Palm Sunday

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Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. He replied,
Indeed, I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Today the drama of the Passion begins, the journey from the inferno of suffering to the paradise of joy. Every detail of every incident described has over the millennia entered into our collective imagination. Even though, lacking any transmission of faith, many may be unable to identify the detail or the story, the image still remains potent. Anyone truly listening to this narrative will recognise themselves in it. Here, in his last human exchange Jesus, he consoles the thief crucified next to him, after they have died they will be in Paradise together.

It is an interactive drama and we can only understand it once we are inside it. So much of the story relates to the psychological humiliation of Jesus – his being entirely stripped of rights and dignity – and to his physical degradation and suffering. The meaning, then, is not just that Jesus was a heroic individual, an innocent who became a scapegoat. It is also that our pride and physical vulnerability are also put into question. It is hard just to look at this story objectively, without eventually falling into it and empathising mentally and physically with all that Jesus endured. It is this capacity for empathy that explains the redemptive quality of the death of Jesus, why what happens to him changes us.

I have often seen how people, accepting their terminal illness, will use their remaining time to offer up their dying on the altar of their last days. A sense of life overwhelms the sense of death. Love becomes stronger than isolation. How is this moment reached and what happens next? It happens when we share the unshareable. The dying person’s detachment is now the means of the deepest, gentlest influence.

Meditation takes us through this in the microcosm of our inner world. Lent has brought us to this reflection on ultimate meaning.

Saturday of Lent – Week 5

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Another nonsensical secret of happiness: Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. If anything seems to suggest how out of touch religious people are with the real world this must qualify.

The meek allow the strong to walk over them. Non-violence may be a beautiful, heroic ideal but it does not defeat evil. The earth that the meek inherit is a wasteland that their oppressor has abandoned because he can extract nothing more from it. What, in the real world, does this Beatitude mean?

I have often thought about it while visiting countries riddled with political and financial corruption and endemic violence. Often the national character seems anything but corrupt and violent. It may be evidently gentle and generous and find more to celebrate in life than to exploit and steal. Meekness – if this is what it means – seems to make them dangerously vulnerable to those who are callous and selfish.

And, ‘inherit the earth’. Maybe this is the key to understanding meekness. Not possess or conquer but inherit. We inherit things after a death. They come to us by the will of the previous owner or through a line of succession. The meek have gone through the passageway of death. What they inherit – the earth – may look the same to those who have not died yet. But to those who have died and come into their inheritance the earth looks and is quite different.

They say the first white settlers in Australia found it easy to take the land from the indigenous people because they, the aborigines, had no sense of personal ownership. It seemed inconceivable to possess the land because the land and the people owned each other.

What have the meek died to or – in some cases perhaps – never known? It must be the very attitudes and behaviours which make the meek so vulnerable – pride, greed, jealousy, hard-heartedness, the lust for violence. All the things that keep the war in Syria going against all reason and despite the efforts of good negotiators and, of course, despite the dead, mutilated, displaced and the refugees.

Cities are liberated but become uninhabitable in the process. Those who will one day inherit them and rebuild civilisation will have died to the self-destructiveness of those who take advantage of meekness because they see only weakness.

Think of this as you consider how Jesus passed through his Passion and gave humanity a new way of seeing the earth – a vision that is still struggling for acceptance.

Friday of Lent – Week 5

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It is hard to imagine the Beatitudes as a feature in the Lifestyle section of a Sunday edition of the New York Times. Yet they are in a sense a life-style choice because they express seminal truths that determine our way of life. They decide how we respond to every event, every unexpected twist and turn. But as happiness is a subtle result rather than a desired goal, so the wisdom of the beatitudes is hidden in paradox, even apparent nonsense.

Like, ‘Happy are those who mourn for they shall be comforted’. To mourn we have to renounce denial. In the face of loss or disappointment our first response is ‘Oh, no’. We mentally look for the pause button, to stop what is happening so that we can rewind. Even when we have been overwhelmed by something painful and have started to deal with it there remains in us a resistance to the force of reality that has struck us. Like a people invaded by a hostile power we have no choice but to surrender. But secretly we resist and deny.

To mourn is to face the hardest part of the truth without trying to alter reality with our imagination. This is also what we do in meditation by letting go of all the amazing scenes and games of fantasy. As a result we become less fantastical and more creatively imaginative. But there is a mourning aspect to meditation for this reason.

A young man learning to meditate told me once that he was finding it very hard going. He was lucky if he could do ten minutes at a time. He couldn’t relate at all to the others in his group who were singing the praises of meditation and describing its benefits. Yet he hadn’t given up and did not intend to. Then he casually added that he wept during most of his meditation sessions. Like others with this ‘gift of tears’, as the Desert monks called it, he did not feel sad or in pain. It was simply an overflow – of what? Perhaps the forgotten past claiming its right to be integrated into the present.

Mourning is not essentially sad. It is the refusal of false consolation. It is the great act of acceptance of what is hardest to accept. As soon as it is accepted it is integrated. It is acknowledged as part of the story that we are. That in itself is immensely comforting.

(Look for this in the Passion story where we see Jesus mourning before he dies while his companions cannot accept what is happening.)

Thursday of Lent – Week 5

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In The Good Heart The Dalai Lama commented on the Beatitudes of Jesus (‘Happy are ..’) from a Buddhist perspective. I remember his look of concentration as he read them, perhaps for the first time, and explored their meaning. His first, to me surprising, comment was that they expressed the law of cause and effect.

This is helpful. Some Christians think of happiness (a feature of heaven) only as something that is given by God as a reward for being virtuous. They will often also identify virtue primarily with self-denial rather than, as Plato saw it, as the fulfilment of human potential. If happiness is not a lifestyle product we acquire by seeking to possess it, nor is it something that we earn merely by moral behaviour or religious observance. The subtle thing about happiness is that it is a natural result of something, part of a cause-effect process but, when it pours over us, it feels like sheer, unconditional gift.

The Beatitudes link happiness with blessedness and capture this subtle quality in paradoxical truths that are both surprising and obvious. Like the first one, that “Happy are the poor (or the poor in spirit) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does poor or poverty of spirit mean? And what on earth is the kingdom of heaven? These and the other questions provoked by a spiritual teaching of the depth of the Beatitudes implicate all the values and meaning of our lives. They deserve to be chewed, pondered and discussed regularly. Try swallowing one of the Beatitudes after each meditation in the run-up to Holy Week.

With the first, you have only to see that you have just been practicing it. The mantra is intended to make you as poor as possible. It is much harder to say when you think you are saying it to enrich yourself. But when you see it is about divesting yourself of your possessions it becomes easier – the effort you need to say it becomes better attuned to its essential simplicity. Possessiveness begins with the thought ‘this is mine’. This is such a snake-like thought. It slithers into everything, hides itself well and can strike out with its poison in a flash. We can feel sure that we are not particularly possessive until something threatens us and then we defend our right to ownership and control to the last drop.

Poverty (of spirit) entails laying aside our thoughts, all thoughts because ‘this is mine’ invades and occupies them all. All thought is fumigated in meditation. The result of this is the capacity to enjoy which possessiveness destroys. When we start enjoying what is, without clinging to it and without covert plans to own it, we have already slipped here and now into the kingdom of heaven.

Wednesday of Lent – Week 5

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There is a lot of talk about happiness these days. It is true that we often pay a high price in the first world for our affluence and high levels of comfort and convenience and often happiness and peace of mind is part of the price.

I often feel sad for students whose lives seem blighted so early by stress and anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia on their steep path to success. The days of scholarly leisure, when one had time to read for pleasure and explore one’s own ordinary problems and questions about life and identity, seem long gone. Academia has become driven and students caught up in qualifications rather than education. Our recent Meditatio Seminar on Science addressed this disturbing question for our modern culture.

Not surprisingly then, where there is a gap a product appears to fill it. Happiness is now often presented as a commodity we can acquire by doing this course, buying that device, taking time to trek Everest or buy a subscription to more cable TV Channels. Lifestyle sections of newspapers brim over with expert advice and consumer spiritualities, on how to get the most out of life. They offer enviable role models whose expensive smiles lure us into imitation.

Sometimes even poor old Christianity, with less glamour but great earnestness, suggests that believing this, giving up that and, of course, coming to church, will be the answer to being happy again. It may have on the whole a better product but usually its marketing only works because it is so bad. In a world of glib glamour and high media standards the church stands out at least for being, well, different.

I notice people look up when they are told that meditation does not solve your problems. If you are in debt before you sit down to meditate you will still be in debt after meditating. Maybe they are glimpsing another reason for doing something other than the reason they have been persuaded is the natural one. That conventional reason is self-interest and self-fulfilment.

How do we market the timeless truth that happiness comes to those who are expanding their consciousness beyond the ego, not inflating the ego? The inflated ego in pursuit of happiness is the saddest fate of all. How do we remember the obvious, that happiness comes to those who are concerned about the well-being of others?

Maybe some of the skilful means we have been trying during Lent have sharpened this perception for us. If so, they will also have helped prepare us for what the coming days, in the sacred game of the liturgical season, will teach us about the secret of happiness.

Tuesday of Lent – Week 5

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I had been feeling for some time that I needed to get a stronger prescription for my glasses. This feeling had grown to a certainty and seemed urgent. But it proved difficult to go to the Polish oculist in London who has looked after my eyes since I was a boy as he has mostly retired and I felt a little anxious about the long gap in my regular checkup.

So, when I was spending an extended time of teaching in Singapore, I decided to break with old custom and get my eyes checked there. The shop in a small mall was pokey, cluttered and downmarket. The eccentric Chinese oculist who avoided looking me in the eye until he was examining my eyes did not inspire confidence. If he had been doing anything more than testing my eyes I would have found an excuse to leave. I missed my old trusted friend in London. I wondered if this man was really a shoe salesman standing in for his friend the real oculist or a fisherman who tested eyes part time.

After the examination he made an undecipherable grunt and started putting away his lenses. As he made to leave the room without further comment I quickly asked him if he could prepare new glasses for me before I left Singapore. He shot a look at me and said ‘not needed’ and left. I followed him and confirmed that according to his test my present glasses were perfectly alright. ‘But..’ I began to say and then asked ‘how much?’ ‘Nothing’.

Then his eccentric manner and strange way of doing business came into focus. I realised that I trusted him and saw his skill and integrity. I thought maybe I had probably been wrong about my eyes weakening and true enough things looked clearer when I walked out into the sunlight.

It is easy to convince ourselves of something that is not true, to blur our own vision of reality. This is the most dangerous form of illusion because believing in something sincerely makes it easier to convince others it is true. Whole societies and major institutions can walk the primrose path to disaster this way as happened in the last financial crisis.

To encounter a prophet is to meet someone who tells the truth just as he sees it and who is also right. It helps to trust them that they have no vested interest or desire to please. The truth is enough for them. To see clearly we see through their eyes.

‘We however possess the mind of Christ’.

Monday of Lent – Week 5

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Soren Kierkegaard thought that there comes a critical moment in life where the ‘point becomes to understand more and more that there is something which cannot be understood.’

A few centuries before him, the Cloud of Unknowing distilled the Christian mystical tradition in saying that ‘by love we can know him, by thought never’. This is an apparently hard point to grasp for many western, left-brain biased people. Yet life continually presents us with entry points to mystery where our blue-prints, models of reality, ideologies and explanations for things simply crumble before the reality we are facing.

This encounter with the mystery of reality is also an encounter with the inescapable reality of mystery. Our ordinary minds falter and fail to compute some things. But they cannot deny that these things exist and that they are powerful forces of transformation.

The death of someone we love, falling in love, suffering a disappointment or a breakthrough in creative thinking may initiate a chain of events requiring us truly to understand that some things cannot be understood, just known, pondered and respected.

In these last days of Lent we get ready for the portal of mystery contained within the events re-called and commemorated during Holy Week. The better prepared we are for handling what we cannot easily understand the more significant these events will be for us this year. To prepare for this it is necessary, at this stage, not to undertake anything new but to do what we have been doing or intended to do with new resolve.