Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Fr Laurence's Lenten Reflections 2018

Fr Laurence's Daily Readings for Lent 2018 below
or see laurencefreeman.me

Tuesday of  Lent Week 5

Paradox is the portal to truth.

This may easily sound glib. Paradox can be fudged into something merely confusing where we don’t really suffer through the awkward contradictions of life, the bitter disappointments, betrayals of hopes, hurricanes of egoism, jungles of illusion and those swamps of misunderstandings that separate us from others for decades. We skirt around them rather than enduring the passion of them. Passion is undergoing.

Paradox - as the Tao and the Gospel testify, together with every sacred text that the human spirit has given birth to – is more than just not getting what we want or having a setback. It is ultimately not less than everything, not less than the Cross.

In a few days’ time, the purification of mind and heart that Lent has worked in us – to whatever degree – will be tested in the way we re-tell the story of the last days and hours of the life of Jesus. These occupy a disproportionate amount of space in his biography because they squeeze and distil, from the driest of stones, the meaning of his words and of his very nature. His story is who he is : the eye of the needle.

On Netflix – which is taking the place of novels in many people’s world – there is a menu selection of films or series that you have watched before and that you might like to ‘watch again’. In a world of relentless novelty, it is rather comforting that the world’s greatest marketing minds recognize the deep human need for familiarity and repetition.

As the perceptive Oscar said “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” The portal of paradox is rarely recognised at the first encounter and, if it is, it is often quickly denied. It requires many second visits before the full demand of reality can be faced.

Repetition burns away the dross of distraction. In meditation, as in any other form of faithful love, we learn to put our whole self into it. Then we have to take our whole self out of it. Even the idea that it is ‘my work’ or that it will bring me benefits must be given up. Having invested everything and then renounced everything, what is left is our true self, an authentic work, a new creation.

This is what makes for a good story and one we can never forget because we come to love it as a child loves.

Monday of  Lent Week 5
According to the Te-Tao Ching, an ancient Chinese wisdom text, right living depends on wisdom; and wisdom consists in a paradox as radical as that we find in the Beatitudes and the meaning of the story of the life and death of Jesus.

The Te Tao Ching, like Jesus, uses homely language not a hifalutin intellectual tone. 

Thirty spokes unite in one hub It is precisely where there is nothing that we find the usefulness of the wheel.. We chisel out doors and windows It is precisely in these empty spaces that we find the usefulness of the room. 

The word ‘precisely’ in this translation engages our attention. We respect and demand precision, the right word, the accurate financial report, the correct assessment of a situation. Businesses and governments spend fortunes trying to achieve the appearance of precision. It is the new ‘virtuous’ and a universal value in an age where everything must be probably useful. 

Used in this wisdom context, in a powerful but mundane metaphor, however, precision is not the same as scientific proof. Because the scientific method is our very highest value, it is easy to dismiss words like those above as mere folk-wisdom. We may read it on the train to work or in bed at night but we don’t feel challenged to apply it to the actual ways we live or run our institutions.

Our materialist value-system revolves around verifiable usefulness. What’s the point if something doesn’t produce obvious benefits? Naturally, wisdom is about making life better but not necessarily obvious. Lao Tzu – and the gospel story we will be plunged into next week – make a very disruptive point. The most useful may be the least obvious. 

Meditation is a wisdom path. It is a narrow one – in the way Jesus meant when he said that the way to life is narrow. But its narrowness produces immense expansion in the way that two converging lines, meeting in a single point, ricochet outwards into an infinitely expanding trajectory. A point is infinitely small; it has a position but no magnitude. 

It is like the emptiness of a window or the hub of a wheel, like death itself. 

We owe an immeasurable debt to the transmitters of wisdom in every field who illustrate this in ways we can understand, even for a fleeting moment before we forget again. Such teachers of wisdom are not like loquacious consultants paid by the word or the length of a report. They say everything in almost nothing. 

At which point in my failed attempt at Lenten minimalism I should stop.

Fifth Sunday of  Lent 
Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12: 20-33

Life is one damn thing after another. Religious people often deal with that by building walls and ramparts against change and thereby produce a religion full of damnation and condemnation. Religion is meant to be an enlightened and fearless way of managing change on life’s inexorable journey to God.

Today’s readings begin in the Axial Age – that evolutionary period of human consciousness that threw up the Buddha, the Upanishads, Lao Tse, Plato – and the Hebrew prophets. It was a time of deep, irreversible change in how we perceive ourselves. Jeremiah saw that his people’s understanding of God and themselves – the ‘covenant’ as they called it – had moved from a tribal deity with submissive worshippers who derived their superior sense of identity from it. Instead the ‘new covenant’ would consist not of an external Law but of one ‘written in their hearts’.

The upshot of this revolutionary change in religious consciousness was a new perception of equality uniting the whole people. Those who experienced God in this way forever look differently at each other. Teaching about God ceases to be from the top down. Now, ‘they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest.’ Such a perception of equality drove Pope Francis to call clericalism one of the three great corrosive temptations of the church. It also drove Mary McAleese last week to challenge him sharply to put this into practice in an incorrigibly patriarchal church institution and to respect the equality of women and men at all levels of its life.

In the second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, the beam of this revolutionary shift in consciousness is passed through the lens that is Christ. Or, more accurately, passed through the humility of Christ who learned (and who doesn’t?) to obey through suffering. Only leaders who are not afraid to show their wounds can bring redemption to those who follow them. If Jeremiah illuminates the equality of the new covenant, Hebrews reveals the transformative fraternity that Jesus opens for humanity through his way of living the human journey.

In the next reading Jesus speaks in that mysterious tone of voice we hear in John’s gospel. We meet the Word of God made flesh in his human tears and fears. The one damn thing after another has brought him to an ultimate, tearful and fear-filled moment in which he perceives the inevitable logic of his teaching: it, and he, will be rejected by the power structures it exposes. He will fail; and we can only choose to follow him through that black hole or remain in a religion that has sold out to power. Oddly and disturbingly, this is what liberty really looks like.

Prophetic equality, mystical fraternity and liberty of spirit. These are the elements of the revolution we are all caught up in now, like it or not. A revolution that has, so far, still hardly begun.

Saturday of  Lent Week 4
I once visited a man in hospital who had taken a knife against his wife and child when she told him she was leaving him. In a deranged state he then turned the knife on himself. When I saw him he was calmer but in immense inner suffering and totally without perception about the reasons that had led him to his sad and sorry state.

He told me that he was totally surprised and unprepared for what his wife had told him. He insisted that for all their marriage they had been as much in love as at the beginning of their relationship. And, he claimed, they had never once had any kind disagreement but always been in tune and devoted to each other.

Perception can be a terrible thing when it is false and when anything that challenges it and the world-view it supports is at all costs denied. Sometimes the denial remains complicit in a group or marriage for long stretches of time. When it becomes unsustainable something – or someone like this poor man’s wife – snaps. Then the accumulated forces of self-delusion smash the mind and flood into all our feelings like poison. One of the greatest descriptions of this in literature is in Jane Austen’s Emma. As a novel it is a comedy: that means it ends happily with everyone getting married to the right person. But, as in many comedies, the dark side of experience and its great sufferings have to be faced first.

In the course of a few moments, at the end of the story, Emma realises what a foolish, arrogant and totally unperceptive young woman she has been. “She was bewildered amidst the confusion of all that had rushed on her within the last few hours. Every moment had brought a fresh surprise; and every surprise must be matter of humiliation to her. How to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself, and living under! The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart! .. she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes... sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched -- she admitted -- she acknowledged the whole truth."(Chapter 47)

It is impossible not to feel compassion for someone when the veil of illusion they have been hiding behind is removed. It is a violent surprise and the violence is often, as in the man I mentioned, turned, one way or another, against oneself. Friends are never more essential than at such times of shame and insight into one’s misperceptions.

The negative surprise and misery of dis-illusionment is the mirror image of what happens when reality bursts upon us and we surprised by joy and filled with delight. This too can be painful but in a way of growth, like realizing your life has been turned upside down and inside out by love.

The sand in an hourglass appears (another misperception) to run out more quickly at the end of the hour. Our forty days are running out. But whatever we have been disillusioned about prepares us for Easter and the biggest surprise of all.

Friday of  Lent Week 4
Ultimately the cleansing of the doors of perception lead to purity of heart and the consummation of all conscious perception in the vision of God.

Every degree of perception - they cannot be numbered – is a door into another. If we reach a certain level of awareness – for example in peace and clarity of mind or imageless awareness – we may be tempted to think that we have reached the end of the journey. God, however, into whom the journey is being made, is infinitely simple. To arrive always means to set out again.

In our way of meditation, this explains the teaching about saying the mantra continuously and accepting that ‘we do not choose when to stop saying it’. However this does not mean, as some fear when they first hear it, that we are condemned to life-sentence of monotonous and mechanical repetition. Quite the reverse, faithful practice clears the way. The mantra itself is like an ice-breaker opening the way into deeper and more subtle levels of perception.

As it does this, the mantra is recited more gently and attentively, with the degree of subtlety appropriate to the level we have been led to. John Main described this work of the mantra to climbing up a mountain side. The more we climb the more the mantra sounds more faintly in the valley below us; but we continue to say or listen to it as soon as we fall into earlier levels of distraction or turbulence.

At times this may lead us into complete silence which means the letting-go of self-consciousness and the observing self. We are in a sense now beyond experience, because experience in the ordinary sense is always how we remember or describe something that is no longer fully present. Many people who remember a good experience long to recover it and endlessly regret its loss. Often what they remember and call the experience looks very different from what actually happened.

This is living in the past. But the essence of contemplative consciousness is absorbing and integrating the past, and then moving ever further into a deeper entry of the present moment. Real cleansing of our progressive levels of consciousness, which is what growth means, brings about progress by touching and throwing open the deep core of our being, in the cave, the abyss, of our heart.

All that is good about our humanity is there awaiting liberation and fulfilment. At this level of being we undergo a transformation that cannot be observed because it is simultaneously within and outside us. Often we become aware of the inner change by perceiving the new power of forgiveness, truthfulness and compassion in our daily life. These fruits of the spirit point to an interior change that we cannot watch happen. Without trying, though, we become aware of it in the silence of a pure heart (without effort or control on our part).

We then see God but without objectifying vision, with liberty of spirit but. This is prayer and it is the answer to all forms of prayer.

Thursday of  Lent Week 4

Meditators can be the most egocentric of people, especially if the cleansing of their doors of perception (see yesterday’s reading) gets stuck at the starting gate. The perception of our egotism, however uncomfortable, is liberating, but only if it extends beyond itself. If the contemplative remains fixed in her self-perception she betrays the goal of her journey which is other-centred perception. In training children we call this ‘thinking of others’ and it is related to basic social graces. But its deeper sense is the clear, direct perception of others, their needs and their goodness, that happens when we become subtle enough to pass through the walls of the cavern of our ego.

Blake spoke of the cleansing of our doors of perception. We could also think of it as a training, the ascesis that is life itself. Every act of perception is a lesson and a step to deeper consciousness. Just as we gratefully perceive things more clearly after physical exercise, creative work or meditation, so we come to love the training for the kind of work it performs in us.

The training in this kind of perception takes many forms. Like every universal process it is never exactly the same for everyone. No one is exempt from this because it is the very meaning of human development. But we are each different in temperament and past experience, in the kinds and degrees of woundedness and in the combination of strengths and weaknesses that define both our limitations and our potential.

The training never stops until our last breath and, perhaps, not even then. It involves constant correction of the course we are on. Extremes take us off course – even though they may help us understand better where we are not going. At one extreme, for example is ADD, jumpy, short-lived, inconstant attention: when we struggle even to listen to the person who is speaking to us or to the page we are reading. At another extreme is OCD, fixated, mechanically repetitive, compulsive: when the needle of attention gets stuck on the vinyl and keeps replaying.

Any extreme eventually leads to discouragement or despair. But we can be reassured that even mistakes and neuroses have their positive side, when we perceive them for what they are. This itself is progress and we should feel a ray of the sunlight of consciousness enter our darkened minds just in this perception of our dysfunction. In biblical language, admitting your responsibility for the mess you helped create is a good thing, the beginning of repentance, which is simply putting things back in order.

Cleansing our perception is like sharpening a blunt knife or walking a narrow path. Seeing it is not enough. We have also, always, to take the next step. Which is why we say the mantra continuously.

Wednesday of  Lent Week 4
William Blake said that if we could only cleanse the doors of perception we would see everything as it truly is: infinite. ‘For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.’

It is always tempting to think that solutions lie outside us. Others who fail to collaborate can then be blamed for the problem. Slowly through life we learn that we cannot change the world or other people until we first change ourselves. It is very annoying that this is a universal law but there’s no getting around it.

One attempt to evade the need for personal transformation is to think that we can cleanse the doors of perception by taking something outside ourselves and putting it inside. Humanity has had a relationship with alcohol for ten million years and then mastered the arts of producing it about ten thousand years ago. Our drug-addiction epidemic today merely confirms how easy we find it to escape painful perceptions of reality by changing them by external means. Every alcoholic and addict witnesses to the ultimate failure of this attempt.

If we want to see things as they really are we have to cleanse the powers of perception that permit us to know ourselves as we truly are. There are many of these powers, as there are many dimensions of consciousness in the physical, mental and spiritual realms. Proprioception, or kinesthesia, is the medical term for one of these powers, which is perhaps the perception we most take for granted. It is the sense by which we can perceive the position and movement of our body. For example, even with our eyes closed we know where our left and right hands are and what they are doing. We also know by this sense whether we are feeling balanced. Athletes make good subjects for the scientific study of this form of perception.

We practice it – and cleanse it – each time we meditate, when we take a few moments to be aware of our body and its posture. Are we sitting upright, still, with neck balanced and hands in position – ‘comfortable and relaxed’? This intuitive checklist becomes second nature with regular practice and grounds meditation in the wonder of perception itself. That we can be aware of ourselves in this most simple and immediate way reminds us that we are sentient beings not just stressed, anxious, discontented or complaining individuals. A few moments’ attention to our posture shows a way out of the cavern in which Blake says we have incarcerated ourselves.

Paradoxical as it may sound, this most basic power of self-awareness, perception concerning our physical reality, initiates the journey into other-centredness. It is, if you like, basic mindfulness and however it is practiced it brings its own kinds of benefits. But, if we are not to get stuck at self-awareness and if we are to enjoy the fruits of self-knowledge, we need to take the next step. This is why we meditate and why some of us support it with the perception-cleansing work of Lent.

Tuesday of  Lent Week 4
I have been leading a retreat in Italy and learnt two things last weekend, each concerning my perception of the world that I thought I was seeing accurately.

The first came after I spoke about the purpose and value of ‘doing something for Lent’, which these daily readings for the past few weeks have returned to regularly. How doing something and not doing something can help re-orientate our minds and hearts, shift old patterns and even, without doing violence to us, trigger or enhance deeper levels of transformation. I assumed that a fair proportion of the hundred or so people I was talking to would have done something or given something up. It was a na├»ve assumption because when I asked for a show of hands of people who had a Lenten practice, and expecting at least fifty percent, only a very few did so. Now maybe they misunderstood me. Or maybe they were applying the warning of Jesus not to parade your good deeds before men. I don’t know. We misperceive our misperceptions too.

If I was right I had made a mental misperception. Later I was given two powerful digital art works made with striking colours and dynamically abstract. As I looked at them longer I saw a face in one. In the other, I saw a shape that reminded me of an extra-terrestrial, though I didn’t say this to the artist. After a third look, it struck me that the face I saw was very familiar and I did mention this. The artist looked at me, surprised that I had not recognised myself. When I looked at the other painting the alien merged into a new composition and I saw a different view of my face there too.

To become aware of our misperceptions of reality is always humbling and can also be humorous and enjoyable. In more serious matters where our reputation or privileges are challenged by acknowledging our mistakes, we may pretend we always saw things correctly and were misunderstood in what we said before – or we simply deny and evade the embarrassment. As effective leaders know, it is always better to admit mistakes and if necessary say sorry but it takes a contemplative detachment from ourselves and our image to do this.

One of the values of an ascetical discipline is the humility, the down-to-earthiness it brings. We never practice them perfectly because, even if we are consistent, a measure of self-congratulation can always creep in. But the humble fidelity to what we set out to do nevertheless creates a detachment, an optimum distance from ourselves and our subjective view of the world. It allows our powers of perception to function within the flow of events rather than creating a model of reality that we defend at all costs even when it has been exposed as false.

This personal trait, which we can all be subject to without knowing it, also affects the collective psyche. Electorates who have made a big mistake, which is pointed out to them by subsequent events, rarely see reason and change their mind. To change our mind is the essence of human development. Like snakes we grow skins of perception that we have to learn to shed without regret when the time comes; just as, one day, we have shuffled off our mortal coil and enter naked into the kingdom where we see with perfect vision because we no longer objectify reality.

Instead of looking at it (and getting it wrong much of the time) we see with the eyes of the artist who made both us and the world that we are ever one with. Ultimately, we see because we see that we are seen.

Monday of  Lent Week 4

Forty is the biblical number that symbolises an extended period of time during which a process of transformation is completed. We have not finished the whole journey after this period of time but we are prepared to embark on a new and possibly quite different phase.

Most of our long-term commitments – in marriage, parenthood, in any long work undertake or in monastic life - will take us through this cycle of transformation and bring us to moments of transitional completion. The whole process includes long periods where there is a combination of daily repetition and self-renewing acts of fidelity leading at unpredictable times to total surprises. Growth is a series of forms of completion that we could never have imagined and that, when they come to pass, re-write the plot line of our lives. It is better not to fast-forward or skip to the end of the book because we miss a lot of the meaning of the story.

Each meditation is a microcosm of this forty-day process: of exodus, purposeful wandering and arrival at a promised land, which then sets us a new set of challenges and points of departure.

Perseverance is essential. We need to identify and dismiss the siren voices of frustration or desperation that urge us to turn back. The Israelites in the desert longed for the food they had left behind in Egypt, having got bored with the miraculous manna and quails that fell from the heavens every day to sustain them. Everything, even miracles, can eventually become mundane when we begin to crave variety or the imagined security of the past.

But after a while perseverance can become an unattractive idea as our desire to take a new route or spice up our routines gets overwhelming. Then we need to see that it is not all just a mechanical repetition we are committed to but a faithful repetition. It could be boring to get the children fed and off to school every morning but not if it is done in love and for love. Love transforms boredom into quiet wonder. Meditation is a work of love built into the daily routines of life.

A young meditator told me recently that he liked the boredom of meditation and he felt that his generation had been deprived of the value of boredom by the continuous stimulation and diversions of their lifestyle. I got what he was saying but I wouldn’t put it like that. I can’t say I have ever found meditation boring – often difficult and tempted to skip, it but never boring. There is always a surprise even if it comes after the meditation when you realise what a bad idea it would have been to miss it.

There is a subtle level of perception which faith awakens that allows us to know something new - that perseverance, faithfulness has a meaning and constructive purpose which though we cannot quite put our finger on and describe is more real than the greener grass we imagine on the other side of today.

Fourth Sunday of  Lent
2Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21

People endlessly wrestle with questions about the existence of God and of what God is like.
The Bible thinks that only the ‘fool says in his heart there is no God above’. But calling the atheist a fool doesn’t help the discussion today. The importance of believing in God today is not that we avoid being burned at the stake in a theocratic tyranny but so that we remember the equally important questions about human existence and meaning. Without a connection with the living symbol of transcendence we cannot fulfil our human-ness.

The first reading uses the familiar metaphor of God’s wrath descending on those who are unfaithful to the Covenant. It is still a metaphor that many take seriously because it offers an easy explanation for the mystery of suffering and gives the believer a sense of superiority over those he condemns for disobeying God. If we don’t decode the metaphor we end up with the Taliban.

The second reading helps to deconstruct this by stating – shockingly to anyone at that time – that we do an injustice to ourselves by thinking of God in this punitive way. We can only know anything about God through the self-knowledge which at source is God’s love for us. The text says that we, the human, ‘are God’s work of art’. And, that we receive salvation - the potential to come to fullness of being in union with God – through faith and as a ‘gift from God. The question of God is always a question about ourselves. The way we believe in God reveals what we really think about ourselves. Are we a miserable guilty sinner or a glorious work of art. If the work of art, then God must look on us as an artist looks at his masterpiece, not as an art object with a price tag but as an extension of himself.

As always, the gospel condenses all these ideas into the single, simple question of Jesus and of his meaning for us. In him we see that God loves us, his creation, so much that he is incapable of being cruel to it. On the contrary, he humiliates himself as a passionate lover does, discarding dignity and rights, loving the incomplete work into perfection. If we can see ourselves as his work of art, receiving the gift of his continuously creative attention, we have stumbled upon what human perfection really means.

The artist stands back from her work and contemplates it. She intervenes but does not interfere with its emerging identity. While it is still imperfect, she falls in love with it. While still working on it she knows that its beauty, its truth, is her own. What a Sabbath rest when it is finished. What a perfect work when it looks back at the divine artist and says thank you for making me.

Saturday of  Lent Week 3
The way through any crisis is to go deeper, to find the stillness that never changes and yet is the creative source of all change through the countless shifting shapes that life takes.

Culturally we no longer revere this stillness. We even deny it and have long worshiped the golden calf of speed and action for its own sake. We have forgotten the power of stillness to release peace and creativity upon the sufferings and challenges we confront. If it seems hard for us to regain contact with this stillness it is because we have lost touch with the obvious ways to do so – of which meditation is the most obvious, most simple and most immediate.

There are, however, states and stages that come at different times and in which access to this stillness suddenly becomes clear and simple. It may be a state of great joy, when we have first found love with another person, or a state of profound loss when what we thought would always be there is suddenly whisked away. These kinds of states and their variables come and go. But they are recurrent windows of opportunity that we can recognize if we take sufficient detachment from the emotions they throw up in us.

Stages are more like milestones. They remind us that we are on a journey through a linear experience of time even though there seem to be many cycles repeating themselves as well. In other words, none of us are getting any younger. Except in the sense that, as our union with God deepens, we realize God is always younger than we are: so we do become younger as we grow older if we have awakened to the purpose and meaning of time.

Stillness is not a state of piety or belief. It is their source as of all our devotion and values. The special stages of life in which we can most readily enter this stillness and ‘know God’ are childhood and, if we have stayed awake, old age. But the reassuring thing is that we can access the childlike state here and now because ‘the kingdom of heaven is very near to you’.

Children themselves are the most powerful authority for teaching this. I would also add those who found wisdom through suffering or those who enjoy prosperity with poverty of spirit. But children are the best teachers. This was brought out well last night at the Meditatio Centre in London, where we were launching a book by a former teacher who has written a book on meditation with children.* He has given a voice to the children he spoke with about their experience. Their simple and profound comments are very economical.

Ella (9) said, ‘When I meditate it feels like me and God are connected.. like he’s giving me loads of love when I’m meditating. I can feel his love. And sometimes in my dreams, I’m meditating and I can see God sitting there beside me meditating’. And Aideen (11) said, ‘I think we can all be like God if we try, so.. we all have a little bit of God in us.’

The anxiety and fear that often dominate us in later life are frequently linked to our childhood. We almost expect to become more burdened and complex as we get older and so forget that this state of childhood is still accessible. We give up the attempt to reconnect to it too quickly, too pessimistic and lacking faith in the wonder of our own being.

Stillness, simplicity and silence are the undivided trinity of states that lead us to become like children again.
*Noel Keating, Meditation With Children: A Resource for Teachers and Parents (Veritas 2017)

Friday of  Lent Week 3

I hope you are not getting tired of seeds because there is one more parable to look at. It is the most famous of all seed stories, simple and inexhaustible. Non-dogmatic, but it won’t let us go until we have been read by it. Luke 8:5-8

A sower went out to sow. He scattered the seed in all directions, with varying results. Some fell along the path and the birds came and ate it up. No response, predictable waste. Some fell on stony soil and it sprang up but for lack of moisture withered. Quick response but bad conditions. Failure. Some fell among thorns which were also growing and soon choked the seedling. Bad company. Disappointment. Some fell on good soil and grew healthily, a hundred times return on investment. A successful outcome of nature.

Jesus delivered this story, we are told, to a large crowd of people who were pouring out of the towns to see and hear him. He told this parable to a multiplicitous multitude: some real seekers, some curious, some just following the crowd as they would attach themselves to any crowd. Didn’t he realise that his words would fall on their ears as the seed in the parable fell on different types of soil? If he had wanted to win them all over and enjoy a short-lived Oscar award he would have chosen another message with less of the fullness of truth buried in its apparent emptiness. At the end he throws the ball into our court by saying: ‘Anyone who has ears to hear, let them hear.’ Our own ears are the soil into which the seed of his words fall.

This could lead to different conclusions about the crowd – which now includes the (say) two hundred generations that have heard the same story since. Or, the twenty hundred-year old people that, hand to hand, link us to that moment of the first teaching. We could conclude that all his listeners would be ranked in terms of their receptivity to the seed of his teaching. A pity then for everyone who is not in the good soil category. And most of us would suspect we are not in that. Are we really producing a hundredfold on the investment he has made in us?

Or we can conclude that at different times, different phases of our life, in different moods, subject to different conditions, each of us contains all these different responses. We are after all very inconsistent, much of the time.

In search of lost time, we see our many failures and missed opportunities, many misunderstandings and not a few stupidities. If we can’t, others will point them out to us.

The birds who ate the seed before it germinated, the short-lived and the choked seedlings – are they not also part of the great cycle of nature? Is anything really ever wasted? Does anything really die? Of course it does. But when it is accepted and seen in the big picture it is, as Wittgenstein saw, touched by ‘redeeming love’. What is the greater force in the germination of the seed of our life: failure or forgiveness?

Thursday of  Lent Week 3
The funny thing about a seed is that although it contains a living embryo it often appears empty. Holding a handful of seed you can feel, in this smallest and most fragile of beginnings, all the potential of the living thing it will, under the right conditions, grow into. I held some newly born kittens the other day, still with their eyes closed, as their full-grown mother roamed the kitchen in her feline way. Not long before, they were a miniscule fertilized egg. Bound by time as we are, considering how old we are or how much time there is left, we easily forget the continuum of life in which beginning and end, seed and harvest, are interwoven.

First the seed produces tiny roots, breaks open and then the emptiness germinates and bursts into fullness. Eastern wisdom incorporates the complementarity of these two apparent opposites: ‘fullness is emptiness, emptiness is fullness.’ The Christian parallel is the first Beatitude – poverty of spirit – as the live link into the kingdom of heaven. And if the kingdom is not fullness, what is?

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (Jn 12:24)

Lent softens us up to read into the language of paradox. The combination of giving up something and doing something extra makes ascesis work. Physically we send a message to our deep mind and if we are doing it with the right intention (to train not to punish) the physical experience is interpreted. Then we become aware of a different way of seeing everything. Lent thus prepares us for the greatest of all paradoxes in the human range of experience: death and resurrection. Yesterday I heard a brilliant writer speak scathingly of, as he saw them, such myths and crutches generated by religion. Paradox seems nonsense unless you decipher the code, and this happens not just intellectually. It is the vision of faith.

Wittgenstein, no mean intellectual, understood this:
And faith is faith in what is needed by my HEART, my SOUL, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can only say: Only LOVE can believe in the Resurrection. Or: it is LOVE that believes the Resurrection. We might say: Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to Resurrection …

I am jumping ahead by three weeks, I know. But the Resurrection is folded into the meaning of Lent. And to prepare for a deeper insight in the three days’ drama of Easter, we need to prime our response to paradox. After all, it pervades every moment of our life.

The seed that dies so that it can bear much fruit: this is another parabolic key to open the door into this core dimension of reality. Is this death as we imagine it – is death anything like what we imagine and fear – in the light of this paradox? Is it a termination or a transformation? An end that becomes a beginning? We cannot see the answer to this unless we fall into the ground. To fall is to let go, to lose control.

Wednesday of  Lent Week 3
Yesterday I mentioned the seed parable of Jesus. Actually there are several parables where he uses the seed to convey his teaching. This is one:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Mt 13: 31-32)

The mustard seed is in fact one of the smallest seeds in the world; and when I first saw a full-grown mustard tree, in India, I was astonished how massive it was. How does Jesus see the kingdom of heaven in this, that he had obviously seen and wondered at himself? The simplicity of his language, as of his teaching, reflects this experience of what was later called the ‘contemplation of nature’ – the facility to read the book of the natural world in symbolic depth rather than just skimming over it unobservantly, literally as we usually do.

It is the natural world he is looking at but also the human intervention in it. ‘A man took and planted’ the seed in his own field, that is in his life and being. The act of taking and the act of planting change nature without harming it. He is not crudely exploiting but respecting the forces of nature in his work of cultivation.

Our spiritual practice should also respect the natural process and the conditions in which we practice. What may suit one person may be harmful to another if applied in an unobservant way. Anyone can meditate; but someone suffering mental illness, for example, may need to adapt the discipline. Children can meditate but for less time and with less emphasis on the daily discipline (although many children do choose to meditate daily). St Paul said we ‘work out’ our salvation. The Buddha continued to practice meditation even after his enlightenment. The church, for all its historical faults, extends the life of Christ ‘until the end of time’. Taking and planting the seed suggests a practice that starts small but continues indefinitely. Although this is a natural process, it is not, at any stage, a passive one.

Growth happens when the conditions are right: if the developing seed is properly cared for. The focus of the parable is not to zoom in on the minutiae of the process, to observe what is happening moment by moment. Similarly, when we meditate it is not helpful to evaluate and measure each meditation period. If we do so we will fall into thinking of good and bad meditations and we will make the process, the perseverance, much more difficult for ourselves. Instead, allow yourself to see the larger picture in which the seed of your practice (the seed of your mantra, your ‘little word’) is growing. As it grows it also expands the world view you are living with, your universe. Our very way of judging is changed by this growth; and so to cling to the old way, limited, narrow and self-referring, sets up a resistance to the very growth we want to go with.

We grow beyond isolationism, beyond private goals and desires. We grow into inter-dependence, into reality. The seed becomes a tree that is not competing with other trees but offers hospitality to the birds to come and rest and nest on its many branches. The tree has become, as we hope we may become when we grow up, strongly rooted, multi-dimensional and wholly other-centred.

Tuesday of  Lent Week 3
The philosopher Spinoza is said to have the gift of giving peace to his readers by clarifying things and leading them to understand the big picture of life for themselves. ‘To understand is to be free’. It was he who said that ‘all our happiness and all our misery solely depends on the quality of the object to which we are attached by love.’

Or, as Jesus said ‘where your treasure is there will your heart be also’ (Mt 6:21).

There is a thriving happiness industry today. One side of it is entertainment which offers us continuous stimulation and more distraction than we can consume in a lifetime. Ancient history, for this generation, the days when television shut down at 11pm and people went to bed. The other side of the compulsion to be happy is the contemporary self-help, self-improvement industry. This offers a production line of courses, publications and quick tips, of varying quality, which promise that secret of happiness which entertainment-addiction patently fails to deliver.

It is our right, as the Declaration of Independence asserts, to pursue happiness. Politically, though, this means something different from what it means spiritually. The spiritual declaration is about inter-dependence; and we do not pursue happiness as a state of private satisfaction and fulfilment. We realise it.

We are all happier than we think. If we detach from thought in the right way (entertainment is not the best way), we transition into deeper levels of awareness where happiness is waiting for us. We find it, as Jesus described in his parables, like a treasure buried in the field or a seed that grows naturally into its full potential.

Our happiness is not our own. It is the happiness of the universe in being itself. Each of us, as an interdependent entity, shares in this joy of being. We cannot grab or possess it. This is blatantly obvious to us when we are surprised by true happiness. But we forget it as quickly and go back to pursuing it independently. Most of the time we don’t know where our treasure is; and therefore we have lost track of where our heart is. The ironical thing, too, is that we then forget what we truly love.

Reducing and slowing down our consumption and clarifying and improving our mental activity – which Lent and meditation can help us to do – show us where our heart is; and also, as Spinoza said, the real quality of what we have become attached to. There is no love without attachment. But no less truly, no love can grow without detachment.

Your smart phone probably has a feature showing you where your car is parked. Very useful when you parked it unmindfully and are wandering the streets looking for it. Meditation reminds us where our heart is and, in addition, clarifies for us what it is we truly love.

Monday of  Lent Week 3
There is a fair consensus today that something fundamental has gone wrong with the way we do things. The gap between rich and poor, how democracy works, how medicine is practiced, the goals of education, the use of technology and the media, corporate culture – and the role religion plays in society. The dysfunctionality in all these areas seems stronger than those who try to change things and so stress is at epidemic levels.

Something is missing. Let us call it ‘heart’. When the Mid-Staffordshire National Health Trust broke down some years ago it was meeting all its government-set targets. Unfortunately it was doing so at the cost of an unacceptable – the numbers are disputed - avoidable deaths. A US advisor was asked after the enquiry if he could identify one essential cause of this institutional disaster. He replied ‘a lack of love’.

The loss of heart in modern life has many consequences. Until we understand this we will continue to be overwhelmed by the feeling of helplessness and impending disaster. Many actually hope a general disaster will happen to allow everything start over again. Heart, however, does not mean only emotion. Racists lack heart but are driven by strong emotion. The financial markets are very emotional but often heartless.

‘Heart’ is a universal symbol of wholeness, justice and tenderness. If a politician speaks with integrity and tells the truth as he sees it, he exhibits this quality. The lack of heart in politics and in business today makes the rest of us feel hurt by this lack of heart. We are a heartsore generation. When the solution to mass school killings is to put more guns into schools the heartless image of armed teachers shows the lunacy that a lack of heart leads to.

What can we do? Take time. You cannot raise a healthy family without giving it time and attention. Too much stress destroys the joy of life and replaces inner peace, which is our true state of being, with anxiety, fear and violence. Take time to be, not to plan, review or do. Just to be. It is amazing how this quickly initiates a personal transformation in the individual and how this is then reflected in the way they work and relate to people. Families, businesses, hospitals, schools become different places when the people who work there rediscover their heart

Facing their crisis, the Hebrew prophets called on people to exchange their hearts of stone for hearts of flesh. Today we can contribute to this healing of our world through teaching a contemplative practice that teaches us again how to be, how to open our hearts.

Self-contradicting institutions and wounded and wounding people need to be exposed to this in the simplest and most inclusive of ways. It is not about religious propaganda but neither is it about reducing the human person to neurons and synapses. It is about finding again the universal truth that our full humanity is finely balanced in that centre of consciousness we call the heart. The result of this balance is a better, fuller life.

This is why we teach meditation - as a healthy ascesis, a liberating discipline. By the beginning of its third week, Lent should be showing us this.

Third Sunday of  Lent 
Ex 20:1-17 – 1Cor 1:22-25 –Jn 2:13-25.
After Easter I will be going with a group of pilgrims to the oldest Christian monastery, St Catherine’s, at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses, according to today’s first reading, received the ten commandments in the cloud that covered the mountain after he had left the people and climbed it. We will also see the burning bush, but no longer aflame I think.

There is real power - and benefit to our inner journey- to be found by visiting the sacred places of our own and others’ traditions. Pilgrimage symbolises the process of purification, simplification and transformation that we call our spiritual path – a journey that is no less interior than exterior because it eventually transcends all dualities. Without the sacred – in the form of space or time or ritual – our life is diminished, under-nourished by the power of symbol. But it is easy to polarise the sacred and the secular, the mystical and the rational; whereas, in this human quest we are all on, both need to be integrated and transcended.

Cecil B de Mille’s Ten Commandments, a Hollywood blockbuster of the 60’s, with Charlton Heston as Moses, was faithful to the mythical narrative text of today’s first reading but it is unconvincing and laughable today. We have to suspend our disbelief in order to read this kind of story, not to believe it literally. By missing the point, fundamentalism betrays revelation. In that state of suspense the truth of symbol can be felt. Seeing this is part of the spiritual journey we make from childhood to maturity.

St Paul matured with a bang – evidence of which we see in the second reading - when Christ exploded in his consciousness. He underwent the shattering of duality that happens when we plunge into paradox, comparable to the sci-fi astronauts who take their ship into a black hole and find new dimensions of reality. For Paul Christ is the eye of all paradox, crucified and risen, foolishness to the world, wisdom in the divine dimension, apparently weak but actually strong.

In today’s gospel Jesus cleanses the temple. He drives out the money-changers along with those running the animal sacrifice industry. The authorities are outraged, and with good reason. Without traders, how will the Temple be self-sustaining as no doubt they were told they must be? Such behaviour is also awful for tourism, like the terrorist attacks in Egypt some years ago. But when the sacred becomes profane it demands to be shattered which is why the history of religion is full of reform movements.

We see at the end of the gospel, however, that Jesus was not concerned about running a successful movement. If you understand him, follow him. If you don’t, well, wait. This detachment from his own message also propels us beyond literalism and duality into a deeper level of reality, higher up the holy mountain. Any meditator would realise from reading this that we too must purify the temple of our hearts of any thought or practice, however reasonable, that betrays it.

Saturday Lent Week 2
There is a false peace which comes merely from the feeling that we are in control and can explain everything that is happening. It is what Jesus called ‘peace as the world gives it’ and he distinguished it from his own peace which he bestows as gift. Like all gifts from a truly authentic source it is without conditions, regardless of whether the beneficiary – us – deserve it or not.

Peace as the world gives it breaks down and is easily dissolved leaving us confused, frightened and angry. What we had relied on is no longer there and its disappearance undermines our trust in the benevolence of the universe. We can no longer be sure we will be treated fairly by life. Any number of misfortunes may cause this breakdown of peace. It might be the loss of an epiphany of love that we had cautiously allowed ourselves to believe in and felt would last forever. It could be an unexpected medical diagnosis or a letter telling us we are made redundant. In a moment the peace which gave us a cushion, on which to ride out the small bumps of life with a smile, is gone in a puff. We land with a hard bump on an earth that has suddenly become hard and inhospitable.

Worse of all it makes no sense. Religious platitudes may give temporary relief: God works in mysterious ways. We have to take the rough with the smooth. Jesus suffered like this too. It is not that they are untrue but they remain tasteless platitudes, ungrounded and bloodless, until we have experienced their meaning. Once we have, we may use them, sparingly.

There is no explanation. At least none that takes account of the full range of human destiny including the comedy and the tragedy of life. Explanations seek harmony and present an orderly view of things. As in music, we relax into harmony and allow it to soothe us. Bach has many sections in his glorious harmonies where he tips this apple cart over and, for a while, lets the apples roll chaotically around the listening mind. These are the times when he deliberately introduces dissonance. It sounds as if things fall apart, just as they were taking beautiful shape. Why does he do this: is he really a secret cynic laughing at our gullibility for believing in ultimate harmonies? Or is revealing the dark secret that it will all end in chaos.

These explanations of why Bach sometimes denies us the harmony of explanation do not flow with the deep faith that pervades his music. His use of dissonance might be a statement that the inexplicable has to be accepted just as much as the predictable and all the orderly explanations we like to protect us. But none of these are complete or real unless they can co-exist with what is at times senseless and resists being given any reason. A mother who has lost two children in a car accident should not be told by a young priest eager to smooth away this fatal dissonance, ‘don’t worry, they are in a better place.’ There is no trustworthy explanation that does not respect the inexplicability of things.

Our Lenten disciplines are a sort of controlled dissonance that can teach us this in a small way. So does the ebb and flow of feeling in daily meditation over the years.

Friday Lent Week 2
Loneliness can be an even bigger secret and source of shame than sexual dysfunction. Social statistics – and government responses to them out of concern for mental health – suggest that an accelerating number of people, young and old, report that they feel disconnected from others, unloved and with no one to share with. It is an awful thing.

When we feel lonely – and, if truth be told, loneliness is part of the human condition – we realise that we do not and cannot exist independently. We feel false, unreal, odd and out of place because the truth is that we have no wholeness sufficient to itself. ‘No man is an island’. Yet it is also painfully true that there is something in each of us that cannot be as fully shared and revealed as we would like. Loneliness can open up even in the most intimate and loving relationships. Often when we want to be most open and clear we find it doesn’t work.

When we enter Holy Week we will notice this in those parts of the story where Jesus is shown in his terrible isolation, misunderstood by his friends, rejected for false reasons by his enemies. Not surprisingly when this appears in ourselves many try to gloss it over, become busier, look aghast at an empty space in their day or week, join more online networks, seek any form of escape. But community is not everything. It does not work, any more than marriage can, for people who fail to face their loneliness.

If we see ourselves running away from our loneliness, ashamed of it and secretive about it, we should also see how we are not learning the lesson it is teaching us. For his followers, Jesus is the master of loneliness and, seeing that, we might emerge from isolation into love. In his confrontation with his loneliness he was deeply silent. He did not blame his disciples who let him down or the powerful who abused him. His last words show that it was not the silence of bitterness but of love.

Silence is terrifying to our culture. The more lonely we become the more we turn up the volume of life and, as in evident in the over-sexualisation of our world, the intensity of distraction. We need to allow ourselves to be silent. Simply let ourselves be silent. Doing this with others – at times making silence, not talk, the real work of being together – intuitively allows us to see the loneliness of others without being frightened by it. We shall see that in this loneliness is our potential for God and so we begin to look at each other with gentler and wiser eyes. The pain of loneliness gives way to the clarity of solitude and we become solitaries in a common love.

Thursday Lent Week 2
In the middle ages Catholics were expected to refrain from meat and dairy products and sex during Lent. Jewish tradition has a sexual morality with a very different idea of sexual ascesis. It has a more celebratory attitude to sexuality which is reflected in seeing the Shabbat as a day when a married couple are expected to have sex. Attitudes to sex are culturally conditioned.

Yet universally sex is such a delicate subject and difficult to regulate because it is so intertwined with our need for love and with our sense of beauty. Bede Griffiths thought that it was equally dangerous to give unrestricted expression to sexual energy as to repress it. The only solution, he said, was to see it as a sacred energy, as many of the great spiritual traditions have done, capable of transforming us if we handle it well. But how?

Any kind of love, according to Thomas Aquinas, is a ‘similarity of participation’ in divine love. The theology here is beautiful and integral. Eros is divine, belonging in the life of God, because it is an aspect and manifestation of all love. The difficult thing is believing it and then living the belief in the context of our lives along with the inconsistencies of our own character.

Many of the most loving and generous people in the world have not got their sexual energy harmonised in this ideal way. They struggle with fear and guilt, excess or compulsiveness. But if they are honest with themselves this struggle itself can humble them and so create spaces for grace and wisdom to flow in and eventually through them.

Sexuality is a sensitive and ineffably intimate energy. It relentlessly drives us to union with others but also often and painfully separates us from them: a source of bliss but often of anguish. It is odd, then, that we can be so cruel and high-minded towards other’s sexual faults or indiscretions. By we, let’s include many Christians and most of the media. Perhaps the reason for this is that when a sexual fault is exposed in one person it threatens to expose something of the same kind in everyone. ‘We’ defend and protect ourselves by attacking those who have already failed and been cast out.

This judgementalism might be a good thing to observe and arrest in our daily reflection on what we have done or failed to do. But then we have to act to reduce it. Do we give people the benefit of the doubt? Do we automatically join in the jeers of the crowd as it turns on its latest scapegoat? Do we project our own shame into a condemnation of others? Can we see how much of our judgeing of others comes not from our own considered decision but through our absorption of the opinions of the media, the ‘news’.

Stepping outside the crowd is a spiritual necessity essential for integrating ourselves and for being compassionate. But to do it we must face an even more dangerous secret in the human heart which is loneliness.

Wednesday Lent Week 2

There is a tradition in the more exotic part of Christian ascetical tradition, from the good old days when ascetics meant business, of standing in icy water to cool off the passions while reciting the psalms. By passions, they meant not only the obvious carnal ones but generally all disordered and unbalanced habits or states of mind. Usually strict moderation seems to be the best way to re-set the system but, just as some countries use extreme austerity to improve the economy, so some individuals preferred cold nightlong baths.

There is another element in these stories, however, which make them less sensational and more significant. It is often described how someone tested the water the ascetics had just been standing in to see how cold it was and found it was in fact very warm. The energy of prayer had heated the water. This echoes the quite well-authenticated tales of Tibetan monks who sit in the Himalayas wrapped in cold wet blankets and heat them up by mental-physical power until they steam dry.

Most of us are a bit strange, if true be told, in ways that we normally don’t make public, so we should not be too quick to judge or ridicule those who like to do such things. Most people don’t want to invent and endure voluntary suffering of this kind even if it does develop self-control and personal training. Athletes might understand them better. But perhaps there is a lesson for the more conventional and, hopefully, more moderate among us as well.

It is the message that by acceptance, resilience and strong attention in the midst of difficult situations we can radically transform them. The discovery of a serious illness can evoke crippling fear of death but then lead through that fear to powerful love and produce compassion for others, in which the fear of death dissolves. A destructive addiction can threaten to wreck our life and then evolve into the discovery of inner freedom and joy. The most anguished sense of absence, as after the loss of someone we love, can gradually open like a flower into a new kind of intimate presence. And death can lead to resurrection.

More important than praying to have the unavoidable taken away from us – asking for a suspension of the laws of nature – is the prayer to endure and stay awake – what Lent is about.

And more important than that, as the great desert teachers advised, is to pray for the gift of true prayer itself.

However we have to learn to pray – just as we learn to walk or to talk

Tuesday Lent Week 2

It is possible to become as competitive and quantitative about spiritual things as about material pursuits. There are ascetical snobs just as there are successful people who regard social failures as inferior.

When I was making an extended retreat with Fr John and a small lay community, before I began my novitiate, a young guy came to stay for a few weeks fresh from the exotic ashrams and zendo of the East. He knew it all, had read everything and made us in the lay community feel rather provincial and amateurish. He looked in good physical shape, spoke sparingly, smiled rarely and sat in a posture with a stillness the Buddha might have envied. As if that was not enough he was (of course) vegetarian and abstained when on a special occasion we would have a glass of wine or beer.

Then one afternoon, when I had gone to the shops, I passed a restaurant and saw in the window our noble ascetic devouring a thick steak with a pint of beer and already eyeing the cream pastries near him. Looking back I can’t say for sure whether it was his sense of superiority or my sense of inferiority that made me so judgemental. A long time later, when I mentioned it to Fr John, he did not look surprised and clearly understood the young man better than the rest of us did. As my own self-expectations moderated I became less absolute about such things; and I think now he was probably just a genuine practitioner, not without an ego, who simply needed a day off and whom we had foolishly put on a pedestal.

Our harshness of judgement about others is invariably linked to our attitude to ourselves, to a sense of competitiveness or to the simmering shame of failure or of just not coming up to the mark. If we harm others we harm ourselves, whether we get caught or not. Similarly, if we judge others in a condemnatory way (we still need to be discerning about people) we cause anguish to ourselves. Judge not that ye be not judged.

Perhaps, at the root of the worst cases of political persecution or religious oppression of others, there is the infantile fear of ourselves not being approved by those whose approval we crave, even long after they have left our world.

What a relief and liberation it is, then, to discover in the spacious inner room of meditation that these mental and emotional games are fantastical. They are games that give us no delight and weave an ever-tightening bondage of spirit. As these games fade from our inner world we are set free and let out to play as children of God in the real world.

Monday Lent Week 2

The Orthodox Church, better than the Latin, but not as fully as Eastern spiritualities, remembers the importance of the body in one’s prayer-life. Especially in the monastic tradition, an awareness of the breath and the practice of bows and prostrations, some very similar to the homage to the sun asana in yoga, help to keep body and mind in sync. Perhaps any spiritually that is only at the mental level and only uses will-power and self-evaluation, will fail to bring the practitioner to a higher state of integration and peaceful ease with him or her self. One can never say often enough to westerners that the purpose of ascesis , such as what we have chosen to do or not to do during Lent, is not to punish but to purify.

Fasting (reducing one’s daily food intake) and abstaining from meat and stimulants (caffeine and alcohol) are also traditional physical practices found in all spiritual traditions. Sometimes beginning such a practice makes one aware that we are more addicted than we had realised, which is humbling and advances self-knowledge. In our time, dieting has replaced fasting, as tourism has replaced pilgrimage but they can be understood as the same things done for different motives. Motives are important to the quality and outcome of what we do. Maybe an ancient Syrian monk tried to bridge them when he said ‘try to be thin so you can pass through the narrow gate’. Jesus said few can get through it, overweight with attachments and anxieties as most of us are, although ‘nothing is impossible to God’.

Meditation itself is a fasting and abstaining. But, in daily life, attention to our physical intake helps to condition our meditation. Regular drowsiness, falling asleep and even certain kinds of distraction can be reduced by healthier nutrition. Today many people meditate to be healthier. The meditator eventually comes to see that we stay healthy in order to meditate.

Sleep and rest, too, are part of the natural rhythm of the body and mind. Many people today are sleep-deprived because they work late or watch movies or play games late and many continue their digital life even after they have got into bed. The monks of old, by contrast, used to recommend to consciously limit the hours of sleep and encouraged getting up in the dark hours before dawn to pray. As my head hits the pillow I usually give a sigh of relief and often remember Jesus saying he did not have anywhere to lay his head and am asleep before I apply it to myself. When people do get up in the early, still hours to pray they discover a special joy and calmness, a certainty that stabilises them for the whole day.

In the Song of Songs we find “I sleep but my heart is awake.” If you fall asleep saying or listening to your mantra you may find you awake doing so as well. With enough REM sleep you may find that you need less sleep but what you have refreshes you more. This helps the conscious and unconscious levels of the self to jangle with each other less during the day and so we may find we are both calmer and more intuitive.

Second Sunday of Lent
Today’s scripture readings show us many things. Firstly, how difficult it can be for Christianity to communicate itself today through the scriptures. Their stories, and metaphors often strike the modern mind as offensive or at the least ‘primitive’. Bede Griffiths thought there were only a few psalms suitable for Christian worship. Reading ‘happy the one who will seize and dash your infants against the rock’ makes anyone squirm and it needs a good lawyer to explain what edifying meaning it might have.

A defence is that such violence echoes the (hopefully) repressed cruelty and sadism sneaking in our own psyches. There are wild beasts lurking in the fresh and green pastures of our inner journey. Such passages may need to be de-selected for communal worship. Maybe we also need to see how the Word is present in diverse ways in the scriptures of other faiths and that we could to some degree incorporate them in Christian worship to better understand our own.

Be prepared: today’s readings are about sacrificing your child. Abraham has lifted his hand to plunge the sacrificial knife into his son Isaac when the angel of the Lord – who is the Lord – grabs his hand. A substitute victim is found in a ram. Abraham is applauded for not drawing the line at anything to prove his devotion to God. We can read this as a dramatic example of prohibiting human sacrifice which was common among the neighbouring tribes. It certainly shows how different the Israelites were and how this difference forced an evolving cultural description of their experience of God.

St Paul broke with this tradition when he found the Christ he had rejected to be dwelling in himself. But, in the second reading, we see how he still uses the old language: the old terms acquire new meaning but we cannot invent a new language even after radical conversion. For Paul, God ‘did not spare his own Son’ in order to benefit us. This expresses God’s absolute self-emptying; but it easily leads to an image of a God who uses violence to make things right again.

The gospel story of the Transfiguration of Jesus soars above all this. It is the iconic moment of Christian faith for the Orthodox church as the Cross is for the Western Church. Here we glimpse the blinding, unfathomable depth of the true identity of Jesus and of his filial relationship to the Source. But he also stands between, and so bridges, Moses and Elijah – the Law and the Prophets. The Law endorsed violence, the prophets denounced it. But they are twin expressions of a unique way of approaching the divine.

We need to think and discuss this issue of biblical violence – just as we need to address the violence against women and children in our ‘advanced’ societies, not to say in Syria or Parkland. But talking and thinking never end and can also lead to violence. We have to plunge into the truth, into the experience of pure light that burns away all shadows. Then we will find ourselves in the absolute intimacy that not only changes but transfigures us.

Saturday Lent Week 1
Exodus is the great scriptural metaphor for Lent: the forty years of the Hebrew tribe’s wandering in the wilderness before they reached the Promised Land illuminates the forty days we spend preparing for the paschal mysteries – and they are mysteries – of Easter.

The eighty-year old Moses was charged with the task of persuading the pharaoh to ‘let my people go’. Personally, he was, remarkably un-self-confident for a national liberation leader and by his own account a very poor speaker, but he trusted and did what he was told by the Lord. His show of magical powers – turning a rod into snakes – did not impress the Egyptians who could do the same. A lesson in religious competitiveness. The ten plagues that the Lord then brought on Egypt varied from turning the Nile into blood, to a plague of lice, another of flies and finally, most horrifically, the death of every first-born child. Finally the pharaoh relented and let them go. Then he repented of his decision and tried to bring them back but as a consequence suffered the loss of his army in the Red Sea. Thus the founding myth of Israel was constructed – a combination of persecution and reaction and bad relations with all their neighbours.

It is neither, at first, very edifying nor very historical. There is no record of this event in contemporary sources. Most modern people, unaccustomed to the mythical and allegorical way of reading ‘history’ find this representation of God either disturbing or absurd. It is not easy to defend except as part of an evolving discovery of the nature of God that takes place throughout the Bible. In Jewish faith this culminates in the prophets (they met a God of peace and justice who says “what I want is mercy not sacrifice”). For the Christian it culminates in Jesus, the prophet who in all ways unites God and humanity.

As long as we feel dis-united from God we will be victims of our own imagination. Bad events will be interpreted as punishment for crimes – consciously or unconsciously committed. Good events will be seen as rewards and signs that we are more favoured than others. Either of these responses is disastrous to our relationship with God (‘relationship’ should also be seen as a metaphor) and our relationships with others – especially those who hold beliefs different from our own.

So we need to read Exodus with a contemplative mind, feeling our way below the surface to the deeper, subcutaneous level of meaning and its interaction with our own experience. Then the plagues might appear less as cruel punishments of an angry God and more as illustrations of the sufferings in life that form part of our awakening and liberation. Maybe the secret of the story – yet to be realized in Middle-Eastern politics – is that both sides in this story of human hostility are in fact, in relation to God, on the same side and that each has a lot to learn.

Friday Lent Week 1

John Main once said (with Irish humour: monks, don’t take it too personally) that he had never met more egotists than in monasteries.

This is the point he was making. There are two dangers about monasteries. A monk might be very serious about self-transformation and his spiritual practice but also be focused on it in such a way that nothing and no one will get in the way of his direct path to enlightenment. Usually this is manifest in a hyper-critical attitude to those of his brethren who appear less rigorous – a kind of spiritual snobbery. The other danger is illustrated in the monk who enters the cloister with the purpose of escaping any challenging association with others rather than to find himself in others. An early Christian monk defined a monk as someone who sees himself in others and others in himself. This hyper-introverted type, self-centred type of person will use the monastic routine for insulation rather than encounter.

Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, spoke recently about ‘Leadership and Values’ at a Meditatio Seminar in London. He enumerated some of the ideal qualities of leaders and the values they embodied, recognizing (as with the figure of the Abbot in the Rule of St Benedict) that it is unlikely to happen that all this will be combined in one person at the same time. Governor Carney’s guiding principle, however, was the value of purpose. A leader needs a clear purpose – and the right purpose is always other-centred.

All this can only be relevant to us if, in some sense, we are all monks and we are all leaders. According to the Rule, the monk is someone who ‘truly seeks God’. Isn’t that what a serious meditator does, with deepening renunciation, as her journey progresses and transformation takes effect? Your image of God might not be anyone else’s and you may prefer to articulate it outside religious language. But, at the essential level, the experience of meditation is the experience of God – of love, wholeness and universal connection.
And we are all leaders – to children, for example, who watch us closely and imitate us. Even those who do the humblest service to the world – toilet attendants, street cleaners – can show real qualities of leadership and service in the way they work with their colleagues and relate to the public.

But we are also leaders to ourselves. Lent is a time when we do something extra and give up something familiar. Where is this decision made? How is it made? What is its motivation? Its source is in that subtle part of our own mind-heart mix that sees clearly and gives us a sense of purpose. It is not a rival or competitive part of our selves but the unifying, healing energy of ourselves that we call spirit.

Does it make us more or less egocentric? Or do we feel that the real purpose of our spiritual practice is actually direct service to others? Whatever fruits and benefits it might bring us are then dedicated to the well-being of the world. As we are also part of the world, we get our fair share of those benefits provided our guiding purpose is other-centred.

Thursday Lent Week 1

A cardiac surgeon in a group I was once introducing to meditation asked me to stop using the word ‘heart’ in my talks. He said it was distracting him with thoughts of his work and also, he added, in all his operations he had never seen anything in the heart that looked remotely spiritual.

At least it made him think. Many people when they hear the word heart used non-anatomically associate it with feelings and emotions. This is closer to the meaning of the word than the doctor’s materialist response. Emotions are indeed ‘felt’ in the chest area: we say we feel heart-broken or that our ‘heart drops' for reasons that might be connected to a link between the emotion centre of our brain and this region of our body. That may explain something of interest but not much. Love, interestingly, is said to be ‘felt’ throughout our body.

We can’t reduce feelings or emotions to the central nervous system. The heart is a spiritual symbol of the personal centre of conscious awareness and core identity. All the physical, mental and most subtle dimensions of human being converge and resolve in this centre of simple, abiding wholeness. We are our heart.

When we meditate we need to be prepared for different waves and kinds of feelings at different times. At first we may feel basic restlessness and itchy feet. It just seems impossible to sit still and do nothing in this unfamiliar posture for twenty or thirty minutes. Many struggle with even twenty seconds. Later, after our capacity has increased, we may feel a wave of anger directed at others or ourselves, or shame, or lust or greed, or a profound sadness and sense of loss. Feelings of nothingness and being dragged down into meaninglessness may be the worst we have to endure.

Meditation does not repress, deny or ignore these feelings. It is good they arise and are consciously felt. They come from somewhere and it is better they are outed. If we can sit through them we are calmer, freer and gentler with ourselves. In this sense meditation purifies our emotions by allowing these under-assimilated memories and associations to resolve and release their energy for better use. It is not the heart that produces these feelings, however. Rather, it offers us the still centre, the stable core of conscious awareness and attention that allows us to ride the waves, however stormy, and approach closer to the depth of being where pure consciousness, calm and clarity reveal a feeling beyond feeling and an emotion beyond emotion that we call the love of God.

Compassion and love are more than feelings: they may be associated with any feeling depending on circumstances and personal character. They flow effortlessly out of our true nature if they are not blocked by negative forces within ourselves. We cannot control or manufacture them because we are them.

The mantra – and our small daily practices of personal discipline and generosity to others – is our surfboard to this harbour of peace.

Wednesday Lent Week 1

What we may ‘give up’ in Lent simply serves the greater renunciation on which any integrated form of life grows into fullness. Lent helps us remember what this greater ‘letting go’ means and how each of us is called to make it absolutely – when the time is ripe. Until then, we simply learn day by day to be as real as we can be.

In many religions it was widely believed that the big renunciation of life could only be achieved through the monastic path. For the great majority, family and worldly affairs dragged them down and blocked that full gift of self which is the highest human achievement. By turning their back, not only on career and fame, wealth, sex and family but all ‘worldly affairs’ monks soared into enlightenment, on a higher plane of reality. The words of Jesus – the way to life is narrow and few find it – were misinterpreted to imply this.

Of course, lay people can come as close or closer to the renunciation of attachment to the ‘worldly affairs’ in their daily work and family responsibilities. All kinds of vocation have the same primary potential. What matters is not the outward form – the family hearth or the cloister - but how we fulfil the responsibilities associated with the particular path we are following.

To understand this means seeing how renunciation happens. When you push some ‘worldly’ aspect of life away from you – say an addiction or an excess -it does not automatically or immediately leave you alone. Things repressed tend to return. When you expel something by force it often springs back in some way if only as a compulsive desire or fantasy. There is a stray cat on Bere Island which I feed in the kitchen but throw out of the house, only to find it has had the nerve to re-enter through an open door or window in another room. Lent and the mantra both teach us this swing between renunciation and return. What appears to leave often returns.

Renunciation when it comes is a gift, a simple happening, a natural occurrence. To renounce we have to renounce the idea of renunciation as well. We cannot renounce by will-power if the essential renunciation is the renunciation of the will. We can loosen the grip but renunciation happens by itself.

So we come to see that the only renunciation that matters is what leads us into full freedom and spontaneity. This awaits the renunciation of all kinds of force and allows us to be filled instead with the power of the spirit.