First Week of Advent 2016: We are creatures of desire

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We have been waiting for Advent for most of the year. (The Word was made flesh on March 25th, on the Feast of the Annunciation). But, like a seed silently growing in the ground day and night, its silence begins to be audible in the four weeks of Advent. If we can listen to the rising volume of the silence of the Incarnation during this season of heightened expectancy, we will be better set to celebrate Christmas as it is expects to be celebrated.

The nativity into our world of sense of the divine human and the human God is endlessly mysterious – and so it is easily lost in the yuletide razzmatazz. It reveals and conceals simultaneously. In Advent we begin to sense how God must be both very daring and very shy.

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As Advent is folded in four, let’s take the experience of waiting in that number of stages. The first is the dull awareness that there is something to wait for. This is felt rather than thought. The feeling of waiting however sharpens awareness and awakens us to our selves. It’s funny that we should first be awakened by longing, by the pain of not having what we long for and which we can’t even properly name. But Homo Sapiens is naturally discontented and ever hungry for more. Our satisfactions are wonderful but don’t last long. Fulfilling one desire soon shows us that it hasn’t concluded the sense of incompleteness that possesses our ever changeable selves. Before the froth of one wave of success hits the beach another is building up behind it. We are creatures of desire. So, we instinctively and fatally interpret each moment as painful or pleasing.

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As we see this, we mature and become better at raising the young. It makes us tender and compassionate to them. We are touched and amused at how ecstatic they are when their intense but still simple hopes are fulfilled. But it also makes us aware both of how we should help to shape their desires and of how we must keep our promises. Through this awareness created by growth we learn to be other-centred (some of the time). We see the provocative wisdom of putting the happiness of others on the same plane as our own. Children exemplify this for us. Not surprisingly then, when the wisdom of God comes in human packaging He comes as a child. We have to look after Him. Bow to Him. Tend to Him, change His nappies, comfort His crying. The gift we have been waiting for fulfils our desire to the degree that it turns our attention off ourselves.

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I have seen some very self-centred and anguished adults, tormented by the disappointments of their long waiting, transformed by a newborn child, lifted into a kind of happiness they could never achieve by fulfilling their desires.

Humanity too has been waiting, since it was first awakened by its its enslavement to desire. We have been waiting for God to burst through our images and desires projected onto our self-made gods. God takes us by surprise. He arrives as a helpless baby that we have to suckle and protect so that it can survive and grow. We parent God. But the growth that follows becomes wondrous as it was for Mary and Joseph. Our so called ‘spiritual journey’.

As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

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In contemplation God is born in us, how we don’t know, but at some point we feel the pangs of birth and rising wonder replaces the cycle of desire. Advent makes sense because growth means life revealing and unfolding on new levels of experience and meaning. Daily business, dealing with things, planning for contingencies, taking breaks to escape the drudgery is all one level. It is the literal level where success and failure are what they seem because they are labelled this by others. But another level manifests where all these judgements and activities also appear symbolic, reflecting another dimension of reality, expressing a new way of being, a fresh self-awareness propelling us from a tortured world of judgement and dissatisfaction into a realm filled with the wonder of the exchanging of gifts and real, not sentimental, innocence.

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The build-up to this is patience, the contemplative art of waiting. We have lost this art of practical wisdom in the modern world but meditation restores it. A contemplative Advent will re-enchant Christmas for us, sparing us from the tedium of its crude consumerism.

We become patiently aware of what we waiting for as it hurtles towards us through the interstellar spaces, homed in on us, eager for us, desiring us, transforming what and how we desire as we become more acutely aware of it.

Emily Dickinson wondered:

How News must feel when travelling
If News have any Heart
Alighting at the Dwelling
‘Twill enter like a Dart

We are humble creatures of desire. So, we merely repeat the cycle of pain and pleasure until we understand that we are also desired. What we truly long for, the love that creates us, has already targeted us. That is why we long for it. It is what we long for because God longs for us.

After the Election

children_01The immediate post-election comments by the President, the President-elect and the defeated candidate were more gracious and civilised than anything during the campaign over the past eighteen months. This campaign reflected such an obscene breakdown of civility that it was hard to believe it was happening. It seemed surreal – worse and more frightening than the hypocrisy and evasiveness we have sadly come to associate with much of the political class. It has done lasting damage to a civilised approach to politics anywhere, even in a world where we see ethnic cleansing, the bombing of hospitals, the uncontested invasion of sovereign states, the callous closing of borders to refugees.

The US election highlighted what is happening politically in many other places: the polarising of global and national identities. Nationalism is a mounting force that rejects the challenges of the newborn sense of global citizenship. As history shows, nationalism begins with the euphoria of false hope and ends in mutual destruction.

Is there a contemplative response to this? There is. But it is not sectarian or ideological. The contemplative response is conscious of the common ground. It builds communities of faith in this ground among people of widely different beliefs.

This collective vision of the human community can only happen politically in the most civilised societies.  But it happens between friends and groups of friends who quietly restore an uncivilised society to humane values. Their experience of the truthfulness of silence helps them trust each other with their differences. Those differences can be respected without violence or divisiveness.

Societies lacking the root system of such contemplative networks, nourished by silence, must face an erosion of civilised values because contemplation is the foundation of civilisation.

I recently spent time in Venezuela, a society in severe distress. But I was inspired to see that our community there is even more deeply and compassionately committed to the practice and teaching of meditation, particularly to the young. It is also creating civilised forums for open dialogue. They prove that a contemplative response to crisis does really exist. The World Community is privileged to have such members.

I feel sure that the WCCM USA will respond in the same way to their post-election situation where such deep divisions and turbulence have been exposed. You will be an example to others of the real American dream, which is the greatness you show in resolving difference.

I am not preaching to you but reminding you of what, as contemplatives in the world, you know already. As a fellow-meditator I know you do not see meditation merely as a refuge. We see it rather as a way of facing the painful facts of our world with faith, hope and love, thereby making the world more civilised – simply by the way you live and tell the truth. We are never more truthful than in the silence of meditation which affects all our ways of communication and action.

This involves curbing our feelings of triumph or defeat with the emotional perspective that meditation brings. It involves trying to see reality through the eyes of others even when their view seems to contradict ours, the essence of redemptive dialogue. It brings hope where there is fear. Good, not cruel, humour where there is hatred.  Truth where there is dissimulation.

It involves loving our enemies even when we feel like humiliating or deleting them, patronising them, giving them false signs of peace, taking revenge for their past deeds or punishing them. We turn the other cheek at first interiorly, not as an excuse not to fight for truth but to ensure that, when we do fight for it, we do so without violence or hatred.

To love means to pay attention. If our meditation only makes us mindful but doesn’t enable us to pay other-centred, loving attention to those we would prefer to ignore, what does meditation mean? It is wondrous how naturally our actions towards others are regulated simply by paying attention to them. Such attention begins as pure prayer, which dismantles the thick filters of prejudice and caricature that obscure the real identity of others.

What can contemplatives, who are defined firstly by their commitment to being, actually do? They can meditate and be more than ever faithful to balancing each day on the twin pillars of silence, stillness and radical simplicity. They can meditate together in weekly groups and begin new groups especially where the wounds of division are most open.

You can also plan to come next August to the John Main Seminar in Houston where a world authority on the Christian mystical tradition will be leading us into a deeper relationship with one of our most precious sources of wisdom in a chaotic world. We need to know in what a powerful tradition we meditate.

This is our contemplative approach. Although it is not a political force, it does help to dissolve the violence of political polemics at root. I can also assure you – and it is reassuring I think to know this when we so often despair of our leaders – that in our community, and beyond, there are eminent leaders who build their lives on daily meditation. They are not power-hungry individuals but genuinely driven to use their influence and talents to make a more humane  and civilised world.

Leaders or led, in a contemplative community all are equal because all see each other in the greater oneness. We all need each other and we need to share our needs. This is the meaning of the new global consciousness. We all give support to each other especially to those who are least supported. We all walk on the common ground that, to the eyes of faith, is the consciousness where I see you in myself and myself in you.

Never before in America or elsewhere, have we needed this contemplative mind more urgently. It is not in the end about politics and elections. But it  will define the kind of politics that shape the world we make for ourselves and leave to our children.