Monday Lent Week Four

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The Christian imagination saw the biblical account of the Exodus – the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert with Moses as their GPS – as a symbol of Lent. Quite regularly, they would rebel. First they craved the food they had left behind and found their desert diet unbearably boring. Then, when Moses disappeared up the mountain into the cloud of unknowing to speak with God and receive the Ten Commandments, they felt abandoned and lonely.

Although they complained endlessly about their fate and blamed Moses for everything, when he went away they were leaderless and confused. Their inner compass lost direction. Aaron, one of the false leaders who are always at hand when the people get restless, took them in the wrong direction. (Leavers and Remainers in the Brexit schism in Britain would disagree on how to apply this story to their present situation). Maybe Aaron felt he had to do something and that he didn’t have Moses’s charisma to keep the people steady. For whatever reason he did the terrible thing that the Israelites were always prone to do when things got bad for them. He turned them towards false gods. He asked them to hand over their gold jewellery to melt down and fashion as a golden calf. This suggests how much we are prepared to sacrifice for the false consolation offered by illusion.

Having made the new idol they began worshipping it but soon the worship turned into revelry. This makes for good television if the censors permit. Perhaps it shows that what we really want when we are desperate is not a god but entertainment. Our own culture is less about idolatry, although we absolutise many foolish things and create celebrity as an alternative to sanctity. It is more about entertaining ourselves continuously with whatever stimulates, titillates or distracts us. We stay up late at night gorging on entertainment. We cannot make a short train journey without watching a film and having a snack. And of course we feed our children a diet of animated distraction delivered by various electronic devices.

This is understandable and also forgivable. The wisdom necessary for survival is that we have to forgive ourselves for our own stupidities. Simone Weil said that consolation is the only resort of those who are afflicted. And to lose direction, to feel abandoned, to have lost our good leaders and to feel that even God has left us is to be sorely afflicted.  The only problem is that this kind of consolation is illusion and illusion eats away at the very foundations of our sense of self. In trying to escape the darkness, it t opens the abyss. It leads to disorder of the psyche and to chaos in the community.

Every so often, from time to time, we all find fidelity boring. Unless we are encouraged and inspired from some authentic source, these moments of weakness lead us to crave variety for its own sake. We become impatient. We lose hope that fidelity to the path we are following will produce the richness and delight that, at other times, we believe it will. This weakness in human nature is also a source of strength.  But it is a design fault in everything we do that needs patience, fidelity and commitment, from saying the mantra to marriage, from seeing a project through to completion to waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain.

With Love

Laurence

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Fourth Sunday of Lent

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Today’s gospel (Jn 9) is about the healing of a man born blind. Like the story of the Samaritan woman last week, it is told on many levels of meaning opening on to each other. Despite the apparent obviousness of the story it has Shakespearian depths and, like our experience of life, reveals how multi-faceted reality is.

The disciples ask Jesus who was responsible for the man’s condition – his parents or himself? It’s hard to see from this question how either was to blame without having inherited karma. Anyway Jesus dismisses this approach by saying the meaning of the man’s suffering is found in the way God is revealed through healing.  This may not answer all our rational questions, but it gives us a definitive direction. In other words, look ahead, not in the rear-view mirror, for the connections that yield meaning. Then, as if to illustrate a point, rather like a busy Emergency Department doctor, Jesus heals him (thereby breaking the union rules by working on the Sabbath).

Jesus merges back into the crowd, hardly giving the man time to see him. However the people and then the authorities hear of the event. Some sceptics are not convinced it is the same individual they knew as the blind man who was hanging around the place. The parents are dragged into the controversy and, for fear of getting involved, disclaim any knowledge and leave their son to fend for himself – the first glimpse of the solitude which the man is being plunged into. Under questioning, the man holds his ground about the healing and is quickly condemned as a troublemaker, dismissed as someone ‘born in sin’. If you answer us like that (they are saying),being handicapped was your own fault and you don’t deserve to be healed. He was excommunicated. A good example of how often religious people don’t welcome the power of God meddling in their affairs. But Jesus hears of this and seeks him out.

The next level of meaning and intimacy in the story begins, as often with this healer of humanity, with a question. Jesus asks if he believes (has faith) in the Son of God. The man honestly replies, well I might if I knew who he was. Then, just as he did with the Samaritan woman, who was another outcast, Jesus simply identifies himself. You’re looking at him. The man spontaneously opened to faith, believed and bowed down in spirit.

In these few moves we have passed from a cure to a healing. The man crossed rapidly from a place of affliction through a testing of his character and the painful experience of exclusion and rejection into a life-transforming relationship of faith.

As the experience of silence and presence deepens over time, we might see the journey of meditation as taking us along the same trajectory, though probably less quickly.

With Love

Laurence

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Saturday Lent Week Three

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I was showing a woman around a house that she had once known well. When we came to an ordinary bedroom she stopped and looked at it with evidently deep feeling. I let her ponder it and when she realised she had shown her feelings she apologised. Then she began to explain, became a little embarrassed but eventually told me it was the room where her first child had been conceived. For her it was not an ordinary room. For me it was a moment to see something special in the ordinary, from another, and for me unusual point of view.

There’s nothing special about the 25th March except that it is the day (in scriptural time) when Jesus was conceived. We recognise this in the Feast of the Annunciation when Gabriel came to visit Mary and she gave her consent to being over-shadowed by the Holy Spirit. Nine months exactly to Christmas Day. Who is thinking about Christmas at this time of the year except marketing departments?

The days of our actual conception usually pass unremarked and perhaps (I’m not sure) cannot be exactly calculated. Yet they are undeniably important moments in our journey from the Being-mind of God, where we exist from eternity, into being terrestrial and temporal existences.

Meaning, like truth, emerges. It doesn’t just explode and land fully developed and labelled on our lap. One part of us does tend towards wanting fixed points and answers and sees meaning merely as an explanation of things. But the deeper mind knows that meaning is about connections; and the more interwoven and comprehensive the network of connections, the greater the experience of meaning. This takes time.  At a business school, as the students approach graduation and look for jobs, they are busy networking. This becomes an increasingly important priority for them and it can become very stressful if they feel they aren’t making enough useful connections to launch their new career. Often I feel they are trying too hard.

A network of meaning-full connections cannot be built on one or two encounters. Trust  – is like knowing someone beyond the charm (or otherwise) of their persona. It has to grow and mature. Growth is not a conceptual but organic process, dependent on the environment and the acts of God also known as accidents. Every relationship, even the most fleeting, opens us to a whole parallel universe of potential connections, which we best meet with a light touch. To try and grasp it too quickly is to damage the connection and create mistrust. So much of any intimacy that survives and grows relies upon detachment and the wisdom of the optimum distance.

Lent is characterised by the same ordinariness that made the wandering Israelites periodically so idolatrous. It is a daily lesson in the art of living from the centre outwards, from below the surface appearance of things. Meditation – which is really Lent and Easter combined – also teaches us not to dismiss the significance of a half-hour of silence in which nothing particular happens. As John Main said this actually is preferable. ‘In meditation,’ he said, ‘nothing happens and, if it does, ignore it.’ There is obviously both a paradox and a meaningful joke hidden in this enlightening remark.

With Love

Laurence

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Friday Lent Week Three

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The art of living that we try to refresh, or even discover for the first time, in Lent is to live from the source. The spring of consciousness flows into visible existence as naturally as water bubbles up from the ground or a new born baby appears. The closer we are to the source the more innocent we know we are. Inevitably, though, the water acquires a certain cloudiness, impurity or even toxicity after it has been flowing for some time. It is sad it has to be like this, but it is one of the ways that we actually become more conscious. So, we might say, impurity, loss of innocence is both inevitable and has a purpose. It makes us conscious of the effect of the ‘distance’ between us and the source and what our relationship to the source really is.

We have to put ‘distance’ in inverted commas or else we take the metaphor too literally. If we’re not careful (attentive), we can easily fall into feeling that we are out of touch with the spring of being. That we are lost, alienated, separated. We become nostalgic for a primal purity and innocence of being. Experience, age, time, feel like a sad decline that overshadows even all the real benefits and delights that life brings. Unchallenged, it would lead into a bitter old age. This despair can strike down even the young.

The truth is that every moment we are carried along on the stream of existence that flows from the spring of being. Even when blocked it will force its way through and flow again. Being (like the Father in the Christian idea of God) remains always invisible, a hidden source. Existence (like the Son) is the visible expression of being. It unites the source to the other end of life, the goal, the ocean of being that first becomes knowable in the little spring bubbling up in a corner of  a field. The unity of the source and the goal is the Spirit of wholeness.

The visible stream of being in daily life mysteriously mingles purity with impurity, joy with suffering, innocence and guilt, peace with stress, love with fear. In Lent, through giving up, letting go and making more time to pray, we learn to see and accept and actually rejoice in this mixed up mixture that is human existence. We are not angels, thank God. We are not exact answers to mathematical questions. We are not mechanical models. Through our growth in self-knowledge, we see that impurity is useful because it makes us better able to taste the freshness of the spring.

The Kingdom is very close to you, Jesus said. The wisdom of the ages is that the sense of distance, however real it feels and however crippling it can be for our psychological performance in the world, is in fact illusion.

Meditation convinces us not to identify ourselves with the impurities, the flotsam and jetsam that the stream of life accumulates as it becomes a river. We have a  wonderful variety of words to describe the different sizes and manifestations of the flow of the spring: words like brook, stream, rivulet, river, ruisseau, courant, fleuve – sorry translators, please add words from your own language to the list… Silence, fortunately, does not need translation, because it is neither conceptual nor linked to the pictures that words embody. Meditation purifies our minds by the always fresh experience of discovering that we are the source as well as the stream and the river. We have this wonderful oneness which makes us essential spiritual beings. In fact, even when we are most impure we are still divinely fresh.

With Love

Laurence

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Thursday Lent Week Three

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A very old Chinese meditator told me once that even at this late phase of his life he was sometimes beset by what he called ‘fearful thoughts’. They came from his past but still felt very powerful in the present. They might concern his health, his guilt for things he had done wrong, the fear of failure, rejection or exposure. They would surge up but, since he had been meditating, they were far less capable of overwhelming him.

I was reminded of an experience I had for a while as an adolescent, when I would often wake up in the morning initially fresh and clear-minded. But within a second or two of consciously remembering who and where I was and what I had to do that day, I would feel a tight, heavy, dark knot grow in my chest. Not quite a physical pain, yet, but it could easily have become one. I had to ignore it, get out of bed and then quite quickly, my activity pushed this knot of fear back into its hiding hole.

The old meditator told me how his old fearful thoughts periodically rushed out of their hiding places during meditation. He would say the mantra as faithfully as he could through these storms, feeling he was not having a ‘good meditation’, but also knowing that he was doing just what he had to do. He knew that these fears were illusory; but they were nonetheless disturbing and he feared the effect of the fear on him should it become unmanageable. After the meditation he had regained his freedom and a sentence would often form in his mind: ‘It’s so good to return to reality’.

The Samaritan woman at the well might have felt that after she had confronted the fear and anger that she projected onto Jesus and the rest of the world at the beginning of her encounter with him. At the end of the story she has regained her place in the community of the village and has re-sourced the inner freedom selflessly to give others something good that had touched her and that she knew she could share. Jesus had called it a stream of living water welling up from within.

A few days ago at Bonnevaux I was walking through the grounds with some visitors. We visited the two springs, each at either end of the property, which I find very holy and pure places. At each of them, the ground around has been opened up to expose the stream of clean water flowing from some secret and mysterious place deep in the earth. Maybe this was done by the twelfth-century monks who came they to build their monastery there, but probably also by much earlier, unrecorded dwellers on the land. Springs are timeless. Ever-present, constant and new. They heal the wounds of the past.

The French for ‘spring’ is ‘source’.

With Love

Laurence

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Wednesday Lent Week Three

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The danger of the spiritual journey is self-absorption, thinking too much and too often about our progress, success or failure. This is our default form of awareness. We can hardly help seeing the world as a solar system revolving around me as the sun. On the occasions where we are redeemed from this and become other-centred, we often don’t know what happened. Later looking back to the happiness and peace it brought us, we don’t remember it was due to the fact that for a while we had involuntarily stopped being so damned self-centred.

It is easy to try to repeat the conditions that led us to such happiness – a person, a place, a delight – oblivious to the basic condition of selflessness that caused it. Happiness, when we remember it as a past event, is seen as a result of a cause. In fact, happiness is always present and it is the cause of the results.  Lent allows us to see that the secret of happiness and the dynamic of the spiritual journey are one. This is such an obvious secret we should call it ‘mystery’ instead. As long as we think it is a ‘secret’ we will search for the code, the password, the key, the esoteric trick that will get it for us. When we see it as mystery we realise we have only to walk into it and not look back. Lent can be just this determined step through this portal of mystery.

Diadochus, who we consulted earlier in Lent, understood this in terms of loving others. Because ‘loving’ has so many meanings and overtones for us, let’s simply call it paying genuine (that is, selfless) attention to others. Diadochus says that when we experience the love of God in its richness we begin to love others with an awareness that arises directly from our spiritual dimension. Sometimes when people meditate for the first time, in a trusting and childlike way, with no demands or expectations, a trapdoor opens in them and they fall into an experience they have never known before and have no way to describe. They rarely call it love, because it is different from what we imagine love to be. But it is in fact the rich and enriching love of God at the centre and source of our being.

Touching – or being touched – by this, even for an instant, triggers an ongoing conversion. A major effect of this is felt throughout all our relationships. Diadochus says the new quality of attention we bring to our relationships is the love the scriptures speak of. Friendship, as we normally experience it, is quite fragile. Betrayals, disappointments, distrust or jealousy can shake or break the best of them. But, if this rich love has been awakened in us, we are better able to weather the storm and the relationship may survive. ‘When a person is spiritually awakened, even if something irritates him, the bond of love is not dissolved; rekindling himself with the warmth of the love of God, he quickly recovers himself and with great joy seeks his neighbour’s love, even though he has been gravely wronged or insulted.’

We saw yesterday that the spiritual art of living is not about will-power. Forgiving, healing and renewing relationships is also not about being superhumanly detached and saintly. It is the natural response for anyone who has drunk from the deeper spring of love within. We may describe this as an enhanced capacity to pay attention. It is in fact more: a greater capacity to love. Or, as  Diadochus, says ‘the sweetness of God completely consumes the bitterness of the quarrel.’

With Love

Laurence

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Tuesday Lent Week Three

 

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We cannot know God without knowing ourselves. Otherwise, God would be only the successful result of a scientific experiment that we were conducting, not what God means as the source, ground and goal of being itself.

The awkward thing is that the path of self-knowledge takes us (as we saw in the first week) through valleys of death. These are the painful dis-illusionments of our maturing. How can we get to know ourselves without sometimes being ashamed and hurt by discovering that we are not what we (or others) thought we were? The outcome of these painful unveilings of the deeper levels of ourself is always good, in the long run. But, because there is suffering involved in self-knowledge, we often resist, deny or evade it, maybe for decades. A typical example is an addict coming to recognise and humbly admitting his problem. But it may also happen to an acclaimed philanthropist who slowly realises he helps others mainly because of the good image of himself it gives him.

One reason that the process of self-knowledge is difficult is because it exposes the deep, often deeply buried conflicts within ourselves. Falling off the Lenten bandwagon (like breaking our promises or new year’s resolutions) achieves this exposure of a division within our will. If what I am is what I want, what happens if I have to admit that I want different things, simultaneously and irreconcilably? Wife and mistress. Family life and major business travel. Chocolate cake and a slim waist. God and mammon. Netflix and the evening meditation.

For the well-constructed ego (a ‘successful’ or popular person usually has built one), this discovery of the divided self can be devastating. The inner eruption, which put St Paul out of business for a few years, turned him from a persecutor into a victim who then saw a transcendent glory that transformed victimhood into the highest human dignity and humility. Even after he had started the new life and become a teacher of it, and touched mystical heights, he suffered from a visceral conflict of desire. What he wanted he did not want. What he did not want he wanted.

For him, this rude awakening shattered his self-righteous ego and helped him to see that rules and legalism will never lead to self-knowledge, the knowledge of God or to the freedom of the new life. Oddly enough, it is often in breaking a rule that – at least for the righteous or the guilt-ridden – the purpose of the rule is revealed. Perhaps that’s why St Benedict’s wisdom is built around a Rule that is so full of exceptions.

As we will sing on Holy Saturday: ‘O felix culpa’. O happy fault of Adam. Or, as Mother Julian of Norwich took the risk to say, ‘sin is behovely’.  This rare word has a Scrabble value of 19 but possesses a more valuable meaning for the spiritual seeker. Necessary, advantageous. The root meaning of the word combines the sense of ‘grasping’ with ‘something profitable’.

So, if your Lent hasn’t been perfect; if you feel you have failed in your discipline or that you fail consistently in your meditation, all is not lost. Indeed through this very sense of failure all may be won.

With Love

Laurence

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