We are presently participating in a clinical trial observing the influence of meditation on a group of doctors and nurses working in a very stressful emergency department of a large hospital. At the last session, in the early morning, I was impressed to learn that some of those present had just come off a thirteen-hour shift that started at 8pm the night before.
One of the interests of the study is the high rate – up to sixty per cent – of burnout among the medical staff. Temperamentally they are strong and resilient people. They share an intense, deep (dangerously deep) motivation to help others in need. But I wondered if their coming to the four-hour session immediately after a full night of emergency medicine was going to reduce or add to the occupational danger of burnout. Clearly they felt it was going to help them. Despite the challenge of daily meditation that they faced in their over- demanding lives, with work and family pulling them to give ever more, they saw the course as a wonderful opportunity and they were determined to make the most of it.
They had felt a call and they had started a pilgrimage. This is the theme of the Exodus readings of Lent that describe the imperishable myth of the Israelites led out of Egypt and wandering for forty years in the desert, getting ready for the promised land where milk and honey flowed. Recorded history shows no evidence of such an enslavement and escape but the myth is forever embedded in the culture and imagination of the Jewish and Christian traditions.
In the first of the readings for today we read of Abram hearing the call to ‘leave your country, family and father’s house.. for the land I will show you.’ For him as for the Irish monks, who believed they couldn’t be a monk in their own country and lived lives of self-imposed exile, the challenge to leave the family home and set out into the unknown is deeply embedded in the psyche. It competes with our need for home, security and familiarity, just as our desire for rest or death tangles with eros, our lust for life.
St Paul describes the interior contradictions he struggled with, torn between the hardships and rejection he exposed himself to and the peace and joy released in him through his discovery of Christ. He speaks of this as a grace granted ‘before the beginning of time’. We existed in the divine imagination before the Big Bang brought time and space, peace and burnout, home and wandering into existence.
The gospel today is about the Transfiguration. In The Good Heart, where the Dalai Lama comments on this passage he refers to the Tibetan idea of the rainbow body, which explains how the physical body is transfigured in those who have achieved the highest enlightenment and yet remain in this world to continue to help those in need.
So day by day we make our pilgrimage, even if it is a commute, leaving home and family, exploring the strange world of others and encountering their needs with our limited resources. We either burn out or we are transfigured. The difference lies in whether we have been still for the one moment necessary to be touched by the grace existing before time.