Forty is the biblical number that symbolises an extended period of time during which a process of transformation is completed. We have not finished the whole journey after this period of time but we are prepared to embark on a new and possibly quite different phase.
Most of our long-term commitments – in marriage, parenthood, in any long work undertake or in monastic life – will take us through this cycle of transformation and bring us to moments of transitional completion. The whole process includes long periods where there is a combination of daily repetition and self-renewing acts of fidelity leading at unpredictable times to total surprises. Growth is a series of forms of completion that we could never have imagined and that, when they come to pass, re-write the plot line of our lives. It is better not to fast-forward or skip to the end of the book because we miss a lot of the meaning of the story.
Each meditation is a microcosm of this forty-day process: of exodus, purposeful wandering and arrival at a promised land, which then sets us a new set of challenges and points of departure.
Perseverance is essential. We need to identify and dismiss the siren voices of frustration or desperation that urge us to turn back. The Israelites in the desert longed for the food they had left behind in Egypt, having got bored with the miraculous manna and quails that fell from the heavens every day to sustain them. Everything, even miracles, can eventually become mundane when we begin to crave variety or the imagined security of the past.
But after a while perseverance can become an unattractive idea as our desire to take a new route or spice up our routines gets overwhelming. Then we need to see that it not all just a mechanical repetition we are committed to but a faithful repetition. It could be boring to get the children fed and off to school every morning but not if it is done in love and for love. Love transforms boredom into quiet wonder. Meditation is a work of love built into the daily routines of life.
A young meditator told me recently that he liked the boredom of meditation and he felt that his generation had been deprived of the value of boredom by the continuous stimulation and diversions of their lifestyle. I got what he was saying but I wouldn’t put it like that. I can’t say I have ever found meditation boring – often difficult and tempted to skip, it but never boring. There is always a surprise even if it comes after the meditation when you realise what a bad idea it would have been to miss it.
There is a subtle level of perception which faith awakens that allows us to know something new – that perseverance, faithfulness has a meaning and constructive purpose which though we cannot quite put our finger on and describe is more real than the greener grass we imagine on the other side of today.