As I write this, I am still feeling the surprise of feeling the brilliant light of the huge moon in the early hours of this morning. Moonlight always feels as if it gently floods your body and then strokes the mind. I am distracted, however, from thinking about the lunar feast of Easter, the link with oestrogen and the forever melting and growing phases of the moon. Distraction comes from a continuous raucous noise, like a football crowd celebrating a championship win that is pouring into my room through the open windows in front of my desk looking out at the lake at Bonnevaux. Frogs in full choral disharmony. As the book I consulted puts it, boy frogs awaken from their hibernation with one thing on their minds and lady frogs swollen with spawn lay it and before you can blink it is fertilised.
I rose from the dead after drawing the sting of death and loosing the bonds of hell.. for lo the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. I have risen from the dead, I have offered peace (Origen: Homilies on Song of Songs)
Spring. The calm peaceful, influential cycle of the moon which shape the religious and farming calendars and our moods. The frenzied fixation and impatience of the mating rituals. Energy passing upwards in the body and bursting into spirit. Resurrection happens both in nature and in our psyche which reflects it. Mis-stepping in the dance between the inner and outer rhythms disturbs everything. Many have understood this through their harsh encounter with the virus, one face of nature during the past weeks. The difference between the Resurrection of Jesus and the biological cycle of nature is that in him the cycle of death and rebirth is not repeated but transcended. True, we continue to experience many deaths and rebirths, as always, the deeper the death the higher the rebirth. But through each cycle in our personal and collective lives, we can better breathe in the light of the risen, never to die again, Jesus and lose and find ourselves in him. The corona crisis has meant death for many individuals, myriad kinds of suffering and perhaps the death of a way of life. We have long known it was unsustainable. Growth out of control is cancer. Easter reminds us that we do not need to fear change or death once we are committed to real life. Our spiritual path, whatever form it takes, is that commitment. As we
enter into the cycle of death and resurrection more thoroughly, we become more aware of its universal truth, that it is the model of all being. We begin to appreciate what Mystery is…It is the cycle upon which each half-hour of meditation is based: death to the possessiveness and triviality occupying our ego and a rising to the liberty that dawns when we find ourselves by looking fully at the Other…We are dying and rising to new life every day.. Yet it is also true that there is only one death and one rising which Jesus underwent for all creation. (John Main Word into Silence)
Family or loved ones waiting beside someone on life support or – as in the corona crisis – not allowed to be beside them but waiting for news at a distance – as long as there is breath there is hope. However close the inevitable may be, it is another age, another world away. But when it comes, and the last breath is drawn, when there is no next inbreath, we enter the summum silentium of death. The great silence.
In monasteries this refers to the silence monks are supposed to observe strictly after the night prayer. It’s not unknown, however, for monks to get on zoom or chat with someone in the community after the great silence. With death, however, there is no choice, silence can only be observed. We can’t cheat death. And it is shocking how powerless we are. Like children who think they can get what they want by insisting, by charming, by crying, by threatening, we finally give up and admit we are defeated. What is gone is gone.
However much we replay conversations with the dead we will never again hear or see them as we did. Photos, old letters, personal objects we treasure are all meagre consolation and after a while they become impediments to the new relationship that is being formed in the tomb that slowly evolves to become a womb.
The unyielding, uncompromising silence of non-communication, the failure to make contact, to know what the dead person might be seeing or feeling – if anything. The silence of wondering if they care – if they are anywhere or in any kind of existence in which they could care about those who miss them. Eventually the grieving process allows the bereft to accept the obvious and the inevitable. Albeit with another weight in their heavy heart to carry, they move on. As we die into the death the summum silentium shows signs of life. Green shoots from dead soil.
This doesn’t mean that messages from the dead are getting through on a busy network but that the silence becomes deeper. We become better able to listen to the silence without populating it with our desires and fears and imagination. It becomes simple presence. Simple but more intensely present than anything we thought was real before.
Inbetween the lines of this pandemic and the painful, not meaningless disruption it is causing, we should be able to hear this great silence. If we don’t have one, or if it has fallen into disrepair, this is the time to start or re-service a spiritual practice. It is time to see how necessary for survival is the silence of things. The silence which empowers life through death.
Here at Bonnevaux I have noticed on my walks how much more present and friendly the birds and animals seem. I imagine this is my projection. It is I who have changed, not them. But who knows? Maybe it is after all, all about relationship, not just observation or being observed. It is time to start Lent again.
It matters how we die. And how we die depends upon how we approach dying. How we approach that inevitability depends upon how we have lived. How we live depends upon how much we have learned love.
In many wisdom traditions death is associated with a crisis – the word krisis means judgement. A reckoning has to be made and, like doing tax returns, no one looks forward to it but it is not as bad as it seems once you set your mind to it. The more complicated your affairs, the longer it will take. But unlike tax returns you cannot pay anyone to do it for you. Dying, we all become hermits and if we haven’t understood solitude before we will learn in this last crisis of life.
The Egyptians saw the last judgement as a weighing of the human heart against the feather of truth. If the heart of the deceased was too heavy, too impure, the goddess of truth would devour it and the unfortunate soul would be arrested on its journey into immortality, stuck in some intermediate limbo or netherworld.
So, scared of the unknown afterlife, people used to pray for a holy death. This meant letting go of life and one’s attachments and loved ones peacefully. Even when pain was acute one could achieve a dignified equanimity, no thrashing around dramatically complaining about that ‘dark night’ which the romantic poet Dylan Thomas said we should not go gently into. Rather, he said we should, ‘rage against the fading of the light’. But beside the witness of a holy death this sounds embarrassingly adolescent.
What about Good Friday in the middle of this pandemic in which so many have died, and which will take away many others before it has run its course? If we have been following Lent – and what a Lent it has been in 2020 – we should be a little readier to look death in the eyes and face our deepest fear. When fears are faced, they crumble. It is only when we run away that they become monstrous and wreck our lives and our capacity to love.
Even the death of the unjustly accused, of children, victims of genocide or of social inequality (as we see in the figures of Covid 19’s victims), even the most disturbing deaths teach us about life. Yama the mythical god of death in the Katha Upanishad is a teacher of humanity. So is the fully human, historical Jesus, not only in what he preached but in how he lived and died into his teaching, indeed becoming what he taught. If we die as we lived, our dying is a gift, an authentic teaching in itself, to those we take leave of. Even in grief we can feel the grace of a holy death and its joyful, birth-like expansion and release. Every death, Jesus shows us, can be redemptive.
He did not rage against the fading of the light. He saw the rising light. Spoken from this incommunicable awakening, his last words enlighten us: I am thirsty. Today you will be with me in paradise. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. It is accomplished.
Do this in memory of me’. Jesus says this during the Last Supper, which evolved – and is still evolving in Christian life – as the Eucharist. We ‘remember’ him as members of his mystical body and this remembering nourishes us and helps us to grow. It is food for the journey, a healing of the human condition, a celebration of life as it could be lived with the powers of forgiveness, equality and sharing. Of course, it is symbolic. But symbols are forces of transformation.
There are different kinds of acts of memory. There is a remembering of anger and resentment we call vengeance. There is nostalgia, of regret and sadness for what is lost in time. These kinds of memory keep us looking backwards. They fail to incorporate the past in the present. They cannot prepare us for what’s coming next in the flow of time, the unknown future. These forms of remembering do not guide us to the present moment. They are not the way of ‘calling to mind’ that the Eucharist is about.
In a contemplative Eucharist, such as we celebrate at Bonnevaux (and do online every Sunday), it is easier to feel the presence of Christ in the eternal now, the present moment where the past is healed, and we are renewed to build the future.
Many of the readers of these daily reflections have been forced to become more solitary and even isolated since the beginning of Lent. I was talking today to a meditator who has been in quarantine for two weeks in a hotel room. He is coping well, he told me. He hasn’t turned on the television at all. Some days he adds a third meditation to his regular morning and evening sessions. He keeps in touch online with family and close friends and he started a creative work project which is absorbing him. He began the enforced solitude and dramatic slowdown with the advantage of an already established spiritual path. He is glad to be going home soon but he has learned a lot from the experience and is grateful for it. He feels he will life differently, more simply and gratefully.
For many others the slow down or solitude have not been so easy. Time has hung heavy on them. They have felt restless, lonely, isolated, forgotten, abandoned. When we are in pain it is natural to seek distraction, to “take your mind off it.” But distraction can become a problem in itself, giving only temporary relief. As it becomes more addictive, higher does are needed to achieve the same result.
Many of us are addicted to some forms of distraction already. Finding ourselves in house arrest may mean we automatically increase the dose or look instinctively for other ways of fixing the problem – which they don’t. It can also be an opportunity to discover what a spiritual path and practice mean.
Meditation doesn’t solve the Covid-19 problem. If the virus is contagious before meditation, it will still be contagious afterwards. But a simple daily practice of meditation will, without doubt, change the way you approach and cope with the crisis.
The virus may have been physically present in humans for a long time. Circumstances came together that made the terrible mutation we are experiencing. Eventually, we will understand the science and find a vaccine. We don’t personally blame the virus itself for what it is wreaking, any more than we blame meteorological conditions for natural disasters. We would be foolish however, not to ask about the human element – disrespect for the environment, social injustice, exploitation of the weak – in the creation of these disastrous circumstances. Because every effect has a cause.
But at the human level – yesterday I was reflecting on the character of Judas and our capacity for betrayal – personal responsibility cannot be avoided. We always point a finger of blame somewhere. The husband of a friend of mine gave her an unwelcome Christmas present one year by confessing that he had been having an affair with her best friend for the past decade. In an instant (the same time it took for Satan to enter Judas) he transmitted the virus of the infidelity that shattered her world, inwardly and outwardly. It does not take long to kill someone. But later, as her life had begun to re-form, she told me she was still mad at him, but that she could see how it had happened and her own involvement in the circumstances behind the collapse of their relationship. He had become highly stressed at work, emotionally distant, and she had allowed him to become increasingly separate, convincing herself that this was the best way she could love him.
This week we are living the story of the last days of Jesus. It is a root story in humanity’s collective memory. It helps us read the story of our lives and see sense in the senseless, light in the darkness. To see darkness is the beginning of spiritual vision. What the story will not allow us to do, is evade the truth or deny reality. Unless we come to insight into the meaning of our own story, we will be condemned to repeat the works of darkness until the story of our life ends. So, we don’t know why Judas became the archetypal betrayer. And, if we did, it would make the story too personal and prevent it being the root story of humanity.
All we can say is that our dark deeds are bound to what darkness has previously touched and traumatised us. Who betrayed Judas? Why could he not bear the light? Whatever its cause, his betrayal lead to the climactic triumph of the dark forces of the Passion of Christ. From this moment of darkness Jesus becomes the Christ : his suffering has become universal.
We read the story by allowing it to read us. We see how our suffering and darkness are already contained in the story. We simply accept what we cannot avoid. With the wisdom this brings we penetrate the darkness. We need only a path to guide us into it and through it.
The path is our guide through the dark. ‘The Prince of this world approaches. He has no rights over me; but the world must be shown that I love the Father and do exactly as he commands; so up, let us go forward.’ (Jn 14:30-31)
Today’s gospel (Jn 13:21-33,36-38) is very strange. It is a mysterious moment in the story that is absorbing us this week, a story in which we are meant to find ourselves. If we do not find ourselves in the story, we will not find Jesus either.
He is at supper and falls into ‘deep agitation of spirit’. He is not approaching the end of his life with cool stoicism. But nor is he panicking. Philosophically, death is something we can objectify, distance from ourselves. It is out there, something affecting others. But, as the present crisis has shown us, it is not out there. Now or later, it is coming for all of us. Better be prepared and what better way than to practice dying? A spiritual path does not isolate us safely above the hard fact of our mortality. Jesus trembled before it. But deep prayer shows us what death the great unknown, really is. Meditation whether you believe or not is deep prayer.
We get a glimpse into the mind of Jesus whenever we see, in ourselves, how meditation makes us both more sensitive and vulnerable to suffering; but also frees from the instinct to lash back at those who hurt us. Suffering comes in many forms: at this moment in the story it is as the rawest pain of an intimate betrayal, the death of love.
Jesus tells the disciples directly that one of them will betray him. They are bewildered and start whispering among themselves who it might be. Peter asks John, the disciple most intimate to Jesus, who was reclining next to him, to ask him who it would be. Jesus complies; as an intimate friend he shares everything. He gives a piece of bread to Judas signifying that he is the one whose name will be forever cursed in history after this night.
At that instant ‘Satan enters Judas’. This is a dark inversion of what should happen. The bread Jesus gave Judas is the same with which Jesus identified himself: ‘this is my body’. By giving the bread he gives himself, as every Christian who celebrates the Eucharist in some way feels. But Satan? Suddenly, though, this becomes like a black mass, the kind that Satanists celebrate. Not the receiving of holy communion but blasphemy, the unleashing of the dark perverse of self-destruction.
The human heart is good, Godlike. People give themselves, like the 600,000 in Britain recently who in 24-hours volunteered to help others during the crisis. But there is also a heart of darkness to reckon with. There are splinters of this darkness in each of us. In human beings, even between those who are intimate, darkness can become personal and conscious: the people who coughed into the faces of the police who told them they were breaking the social distancing rules; the paedophile who grooms his victims; the serial killer; the addict; those whom power or wealth have corrupted.
The same darkness is waiting, unconsciously and impersonally, in the billions of Covid-19 virus that could fit into a space the size of this full stop. We don’t know much about the virus or why Judas betrayed his teacher and friend. Darkness is dark. The gospel says when Judas left table to betray Jesus, ‘night fell’.