Friday Lent Week Four

Lent_week04

In Westminster a few days ago a British-born man in his fifties, with a long history of criminal violence and instability ruthlessly killed four people in what was called another terrorist attack. The savage and pointless infliction of suffering on innocent people breaks one’s heart. It fades from the front page, security barricades are increased and the infection of fear worsens. But the personal grief of relatives and friends of those killed or injured by such an impersonal expression of hatred will last a lifetime.

The deranged murderer had converted to Islam and also changed his name several times. Like many who kill in the name of Allah they are really converted to a perverse religious vision hiding under the label of this faith that allows them to vent their personal rage at the world and to be applauded, by some, for doing so. Most of these terrorists seem to be mentally ill, repressed, social and psychological failures in life who are easily turned by ruthless radicalisers. We are told these events will continue to happen. Many can be stopped but some, like this one, will always get through the net. It is something the West will have to live with until complex political and religious conflicts that we cannot understand and happening a long way away, are resolved. In the meantime we will live through this ‘terrorist’ age as people have lived through other, and in fact even worse, periods of violence and chaos.

The media reports it all in graphic detail, giving the high publicity that the terrorists crave. Politicians and religious leaders denounce such acts searching for the most condemnatory terms to use. But there is increasingly a feeling of deja-vu, of fatalism in the repetition of shock and fear that slowly eats away at the heart of any society. This is, of course, what the perpetrators of terrorism want.

Is there a contemplative response to these tragic events of our age of terror?

Contemplation raises the levels of wisdom and compassion in individuals and in the community. Wisdom is practical and knows that it has first to protect the innocent from attack. But it has also to look into the causes of what seems mere madness, to ask the uncomfortable questions. Compassion can exclude no one, innocent or guilty. There is no deeper way to prevent the erosion of society by fear or hatred, than to explicitly extend the power of compassion to the guilty. St Paul (Rom 12:21) says that it is excruciating to be forgiven, like pouring burning coals on the head of your enemy. He is echoing the Book of Proverbs (25:21) that says, long before Jesus made it central to his teaching: If your enemy is hungry give him food to eat, give him water to drink. For you will heap burning coals o his head. The Lord will reward you.’

Forgiveness is not an easy virtue to understand or justify politically. But it is essential to healing and moral survival. Our faith tradition is committed to it. The West is, ostensibly, being attacked by terrorists because it is Christian. How Christian is the testing question. How we express it is our challenge. In Lent above all, in this season of simplification and reduction, and even under attack and in grief, we can draw on the wisdom and compassion present in the human heart and which is also the source of our faith.

With Love

Laurence

signature

Thursday Lent Week Four

Lent_week04

Here, I hope, is the connection with Lent from yesterday.

I was recently meditating with a group of doctors and nurses working in a very stressful branch of public medicine. They are an extraordinarily generous and compassionate collection of individuals who form a powerfully supportive team of professional friendship. They also really want to meditate. They express their motivation differently but it is, not surprisingly, related to the dangers inherent in their work. Dangers such as burnout (shutting down internally, while going through the motions on the surface) or even various forms of self-harm, from losing the balance of the personal and professional aspects of their lives or the physical and psychological consequences of unmanaged stress.

Most also struggle with finding time to meditate. This struggle shows them how meditation leads to self-knowledge even in the learning process itself. We understand and see ourselves better when we fail to do what we want to do. Of course, this may lead us to give up. But, more positively, it may help us review our goals, to overcome our resistance or just to manage time more sensibly. Most people admit they could find the time to meditate if they set their mind to it.

Similarly, our Lenten observance encourages self-knowledge, whether we are satisfied with our measure of observance or not. This self-knowledge leads to what the desert teachers called ‘discretion’. Nothing is more important than discretion on the spiritual path we refer to as ‘life’. It obeys the eternal laws of things without falling into the trap of being legalistic. That is why the teachers of the desert said that acquiring self-knowledge is more important than the ability to work miracles.

The purer level of self-knowledge, however, is what I wrote about yesterday as the experience that cannot be experienced. Does this sound rather astral and esoteric? Not if you listened to the medics who are learning to meditate. We were speaking about stillness – of body and mind – as an essential element of meditation. I asked if any of them had experienced stillness. Up till then they had spoken of  their meditation largely in terms of distraction and failure. But, given a little push, some of them acknowledged that they had  glimpsed, for a fleeting moment, what stillness meant. Almost immediately they began to think about this experience and, of course, it was lost.

Most of what we call experience is simply memory, the impression left by a pure moment in which we were freed from our usual self-consciousness. The experience in itself is an unveiling that takes down the structures of time in our thought and imagination. It is purely present. As soon as we call it an experience it recedes. Over time, our memory of it fades and often becomes inaccurate. Only the pure experience ultimately matters. It cannot be repeated at will, but we can always be open to it. Our ungrasping openness is faith. As faith strengthens so does the awareness of the continuous presence, even if we are not actually in the experience.

The doctors are on a time-limited introduction to meditation. Like Lent the time-limit gives us the incentive and the discipline to wriggle free of time and to touch the present.

With Love

Laurence

signature

Wednesday Lent week Four

Lent_week04

John Main thought that the besetting sin of Christians was to underestimate the full wonder of their faith and potential. It is incredible. This is a faith that presents such mind-expanding perspectives about the infinite capacity of human nature and about the relationship between God, nature and the whole human spectrum of tenderness, joy and suffering. Yet in the old Christendom of the West it is now largely seen as dull, socially conservative, moralistic and over-concerned, if not obsessed, with genital sexuality. In other areas, it is distastefully fundamentalist, impolite to other faiths, exclusive and as intellectually restricted as the White House. What went wrong? And, can it be turned around to bring its measure of hope and creative energy to our modern crisis?

If I had to say yes or no I’d say yes. But, of course, I don’t know and the question in this form is probably too grand and abstract. Perhaps at this stage we need a contemplative rather than an ecclesiastical approach. I like the distinction, for example, between ‘ecclesial’ and ecclesiastical’. Both refer to the ‘church’ but with quite different meanings. Ecclesial suggests an emergent awareness of depth and meaning within a welcoming community opening access to something greater than the sum of its parts. It is a living, symbolic world in which we are freed from legalism by the discipline of worship. Ecclesiastical means, well, churchy, which the best religious people would agree is at least unattractive if not actually repellent. Nevertheless, there is such a thing as religious love and it is a wonderful form of love to discover. But it is not churchy.

What we can say is less about ‘how to make the church relevant’ or ‘how to get young people more involved’. We can act from and on the truth that an extraordinary yet universal experience remains latent in every human being. Even without words to explain it,  this experience can be awakened to show each of us the wonder and depth of what Christian faith is all about. For example, peace. This peace that the scriptures speak about all the time is there. Or joy. Joy is an inner spring waiting to be untapped, way beyond the temples of consumerism. If we focused more on awakening this experience the future shape and meaning of the church would unfold and we wouldn’t just be counting the numbers of bums on pews.

In fact, though, we can’t awaken this experience for others. That is the mistake of putting all the emphasis on ‘going to church’. Going to most churches makes sense as a response to this experience rather than as a way of finding it. Although, if you’re lucky, you may find a church with a good and loving community that helps a wide range of people to find this experience for themselves and together.

I’m not sure what this has got to do specifically with Lent. I’ll think of a connection for tomorrow. Except that one of the least churchy expressions of Christianity was that of the early desert monks. They lived and breathed Lent daily with joy, compassion and spiritual intelligence. And, after the words of Jesus, that’s where the wisdom of meditation most powerfully to flow into the Christian way of faithful living.

With Love

Laurence

signature

Tuesday Lent Week Four

Lent_week04

Mark Rothko became the great displayer of pure colour in the last period of his life. Several of his huge canvases form the Rothko Chapel in Houston (near to where we are holding the John Main Seminar in August). They are not in the chapel. They are the chapel and there is no other work or sign in the circular space except these fourteen dark-hued canvases. The experience of presence is vast and personal and almost oppressive, at least until you yield to it.

In answer to a question about what his paintings meant, Rothko once said ‘my pictures are not pictures of an experience. They are an experience.’ After seeing them, I think we listen to these words as a simple description and not as an expression of self-importance of any kind. They remind me of one of John Main’s characteristic teachings about the simplicity of meditation. He wanted people not to imagine what the ‘experience’ is like or to discuss it but to enter into it. He would say ‘don’t try to experience the experience’. In our modern mind’s very self-conscious and self-evaluating approach to everything this is an important point to listen to and try to understand. (How often do we read a political story and realise it is not about the issues but the personalities or the opinion polls?) If we are not alert to this habit of mind, we are driving along the meditation highway with our handbrake on, wondering why a red light is flashing on our dashboard and why there is a smell of burning rubber. The same truth is found in the remark of Jesus at the beginning of Lent not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing when you perform a good deed. (Don’t sacrifice the flow of life to fixity of observation).

The movement of thought and feeling in the 19th century that we call ‘Romanticism’ has little to do with Hollywood romantic comedies. It was protest and reaction against the increasing left-brain bias of modern life, that subjects all experience to microscopic examination and analysis and, in doing so, loses the gestalt, the wholeness, or as we might say the spiritual dimension. Many of the Romantics had suffered clinical depression because of this. They found their way through by opening to a new way of perceiving the world in its beauty and fresh immediacy. Thomas Carlyle expressed it like this: “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation exhaust themselves on that.”

Once you see this for yourself it is the simplest and most obvious thing in the world. Other-centredness  – not seeking one’s own happiness as an end in itself – is the way. Saying the mantra as an expression of this awareness takes the handbrake off.

It is the meaning of whatever practices we are observing during Lent, however successfully or poorly we may evaluate them.

With Love

Laurence

signature

Monday Lent Week Four

Lent_week04

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

signature

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Lent_week04

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

signature

Saturday Lent Week Three

LentWeek03

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

signature