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.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

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Today’s gospel, about the woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned to death, shows us how the teacher of light is to be found. If we really find and recognise him – and what’s the point in finding what we are looking for but not recognising it? – we will fall helplessly in love.

Another reading of the mass today, from Philippians describes this humiliating and exalted state of love: ‘I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him. I am no longer trying for perfection by my own efforts’. It is devastatingly wonderful to discover that the centre of your world is no longer in yourself. At times you may scramble back to the familiar ledge of self-centredness but then you roll off again into the free fall of love. In many cases this other-centredness, and the ecstasy it brings, is not the real thing. It fades. We can fall out of love and find a stronger love. This is the point we first meet Shakespeare’s Romeo. Eventually, if we are lucky, we fall into love not with any delight that love will give us but with love itself.

We will recognise this moment because love will seem to turn away from us, giving us space. As Jesus, when challenged by the small-minded hostility of his questioners, ignores their trap, looks away and bends down to write on the ground with his finger. Their question falls in the space between them. Should they keep the Law and stone her – – his diluted message of mercy will be exposed as a sham. Or should he pardon her and exclude himself from his tradition – a cold exile. He not only writes but re-writes the question.

At a press conference Pope Francis was asked by journalists, looking not for a teacher but a headline, about gay priests. He gave them one: ‘who am I to judge?’ This delighted liberals and outraged conservatives – perhaps both for the wrong reasons. Jesus too declined the role of judge they wanted to thrust on him. Judges are necessary evils in all human society. They seem all-powerful but are actually confined to the narrow precincts of past precedent and present hair-splitting. Jesus ‘came not to judge but heal’.

What did he write on the ground? Why, when challenged, did the Buddha touch the ground and say that the earth was the witness to the authority of his enlightenment?  Jesus’ response shows that love claims nothing except the earthly right to be merciful, to heal and to set free. Who, in the end, can resist falling in love with that?

Saturday of Lent – Week 4

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When we find that thick, loveless darkness in ourselves we become strangers to ourselves. It is even worse than those times when the darkness, like a dense fog-bank, rolls over us from outside in the form of cruel accidents or sudden illness. The feeling of self-alienation wells up as a terrible discovery from within, as if in a horror movie we discover a strange, inexplicably hostile force living in the cellar of our own home.

When a healthy young person is diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness the world changes for them in seconds. Even before the doctor utters the fateful words her look of sympathy, a flash of eye-contact betrays the message about to come. The person of boundless possibility has now become a patient, an object of research, testing and observation, sometimes also an object of awkward pity. A defence ring around them has suddenly come into being. The sense of self is radically altered. They grasp for the hand of their spouse or loved one to reassure themselves that they are still here, something of their world has remained, and that the assault on them has not yet been total.

It is even worse when the confrontation with strangeness comes from within. It is more than finding one’s shadow which, in the past, you already knew or briefly  glimpsed. This is merely the other side of us, the unofficial biography, the self that does not comply with the personal details of the public self. The faithful spouse drawn into infidelity. The ecclesiastical prelate with a lust for money. The housewife with a gambling problem who goes to the casino after dropping the children at school. Shadows can be more or less dark. Sometimes they are merely laughable.

But they need to be noticed and acknowledged and the time of Lent should have given us opportunities to do so. Lenten self-control and saying no to our desires should have made a light-filled space for the shadow to show itself. No shadow without light. No shadow without an object blocking the light.

But the darkness itself, encountered within ourselves, is a deeper mystery and touches into the most primal fear. By ourselves we are weak warriors. Normally we turn and run. We need a leader of light who can swallow the dark and breathe out light.

Friday of Lent – Week 4

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There is a rather dark passage from the biblical Book of Wisdom that expresses the cynical, destructive attitude of a man who has lost hope.  “Our life is short and dreary, nor is there any relief when man’s end comes, nor is anyone known who can give release from Hades”. (Wis 2:1) Out of this desperately sad and bitter heart comes cruelty – the desire to hurt and bring down the virtuous man, especially the virtuous who has hope and promise in life.

In the film ‘Downfall’ we are shown the last days of Hitler cringing in his bunker in Berlin, raging at the inevitability of total defeat, blaming the world. He is set on  bringing down as many others however innocent and however useless their sacrifice might be. Yet we see in him also searing moments of human pain, the sense of abandonment and utter loneliness accompanying his descent to total  darkness where it is impossible not to feel empathy. For some critics of the film this was indulging the monster, avoiding the depiction of pure evil, making the inhumane look human.

Yet when we read, all too often, of a deranged American teenager on a shooting rampage in his high school don’t we confront the same mystery of iniquity described in the Book of Wisdom or in the history of tyrants? We feel traumatised by the attacks, the loss of innocent lives, the grieving parents. But the inexpressible reason for such cruelty, the abysmal sadness and lack of love brings us to the razor edge of human self-understanding, the cliff edge dividing justice from mercy.

Soon, in re-living the Passion of Christ, we will be plunged into this dark question of sin and grace. We will have to be guided by a later line from that passage of Wisdom: ‘They do not know the hidden things of God’. There are experiences which are thick with darkness, where the absence of compassion and wisdom is terrifying. Yet these are places which lead us to a God of mercy beyond our social imagination.

Thursday of Lent – Week 4

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Anyone or any community that does not feel a relationship with the dead has lost its soul. But the dead have become strangers to us. This doesn’t matter when it involves those who fell in ancient battles or even contemporaries whose deaths we hear about on the news.

It is painful when it involves those we have loved and given our heart to. That they should so suddenly move beyond the ways of friendship and intimacy that we used until their last breath is devastating. Far worse than someone we fell in love with on a train getting off without looking at us. The dead we have loved get off the train that we have sat on closely together for years and don’t look back.

Do we experience the kindness of strangers from the realms of the dead? It is good to think that we do. But can we be sure that it is not our needs that are creating the sense of a bond of love stronger than death operating through all the dimensions of reality now separating us? Without asking that question we could never be sure that the milk of human kindness can flow to and fro across the frontier of death. There are things that we have to remain uncertain about if we are to experience them.

The kindness of the estranged dead towards us is felt in a state of uncertainty. This results from detachment from rational and evidence-based proof. Communication with the dead based on the senses, messages or moving objects is less authenticating than that felt in the intuitions of the silent and thought-free heart.

It is felt when we who are alive have touched a deep enough level of silence. In this silence, where the dimensions of space and time are folded inwards, the great communion of saints exists. Those who are there – and who can say that everyone isn’t there – are free from the kinds of individualism that both united and separated us in this life. Individualism is what makes us recognisable characters in the great stories of life. But if the continuation of life into the next dimension were simply another episode in the TV series or a chapter in a book there would only be an anti-climax to look forward to. The strangeness of the dead must (possibly) be due to their being alive in a different way.

To be oneself and to be in union is a hard thing to imagine and an even harder thing to achieve. But it is the deepest longing of our heart, for a kindness that escapes from the web of fantasy and is verified by an undeniable experience of reality. Perhaps meeting the stranger who is inexhaustibly kind to us and to whom we long to give our self is the meaning of life after death. And perhaps we come closest to it when we pass beyond death by pulling out of the gravitational tug of the ego with its forces of desire and fear.  Then our embrace of the stranger becomes the finding of our true self in the other.

That is something that can happen any time of the day or night, anywhere, with anyone, in any period of our lives.  Including Thursday in the fourth week of Lent.

Wednesday of Lent – Week 4

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More about strangers.

I have just finished watching the six-part BBC adaptation of War and Peace, a 1200 page novel. I felt I was meeting old friends who were also (being fictional) strangers. It was nice to meet them again even if the way they were described and portrayed in the film was more superficial and abbreviated than meeting and getting to know them through reading the book. Like many I felt I knew the characters better than their TV version but was pleased to see them represented again. The difference between strangers and friends is that with a  friend you meet them again, sure of something about them but boredom is not possible because in the deep familiarity new angles will always appear. So are the characters in War and Peace – that I know and always love to meet again – friends or strangers?

Tolstoy said his book was not a novel, even less a poem or a history. He claimed the real hero of the book is ‘truth’ and it was simply what he as the author ‘wanted and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed’. This explains why it is such a great novel (or non-novel). It is untidy and often badly written. It doesn’t have much of a plot. It is repetitive and he grandstands his own theory of history at some length in the middle of it.  It is, in other words, like real life, not a fantasy but an emanation of real experience.

Fictional characters are just that – emanations or avatars. A good movie or soap-opera or Netflix series get people addicted to the plot which usually depends on an increasing rate of cliff-hanger moments. The better ones have interesting characters who show the capacity to change in the course of the story. But it is very rare for a writer – Tolstoy is one – who imagines characters who have a real, untidy and contradictory life of their own. Shakespeare stole his plots from other writers and also invested his gifts in the creation of human beings to whom we may feel closer than to real people in our lives.

No wonder Plato didn’t want poets in his ideal society. They challenge the boundaries between imagination and reality and arouse feelings that should be in real life but often seem unable to make it there. Easier to love Natasha than your partner? Who knows if this is not how we will one day understand many of our human relationships, the ones which did not flower into love, the strangers with whom we did not find the exchange of kindness? Maybe we will see that we only knew them as characters in our private imagination rather than as people who became an unruly part of our whole life.

Modern western culture has lost its Christian identity: maybe because it lost the art of reading the scriptures. It forgot how to see the luminous characters we encounter there as imaginative descriptions of real people who are present in life, not only in the past or in the imagination of the writer. For that reason the New Testament  is a quicker read than War and Peace.

Tuesday of Lent Week 4

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Talking about strangers..

There exists a Facebook group for people who fall in love with strangers while travelling on public transport. They report not just an idle curiosity about someone who looks vaguely attractive but a full-blown fantasy. Many start dreaming of a life together with a family, others no doubt think of steamier hookups. But falling in love is what it feels like. While the passion lasts it takes over the imagination and feelings and there is a painful sense of separation and loss when the person you were going to spend your life with gets off at their stop without looking at you.

Hearing of this, I was reminded of a youthful tendency to this kind of fantasy that I used to have while travelling on the London Tube. (Since starting to meditate I mostly use the time on the train to meditate which is more productive and less agitating.) The external, public-space objects of such fantasy are, of course, strangers; but something about them resonates so powerfully with us that we feel we know them – or almost know them – and an intimate relationship seems a real possibility.

Something of this response is genuinely intuitive. We are usually very quick to categorise strangers that we meet: tabloid psychology says it takes seven seconds to form the first (and that becomes a lasting) impression. But apart from the intuition we have about people communicated by their body-language, appearance, tone of voice and eye-contact, most of the falling in love syndrome on public transport is sheer fantasy. We cannot control whom we feel attracted to but we can choose if we fantasise about them.

It probably wouldn’t happen to someone who had just fallen in love with a person who was already a real person in their life. If it happens too much to someone in a longterm relationship it might suggest an issue, a need to escape. Fantasy rushes in to fill a void. It is a forgiveable indulgence but a dangerous one nonetheless. We may not know the void is there or we may have learned how to deny it. Seeing an attractive stranger might simultaneously trigger the awareness of something missing in our life and offer a fantasy to fill that sense of lack.

Until real contact is made we cannot call this the ‘kindness of strangers’ because it is only in our head and revolves around our own craving for fulfilment. There is yet no gift of self, no element of sacrificial love. As we prepare for Holy Week’s deep contemplation of the person of Jesus it might be a better use of time, instead of scanning your fellow-passengers, to reflect on him. He is in many ways a stranger to us. Yet he is one who offers the chance of a fuller intimacy than we could imagine.