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.

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