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.