I have just been on Bere Island for a few days alone. The weather has been glorious. As we don’t say the Gloria at mass during Lent, the weather did it. The sunlight and sudden emergence of colour and the pre-Spring scents, some early daffodils, gentle winds, calm seas and wonderful continuous change in contrast. It’s hard to believe that storms have been battering the coast here for weeks before moving on to the rest of Europe. Or that there are people here painfully grieving and facing an empty chair, living with the absence of a partner of more than thirty years.
On the one hand you have to accept the glorious weather and breathe it in and get out and walk, however long it lasts, and let go of it when the rain rerturns tomorrow. We always know now how long it will last. Maybe it is easier to be in the moment and stay fully awake when you’re not looking at the forecast. On the other hand you have to let go of a companion, face the future without them and yet grow in the growing sense of their presence. On both hands, it is about detachment and a rediscovery of the giftedness of things, the flow of reality that we cannot freeze and defrost as we like.
Simple places like Bere Island – I hope you have yours and do not just tell other people to have them – are not escapes from reality. They are profound, fully human and elemental ways of living in the moment but with a sense of the glory of life that comprehends everything. In that awareness, no weather is bad. But when it is bad and you think ‘how could people put up with this’, you know the answer.
I heard that the meditation group that meets here every week, rain or shine, now has some children coming to it. May your Lent be being such a time for you.
It is not merely about change but Transfiguration. There was a moment when the close followers of Jesus glimpsed this in him although exactly what the historical moment was like of course we can’t know. But it is a compellingly realistic account because it combines the sublime and the very ordinary:
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray. As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. Suddenly there were two men there talking to him; they were Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were heavy with sleep, but they kept awake and saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As these were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ – He did not know what he was saying. As he spoke, a cloud came and covered them with shadow; and when they went into the cloud the disciples were afraid. And a voice came from the cloud saying, ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.’ And after the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. The disciples kept silence and, at that time, told no one what they had seen. (Luke 9:28-36)
Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the prophets) appear with Jesus – testifying to his unique and synthesising relationship to these two forces of all religion. The disciples almost fall asleep – one way we escape the demands of reality. But even though they stayed awake they were not fully present. They tried to objectify it. But transfiguration is about full immersion, not trying to experience the experience. In modern terms it is like at an extraordinary moment of intimacy and glory together when one of you pulls out an iPhone and starts taking pictures. As usual Peter muffs it; but he does his best which is also all we can do when we are saying the mantra.
Then the mystery, the unknowability of the moment, descends on them like a cloud of unknowing. They are plunged into a womb of silence where the experience will, over time, develop in their consciousness. Only then, and not even then, can it be adequately described.
When we are not on the margins, on the ‘shore of the wide world’ we are prone to verbosity. When one starts trying to talk about the inexpressible we become like the preacher who knows he is giving a bad sermon but can’t stop. He goes on digging his own grave in the desperate attempt to redeem himself and save his reputation.
Some people even get paid for doing this.
The Buddha called them ‘eel-wrigglers and hair-splitters’, people who try to convince themselves and others that the ultimate insight of truth can be defined and argued about. St Augustine said ‘si comprehendis, non est deus’ – if you can understand it, it isn’t God.
In 1 Timothy Paul warned in his usual passionate way against getting caught up in paying attention to ‘myths and endless genealogies, which promote useless speculations rather than God’s redemptive plan that operates by faith.’ The goal of teaching is not more meetings and endless discussion but ‘love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith’ (1:4).
On this theme especially, I had better keep my comments short. Say your mantra. John Main said: say your mantra, be content to say it and live out the consequences of saying it.
Sometimes, not often, in a half-dream state one can see the answer to everything. It comes as a surprise but mainly one sees how simple and obvious it is. It is an elusive insight but it brings an overwhelming sense of peace and of ultimate relief. The whole complex chaos of the world, with its clashing of the dimensions of time, of subjective and objective perspectives, of fear and hope, desire and poverty, the imagined and the tangible, all this gently slides into a lovely, easy harmony. The endless struggle to order things comes to an end without a struggle. The ship of the questing self has found its harbour while still sailing the high seas.
The problem is remembering what one saw. Even more it’s the problem of conceptualising it or imagining it. Memory works with ideas or images that somehow, however imperfectly, coagulate the flow of consciousness. But the vision itself is pure flow. Truth bleeds. “You cannot say here it is or there it is” as Jesus said of the Kingdom. So one is left with a brief, but vivid, fading recollection of the one experience that satisfies the yearning of the heart. The more one tries to recapture it, the more it recedes towards the horizon and eventually disappears. Soon one doubts it ever really happened.
Jonathan Keats, the Romantic poet who died at 25 and is often said to be the English writer most akin to Shakespeare, wrote in his ode ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ of his fear of failing to achieve greatness. Seeing death approaching before his powers ripened he passed through a dread of failure to a great freedom on those margins where alone freedom, from ambition and desire, is found: then on the shore Of the wide world I stand alone, and think Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
If, during Lent, we could do a little of what every spiritual wisdom advises and truly feel our mortality we might come to this shore of the wide world. We would then recover without effort the healing insights that fall into the lap of those who are not trying to grasp them.
In spiritual teaching we are used to hearing that desire, all desire, needs to be transcended. We may accept this as it makes some sense. But we also postpone the fateful day when we will happen transcend it and fall, desireless to the ground like a limp rag or an empty bag. ‘Lord make me chaste,’ prayed St Augustine, ‘but not yet.’
If, however, we have undertaken even a very little practice for Lent of self-denial we will be in a position to understand better this teaching on desire. If we are consumed by the consumerism of our culture, mindlessly assuming that all desires should be fulfilled, at least if they are legal, we may not yet be ready to understand what the spiritual tradition actually teaches on desire. We will still feel that meditation is meant to fulfill all our desires and we should check the warranty when it fails to.
A 5th century mystical writer, the pseudo-Dionysius, described God as the object of the yearning (he used the word eros), that is present in all things, to return to their source (which is God). He added that God is also that very yearning. Doesn’t this give us a better and more desirable approach to the idea of transcending desire. It suggests that rather than quashing all desire simply in case it brings us pleasure or satisfaction, we should examine what it is we truly desire and why.
The desires we need to drop are those which are pirated versions of the real thing. We also have to shun false sublimations of the divine eros. The desire that is in fact built into the deepest structures of our self is a benign yearning. It is not the kind that leads to exploitation, possessiveness and the lust that chases frenzied self-satisfaction at any cost. It is transcendent and yet deeply interior. It passes easily from knowing to unknowing.
We need to be able to spot the complex of false desires that actually block our real desire for God (that is, for fullness of love) and also prevent us from seeing that the desire for God is God’s desire (for us). If this discernment could be rendered as a formula or a definition we would not need to meditate or indeed to be human.
In fact it is the kind of insight that arises from deep silence and then travels through all realms of our being, transforming everything that we let go of as we made the journey into silence.
After describing his highest mystical experience, when he was lifted up to the third heaven (‘whether in the body or out I do not know’,) St Paul then says that he was given a thorn in the flesh to prevent him becoming proud. It was some aggravating thing, presumably, that reminded him that he was very much in the body and subject to its limitations and contradictions.
He asked God to take this thorn away from him. He doesn’t say what it was so we are left to freely imagine what are our own thorns. No doubt he wanted to be better, more perfect, more effective. Instead, though, God told him something that must have disappointed him at first and then thrown him open to an insight even deeper than his mystical experience. He realized that his very imperfection and weakness were the crucible in which the power of God could manifest. ‘When I am weak then I am strong’. He had, understandably, wanted to be thorn-free so that he cold be stronger. But instead he discovered that, thorns and all, he would be stronger because of his weakness.
When we don’t get want we want, despite feeling sure that it is the right and natural thing for, us we confront the block and impasse to our will that sends a two year old into tantrums. Even later in life our ego rebels, angrily, self-pityingly or despairingly, when our desires are frustrated. At the worst, on the large scale, it leads to the lunacy of Hitler’s suicidal reaction to his inevitable defeat or to the present Syrian war in which 11 per cent of the population have already been killed and 70 per cent displaced from their homes. In both cases there is the refusal to embrace the weakness of the human condition. The ego’s perverse conclusion is, better death than defeat.
At the individual level this lunacy becomes self-hatred and manifests in progressively addictive self-destructive behaviour. Lent is a time to scan our selves for any tendency in this direction. Silence, a stillness of mind free from thought and simplicity in intention, is the best way to scan. Meditation shows up any part of us where we are dug into a bunker of denial, protesting our desires futilely against the real world.
We are whole beings. But we are made up of many working parts. Often these different dimensions are not synchronised. And so, we may have large areas of ourselves in healthy condition while several other smaller areas are struggling with thorns. They are better understood than ripped out. The powerlessness of meditation empowers us to embrace this weakness as the source of true strength and our meeting with God.
If I had nothing else to do I would be content to visit classrooms and introduce children to meditation, then meditate with them and listen to their comments. But more than that: to watch and learn from their silent peace and happiness in touching the ‘mark’ of the kingdom within them and see their unselfconscious deepening of consciousness.
This would not, to coin a phrase, be sustainable or the best way to transmit to a new generation the awareness of their innate gift for contemplation. So we teach teachers hoping that this wisdom will embed itself in the culture of the school. But if you were ever to doubt the wisdom of meditation go into a classroom and meditate with the children.
During Lent don’t lose sight of the first of your three goals – of becoming more simple, more childlike. The adult nature of your problems and complicated life-situations may oppress you and convince you that your capacity for simplicity is long gone. You will then feel you have to wait for retirement and early senility to regain it. Actually that is wrong. Even in the midst of life’s anxieties, stresses, fears and doubts, this simplicity is accessible.
The weight of our worries can be so great – sickness, debt, painful relationships, failure, disappointment, addiction, loneliness, making stupid mistakes. Lump all these together and call them sin. But don’t use the word ‘sin’ as we usually think of it – breaking rules and deserving punishment, losing God’s (or the parish council’s) approval. Sin is (in Greek, literally) missing the mark – the mark that Gregory of Nyssa and the Pauline write said is always moving.
How do you hit a moving target? By moving at the same speed as it is moving and paying attention to it. Being in tandem with it. To do so we may think we have to speed up. In fact we need to slow down. We may think we have to understand and master the complexities of life. In fact we need to simplify the way we see them by taking some distance from them. Only then can the thorn be pulled out.
This is just what meditation does for us as we lay aside our thoughts, especially the thoughts of those painful things that become thorns in our flesh. It’s simple. Not easy. We can do it. But we cannot and do not do it alone.