Lent Reflections 2021
Click on the headings to open or close the Introduction or the week's readings and then use the tabs below the picture to select the day.
These daily readings by Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk and Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, are to help those following them make a better Lent. This is a set time and preparation for Easter, during which special attention is given to prayer, extra generosity to others and self-control. It is customary to give something up, or restrain your use of something but also to do something additional that will benefit you spiritually and simplify you. Running through these readings will be an encouragement to start to make meditation a daily practice or, if it already is, then to deepen it by preparing for the times of meditation more carefully. The morning and evening meditations then become the true spiritual centre of your day. Here is the tradition, a very simple way of meditation, that we teach:
Sit down, Sit still with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Breathe normally. Silently, interiorly begin to repeat a single word, or manta. We recommend the ancient prayer phrase ‘maranatha’. It is Aramaic (the language of Jesus) for ‘Come Lord’, but do not think of its meaning. The purpose of the mantra is to lay aside all thoughts, good, bad, indifferent together with images, plans, memories and fantasies. Say the word as four equal syllables: ma ran a tha. Listen to it as you repeat it and keep returning to it when you become distracted. Meditate for about twenty minutes each morning and evening. Meditating with others, as in a weekly group, is very helpful to developing this practice as part of your daily life. Visit the community’s website for further help and inspiration: wccm.org
Ash Wednesday to the Saturday after Ash Wednesday (17 - 20 February)
Between 1347 and 1350 one quarter of Europe’s population died in one of the worst outbreaks of the plague. A forty-day quarantine period was instituted for travellers. Doctors wore leather protective costumes. Weird quack remedies appeared. Infected people were restricted to their houses with a cross painted on their door. It was blamed on a punitive God because of human sins. As it’s difficult to attack God, the Jews were often scapegoated, a favourite conspiracy theory throughout history. Hospitals were over-filled. The economy crashed. Groups of penitents and flagellants processed in city streets, singing litanies to avert God’s wrath. And also to comfort each other, because, when we suffer or are confronted by mortality, we feel frightened by the loneliness and inner chaos we discover within. Our regular routines are shattered and the usual things we complain about are overwhelmed by fears that challenge everything we think we know.
Why ash? It is an ancient symbol reminding us of mortal human nature. ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return’. Adam (the name means ‘earth’) heard God speak these words after his eyes had been opened by disobedience and he had first felt shame at his nakedness. Job covered himself with ash when his sufferings overwhelmed him. Putting ash on our forehead today is a kind of sympathetic magic or homeopathy where we use a small dose of plants to stimulate the healing process. All healing is self-healing but often needs help from outside. (‘Go your faith has healed you’, Jesus says someone he cured). The ash signals acceptance of our mortality. Strangely, it makes us feel better because we are no longer in denial about it. We live better lives when we accept that we are dust – because then we see we are also more than dust.
Why Wednesday? I’m not sure. Maybe because it’s the middle of the week. Probably because it starts the countdown of 40 days to Easter. Maybe because it’s the day of Woden who was the god of the element of earth. More important is ‘will I use this season to grow more aware that life is a spiritual journey’? There’s no such thing as a spiritual life inside my existence that I have to make space for. Life is the journey. If so, how will I do Lent this year?
Maybe begin by putting some ash on your forehead to remind yourself you are mortal - and more. It shows we are all in this together. Even in a pandemic (cruel but not as bad as the 14th century), in shutdown, we can grow into a sense of community. Instead of joining self-flagellating processions, meditate online at least once a week with others. Instead of wearing sackcloth and ashes say the mantra with deeper attention and fidelity. A more contemplative approach to the situation we are in.
To start, you could do a renewal course in the essential teaching on our new website. There’s a timer, a short animation-video introducing meditation and two free courses on the How to Meditate page.
I’ll look forward to making the journey of Lent with you, Writing these reflections is my Lenten task which I hope will prove helpful to you.
The ash is over, the action begins. However, we do Lent – giving up or adding on things – the desired outcome is to become more aware, more mindful, more conscious of what and how we are living. Being aware of mortality, as I said yesterday, helps sharpen our sense of vitality. So, TS Eliot’s lines on how we live and breathe the past are not just about nostalgia:
Ash on an old man's sleeve,
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended,
Marks the place where a story ended,
Dust in breathed was a house.
So, the past is always present and when we assimilate it we can stop fearing it. I’m told it’s true that we are made of star dust and that all the atoms and elements in our body come from generation after generation of stars over the past 4.5 billion years. The past is continually changing as we become consciously one with it. This is what the phases of our life allow and demand of us so we can be more present to the always now.
I am spending some time in my hermitage on Bere Island, not as much off-line as I should be, but taught and blessed every day by the immediate nowness of things. The weather, interior and external, is as always variable but forms a pattern and in patterns we can usually find a seam of the truth running through it, like a vein of gold in a piece of rock. After a few stormy Atlantic days, a beautiful serenity and peace has returned. Yesterday I ventured outdoors again. Everything seemed more aware of its beauty, more justifiably delighted with itself and happy to be restored to all the other parts of the world with which they were connected. I was grateful to feel welcomed as part of it too.
The astonishing thing is how it all works and how every part allows everything else to be what it is and do its thing in its own way without interfering. Feeding off each other is tolerantly included in this dancing system of birth, flourishing and dying. And bats, which are not my favourite manifestation of the divine, knit the evening together as I walked back along the road, swooping around me and making me feel confident they were not interested in me or my blood. The world is a community.
Robins are cheeky and cocky little things. One was sitting on a branch, singing its redbreast off. Their average life is 13 months but can be as long as 19 years. Aggressively territorial, that’s probably why he was singing so loudly. But I am sure he just loved producing such a free and joyful sound. After all, we are meant to enjoy our work.
Part of the human work is to ponder the meaning of this beauty. We can’t explain it, but we can see the Logos in every part and in the whole. The Word that made everything is present in everything. It is its uniqueness and its connectedness, its order, form and harmony. Its rationality and its sheer, inexplicable divine beauty.
That might be a good thing to do for Lent: to contemplate the innate beauty and harmony of things and cut back on judging.
The second of the monthly Bonnevaux Health Seminars led by Dr Barry White took place online on Tuesday. It has attracted a large following because of his deep, integral understanding of what health means and, no doubt, people’s anxiety and curiosity about their physical and mental well-being during this pandemic. He places meditation at the centre of his model of health which affords it a unifying role for the different aspects he will talk about in later talks such as sleep, exercise, diet and pain.
Barry’s thought on this theme has been evolving for years and we are receiving the benefits of it now. Some people’s thinking on a subject jumps from branch to branch while staying at the same level. His goes consistently deeper and shows the root system that supports the whole tree of knowledge. I was struck this time especially by his insight based on John Main’s view that to transcend our limitations we have first to accept them. Barry applied this to our personal health. Sometimes we must just accept our infirmities of body, mind or character, even our mortality. Yet mysteriously this acceptance reveals new sources and ways of healing and with it also comes unique personal insight into the meaning of suffering.
We learn these things best by experience which allows us to interiorise the knowledge it brings so that we can’t ever forget it. Not only dramatic events do this but also small annoying things ,such as kept happening to my internet connection whenever I spoke. Until then, the wifi seemed to hold up; but whenever I spoke the ominous warning flashed on the screen ‘Interconnection connection is unstable’ like a message that had escaped from the dark hole at the centre of the Cloud. Each time I hoped for the best but inevitably the connection dropped, my words evaporated into the ether and I had to wait to see if and when the connection would restart,which it did. I wasn’t so unstable interiorly as to throw my laptop on the ground but after the tenth interruption the fourth of the fruits of the spirit (patience) was hard to find. By then I realised that there was nothing to do except to accept the limitations imposed, whoever, if anyone, was responsible. I soon understood I had to choose between audio and video and rightly chose to be heard rather than to be seen. The struggle with frustration and impatience was for the time being, over.
Once a young person told me he had been unsuccessfully seeking his ‘personal why’ for so long but that meditation was teaching him to live with his failures to find it. He felt sure he would find it one day but not in the way he had been imagining.
We would waste Lent if we treated it just as a way to try harder, increase our will power and succeed better in getting to our personal whys. A contemplative Lent requires – as does the understanding of health we are exploring in the seminars – a central and regular contemplative practice. It renders us teachable. We learn that to fight our limitations with the ego only intensifies the ego. To accept them with a true love of self converts them into a bridge beyond the ego, into a friend beyond future misunderstanding.
The ash from Wednesday traditionally comes by burning the branches from Palm Sunday of the previous year. The waving of palms on the streets of Jerusalem welcoming Jesus’ triumphant entry. A day later they were shouting ‘crucify him’. Everything turns. Burning the palms is like burning memories. The European colonial powers still find it hard to let go of empire, swallowing the shame of imperialism. That’s why it’s hard for them to welcome the children of the colonised peoples as part of their family. Individual memories also cling to us. The struggle with the ego is the same, in the individual and in the nation.
But life is always beginning. This time round, let it be more simple, humble and kind. A new attitude to the new life. Sprinkled daily with small acts of kindness, shedding protectionism, domination and exploitation. The choice is always there: becoming the kingdom of God, being welcomed into the reign of God, changed. A second chance is infinitely available: God isn’t like us but wants us to become like him.
Ash means that everything is burned. It is the last visible sign of the past. Everything will go up in flame like this eventually, the cosmologists tell us. Apocalypse to come. Bonfire of the vanities today.
We can’t help but learn to accept mortality: all attachments, big projects, plans, fantasies. A holocaust sacrifice offered to the only real, the present moment. Burned by the mantra. The loss is painful yet not violent. A transformation by the great love that has no attachment, clings to nothing. The death of the ego feels terrible but is gentler than we fear. It depends how long we resist it. St Francis praised it: ‘Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape.’
Ashes in the mouth now. Soon the sweetness of the Word of God on the tongue. The poison swallowed becomes medicine. Meditation brings us down to earth. God told Adam, ‘you are ash and will return to ash’. The truth of impermanence that we postpone. Like an agenda item that no one wants to discuss but eventually takes over the meeting. Ash Wednesday prepares for Good Friday. Fear is burned away too in the fire of love.
Lent is a time of joyful grieving – loss and recovery, restoration to true health. We wean off fake medicines, false consolations. We face the stark-naked reality stripped of decoration. We discover the transcendent beauty, the treasure in earthen vessels. Holy grail. Alchemist’s secret. Pearl of great price. Prodigal Son returned. Eternal life that has not been born and can never die. Eternal birth that consumes death.
Nothing to fear. Do not fear nothingness.
Jesus said don’t look sad about this, make your face shine, because it’s not sad. Let the ashes themselves rub off. Say the mantra like a lover.
First Week of Lent (21 - 27 February)
First Sunday of Lent
The bridegroom’s companions would not think of mourning as long as the bridegroom is with them… (Matthew 9:14-15)
On Friday a member of our Bonnevaux business meditation group gave a beautiful, personal account of her life, terrifying and funny in turn. Until forty, she said, she had been focused entirely on success and having fun, and she accomplished both. Her ambition to be John McEnroe’s ball-girl at Wimbledon was not fulfilled but all others were. Then her mother was diagnosed with severe cancer and her life began to disintegrate. Her body was the messenger of what was happening as she lost control: pain in muscles and joints, insomnia, breathing problems, memory blanks and panic attacks of increasing frequency. The body never lies. At last, after a horrifying incident of amnesia with her children at the mall, she accepted ‘I need help’. The inescapable humility of this was the turning point in her life that led her on a gradual process towards other-centredness. She now successfully helps others recognise these symptoms and face them in time to avoid the worst. Not everybody survives the worst as she did.
She said that when she began to make time for stillness and silence – which she had never done before in her whirlwind of unmindfulness – she began really to notice other people. Sitting in the park just looking at people, for the first time she saw not just a parade of faces but expressions, feelings, communicative signs. Meditation is now a pillar of her new more joyful and meaningful life and all the stressed executives she helps are introduced to it.
Many of the stories of Jesus show him at meals or wedding-parties. He often uses these events to illustrate his teaching as in today’s gospel. One cannot imagine he would have been a miserable or gloomy presence at any event where people would have been having fun and wouldn’t he have joined in the dancing? His brief teaching today recognises that life is not all fun and games. Nothing we can perceive is not a mixture of light and shadow. To deny it is to repress what we fear to face. Repression eventually explodes, through the body or our behaviour. Truth will out. (If we notice we are attracted morbidly to news stories or movies about what we fear, we should ask why it is unconsciously cathartic for us).
The word for ‘mourning’ is penthos in Greek: the spirit of lamentation in mythology and an important element of mystical theology. In his major teaching on the Beatitudes Jesus says ‘happy are those who mourn for they shall be comforted’. We shouldn’t be afraid if at times meditation has a feeling of mourning or grieving. Lent can be a time when we acknowledge this as a healthy aspect of our being a work in progress (as this woman describes her life now). Progress towards fullness of being and true happiness. An early sign of which is our capacity to notice the expression on other people’s faces and to pay responsive attention to what they are communicating. For Isaiah, in the first reading today, this active compassion is the meaning of justice. Without it, fasting and almsgiving and all that stuff are only shadows of what they are meant to serve.
How do you respond to the word ‘stillness’? Do you associate it with balance, counterpoise, equilibrium, order, quietness? Or with inaction, stagnation, recession, passivity? Is stillness dynamic or static? Is it the goal we should be pursuing or a condition we should get out of as soon as possible? As meditators we might say, ‘it all depends’ because meditators like to have the best of both worlds. And they can.
Probably it does depend on circumstances but there can (still) be a preference for or against the concept. Behind that preference might lurk either a fear about or a longing towards stillness. If you are overactive, stillness will seem attractive. If you’re bored, out of work or in quarantine stillness is the last thing you want. Polarising opposite views, even over the meaning of a harmless little word like this, leads to a feeling of conflict which is often based on the sense that ‘if I don’t get everything, I might end up with nothing’. And so, the person who disagrees with me, who appears to be on the other side of a river flowing faster than thought and without bridges in sight, is my enemy. He therefore doesn’t have as much right to exist as I do. The sense of potential deficiency – even what I think I have might be taken away from me, becomes inflamed.
The pro and anti-Trump factions in the US, the Remainers and Leavers in the UK have generated a deep sense of division and disunity. Rebuilding dialogue and the spirit of trust will be the hard work for both societies for years to come. Where in the world has this not been felt? Divisions upset the balance of civil society and stillness, a calming of factionalism and mutual rejection, has at least some attraction. The question is how.
The ‘it all depends’ approach is inadequate. The answer is not either/or, but both and both in harmony. The most practical way to achieve the blend of dynamic stillness and harmonious activity is to sacrifice willingly time for the work of stillness. Because human nature is prone to over-activity (physical, economic or mental), the challenge, as the Martha and Mary story makes clear, is to protect the element of stillness and silence; and to appreciate it as an essential part of human well-being. The life of Jesus, exemplifying how human beings should live, included periods of solitude and quiet as well as times of busy external action.
Stillness is inherent in the good life. Along with prayer and fasting, justice touches the centre where stillness is found. All three are aspects of doing Lent well. It is about balance, always hard won and hard to maintain, whether in our personal or social life.
He kept a secret bottled up for as long as he could remember. Protecting it became a priority reflex that influenced all the decisions of his life. Afterwards, he wasn’t sure if he knew what he was doing or not. He thought perhaps he did know, sometimes, and then repressed or forgot it. He kept the secret secret even from himself though he knew more about it than anyone. Was it the actual event that had happened or the reason it had happened or the shame it had inexplicably left him carrying? What drove him to construct an identity whose falsity only increased his shame?
The event was an abominable abuse of adult power over a child, a degradation and confusion of what the child had the right to expect, to be sure and confident that he was loved and cared for. The reasons for this betrayal of the child were part of an adult world of revenge and power incomprehensible to him as a child. It had left him with a shame he could not cast off. It clung to him beneath a persona which the world found charming and enviable. But, since childhood, it had made him unable to yield himself, to love or to relate seriously to another except for short periods before it became impossible not to run away again.
His was a particularly intense case. But all of us have this tendency to keep secret what has once hurt us and caused the cloak of shame to be wrapped around us. This whole system of hurt, shame and secrecy can be called sin. The Fall of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis describes it with precise honesty. Anyone who does not see him or herself in the story should learn it by heart.
Lent is an opportunity to consider what we understand by sin. Until we get it straight, we will not understand grace. It is a severe handicap to be prevented from recognising grace. I have noticed recently how many advertising campaigns selling pleasures (chocolate, Netflix series, health spas) use even the term ‘sin’ itself to attract our attention or just tease us by the lure of the naughty or forbidden. It looks harmless but is dangerously stupid because it limits sin to its seven deadly manifestations and distracts us from the true nature of sin and its deep stain on the human condition.
Where sin is, grace abounds all the more. Grace is the divinely unconditional and never-withdrawn offer of help. All it needs to be released is to confess our need for help, our having got it wrong and wanting now to get it right. Then an amazing grace comes in the revelation that all healing – and forgiveness is healing – is self-healing. This tears away the cloak of shame with the discovery that we have, by God’s grace, immense powers within us greater than anything that could enchain or disgrace us.
On Holy Saturday night in the dark lit only by the Paschal candle we sing gratitude for the Fall because it brought a grace vastly greater than itself. ‘O Felix Culpa: O Happy fault of Adam that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer’.
An up and coming young judge came under the spiritual influence of a Sufi master and began to pass through the first stages of a personal awakening. This led him in time to renounce his position and status and to become a dervish, resident in the Sufi Lodge as part of a community gathered around the sheik. He was blissful. He had no doubts about his decision and was filled with generous enthusiasm and hope.
Then slowly, subtly at first, his ego resisted and complained. ‘You were very noble to renounce everything and follow this path. People admire that’. He was happy to following such an illustrious path - this ‘way of love’ as the sheikh called it – under a highly regarded teacher. ‘But,’ his ego whispered, ‘you are different from these other disciples. You are educated, well-connected, a good leader. You deserve to be recognised for that’. When a legal issue concerning a property was brought to the sheikh to arbitrate the new novice proudly offered his services remarking that this was his specialised field of training which he ‘knew everything about’ . He could not repress the smile of self-satisfaction and pleasure at being able to use his talents. The sheikh looked at him, lovingly but shrewdly, and told him there was a special work in the Lodge that the former judge could fulfil better than anyone else. The smile on the novice’s face broadened. The sheik led him to the back of the Lodge and showed him the dog, handed him the dog’s bowl and said ‘your work is to feed and look after our dog.’ When the sheikh turned and re-entered the Lodge the novice exploded with angry shame and threw the bowl on the ground. The sheik returned and looked at him.
He fed the dog obediently every day and endured the ensuing struggles with his ego, in his room or when he met people from his former life who were amused by his new lowly status. He was helped by the special attention of his teacher and made progress with his mantra. This however led another member of the Lodge, a young senior official, to feel envious. This grew into an uncontrollable jealousy of how the sheik was treating the newcomer and how the other members of the fraternity were growing in respect for him. Viciously he invented a slander about his rival and the sheik’s daughter and spread it.
The victim of his jealousy suffered intensely, for himself and the young woman. He was outraged, furious and determined to confront it; so he went to tell the sheik what was happening. The sheik listened and then told him he had failed. He should have borne the trial silently. He looked at him and told him coldly he should leave the Lodge. In tears, broken and devastated, he left to go out into the world again a wanderer in the desert with nothing.
Of course, this isn’t the end of the story. But it casts light on the process of confronting and wrestling with the ego that every meditator passes through as we move from the surface to the deeper levels of the ‘way of love’. As Lent is a time especially to reflect upon that journey this might be a story to help us understand where we are and what challenges we are facing at this time.
Todays Gospel Reading is: Matthew 7:7-12 Ask and you shall receive…
The gospel today exemplifies how not to read and also how to read scripture – and indeed life.
In the UK, which has an immensely successful and rapid vaccination programme the news is full of ‘how soon can we get back to normal?’. When the number of cases go down there are calls to save the economy and open up again. When they spike, someone is blamed for opening up too soon. Governments who like to be liked by everyone hide behind ‘the science’. Be careful what you ask for because you may get it and not like it.
The gospel today opens with the assurance by Jesus that if we ask, we will receive. Anyone who knocks will have the door opened and anyone who seeks will find. This could be interpreted in the same short-term, impatient way that governments could open up restaurants and hotels too soon. Clearly, just asking for anything you want isn’t like rubbing a magic lamp and making a wish. ‘If only it was’, we might say. But, if prayer was wish-fulfilment like this, life would become deadly in another way, deadly boring; and our humanity would be reduced to the low level of a consumer with infinite credit whose unfulfilled life would be spent fulfilling desires. If Jesus meant that and if receiving what we ask for means instant gratification, we would soon be asking for this great blessing to be removed. We would long for suffering of a healthier kind.
There is a deeper insight into the mystery of life in the last words of the passage. Jesus draws a comparison between a good parent and God. If a child asks a parent for bread will the parent give it a poisonous snake. “In the same way your father in heaven gives good things to those who ask”.
Does this mean ask but for anything in particular. Ask but from a place where fantasy does not interfere with pure desire. Seek but seek within rather than externally. Seek without imagining what you are looking for. Knock at a door that cannot open and wait for another means of getting through. Knock on both sides of the door.
It ends with the Golden Rule found in all wisdom traditions, the universal pass-key into reality. It is what we have to do if we are to be able to receive, to find, to open the door: Treat others as you would like them to treat you.
Today’s Gospel is: Matthew 5:20-26 If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.
Some people have asked recently about how the Covid Year has influenced me personally. I think I may be in the ten percent of people that research suggests drew overall advantage from it, embarrassing in some ways as it is to say it.
Apparently, sixty percent have been very resilient, some with pre-existing mental illness have suffered intensely and others have experienced episodes of depression and anxiety. Of course, that’s a neat statistical survey that ignores the sacredness of each personal experience and the immensity of the tragedy it has been to some. Most of us over the year have moved across the spectrum of response. A final evaluation may not be meaningful for some years. I know people who have died and those who suffer from long Covid. And I am very conscious that although we have all been buffeted by the same storm we haven’t by any means been in the same boat.
When the shutdowns began, I was at Bonnevaux with a warm, lively and loving community. It is a place of great natural beauty and a long history of contemplation has soaked into the land and the buildings allowing it to emit a continuous energy of peace. Over the years I have been travelling a lot. But, whenever I left on a journey, I often hoped, for a moment the day before departure, that something would happen to cancel it. Some people assumed I had become attached to travel for its own sake but that was not true. Yet, once away, I felt at home everywhere and richly blessed by the people and places I visited. When travel ground to a halt I didn’t miss it at all and spent nine months at Bonnevaux mostly contentedly. Between the daily spiritual schedule, being part of what others were going through in community and with sixty-seven national communities as extended family, it was a full life, in fact very full.
We felt the need to reach out to those less safe and content than we were. So we developed an online programme teaching and supporting meditation, offering retreats and courses and many speakers and dialogues aimed at helping people make contemplative sense of the crisis. From the feedback, we feel this is worthwhile and it was without doubt an intense but creative time. I discovered the spiritual potential of the internet and also how it could be more demanding of time and energy than the physical dimension. I also felt clearer about the role Bonnevaux was coming into being to serve.
Then, when the community decided to take a fallow time at the end of the year, I came to a hermitage on Bere Island and have spent several weeks in solitude. Although I stayed teaching online, life has been very different. I have been able to set my own schedule and meditate longer. It has been, not only a less intense time than before, but it also revived personal capacities for peace and contemplative living that had weakened without my realising it.
Covid has hardly been easy but I have suffered far less than many. I hope the graces that unexpectedly emerged will help me in our community better serve those who are looking for meaning in this chaos, peace in their fears and God in their hearts.
Today’s Gospel is: Matthew 5:43-48 Love your enemies..
One of our common human traits that Lent (and the protracted Lent of the pandemic) highlight is a hunger for novelty. Desert monks felt it periodically after the 'first fervour of conversion’ wore off. What seemed fresh and hopeful at the beginning loses the bloom of youth and its sweetness even turns sour and repulsive. When a victim of this 'acedia'- or spiritual entropy - offloaded their discouragement, restlessness and angry sense of betrayal on their teacher he or she would hear encouraging words and receive a gaze of understanding. The teacher would conclude, "Now go back and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything". And so, if they could, they would and the cycle would resume.
Growth is cyclical. We go over the same ground many times. There are traits or attachments we can’t shake off and have to learn to live with. Then, with acceptance, we may be freed. None of this is a merely mechanical repetition. Failure, or giving up on the work of letting go, may cause the cycle of growth to stutter or stop entirely. Yet failure is an occasion for grace and a new beginning. If we stop and start again wholeheartedly, we pick up again at a deeper level. This catches the ego off-guard and so helps keep it in check.
The craving for novelty is built into our entire metabolism. We are not machines. Nor are we like pets content to eat the same food every day. (Their owners project their craving onto the animal when they buy them expensive treats). Sexual desire and performance is similarly conditioned by a need for variety.
We need to confront and master this restless search for novelty by separating it from our innate creativity. Creativity – what is truly new – arises spontaneously after hard work. Much of our hunger for change is not actually for something truly new. Before the new can appear, a death must intervene and, as we know, we avoid dying like the plague. Our craving is for variations on what we have become bored with once its appeal has been discharged. We don't really want the 'new and improved' of marketing ruses but the same, with a slight twist or new packaging. Changing one's personal style in hairdo or clothes, the internet series we get hooked on, the car we drive or the subscriptions we take out are temporary satisfaction of this craving.
Sitting in your cell, learning directly from it, is the best way to find the real new. It is like finding a spring of fresh water after long digging. Once found, the hard work, the backache, the struggle with obstinate rocks and acedia, our embarrassing impatience and self-distraction vanish from memory. The truly new is ever-present. We don’t need memory anymore. Now we know it was, is, always there waiting for us to be present to it.
The truly new is forgiving. Its healing effect begins in the instant of discovery. Old patterns may return and tug at us with familiar cravings. But the power of the real new is the power of the eternal now. It makes the craving for novelty seem childish and old-fashioned. The times of meditation and digging with the mantra are our cell. It needs to become regular and serious work in order to shoot us out of the orbit of the ego and into the spontaneity and joy of the new creation, the paradise that this life, in this world, can be if we see what is now in reality for what it truly is.
Second Week of Lent (28 February - 6 March)
Second Sunday of Lent
Readings from Mark 9:2-10
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone by themselves.
Once he was described ‘praying alone in the company of his disciples’. He led them, as us, to where we are both solitary and irrevocably connected: alone and with. However we may resist it, there is no avoiding this destination.
There in their presence he was transfigured: his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them.
He could beckon them into no deeper intimacy than this. His physical form was revealed to them, as he already knew it to be, translucent with the light of the Father. Out of this core of his being he says, ‘I am the light of the world’.
Elijah appeared to them with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus.
This is his spiritual heritage: the Law and the Prophets. They talk with him from within himself as the Word, from the eternal into history. They each understand each other because they are one in the incarnate Word.
Then Peter spoke to Jesus: ‘Rabbi,’ he said, ‘it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say; they were so frightened.
Peter is again the spokesman for the Twelve and again shows that the rock on which Jesus bult his church is fallible, fearful and yet, all importantly, faithful. Fear is a sign of recognising that what he is meeting is the limit of his own identity.
And a cloud came, covering them in shadow; and there came a voice from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’
From behind the veil, from a new dimension of reality, they receive understanding, that they cannot understand, of where Jesus comes from and where he is leading us all through those who listen to him.
Then suddenly, when they looked round, they saw no one with them anymore but only Jesus.
Life resumes as before but a life being transformed by what they have seen
As they came down from the mountain, he warned them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They observed the warning faithfully, though among themselves they discussed what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean.
How could they talk about it openly yet? They needed the full revelation, the Resurrection, which would transfigure them and all humanity.
(The Feast of the Transfiguration is August 6th, the day in 1945 of the blinding flash of Hiroshima.)
Gospel: Luke 6:36-38. Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate
In Martin Luther King’s last speech before he was assassinated, he said ‘I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go the mountain. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I’m so happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.’ MLK was steeped in the great founding myth of the Bible, the Exodus. Like all the great teachers of the Christian tradition, the language and imagery of the Bible was soaked into his thinking and way of expressing himself, indeed of understanding himself. What was the Promised Land that he saw and that we, living out the inner meaning of the Exodus in our Lent? Can we recognise it as the purpose that keeps us going?
Moses saw this Land from afar but never entered it. The biblical story says this was due to his having doubted God at one point in his journey, which seems a bit hard given all that he had put up with. I prefer to think of it as an indicator of what the Promised Land means: not a place, a destination or fulfilment of a plan but rather the journey itself.
In the Axial Age, (8th to 3rd centuries BCE), the age of the great awakening from the Upanishads, the Buddha, Plato, the Hebrew Prophets) humanity began to think of itself as having a destiny, a fulfilment beyond the cycles of nature and its own survival. It was the great dive inwards. Moksha, Nirvana, Pure Land, Paradise, Janna, Nirvana are different expression of this discovery and the new hope it awakened in the purpose of life. Although, it must be said, it was also a great disruptor and like all great lights cast a long shadow. What if I fail to get to heaven? What if I fall into the eternal suffering of the other place? In a way it was the second loss of innocence, another fall that had to precede a great leap forward.
The Kingdom of Heaven in the teaching of Jesus is explicitly not reducible to a place or terrestrial utopia. ‘You cannot say look here it is or there it is…’ Religion without a contemplative consciousness insists on thinking in terms of reward and punishment. But Gregory of Nyssa, typical of the mystical vision generally, sees it as an endless becoming, a continually fuller participation in the nature of God who is infinitely simple. This is his great contribution to Christian understanding. There are endless degrees of heaven, no end to the rooms in Hotel Paradise. Perfection, like beauty, truth and goodness, has no terminus.
John Main said of meditation that the important thing to know is just that we are ‘on the way’. To ask ‘where am I, how long it will take, am I there yet…’ is to miss the great truth that the Kingdom is within us and among us (‘close at hand’ as Jesus said). What are the indicators of this? We’ll look at some tomorrow. But today’s gospel points to the essential one – that we are becoming Godlike in our compassion and love for others in the human journey and that this is reflected in our becoming less judgmental and divisive. The Promised Land is close at hand.