For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was a stranger and you made me welcome….in prison and you visited me.
After his desert experience, not just ‘filled’ but overflowing with the Spirit, Jesus set out to do his work. Happy are we if we have found our work in life and if we see that our real work is not what we get paid or praised for. The Upanishads show how to recognise our true work, saying that whoever has found the ‘work of silence and knows that silence is work’ is happy. This work produces all the lasting fruits of our life and takes time. It also slowly penetrates the whole dimension of time we inhabit, helping the ego to let go. Then, it produces in a natural way, the fruit of wisdom in the unselfconsciously good deeds described in today’s parable. Goodness has no trace of ego.
The first known instrument for measuring time is an Egyptian sundial from 1500BC. Mechanical clocks appeared in the 13th century. Today we measure time with sub-atomic precision but the more precisely we measure it the less time we feel we have. It takes time to undo this self-entrapment. ‘Only through time, time is conquered.’ There is a moment when we know we are really seeing what meditation is about: when we see how absurd it is to begrudge the minimum twenty minutes twice a day by claiming we are too busy and too impatient to unhook from the stress of being time-dependent. The process of learning to meditate is universal but each of us has a unique way of living its pattern. Some dive in with two daily periods from day one, others slowly measure out the meditation time in teaspoons – five minutes a few days a week. Ultimately what matters is not how much we do or succeed but that we do – in physical fact not mental fiction – start to sit and be still and do the work of silence.
Sitting. Half-way between standing and lying down. You can meditate in any posture or activity but you will be very unusual in achieving this continuous state if you have not first learned to sit. Sitting still in a calm environment allows the mind to settle. At first we feel the opposite of settled: anxious, restless and confused confronting the pounding waves of mental and emotional agitation. We see how distracted we are but instinctively seek distraction from distraction by more distraction. Letting go of thoughts is the simple response for overcoming this reaction. But we confuse it with the goal of blanking out the mind and so feel we have failed if, after forty seconds, we are still distracted. So we then decide instead not to waste our time, do something useful and postpone meditation for another forty days.
In order not to surrender to distractedness, we need two things: encouragement that we can trust and that comes from outside ourselves; and genuine openness to something new and unimagined. As these take time, we need the virtue of what Japanese call gamon: perseverance, the determination to carry on against the headwind, enduring defeat with patience and dignity and so transforming failure into wisdom. When Japanese-Americans were interned during the war their fellow-American gaolers misinterpreted their gamon as passivity and lack of initiative. Similarly, today we can see the good work of meditation as unrealistic, replacing it with ‘well-being’ or relaxation. But we then miss the real fruit of the work of silence: the un-selfconsciousness of genuine compassion.
Read other Lent Reflections 2019: Week 1