I’d like to explore in this first week of Lent how we, like Jesus after his forty days, can better distinguish between illusion and reality. But first, let’s look at the means of doing this, what Buddhists call ‘skilful means’ and which is the meaning of what Christians have long called ascesis.
‘Asceticism’ rings the same bells as ‘austerity’. But when you meet a true ascetic, it’s like meeting a trained athlete in the peak of condition and loving their freely-chosen discipline of exercise and lifestyle. They radiate joy and well-being and make us feel slightly envious in our sluggishness while also, hopefully, motivating us to get off the couch and start living. The means of the ascetic are fasting, almsgiving and prayer.
How can we understand these today? Fasting involves a willing giving-up, saying ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ to our natural or habitual desires. This, like the other two companion pillars of spiritual living, is an abstract principle, an ideal, a value. It needs to be associated with a practice to take flesh and be real. We can only truly live as embodied beings Humans being can’t be too abstract for long without imploding. Yet from my flesh I shall see God, said poor Job after his ordeals. (Job 19:26). Fasting is necessary for spiritual health. So, what are we going to give up?
Almsgiving is about letting go. What we let go of may be money, time, the attention we take off ourselves and put unconditionally on another. It’s not just how much or how often. For the meditator, attention is obviously the key to this pillar of spiritual living. Simone Weil said that attention is the rarest and highest form of generosity. The quality of selfless attention proves the sincerity of what we give and truly let go of. What are we letting go of?
Prayer takes many forms but is essentially about pure attention. Its effect is to make us feel – however distracted we are, however long and far we have wandered, however separated from our base we feel – that we have come home, relieved, maybe surprised, to find a warm, a loving welcome. To sit in meditation is to come home. This pure prayer – that radically purifies the imagination and fantasy, loosens the grip of desire and fear and simplifies us to be able to accept authentic not false consolation – is simply about coming home.
A home is a centre, emotionally and spiritually. It is the reference point of meaning for wherever else we may go on the map. If we come home and find an empty lot, our grip on reality is exploded. We have to start again, from scratch. But if there is, essentially, one centre of all reality; if reality is essentially simple and whole, then that centre is everywhere. We discover it first by finding our own centre, entering what Jesus calls our ‘inner room’ where we are embraced by the presence which embraces everything and fills everything.
A nice idea. But, like the other pillars of spiritual living, as our means of becoming free from illusion and free to be real, prayer requires a practice. For the current meditator, a renewal of commitment and refreshment of motivation. For the meditator starting out, the courage to begin.