First Sunday of Lent


The readings in the Mass today give a lot of food for thought about the way of meditation or any spiritual practice that takes us deeper than thought. They also remind us – as the spirit of Lent is meant to do – to desire the right kind of food, healthy food and the food by which we truly live.

The first reading is the story, the myth found in many ancient cultures, of the Great Flood. To the modern imagination it is rather comical because we look at things factually and miss the mythical meaning; and so we see the story of Noah as a kind of cartoon. Yet when you give it a chance and sit with it for a while it speaks much more resonantly to us. Who has not at times experienced an inundation in their life – of loss, grief, suffering or major disappointment of hopes? We would not be able to nod in reply if we had not also found an ark that enabled us to get through it with enough to start again.

And, let us hope, we also saw the colourful bow in the sky that became a sign that we could always be resilient in the future. The sunlight shining through raindrops revealing the distinct, colourful beauties of the part of the spectrum of light that we can see and suggesting more of the beauty that is out of our present range of perception.

In the second reading, the waters of the Flood remind Peter of baptismal initiation into relationship with Christ. The deepest relationships of our lives often begin when we are in crisis and grow deeper over the years through adversity. We are baptised into every meaningful relationship. As Christ grows in us and we grow in Christ, we understand better what Peter means by saying that he ‘preaches to the spirits in prison’. Those parts of us swept safely away from sight, as we do with criminals we fear, begin to hear a new message that make us aware they are prisons of our own making.

The gospel is taken from Mark, who is the least wordy and most direct of the gospel narrators. He simply tells us that the ‘Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days and was tempted by Satan”. That is enough of a metaphor to work with to understand our own Lent. “He was with the wild beasts and the angels looked after him”.

What are your wild beasts? And who or what looks after you?

Afterwards, Jesus proclaimed the Good News which he had heard in the desert silence. It is compressed in an easily remembered campaign slogan: “The time has come and the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good News”.

What do you feel – excitement or fear or both – on hearing that the “time has come”?

Time for what?

Saturday after Ash Wednesday


Hunger for power, in any of its multiple forms, domestic, sexual or political, is perhaps the deepest human craving. If we so often feel dissatisfied and restless it is because this hunger conflicts so directly with our hunger for love. Power as we imagine it – possession, domination and control – is irreconcilable with love. The conflict between them accounts for much of interior human suffering.

Love is the real power. Everything else is eventually exposed as a kind of substitute. Love may be missing in our life or our capacity for love may be chronically damaged. When this is this case we seek alternatives, false gods to worship in place of persons to love, positions, possessions or projects. No doubt many great works of art and political achievements have resulted from this transference from love to power, born from deep, unsatisfied human longing. These may have incidentally brought much joy and many benefits to others.  But equally, this dysfunction in the human soul has caused immeasurable social disruption and often triggers huge regressions in the path of human evolution.

The lonely tyrant, in any field of human endeavour, may be ruthlessly cruel in the process of acquiring and holding onto power. At the same time they reveal – especially as power drains away from them – the pathos of loneliness caused by the transfer of our attention to a false god. If we witness the last moments of a tyrant’s fall from power – whether in a family or on the stage of global politics – and see their pride and prejudice crumble, revealing a vulnerable and neglected child; and if we then feel only a cruel glee at their humiliation, we are showing ourselves to be likely addicted to false power as much as they were.

The narrative of Lent unfolding in scripture and liturgy builds up to the most intense and transformative story every told and passed down the generations. Over the three days of the paschal mystery the falseness of the power-lust is stripped away. Innocence not tyranny is humiliated and rejected. But extreme vulnerability, like the sun breaking through dark clouds, reveals the one and only true power to be the divinity of love,.

Easter is an amazing, annual opportunity to reset our lives on the axis of true priorities. It displays in heroic but simple terms the meaning of love on a cosmic, not an egotistically romantic, scale. Because of Easter bunnies and public holidays celebrating nothing, this opportunity is barely even recognised let alone embraced.

That is why we train in Lent for the three day marathon of the Triduum. What we are doing or not doing during this training, what we take on or what we give up, have meaning beyond themselves.

Friday after Ash Wednesday


The successive days of Lent – like a good addict just taking it day by day – are an opportunity to become clearer about our lives, their functioning or dys-functionality and also their greater meaning. If this happens during these forty (or forty-six) days it will feel more by accident than will-power. We do however need to prepare ourselves for the accident and to be surprised.

Clarity and obscurity, however, are never far from each other. We are never clear about everything, except perhaps sometimes in a deep dream where all things may appear for a timeless flash of eternity-as-a-whole and beautifully connected in a cosmic order that fills us for a moment with wonder and huge relief:  a homecoming where we no longer need to think or worry or plan any more.

But most of the time, some things, or some angles of the same thing, are crystal clear while others are simultaneously as murky as the lake of Bonnevaux after heavy rain. Naturally we prefer to take refuge in the few clear patches of our perspective on the whole picture. Nor are these to be disregarded. But in fact it may well be the unclear things – the fog of life – which are more significant. In any case, we must account for and equally respect both the clear and the obscure.

This helps us to deal with the problems of moral obscurity, when we are not sure what to do or what is right or wrong. Few things and even fewer judgements about things are simply black and white. Motives – and human character itself – are often mixed or weak and unstable. The good can morph into the bad and the dark can suddenly surprise us with astounding brilliance. Living with this oscillation between good and bad (as we see them) is at times a little messy and irrational. But at least it defuses the worst viruses of prejudice, racism, intolerance and many of the other stupidities that cause such extreme misery.

Lent – by this I mean the daily Lent of our morning and evening meditation and the moment by moment Lent of the mantra – help us to stay on the middle path. It leads us securely through the patches of obscurity and helps us to avoid falling into the abyss of the great darkness, which is also the greatest superficiality and waste of time and always what we should fear most.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday


Askeo – which gives us the word ascetic – originally meant training for war but was also used to describe athletic training. A well-trained soldier who rapes and pillages or an athlete who cheats (or a businessman who acts unethically) betray the deeper purpose of their work however good they may be at it. In the same way, mindfulness used to train snipers or improve a currency trader’s performance misses the broader meaning. The larger context of the exercise has been lost and replaced by a view that is narrow and self-centred.

Whatever we do without respect for its deeper meaning turns to wormwood. But even bitter things gone through with faith in their final meaning turn sweet.

Nearly everything in the materialistic scheme of values that dominates life today becomes instrumentalised, turned into a technique which self-interest controls. People sometimes say ‘I’m really glad to have found meditation and I’m going to use it as a tool for balancing my life’. Anyway, this attitude is a beginning, a rather primitive start to understanding what asceticism means and what it is you are really being trained for. We start from where we are.

Good spiritual training reduces this attitude by achieving, quite naturally, the balance and harmony we seek. Then we notice them by surprise. These and many more benefits appear without our trying too hard to force their arrival. A lucid mind, greater and more selfless awareness, a more comprehensive ability to pay attention to others, a heart open to beauty and tenderness, to the joy in natural things and to a reduction in the compulsiveness of desire – these are fruits of the kind of asceticism we are beginning now in the lean, clean days of Lent. Some effort is needed to start, some will is called for to re-start when you fall by the wayside.

But grace is a bigger player in the process than willpower.

Where grace is allowed to enter and when it is welcomed, a sense of gift in everything will follow, subtly wound up with the wonderful ability to once again be genuinely surprised.

Turning everything into a tool, controlling all the outcomes, evaluating the results compared with the investment you are making are all eventually going to fail. Failure can be liberation from deception and a breakthrough into greater reality. But it is never easy to undergo the wrecking of your plans or the wasting of the spirit of joy that makes everything worthwhile. Asceticism helps here.

Ascetical training is not just for Lent then. The mantra is a continuous interior Lent and leads to a deeper spontaneity and sense of freshness in ordinary daily life. Prayer is the essential ascesis of the spiritual life. What you do and what you give up during the Lent cycle re-sharpens the edge of the knife that our spirit uses to cut through the dross that built up when we weren’t looking.

Ash Wednesday


We start a 46-day journey to Easter Sunday today. Traditionally we do something extra or give up something for 40 of these days. We might skip the six Sundays as these, traditionally, are days off, given to relaxing the discipline in order to remember an essential fact that we should not forget during Lent: that we have already arrived at where we are going.

Any spiritual practice is about realising reality, not making it happen. Although, of course, the process and stages of realisation are also a kind of happening.

Resurrection has happened or else we would not be observing Lent. We observe Lent not to make Resurrection happen, certainly not to make life hard for ourselves because of what we have done wrong (and will probably continue to do for the foreseeable future). Lent reduces the miasma of ignorance that bedevils our ability to live life to the fullest: it helps us to perceive clearly, to get priorities right, to restore balance where we have lost it.

I used to be more puritanical and think that I should keep up even on Sundays whatever practice I had chosen; usually as a child it was giving up pleasures like sweets or as an adult a pleasure like alcohol or movies. Today I am a bit more relaxed about it and forgiving of myself. If I keep the practice on Sundays it would be because I feel it is doing me good and so (in a healthy way) I am discovering the different kind of pleasure found through experiencing freedom and simplification.

I would suggest – if you haven’t already done so – to decide what you want to do and what you don’t want to do during the next 46 (or 40) days. The principles in choosing are, for example: Does what I abstain from and what I undertake respect and advance the healthy integration of mind, body and spirit? Is my Lenten practice an affirmation of goodness, not a punishment for weakness? Will it reduce addiction and moderate desire? Will it remind me of how time can be better spent and less wasted? Will it help to show me that behind my faults and bad patterns there is always something good that can be restored to health?

You could use Lent, for example, to start meditating (in which case would you skip it on Sundays?) To make the time for it you can give up something like Netflix bingeing or aimless surfing or gaming. For the meditator you can start meditating again as if for the first time and recover the fresh wonder of when this gift first entered your life. You could ensure that you do both the sessions, morning and evening (including Sundays, when you might also do a third). And you might be more conscious of controlling daydreaming – and, on things or people of apparently small account, bestow a generous bonus of pure attention.

I hope these daily readings will help me to keep this focus and find this deeper freedom and joy. If they do, they may also, I hope, be of some value to you on this journey we start together today.