These daily readings by Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk and Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, are to help those following them make a better Lent. This is a set time and preparation for Easter, during which special attention is given to prayer, extra generosity to others and self-control. It is customary to give something up, or restrain your use of something but also to do something additional that will benefit you spiritually and simplify you. Running through these readings will be an encouragement to start to make meditation a daily practice or, if it already is, then to deepen it by preparing for the times of meditation more carefully. The morning and evening meditations then become the true spiritual centre of your day. Here is the tradition, a very simple way of meditation, that we teach:
Sit down, Sit still with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Breathe normally. Silently, interiorly begin to repeat a single word, or manta. We recommend the ancient prayer phrase ‘maranatha’. It is Aramaic (the language of Jesus) for ‘Come Lord’, but do not think of its meaning. The purpose of the mantra is to lay aside all thoughts, good, bad, indifferent together with images, plans, memories and fantasies. Say the word as four equal syllables: ma ran a tha. Listen to it as you repeat it and keep returning to it when you become distracted. Meditate for about twenty minutes each morning and evening. Meditating with others, as in a weekly group, is very helpful to developing this practice as part of your daily life. Visit the community’s website for further help and inspiration: wccm.org
Ash Wednesday to the Saturday after Ash Wednesday (1 - 4 March)
Today, with the gritty feel of ash on your forehead, (that is, if you like the ritual, or in a more conceptual mood if you don’t), we begin a journey. If you would like to receive the ashes today but don’t have time to go to a church, or if you don’t like church, ask a friend to put it on your forehead. They can do it with the sign of the cross and a few words. ‘Remember you are dust and unto dust you will return’. Or, a little less starkly but no less radically, ‘Turn around and live the gospel’.
The journey is the thing, not the way you begin it. It is a journey of forty days, a number which symbolises many things – a time of transition, correction, purification. According to the Talmud at the age of 40 one becomes capable of another level of wisdom. The forty days before Yom Kippur are seen as a special time for personal growth.
First, decide if you really want to make this journey. As with starting to meditate, just decide if you want to begin, without worrying about whether you will finish it. Spiritually, there are no winners of the race, only those who kept going. And those who dropped by the wayside eventually get carried the rest of the way. The universe is friendly to all, in the end.
You may enter this season of Lent with a sense that you are in a bit of a mess and that you need to be re-balanced and to shed unnecessary inner baggage, attachments, addictions, regret, guilt, anxiety. It’s enough to know this is possible and that there is a plan for achieving it. Or you may feel balanced enough to know that you still have a long way to go. So you can start this year’s journey with the positive intention to go into deeper self-knowledge and brighter clarity.
Any journey can begin with a mixture of intentions and motives. These may then change, as you change, into a pilgrimage (no goal except that of arriving) or a dive from the world’s highest cliff-edge into a sparkling blue sea (the arriving is in the travelling) . The ash is a reminder that despite our complexity we have a radically simple core. Our common mortality reminds us of this as an opportunity for heightened realism and relish for life rather than fear and neurosis. As the ash is an outward sign, saying the mantra is an interior sacramental. They are acts that allow us to stop thinking about it all and to be one with it all.
The desert that Jesus entered for his forty days is our template for Lent. He was ‘led’ there. On this journey we don’t so much choose as consent. He was ‘tempted’. If we aren’t tested we remain blocked by our limitations, seeing ourselves as frustrated rather renewable beings.
Why doesn’t everyone jump on this interesting band-wagon and make this journey? Because the way is poverty. Detachment and simplification. This scares us because we fear we may end by having nothing. Actually, that truly is the goal. Let’s not follow the perverse gospel of prosperity and success. If that fake news, that is not good news, becomes our way, well, forty days later we will find that we haven’t even left base. The goal (after forty days of variable length) is that we desire not to have possessions with just the same fervour as people generally desire to have them. This poverty is the meaning of freedom. It is meditation. It is the journey into the desert.
First Week of Lent (5 - 11 March)
I met a Hindu woman recently who told me she was looking forward to Lent. She was not a Christian but had a great love for Mother Mary and Jesus. Observing Lent in her view was a wonderful opportunity for personal renewal and a deepening of her devotion. Her understanding of this season was refreshingly lacking in any punitive sense of penance or guilt about sin.
The essential principles of Lent express a basic human intuition around the need for reduction, moderation and purification. One side of us, of course, seeks to acquire, hoard and possess. But as soon as our clutter and possessions reach a certain level we begin to find them oppressive and seek to detach from them. That’s when the struggle starts. We want to be poor and simple. But not quite yet. We enthusiastically read about the state og poverty and simplicity. We watch movies and listen to talks about it. We may do a PhD about it. But we continue to acquire and hoard and even our spiritual life becomes another aspect of this cult of desire.
The Hindu woman reminds us that it is good simply to celebrate and obey the instinct to divest ourselves of what we have, but what we no longer need. Fasting – or its modern equivalent in dieting - is a means of doing this, even while we are still secretly clinging to what we are trying to let go of. What matters in the practice is not the perfection of our efforts or our self-grading but our motivation. In dieting our motivation is likely to be our self-image – what do I feel when I look in the mirror or what do others think when they look at me. In fasting the motivation is not what we look like or feel like but the degree to which we have shed the illusions swirling around our egocentricity. In Lent our focus is on what we can never see objectively: our true self. (So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Cor 4:18)
What’s so special about these forty days? Aren’t we meant to be doing this every day? Yes and that is why St Benedict says the monk’s (= the meditator’s) life is a perpetual Lent. We should keep our houses clean all year; but in the Spring we give them a special spruce-up and feel better for doing so, although it’s an effort.
At the end of his forty days’ fast what had Jesus achieved? (We find it hard today to do anything without thinking we are achieving something). He felt hungry. Which was understandable. He was able to receive authentic, not false consolation. And above all he was able to distinguish without a blink of doubt or delay the difference between illusion and reality.
Second Week of Lent (12 - 18 March)
We are presently participating in a clinical trial observing the influence of meditation on a group of doctors and nurses working in a very stressful emergency department of a large hospital. At the last session, in the early morning, I was impressed to learn that some of those present had just come off a thirteen hour shift that started at 8pm the night before.
One of the interests of the study is the high rate – up to sixty per cent – of burnout among the medical staff. Temperamentally they are strong and resilient people. They share an intense, deep (dangerously deep) motivation to help others in need. But I wondered if their coming to the four hour session immediately after a full night of emergency medicine was going to reduce or add to the occupational danger of burnout. Clearly they felt it was going to help them. Despite the challenge of daily meditation that they faced in their over- demanding lives, with work and family pulling them to give ever more, they saw the course as a wonderful opportunity and they were determined to make the most of it.
They had felt a call and they had started a pilgrimage. This is the theme of the Exodus readings of Lent that describe the imperishable myth of the Israelites led out of Egypt and wandering for forty years in the desert, getting ready for the promised land where milk and honey flowed. Recorded history shows no evidence of such an enslavement and escape but the myth is forever embedded in the culture and imagination of the Jewish and Christian traditions.
In the first of the readings for today we read of Abram hearing the call to ‘leave your country, family and father’s house.. for the land I will show you.’ For him as for the Irish monks, who believed they couldn’t be a monk in their own country and lived lives of self-imposed exile, the challenge to leave the family home and set out into the unknown is deeply embedded in the psyche. It competes with our need for home, security and familiarity, just as our desire for rest or death tangles with eros, our lust for life.
St Paul describes the interior contradictions he struggled with, torn between the hardships and rejection he exposed himself to and the peace and joy released in him through his discovery of Christ. He speaks of this as a grace granted ‘before the beginning of time’. We existed in the divine imagination before the Big Bang brought time and space, peace and burnout, home and wandering into existence.
The gospel today is about the Transfiguration. In The Good Heart, where the Dalai Lama comments on this passage he refers to the Tibetan idea of the rainbow body, which explains how the physical body is transfigured in those who have achieved the highest enlightenment and yet remain in this world to continue to help those in need.
So day by day we make our pilgrimage, even if it is a commute, leaving home and family, exploring the strange world of others and encountering their needs with our limited resources. We either burn out or we are transfigured. The difference lies in whether we have been still for the one moment necessary to be touched by the grace existing before time.
Third Week of Lent (19 - 25 March)
Time is flying – third Sunday of Lent – and what have we learned? What have we lost, or renounced, or let go of, that we should have? Has our level of fear decreased a bit? Have we understood better that the ‘fear of God’ that we hear so much about doesn’t mean fear of God as we were taught it meant – fear of getting punished when we get caught. It means what the Samaritan woman at the well discovered it meant one sweltering noon.
Today’s gospel draws us into one of the most Shakespearian dramatic encounters we have of the life of Jesus. One day, hot and tired by his walk, he stopped to rest by a well. His disciples went off to the shops and he was left alone. A woman from an alien racial group appeared to get water. From what she says later in the conversation that ensued, we guess that she didn’t want to come to the well in the evening when the other woman of the village liked to come and gossip. Because she herself was the object of their gossip. Like Jesus, she was alone.
It’s worth reading the whole story: John 4: 5-42, which must be one of the most examined and commented upon texts of any tradition.
Her solitude had not turned her into a bitter or frightened woman. But she was sharp-tongued and (having had five husbands) unfrightened by men even in one of the most misogynist of cultures. The verbal sparring between her and Jesus at the beginning, shows her spunkiness and his openness to people where they are, without any condescending sense of his own superior importance. This clash of personalities, as equals, produces a dramatic result. She returns to her original innocence (and to her community) and she recognizes, even in a male figure, the truth, wisdom and love that was (we might imagine) what took her through her serial relationships.
She was fearless but she had not, till that hot noontime, yet found the partner in intimacy who allowed her to use this fearless freedom in order to love.
If not, are we looking in the right place? Might a well be a good place to start?
Fourth Week of Lent (26 March - 1 April)
Today’s gospel (John 9) is about the healing of a man born blind. Like the story of the Samaritan woman last week, it is told on many levels of meaning opening on to each other. Despite the apparent obviousness of the story it has Shakespearian depths and, like our experience of life, reveals how multi-faceted reality is.
The disciples ask Jesus who was responsible for the man’s condition – his parents or himself? It’s hard to see from this question how either was to blame without having inherited karma. Anyway Jesus dismisses this approach by saying the meaning of the man’s suffering is found in the way God is revealed through healing. This may not answer all our rational questions, but it gives us a definitive direction. In other words, look ahead, not in the rear-view mirror, for the connections that yield meaning. Then, as if to illustrate a point, rather like a busy Emergency Department doctor, Jesus heals him (thereby breaking the union rules by working on the Sabbath).
Jesus merges back into the crowd, hardly giving the man time to see him. However the people and then the authorities hear of the event. Some sceptics are not convinced it is the same individual they knew as the blind man who was hanging around the place. The parents are dragged into the controversy and, for fear of getting involved, disclaim any knowledge and leave their son to fend for himself – the first glimpse of the solitude which the man is being plunged into. Under questioning, the man holds his ground about the healing and is quickly condemned as a troublemaker, dismissed as someone ‘born in sin’. If you answer us like that (they are saying),being handicapped was your own fault and you don’t deserve to be healed. He was excommunicated. A good example of how often religious people don’t welcome the power of God meddling in their affairs. But Jesus hears of this and seeks him out.
The next level of meaning and intimacy in the story begins, as often with this healer of humanity, with a question. Jesus asks if he believes (has faith) in the Son of God. The man honestly replies, well I might if I knew who he was. Then, just as he did with the Samaritan woman, who was another outcast, Jesus simply identifies himself. You’re looking at him. The man spontaneously opened to faith, believed and bowed down in spirit.
In these few moves we have passed from a cure to a healing. The man crossed rapidly from a place of affliction through a testing of his character and the painful experience of exclusion and rejection into a life-transforming relationship of faith.
As the experience of silence and presence deepens over time, we might see the journey of meditation as taking us along the same trajectory, though probably less quickly.
Fifth Week of Lent (2 - 8 April)
Churchgoers today have another long gospel to stand through. The story of the healing of Lazarus in John (11:1-45) really needs to be sat down to appreciate its many rich layers. It describes the sudden death of a friend Jesus loved and his sharing in the grief of his two sisters, the active Martha and the contemplative Mary.
The story shows Jesus both at his most powerful and his most humanly vulnerable. He was gripped viscerally by the loss, deeper than words. We are told he gave a sigh that came straight from his heart. What can we say in the face of the disappearance of someone we love? We don’t know if they have evaporated into nothing or plunged into some deep level of reality that we are still too gross and unenlightened to penetrate. The feeling of being left behind evokes endless layers of pre-conscious memory. The wordless sigh expresses a pain of absence from which tears come. And we are told, in the shortest full verse in all the four gospels, that ‘Jesus wept.’
Some people include these potent two words in the repertoire of minor blasphemies that colour their speech when driving or mistakenly deleting an email. It might understandably be offensive to the pious, but it could also be seen as an invocation, however unconscious, of the empathy that Jesus has with suffering humanity. The tears of Jesus for Lazarus, we feel, arose not only from the personal anguish he felt at the loss of someone he loved but from his immersion in the whole ocean of human pain. When we hurt, we hurt with all those who are hurting or have ever hurt through both dimensions of time and space.
When Aeneas gazes at a mural depicting war scenes and the death of friends he is moved to say ‘There are tears in things and mortal things touch the mind.’ The tears of things. Our humanity is diminished if we cannot feel and honour them whenever and however we encounter suffering. Perhaps that is why we relish bad news, to make us feel that we can still feel even in the over-stimulated and distracted state of media culture.
This empathy or compassion form part of the deep news hidden in the ordinary, whether the breaking news feels good or bad. Tears are a wave of energy that brings healing and new life. After his descent into the silence of deep compassion Jesus ‘calls in a strong voice’:
‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’ The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’
Tears prove our attention to be real. Sustained attention heals; regenerates what is dead; warms what is cold. And it puts colour back into what has turned a lifeless grey.
Holy Week (9 - 15 April)
One of our deepest needs and desires is for security. In early life, physical and emotional security are essential for healthy growth. In a good home the child has space to test and provoke, to push against the limits imposed by loving parents. These limits are both the predictable security we need but also, eventually, the lines we need the courage born of security to cross. As with all growth and health, and immigration policies, the secret is the right measure of creative tension.
Children are deeply affronted and hurt by injustice and betrayal. But these failures of the human do not only shake the secure lines of our world; they also raise our awareness to see the meaning of justice and fidelity, the world of virtue rather than merely the systems we defend in order to keep us safe within our limits. If, as adults, we are only preoccupied by the security of our borders we have not matured as human beings capable of real freedom, of seeing the happiness of being citizens in the world of virtue – goodness, kindness, humanity, compassion. In this world of grace there are no borders.
Today, in Christian gatherings around the planet, the story we have been preparing for during Lent is told again. We only have a limited number of opportunities in life to hear this story, told in this way: in a community of faith and in days where the sacred symbols are particularly irradiating. Each year, during Holy Week and according to our capacity to pay attention and be present, we listen to and interiorise the story of the last days of the life of Jesus. How he – and we – face the great insecurity of death is the big test of virtue and spiritual maturity. He shows it can be done; and, if we listen to the mysterious end of the story, the bursting out of light and life from the deepest darkness of death, we see that this is a story whose end is, in fact, a new beginning in which fear itself has been transcended. It is the story of all stories.
It pivots on the most terrifying and painful of insecurities, which is not physical pain but the extreme suffering of betrayal. There is nothing worse than being let down by someone in whom we have placed trust. Anger and profound sadness ensue with a disillusionment that cannot be consoled. We may also glimpse how we too have let them or others down. Betrayal usually has a reciprocity that we are forced to recognise over time. There are always contexts. But there are also betrayals where we are the innocent party. The suffering here is acute because it threatens our very sense of self. This is why abuse is such a crime against children, usually committed by those who have been abused themselves, because in the depth of the psyche sin is contagious and requires deep healing. This story is about the universal healing of karma.
As you listen to the story today – this year it is Matthew’s account (Matthew 26:14-27:66) – spare a thought for Judas, so close, even in the spelling of his name, to Jesus. We don’t know why he betrayed him, only that he felt remorse afterwards. His character in the story is the archetype of the worst in human relations. Yet, he was included in the great forgiveness that from the Cross Jesus extended to humanity in all our private and public guilts. It was a force of mercy that split the Temple in two: temples are so often places which deny forgiveness. So, let’s work on forgiving Judas and we have then got the point of the story.
Easter Day (Sunday 16 April)
For forty days and nights – and more – we have been in the desert. And now, on Easter Day as the sun rises we have put the most difficult part behind us.
The way we see the desert is now transformed. We see the same things, life’s routines continue as before, the trees and clouds are what they were before, politicians and bankers, artists and therapists and monks do their thing as before. Nappies still need to be changed and petrol tanks filled. The pilgrimage of meditation morning and evening continues.
But our Resurrection – and it is ours no less than his - has changed the way we see life in this realm of existence. The veil between us and all the other realms of the cosmos is now shimmering.
If we still have fear, we do not need to. If we are still clinging to resentment, we do not need to. To fully change, we need only to see him. Not hear about him or talk about him but see him. It is he who makes the new creation shimmer.
“For anyone united to Christ, there is a new creation.”
It has been good to travel with you through the desert this Lent. It is good now to see with you how we recognise the risen Jesus in all the shimmerings of life.
Three days ago we began the formal process for moving to Bonnevaux, our new home and centre in France. In the summer, we hope to begin the move and to begin the renovation work.
I look forward to seeing the shimmering Christ there in Bonnevaux with you one day. Please keep this step into a new life for our community in your heart.
Happy Easter and blessings on all the coming days!