this Lent why don’t we catch ourselves whenever we start to be controlled by the desire to look good or be admired. Jesus also tells us to do something, to go into our inner room, close the door and pray there in the clear light of God. Then we merge.
When we feel wonder the ordinary is reborn. Lent is the celebration of the ordinary. All w e have to do is return to the present. If we are sad it is a sign we are living in the past consumed with our thoughts and memories. If we feel anxious we are living in the future. But if we are at peace within ourselves and with others sadness and anxiety are overcome and we are in the present moment. We shouldn’t look back at past experiences of peace trying to recapture them. Nor should we postpone now the work of returning to the present until we have solved our problems and secured ourselves against the worst.
Whether we give something up and take on something extra, or not, we can do the most important thing of all that brings us to peace and benefits others: the practice of the presence of God.
Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mt 4:1)
The original meaning of ‘temptation’, it seems, is simply to ‘try something out, to see what it’s like’. How else do we learn? Can we blame Eve for trying out the forbidden fruit? Who tells us what is forbidden and what is allowed? God or our image of God?
What if we were never to do what is forbidden? Would we ever grow up, our eyes opened to the difference between good and evil, real and unreal, so that we know the difference for ourselves? The devil is the master of division and doubt and so there is no end to questions when we enter into temptation. We question the motivation behind what is prohibited and we question our own motivation in risking disobedience. We pray not to be tempted. But we are also drawn to temptation because it tests and teaches us where we are truly prudent and strong and where we are merely frightened and weak.
The desert is a place without trees, the tree of life or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which the Bible says are at the innocent centre of the garden of Eden. But these alluring trees are outside us, separate from us and so we feel we are being tempted by some outside force. As a child I was fascinated by cartoons in my religion book of a good angel telling me ‘don’t’ and a bad angel ,on the other side, urging me to ‘go on, you goody-goody do it’. The duality of it all seemed very simple but in fact it was deceptive.
I once crossed the Australian Nullarbor Plain by train for three days. As the name suggests, it was a treeless desert which I thought would be intolerably dull to look at for so long. No beautiful views, lovely coastlines or rolling hills. I soon discovered, though, how varied and subtly beautiful it was in its endless radical simplicity. It was in fact surprisingly beautiful. Jesus fasted for forty days in such a desert as his mind ran out of memories and his desires were uprooted and he was left facing the root division in every mind.
This was just what the Spirit – which is nondual and simple, beyond questions and doubts – had led him into the desert for. Now with an empty mind he was ready. Being mindless in this way is further along the way to selfhood than being mindful. We are not looking at things and merely desiring or resisting because we are looking at nothing. External temptations – not just the sensual but the ego-sensual things like power, fame and wealth in their many forms – keep us locked into the devilish world-view of division. In the beautiful bare-ness of the treeless desert, when the mind is undistracted, we meet the root cause of temptation in our divided self. (Will we ever know how it became divided from itself except through a myth of creation?)
Strengthened by his fasting from thought and imagination, not weakened by it, Jesus has no problem in sweeping away the last remaining illusions of power, desire and the final illusion of the devil’s independent existence. Free, one in himself and one with all, like the desert monks after him, he returned to the world knowing what he was called to do and then discover in the end who he truly was.
suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow, and from the cloud there came a voice .. (Mt 17:1-9)
Firstly, I must update you on my learning curve about sheep and goats. My teacher on the issue who, you may remember, corrected me last week has informed me of another significant insight. Each of the animals is in a different genus but belong to the same sub-family, family, order and class. The roots of good and evil are entangled.
In the first reading of the liturgy today we see Abraham commanded by God to ‘leave your country, family and father’s house’ for a land God will show him. Generations of Celtic monks did the same. Abraham who went as told is the ‘father in faith’ of Jews, Christians and Muslims, but no less a model for all faiths of the human response to the ultimate mystery of human existence. Abraham exemplifies total and simple detachment in obedience to an intuition that transforms us even though it cannot be fully understood. He exemplifies one-step metanoia, which also takes a lifetime of meditation and of trying to treat others as we would like them to treat us, (even and especially when they don’t treat us in that way). Contemplation and action, meditation and service. In our slow, stumbling way we learn from those who in one bound leaped into the light.
The photo for this week comes from the long, wide monastic corridors at Monte Oliveto. One day I was leaving my room for the morning conference of the WCCM retreat that we hold there annually, when I met an old monk doing his slow and solitary morning walk up and down the polished floors of the corridor. He greeted me with a gentle smile of recognition. We talked for some time. He didn’t want to talk about his health as many older people understandably do but asked questions about the meditators from around the world whom he had seen in the church. As we parted, I turned and saw him walking straight into the light. He died soon after, transfigured into the luminosity that already shone through him, as I had been gifted to see, during the last days of his life.
In Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, Jesus took his closest disciples to the top of a mountain shortly after telling them of the dark destiny awaiting him. On the mountain he is revealed as the new Moses and the fulfilment of the prophetic tradition. All is light. ‘His face shone like the sun’. Peter feels he has to say something about what is ineffable and offers to build three tents. Today he would have said to Jesus, ‘just stay there a moment and I’ll take a photo’. People don’t believe an event has happened or that they have been somewhere unless they take a selfie of it. But there is darkness too on the mountain of Transfiguration. A bright cloud envelops them all, covering them with its shadow. The brightest light, the best things in our lives, can cast the darkest shadow when anything – like a camera or a self-conscious thought, comes in-between.
Everything we call or describe as an ‘experience’ has actually already become a memory subject to the weaknesses and deception of our minds. As they walk down the mountain Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about the experience of illumination until after the Resurrection when the transparent Mind of Christ sheds a present light on everything.
John 4:5-42 – The Samaritan woman at the well
One direction of religion is upwards transcending this world into a realm of breathtaking clarity and freedom beyond the limitations of both mind and matter. Most religions get stuck in these limitations and entrapped by the other direction. The second direction is downwards into human culture. Religions form institutions, belief and symbolic systems which are useful only for as long as they provide the resistance necessary for transcendence. Hence the inherent contradictions of religion.
In our time religion itself is being changed by the crisis humanity is passing through. The Catholic church’s inner turmoil reflects what is happening in all Christian institutions and in the surrounding cultures. Some key issues recur and become intense battlefields, particularly sexuality and women. Yet the forces of these two directions of religion are being reconciled. Whatever else is being worked out, it is reshaping a patriarchal religion into one with a vision of humanity based on equality not out of date hierarchies of power.
Other religions, like Buddhism and Islam, are going through similar revolutions. As they do, all religions may come together in an unprecedented way. Human culture will be transformed. Instead of competition they will find communion in the greater, common direction of transcendence. Religions have a core mystical consciousness from which they emerge but also quickly forget, falling prey to the collective egotism of power and polarisation. In recovering the transcendent force, within itself, each religion discovers that it is – astonishingly – one in the same force as every other religion.
One hot day Jesus was walking with his community when about noon he became tired and sat by a well. His disciples left him to go and buy food. A Samaritan woman, who is not likely to be dominated by any man, came to the well. Samaritans and Jews were sworn religious enemies.
He asks her politely for a drink from her well. This breach of cultural norms – him speaking to a single woman and she a Samaritan – astonished her. It leads to a conversation within which they soon come to a deep mutual recognition. She refers to the immense religious divide between them and he replies that the hour is coming when truly religious people will transcend all their divisions. The hour will come – ‘in fact it is already here’, he adds –
When true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. And that is the kind of worshipper the Father wants. Because not culture not a religious figure – but ‘God is spirit’.
This extraordinary encounter leads Jesus to confess openly to her, a foreigner and a woman, as to no one else, who he is, the Messiah: ‘I who am speaking to you, I am he’. For a Christian this is very moving and revelatory. But I think to anyone with a spiritual eye, this conversation affirms the truth of humanity’s oneness waiting to be discovered beyond religion and culture in the spirit.
When will this be realised? Are we in a birthing of a new manifesting of this truth? We are if we choose to be. The time is coming but in fact it is already here.
John 9:1-41 – The man born blind
This is the story of Jesus healing the man born blind. After he had healed him, his disciples asked Jesus ‘who sinned, this man or his parents?’ A naïve view of karma. If something bad happens someone must have done something bad to deserve it. Jesus who embodies a higher law than karma, says that in this case no one sinned. The meaning of the blindness and its healing is as a manifestation of mercy.
Jesus then disappeared into the crowd but the man he had healed fell victim of the jealousy of the Pharisees. When he failed to deny what had happened, he was expelled. Jesus hears of this and seeks him out so that the cure he had performed can be upgraded to a full healing. The symbolic meaning of the event is manifested when Jesus reveals his true self to the man. It is not described from the perspective of the man, as the glorious self-disclosure of Krishna to Arjuna is in the Bhagavad Gita, but the man is shown something utterly overwhelming, surpassing the ordinary mind. The man declares his belief in what he has been seen and falls down and worships him.
The last part of the story zooms back to the pharisees who have been watching all this and try ineffectually to continue their confrontation with Jesus. In response, he says, ‘it is for judgement that I have come into the world’. This contradicts what he says on another occasion (Jn 12:47) that ‘I did not come to judge the world but to save (heal) it’. The larger and deeper meaning of anything depends upon seeing how it and its opposite can merge.
In the 15th century Nicholas of Cusa was on his way back from Constantinople where he had been part of an unsuccessful attempt to reunite the Eastern and Western Churches. He said on his journey he had a mystical vision which made him see that the ‘least imperfect name for God’ was ‘the union of opposites’. Jesus says he did not come to judge and he says he came for judgement.
The Greek word for ‘judgement’ gives us a frequently used word in our news bulletins today: crisis. Crises judge us; they make us investigate, weigh the different sides and expect us to decide what to do. All of these are aspects of judging. Blaming and condemnation may be necessary but they are not the essence of right judgement. The pharisees on the other hand (we have a tribe of pharisees operating undercover in our psyches) were harsh and unfair judges who leapt to condemnation before pondering the case. It is these nasty judges, operating within us unconsciously, whom Jesus does judge and call out of their hiding places into the light of consciousness. To be called into self-knowledge like this is about healing the ego-domination of the psyche, being saved from our dark side.
We live in a highly judgmental culture. At times, commonly on social media, it generates the violent collective mind of the lynch mob. When someone, especially a figure who has been put on a pedestal, has their dark side exposed, do we judge in the right sense or, taken over by our own shadow, do we rush to condemnation and revenge? Jesus doesn’t say we should hide the dark side. But he says, if those who cannot see, deny their own blindness they have a guilt that sticks to them in a very ugly and dangerous way.
John 8:1-11 The woman caught in adultery
Walking in Rome yesterday I passed a large powerful building with the inscription ‘Ministero di Grazia e Giustizia’. ‘Ministry of Grace and Justice’. Really? The combination seemed odd for a secular institution associated with crime and punishment. Do judges really dispense grace as well as fines and prison terms?
Later, when I mentioned it to some Romans they were surprised. ‘Yes it does say that, but we never thought about it’. Seeing it now, from a stranger’s perspective, they felt how strange it was. Was the apparatus of policing, lawyering, trials and prisons predicated on a mystic marriage of grace and justice? ‘Justice and mercy meet’ in God… but in the ministry of justice? ‘In theory’, someone said. Another, probably a lawyer, wondered if it meant the long delays in the legal system which mean you might die before your case is heard.
Yesterday I quoted Wittgenstein, one of the most difficult of philosophers but also most drawn to wonder about the significance of ordinary daily things. ‘The most important aspects of things are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity’, he said. We fail to see something, not despite its being in view, but precisely because it is before our eyes. Things are transparent. Layers of consciousness overlap.
Jesus is present and exerts an incremental effect on the evolution of human consciousness. His presence, too, is simple and familiar. Possibly, we have made up our mind about him, whether we exalt him as the final and full revelation of God or simply as one of the great players in the premier league of wisdom traditions. We walk past him without seeing his presence or how fully the mind of Christ reconciles all things. Like everyone else, Christians find paradox, the portal into mystery, deeply disturbing. Much easier to reduce his transparency and vision of reality to the lower levels of consciousness where dogma and morals rule. Doing that, it wasn’t hard to resurrect the Law that he fulfilled by seeing through it and for the church to slip back into an imaginary God of reward and punishment.
The lawyers brought him the woman caught in adultery. A human piece of property they callously used to embarrass him. Was he orthodox and would he implement the Law sentencing her to stoning? Or a liberal who wouldn’t accept divine justice?
His response shows his conscious presence, then and in the ever-present now. Hearing them, he bends down and writes on the ground with his finger. They persist and he says let the one of you who has never sinned throw the first stone. He bends down and writes again on the ground. One by one the mob melts away and he is left alone with the woman. Has anyone condemned you? No, sir. Then go home and sin no more.
His silence means he cannot be entrapped in other levels of consciousness. Writing in the dust shows that our minds are as impermanent as thought and actions. His tone to the woman with whom he is left alone and whose presence his overlaps, empowers her to keep learning the difficult art of being human. His presence is wholly transparent. It influences everything without force. It exposes everything without judging it.
Matthew 21:1-11 – Palm Sunday
Today liturgically, after forty days wandering the wilderness, we begin entering the mystery that leads to the promised land. To make any sense of that we need to participate, to the extent we allow ourselves to, in the sacred games: especially the game of telling a story which becomes firstly a key into the enigma of our own life; secondly, a passkey into the mystery of all being and existence.
The word mystery might make us think of an Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes story which gets rationally unravelled and explained. Or, more interesting, it suggests the term mysterion, used twenty-seven times in the New Testament. This refers to a mystical reality that everyone can experience but that is super-rational or super-logical. In ancient times the ‘mystery religions’ were cults by which aspirants were ritually initiated into secrets that should never be revealed to outsiders. Early Christianity has some similarity to these but with the great difference, as St Paul puts it, that the ‘secret is Christ in you, the hope of a glory to come.’ The telling of the story of Jesus through the scriptures, is the essential ritual of this Holy Week, connected to other liturgical rites that a child can enjoy – and that we can, too, if we can be childlike. Here at Bonnevaux, weather permitting, we will begin the Palm Sunday procession with a donkey which a trusting neighbour has lent us. On Saturday, at the Easter Vigil, we will do what everyone enjoys doing, and light a mystical bonfire.
A mystery is something we encounter but that awaits exposure and interpretation. We feel we are awakening in the mystery as we may sometimes become awake in a dream. Hidden in the story we are entering, there are many archetypes. If we can listen to the story subtly, these will help us approach the roots of consciousness; and we will sense an interior structure of meaning emerging, rather than an explanation we are imposing. We will experience the kind of meaning that is a deep connection and resonance, engaging with our own most intimate life-experience, incomplete but fulfilling. We are the story we tell about ourselves but what we tell depends greatly on who we are telling it to, and how they listen and then the connection created with them.
The setting of the story of Holy Week is the mystical city of Jerusalem, sacred to three of the world’s major religions. People still cannot live together there peacefully, perhaps because they haven’t listened carefully enough to the stories that each group tell about it. Today opens with cheering crowds, like a football team successfully arriving home after the World Cup. Jesus is the prophet they have been waiting for. Hosannah! The story soon ends in rejection and failure with a crucifixion on Golgotha, the garbage dump of the holy city. ‘It is finished’.
But, of course, the story is endless, because of the presence, the ever-present presence that we feel in the events and in their central figure. The presence is mysteriously eternal, impossible to verbalise. But it becomes stronger and stronger until, after a short and totally painful disappearance, it returns bringing with it a new dimension of reality, that is more real than anything and life-transforming.
John 20: 1-9 – The stone had been moved away from the tomb
As we prepared for the Easter Vigil here at Bonnevaux, there has been a lot of competition. It has mostly been between the birds in the trees and the frogs in the lake to see which could make the loudest noise. That’s the most obvious struggle. There’s also the competition between trees and bushes competing as to which can become greenest soonest in the sudden warm sunshine that we are enjoying; and let us not forget the insects. All links in the Great Chain of Being that unites us and everything in the cosmos to the Word through whom all things came to be and who became flesh and died for us and rose again.
In the great second century homily we read every year at this time, the Risen Christ speaks with the irresistible authority of love to those from the beginning of time he is releasing from hell:
Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image.
Resurrection is the result of love entering into what has died and calling it back to life, a broken relationship, a desperate failure, a broken world or a dying planet. Only love of the first order, the spring of agape, can break down the walls and weapons constructed by the illusions, pride or hopelessness of the ego.
If we feel outside this, observers or doubters waiting to be convinced and if we ask how I can verify this, the same homily shows us in the words of Christ:
Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form one undivided person and we cannot be separated.
To see the Risen Christ, we have only to enter that space of simple oneness in ourselves where we are outside nothing and nothing is outside us. We continue after these forty days on the same pilgrimage which led us into it. Thank you for sharing it with me and all the others. And thank you for the wonderful team of translators in ten languages who were patient with me as my main resolution of this Lent, to get the daily reflection to you two days in advance, was broken. Betrayed and betrayer can unite with the one from whom we cannot be separated as we say:
CHRIST IS RISEN. HE IS RISEN INDEED
If you wish to continue your reflections beyond Lent and Easter into the seven weeks of Eastertide, Mark Ball has provide a series of daily readings and lectio divina based on themes from John Main’s Monastery Without Walls. Click on the button to access these.