These daily readings by Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk and Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, are to help those following them make a better Lent. This is a set time and preparation for Easter, during which special attention is given to prayer, extra generosity to others and self-control. It is customary to give something up, or restrain your use of something but also to do something additional that will benefit you spiritually and simplify you. Running through these readings will be an encouragement to start to make meditation a daily practice or, if it already is, then to deepen it by preparing for the times of meditation more carefully. The morning and evening meditations then become the true spiritual centre of your day. Here is the tradition, a very simple way of meditation, that we teach:
Sit down, Sit still with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Breathe normally. Silently, interiorly begin to repeat a single word, or mantra. We recommend the ancient prayer phrase ‘maranatha’. It is Aramaic (the language of Jesus) for ‘Come Lord’, but do not think of its meaning. The purpose of the mantra is to lay aside all thoughts, good, bad, indifferent together with images, plans, memories and fantasies. Say the word as four equal syllables: ma ran a tha. Listen to it as you repeat it and keep returning to it when you become distracted. Meditate for about twenty minutes each morning and evening. Meditating with others, as in a weekly group, is very helpful to developing this practice as part of your daily life. Visit the community’s website for further help and inspiration: wccm.org
Today, with the gritty feel of ash on your forehead, (that is, if you like the ritual, or in a more conceptual mood if you don’t), we begin a journey. If you would like to receive the ashes today but don’t have time to go to a church, or if you don’t like church, ask a friend to put it on your forehead. They can do it with the sign of the cross and a few words. ‘Remember you are dust and unto dust you will return’. Or, a little less starkly but no less radically, ‘Turn around and live the gospel’.
The journey is the thing, not the way you begin it. It is a journey of forty days, a number which symbolises many things – a time of transition, correction, purification. According to the Talmud at the age of 40 one becomes capable of another level of wisdom. The forty days before Yom Kippur are seen as a special time for personal growth.
First, decide if you really want to make this journey. As with starting to meditate, just decide if you want to begin, without worrying about whether you will finish it. Spiritually, there are no winners of the race, only those who kept going. And those who dropped by the wayside eventually get carried the rest of the way. The universe is friendly to all, in the end.
You may enter this season of Lent with a sense that you are in a bit of a mess and that you need to be re-balanced and to shed unnecessary inner baggage, attachments, addictions, regret, guilt, anxiety. It’s enough to know this is possible and that there is a plan for achieving it. Or you may feel balanced enough to know that you still have a long way to go. So you can start this year’s journey with the positive intention to go into deeper self-knowledge and brighter clarity.
Any journey can begin with a mixture of intentions and motives. These may then change, as you change, into a pilgrimage (no goal except that of arriving) or a dive from the world’s highest cliff-edge into a sparkling blue sea (the arriving is in the travelling) . The ash is a reminder that despite our complexity we have a radically simple core. Our common mortality reminds us of this as an opportunity for heightened realism and relish for life rather than fear and neurosis. As the ash is an outward sign, saying the mantra is an interior sacramental. They are acts that allow us to stop thinking about it all and to be one with it all.
The desert that Jesus entered for his forty days is our template for Lent. He was ‘led’ there. On this journey we don’t so much choose as consent. He was ‘tempted’. If we aren’t tested we remain blocked by our limitations, seeing ourselves as frustrated rather renewable beings.
Why doesn’t everyone jump on this interesting band-wagon and make this journey? Because the way is poverty. Detachment and simplification. This scares us because we fear we may end by having nothing. Actually, that truly is the goal. Let’s not follow the perverse gospel of prosperity and success. If that fake news, that is not good news, becomes our way, well, forty days later we will find that we haven’t even left base. The goal (after forty days of variable length) is that we desire not to have possessions with just the same fervour as people generally desire to have them. This poverty is the meaning of freedom. It is meditation. It is the journey into the desert.