* Originally published at Meditatio Newsletter April 2016
It was a lovely spring afternoon in London, warm with just the edge of winter left. I had not seen Calum, my young godson, for some time and took him out for lunch and a walk by the river. He brought with him the camera that his sister had passed down to him. He had become absorbed in its video function. So he was filming everything that we passed by on the street and, when we got down to the river Thames sparkling in the sunshine, he went wild with excitement. Swinging the camera in experimental manoeuvers he chased after a flock of ducks and back again to capture an endless supply of new scenes. There was nothing not interesting enough to film in the beautiful light of the day. Everything shone with the wonder of the world’s ever-surprising diversity. Life flooded through him with abundance and excitement. He was radiant and free-spirited with all the colours of life. And it was vitalizing to be playing the life-game with him.
And it was Easter. As it always is Easter. The important theology of Easter is that once it happens it never stops happening. To symbolize that liturgically the church extends the day of Easter Sunday for eight days and the season to forty. ‘Ordinary time’ which follows Pentecost can never be ordinary again. On the other hand what is extraordinary is that it does remain ordinary. We do not become astral beings. We go back to this life to live it in a new way, discovering its newness afresh continually. We remain delightfully embodied and thrillingly mortal. Death, the great threat to human happiness, takes on a wholly different meaning in the new experience of life we call Resurrection.
The danger is, that in speaking of these mysteries of faith that revolve at the heart of Christian life we sound to others a bit out of touch with reality. And sometimes Christians can, in fact, sound like promoters of a wonderful holiday resort that they haven’t quite yet visited for themselves. In fact, if we have been touched by Resurrection, we are in touch with reality, ‘the solid reality’, as St John puts it, that ‘is Christ’.
I was recently speaking with a class of MBA students who had started to learn to meditate. Many of them said they wanted to meditate because it offered them a way of dealing with stress. The depth meaning of meditation, of life itself, had been fore-shortened by this great and now universal blockage to real life. I was struck by the depth of this problem, the prevalence of the social malaise we call stress – the anxiety and damage to health it causes, the enemy of all the joys of life, breeder of fear and anger.
Of course life is stressful. It has a visible shelf life that changes daily. Anything that is unpredictable, like life, has to deal at best with probabilities. Anything that shows us that nothing is certain until uncertainty has been fully accepted will ever be easy.
The problem is not stress itself, then, but whether we understand the stressful aspects of life from within the great peace. Or, whether we experience only stress and find that stress feeds and grows off itself. Then we are deceived – usually by mammon – into thinking that the more stressed we are the closer we are coming to the great idol of Success.
A century ago the most civilized nations of the world were in the middle of ‘The Great War’ to end all wars that resulted in thirty-eight million military and civilian casualties. Taking a short breather to re-militarise, the ensuing peace of Versailles that was typical of ‘peace as the world gives it’, led to a new world war that cost up to eighty million lives amounting to three percent of the human family at that time.
Whether it’s the death-lust of war or the tragedy of unhappy lives blighted by the diseases of affluence, why is it we find the gift of life so hard to accept? Why does the great peace seem so elusive? Out of the new life that filled the risen Jesus with the playful love of the Holy Spirit he has breathed his peace into us. His physical respiration ceased on the cross. He breathed his last and gave up his spirit. But this plunged him irrevocably into the inner breath of God, the life-cycle that over-rides the cycles of death and rebirth. He entered the source and return-point of all that exists. From this inner breath of the eternal Easter he breathes the great peace into the human heart at the point where we are one with each other in a common humanity.
On Bere Island this year the meditators on the Holy Week retreat took time again to listen to the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The time it took was again richly repaid with a clearer understanding of time and the gift-nature of life which Easter is all about. It comes to us as a story. It is above all a story. Christian scriptures are not a string of abstract truths plucked from real life. They are a certain, amazingly intimate way of telling a story which plays out in the lives of all those listening – both in their inner lives and their outer lives. Once we have opened our heart to this story, we feel an integration and harmonizing of the inner and the outer – a new simplicity. We see in a new way the unfolding of our own lives.
We are in conversation with God. In daily use ‘conversation’ means a chat, an exchange of ideas through words or other symbols of meaning. But this is a more modern definition, coming into use as culture began to shift away from its spiritual balance towards an excessively rational and outer-directed perspective. From about the 16th century it came to mean only ‘talk’. ‘Conversation’, however, means literally a turning towards something with another. In other words, keeping company with, living with, playing the game of life with…
The New Testament is not a sutra. Later there did come Christian sutras, great intellectual reflections and cathedrals of the mind, which help to interpret the conversation, the telling of the story which is the heart-mind of the gospel. The gospels are simpler than abstract truths. They are strikingly direct, intimate tellings of a story that is both cosmic and personal.
We don’t read the gospels only at Easter. Throughout the year the ‘lectio’ of these texts should be part of our daily prayer-practice. But we always read them in the light of the Easter truth. Christian identity and the Christ-centeredness of our meditation depend in part on the place of this way of prayer in our spiritual lives. Meditation brings us many benefits and fruits. One of the greatest of these is that meditation teaches how to read the gospels in a way that draws our whole being into the person of Jesus, not only as an historical figure but as a personal and actual presence.
For I in you and you in me together we are one undivided person. (From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday)
Christian thought is like a conversation that continually integrates all the reflections and contributions that have been made from ancient times until today. It is always fresh and yet its richness is always growing. We are part of it and as it changes, it changes us.
Many of us will have felt this as we read of Pope Francis’ deep and simple insights into the mystery of Christ. ‘Mercy’ is his signature phrase, especially to some church leaders who were felt to be becoming increasingly, judgmental and punitive. With wise gentleness Francis is delivering one of the periodic prophetic body blows to the institutional frame of the church that we all need to reset the church’s course. They wake us from the sleep inflicted on the hard of heart and the self-righteous. They restore us – as the same ancient homily I just quoted puts it- to the new life that fills us with the great peace, when we allow it to:
I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.
As long as we listen to the story from the outside, only as observers and sceptics, we will think that the new life it speaks about is a return to the Garden of Eden. But who really wants to go back to Eden? The garden from which the Resurrection reaches into humanity and changes us is not a lost paradise but the kingdom of God. This is a special kind of place – neither here nor there, in us or among us but one that is an experience that simply and mercifully is.
So, the conversation is not talking to or thinking about but living with and keeping company with God. And so, it is at its fullest in deep silence. In silence we are not trying to look at the risen Jesus, because then, as outsiders, we will always fail to recognise him. But when we are seeing him in the same glance of love as that with which he sees us, then we recognise him as we are brought to full self-knowledge.
Resurrection shows us the way we need (and want) to follow into the conversation with silence itself. (‘Nothing is so much like God as silence’, the mystics tell us). To start this conversation is to activate the seed of contemplation planted at birth, our original act of existence. Every follower of Jesus is therefore called to be a contemplative, just as every spouse is called to tread into deeper union. The levels of silence – of tongue, body, mind and heart – are the great milestones of life and – for the meditator – this is one with the journey of our daily practice. As these levels become deeper we become simpler and more childlike. One day we even learn how to play the game of life, once again with unlimited joy.
For the contemplative Christian prayer is not, essentially, speaking to God, or thinking about God. It is about entering into a silent conversation with God through the mind of Christ. It is not about opposing our will to God’s or negotiating a settlement over our differences of opinion about what is good for us. It is about an active, whole-hearted surrender to the will of God who knows our needs with an intimate and unique love because he is part of our humanity, sharing with all our woundedness and complexity.
As Christians of our time this kind of language may speak best to those who have already started the conversation with silence. But for many others it can still suggest an image of a ‘personal God’ which is suspect and even offensive. It is true that this image of God can be abused. Personal, in human terms, can also mean jealous, possessive and controlling. It is an image that religious people in the three sister religions of the Word, all born in the same troubled and violent part of the world, sometimes claim to be their own exclusively. Twisted out of its true meaning in the silence of the great peace, the idea of a personal God can infantalise us, become a source of oppression in the power structures of wealth and politics and even a justification for the massacre of innocents.
Yet it is still the greatest of gifts – provided we know how to share it.
A Taoist ruler once said you should rule an empire the same way you cook a little fish. (In one of the great Resurrection appearances by the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus does just this). In another Taoist wisdom story the crew of a big boat saw a small craft sailing directly into its path. They leant over the side and shouted insults to those in the boat approaching them. Then they realised the small boat was empty and fell silent.
Empty and silent like the tomb of Jesus on the Sunday morning, the new sabbath. The empty tomb is recorded in each of the gospel perspectives on the Resurrection. Finding it empty disturbed and mystified the disciples, and Mary wept. Yet emptiness is the correlative of fullness. They are opposites yet perform the same function in the grammar of meaning. The divine kenosis, or self-emptying, produced the incarnation of God in which the fullness of the godhead was able to dwell embodied. We cannot recognise the risen Jesus unless we have looked into and entered the empty tomb of our own heart. It may sound metaphysical theology but it is proven in our human psychology and in daily experience, including the daily practice of meditation, of poverty of spirit. As for the jeering sailors in the big boat (of reason) the discovery of emptiness in the small craft (the egoless self) leads us to silence.
The obvious question reputedly posed to the Buddha once – what do you get of meditation? – is best answered by ‘nothing. But I lose a lot.’
Today we need to cultivate this quality of emptiness and silence if we are to survive the impossible contradictions on which we have built our world. These contradictions torment and threaten us – irresponsible affluence and the endless exploitation of the earth, nonstop communication and increasing loneliness, luxury and increasing anxiety. The perennial value of the wisdom of contemplation has been drowned out by a compulsion to put utilitarian or commercial values on everything whether a price-tag is relevant or not. Doing this distorts the value of everything. A young lawyer told me recently how the law firm where he worked was systematically squeezing all humanity out of the work by reducing every fifteen minutes of the day to a billable slot; he had to account even for his visits to the bathroom. At the end of such a process we will find not emptiness, which is the correlative of fullness, but nothingness and a vacuum of meaninglessness.
‘Remembrance of God certainly brings comfort to all hearts’, says the Qu’ran. The basis for the dhikr form of prayer in Islam is the interior repetition of short phrases or the Names of God. Its meaning is to remain in the mindful presence of God while performing the most ordinary actions of the day, like rising from bed or walking. In the same way, John Cassian urged the desert monks, and we their successors, to recite their formula, or mantra, while performing any kind of work or service, or on a journey, answering the calls of nature, while falling asleep and on waking up. So, rather than being an esoteric practice for a spiritual elite the prayer of the heart is intended for all as a very simple and ordinary way. It is an immediate, unmediated, way of experiencing that emptiness is the way to the fullness of God. In this incarnate spirituality of daily life, where a contemplative discipline becomes truly part of our life and connects the surface and depth levels of consciousness, we discover that learning and living are the same.
Remembering. Spiritually, this is not a nostalgic exercise. It is not even primarily about thinking of the past. It is bringing the most meaningful essence of events that first happened in the past into the present and making them present now. The theological term for this is anamnesis (‘do this in remembrance of me’). In medical vocabulary the word refers to a patient’s complete and accurate recall of his condition. Spiritually it means recapitulating our past into the present.
There is no greater fear than the fear of forgetting. In dementia, the intimate spouse of the person suffering from this dying of the brain in the one they have loved for a lifetime, watches their loved one progressively fade from reality and withdraw. A very deep act of love is necessary to stay re-membered to someone who is apparently losing even their memory of you as they become dis-membered. Perfect love alone can cast out this fear.To deal with the inevitable fading of memory – which begins as soon as memory begins to function – we need to understand the present as more than the time shown on a digital clock.
To deal with the inevitable fading of memory – which begins as soon as memory begins to function – we need to understand the present as more than the time shown on a digital clock.Easter means the experience of presence, the continuum of real presence in which we are mutually, reciprocally, present to one another and at the deepest level with God. As Jesus was present to the Father and the Father to him, he became present to us by drawing humanity into the most intimate presence of God to Himself which we try to describe as the Trinity. In this ever-present presence, past and future meet. The fear of forgetting, of death itself, fades. The experience of life in the boundless fullness which, as children, we were able to enjoy on occasion, returns in full force.
Easter means the experience of presence, the continuum of real presence in which we are mutually, reciprocally, present to one another and at the deepest level with God. As Jesus was present to the Father and the Father to him, he became present to us by drawing humanity into the most intimate presence of God to Himself which we try to describe as the Trinity. In this ever-present presence, past and future meet. The fear of forgetting, of death itself, fades. The experience of life in the boundless fullness which, as children, we were able to enjoy on occasion, returns in full force.
Before Easter this year we let go of Eileen Byrne (photo), a beloved member and teacher in our UK and global community. I first met her when I was a member of the lay community at the first Christian Meditation centre in London. She was an important link with the foundation of the Montreal community and later became Director of the Centre in London. She was quintessentially English but also a citizen of the world and filled with insatiable artistic and cultural curiosity. When we were in Montreal she once drove me, still a monk in training, up to the country and a very active diocesan youth camp which I rather dreaded going to. As she drove away she shouted back to me in a loud voice: ‘Laurence, remember you are a contemplative!’ Eileen, I try…
May she rest in the great peace and may all whose paths she smoothed towards a contemplative knowledge of the risen Jesus thank God for the gift she has been to us all.
With much love
Laurence Freeman OSB