Wednesday Lent Week Two


There is a tradition in the more exotic part of Christian ascetical tradition, from the good old days when ascetics meant business, of standing in icy water to cool off the passions while reciting the psalms. By passions, they meant not only the obvious carnal ones but generally all disordered and unbalanced habits or states of mind. Usually strict moderation seems to be the best way to re-set the system but, just as some countries use extreme austerity to improve the economy, so some individuals preferred cold nightlong baths.

There is another element in these stories, however, which make them less sensational and more significant. It is often described how someone tested the water the ascetics had just been standing in to see how cold it was and found it was in fact very warm. The energy of prayer had heated the water. This echoes the quite well-authenticated tales of Tibetan monks who sit in the Himalayas wrapped in cold wet blankets and heat them up by mental-physical power until they steam dry.

Most of us are a bit strange, if true be told, in ways that we normally don’t make public, so we should not be too quick to judge or ridicule those who like to do such things. Most people don’t want to invent and endure voluntary suffering of this kind even if it does develop self-control and personal training. Athletes might understand them better. But perhaps there is a lesson for the more conventional and, hopefully, more moderate among us as well.

It is the message that by acceptance, resilience and strong attention in the midst of difficult situations we can radically transform them. The discovery of a serious illness can evoke crippling fear of death but then lead through that fear to powerful love and produce compassion for others, in which the fear of death dissolves. A destructive addiction can threaten to wreck our life and then evolve into the discovery of inner freedom and joy. The most anguished sense of absence, as after the loss of someone we love, can gradually open like a flower into a new kind of intimate presence. And death can lead to resurrection.

More important then praying to have the unavoidable taken away from us – asking for a suspension of the laws of nature – is the prayer to endure and stay awake – what Lent is about.

And more important than that, as the great desert teachers advised, is to pray for the gift of true prayer itself.

We have, however, to learn to pray – just as we learn to walk or to talk

Tuesday Lent Week Two


It is possible to become as competitive and quantitative about spiritual things as about material pursuits. There are ascetical snobs just as there are successful people who regard social failures as inferior.

When I was making an extended retreat with Fr John and a small lay community, before I began my novitiate, a young guy came to stay for a few weeks fresh from the exotic ashrams and zendo of the East. He knew it all, had read everything and made us in the lay community feel rather provincial and amateurish. He looked in good physical shape, spoke sparingly, smiled rarely and sat in a posture with a stillness the Buddha might have envied. As if that was not enough he was (of course) vegetarian and abstained when on a special occasion we would have a glass of wine or beer.

Then one afternoon, when I had gone to the shops, I passed a restaurant and saw in the window our noble ascetic devouring a thick steak with a pint of beer and already eyeing the cream pastries near him. Looking back I can’t say for sure whether it was his sense of superiority or my sense of inferiority that made me so judgemental. A long time later, when I mentioned it to Fr John, he did not look surprised and clearly understood the young man better than the rest of us did. As my own self-expectations moderated I became less absolute about such things; and I think now he was probably just a genuine practitioner, not without an ego, who simply needed a day off and whom we had foolishly put on a pedestal.

Our harshness of judgement about others is invariably linked to our attitude to ourselves, to a sense of competitiveness or to the simmering shame of failure or of just not coming up to the mark. If we harm others we harm ourselves, whether we get caught or not. Similarly, if we judge others in a condemnatory way (we still need to be discerning about people) we cause anguish to ourselves. Judge not that ye be not judged.

Perhaps, at the root of the worst cases of political persecution or religious oppression of others, there is the infantile fear of ourselves not being approved by those whose approval we crave, even long after they have left our world.

What a relief and liberation it is, then, to discover in the spacious inner room of meditation that these mental and emotional games are fantastical. They are games that give us no delight and weave an ever-tightening bondage of spirit. As these games fade from our inner world we are set free and let out to play as children of God in the real world.

Monday Lent Week Two


The Orthodox Church, better than the Latin, but not as fully as Eastern spiritualities, remembers the importance of the body in one’s prayer-life. Especially in the monastic tradition, an awareness of the breath and the practice of bows and prostrations, some very similar to the homage to the sun asana in yoga, help to keep body and mind in sync. Perhaps any spiritually that is only at the mental level and only uses will-power and self-evaluation, will fail to bring the practitioner to a higher state of integration and peaceful ease with him or her self. One can never say often enough to westerners that the purpose of ascesis , such as what we have chosen to do or not to do during Lent, is not to punish but to purify.

Fasting (reducing one’s daily food intake) and abstaining from meat and stimulants (caffeine and alcohol) are also traditional physical practices found in all spiritual traditions. Sometimes beginning such a practice makes one aware that we are more addicted than we had realised, which is humbling and advances self-knowledge. In our time, dieting has replaced fasting, as tourism has replaced pilgrimage but they can be understood as the same things done for different motives. Motives are important to the quality and outcome of what we do. Maybe an ancient Syrian monk tried to bridge them when he said ‘try to be thin so you can pass through the narrow gate’. Jesus said few can get through it, overweight with attachments and anxieties as most of us are, although ‘nothing is impossible to God’.

Meditation itself is a fasting and abstaining. But, in daily life, attention to our physical intake helps to condition our meditation. Regular drowsiness, falling asleep and even certain kinds of distraction can be reduced by healthier nutrition. Today many people meditate to be healthier. The meditator eventually comes to see that we stay healthy in order to meditate.

Sleep and rest, too, are part of the natural rhythm of the body and mind. Many people today are sleep-deprived because they work late or watch movies or play games late and many continue their digital life even after they have got into bed. The monks of old, by contrast, used to recommend to consciously limit the hours of sleep and encouraged getting up in the dark hours before dawn to pray. As my head hits the pillow I usually give a sigh of relief and often remember Jesus saying he did not have anywhere to lay his head and am asleep before I apply it to myself. When people do get up in the early, still hours to pray they discover a special joy and calmness, a certainty that stabilises them for the whole day.

In the Song of Songs we find “I sleep but my heart is awake.’ If you fall asleep saying or listening to your mantra you may find you awake up doing so as well. With enough REM sleep you may find that you need less sleep but what you have refreshes you more. This helps the conscious and unconscious levels of the self to jangle with each other less during the day and so we may find we are both calmer and more intuitive.

Second Sunday of Lent


Today’s scripture readings show us many things. Firstly, how difficult it can be for Christianity to communicate itself today through the scriptures. Their stories, and metaphors often strike the modern mind as offensive or at the least ‘primitive’. Bede Griffiths thought there were only a few psalms suitable for Christian worship. Reading ‘happy the one who will seize and dash your infants against the rock’ makes anyone squirm and it needs a good lawyer to explain what edifying meaning it might have.

A defence is that such violence echoes the (hopefully) repressed cruelty and sadism sneaking in our own psyches. There are wild beasts lurking in the fresh and green pastures of our inner journey. Such passages may need to be de-selected for communal worship. Maybe we also need to see how the Word is present in diverse ways in the scriptures of other faiths and that we could to some degree incorporate them in Christian worship to better understand our own.

Be prepared: today’s readings are about sacrificing your child. Abraham has lifted his hand to plunge the sacrificial knife into his son Isaac when the angel of the Lord – who is the Lord – grabs his hand. A substitute victim is found in a ram. Abraham is applauded for not drawing the line at anything to prove his devotion to God. We can read this as a dramatic example of prohibiting human sacrifice which was common among the neighbouring tribes. It certainly shows how different the Israelites were and how this difference forced an evolving cultural description of their experience of God.

St Paul broke with this tradition when he found the Christ he had rejected to be dwelling in himself. But, in the second reading, we see how he still uses the old language: the old terms acquire new meaning but we cannot invent a new language even after radical conversion. For Paul, God ‘did not spare his own Son’ in order to benefit us. This expresses God’s absolute self-emptying; but it easily leads to an image of a God who uses violence to make things right again.

The gospel story of the Transfiguration of Jesus soars above all this. It is the iconic moment of Christian faith for the Orthodox church as the Cross is for the Western Church. Here we glimpse the blinding, unfathomable depth of the true identity of Jesus and of his filial relationship to the Source. But he also stands between, and so bridges, Moses and Elijah – the Law and the Prophets. The Law endorsed violence, the prophets denounced it. But they are twin expressions of a unique way of approaching the divine.

We need to think and discuss this issue of biblical violence – just as we need to address the violence against women and children in our ‘advanced’ societies, not to say in Syria or Parkland. But talking and thinking never end and can also lead to violence. We have to plunge into the truth, into the experience of pure light that burns away all shadows. Then we will find ourselves in the absolute intimacy that not only changes but transfigures us.

Saturday of Lent Week One


Exodus is the great scriptural metaphor for Lent:  the forty years of the Hebrew tribe’s wandering in the wilderness before they reached the Promised Land illuminates the forty days we spend preparing for the paschal mysteries – and they are mysteries – of Easter.

The eighty-year-old Moses was charged with the task of persuading the pharaoh to ‘let my people go’. Personally, he was, remarkably un-selfconfident for a national liberation leader and by his own account a very poor speaker; but he trusted and did what he was told by the Lord. His show of magical powers – turning a rod into snakes – did not impress the Egyptians who could do the same. A lesson in religious competitiveness. The ten plagues that the Lord then brought on Egypt varied from turning the Nile into blood, to a plague of lice, another of flies and finally, most horrifically, the death of every first-born child. Finally the pharaoh relented and let them go; then he repented of his decision and tried to bring them back but as a consequence suffered the loss of his army in the Red Sea. This the founding myth of Israel was constructed – a combination of persecution and reaction and bad relations with all their neighbours.

It is neither, at first, very edifying nor very historical. There is no record of this event in contemporary sources. Most modern people, unaccustomed to the mythical and allegorical way of reading ‘history’ find this representation of God either disturbing or absurd. It is not easy to defend except as part of an evolving discovery of the nature of God that takes place throughout the Bible. In Jewish faith this culminates in the prophets (they met a God of peace and justice who says “what I want is mercy not sacrifice”). For the Christian it culminates in Jesus, the prophet who in all ways unites God and humanity.

As long as we feel dis-united from God we will be victims of our own imagination. Bad events will be interpreted as punishment for crimes – consciously or unconsciously committed. Good events will be seen as rewards and signs that we are more favoured than others. Either of these responses is disastrous to our relationship with God  (‘relationship’ should also be seen as a metaphor) and our relationships with others – especially those who hold beliefs different from our own.

So we need to read Exodus with a  contemplative mind, feeling our way below the surface to the deeper, subcutaneous level of meaning and its interaction with our own experience. Then the plagues might appear less as cruel punishments of an angry God and more as illustrations of the sufferings in life that form part of our awakening and liberation. Maybe the secret of the story – yet to be realised in Middle-Eastern politics – is that both sides in this story of human hostility are in fact, in relation to God, on the same side and that each has a lot to learn.

Friday of Lent Week One


John Main once said (with Irish humour: monks, don’t take it too personally) that he had never met more egotists than in monasteries.

This is the point he was making. There are two dangers about monasteries. A monk might be very serious about self-transformation and his spiritual practice but also be focused on it in such a way that nothing and no one will get in the way of his direct path to enlightenment. Usually this is manifest in a hyper-critical attitude to those of his brethren who appear less rigorous – a kind of spiritual snobbery. The other danger is illustrated in the monk who enters the cloister with the purpose of escaping any challenging association with others rather than to find himself in others. An early Christian monk defined a monk as someone who sees himself in others and others in himself. This hyper-introverted type, self-centred type of person will use monastic routine for insulation rather than encounter.

Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, spoke recently about ‘Leadership and Values’ at a Meditatio Seminar in London. He enumerated some of the ideal qualities of leaders and the values they embodied, recognizing (as with the figure of the Abbot in the Rule of St Benedict) that it is unlikely to happen that all this will be combined in one person at the same time. Governor Carney’s guiding principle, however, was the value of purpose. A leader needs a clear purpose – and the right purpose is always other-centred.

All this can only be relevant to us if, in some sense, we are all monks and we are all leaders. According to the Rule, the monk is someone who ‘truly seeks God’.  Isn’t that what a serious meditator does, with deepening renunciation, as her journey progresses and transformation takes effect? Your image of God might not be anyone else’s and you may prefer to articulate it outside religious language. But, at the essential level, the experience of meditation is the experience of God – of love, wholeness and universal connection.

And we are all leaders – to children, for example, who watch us closely and imitate us. Even those who do the humblest service to the world – toilet attendants, street cleaners – can show real qualities of leadership and service in the way they work with their colleagues and relate to the public.

But we are also leaders to ourselves. Lent is a time when we do something extra and give up something familiar. Where is this decision made? How is it made? What is its motivation? Its source is in that subtle part of our own mind-heart mix that sees clearly and gives us a sense of purpose. It is not a rival or competitive part of our selves but the unifying, healing energy of ourselves that we call spirit.

Does it make us more or less egocentric? Or do we feel that the real purpose of our spiritual practice is actually direct service to others? Whatever fruits and benefits it might bring us are then dedicated to the well-being of the world. As we are also part of the world, we get our fair share of those benefits provided our guiding purpose is other-centred.

Thursday of Lent Week One


A cardiac surgeon in a group I was once introducing to meditation asked me to stop using the word ‘heart’ in my talks. He said it was distracting him with thoughts of his work and also, he added, in all his operations he had never seen anything in the heart that looked remotely spiritual.

At least it made him think. Many people when they hear the word heart used non-anatomically associate it with feelings and emotions. This is closer to the meaning of the word than the doctor’s materialist response. Emotions are indeed ‘felt’ in the chest area: we say we feel heart-broken or that our ‘heart drops’ for reasons that might be connected to a link between the emotion centre of our brain and this region of our body. That may explain something of interest but not much. Love, interestingly, is said to be ‘felt’ throughout our body.

We can’t reduce feelings or emotions to the central nervous system. The heart is a spiritual symbol of the personal centre of conscious awareness and core identity. All the physical, mental and most subtle dimensions of human being converge and resolve in this centre of simple, abiding wholeness. We are our heart.

When we meditate we need to be prepared for different waves and kinds of feelings at different times. At first we may feel basic restlessness and itchy feet. It just seems impossible to sit still and do nothing in this unfamiliar posture for twenty or thirty minutes. Many struggle with even twenty seconds. Later, after our capacity has increased, we may feel a wave of anger directed at others or ourselves, or shame, or lust or greed, or a profound sadness and sense of loss. Feelings of nothingness and being dragged down into meaninglessness may be the worst we have to endure.

Meditation does not repress, deny or ignore these feelings. It is good they arise and are consciously felt. They come from somewhere and it is better they are outed. If we can sit through them we are calmer, freer and gentler with ourselves. In this sense meditation purifies our emotions by allowing these under-assimilated memories and associations to resolve and release their energy for better use.  It is not the heart that produces these feelings, however. Rather, it offers us the still centre, the stable core of conscious awareness and attention that allows us to ride the waves, however stormy, and approach closer to the depth of being where pure consciousness, calm and clarity reveal a feeling beyond feeling and an emotion beyond emotion that we call the love of God.

Compassion and love are more than feelings: they may be associated with any feeling depending on circumstances and personal character. They flow effortlessly out of our true nature if they are not blocked by negative forces within ourselves. We cannot control or manufacture them because we are them.

The mantra – and our small daily practices of personal discipline and generosity to others – is our surfboard to this harbor of peace.