A New Holiness for a New World

The reason the Rule of St. Benedict’s is so influential is because it shows us how to make rules that are appropriate to our own day and situation, and how to change rules as need arises while remaining true to some clearly defined principles.

These are principles such as moderation, measure, good order, respect for those who are different from ourselves, compassion for the old, the young and the sick, generosity for the stranger who turns up after the guest-master has gone to bed, a balanced lifestyle, good time management, vertical and horizontal forms of authority, listening to everyone, social equality, and justice.

All this is summed up in the great triple precepts of obedience, conversion, and stability.

These are eternal principles of true religion, good religion, of civility, good society, the good life, health, and in short, holiness.

Time was when everyone agreed that the right aspiration of life was holiness, but what does holiness mean today, when holiness is often a neglected value in Christian circles? It lives on, maybe in diminished forms.

In the aspirations of some New Age spiritualities, we speak of “wholeness.” None of us would mind being called “whole persons.” Wholeness is that which has been fixed; what has been repaired, healed, made whole again.

It’s not only individuals who are broken and need repairing, healing, but it’s our culture and our world. A very striking sign of this is the hole in the ground just a few yards from where we are now. If we look into that hole at ground zero, and we look into all that made it, all the suffering it caused, and all the tragic consequences that have come from it, then we find ourselves looking into a deep and frightening darkness.

It may help us that to remember that Benedict also looked into a similar darkness. December, 546, the year before his death, was Benedict’s 9-11. Totilla captured Rome and demolished a third of the city before one of his generals persuaded him it might be better to stop there. It was the beginning of the dark ages, the decline of the Roman empire.

Benedict and the communities that he inspired responded to this darkness by forming local communities — not monastic orders, not great institutions — that were as self-sufficient as possible.

The monastery, not the empire, became the locus of civilization, of order, of peace. The empire failed. Men and women put their faith in the reign of God.

Today, monasteries are struggling to survive. Many of them are cutting back because of aging and diminishing numbers. It’s true there are new forms of monastic life appearing…but it’s certainly not the age of St. Benedict, when armies of monastics cleared the forests of Europe and opened up the economies and the social structure of the Western world.

And yet the Rule continues to fascinate and inspire countless men and women who have no desire to become monks or nuns. The monastic archetype is in the human psyche. There is a monk within each of us. Some of us express this in the monastic state and way of life.

The eternal principles of the Rule are very easily translated into other ways of life. This was made clear to me recently when on two continents I received two oblates of our Benedictine oblate community.

One of them was a 24-year-old Italian engineering student. The other was an 84-year-old French-Canadian retired businessman. When I asked them on different occasions what made them want to take this step, they gave surprisingly similar answers: simplicity of life, spiritual friendship, the need for a framework of values in their life, and the sense of being part of a community that is itself an expression of a living tradition.

New World

The idea of a global village is a pernicious one, especially if it means the loss of cultural identity. But if we’ve got a new kind of community in the world, maybe it’s not so surprising that we’ve got a new kind of holiness.

Simone Weil, in 1943, said this:

“Today, it is not merely enough to be a saint, but we must have a saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness itself without precedent. A new type of sanctity is indeed a fresh spring or invention. If all is kept in proportion, and if the order of each thing is preserved, it is almost equivalent to a new revelation of the universe and human destiny. It is the exposure of a large portion of truth and beauty hitherto concealed under a thick layer of dust. The new holiness.”

This spiritual vision is just what we need when we look into the black hole of our present predicament. It’s the hope we need for our own dark age. The passage is pure Benedict.Proportion, and order. That’s what Benedict is so good at. Especially in times of crisis.

Modern saints know that the universe is a country, and that for the truly spiritual man or woman, it is the only country. Explicit universality surely is our way toward peace. A way toward love of country that is not nationalistic… local identity without aggressive behavior toward your neighbor, and religious belief without intolerance or prejudice.

Posted on Trinity News. This text is slightly adapted.

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The Greening Power of Hildegard of Bingen

(Preface to Collected essays on Hildegarde of Bingen Le Vie di ildegarde: Saperi, Contemplazione, CuraEd, Giambovoli 2020)

by Laurence Freeman OSB

For any student of English literature, it is hard to look at Hildegarde’s paintings and read of her visionary experiences without comparing her with the 18th century English mystical poet and artist William Blake. At the age of three, Hildegarde had her first vision of a light that ‘quaked my soul’. Blake had his first vision of angels in a public park in London at the age of eight and reported regular encounters with spiritual beings throughout his life. Both were deeply religious people and, for all the great contrast between the 12th century Catholic nun and the 18th century Nonconformist, they belong in their respective traditions to the mystical dimension of religion – according to Friedrich von Hügel’s typology of the three elements of religion: the historical/institutional, the intellectual/speculative, and the mystical/experiential. As mystics and artists, they were both deeply engaged with their times and social issues. Vastly different, they nevertheless equally disprove the assumption that the mystical element of religion is sealed off from the intellectual and institutional dimensions.

Blake was often regarded with suspicion and ridicule in his lifetime but after his death found his place in the academic literary canon. Hildegarde by contrast won papal approval when she began to publish her revelations and visions. During her lifetime, she was widely accepted as a genuine prophet, even as a self-confident woman, of orthodoxy and wisdom despite the vital diversity of all her gifts.

The present volume of papers from the 2019 Conference at the Christian Meditation Centre in Florence testifies to the resurgence of interest in Hildegarde that grew through the last century and culminated in her being declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI. Her contribution to the Christian mystical tradition was embedded in the 12th century renaissance which was an age of intellectual, spiritual and scientific flowering. Increasingly studied from these perspectives, she is now widely embraced as a wisdom figure in our time – in a culture that suffers from the loss of its spiritual coherence and social order amidst a disintegration of values in all fields of personal and institutional life.

Blake was a rebel – he typically conversed with fallen angels. He raged against the mechanisation and materialism of the early Industrial Age, mourning the loss of the capacity for wonder and delight in his culture. Hildegarde however lived in a world that saw veriditas, the ‘greening’ power of nature, as a divine presence. She was a woman of burning faith and solid belief who pursued her interests in all fields of knowledge without the fragmentation and over-specialisation that has disconnected us from the holistic vision of medicine , art and mystical wisdom.

Perhaps we are drawn towards Hildegarde because she was at home within in a mythic world and a nourishing field of symbols that could still assume the unity of all knowledge that even by Blake’s time was disintegrating into romanticism; and which in our time has left us in a wasteland and an anarchy of disconnected, competing values. Blake saw the remedy in cleansing the ‘doors of perception’ that would then enable us to see all things as they truly are: ‘infinite’. Hildegarde also saw the same light by looking ‘directly into the sun’ which she knew as the divine being that is ‘concealed in all things as fiery energy’ and ‘that blazed above the beauty of the fields’.

What are the elements in Hildegarde’s legacy that attract us and can refresh our hope today? The different papers of this volume answer this by testifying to her extraordinary mystical intelligence and creative imagination. But they also throw light on the hunger for wisdom that is both the pain and the promise of our time.

To understand if and how we benefit from encountering past wisdom traditions, Hildegarde is a friendly teacher, provided we ask ourselves honest questions. Are we re-inventing Hildegarde in our own image, merely to match our own need for spiritual coherence? Or does she truly represent unifying values and attitudes that chime with what we feel we have lost and seek to recover? For example, it seems at times she speaks with a remarkable post-modern subjectivity:

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.

Yet her (at least public) views on gender and women’s inferiority strike us as embarrassingly of her time. Like, but better than, her 14th century English counterpart and visionary, Julian of Norwich, she nevertheless managed to flourish as a woman, an intellectual and a spiritual authority within a patriarchal system of exceptional rigidity.

Medicine is one field of Hildegarde’s passion where we can see this question addressed. In our age – that has been called the ‘golden age of medicine’ – we have become entrapped by the materialism of the scientific method and the greed of exploitation. Our understanding of health has been accordingly reduced to survival, medicalised life without spiritual quality. Consequently, the meaning of suffering and death in medicine has been excluded. Hildegarde offers us another idea of health that does not deny mortality but relates the individual’s well-being to the inter-related natural healing forces in which we live and that she saw s God’s compassionate gift to the world.

Speaking to a friend recently, a herbalist trained in a centuries long family tradition, I realised how grounded even those of Hildegarde’s remedies that initially seem laughable to modern medical science – placing a precious stone in the mouth to relieve chronic headache, for example – have a logic that can be expressed in terms we are familiar with. What is more laughable and dangerous is the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and its influence on our unhealthy dependence on medication rather than medicine. Hildegarde’s wise medicine recognises the need for the patient to be treated uniquely and to take responsibility for his or her own well-being. A mix of healthy asceticism, wonder and personal responsibility for our own health is at the heart of this contemplative medicine. It resonates with the wisdom of the great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney:

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

The ‘self-revealing’ refers to the inborn surge of self-knowledge that accompanies healing. The ‘double-take of feeling’ suggests the experience of re-cognition, seeing something again for the first time. Hildegarde studied and practiced the arts of healing within a wisdom tradition that harmonised (in the concepts and factual knowledge available to it) the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine. She saw healing as a realignment of the microcosm, that we are, with the cosmos, the great order, balance and harmony to which we belong.

Moderation and belief in the power of balance – fortified by her Benedictine values and the integration of the physical and psychological – are basic elements of Hildegarde’s theory of medicine and her use of tinctures, plants and healing stones. Everything can be turned to good and combined with each other to heal: plants, elements, trees, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles and metals. Using these gifts of nature in the healing arts expresses the fertility of nature in relation to the specifically human condition. ‘Greening power’ fills all living things and manifests every plant, stone or animal as ‘sparks of God’s radiance’. Yet, strange as some of Hildegarde’s remedies may seem to us – it was a different science just as her cosmology was pre-Galileo – it was also evidence based and able to observe that bacteria-polluted water that causes sickness can be purified by boiling. Medicine is food and food is medicine, as Hippocrates stated. This wisdom is the foundation of Hildegarde’s traditional medicine but also takes us into her theology.

Hildegarde’s idea of veriditas and her perception of the harmony between humanity and the natural world, engages with the modern anxiety about our ecological predicament. The link between the innate green health of the natural world – and its transcendent beauty – is indissolubly linked to the integral health of humanity. As we would say today, when our inner ecology is polluted, we pollute the outer environment. If we no longer experience our own nature as beautiful, we will be blind to the beauty of the natural world. What we truly perceive as beautiful we cannot abuse.

The wisdom tradition which nourished Hildegarde and became her field of flourishing creativity did not separate beauty from theology, liturgy, science or medicine. Her music and painting entrance and delight us today not least because we feel in them the consistency between all aspects of her personality and her ever-curious exploration of the inexhaustible wonders of the world. Like her near contemporary, Rumi and mystics of all traditions she felt the ‘sober intoxication’ of the discovery of God in the self and of the self in creation. For this reason, she is indeed a Doctor of the Church, a unique example of the Christian mystical tradition. But no less, does she belong to a universal wisdom tradition that recognises this sober intoxication as love.  Like Rumi, Hildegarde saw this love flowing through all things including the human body and our deepest friendships. Rumi’s open anguish at the loss of Shams, like Hildegarde’s when separated from her Richardis illustrate another and all-important integration within their wisdom tradition: the oneness of divine and human love.

I asked a question above, which the 2019 Seminar and this book of its proceedings help to answer, ‘what is the meaning of our attraction to Hildegarde today and can she help us connect to an older expression of wisdom and help us in the present global crisis?’ Our attraction to her is more than nostalgia for a past where the world was seen to be held in one great chain of being. To see Hildegarde just nostalgically would lead to absurdity, ignoring her outdated information about the world and so failing to see the essence of her particular wisdom which connects her, for our benefit, with universal wisdom. Through telescopes and microscopes, we know things she didn’t. But, because of our self-blinding materialism, we have forgotten things that she clearly saw and understood. Connecting with her and other sources of past wisdom helps us see the essentially spiritual nature of our crisis.

What connects us to the wisdom she drank from is our own contemplative practice. Unless we are on our own quest for self-knowledge as the basis for the knowledge of God, our interest with the wisdom figures of the past must remain superficial or merely academic. Meditation, as a universal wisdom, offers us a way to heal the serial disconnections we have with our tradition, ourselves, each other and with God. It gives us a literacy in the language of wisdom which is silence. So, to me it seems significant that the content of this book was first composed in exchanges that took place at a living Christian meditation centre in one of the great cultural centres of the world.

Hildegarde’s meaning for us today is not merely her explanation of things but how she saw the world in its wonderful and blessed wholeness, how she understood the beauty of the human and of nature, how she experienced wisdom both transcendentally and immanently, how she could see God in everything and Christ in the power of veriditas.  She helps us understand that we can indeed benefit from the wisdom of past teachers and learning how we, in very different circumstances, can apply what they teach us. As an ageing culture in transition, so often tired, confused and broken, we may be reborn, rejuvenated with her help. Then we will understand her when said at the end of her vibrantly green life ‘I feel like a young girl, not an old lady.’

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Bonnevaux

Easter Sunday

 

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As I write this, I am still feeling the surprise of feeling the brilliant light of the huge moon in the early hours of this morning. Moonlight always feels as if it gently floods your body and then strokes the mind. I am distracted, however, from thinking about the lunar feast of Easter, the link with oestrogen and the forever melting and growing phases of the moon. Distraction comes from a continuous raucous noise, like a football crowd celebrating a championship win that is pouring into my room through the open windows in front of my desk looking out at the lake at Bonnevaux. Frogs in full choral disharmony. As the book I consulted puts it, boy frogs awaken from their hibernation with one thing on their minds and lady frogs swollen with spawn lay it and before you can blink it is fertilised.

I rose from the dead after drawing the sting of death and loosing the bonds of hell.. for lo the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. I have risen from the dead, I have offered peace (Origen: Homilies on Song of Songs)

Spring. The calm peaceful, influential cycle of the moon which shape the religious and farming calendars and our moods. The frenzied fixation and impatience of the mating rituals. Energy passing upwards in the body and bursting into spirit. Resurrection happens both in nature and in our psyche which reflects it. Mis-stepping in the dance between the inner and outer rhythms disturbs everything. Many have understood this through their harsh encounter with the virus, one face of nature during the past weeks. The difference between the Resurrection of Jesus and the biological cycle of nature is that in him the cycle of death and rebirth is not repeated but transcended. True, we continue to experience many deaths and rebirths, as always, the deeper the death the higher the rebirth. But through each cycle in our personal and collective lives, we can better breathe in the light of the risen, never to die again, Jesus and lose and find ourselves in him. The corona crisis has meant death for many individuals, myriad kinds of suffering and perhaps the death of a way of life. We have long known it was unsustainable. Growth out of control is cancer. Easter reminds us that we do not need to fear change or death once we are committed to real life. Our spiritual path, whatever form it takes, is that commitment. As we

enter into the cycle of death and resurrection more thoroughly, we become more aware of its universal truth, that it is the model of all being. We begin to appreciate what Mystery is…It is the cycle upon which each half-hour of meditation is based: death to the possessiveness and triviality occupying our ego and a rising to the liberty that dawns when we find ourselves by looking fully at the Other…We are dying and rising to new life every day.. Yet it is also true that there is only one death and one rising which Jesus underwent for all creation. (John Main Word into Silence)

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Holy Saturday

 

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Family or loved ones waiting beside someone on life support or – as in the corona crisis – not allowed to be beside them but waiting for news at a distance – as long as there is breath there is hope. However close the inevitable may be, it is another age, another world away. But when it comes, and the last breath is drawn, when there is no next inbreath, we enter the summum silentium of death. The great silence.

In monasteries this refers to the silence monks are supposed to observe strictly after the night prayer. It’s not unknown, however, for monks to get on zoom or chat with someone in the community after the great silence. With death, however, there is no choice, silence can only be observed. We can’t cheat death. And it is shocking how powerless we are. Like children who think they can get what they want by insisting, by charming, by crying, by threatening, we finally give up and admit we are defeated. What is gone is gone.

However much we replay conversations with the dead we will never again hear or see them as we did. Photos, old letters, personal objects we treasure are all meagre consolation and after a while they become impediments to the new relationship that is being formed in the tomb that slowly evolves to become a womb.

The unyielding, uncompromising silence of non-communication, the failure to make contact, to know what the dead person might be seeing or feeling – if anything. The silence of wondering if they care – if they are anywhere or in any kind of existence in which they could care about those who miss them. Eventually the grieving process allows the bereft to accept the obvious and the inevitable. Albeit with another weight in their heavy heart to carry, they move on. As we die into the death the summum silentium shows signs of life. Green shoots from dead soil.

This doesn’t mean that messages from the dead are getting through on a busy network but that the silence becomes deeper. We become better able to listen to the silence without populating it with our desires and fears and imagination. It becomes simple presence. Simple but more intensely present than anything we thought was real before.

Inbetween the lines of this pandemic and the painful, not meaningless disruption it is causing, we should be able to hear this great silence. If we don’t have one, or if it has fallen into disrepair, this is the time to start or re-service a spiritual practice. It is time to see how necessary for survival is the silence of things. The silence which empowers life through death.

Here at Bonnevaux I have noticed on my walks how much more present and friendly the birds and animals seem. I imagine this is my projection. It is I who have changed, not them. But who knows? Maybe it is after all, all about relationship, not just observation or being observed. It is time to start Lent again.

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Good Friday

 

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It matters how we die. And how we die depends upon how we approach dying. How we approach that inevitability depends upon how we have lived. How we live depends upon how much we have learned love.

In many wisdom traditions death is associated with a crisis – the word krisis means judgement. A reckoning has to be made and, like doing tax returns, no one looks forward to it but it is not as bad as it seems once you set your mind to it. The more complicated your affairs, the longer it will take. But unlike tax returns you cannot pay anyone to do it for you. Dying, we all become hermits and if we haven’t understood solitude before we will learn in this last crisis of life.

The Egyptians saw the last judgement as a weighing of the human heart against the feather of truth. If the heart of the deceased was too heavy, too impure, the goddess of truth would devour it and the unfortunate soul would be arrested on its journey into immortality, stuck in some intermediate limbo or netherworld.

So, scared of the unknown afterlife, people used to pray for a holy death. This meant letting go of life and one’s attachments and loved ones peacefully. Even when pain was acute one could achieve a dignified equanimity, no thrashing around dramatically complaining about that ‘dark night’ which the romantic poet Dylan Thomas said we should not go gently into. Rather, he said we should, ‘rage against the fading of the light’. But beside the witness of a holy death this sounds embarrassingly adolescent.

What about Good Friday in the middle of this pandemic in which so many have died, and which will take away many others before it has run its course? If we have been following Lent – and what a Lent it has been in 2020 – we should be a little readier to look death in the eyes and face our deepest fear. When fears are faced, they crumble. It is only when we run away that they become monstrous and wreck our lives and our capacity to love.

Even the death of the unjustly accused, of children, victims of genocide or of social inequality (as we see in the figures of Covid 19’s victims), even the most disturbing deaths teach us about life. Yama the mythical god of death in the Katha Upanishad is a teacher of humanity. So is the fully human, historical Jesus, not only in what he preached but in how he lived and died into his teaching, indeed becoming what he taught.  If we die as we lived, our dying is a gift, an authentic teaching in itself, to those we take leave of. Even in grief we can feel the grace of a holy death and its joyful, birth-like expansion and release. Every death, Jesus shows us, can be redemptive.

He did not rage against the fading of the light. He saw the rising light. Spoken from this incommunicable awakening, his last words enlighten us: I am thirstyToday you will be with me in paradise. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. It is accomplished.

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Thursday of Holy Week

 

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Do this in memory of me’. Jesus says this during the Last Supper, which evolved – and is still evolving in Christian life – as the Eucharist. We ‘remember’ him as members of his mystical body and this remembering nourishes us and helps us to grow. It is food for the journey, a healing of the human condition, a celebration of life as it could be lived with the powers of forgiveness, equality and sharing. Of course, it is symbolic. But symbols are forces of transformation.

There are different kinds of acts of memory. There is a remembering of anger and resentment we call vengeance. There is nostalgia, of regret and sadness for what is lost in time. These kinds of memory keep us looking backwards. They fail to incorporate the past in the present. They cannot prepare us for what’s coming next in the flow of time, the unknown future.  These forms of remembering do not guide us to the present moment. They are not the way of ‘calling to mind’ that the Eucharist is about.

In a contemplative Eucharist, such as we celebrate at Bonnevaux (and do online every Sunday), it is easier to feel the presence of Christ in the eternal now, the present moment where the past is healed, and we are renewed to build the future.

Many of the readers of these daily reflections have been forced to become more solitary and even isolated since the beginning of Lent. I was talking today to a meditator who has been in quarantine for two weeks in a hotel room. He is coping well, he told me. He hasn’t turned on the television at all. Some days he adds a third meditation to his regular morning and evening sessions. He keeps in touch online with family and close friends and he started a creative work project which is absorbing him. He began the enforced solitude and dramatic slowdown with the advantage of an already established spiritual path. He is glad to be going home soon but he has learned a lot from the experience and is grateful for it. He feels he will life differently, more simply and gratefully.

For many others the slow down or solitude have not been so easy. Time has hung heavy on them. They have felt restless, lonely, isolated, forgotten, abandoned. When we are in pain it is natural to seek distraction, to “take your mind off it.” But distraction can become a problem in itself, giving only temporary relief. As it becomes more addictive, higher does are needed to achieve the same result.

Many of us are addicted to some forms of distraction already. Finding ourselves in house arrest may mean we automatically increase the dose or look instinctively for other ways of fixing the problem – which they don’t. It can also be an opportunity to discover what a spiritual path and practice mean.

Meditation doesn’t solve the Covid-19 problem. If the virus is contagious before meditation, it will still be contagious afterwards. But a simple daily practice of meditation will, without doubt, change the way you approach and cope with the crisis.

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Wednesday of Holy Week

 

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The virus may have been physically present in humans for a long time. Circumstances came together that made the terrible mutation we are experiencing. Eventually, we will understand the science and find a vaccine. We don’t personally blame the virus itself for what it is wreaking, any more than we blame meteorological conditions for natural disasters. We would be foolish however, not to ask about the human element – disrespect for the environment, social injustice, exploitation of the weak – in the creation of these disastrous circumstances. Because every effect has a cause.

But at the human level – yesterday I was reflecting on the character of Judas and our capacity for betrayal – personal responsibility cannot be avoided. We always point a finger of blame somewhere. The husband of a friend of mine gave her an unwelcome Christmas present one year by confessing that he had been having an affair with her best friend for the past decade. In an instant (the same time it took for Satan to enter Judas) he transmitted the virus of the infidelity that shattered her world, inwardly and outwardly. It does not take long to kill someone. But later, as her life had begun to re-form, she told me she was still mad at him, but that she could see how it had happened and her own involvement in the circumstances behind the collapse of their relationship. He had become highly stressed at work, emotionally distant, and she had allowed him to become increasingly separate, convincing herself that this was the best way she could love him.

This week we are living the story of the last days of Jesus. It is a root story in humanity’s collective memory. It helps us read the story of our lives and see sense in the senseless, light in the darkness. To see darkness is the beginning of spiritual vision. What the story will not allow us to do, is evade the truth or deny reality. Unless we come to insight into the meaning of our own story, we will be condemned to repeat the works of darkness until the story of our life ends. So, we don’t know why Judas became the archetypal betrayer. And, if we did, it would make the story too personal and prevent it being the root story of humanity.

All we can say is that our dark deeds are bound to what darkness has previously touched and traumatised us. Who betrayed Judas? Why could he not bear the light? Whatever its cause, his betrayal lead to the climactic triumph of the dark forces of the Passion of Christ. From this moment of darkness Jesus becomes the Christ : his suffering has become universal.

We read the story by allowing it to read us. We see how our suffering and darkness are already contained in the story. We simply accept what we cannot avoid. With the wisdom this brings we penetrate the darkness. We need only a path to guide us into it and through it.

The path is our guide through the dark.  ‘The Prince of this world approaches. He has no rights over me; but the world must be shown that I love the Father and do exactly as he commands; so up, let us go forward.’ (Jn 14:30-31)

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Tuesday of Holy Week

 

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Today’s gospel (Jn 13:21-33,36-38) is very strange. It is a mysterious moment in the story that is absorbing us this week, a story in which we are meant to find ourselves. If we do not find ourselves in the story, we will not find Jesus either.

He is at supper and falls into ‘deep agitation of spirit’. He is not approaching the end of his life with cool stoicism.  But nor is he panicking. Philosophically, death is something we can objectify, distance from ourselves. It is out there, something affecting others. But, as the present crisis has shown us, it is not out there. Now or later, it is coming for all of us. Better be prepared and what better way than to practice dying? A spiritual path does not isolate us safely above the hard fact of our mortality. Jesus trembled before it. But deep prayer shows us what death the great unknown, really is. Meditation whether you believe or not is deep prayer.

We get a glimpse into the mind of Jesus whenever we see, in ourselves, how meditation makes us both more sensitive and vulnerable to suffering; but also frees from the instinct to lash back at those who hurt us. Suffering comes in many forms: at this moment in the story it is as the rawest pain of an intimate betrayal, the death of love.

Jesus tells the disciples directly that one of them will betray him. They are bewildered and start whispering among themselves who it might be. Peter asks John, the disciple most intimate to Jesus, who was reclining next to him, to ask him who it would be. Jesus complies; as an intimate friend he shares everything. He gives a piece of bread to Judas signifying that he is the one whose name will be forever cursed in history after this night.

At that instant ‘Satan enters Judas’. This is a dark inversion of what should happen. The bread Jesus gave Judas is the same with which Jesus identified himself: ‘this is my body’. By giving the bread he gives himself, as every Christian who celebrates the Eucharist in some way feels. But Satan? Suddenly, though, this becomes like a black mass, the kind that Satanists celebrate. Not the receiving of holy communion but blasphemy, the unleashing of the dark perverse of self-destruction.

The human heart is good, Godlike. People give themselves, like the 600,000 in Britain recently who in 24-hours volunteered to help others during the crisis. But there is also a heart of darkness to reckon with. There are splinters of this darkness in each of us. In human beings, even between those who are intimate, darkness can become personal and conscious: the people who coughed into the faces of the police who told them they were breaking the social distancing rules; the paedophile who grooms his victims; the serial killer; the addict; those whom power or wealth have corrupted.

The same darkness is waiting, unconsciously and impersonally, in the billions of Covid-19 virus that could fit into a space the size of this full stop. We don’t know much about the virus or why Judas betrayed his teacher and friend. Darkness is dark. The gospel says when Judas left table to betray Jesus, ‘night fell’.

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Monday of Holy Week

 

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Here at Bonnevaux I have a great view from the window of my study. It looks out on the lake and the valley leading down to what we have named the Resurrection Tree. This is the old oak where we lit the Easter fire on Holy Saturday night last year for the first time. We hope to do the same again, the same ritual in a very different world, in a few days. I’ll see if we can put a picture of this view and the tree on Daily Wisdom for today.

As the weather is warming up and the trees are greening rapidly, I am opening the window more often as I write here. As I did this just now I saw one of the Bonnevaux cats prowling around looking for prey. It looked up at me and emitted a pathetic mew and then resumed its search. On the lake the frogs are working up to their springtime love-making with great noise and sudden silences. The birdsong has become more 3-D. All animals, even the creepy centipede that frightened me when I went to the kitchen last night, are our friends. We need their companionship as well as our human friends. Perhaps we will treat both better from what we are learning in solitude these days.

Through the fresher, cleaner air after the reduced pollution, come waves of new scents. Our friend, the natural world, is able to share itself with us and remind us how we belong – together – to something greater.

Today’s gospel story opens with a dinner among friends, Jesus, Martha and Mary. Their brother Lazarus had been raised from the dead. Like all those raised, restored and resurrected, he was restored to this same life of companionship, knowing where we belong, but in a new way. He’s at the dinner too.

Mary brings into the room some very expensive ointment, pure nard. It grows in the Himalayas of China, Nepal and India. When I was in Israel a few weeks ago I was given a small tube of it and have just smelled it again. It is amber-coloured and used for medicine, incense (in the Temple in Jerusalem) and as perfume – three purposes with connected meanings.

Mary used this precious thing to anoint the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The four gospels tell the story with variations. In Luke, for example, the woman is a sinner, often taken to mean a prostitute. Anointing of the feet was a gesture of respect, although the detail of the hair is different and unusual. In John’s version Judas, reducing mystery and ritual to the material level, complains at the extravagance. Jesus defends the woman, connecting it to the day of his burial, which we know will be only too soon. These different accounts create a sense of uncertainty, the impossibility of rational precision: a transition period approaching a climax and new time.

Uncertainty – such as we are experiencing now in this pandemic – can also be richly mysterious and meaningful. If we know how to live with uncertainty and open to mystery we may smell the meaning, as they people in the story smelled the scent of the nard filling the whole house.

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