Monday Lent Week Three: Luke 1:26-38

 

‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’ And the angel left her.

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Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

For those who like advance planning, Christmas is nine months away from today, which celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation, the hidden moment when the Word began to take flesh. It has meaning for everyone, believers and non-believers alike. For the non-believer it affirms the fact that truth grows in us in an integrated way. Truth is more than an idea. For the much rarer breed of believers it signifies the opening of a new era in human affairs when the transcendent Source of the material world merges with it, in, through and as a particular human person who his parents called Jesus. The Source of everything that exists, who says simply ‘I AM’ is both revealed and hidden in this event. We cannot truly call this source He, She or It, but only I AM.

Angels come and go. The Bible often sees them not only as messengers, in the literal translation of the word. The world is full of messages carrying meaning (connection to what is always a bigger picture) if we take time to listen and sort them out. But, more, the Bible sometimes also identifies the messenger with the one who sends the message. This is like quantum physics where the usual dualities and boundaries are suspended. They can form and re-form according to the nature of our observational point of view. Objectivity thus takes on a new and more playful meaning. Prejudices and uptightness loosen up and a new way of seeing and interacting in the world emerges. The Annunciation signifies that this actually happens. Lent helps us to clarify our perception of it happening by giving us the optimum distance and the right focal length to see it influencing daily life.

Like atomic particles divided by great distances yet operating as one, this can be a bit weird. I walked around the abbaye at Bonnevaux yesterday, struck and moved by the way it has been transformed, simply but beautifully, with immense skill and effort and yet producing the sense of ‘just rightness’ that deeply satisfies the soul. I thought of the 900 years that have passed since the first community came here to ‘truly seek God’ and love the world by loving each other. It gave me the weird feeling that Bonnevaux was grateful to have been saved.

I thought of the words of Isaiah: Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. (58:12)

If Lent is a time to repair personal spiritual foundations, this feast is about the evolutionary restoration of humanity. It’s another way of looking at things – maybe there is a time to tear down and start from scratch but a deeper truth is the continuity of things, revealed in seeing the time to rebuild and restore.

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Third Sunday of Lent: Luke 13:1-9

 

Unless you repent you will all perish as they did.

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Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

Remember, ‘repent’ does not mean to feel guilty and become cringingly submissive, but to have the strength and determination to change your mind. There is a saying of Lao Tzu that echoes the gospel of today’s parable of the fig tree that won’t bear fruit: if you don’t change direction you may end up where you are heading. This description of the consequences of refusing to change is not a threat but a simple warning. And yet, it is frighteningly difficult to change something in which you have been long-invested.

Early one fall morning I left with some companions for a long car trip home. The roads were empty and it was barely dawn. We were heading East and I thought we had taken that direction when we joined the highway. After thirty miles or so, I looked in the rear mirror and saw the beautiful colours of sunrise. I remarked on this and the others looked back and said ‘wow, that’s beautiful’. Then an uncomfortable silence descended on us which no one wanted to break. ‘The sun rises in the East, doesn’t it?’ some brave person asked. Even then, at first, it was hard to swallow the truth and turn around.

In the myth of the passage through the Red Sea the Israelites are escaping into the wilderness and freedom but are being pursued by the Egyptians who have changed their mind about letting them go. The Israelites panic and blame poor Moses, not for the first time, for leading them into disaster and start talking about going back. Then the pillar of cloud, that had been leading them up to that moment, changes position and takes up the rear of their caravan, hiding them from their pursuers and preparing for the great sign of the parting of the waters. There’s a lot of change going on in the story – the Israelites change their minds, the Egyptians change theirs, Moses thinks about changing his and even God seems to change his mind about where to put the cloud.

Repentance, changing the way we are heading – metanoia – is not only about making a decision. That can be agonising if we think that’s all there is to change. But behind the decision to change is the motor of assent, seeing what is and assenting to it, saying ‘Yes. Sorry. That’s right’. Seeing what actually is happening means stripping away and discarding all our most familiar and well-justified illusions. Hard to do at the best of times, it is most difficult in the worst of times when we fear change and long most for the security of being right. It takes time, as learning to do Lent takes time. It’s better to have a habit of doing it regularly each day, so that the wrong ideas and the behaviours they produce don’t get time to harden.

Seeing what is, experiencing the incontrovertible isness of the truth, is the essence of good judgement and, amazingly, it even gives us the energy needed to choose it.

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Saturday Lent Week Two: Luke 15: 1-32

 

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly.

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Sea of Galilee

An intriguing concept in modern cosmology is the existence of an uncountable number of parallel universes. But there is no evidence or proof of this. There is probably more evidence from science itself of a creative intelligence visible in the beauty of mathematics and the elegance of the universe at the cosmic and microcosmic scales. An implicit order exists in reality, of harmony, beauty and connectedness – that it is possible to perceive despite the existence of chaos, mass killings and innocent suffering.

‘We can never know God by thought but only by love’. In this characteristic statement of mystical consciousness, love means not just an emotion or excitement contained in the range of human pleasure and pain – though it exists there too. Love means the intelligence of spirit, indeed the mind of God itself, which can only be known by sharing in its own being. We all know that when we fall in love the world looks and feels quite different. When we go deeper into love our very sense of self progressively undergoes a massive transformation. We don’t know where it will take us. (The mystic says we eventually become God). But any true form of love, even the most self-centred at first, contains a fragment of the whole, a taste of the beautiful harmony of all things.

Too often the lower levels of human consciousness intervene at crucial transitional moments. Instead of deepening love we opt – or are sucked into – possessiveness, sadness and rage. ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’ But when the father in the parable of the two brothers (the prodigal son is one, the unwelcoming elder brother is the other) throws aside his dignity and right to rebuke his wayward son and instead embraces him with a kiss, we glimpse that the whole universe is friendly. Who cares then whether it is one or one of many? Despite the clashing together of galaxies, volcanic eruptions and human badness, when we come home, we are always welcomed.

Think of what you feel when you come back to meditation after a time of not doing it. Maybe you have been postponing it because you imagined there would be an inner penalty to pay for having given it up or being late. Instead there is a wonderful sense of ‘no blame’ (as the I Ching puts it) and an unconditional welcome at coming home to our true Self.

It is hard to believe this until you have felt it. And it hard to draw on this feeling because human beings are only rarely so Godlike. How often, between us, does unconditional forgiveness and reconciliation happen? Yet, even as children we have an innate sense of justice and intuitively hope or believe (which, we cannot say), that this is what reality is like. Our inner microcosm thus reflects the whole. We would know it if only we could be real. Until then, God is as imaginary, as out of reach, as parallel universes.

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Friday Lent week Two: Genesis 37: 3-28

 

‘Here comes the man of dreams’ they said to one another. ‘Come on, let us kill him and throw him into some well; we can say that a wild beast devoured him. Then we shall see what becomes of his dreams.’

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Sea of Galilee

This passage comes from the story of Joseph’s brothers, jealous because he was their father’s favourite, plotting to disappear him. They wouldn’t kill him – that would have been bad luck – but planned to leave him to die slowly at the bottom of a well. It exposes the hidden history of the world and much of our family life and religious and civil politics. It is disturbing how often jealousy operates as the deciding factor in our behaviour. Even God is a ‘jealous God’. One zealous commentary, defending the literal meaning at all costs, says, ‘God’s jealousy is appropriate and good’. Jealousy is an inevitable consequence of favouritism: a chosen race, the prophet who trumps all predecessors, the saved, the elect in any form. Yet, how hard it is for the monotheist, longing to be loved more than others, to believe (like St Paul) that ‘God has no favourites’.

You probably have a virus scan on your computer. It protects against the digital terrorism of hidden, isolated individuals who have probably come to feel they connect to others only online. The online persona is a risky gamble. So, we need an interior scan, too – examination of conscience, spiritual alertness, guarding the heart. Viruses like jealousy, racism or perfectionism lurk in dark attachments in our deep hard drives. Meditation searches them out. We have to be prepared for the struggle they will put up before they are deleted – or their energy is converted back into our original goodness. Lent is a time for this kind of spring-clean.

Modern affluent cultures give great attention to lifestyle choices and ways of improving our physical and psychological well-being. How many topical conversations revolve around food that’s ‘good for you’, the latest celebrity vegetable, diets that will save the world, new nuggets of esoteric wisdom revealed for all. These ‘discoveries’ and the reactions they evoke in the modern consumer-of-news feels like a flock of birds rising together and swerving in ever changing directions. Much less attention is given to our mental state.

We care less about what we allow our minds to absorb and become concentrated on or addicted to. So, the healthy-liver and eater today can resemble the ‘proud virgin’ of earlier centuries. We can be so careful (and right) at one level and yet blow it all away in another. Pride like jealousy is our common downfall. All that’s needed to make this double-standard a concealed lifestyle is enough people who agree with you.

Why do we love our own ‘dreams’ so much and so often despise or ridicule the dreams of others? To share a dream can inspire self-sacrifice and service. Or it can unleash a collective nightmare and the scapegoating of the most vulnerable. Watch your dreams.

To scan our deep mind for possible viruses and to test the mettle of our dreams – this is the work of pure prayer. The only sure test is to let go of all representation of our hopes and beliefs – conceptual, verbal or visual. Whatever regularly survives this radical cleansing of our mind can be trusted (most of the time).

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Thursday Lent week Two: Luke 16:19-31

 

‘There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even came and licked his sores.’

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Sea of Galilee

Our material, physical well-being is a sensitive issue. We feel it every time we pass a beggar in the subway or street. Aware of our privilege, for a moment, we forget our normal complaints and problems: it could all be much worse, we think. If we keep the thought for more than a few seconds we might consider the not impossible scenario in which our roles could be reversed. The mighty are sometimes pulled down from their thrones. But then we think, do we give something? Why are we really doing it? Who are we being kind to? Does this brief encounter with the other side of society have lasting impact on our way of living, our lived values?

Once on a lovely summer day I came out of a building into bright sunlight. Everyone was looking happy. Even the young man sitting on the pavement with his hand out. Our eyes met and without thinking I said, ‘what a lovely day’. He nodded enthusiastically and said, ‘yes fantastic…hope it lasts.’ It was a momentary confusion of roles but still part of the lovely day.

In today’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus we hear of ‘a great gulf (that) has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.’ It refers to the karmic consequences of self-isolation, being so preoccupied with improving or protecting our own well-being that we, in effect, wilfully ignore the opportunity to improve the condition of those in greater need or even to simply relate to them. The ‘great gulf’ in the karmic (afterlife) realm is visible and tangible every day to those who have a minimum of sensitivity. It is a major cause of the instability and turmoil of the modern world – the protest of the humiliated. ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ Jesus said but the size of the gulf has become our big issue.

In our Lenten practice – giving something up and doing something extra – we hope to re-sensitise ourselves to reality. Unfortunately, we tend to be selective about the aspects of reality we recognise and relate to. Some bits we highlight and enjoy. Others we deny or choose to forget: ‘deliberate hebetude’ (choosing not to see) is a phrase of TS Eliot’s that exposes our mind games and exposes the fragility of any false peace built upon it: The serenity only a deliberate hebetude, The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets. Useless in the darkness into which they peered. Or from which they turned their eyes.

We cannot be selective about reality without compromising everything. Essentially the ‘holiness’ we aim for in Lent is not a moral virtue but a matter of perception, how we see the whole we belong to. And saving ourselves is not about avoiding the punishment of eternal hell-fire but saving time now. (Springtime begins today).

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Wednesday Lent Week Two: Matthew 20: 17-28

 

‘You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you.

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Sea of Galilee

The gospel imagines. It summons up before us a new, extraordinary vision of humanity and society. If we don’t feel a bit confounded by this we haven’t imagined it. It perplexes us because it sounds both absolutely right and yet highly improbable ever to be realised. Even if it is unrealistic, if we reject it, we are diminishing ourselves. Are you serious? A world order in which those who hold power genuinely act as servants, where they love people not lust after power? Among other things, Lent is an opportunity for us all to audit our ways of using any power we have and review our sense of service to those who have none 

We cannot begin to imagine at this level unless we have been pulled up short by the limits of what we can see and understand. Religion is about doing this. Confronting us with questions not ramming answers into our heads. This is why the great religious geniuses had the genius of simplicity and make us gasp with wonder rather than just cheer at victory. Take the parables of the Kingdom for example.

The reign of God is like someone who found a treasure buried in a field. She buried it again and for sheer joy went and sold everything she had and bought the field. Thirty-three simple words describing a clear sequence of events that can keep a group of intelligent people talking for hours and come back the next day for more. To interpret the multiple meanings in the elements of this passage is to expose yourself and, if you are willing, to know yourself better than before. Why did the person bury the treasure again? (To prevent others from knowing about it. To keep it safe. Because it belongs in the field. Because she wanted others to come and enjoy it. Because it needs to be there to grow) Why did she feel such joy? Why did the joy lead to the recklessness of selling everything? What does ‘buying’ the field mean? Are some answers right and some wrong? Are some more right or wrong than others?

After morning meditation we jump up and go into the world with an open mind, not to impose pre-set answers on every situation, forcefully converting others to our view, but feeling for the truth with a questing, spiritual intelligence. By the evening, interiorly more dishevelled than we were in the morning, we sit down and let the inner space tidy up, not just evaluating the day as good or bad but testing its meanings. In this rhythm, we replenish the power of Imagination and restrain the perennial tendency of Fantasy to lead us astray.

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Tuesday Lent Week Two: Luke 2:41-51

 

‘Why were you looking for me?’ he replied. ‘Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?’ But they did not understand what he meant.

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Sea of Galilee

There’s still a lot about what Jesus said that we don’t understand. We can cope with this failure by i) thinking he is not saying anything relevant to us because we don’t like being brought up against the limits of our understanding. Or, ii) we reduce his meaning to what we can handle easily – ignoring the deeper spiritual sense by settling for a black and white moralistic message. Whichever of these approaches we take towards the spiritual dimension will be reflected in how we find meaning in the events of our lives.

A few days ago a white supremacist rampaged in a quiet civilised city in a decent socially responsible country and committed an appallingly insane massacre of God-fearing men and women at prayer. For a while the whole world feels one, one with the families of the victims and all the people of Christchurch and New Zealand in their traumatised grief. Once again, we are reminded by an outburst of inhuman hatred of the need to affirm the common ground of humanity. We remember that what unites is more meaningful than what separates. Then, somehow – this is the paradox – the worst evokes the best.

Darkness can invade and flood the human being, singly or en masse. We call it dark because it produces behaviour that makes us want to close our eyes. We would prefer not to see it. It is darkness become visible and the demonic become tangible: a nightmare. Worse still, it demeans humanity everywhere. Just as heroic virtue or holiness lifts our self-esteem by reminding us what we are capable of, so inhumanity makes us question if perhaps we really don’t possess buddha nature, we’re not created in God’s image, we cannot be ‘other Christs’.

Unless we choose to see otherwise. ‘Seeing the darkness’ implies the presence of some dark, invisible light. We cannot see without light because seeing – consciousness – is light. Just as the universe is suffused with a mysterious dark energy that we do not understand, so a certain kind of light that we cannot understand shines in the densest darkness and the dark cannot quench it.

If we hate those who hate us what reward can we expect other than an escalation of hatred, the orgy of self-destruction that eventually concludes every triumph of evil? When people at prayer are mown down by a madman, the innocent imprisoned or the poor routinely exploited we should feel the pure anger of prophets. But if this anger leads to deeper hatred and violence the darkness merely thickens. When in the short formal remand ritual, the judge called the arrested man ‘Mr’, he refused to dehumanise even people who deny the humanity of others. The light shines in darkness. We see, through tears, how evil’s triumph can be reversed by humanising forgiveness, the ultimate winning card.

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