Friday Lent Week Three

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The art of living that we try to refresh, or even discover for the first time, in Lent is to live from the source. The spring of consciousness flows into visible existence as naturally as water bubbles up from the ground or a new born baby appears. The closer we are to the source the more innocent we know we are. Inevitably, though, the water acquires a certain cloudiness, impurity or even toxicity after it has been flowing for some time. It is sad it has to be like this, but it is one of the ways that we actually become more conscious. So, we might say, impurity, loss of innocence is both inevitable and has a purpose. It makes us conscious of the effect of the ‘distance’ between us and the source and what our relationship to the source really is.

We have to put ‘distance’ in inverted commas or else we take the metaphor too literally. If we’re not careful (attentive), we can easily fall into feeling that we are out of touch with the spring of being. That we are lost, alienated, separated. We become nostalgic for a primal purity and innocence of being. Experience, age, time, feel like a sad decline that overshadows even all the real benefits and delights that life brings. Unchallenged, it would lead into a bitter old age. This despair can strike down even the young.

The truth is that every moment we are carried along on the stream of existence that flows from the spring of being. Even when blocked it will force its way through and flow again. Being (like the Father in the Christian idea of God) remains always invisible, a hidden source. Existence (like the Son) is the visible expression of being. It unites the source to the other end of life, the goal, the ocean of being that first becomes knowable in the little spring bubbling up in a corner of  a field. The unity of the source and the goal is the Spirit of wholeness.

The visible stream of being in daily life mysteriously mingles purity with impurity, joy with suffering, innocence and guilt, peace with stress, love with fear. In Lent, through giving up, letting go and making more time to pray, we learn to see and accept and actually rejoice in this mixed up mixture that is human existence. We are not angels, thank God. We are not exact answers to mathematical questions. We are not mechanical models. Through our growth in self-knowledge, we see that impurity is useful because it makes us better able to taste the freshness of the spring.

The Kingdom is very close to you, Jesus said. The wisdom of the ages is that the sense of distance, however real it feels and however crippling it can be for our psychological performance in the world, is in fact illusion.

Meditation convinces us not to identify ourselves with the impurities, the flotsam and jetsam that the stream of life accumulates as it becomes a river. We have a  wonderful variety of words to describe the different sizes and manifestations of the flow of the spring: words like brook, stream, rivulet, river, ruisseau, courant, fleuve – sorry translators, please add words from your own language to the list… Silence, fortunately, does not need translation, because it is neither conceptual nor linked to the pictures that words embody. Meditation purifies our minds by the always fresh experience of discovering that we are the source as well as the stream and the river. We have this wonderful oneness which makes us essential spiritual beings. In fact, even when we are most impure we are still divinely fresh.

With Love

Laurence

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Thursday Lent Week Three

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A very old Chinese meditator told me once that even at this late phase of his life he was sometimes beset by what he called ‘fearful thoughts’. They came from his past but still felt very powerful in the present. They might concern his health, his guilt for things he had done wrong, the fear of failure, rejection or exposure. They would surge up but, since he had been meditating, they were far less capable of overwhelming him.

I was reminded of an experience I had for a while as an adolescent, when I would often wake up in the morning initially fresh and clear-minded. But within a second or two of consciously remembering who and where I was and what I had to do that day, I would feel a tight, heavy, dark knot grow in my chest. Not quite a physical pain, yet, but it could easily have become one. I had to ignore it, get out of bed and then quite quickly, my activity pushed this knot of fear back into its hiding hole.

The old meditator told me how his old fearful thoughts periodically rushed out of their hiding places during meditation. He would say the mantra as faithfully as he could through these storms, feeling he was not having a ‘good meditation’, but also knowing that he was doing just what he had to do. He knew that these fears were illusory; but they were nonetheless disturbing and he feared the effect of the fear on him should it become unmanageable. After the meditation he had regained his freedom and a sentence would often form in his mind: ‘It’s so good to return to reality’.

The Samaritan woman at the well might have felt that after she had confronted the fear and anger that she projected onto Jesus and the rest of the world at the beginning of her encounter with him. At the end of the story she has regained her place in the community of the village and has re-sourced the inner freedom selflessly to give others something good that had touched her and that she knew she could share. Jesus had called it a stream of living water welling up from within.

A few days ago at Bonnevaux I was walking through the grounds with some visitors. We visited the two springs, each at either end of the property, which I find very holy and pure places. At each of them, the ground around has been opened up to expose the stream of clean water flowing from some secret and mysterious place deep in the earth. Maybe this was done by the twelfth-century monks who came they to build their monastery there, but probably also by much earlier, unrecorded dwellers on the land. Springs are timeless. Ever-present, constant and new. They heal the wounds of the past.

The French for ‘spring’ is ‘source’.

With Love

Laurence

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Wednesday Lent Week Three

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The danger of the spiritual journey is self-absorption, thinking too much and too often about our progress, success or failure. This is our default form of awareness. We can hardly help seeing the world as a solar system revolving around me as the sun. On the occasions where we are redeemed from this and become other-centred, we often don’t know what happened. Later looking back to the happiness and peace it brought us, we don’t remember it was due to the fact that for a while we had involuntarily stopped being so damned self-centred.

It is easy to try to repeat the conditions that led us to such happiness – a person, a place, a delight – oblivious to the basic condition of selflessness that caused it. Happiness, when we remember it as a past event, is seen as a result of a cause. In fact, happiness is always present and it is the cause of the results.  Lent allows us to see that the secret of happiness and the dynamic of the spiritual journey are one. This is such an obvious secret we should call it ‘mystery’ instead. As long as we think it is a ‘secret’ we will search for the code, the password, the key, the esoteric trick that will get it for us. When we see it as mystery we realise we have only to walk into it and not look back. Lent can be just this determined step through this portal of mystery.

Diadochus, who we consulted earlier in Lent, understood this in terms of loving others. Because ‘loving’ has so many meanings and overtones for us, let’s simply call it paying genuine (that is, selfless) attention to others. Diadochus says that when we experience the love of God in its richness we begin to love others with an awareness that arises directly from our spiritual dimension. Sometimes when people meditate for the first time, in a trusting and childlike way, with no demands or expectations, a trapdoor opens in them and they fall into an experience they have never known before and have no way to describe. They rarely call it love, because it is different from what we imagine love to be. But it is in fact the rich and enriching love of God at the centre and source of our being.

Touching – or being touched – by this, even for an instant, triggers an ongoing conversion. A major effect of this is felt throughout all our relationships. Diadochus says the new quality of attention we bring to our relationships is the love the scriptures speak of. Friendship, as we normally experience it, is quite fragile. Betrayals, disappointments, distrust or jealousy can shake or break the best of them. But, if this rich love has been awakened in us, we are better able to weather the storm and the relationship may survive. ‘When a person is spiritually awakened, even if something irritates him, the bond of love is not dissolved; rekindling himself with the warmth of the love of God, he quickly recovers himself and with great joy seeks his neighbour’s love, even though he has been gravely wronged or insulted.’

We saw yesterday that the spiritual art of living is not about will-power. Forgiving, healing and renewing relationships is also not about being superhumanly detached and saintly. It is the natural response for anyone who has drunk from the deeper spring of love within. We may describe this as an enhanced capacity to pay attention. It is in fact more: a greater capacity to love. Or, as  Diadochus, says ‘the sweetness of God completely consumes the bitterness of the quarrel.’

With Love

Laurence

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Tuesday Lent Week Three

 

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We cannot know God without knowing ourselves. Otherwise, God would be only the successful result of a scientific experiment that we were conducting, not what God means as the source, ground and goal of being itself.

The awkward thing is that the path of self-knowledge takes us (as we saw in the first week) through valleys of death. These are the painful dis-illusionments of our maturing. How can we get to know ourselves without sometimes being ashamed and hurt by discovering that we are not what we (or others) thought we were? The outcome of these painful unveilings of the deeper levels of ourself is always good, in the long run. But, because there is suffering involved in self-knowledge, we often resist, deny or evade it, maybe for decades. A typical example is an addict coming to recognise and humbly admitting his problem. But it may also happen to an acclaimed philanthropist who slowly realises he helps others mainly because of the good image of himself it gives him.

One reason that the process of self-knowledge is difficult is because it exposes the deep, often deeply buried conflicts within ourselves. Falling off the Lenten bandwagon (like breaking our promises or new year’s resolutions) achieves this exposure of a division within our will. If what I am is what I want, what happens if I have to admit that I want different things, simultaneously and irreconcilably? Wife and mistress. Family life and major business travel. Chocolate cake and a slim waist. God and mammon. Netflix and the evening meditation.

For the well-constructed ego (a ‘successful’ or popular person usually has built one), this discovery of the divided self can be devastating. The inner eruption, which put St Paul out of business for a few years, turned him from a persecutor into a victim who then saw a transcendent glory that transformed victimhood into the highest human dignity and humility. Even after he had started the new life and become a teacher of it, and touched mystical heights, he suffered from a visceral conflict of desire. What he wanted he did not want. What he did not want he wanted.

For him, this rude awakening shattered his self-righteous ego and helped him to see that rules and legalism will never lead to self-knowledge, the knowledge of God or to the freedom of the new life. Oddly enough, it is often in breaking a rule that – at least for the righteous or the guilt-ridden – the purpose of the rule is revealed. Perhaps that’s why St Benedict’s wisdom is built around a Rule that is so full of exceptions.

As we will sing on Holy Saturday: ‘O felix culpa’. O happy fault of Adam. Or, as Mother Julian of Norwich took the risk to say, ‘sin is behovely’.  This rare word has a Scrabble value of 19 but possesses a more valuable meaning for the spiritual seeker. Necessary, advantageous. The root meaning of the word combines the sense of ‘grasping’ with ‘something profitable’.

So, if your Lent hasn’t been perfect; if you feel you have failed in your discipline or that you fail consistently in your meditation, all is not lost. Indeed through this very sense of failure all may be won.

With Love

Laurence

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Monday Lent Week Three

 

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One of the graces of Lent is the chance to grow in self-knowledge through a relatively low-risk exercising of the will. For example, you decided two weeks ago to give up something, to let go of something and to do more prayer or to do it more faithfully. If you are a marine you will have no difficulty in keeping to this regime. If you are not, you may have a more or a less well-trained will. You may therefore have already wobbled or fallen off. It is how you deal with that which will be the occasion for deeper self-knowledge.

It is probably not the greatest moral crisis of your life if you did decide, in a weak moment, to have a glass of wine, have a dessert or miss your Lenten daily reading – if any of these were your chosen ascetical exercise. What matters is how you deal with the failure of the will and whether you start again.

A young meditator who has a very modern (and healthily guilt-free) approach to discipline illustrated this for me. He believes strongly in meditation and knows how it helps him at all levels; and he sees how, through the daily discipline, grace silently builds on nature. I was surprised then when he told me that he had quit for a week. I asked why. He said that he had struggled with his meditation because he could not get rid of his expectations and demands and self-examination of his progress. This was dragging him back. He knew he should let go of it all but he couldn’t. He knew meditation is about detachment, so he decided to practice detachment from meditation – for a week. He thought this was a cool idea and, for him fortunately, it seems to have been. The desert fathers said we should not make the way to become free of the passions into a passion.

First of all, he had a very difficult week without meditation, which taught him just what a necessary and beautiful gift meditation is for him. He felt old patterns of anxiety and irritability surge back and the sense of connection weaken on all fronts. This sense of connection is the measure of meaning in anyone’s life. It arises from the connection between our surface and deeper self, from the connection to those close to us and then to those we meet as strangers or even as enemies. After this week of turbulence he resumed his meditation and found, as he had hoped, that he could practice it now with more detachment and a less anxious measuring of results.

John Main also gave up meditation in full stream, though for different reasons and for longer. He was obeying his novice master who did not understand this way of prayer. But when he came back to it, after rediscovering of his own tradition, he said he returned to meditation ‘on God’s terms, not my own’.

These examples point to the question of the self, through very particular personalities and circumstances which are perhaps to be learned from rather than imitated. This is the central question for any spiritual path. Who (really) am I? And this question is lit up by our experience of desire and the will that we usually identify with freedom. To be free is to do what we want, surely? So, the question ‘who am I?’ also means what does it mean to be free? We will continue to explore these during our third week of Lent.

(If you did fall away, why not just start again?)

With Love

Laurence

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Third Sunday of Lent

 

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Time is flying – third Sunday of Lent – and what have we learned? What have we lost, or renounced, or let go of, that we should have? Has our level of fear decreased a bit? Have we understood better that the ‘fear of God’ that we hear so much about doesn’t mean fear of God as we were taught it meant – fear of getting punished when we get caught. It means what the Samaritan woman at the well discovered it meant one sweltering noon.

Today’s gospel draws us into one of the most Shakespearian dramatic encounters we have of the life of Jesus. One day, hot and tired by his walk, he stopped to rest by a well. His disciples went off to the shops and he was left alone. A woman from an alien racial group appeared to get water. From what she says later in the conversation that ensued, we guess that she didn’t want to come to the well in the evening when the other woman of the village liked to come and gossip. Because she herself was the object of their gossip. Like Jesus, she was alone.

It’s worth reading the whole story: John 4: 5-42, which must be one of the most examined and commented upon texts of any tradition.

Her solitude had not turned her into a bitter or frightened woman. But she was sharp-tongued and (having had five husbands) unfrightened by men even in one of the most misogynist of cultures. The verbal sparring between her and Jesus at the beginning, shows her spunkiness and his openness to people where they are, without any condescending sense of his own superior importance. This clash of personalities, as equals, produces a dramatic result. She returns to her original innocence (and to her community) and she recognizes, even in a male figure, the truth, wisdom and love that was (we might imagine) what took her through her serial relationships.

She was fearless but she had not, till that hot noontime, yet found the partner in intimacy who allowed her to use this fearless freedom in order to love.

Have we?

If not, are we looking in the right place? Might a well be a good place to start?

With Love

Laurence

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Saturday Lent Week Two

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Politics and sport together make up most of what we call ‘news’. Most of us feel that we need to keep in touch with what’s going on. Yet, sometimes, we somehow get hooked addictively to the global stream of consciousness that the media keeps flowing constantly. Not only our opinions but even our emotions are then manipulated or injected into our passively receptive minds that become increasingly less capable of thinking for themselves. We get the news we like to hear to keep the dose of stimulation high. Critical thinking even seems subversive in some societies. Reacting against this we may then reject ‘news’ and media altogether, like parents who opt for home-learning.

As always the best is the mean, the medium, the moderate. This, Lent remind us, is not the primrose path of the easy option, the route of compromise or the evasion of hard questions. It is a  knife-edge, a high-tension tightrope, a fragile rope bridge across a deep abyss. Jesus called it a ‘narrow path that leads to life’ and he added the unpopular remark, ‘and few they are who find it’.

Somehow that added disclaimer has always made me feel reassured. Not because I can dance on the wire of moderation for very long before wobbling dangerously or falling off, because I can’t, but because it shows me there is a true way. It does actually exist. Oddly, it is because I can’t properly find it, that  I know it exists. Even if I can’t walk this path very well, at least it is there and even if I lose it periodically, like dropping the mantra during meditation and solving the problems of the world instead, I find it again. Or, perhaps, it finds me again.

Politics and sport and ‘other news’ are uncomfortably similar to our psyches and unconscious. We project onto the screen of ‘local or world news’ what is happening in our own inarticulate depths. All politics is psychic politics, which is why it is so easy to psychoanalyze politicians – no wonder we don’t trust them anymore – but also why we find it so hard to know ourselves as we really are.

This week we have been thinking about beauty – how the asceticism (spiritual exercise) of Lent – awakens and refines our sense of beauty. Fear is the great enemy of beauty – perhaps because fear is the antithesis of love and we cannot perceive beauty without loving it. So, whenever we see the rise of a politics of fear (and hatred is always hidden in fear), we should sound the alarm, because it spells the desecration of the beauty of life and, with it, the innocence, the readiness to be taken by surprise, the childlikeness that is our way – however imperfectly followed – to the fullness and meaning  of our short human life.

With Love

Laurence

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