Thursday Lent week Two: Luke 16:19-31

 

‘There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even came and licked his sores.’

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Sea of Galilee

Our material, physical well-being is a sensitive issue. We feel it every time we pass a beggar in the subway or street. Aware of our privilege, for a moment, we forget our normal complaints and problems: it could all be much worse, we think. If we keep the thought for more than a few seconds we might consider the not impossible scenario in which our roles could be reversed. The mighty are sometimes pulled down from their thrones. But then we think, do we give something? Why are we really doing it? Who are we being kind to? Does this brief encounter with the other side of society have lasting impact on our way of living, our lived values?

Once on a lovely summer day I came out of a building into bright sunlight. Everyone was looking happy. Even the young man sitting on the pavement with his hand out. Our eyes met and without thinking I said, ‘what a lovely day’. He nodded enthusiastically and said, ‘yes fantastic…hope it lasts.’ It was a momentary confusion of roles but still part of the lovely day.

In today’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus we hear of ‘a great gulf (that) has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.’ It refers to the karmic consequences of self-isolation, being so preoccupied with improving or protecting our own well-being that we, in effect, wilfully ignore the opportunity to improve the condition of those in greater need or even to simply relate to them. The ‘great gulf’ in the karmic (afterlife) realm is visible and tangible every day to those who have a minimum of sensitivity. It is a major cause of the instability and turmoil of the modern world – the protest of the humiliated. ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ Jesus said but the size of the gulf has become our big issue.

In our Lenten practice – giving something up and doing something extra – we hope to re-sensitise ourselves to reality. Unfortunately, we tend to be selective about the aspects of reality we recognise and relate to. Some bits we highlight and enjoy. Others we deny or choose to forget: ‘deliberate hebetude’ (choosing not to see) is a phrase of TS Eliot’s that exposes our mind games and exposes the fragility of any false peace built upon it: The serenity only a deliberate hebetude, The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets. Useless in the darkness into which they peered. Or from which they turned their eyes.

We cannot be selective about reality without compromising everything. Essentially the ‘holiness’ we aim for in Lent is not a moral virtue but a matter of perception, how we see the whole we belong to. And saving ourselves is not about avoiding the punishment of eternal hell-fire but saving time now. (Springtime begins today).

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Wednesday Lent Week Two: Matthew 20: 17-28

 

‘You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you.

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Sea of Galilee

The gospel imagines. It summons up before us a new, extraordinary vision of humanity and society. If we don’t feel a bit confounded by this we haven’t imagined it. It perplexes us because it sounds both absolutely right and yet highly improbable ever to be realised. Even if it is unrealistic, if we reject it, we are diminishing ourselves. Are you serious? A world order in which those who hold power genuinely act as servants, where they love people not lust after power? Among other things, Lent is an opportunity for us all to audit our ways of using any power we have and review our sense of service to those who have none 

We cannot begin to imagine at this level unless we have been pulled up short by the limits of what we can see and understand. Religion is about doing this. Confronting us with questions not ramming answers into our heads. This is why the great religious geniuses had the genius of simplicity and make us gasp with wonder rather than just cheer at victory. Take the parables of the Kingdom for example.

The reign of God is like someone who found a treasure buried in a field. She buried it again and for sheer joy went and sold everything she had and bought the field. Thirty-three simple words describing a clear sequence of events that can keep a group of intelligent people talking for hours and come back the next day for more. To interpret the multiple meanings in the elements of this passage is to expose yourself and, if you are willing, to know yourself better than before. Why did the person bury the treasure again? (To prevent others from knowing about it. To keep it safe. Because it belongs in the field. Because she wanted others to come and enjoy it. Because it needs to be there to grow) Why did she feel such joy? Why did the joy lead to the recklessness of selling everything? What does ‘buying’ the field mean? Are some answers right and some wrong? Are some more right or wrong than others?

After morning meditation we jump up and go into the world with an open mind, not to impose pre-set answers on every situation, forcefully converting others to our view, but feeling for the truth with a questing, spiritual intelligence. By the evening, interiorly more dishevelled than we were in the morning, we sit down and let the inner space tidy up, not just evaluating the day as good or bad but testing its meanings. In this rhythm, we replenish the power of Imagination and restrain the perennial tendency of Fantasy to lead us astray.

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Tuesday Lent Week Two: Luke 2:41-51

 

‘Why were you looking for me?’ he replied. ‘Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?’ But they did not understand what he meant.

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Sea of Galilee

There’s still a lot about what Jesus said that we don’t understand. We can cope with this failure by i) thinking he is not saying anything relevant to us because we don’t like being brought up against the limits of our understanding. Or, ii) we reduce his meaning to what we can handle easily – ignoring the deeper spiritual sense by settling for a black and white moralistic message. Whichever of these approaches we take towards the spiritual dimension will be reflected in how we find meaning in the events of our lives.

A few days ago a white supremacist rampaged in a quiet civilised city in a decent socially responsible country and committed an appallingly insane massacre of God-fearing men and women at prayer. For a while the whole world feels one, one with the families of the victims and all the people of Christchurch and New Zealand in their traumatised grief. Once again, we are reminded by an outburst of inhuman hatred of the need to affirm the common ground of humanity. We remember that what unites is more meaningful than what separates. Then, somehow – this is the paradox – the worst evokes the best.

Darkness can invade and flood the human being, singly or en masse. We call it dark because it produces behaviour that makes us want to close our eyes. We would prefer not to see it. It is darkness become visible and the demonic become tangible: a nightmare. Worse still, it demeans humanity everywhere. Just as heroic virtue or holiness lifts our self-esteem by reminding us what we are capable of, so inhumanity makes us question if perhaps we really don’t possess buddha nature, we’re not created in God’s image, we cannot be ‘other Christs’.

Unless we choose to see otherwise. ‘Seeing the darkness’ implies the presence of some dark, invisible light. We cannot see without light because seeing – consciousness – is light. Just as the universe is suffused with a mysterious dark energy that we do not understand, so a certain kind of light that we cannot understand shines in the densest darkness and the dark cannot quench it.

If we hate those who hate us what reward can we expect other than an escalation of hatred, the orgy of self-destruction that eventually concludes every triumph of evil? When people at prayer are mown down by a madman, the innocent imprisoned or the poor routinely exploited we should feel the pure anger of prophets. But if this anger leads to deeper hatred and violence the darkness merely thickens. When in the short formal remand ritual, the judge called the arrested man ‘Mr’, he refused to dehumanise even people who deny the humanity of others. The light shines in darkness. We see, through tears, how evil’s triumph can be reversed by humanising forgiveness, the ultimate winning card.

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Monday Lent Week Two: Luke 6:36-38

 

Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.’

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Sea of Galilee

Yesterday we reflected on the physical transformation that accompanies deep spiritual reality. This has more meaning than the thickening of the brain’s grey matter observed by scientists studying regular meditators. The gospel links this flooding of the spiritual into the physical to compassion – ‘be compassionate as God is compassionate’. This is what triggers the overflow. Nothing could more pervert this than the ‘prosperity gospel’ of rewards and punishments that seduces so many today by linking it to opportunistic greed in a financial transaction. (‘Send a donation to the preacher and God will double it for you.’)

I was once visiting Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta. The beds were all occupied, and the overflow of suffering individuals covered the floors. The Missionaries of Charity ran a compassionate but efficient and immaculately clean operation. One of them asked me briskly to go over to a very slight body, whether male or female you couldn’t tell, lying on the ground with its back to us and give a blessing. When I knelt down, I saw the thinnest of young men and by his stillness I assumed he was already dead. I touched his shoulder and was shocked when he moved and with surprising quickness turned towards me. He lifted himself on his thin arm and looked into me with wide-open eyes filled with bliss. I weakly wondered for a moment if I had distracted him from what he was contemplating. But he was undistractible. It was I who had been blessed as his look penetrated through the walls of our distinct identities and brought me momentarily into the vision.

St Augustine says that the vision of God, which is the goal of human destiny, does not consist in watching God as a separate being at a great distance. This is the image we see in many old paintings, the hierarchy of human society repeated in heaven with the haves sitting in the best seats up front and the rest in receding importance behind them. Instead, Augustine says, the vision consists in turning towards each other and looking into each other’s eyes where we see God. That produces in us a bliss which the other perceives and understands better because they have seen it in our reflected look. That makes them more blissful which increases our happiness – and so on until forever.

The ‘giving’ in the quote above is unquantifiable. To quantify it is to fail. But the proportionality is real. The more we give the more we receive until we fall over the waterfall in a cascade of joy. It lasts until we start to wonder how long it will last and if we could lose it.

Compassion, like goodness, is not rewarded. It releases and is the reward, the flowering in unbounded generosity, of itself. It begins with a mutual look and goes forward  into infinite feedback .

So, perhaps, Lenten practice for today: make and hold eye contact without fear.

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Second Sunday of Lent: Luke 9: 28-36

 

As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning.

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Sea of Galilee

Some years ago, a very discontented young woman used to come regularly to our meditation centre in London. She looked resolutely on the dark side of life, habitually focusing on everything she lacked rather than on the positive side. She was hyper-sensitive, reactive and everyone trod very carefully with her. One day she told us – as if it was proof of her long-held conviction that the universe was determined to get her – that she had been diagnosed with an aggressive and terminal cancer. Over the next few months she continued to come to the centre and meditate with us and some members of our community in particular showed her great kindness and patience. Her bitterness in life increased but at least she didn’t wholly reject the patience and compassion she was shown. We helped her find a place to end her days. When she was taken into hospice care we used to visit her.

One Sunday after our community mass I took her communion in hospital. She looked terrible and her pinched expression held a lot of anger. When I said I had brought communion she grimaced unpleasantly and said ‘well that won’t do me much good will it? No thanks.’ But she said she would like me to sit with her a while. We chatted a little as she complained how some celebrity of the moment who had a notorious life style was revealing in fame and success. She, by contrast, had been ‘good’ all her life, obeyed the commandments and ended up like this alone and dying young. I listened. She then took out a notebook, looked at me and asked if I would like to read her poems. I dishonestly said yes and looked in the book but couldn’t read her handwriting so I asked her if she would read them to me.

She began to read a poem called ‘whale-song’ describing the songs that whales sing to each other across vast distances deep in the oceans. It was true and deeply moving, rendering her intense lonely suffering into words of beauty. She sang herself beyond herself. She shot me a quick look to see how I was reacting and saw I was moved. In that instant she too, like Jesus on the mountain in today’s gospel, was physically transfigured. Her thin emaciated face radiated beauty and a kind of glory. Her eyes shone joyously with a vision of a reality beyond the veil of flesh and its attendant woes. It was brief but timeless. She had had her communion after all. Soon her normal expression descended again, though more thinly now. She died a few days later.

Pure prayer flows in the human heart deeper than words and thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it breaks the surface and the body itself thrills and is physically changed. This season’s spiritual practices remind us that the body is an instrument and a sacrament. It doesn’t play this music every day.  But you never know.

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Saturday of Lent Week One: Matthew 5:43-48

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He causes his sun to shine on good and bad alike and his rain to fall on the honest and dishonest alike.

The idea that God doesn’t and cannot punish can be very offensive to some people. It challenges a widely accepted idea of justice in which wrongdoers should pay for their crimes and the good be rewarded. It upsets their view of the universe as a morally coherent system in which good and bad are in perpetual conflict. The truth is far more simple than that.

The fault lines among religious people run along this divide. A godly world of reward and punishment reinforces the security of those whose religion plays a big role in their life-insurance policy and need for safety. Everything is clear and simple in this dimension but it comes to depend upon a scaffolding of definitions, rules and rituals to keep this world-view standing. In this dimension, excluding other people on the margins, followers of other faiths, and sexual minorities makes you feel safer. In extremes this kind of religious dimension resolutely blocks out all trace of the free and living Spirit of God – like the Christian faith that blessed apartheid and napalm bombs and turned  a blind eye to the holocaust. Shake the scaffolding and it may seem as if the whole building will collapse. If they catch you shaking it, watch out. The vision of God that Jesus embodies, and Lent helps us find, is more challenging but less obviously secure. 

I hope that by now you will have failed enough in keeping Lent to be able to see through this two-dimensional state of mind to which we all are at least partially attached. It thinks that God is like us whereas the gospel sees human destiny as becoming like God. There is an important difference in perspective here. To embrace the more challenging reality of a multi-dimensional universe we need to puncture in several places our self-righteousness and confidence of being on the right side. Each puncture, each failure in life is potentially a window onto this more expansive and inclusive view of reality, an escape route from the harsh conditions of the prison of fundamentalism and duality.

But doesn’t the Bible show us a God punishing the wicked (even sometimes a little excessively perhaps)? And doesn’t Jesus also speak on occasions about the bad being cast out into a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth? How to square this circle? Looked at impersonally the universe is a system in which the law of karma rules: good deeds produce good results, bad deeds you pay for. But wake up more, seeing yourself in a universe pervaded by the spiritual dimension, the mind of God. You then see a higher law than karma. 

This is the ultimate dimension of love, to which we can – for all our failings, perhaps because of our failings – awaken. Karma and love co-exist but karma dissolves on conscious contact with love. Does the father of the Prodigal Son punish? Can he? We expand into this greater dimension through loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, turning the other cheek. All the idealistic, impossible things that we are incapable of doing, unless we become ‘like God’.

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Friday Lent Week One: Matthew 5:20-26

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If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven

In defence of hypocrites we ought to remember that much hypocrisy derives from a lack of awareness even when we half-choose to remain unaware. Waking up, especially if you have been asleep a long time, is always hard. We resist the transition to a bigger, less passive dimension of reality. We push away the hand shaking us awake or press the snooze button and turn over. This reluctance to be awake is also perceptible in how we vote and spend our free time.

The value of anything can best be understood in reference to its opposite. We value sleep because it helps us be more awake during the day. We value silence so we can communicate better. We value wealth so we can give it away. The relationship between opposites produces balance, healthy living and nice people who are kind and just to those in need. Clinging to one side of the equation – staying in bed all day, talking nonstop, clinging to possessions – drives us deeper into the one-dimensional, illusory world of self-absorption, where we are unaware of the many other dimensions we live and move and have our being in. In such a world life then becomes a continuous selfie shot. Instead, ‘stay awake’, the gospel tells us. The Buddha was walking along one day when a passer-by was struck by his radiance and powerful presence and asked him ‘Are you a god?’ ‘No’. ‘Then are you a wizard?’ ‘No’. ‘Who are you then?’ ‘I am awake,’ the Buddha replied.

Wakefulness is part of the universal wisdom found in all true teaching. To be truly awake is beyond what we think of as morality or, let’s say, it is the fundamental basis of moral judgement. The hypocrite in us is quick to condemn others, enthroning itself on the moral high ground from which it can act with amazing cruelty. But it is in the dimension of dreams, not the real world.  We see the effect of wakefulness in the difference between good work that brings out the best in us, producing benefits for others, and work that leads to burnout and divisiveness. In another sense, wakefulness shows the difference between a beautiful artistic representation of the human form and an obscene image. 

It is hard to see how in the speed and information overload of modern life we can stay awake without a contemplative practice integrated into daily life. Lacking this, how (even with the best intentions that the hypocrite in us often starts from), can we avoid being swept into the torpor of over-activity, the dream-state of the half-awake? 

The same balance that keeps us awake also reduces our hypocrisy. The key is accepting our limitations. Lent is not about putting ourselves down or denying the gift of simple pleasures. It is about accepting that our limitations are the way we steer steady between extremes. Physically we are limited by biological limits that we must fulfil adequately – for example in sleep or food. Intellectually, we are limited by how much data we can take in and also by the need for healthy content, not endless entertainment. Only in the spiritual dimension are there no limits. 

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Thursday Lent Week One: Matthew 7:7-12

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Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened

The confidence in these words is compelling. But we might feel they describe an unreal world of fantastic hospitality, a world of always happy endings. The universe is not so welcoming and accommodating as this. Every day children cry for food and perish of hunger, the innocent pray for justice and are treated badly. 

Even so, his authority compels us to dig below our scepticism for a deeper spring of meaning. Seek deeper and it soon seems we are plunging in freefall, toward a bottomless ground. From this point the journey into the silence of the desert becomes both more demanding and more rewarding as we undergo an awakening we did not bargain for.

So far, we have just learned to sit still in the four familiar dimensions of space and time – with an upright but comfortable posture. At the morning meditation thoughts fly around us like gales. In the evening, like mosquitoes and itches. But soon we see that the stillness itself is revealing another dimension: a journey into meaning deeper, stranger, more familiar, more self-verifying and richer than we could have imagined. We feel welcome on this journey: a sense of homecoming, despite the strangeness, a genuine hospitality not a false consolation. 

Each step on this path advances the transformation being worked in us. Our mind itself becomes more lucid and more loving. To sustain this journey step by step we say the mantra: a word we repeat first in the mind superficially and eventually in the heart resonantly. With practice we evolve from saying it to listening to it. This interior evolution is reflected in the far-reaching changes in how we interact with people, work and time. We see meaning in what seemed to us before as merely contradictions or absurdity. From deep within the apparent nonsense of saying that we will always receive what we ask for, there arises a light-winged wisdom.

The word we recommend is maranatha: a sacred word in the gospel tradition, Aramaic, the language the historical Jesus spoke. The word means ‘come lord’.  But as the mantra is for laying aside all thoughts even the thought of its own meaning and because saying the mantra is the work of silence, we don’t think of the meaning as we say it. To the babbling mind this is refreshingly challenging. You can choose another word but the same principles apply to any word used as a mantra – it is better if it is not in your own language and best to say the same word continuously throughout each meditation period from day to day. This plants the seed deep and allows growth to happen, ‘how, we do not know’ as the gospel says.

Meditation takes us through the jungle overgrowth of all our thoughts, imagination and feelings. It is a narrow path – but better have a narrow path in a jungle than no path. The mantra is a short step and a giant leap of faith. Each time we return to it, we take another step on the path. For however long we may wander off it, into the undergrowth of fears and desires, we are happily never more than one step from re-joining the path: we simply start saying the mantra again. This immediacy introduces us to the dimension of the present moment. Here, asking and receiving become one.
 

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Wednesday Lent Week One: Luke 11:29-32

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This is a wicked generation; it is asking for a sign.

Craving for signs is like demanding that one answer will resolve all the aspects of a question. It locks us into the most superficial dimension of reality. We miss out on the deeper and more satisfying significance of life and the tangible truth of full experience. Get over it, Jesus says to the superstitious and their near allies the fundamentalists.

Through direct experience meditation teaches us what thinking and talking cannot. Communication without this dimension of silence becomes babble and leads to the conflict that arises from confusion. ‘Let’s sit down together and get things cleared up’, we say in difficult personal situations. That is precisely what we do in meditation. It doesn’t look like this, however, until you have tried and tested it.

Why does going into the desert (eremos) help us live better in the world of the city? The desert is more real than we imagine. The city is more illusory than we like to admit. In the desert there is nothing real to contemplate except nature itself in its simplest, barest forms. How do we know – what is the sign – that what we are doing is real? Perhaps it is the experience of beauty, meaning the instantaneous penetration of our being by the whole mysteriously present in a part which touches and changes us. We don’t think beauty or decide to feel that something is beautiful. We cannot deny beauty or explain it. We surrender to it. Imitation beauty seduces us but its fakeness is soon exposed. The real thing , like the beauty met in the desert, exposes the glamour of the mall. Once the false has been seen we need to drop it quickly. If not, illusion gets a grip and addiction will ensue.

This is why we need eremos, to sit and be. Children, to the amazement of their teachers and parents, can and love the interior desert. For us it involves a re-learning. Unless you become like little children. . . The learning begins with physical posture. The body is the greatest of all signs, the primary sacrament, the beauty (even after it has started to decline from its physical peak) that is truth. An emaciated, wasted body is no less sacred or essentially beautiful than the fit and firm because the body never lies. Even more than being a sign, the body is our primordial symbol. A sign merely points. A symbol embodies. Not body image. But the body that embodies you.

The way you sit in meditation expresses your mental attitude to the session you are beginning. It frankly reveals to you the truth of your mind and expectations. If you are slouching or slumping that’s where your mind is and it will make the interior uprightness of meditation more difficult. So sit upright. This will also help you to breathe better which helps you to be calmer and more awake. If you are on a chair you might shift forward,  towards the edge of the chair to keep the back straight. Maybe put a small cushion behind you. If you are tall sit on a cushion. If you are short put something under your feet letting your feet form a 90 degree angle with your knees. Sitting on the floor, you probably need a cushion so that your back is straight and your knees touch the ground. If you kneel with a prayer bench, keep the back straight, hands on lap or knees. Shoulders relaxed, jaw loose, breathing normal, chin slightly bent to straighten the back of the neck. 

What could be more beautiful? What a sign to you and others around you that when we sit and are who we are we don’t need to look for signs.

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Tuesday Lent Week One: Matthew 6:7-15

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In your prayer do not babble on as the pagans do….

Babbling means long-winded, empty chatter such as, unfortunately, we find in many a church, temple, mosque and synagogue, not to say in most political discussion.

We are on the seventh day of Lent. Quite possibly the energy of the fresh resolutions of Ash Wednesday (to give up something and do something extra) may already need renewal. Knowing what it is we need and consciously looking for it puts us half-way to finding it. It’s true, if we truly seek we will really find. Finding means seeing now that what we were hoping would appear later is already here, just waiting to be recognised. The dimension of time undergoes an alchemy once we and the present moment touch each other here.

Between good intentions and action there is usually a short-lived connection. It quickly disconnects before the fruit has ripened. Addiction is existential. Unhooking from its patterns is healing. The good intention to meditate is a good idea that makes us happy we decided for it. But, when we run up against a glass barrier between intention and action, the optimism of our will crumbles. We see clearly what we want to do but an invisible force comes between us and what we want and feels impenetrable. This is where the babbling starts as we talk, read or think too much about what we are still not yet doing.

We come up with infinite reasons to justify this failure which lead us to reject as fake the very thing we had until then been trying for. This betrayal of trust explains why relationships can suddenly plunge from bliss into misery. The glass wall is reinforced by noisy, often malicious babble, until we become deflated. Anyone listening to the Brexit debate knows the feeling. We are left with the unsavoury experience of shame and disconnection that follows all division and violent conflict. Divided against ourselves, failing to do what we want, we experience the meaning of ‘sin.’ Far from being the mere breaking of a rule, human or divine, sin is only understood when we confess how powerless we have been made by our own inner divisions and self-rejection.

Whatever we do in this collapsed state of egoism brings little good to us or others. Many hands will be extended towards us when we ask for help in escaping it. Some of them ask for an agreed price to be put in them, before they will pull us out. Happy are we who grasp a hand that asks for nothing except the honour of helping us. Our sense of worth is already restored. These are the elements found in that interior movement of consciousness called metanoia (change of mind) and often badly translated as ‘repentance’. Not guilt but a change in consciousness.

This is what Jesus starts to say after he leaves the desert, empowered by all that he has transcended. We begin the process of change not by building a steely will but simply by changing the direction of our attention – giving our attention elsewhere. Reality is where we place our attention. It cuts through the babble of the mind and dissolves the plate glass wall of inaction.

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