Advent Week Two

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Once I was walking in the Australian bush in bright moonlight. As we crossed a stream, stepping carefully from one stone to another, I looked down and saw a tiny strange being looking up at me quizzically from the water. I was shocked but not frightened and stepped back to see it again. But it had gone and I realised (a bit sadly) that it was a trick of the light and my imagination. 

The gods left humanity a long time ago. They were banished by science and faded away as we better understood our own unconscious. We can do better at this point of our evolution than trying to recover the old gods. Their disappearance perhaps left the world a duller place. But the new dispensation, the new covenant whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, expels the fears attached to the old order. It is a more free world, a grownup relationship with the divine. Here we learn to wait in joyful hope even in the absence, even in the void. We wait with an imagination empty of images, sensing the real presence that will manifest in everything, everywhere, always.

Humanity is permanently pregnant with this presence. An ordinary human pregnancy teaches the expectant parents that waiting does not equate to delay or postponement. It is preparation and maturing. It is true patience that teaches us that only through time time is conquered. So, there is no reason for impatience while a new form of life grows in whatever kind of womb. While the mystery grows, ordinary life continues, with shopping, cooking, dealing with builders, talking with friends. But ‘all the time the seed grows, how we do not know..’ (Mark 4:27). Waiting in fidelity to what is growing is the present moment.

When birth happens the wonder of completion is accompanied by the anxiety of caring for what is now here to be loved but still so vulnerable and delicate. New life is resilient and yet perilously tender. So birth is the end of preparation but the beginning of an endless series of stages of growth. ‘Epiktesis’ (Phil 3:13) is the Greek word for pushing ever forward. That is what defines a spiritual life, that there is no final goal except the transcendence of every goal as soon as it has been achieved. It may sound tiring but it is the secret of the infinite, boundless expansion of love. It is reflected in the practice of continuously returning to the mantra.

People who first come to meditation with a short-term, goal-oriented mind often speak of it as a ‘tool’. Those for whom it has become a way of life, a way into deeper life, think of it more as an on-going relationship, a love story. The poet Rilke wrote that ‘even between the closest people infinite distances exist. Aren’t lovers always coming to precipices in each other?’ 

Life and the Advent season reassure us that the marriage of infinity and intimacy is incarnation, full embodiment.

Advent Week One

Advent Week One

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The clock starts ticking for Christmas.. now.

If we lacked all sense of sacred time life would indeed be a bleak landscape to trudge across. It would become only a tedious cycle of work, holiday, shopping, entertainment, problem-solving, ever running from a gnawing sense of incompleteness or loss. Sacred time pours colour (purple for Advent) over such a monochrome world. It stirs a sense of expectancy, a certainty within uncertainty, an excitement of an imminent revelation of reality that will not disappoint or ever prove to be illusory.

The sacred time of Advent doesn’t just promise this: it insists that something or someone real is approaching us across the terrain of life. We play the game of sacred time and learn directly that serious that only play can give. We are waiting to see what or who is coming and deal with the niggling doubt (that easily becomes a bitter pill) that nothing may come and nothing would make our empty waiting more lonely still. If nothing comes, we are alone again. But, if we become less and less burdened by possessions and attachments, then waiting will be reciprocated. Because whoever or whatever is moving through time towards us is waiting for the encounter, the recognition and the embrace that welcomes the new arrival. And whenever it comes it will be – literally – amazing.

Advent offers us a sacred time to reflect, several times daily if we wish, on how consciously we are living. In ordinary life we barely manage to reflect on deeper things for more than a few moments snatched from busyness. Reflection begins with self-questioning. Are we fully accepting the moment we are in or fantasizing about something in the past or future? Are we really waiting? To be truly in the present means to wait, to be real and to know with the wisdom arising in stillness that what we are waiting for has already arrived. This kind of waiting is real hope – not the usual compound of daydreams and desires – but the core certainty that the final outcome has already happened and is waiting to be born in time and circumstances. To reach this state demands a frequently repeated and at times excruciating renunciation of illusion and all self-serving imagination. Illusion re-forms and reappears constantly. Hence, we need a regular practice. And, if we emphasise fidelity to our twice-daily appointment with reality in the next few weeks, it would be time well spent

Are we really waiting? Or, are we running away from the doubt that nothing is happening in this stillness and silence?  Waiting is not thinking about our sense of separation or incompleteness, or indulging the fear we will never be whole. Waiting means giving up these obsessive thoughts and feelings and breaking out of the orbit of the fearful ego. It means yielding to the thrill of fulfilment and the heart-melting beauty of Christ being formed in us now and who will, for sure, be born in time. Advent, then, is about waiting for love. But as Rumi said, ‘lovers don’t just finally meet somewhere. They are in each other all along.’

If we lacked all sense of sacred time life would indeed be a bleak landscape to trudge across. It would become only a tedious cycle of work, holiday, shopping, entertainment, problem-solving, ever running from a gnawing sense of incompleteness or loss. Sacred time pours colour (purple for Advent) over such a monochrome world. It stirs a sense of expectancy, a certainty within uncertainty, an excitement of an imminent revelation of reality that will not disappoint or ever prove to be illusory.

The sacred time of Advent doesn’t just promise this: it insists that something or someone real is approaching us across the terrain of life. We play the game of sacred time and learn directly that serious that only play can give. We are waiting to see what or who is coming and deal with the niggling doubt (that easily becomes a bitter pill) that nothing may come and nothing would make our empty waiting more lonely still. If nothing comes, we are alone again. But, if we become less and less burdened by possessions and attachments, then waiting will be reciprocated. Because whoever or whatever is moving through time towards us is waiting for the encounter, the recognition and the embrace that welcomes the new arrival. And whenever it comes it will be – literally – amazing.

Advent offers us a sacred time to reflect, several times daily if we wish, on how consciously we are living. In ordinary life we barely manage to reflect on deeper things for more than a few moments snatched from busyness. Reflection begins with self-questioning. Are we fully accepting the moment we are in or fantasizing about something in the past or future? Are we really waiting? To be truly in the present means to wait, to be real and to know with the wisdom arising in stillness that what we are waiting for has already arrived. This kind of waiting is real hope – not the usual compound of daydreams and desires – but the core certainty that the final outcome has already happened and is waiting to be born in time and circumstances. To reach this state demands a frequently repeated and at times excruciating renunciation of illusion and all self-serving imagination. Illusion re-forms and reappears constantly. Hence, we need a regular practice. And, if we emphasise fidelity to our twice-daily appointment with reality in the next few weeks, it would be time well spent

Are we really waiting? Or, are we running away from the doubt that nothing is happening in this stillness and silence?  Waiting is not thinking about our sense of separation or incompleteness, or indulging the fear we will never be whole. Waiting means giving up these obsessive thoughts and feelings and breaking out of the orbit of the fearful ego. It means yielding to the thrill of fulfilment and the heart-melting beauty of Christ being formed in us now and who will, for sure, be born in time. Advent, then, is about waiting for love. But as Rumi said, ‘lovers don’t just finally meet somewhere. They are in each other all along.’

A short reflection on amazement

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I was trying to remember what piece of information I heard yesterday as I was being shown around a monastery in Korea. It took time to come back but I remembered saying at the time ‘amazing’.

We used to say ‘interesting’, then ‘very interesting’, then ‘amazing’, and now, at least in cool circles, or circles trying to be cool, ‘awesome’. An American waiter will routinely say ‘awesome’ when you give your order. This inflation has diminishing returns on the capital sum of experience. How quickly we forget or become bored with what we spend all our resources on praising to the heights. The value of the currency of language tumbles.

In the same way, marketing – whether of new devices, snack food or books – starts off at the astral level of praise. A book is acclaimed as the ‘definitive’ work on the topic for a decade – or ever. After twenty pages you see the signs of a few ideas being repeated according to the publisher’s orthodoxy of the rules for a best seller. (Maybe we ought to be allowed to rent books and claim our money back if duped in this way).

The truly amazing and awesome things – which make up the real interest of life – lie beneath this glittering surface of success and acclaim. If we cannot penetrate the mystery of failure and face the fear of repetition and boredom that accompany perseverance in anything, we condemn ourselves, to the underworld, which for us means constantly skimming the surface of reality.

It is time then, if we are awake, to reduce our expectations, our consumer craving and demands, so that we can start the journey below the surface. First we we will be sincerely interested and our attention is engaged. Then we commit and become very interested. Then we are amazed and eventually lost in awe, in wonder at what is emerging and enfolding us.

 

Jean Vanier

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Jean Vanier during the John Main Seminar 2016 at Trosly

With a heavy heart the world is facing the reality of Jean’s absence. At first it seems a lonelier place as we feel the desperate need for a spirit, as civilised and humane like his in our so often brutal world. But to have the heart touched even in this painful way is to be more awakened to our human capacity for love and wisdom. Across decades and continents, his life, words and actions and his way of looking at you, seeing you, achieved this awakening. So, sadness, yes, but also the beginning of resurrection in a sense of thankfulness. Because such a gift cannot die.

In a world dazzled and deluded by materialism and mechanicalism Jean’s genius was to show the unconquerable power of weakness, where the sacred really resides; not in pomp and celebrity but in the ground where we meet each other in truth and humility. Like Jesus his master, he spoke with authority, accurately seeing all the forces at work in people and situations but restraining judgement. To see everything without judging is the benchmark of holiness – as with God so with us.

The lodestar of Jean’s life was the simple acknowledgement, taught him by the most vulnerable members of any society, of the need to love and to be loved. To forget that, he realised, is to diminish our humanity. This is therefore our greatest vulnerability and our greatest strength in daily life and throughout our lifetime. We never lose this need – as with us so with God.

On Tuesday  morning at our daily meeting, I shared the sad news of Jean’s passing with our new community forming here at Bonnevaux. We took a time for silence before resuming. As I walked outside in the fresh morning air under a clear spring sky I sensed how Jean’s spirit, was now released from the mortality which had taught him about God. And I thought with a surge of confidence stronger than loneliness, that it would soar. It will grow in the space prepared but still not filled by the spirit of Jesus, his lifelong master and friend.

I was always struck by Jean’s intense emotional sensitivity and his lack of sentimentality; by the way he prioritised the human but recognised the need for structure. He advised and accompanied our community worldwide for thirty years and contributed not only his wisdom and care but a practical genius for organisation. When I asked him

if he thought that we should proceed with our new international centre he replied he was sure we should. I said ‘France?’ and he said ‘yes’. Then he added ‘make sure it’s beautiful’.

In 2016 Jean led his second John Main Seminar from Trosly. Here at Bonnevaux we are going to listen again to his talks online. I was moved then by his insight in merging the vision of l’Arche and of the World Community. From the wisdom of l’Arche he saw that meditation, too, is not about self-sufficiency but inter-dependence, not about being superhuman but fully human. I pray that our two communities, complementary ways of manifesting the human capacity for love and simple kindness, will continue to be guided and grow closer through his spirit now expanding around us.

 

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Laurence Freeman OSB

www.bonnevauxwccm.org

Easter Sunday: Luke 24:13-35

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The Easter Tree, Bonnevaux

He comes to us hidden; salvation consists in our recognising him (Simone Weil)

It has been a long road from Ash Wednesday to the morning of the Resurrection. It is not finished yet. Anything we have missed we will revisit as many times as necessary until we recognise it. But, from now on the road is bathed in his light. Above all, there is nothing more to fear.

Our invitation to die is also one to rise to new life, to community, to communion, to a full life without fear. I suppose it would be difficult to estimate what it is people fear most – death or resurrection. But in meditation we lose all our fear, because we realize that death is death to fear and resurrection is rising to new life.

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Read other Lent Reflections 2019: Week 1 / Week 2/ Week 3/ Week 4/ Week 5


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Holy Saturday: From a second century homily

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Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence 

Death is a hard teacher. But a good one. It seems at first  like the great enemy – as the great teachers always do. Yet, when we have learned from it, it becomes our friend. In the Katha Upanishad the boy Nachiketas is resolved to find the meaning of truth and knows that he must penetrate and question death if he is to succeed. Leaving his home and family he starts his quest across the threshold of the known world. Every wisdom tradition recognises the importance of remembering that we will die and reminds us that resisting the temptation to forget – however understandable it is – is to deny reality.

Today, Holy Saturday is the day after. We can no longer deny it. Facing this, we also learn the meaning of silence. Nothing is more silent than death. Not only is death silent, but to become silent is to die – to our self. The only way we can approach the dimension of the divine is through the silence of all our faculties. There is no observation platform for the ego to take refuge on, to say ‘how silent it is here’. What it is like to be dead, the living can never know. We glimpse, with some degree of fear, that our body is not private property.

To live with this uncertainty makes contemplation unavoidable. Otherwise we construct false certainties and securities that rob life of its dignity and joy. In meditation, the work of silence, all our ideas about God become obsolete. God dies – as modern secular society well knows. Yet God survives his own death. It is not God who dies but our most precious images of God.

However painful may be the abyss of absence in death, if we embrace silence, we learn that neither death nor silence is negation or an evacuation of meaning. It is emptiness, which is simultaneously utter fullness: the poverty of spirit that makes us full citizens of the reign of God.

Silence says nothing. It has no message except itself. Silence grows through all dimensions of reality. The silence of the body happens not through oppressing or humiliating it but through the discipline of moderation and love. The body has a million things in operation at the same time. Unless we are sick, we are not and do not need to be aware of them all. But it’s more difficult to meditate and do the work of silence when you have toothache or a runny nose. The silence of the mind is also achieved not through force but the repeated gentleness of training our attention – setting our mind on God’s kingdom. Not the idea or image of the kingdom but the kingdom which is silent. More even, which is silence.

Everything, including language and imagination, proceed from silence. To live and truly seek, we need to return frequently to the work of silence until it becomes like our biological operations a blessed natural rhythm we don’t need to think about. Jesus dives into the deepest mind of the cosmos and explores every corner of human nature and history. He touches the singular point of origin and simplicity, which science believes in but cannot find.  Holy Saturday is the feast of the universal stillness at the heart of reality. When our mind opens to learn this, it does not become silent. It becomes silence: beyond all thoughts, words and images. It is the great liberation. 

As silence, in silence we wait for the great event that manifests the life of love from which everything that is has come and to which it returns.

Read other Lent Reflections 2019: Week 1 / Week 2/ Week 3/ Week 4/ Week 5


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Good Friday: Is 52:13

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Jesus Passions by Theophanes the Cretan (1490–1559)

One of the guards standing by gave Jesus a slap in the face, saying, Is that the way to answer the high priest? Jesus replied, If there is something wrong in what I said, point it out; but if there is no offence in it, why do you strike me?

The account of the Passion of Christ stands as one of the greatest texts of all time that reflects the depth of human meaning. It is utterly personal – the innocent, falsely charged individual, scapegoated and treated inhumanely, tortured and barbarically executed. It is an old story showing the worst side of humanity’s use of power of each other; and it is happening as I write, and you read this. Each case, however, is unique. The very particularity of each is what reveals the universal meaning and with meaning – the sense of connection – there is paradoxically always hope.

Good Friday expands the human sense of the spiritual dimension. It brings us to the side of the scapegoat so that the mechanism by which we blame others, and make them suffer for us, is exposed. The secret of how power works is outed. We see the world as it is. Violence is irrational. When Jesus responds to the guard who strikes him, we see reason disempowering the facades of violence. We don’t know the guard’s response. The only real response is to admit the self-deception behind such violence. Unable to admit this, he probably slapped Jesus again.

There is another dimension of meaning, even more transformative than the exposing of our addiction to violence. It concerns the meaning of suffering. In Santideva’s ‘A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life’, a Buddhist classic dating from the 8th century after Christ we see how this meaning became universalised. A bodhisattva is a human being who devotes their whole being to the well-being of humanity, to relieve suffering everywhere. The Dalai Lama comments on this text that when a great bodhistava suffers they generate no negativity.

The Gospel goes further when it brings us the last words of Jesus on the cross: ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Not only does the Cross generate no negativity. It generates boundless wisdom and compassion. If Jesus had said ‘I forgive them…’ it would have been weaker because of its individuality. Instead, he called forth forgiveness from the ground of being on which he – and his tormentors and those who betrayed him – all stood. This is not a judicial reprieve, a mere act of clemency. It comes from insight into the cause, the ignorance and lack of self-awareness, of those responsible. In an instant we see the meaning of forgiveness, towards ourselves and others.

The death of Jesus generates a wave of enlightened love that washes across all dimensions of reality, all times and spaces. Whether recognised or not, his suffering touches us all. It exposes our human faults but without blame or guilt. It does this by revealing our essential goodness and potential. That is why in the ancient cloister of Bonnevaux this afternoon we will chose to come forward, bow before the cross and kiss it.

Read other Lent Reflections 2019: Week 1 / Week 2/ Week 3/ Week 4/ Week 5


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