Advent Week Four

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Good Shepherd in catacomb of Priscilla (Second half of the 3rd century)

What is extraordinary about the Nativity story is how ordinary it is – leaving aside the host of angels and the visit of the Three Kings which we can take as being symbolic add-ons. They symbolise, though, just how wonderful is this new member of the human species –  one of those who justify our calling ourselves homo sapiens. But the wonder glows in the ordinary, like Christmas tree lights when you walk into a darkened living-room

Jesus did not come from a poverty-stricken family but an artisan class, not a royal prince or part of any elite. Not finding a room at an inn when there is a big conference in town has happened to many others. He was born in a manger, which could mean a ‘place for sheep’. Later authors described it as a cave. Caves are ancient symbols of an encounter with God. Origen thought it might have been a cave where sheep were kept, perhaps on an old site of the god Tammuz, patron of shepherds. Whatever the facts, shepherds are strongly in the symbolic picture. Jesus later called himself the ‘good shepherd’ and the oldest artistic representation of him is as a young shepherd carrying the lost sheep (actually a goat) over his shoulders. Although in ancient Israel, when they were nomads, shepherds had a good public image, by the time of Jesus they had become a despised class.  From the circumstances of his birth, all this suggests, Jesus was equally able to handle the rich and powerful but was preferentially turned towards the poor and the marginalised.

The eternal Word that became flesh in a cave in Bethlehem also forms and takes shape in us through our daily lives. Everything we do, think, say, everything that just happens to us and evokes a response, consciously or otherwise, has an influence on this formation. St Paul, as a spiritual guide to his communities, experienced the pains of childbirth as ‘Christ is formed in you’ (Gal 4:19). It is a birthing, an embodiment of the Selfhood of God, that takes place in the deepest part of us; and yet it is felt by those with whom we live, especially those who have a special concern for us – as we for them. This is the experience both of personal intimacy and of community.

Br Lawrence, a Carmelite lay brother in a busy monastery in Paris in the 17th century, was renowned for his depth of experience of God’s presence. It radiated from him and he led others to awaken to it. He had to go to the market every day and haggle over the price of the groceries and then supervise a busy kitchen. He said he felt the presence more strongly there than in church. The continuous sense of the presence of Christ is the goal of meditation and of Advent which now culminates in the season of Christmas. 

The message is, don’t become too pious, too self-conscious, too artificially elitist about your mindful living in the birth of the Word. Brother Lawrence understood the amazing revelation of God in the ordinary and that it doesn’t mean we have to become special holy looking people, just our true selves:  ‘We should apply ourselves unceasingly to this one end, to so rule all our actions that they may be little acts of communion with God; but they must not be studied, they must come naturally, from the purity & simplicity of the heart.’

As the Word becomes flesh in our bodies, minds, feelings and all our relationships, more and more of who I am becomes embodied in the Word. Which is, of course the main reason we say ‘happy Christmas’ not just ‘happy holidays’.  Happy Christmas!

Advent Week Three

Advent Week Three

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Here in the Northern hemisphere we are approaching the nadir of the year, December 21st, the shortest day. Nadir comes from an Arabic word meaning ‘opposite’, referring here to  the opposite of the zenith, which is the highest point in the celestial sphere. The nice thing about opposites is that when you get all the way to the end you meet the other coming towards you – which is what Advent is about too.

If you’re in the southern hemisphere, the same date is the longest day. From this point the days get lighter or darker, longer or shorter. It’s hard to believe, deep in a Northern winter, that the days are really getting longer but they are and eventually you have to believe it. So also in the cyclical revolution of our own lives, ascends merge into new beginnings and periods of darkness and hopelessness generate a new dawn. All we have to do is stay the course, persevere till the end, and the transformation happens. As the rabbi said, ‘God does not expect us to be perfect but we are not allowed to give up.’

St John says that ‘God is light and in God there is no darkness at all’ (1Jn 1:5). This is a fundamental Christian insight into the divine paradox where opposites are united. For every statement we make about God we have to allow for the opposite. What seems so often like an enemy, a disrupter or a negation is quickly rejected. But in our impatience and insecurity we miss the bounce effect when the meeting of opposites brings about a truly happy marriage. God who is light is also complete darkness, whom ‘no one has ever seen or can see’, living in a light that ‘no one can even come near’ (1 Tim 6:16). 

As the union of opposites, God is light and darkness. This union is the absolute nature of peace, not as the world gives it’ but as God pours it out beyond understanding.  We prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus at the bounce-point when the shortest grows and the darkest becomes lighter. Yes, God reveals himself but He also hides in what He reveals. This happened when the Godhead poured himself into the human vessel of Jesus. Some glimpsed, some guessed, some saw for a moment but couldn’t trust what they felt. Others were shocked and frightened at what was being revealed within them. That fear of light leads to the greatest of all rejections of reality.  The Christmas story contains the dark shadow cast by any intense light when it is blocked.

Does this encounter with paradox help us to move into ‘enlightenment’? Surely, we pray, meditate, act, think and talk so we can better understand. Or do we? Perhaps we meditate not to see more clearly or understand the mystery better so that we can better become the mystery, by sharing in the nature of God. Enlightenment is not about seeing the light but becoming the light. 

In our darkest days we can emit and radiate the light of our own spirit, which is never less than the divinising light. This light penetrates our darkest moments and deeds. At the end of the cycle, light is irresistible. Darkness can bear to resist no longer – and that is what makes Christmas happy.

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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