Thursday Lent Week Five

6e80ebc4-588d-41d4-837d-62193a08ca6e

I went recently to hear a talk, at the launch of her new book, by a friend of mine who lives in a small village in East Anglia. Rosamond Richardson has written several books about the countryside, on the cultural history of wild flowers and trees and about food. She loves to walk. She writes from a place you trust and would like to know better. Her talk was about birds and meditation, though she never mentioned meditation.

Surprisingly, it was only recently that she discovered the world of birds. During a time of personal pain this new world brought her an expansion of awareness, a new relationship with the natural world (that Aquinas said is the ‘primary and most perfect revelation of the divine’) and with a new source of healing. As a true herbalist will tell you, if you know anything about nature, you will always discover more about how nature itself is the source of health.

Rosamond’s new book, my recommendation for the last week of Lent especially for those who feel they have had too much religion, is ‘Waiting for the Albino Dunnock: How Birds Can Change your Life’.

Her writing about the countryside and the bird world she has discovered there conveys to us, her readers, more of the full experience of creation than any TV wildlife documentary. It shows how words are more powerful than a thousand pictures, though in our media-frenzied world we believe the opposite. She is, as she confesses, a busy and curiosity-driven personality. She took up running. But birds introduced her to contemplative walking and to the joys of still, patient, silent waiting.

In her talk I learned that the verb ‘to saunter’, meaning to walk in a slow, relaxed manner, to stroll or amble, derives from the French ‘sainte terre’ or ‘holy land’. The pilgrims who walked to the Holy Land to visit the sacred sites where Jesus lived, taught, suffered and died, sauntered there. They didn’t go to Gatwick or Newark and shop, drink and consume while waiting for the over-packed plane. Then take a bus waiting at the next airport to the hotel. They sauntered. The burgeoning number of modern pilgrims on the Camino to Compostella, whom we hope to welcome soon at Bonnevaux which is on that ancient way, are rediscovering this.

Everything in modern culture is about speeding up. This has many advantages, of course. But we lose much in the process. Slowing down opens up. Discovering Nightjars taught Rosamond this. They are nocturnally active birds with a vast range of dramatic song. Sound-recordists have analysed nineteen hundred notes to the minute, showing how limited is our human hearing. Visually too: ‘Unearthly his streamlined beauty, a bird the size of a small hawk, spectral, elegant and mysterious.’

To walk slowly is not to stop. To be still is not to be unproductive or disconnected. Rosamond has learned much from Thoreau, the 19th century American radical naturalist who knew the spiritual value of walking, whose ancient wisdom is caught in the Latin adage ‘solvitur ambulando’ – roughly translated as: ‘sort it out by walking’.

So, if you need a new Lenten practice, try sauntering. If you feel too restless and stressed to meditate, go for a walk first. And to help you say the mantra, listen to the birds, morning and night.

With Love

Laurence

signature

Wednesday Lent Week Five

6e80ebc4-588d-41d4-837d-62193a08ca6e

As we come closer to Holy Week, I need to get something off my chest. It is my problem with religion, religious words, ritual, symbolism, belief. From childhood these things have been quite precious to me and frequently a source of deep enrichment. They have been, and still are, bridges from the surface of things to the deeper levels of reality. For me, they have been a way of avoiding the mundane horror of living on the surface, as if one were a stone skimming across the waves, before sinking like – well, like a stone. I feel a natural affinity with the language of religion. A life or world-view that ridicules or excludes it seems to me very incomplete. Attempts by twentieth-century totalitarian regimes to eradicate religion failed, as would attempts to ban music, art, or (as Plato wanted to do in his ideal world) poetry. Nevertheless, we should expose and avoid bad religion which is just as much a possibility as bad music or bad art. We won’t get here into how to decide what good and bad mean. Most people would agree that American TV evangelism that exploits the poor and promises favours from God in return for donations to the evangelist’s luxurious lifestyle is an example of bad religion. Or a religion that disrespects other religions.

Yet, Lent for me feels in some way a refreshing break from religiosity, a reduction in the dosage. The emphasis is on the desert rather than the church, silence rather than words, stillness rather than ritual. The monk’s life, as I quoted from St Benedict some weeks ago, is a perpetual Lent. I take it in this sense, not only walking the tightrope of moderation but not allowing religion to get out of proportion. For example, Benedict (who was not a priest) said that the work-tools of the monastery should be treated with the same reverence as the vessels of the altar. Religion should not be sequestrated, isolated from ordinary life. The sacred and the profane must merge in a religion centred on the Incarnation and the humanity of God.

This does not mean the desert monks or St Benedict were Quakers. A life without the Eucharist, for me, would feel like walking in the desert of life without manna. But it is a sacrament not magic, a sign of a reality whose source lies within us, not a way of manipulating things, or a compulsive activity. This is why the contemplative experience, as awakened by daily meditation, although threatening to some pious people, actually helps those who are put off by the church’s religiosity to reconnect to its symbolic life and language in a new way. You don’t need to be religious for meditation to lead you into the experience of contemplation. One can’t say that meditation will make you religious, in the conventional sense of becoming a regular church-goer; but it will reveal the true nature and meaning of religion.

Aquinas said that ‘creation is the primary and most perfect revelation of the divine’. To be in communion with nature is therefore a form of worship. Creation, the beautiful world, is the essential church. I came across this quotation from Aquinas in a book I would like to tell you about tomorrow. Not a book of Lenten readings, I hasten to add, but still a good book for Lent.

With Love

Laurence

signature

Tuesday Lent Week Five

6e80ebc4-588d-41d4-837d-62193a08ca6e

In the first of the readings for today we see the Israelites again finding the trek through the wilderness overwhelmingly tedious. They crave for variety and novel stimulation, just as they longed earlier to return to familiar food even at the cost of resuming the condition of slavery. If you know your addictions, you will easily recognise this recurrent tendency in the will.

In recompense for their inability to remain bored and so transcend their will, they got fiery serpents to bite them. It is a powerful symbol of what it is like being controlled by your desires. And again it is something we can all recognise, at gross or subtle levels. Woe to anyone who thinks they have complete mastery over themselves.

The second reading continues to expound the painful cry of Jesus in the wilderness of his relationships with those who contested and could not recognise him. These people personify the short-sightedness and bloody-mindedness of the resistance to the desert. It shows the conflict between their ignorance and his failure to communicate to them what he longed, with the eternal longing of the enlightened part of ourselves , to share completely. ‘I have shared with you everything I have learned from my Father,’ he tells his disciples on the eve of his death.

When his detractors ask him ‘who are you?’ they are stopping the flow in order to label the experience. To receive what he tries to share they would have to let go of the illusion of control, the modelling of reality, that is our worst addiction. It is one degree of poverty too far for them, as it is for us in life most of the time and in meditation much of the time. He cannot answer their question in their terms and remain truthful. He would have to lie to put it in a way that would satisfy them and feed their self-justification. So he keeps in the flow and responds by invoking the ‘one who sent him’, who is truthful and who has taught him everything that he wants to ‘declare to the world’

In this breakdown of communication and the beginning of hostilities that will lead to his death, he reveals a vast tenderness. Whether his Father has a long white beard and sits on a throne, or not, he is an ocean of truthful tenderness. It is accompanied by the ever-vulnerable gentleness of self-recognition that happens when we are absorbed in the truth, in beauty or in love. In God.

He is not trying to paste one label over another in a war of ideas. He is not trying to win, to control, to establish theological mastery. Confronted with the worst of religion (that hatefully denies God in God’s name), he abandons religion and all we can see is the burning luminosity of his spirit, his relationship to his source.

With Love

Laurence

signature

Monday Lent Week Five

6e80ebc4-588d-41d4-837d-62193a08ca6e

Machiavelli, the archetypical politician, said that the ‘most difficult thing is to change the order of things’. It is a typical western idea, a left-brain habit of mind, to assume that we should and could change things. It is the game of politics without wisdom that we are all disillusioned with by now. Somehow, though, we take it for granted that if we have a strong enough will, if we are clever and have a bit of luck, we can do anything. We can control things.

East and West today have met, crossed over each other several times and in many ways blended, at least for certain classes of society. But there remain some typical Eastern assumption and mind-sets that offer great challenges to the western mind. One of these is to allow oneself to be changed, into something better, by accepting the way things are going, going with the flow rather than changing the course of the river by explosives and heavy engineering. Being still rather than impulsively interfering. Being rather than doing.

Either approach carries a price. The activist, will-centred attempt to change the order of things can be frustrating and offer only short-lived victories. The contemplative approach demands a training of the mind and emotions through a continuous practice of attention. Change begins within before it affects the external world. The price for this is higher because the change involved is authentic and enduring. It demands a condition called pure prayer, of ‘complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.’

I was talking with someone recently who was facing this price. Someone had told him that when strong forces arise during meditation and stop you from saying the mantra, it was alright to choose to take the attention off the mantra. Or, if you are saying it and become blocked, you stop saying it, identify and name the distraction responsible before returning to the mantra. The advice of the school of meditation we follow advises us to simply say the mantra and return to it, not to stop to label the distraction.

If you don’t know what saying the mantra means (to see the mantra as a happy Lent), this distinction might seem like spiritual hair-splitting. In a way it is, the distinction is so fine. But, if you do know what the mantra is, you will see the point of the fine difference. You will sense its importance to the kind of practice and experience that meditation will be for you. I think it also makes a difference to the kind of change it produces.

I am not saying one way is good and the other evil. One should never diminish or disrespect another person’s practice. There are many tracks winding up the hill of truth. But I think it is important to see that complete simplicity means a shift of attention from the power of the fixed will to the power of the flow. To stop and resume the will’s work of labelling and naming is not the end of the world but it is a stopping of the train. Even when a train is slowed down it is still moving. There will be time enough, when you get to the next station (after the meditation period), to review what caused the slowdown. But again, don’t spend so much time doing this that you miss the train when it starts again.

Letting go of our ego-centric will in complete simplicity is the first, and continuously repeated, step of the journey. We are always setting out and once started , why stop?

With Love

Laurence

signature

Fifth Sunday of Lent

6e80ebc4-588d-41d4-837d-62193a08ca6e

Churchgoers today have another long gospel to stand through. The story of the healing of Lazarus in John (11:1-45) really needs to be sat down to appreciate its many rich layers. It describes the sudden death of a friend Jesus loved and his sharing in the grief of his two sisters, the active Martha and the contemplative Mary.

The story shows Jesus both at his most powerful and his most humanly vulnerable. He was gripped viscerally by the loss, deeper than words. We are told he gave a sigh that came straight from his heart. What can we say in the face of the disappearance of someone we love? We don’t know if they have evaporated into nothing or plunged into some deep level of reality that we are still too gross and unenlightened to penetrate. The feeling of being left behind evokes endless layers of pre-conscious memory. The wordless sigh expresses a pain of absence from which tears come. And we are told, in the shortest full verse in all the four gospels, that ‘Jesus wept.’

Some people include these potent two words in the repertoire of minor blasphemies that colour their speech when driving or mistakenly deleting an email. It might understandably be offensive to the pious, but it could also be seen as an invocation, however unconscious, of the empathy that Jesus has with suffering humanity. The tears of Jesus for Lazarus, we feel, arose not only from the personal anguish he felt at the loss of someone he loved but from his immersion in the whole ocean of human pain. When we hurt, we hurt with all those who are hurting or have ever hurt through both dimensions of time and space.

When Aeneas gazes at a mural depicting war scenes and the death of friends he is moved to say ‘There are tears in things and mortal things touch the mind.’ The tears of things. Our humanity is diminished if we cannot feel and honour them whenever and however we encounter suffering. Perhaps that is why we relish bad news, to make us feel that we can still feel even in the over-stimulated and distracted state of media culture.

This empathy or compassion form part of the deep news hidden in the ordinary, whether the breaking news feels good or bad. Tears are a wave of energy that brings healing and new life. After his descent into the silence of deep compassion Jesus ‘calls in a strong voice’:

‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’ The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’

Tears prove our attention to be real. Sustained attention heals; regenerates what is dead; warms what is cold. And it puts colour back into what has turned a lifeless grey.

With Love

Laurence

signature

Saturday Lent Week Four

Lent_week04

It’s a good bet that any time we turn on the news we will hear of an atrocity, a tragedy, a horrible accident or a crime that reflects the worst mutation of human nature. Ireland, I notice, is particularly fond in the daily news of car crashes and murders. These things happen and we should not be in denial about them. But if we are exposed to them so disproportionately in the media it must be either because the media are trying to depress us or because we derive some satisfaction or stimulation by hearing about them. The little scraps of good news items we are thrown at the end of the broadcast only highlight the overall gloom of existence on this planet.

It is hard to respond to the question, often asked by someone you haven’t met for a while, ‘so what’s been happening in your life?’. You start scanning and feel helpless. How and what do you select from the flow of events and impressions? How really interested would your questioner be in an answer that tries to represent the diversity of happenings, or in anything more than the usual evasive answer, ‘everything’s good, fine, thank you’.

It’s easy to feel that only big things and dramatic outcomes (good or bad) are worth talking about. There’s something in this, in fact, as talking of minutiae and trivialities or the small things that went wrong can be boring. ‘Well, yesterday I was making a cup of tea and turned on the kettle. It took ages to boil and then I realised I hadn’t shut the lid of the kettle properly. It has a new failsafe mechanism that won’t let the kettle work unless it’s tightly closed. Even saying ‘amazing’ won’t make that interesting. Boring is the really bad news.

We can also, however, experience liberating meaning, beauty and wonder in something generally deemed dull and ordinary. This is really good news. If you have been genuinely moved by a change in the weather, for example,  rather than seeing it as a sign of how uninteresting your life is, people will be grateful for you sharing such a discovery. The very English poet George Herbert shows this in his great poem The Flower:

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing

This is the kind of deep news found also in the great scriptures. What is amazing is how dull religious people can be in possession of such a treasure. Even if, for example, it happens to be wrapped, as in tomorrow’s gospel, in a miracle of healing, it’s not just the cure that is interesting. It’s how the cured person’s experience of life is changed and what they  do with the little extra time for living it gives them to see the depth dimension of the ordinary.

Lent should be attuning us to this kind of deep news that really makes us new.

With Love

Laurence

signature