The first witnesses of the Risen Jesus were women. This was despite – or because – they were not seen as legally competent witnesses. Perhaps it shows us that to believe in the Resurrection we have to rely not just on other peoples’ comments but on our own experience. The ‘women did not know what to think’ and Peter was dumbstruck when the news first broke that he was risen.
This is the precondition for faith and the vision of things unseen. To be open to the deep wonder of our own creation and to how our being is penetrated by the mind of Christ – this is the way eventually to recognize him. It is also one of the fruits of meditation to bind faith and belief to experience – or as John Main says to ‘ verify the truths of our faith in our own experience. The Resurrection is not ‘otherworldly’. It sends us back to this life in a new way.
The early gnostics could not allow themselves to imagine how suffering and death could be related to God. Their dualism kept these two worlds rigidly separated. The early Christians could only see the astonishing epiphany of the Cross as the sign of a human destiny in which all worlds are united in the glory of god. The Cross epitomizes everything we want to run away from or deny: humiliation, pain, rejection and mortality.
The breathtaking insight is that this humiliation – a logical conclusion from the humility of God in the incarnation itself – makes accessible to us everything we want to run towards and embrace. When we have accepted this hard to believe and harder to understand truth, death is defeated and has no power over us. We can live free from our greatest fear. Furthermore we have been prepared for the deepest level of meaning in the story which awaits its silent explosion in three days time.
The beauty of the Christian vision is its vision of unity. The early Christians understood from the life and death of Jesus was that humanity is united with Jesus in union with the Father. Yet this is an abstract vision. All matter, all creation, is drawn in a cosmic movement of unity into the union that is the Divine harmony itself. (John Main)
Wednesday of Holy Week
As we reach the threshold of the Easter Mysteries we should take stock of what Lent has meant to us this year and whether it has prepared us to understand with deeper insight the meanings we are once again going to explore. To move deeper into the meaning we have to suspend our disbelief and be open to our own experience even – indeed especially – when our experience seems incomprehensible.
Is there a plan or pattern within the cosmos in which Christ forms a point of central convergence and illumination? St Irenaeus calls it a ‘recapitulation’ of all things in Christ meaning a summary, repetition and correction of all that has been that happens ‘in Christ’. But before the great picture on the cosmic scale comes into focus we need to answer this question somehow in the perspective of our own life. Lent, hopefully, has made us more sensitive to this level of truth and self-knowledge
Tuesday of Holy Week
‘One of you will betray me’. Jesus’ words sent a chill through his disciples who wanted to know who it would be. That means they each suspected they might be capable of betraying him. If we have potential for sharing in the glory of God’s goodness, a capacity for being divinized, we also have the potential for wasting it.
The struggle to remain on the path of positive growth is continuous. As soon as we become complacent or turn from grace to perfectionism the slow integration and enlightenment of our shadow side is interrupted. Everyone knows – in moments of depression or anger during the day – how easily the dark side can dominate. Trusting in our capacity to know and recognize this – remaining focused in pure consciousness itself –reverses this occasional collapse and even turns it into positive progress. Ultimately, we don’t have to fear even our worst capacity for denial and self-betrayal. Where there is sin, grace builds up and eventually floods in all the more.
Monday of Holy Week
We don’t ordinarily associate patience with passion. We recognise that patience is a virtue and even see that impatience is a form of anger often erupting as violence. But we probably feel that passion is a more heroic and attractive quality even though it too can cloud judgement and lead to irrational behaviour. In our behaviour we often oscillate between the two. Patience seems like a diminished form of energy and passion a more intense and concentrated state of mind.
But as we consider the Passion of Jesus and feel the force of its commentary on ourselves we might see it quite differently. The root of “passion” and “patience” is the same word and suggests a truth of great importance. Patience involves facing the suffering inherent in life – undergoing what needs to be gone through. But passion – intense concentration is also needed to sustain this and see it through to its accomplishment. Patient passion might be the theme that unlocks for us some of the depths of meaning in the coming days.
The Passion and Death of Jesus are a lived teaching. Deeds incarnating the teaching empower the most ordinary words with exceptional power and fill authentic silence with transformative meaning. The differences of perspective between the four gospel narratives express the infinite permutations of significance in these historical events.
Jesus prepares the disciples for the mystery they are about to be plunged into by reminding them of the meaning of humility – service rather than manipulation, accepting that we are closer to truth among the least, the lost and the last rather than among those who cling to facades of their own omnipotence. The events are packed with the tension, almost the hyper-reality of paradox. In these intense moments we meet the oppositions of success and failure, of the light and dark hemispheres of the soul, of the good and the bad thief, the polarities of loyalty and betrayal. Beneath this realm of duality we find the realm of the spirit, of unity. All that seems to divide converges in the central person of the narrative who himself seem to disappear in what he embodies.
Saturday Lent Week 5
In the Northern hemisphere it has been a long cold winter. Soon, when the grass starts growing again, the cows will be let out and frisk around the fields for half an hour before they start contentedly chewing the cud in their bovine long meditation session. Farmers and gardeners report that spring is late this year. Late frosts have caused casualties though we have to wait and see what will bud and what will have to be pulled up and thrown on the compost heap.
Early traumas in childhood can similarly create patterns and psychological blocks that only reveal themselves to be dealt with in later life. But the great cycle of death and rebirth is constant and contains all the vagaries of seasons and individuals. We find our greater meaning in realities greater than what we usually think ourselves to be.
Friday Lent Week 5
We are anciently conditioned to value ourselves by what we have or what we have achieved. In the ancient world it was ‘fame’ for heroism – or a name that would live after us for future generations. Today it is celebrity – just being recognised and applauded for whatever reason. Further levels of value are added by our material wealth which bestows power so earning the fear or dependency of others. It is harder, Jesus said, for people hooked into these ways of seeing themselves, to get into heaven – real life – than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle.
In saying the mantra we are divesting ourselves of each and all of these false valuations. We begin to enter the state of poverty of spirit in which we possess and cling to less and less. At first this is exhilarating. The sense of liberation is like breathing purer air or losing weight so we become more agile and nimble. Gradually however we realise that the letting go is boundless. In the end it is our very sense of self that we must surrender into what seems – at least at some moments – like a meaningless void. Only the experience of love at the core of this process keeps us going to the end that is in fact an endless beginning.
Thursday Lent Week 5
Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th
Today – 9 months from Christmas – is actually the feast of the Word becoming flesh. We ponder in our hearts today the mysterious conception of Jesus in Mary when she uttered her brave ‘fiat, let it be done.’ An assent that was like a minor ripple but was the first sign of a tsunami.
The major turning points in our lives often arrive in this quiet and undramatic way. The person we meet who changes our life. The failure or success which gives a new direction to the story of our life. When it all breaks the surface and is recognized we establish an anniversary moment of recognition. But the roots go far deeper than we can follow. At some profoundly simple level of unity all causes and effects meet. Then meaning – Logos – touches us.
Wednesday Lent Week 5
We are quick to pass judgement on others and our comments about them usually focus on what – at that instant – we find attractive, repulsive, inspiring or irritating about them. We are not loath to pass on these summary judgements to third parties who don’t know the person in question. When we find that we ourselves have been packed and delivered in this way, we are outraged (or occasionally flattered) by the partiality and lack of subtlety.
Unique as every human being is, each one of us is sacred. This means that anything we say about another person falls short of the truth – just as anything we say about God is inadequate. The mystery of reality resides in its wholeness. Only wholeness can adequately represent wholeness. Therein lies its truth. This explains why silence – compassionate, attentive, discerning and humble – is so necessary as the ground and medium of all our communication and understanding.
So, as we try to understand the meaning of Jesus in the coming days – having tried to understand ourselves a bit better during the last few weeks – our meditation will as always be our best teacher.
Tuesday Lent week 5
This is a good time as Lent draws to a close to reflect on what it has taught us this year. If we took on a special practice or embraced a particular form of self-control did we stay faithful to it and what has it done to make us more free and focused?
If we kept to it well, do we feel a little too self-satisfied? Above all do we feel clearer in mind and heart, better prepared overall for the deeper mysteries of the coming days. Even if we feel we haven’t taken full advantage of the opportunity Lent offers for the simplification and purification of our consciousness, what can we do now to hear the new melody, both darker and lighter in tone, that we will soon begin to hear?
Monday Lent Week 5
Spiritual practice is about seeing what we have to lose, losing it gracefully and recognizing what we are being led to find in its place. Every loss is painful, shaming, disappointing or infuriating. Think what you feel when your bag is lost at the end of a long flight and the customer service seem more inclined to gloat than to help find it.
How easy and tempting it is to allow the negative states of mind to take over and give the ego – which registers all losses as a personal affront – the space it needs to usurp your judgment. Every loss, however small and temporary, sets up echoes from all the previous losses of our lives: this is why we so easily over-react. Meditation and self-control are among the Lenten practices that have such a valuable and life-giving place in daily life because they strengthen us to withstand the first wave of negative feelings and to remember that however small or great the loss being undergone a finding will follow – as certainly as resurrection follows death.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Today’s gospel tells the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. It is a disputed passage by the scholars but so loved and deeply understood by generations of Christians that it has stayed in the canon. Why does it seem so emblematic of Jesus and the spirit of his teaching? Not only because he is as always on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized. One true test of where to see Jesus is to be on the losing side and with those who refuse to polarize and scapegoat others. But it also reflects his profound and tough gentleness towards that part of us that does on many occasions choose to point the finger and condemn.
Jesus does not simply exonerate the woman, defending her against a crowd of angry patriarchal males. He forces them, without using violence against them, to confront themselves and their own self-deception and bigotry. They do not seem to repent but their self-shame makes them slink away. He has saved and taught in one act that unites the forces of wisdom and compassion.
As a desert father once said when he was asked how best to find peace of mind, “judge no one and in every conflict ask yourself, ‘who am I.’”
Saturday Lent Week 4
Caravaggio painted two great works inspired by the meeting of Jesus with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The first executed in the peak of his career and popularity shows a young, beardless Christ in a scene full of light and wonder. The figure on the right throws his arms as wide as they will go in amazement at what he has seen. The second painting was made in a darker period of his life, when he had fallen from fame and fortune and was on the run. Here Christ is older and more somber, the light lower and the surprise of the disciples seems more muted.
The ways we see depend upon our state of mind. The faith in which we see grows deeper even through adversity. John Main said that meditation ‘verifies the truths of our faith in our own experience’. As the changing states of mind we are working to recognize and moderate better during Lent teach us, our experience is varied. We have phases of life, ups and down, and even from one moment to the next we change our mood and outlook. What remains constant through all these shifts of fortune and emotion has a right to be called true.
Friday Lent Week 4
You are having dinner with a group during Lent and dessert comes round. You have foresworn desserts as part of your Lenten practice. Suddenly it all seems a little childish and also the dessert is your favourite. And yet.. Then you see several others are declining the dessert. Maybe they are dieting, maybe fasting – maybe a bit of both as all human motivation is mixed. In any case you are fortified by their example, humbled by your own weakness and start again. The story of the spiritual life, never perfect but always redeemable.
Thursday Lent Week 4
The forty days of Lent prepare for the intense mystery we undergo in the three days of Easter. For this initiation into the mystery of Christ to have effect we need to feel an intuitive identification with Jesus. As St Leo the Great put it:” True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognising in him our own humanity.”
First then we have to be able to see with the eyes of the heart which are easily clouded over by any form of excess – for example too much anxiety, too long on the computer or more food than we really need. Therefore Lent strikes the note of moderation and that begins the process of purifying the heart so that it can see. Then we use the power of sight to look, to focus our attention on the experience Jesus underwent. To understand the meaning of suffering is a universal aspiration. Only at this stage is a sense of identification probable. This is not just an imaginary or psychological projection that keeps ourselves at the centre of the picture. “Our own humanity” needs to be recognized, St Leo says, which means a consciousness that arises from a newfound wholeness. Something long-familiar suddenly becomes startlingly fresh.
Wednesday Lent Week 4
St Patrick preached the gospel of forgiveness to the very people who had enslaved him in his youth. He moved from pilgrimage to mission. In the process something opened up and liberated him so that he felt empowered with love rather than bitterness. When we read the lives of the saints who, like him, ‘endured many hardships’ from foe and friend and who continued nevertheless to praise and serve God we might be somewhat sceptical that it wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds.
No doubt it wasn’t easy and there were times of doubt and discouragement and failure. But as we see from figures like Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Oscar Romero the love of your enemies is not an impossible ideal. To realise this gift – which is necessary anyway for our own peace of mind – two things must be in place. First we have to know we are truly loved as we are. And then we have to have the grace of endurance. In old age St Patrick wrote of his life with gratitude for this grace as he looked over the times of ‘prosperity and adversity’. John Cassian uses the same phrase to describe the fidelity to the mantra through the ups and downs of the inner pilgrimage. The pilgrimage embodies a mission.
Tuesday Lent Week 4
How different the green world looks in sunshine. What an affirmation of hope as the Spring shows it has not forgotten us. It’s true there is a beauty in grey days and bare trees but we still feel that spring and summer embody the deeper central truth of all life. The rest is preparation and closure in the realm of time. Those living in the tropics have different lessons in different colours to read from the book of nature. Their continuous flowering is still part of the universal cycle of death and rebirth. Today, unlike past eras, we can read the book simultaneously in all its global diversity. We can see and smell its glorious differences. This is a sign of the new holiness of our time, a spirituality of greater perspective and inclusivity. No wonder Lent comes on the cusp of the seasons.
Monday Lent Week 4
One of the most distorting effects of the ego is to blame others in order to protect ourselves or keep our own image intact. Because we see it in Adam’s pointing the finger at Eve and even in the behaviour of very young children, it must be a deeply embedded defence mechanism. It leads to all sorts of problems, not least the scapegoating of the innocent.
Biblically, the desert symbolizes the place where the radical simplicity of the environment and the lack of places to distract oneself lead to a gradual withdrawing of all our projections. Idolizing or demonizing are equally unreal. In simplicity we first face, then accept ourselves as we are and it is then easier to take responsibility where we should. The first step is to be honest with ourselves. This is why Jesus warns against any kind of play-acting in the externals of religion. Easier said than done; but meditation makes it possible because it too is a kind of desert of radical simplicity and transparency.
Sunday Lent Week 4
Then the day they had often dreamed of came. And the people who had spent forty years in the wilderness, oscillating between hope and despair, making of themselves another generation that would have no memory of slavery, entered the Promised Land. On that day the manna ceased – the special food, a bit bland perhaps but that had followed them so faithfully, was taken away from them. And they had to get used now to the food grown locally. (Joshua 5:9-12)
Saturday Lent Week 3
“It is mercy not sacrifice I want”. The prophet Hosea said this and Jesus quoted it in one of his teachings.
So often sacrifice means sacrificing others. It takes a very clear perception, unclouded by the distorting effects of the ego, to see that the nature of ultimate reality is compassionate. So easily we usurp the throne of God and set up ourselves, with our resentments and self-centred views, as the arbiter of justice. Egoism is confident in being police, judge, jury and gaoler. Meditation and the clarifying effects of the practices of Lent reins in the ego and restores the clarity and restraint of humility.
Lent and meditation have a common goal – not the egotism of a false spirituality – but the spirit of kindness, forgiveness and gentleness. In their pure form these qualities are more powerful and effective than all forms of violence. Meditation is a continuous Lent – prayer and a mental fast. Lent is an external reminder of all that meditation teaches and achieves on a daily basis.
Friday Lent Week 3
The kingdom of heaven is not a place but a way of being in love with reality. Jesus said it is like a man who stumbled across a treasure buried in a field. But, he added, it is also like a merchant looking for fine pearls. Chance and design. Grace and faith. Discipline and freedom. Prudence and spontaneity. Apparent opposites but in reality two sides of the same coin that spins eternally in stillness, here and now there and everywhere.
Thursday Lent Week 3
An early Christian teacher said that prayer has replaced sacrifice in our relationship to God. This illustrates the point Jesus is making when he says that “the Father wants worship in spirit and in truth”. This fundamental watershed in religious consciousness does not invalidate all external observances but it relativises and gives them a new purpose.
If we give up candy for Lent it is not to come closer to God through suffering. It is to focus and concentrate ourselves better in the pure act of attention – the sacrifice of the heart – that is prayer.
Wednesday Lent Week 3
An old man with eyes of growing distance looks at you and says his work is over but he wants to learn to meditate. A child with unquestioning trust looks straight at you and then closes his eyes to meditate. Between the two and embracing both is the spirit of Lent.
Tuesday Lent Week 3
By this stage of Lent we should be clearer about the areas in ourselves where we need to change, to open up, to allow the spirit to work. This work takes more than forty days but Lent can bring them into focus and even by becoming conscious of them we are already bringing about change.
One such area concerns forgiveness. We may “move on” from a time of hurt, betrayal or loss too superficially. Under the surface we can remain attached to anger or sadness. Forgiveness is more than giving absolution. It is about letting go. The healing and reconciliation is in the letting go – not once but as Jesus said “seventy times seven times” – that is, continuously.
Monday Lent Week 3
The mother of the ten year old boy was taken aback by the intensity of his Lenten discipline. He had given up chocolate and when he refused a chocolate chip cookie she had baked for him and his brothers and sisters she was concerned he was taking it too seriously. She told him that God would not be angry if he ate one on a Sunday, when it was permissible to suspend the discipline, and also that he shouldn’t become too intense about it all or frightened that he would be in trouble if he broke the commitment.
He looked at her in some surprise and said, no he knew God wouldn’t punish him but this is what he had chosen to do and he wanted to complete it. Se felt reassured and perhaps a little chastened. He had just made a discovery which many of us never make or easily forget – that in discipline, freely chosen, we enhance our self-knowledge and self-acceptance. These qualities lead to a new sense of liberty and strength. The reward is an expansion of heart and mind and a new sense of our selves in God – that far outweighs the sacrifice of the most delicious cookies, even on Sundays.
Third Sunday of Lent
Mountains hold a fascination even for those who don’t like heights. In religious traditions mountains become sacred places – from Horeb to Ularulu.
Hiking in the Himalayas you might have a Blakean moment and briefly see the mountain peaks as waves, only seemingly solid, but really like everything else in the universe, flowing energy. The tops of the mountains are the meeting point of earth and sky where what is visible and tangible touch and disappear into the ethereal and the transparent. Perhaps Moses on Horeb had a similar experience when he approached the burning bush and the great I AM addressed him. But the sacred easily becomes territorial as the unholy ‘Holy Land’ has long shown. In the new dispensation of the mind of Christ we no longer identify worship with sacred places – ‘this mountain or Jerusalem’, as Jesus told the woman at the well. Worship now is ‘in spirit and truth’. In a stroke our grounds for shedding blood or acting unjustly in the name of religion has been pulled out from under us. We fall into the mystery of the living God not our image of God.
Our spiritual practices of Lent should be enhancing this way of seeing. If we become attached to them for their own sake, or give them up because we get bored, or fail to re-start them at the right moment, then of course they can no longer have this potential.
Saturday Lent Week 2
Prayer is the laying aside of thoughts – so the wisdom of the ancient Christian masters of prayer tells us. If this meant ‘blanking out’ the mind or a general state of unconsciousness we could find other ways to do it. The ‘thoughts’ they refer to have two levels. First the random phantasmagoria of the mind – snippets of memory, flashes of fantasy, self-accusation, self-glorification, daydream or problem solving. These are all the natural state of mental activity, like the waves on the surface of the sea. The second meaning of ‘thoughts’ refers to the latent states of negativity. These range from lust and anger to pride and greed. They are what the desert monks called the ‘passions’.
Random thoughts left unchecked and undisciplined roam around in the untidy spaces of our mind. They can spark off one or a combination of these passions. So laying aside thoughts means both controlling random cerebral activity and, if necessary, wrestling with the force of the passions. There is not much of a spiritual life without being prepared for this. The mantra is designed to do this work because the work must be simple, deep and wholehearted. You don’t clear thoughts by thinking about them.
Friday Lent Week 2
We all have some tasks we like and some we try to avoid. Often these preferences and aversions are silly, wholly subjective and irrational, so we don’t like to make them public. A good gardener may love preparing the ground for the seed but always tries to avoid putting the plants in himself. A good cook can love the cooking and hate doing the presentation. An office worker can love photocopying and hate stapling. Perhaps we feel we just aren’t very good at a particular part of the job or we had an unpleasant experience once that forever coloured its aspect for us. Most of the time though we accept that we have to do things we don’t always like doing, just because they have to be done and the integrity of the whole work depends on them.
On occasions our times of prayer can be like this. There is always something else we could be doing that shows quicker and more measurable results. The feeling of failure that is an essential element of prayer much of the time – and that is only transformed in the alchemy of faith – may make us fickle about the discipline. Lent is not specifically a time for doing just what we dislike. That would be too negative. But it is a time for embracing the integrity and nowness of life and for recognising that some things are just necessary, even if they are inconvenient or we are inclined to postpone them. Surprisingly we often learn to love the work we once tried to avoid.
Thursday Lent Week 2
Today’s gospel, about the rich man Dives and the poor man Lazarus, urges us to make full use of all the time we have. Buddhists with their sense of cyclical time are advised to be grateful for having been born in human form. Christians, with their sense of linear time, should be as mindful and thankful for the gift of mortality.
It focuses the mind marvellously to remember how short time is. Dives, the rich man, who suffers after his death because of his neglect of the poor, wishes he had acted differently and would like to warn his relatives – a sign that he is not entirely without compassion. But, with a certain sense of humour in telling the parable, Jesus points out that in retrospect warnings are not much use. We need to see the meaning of our experience now, as we travel through the changing landscapes of our lives. One of the opportunities of Lent is to remember that being in the present moment and open to its infinite potential is more important than remembering our mistakes of the past.
Wednesday Lent Week 2
The themes unfolded during the rituals of the three days of Easter are not less than the main constituents of the meaning of life. In the ancient world the Eleusinian Mysteries were initiation ceremonies for the cult of Demeter and Persephone promising some kind of divinisation. They were secret rites with roots in prehistoric religion. Socrates refused to participate because he would not be allowed to speak about the knowledge he gained. As with all serious religious ritual, preparation for the participants was necessary. Lent is our preparation and Easter is our mystery.
One of the themes of the Easter mysteries is that of betrayal. Jesus was betrayed not just by Judas but in a sense by all he tried to teach. This is not so unusual but his way of handling it was quite unique.
The betrayal theme is deeper than it seems. Of course, learning to deal with betrayal or disappointment of hopes – not becoming paranoid and recognising our own blame – is a part of maturity. We should be alert to it daily and Lenten mindfulness can help with this. Meditation shows how the mind itself can betray us. But even more we should be preparing for the big theme – the full mystery that even the greatest betrayal is redeemable.
Tuesday Lent Week 2
If humility were only a slightly concentrated version of modesty it would present no great challenge to us. Jesus however makes it uncomfortably clear that it is a lot more than this. ‘Call no one on earth Master, for you have only one master.. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
There is not much wriggle room there for the ego to fulfill the letter while ignoring the spirit. Humility is as radical as you can get. And so it transforms all the power structures in which we find ourselves. If we are holding power over others, however benevolently, or if we feel ourselves subordinated to the influence of others, the message is the same. In the spirit we are all revolutionaries. Because there is only one master we are all equals and we cannot hide from this, our true self, in social, gender or religious role-play.
In meditation the deliverance from all power systems in which the ego has a role is the revolutionary goal. When it is achieved we are free.
Monday Lent Week 2
Humility is important. It is not a high cultural value today in an age of celebrity and self-expression. Yet the world we live in can help us understand better what humility is by showing us what it is not. You could for example be famous and humble, although wanting to be famous might impede your humility. You could be a great artist or blogger and be humble, though these activities could be so time-absorbing that you forget who you really are. Humility is essentially self-knowledge. It is important because knowing who we are essentially – that, is not just in other people’s eyes or through the prism of our ego – is the condition for knowing God.
We can only know God through a process of unknowing – letting go of our attempts to grasp or measure God. These attempts usually lead to false gods. Unknowing (the way of meditation) is the ‘laying aside of thoughts’. It is like stripping down. As when we go for a medical exam and are told to remove our clothes, we might feel initially feel a bit uncomfortable or embarrassed, sitting wearing a half-gown in a clinical room waiting for our turn to be tested. Feeling a bit silly is an early stage of meditation too. Being as God created us, in our birthday suit, is meditation.
The word humility comes from the Latin ‘humus’, meaning earth. Some time today take a few moments to stare at a piece of natural soil, in a park, in a pot or on a mountain. Especially as Spring arrives in the northern hemisphere – or with the fecundity of soil in the tropics – you might get an insight into how fertile humility is in its downt-to-earthness, its lack of pretence and self-deception.
Second Sunday of Lent
Transfiguration. Jesus went up the mountain with his three close disciples to pray. There in the midst – as they struggled to stay awake – he was transfigured in light. A Tibetan Buddhist with his knowledge of the mind-body continuum has little difficulty accepting the story literally. The modern westerner is inclined to go for the metaphorical meaning. But if everything in the material and mental world is in some sense a metaphor of a reality we can not grasp but only enter and be united with and transformed in, is the difference so great? The point is not just to wonder at what happened but to see that it shows us something of our own incomprehensible destiny and potential.
Today I will be with a family whose 21 year old son died in a tragic accident two years ago. The experience of time does not lessen the pain of absence but something does change. Life flows on and every day has its distractions but a deeper process is unfolding. Grief is a work that is part of the transfiguring of human consciousness. When the illumined Jesus ‘spoke’ with Moses and Elijah he was speaking about his coming death, grieving for what would soon come. We cannot make sense of life without this horizon.
Saturday Lent Week 1
In western culture we know all about image. A good image projects and sells anything for a while. If the image gets tarnished you make a new image, rebrand oneself or one’s product. We know that not everyone is as beautiful as the models who sell us our clothes or make us choose a holiday location. We know that the self-presentation of politicians as sincere, open and concerned is probably a PR construct.
This knowledge about how our world operates leads to a widespread cynicism, a deep lack of trust, often combined with a sense of reluctant dependency on what we don’t believe in. The hypocritical element in religion that Jesus exposed and castigated has also made us suspicious of men (or women) in long robes telling us what God wants us to be like.
At the same time our worldly scepticism has opened the door to a contemplative experience in front of which we stand confusedly, hesitatingly. It is the only way to go. We can’t go back to the comforts of an earlier naivete. But to step over the threshold into a spiritual space and way of living – this feels very risky.
We step over as we abandon all images, however attractive or entertaining, however flawed, in order discover that we ourselves are the image we seek. We are the ideal we project outwards onto others with less and less conviction. Our true self is the imago dei, the alive icon of God, the real thing. We have to look no further. The good news is that to look for it is already to be finding it. In fact we don’t even have to look for it. We have only to be still.
Something we might make a little more time for in Lent.
Friday Lent week 1
One of the plagues of Egypt was a darkness that covered the land and was “so thick that it could be felt”. I received a letter once from someone I had never met who was trapped deep in a dark depression like that. She berated me and the community for not helping her in her misery. It was clear she was deep in pain and anguish. Her anger was a form of release. When I asked around I found that several in the community had listened to her and spent time with her. Though they were not therapists they had held out a hand of friendship to her in her terrible isolation. Obviously the poor woman had forgotten this and it could not dispel the thick darkness that surrounded her. Like a black hole which light can neither enter or leave her darkness seemed inescapable. She could only feel the thickness of the dark, the eclipse of all love and hope.
The pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to let the Israelites go was momentarily shaken by the plague of darkness but when Moses pushed the bargaining too far he reverted and refused again. It was the next plague, the death of the first-born, that finally changed his mind. In the inner life too the death of the old self is a better fate than the dragged out half-life of the thick darkness.
Meditation is an acceptance of death and when death is accepted it must propel us into a more intense form of life.
Thursday Lent Week 1
I was watching a large mature tree being moved by a group of workmen. They had dug a wide, deep ditch around its root system. Probably some roots had been cut or damaged but there were enough intact to ensure survival. It looked like the middle of an operation, the patient passive, vulnerable and bereft of dignity. The men were slinging straps in a criss-cross pattern underneath the tree as they prepared to shift the whole miraculous creation to the back of a vehicle.
Religious observance or spiritual practice that is not radical – getting to the roots of our being – is a mere tinkering. It may calm the mind somewhat and console us for life’s woes – and these are not undesirable effects – but their larger purpose is radical conversion.
The paradox is that the big transformation that we undergo, progressively, in meditation seems like an upheaval and total loss – a giving of everything for nothing. Yet the reality is that it is about discovering and gaining something that our imagination cannot grasp. It seems like a dislocation and uprooting but it is in fact a homecoming and an embodiment. Lent is dedicated to getting ourselves onto this wavelength of paradox in preparation for the ultimate paschal paradox of death and resurrection.
Wednesday of Lent Week 1
If only sin were about breaking rules – it would be much easier to be good. We could change the rules or play tough-cop nice-cop with ourselves. The most powerful moral insight of the Christian faith – one that still hasn’t penetrated the minds and hearts of many Christians – is that sin is precisely not about illegal behaviour, breaking divine decrees. And, therefore, it is to be associated not with punishment but rather with – the word is ‘grace’. It means receiving a really free gift (we know what that means in the retail business) that we don’t think we deserve. The closest we come to experiencing it is when we realise that someone really loves us – ‘what, me, they must be mad?’ Well, God is a bit mad, from our point of view.
The Cloud of Unknowing says that the work of meditation “dries up the root of sin within us”. It also says that sin is felt as a kind of heavy lump within us. The sense of separation, of being self-enclosed, of finding it hard to be our real selves, of doing what we would prefer not to do, of inadequacy or unworthiness. Who wants to face all that, thank you? Why not stay on the surface of things and get on with life and doing a bit of good for others occasionally? Try it. It doesn’t work. Something – call it ‘grace’, too, if you like – draws us into the work of dismantling, uprooting and demolishing this deep-rooted sense of lovelessness that is the cause of all the inhumanity in our world.
Lent is a time when we can allow ourselves the indulgence of focusing on this work and realise it is not self-centred work as the day to day mind might tell us but precisely the opposite. The sign that we are doing this work is that we don’t beat up ourselves, or others, about failure and wrongdoing. We become less judgemental, acting as if we knew everything, as if we were God. We become more ourselves, that is more compassionate and forgiving. More Christlike.
Tuesday of Lent week 1
Jesus sharply tells his followers not to show off regarding their self-discipline – actually to hide the fact that they are fasting. His warning reminds us of how easily we turn into drama queens even in the spiritual life. The relationship between what we actually feel and what we show we feel is usually murky. Do we grind our teeth because we are angry or to show that we are? It is not a problem the tiger pursuing his prey has to bother with. But we are concerned about truth and integrity – precisely because we so easily lose the thread and feel that we have lost ourselves when we do.
The feeling that we are not being truly ourselves is deeply unsettling and makes us unhappy. Self-dramatising may be a stage in the discovery of the true self (and therefore of God) but it is not the end of the game. In meditation we shed all the external dramatics and even if we have for some time to witness the interminable internal play-acting and the rewinding of emotional tapes and ego-reactions, we deep down know we are not playing games. In meditation there is no pretence.
Perhaps that is why we feel it is changing us so deeply even if ‘nothing happens’. Perhaps too this is why meditating alone each morning and evening – as most of us have to do – and meditating with others – as in a weekly group – are mutually instructive. When the ego is stilled by silence then, when we are with others, they are not an audience to play to but a community to pray, to be, with.
Monday of Lent Week 1
One of the Desert Fathers said that the gift of self-knowledge is worth more than the power to work miracles. We may be sceptical about miracles today – although we live in an age of technological miracle – but we may also half-long for the extra-ordinary event or intervention that changes everything for us. The lottery win, the appearance of a perfect mate, the right job. Perhaps for modern people entertainment on a mass scale has substituted for our ancestors’ preoccupation with miracles. But self-knowledge is not about fantasy. It changes us and our perception of reality from the centre outwards. It is irreversible and so represents in fact what we call ‘growth’. Nor is it about passivity. Self-knowledge doesn’t just happen. We have to want it and want to want it and then work for it. Meditation is an affirmation of this, a personal commitment to this spiritual dimension of reality. Lent is there to help us to refresh this commitment and to be open to the grace that completes the work we have to do.