Muddling Through

fear

Our left brain view of the world believes strongly in strategy. Planning and controlling the future is an uncontested goal for most modern administrators and politicians. They seek a utopian, perfect algorithm that will beat even the common image of the know-all, do-what-he-likes God.

But when you see the chaos rampant in The White House or the confusion in the British government’s approach to Brexit or when you speak privately to most CEOs, the reality is very different. Behind the facade of being-in-control is the fact of fear, uncertainty and just trying to see how to muddle through from crisis to crisis without losing face or bonuses. People are generally surprised – with a vague sense of gratitude to something – when things work out as planned.

This is just Life, where the best-laid plans can be swept away in an instant by a hurricane, a medical diagnosis, drop in exchange rates or clicking ‘send’ by mistake. No wonder we are afraid and deal with fear by embedding ourselves in secure routines which ‘holidays’ only serve to reinforce.

Maybe this is where the ‘fear of God’ can come to our rescue. According to Scripture it is the beginning of wisdom. Fear is a bad translation, however, because it evokes punishment or guilt. We are rightly frightened of neo-Nazis but that is a different kind of fear. The fear of God is more like the sense of vastness and vulnerability we feel looking over the edge of a high cliff, or the wonder at the moment of birth or death or the mutual declaration of love, or the night before marriage or monastic profession.

This so-called fear of God is less like ordinary fear and far closer to wonder, awe and sheer excitement at seeing our familiar world being deconstructed and transformed. It is the revealing of new ways of being that we were unaware of or sceptical about before. The parables of Jesus effect this revelation by their exaggeration and near-absurdity. Would any father be quite so welcoming to a prodigal son? Would anyone sell everything for sheer joy to buy a field or a fine pearl? Would anyone who couldn’t fill all the seats at their banquet really bring in street people and social rejects?

The very far-fetchedness of these ordinary-seeming stories with their weird spin serves as an explosive device in the familiar arrangements of our mental and emotional world. Yet, once we have accepted this revelation of the unknown, we feel not the anxiety and insecurity we dread and evade, but a new kind of peace and the mysterious certitude of faith. The irony is that the way the church tells these dynamite stories usually makes them sound like a lullaby.

There is another way to balance the real, frightening unpredictability of life with a calm and humorous adaptability to circumstances. That is found through meditation as we make a habit of poverty and powerless-ness and discover that these qualities of consciousness are not the cause of psychological fear but the antidote to fear of all kinds, except the fear of God.

In saying the mantra we recognise and accept the muddle of our minds and lives. Eventually, we become fearless. We walk through the minefield of life with a lighter step. In that acceptance we begin to see potential and pattern in chaos. We remember that the Spirit of God can do what management consultants cannot. It brings cosmos out of chaos and sets the experience of creativity way above the compulsion to control.

No Decoration

nodecoration02

The present moment is the whole mystery. But it is so inherently simple, unadorned and simply what it is, that it is like one of those leaf insects, so perfectly camouflaged into its environment,  that it is easily missed.

Meditation is radically simple attention to the present moment. When this work of attention reaches a degree of purity it cuts through the razzmatazz of the mind. Layers and layers of thought and imagination that we have piled on top of the present peel away like old paint.

Until then, it can be frustrating, trying to be present. It can feel like looking from the outside into a warm and cozy house through an impenetrable window while you are drenched with rain and shivering with cold. Over time and in grace, the outsideness disappears. The window becomes a friend and we are inside. In fact we are both inside and outside and therefore free of that illusion – illusions are always one-sided –  that makes us feel forever as if we were outsiders.

Being in the present is to be an insider – a citizen of the kingdom as the New Testament said to its first readers who were, for the most part, total social and economic outsiders. To be truly on the inside is not to be first class, enjoying special privileges. It is to know that the sense of being outside – for both the have and the have-nots – is equally an illusion. In this way contemplative experience promotes social justice and equality because it dissolves the fear of losing what you have to those who want to take it away from you.

I have wandered from my original point which is the easiest thing to do when you are trying to talk about something that is self-evident. The present moment. In meditation we sometimes are led into a space where the great tide-currents of the mind become still. The energy is stronger for being still. Thoughts and problem-solving, fantasy and fears recede. Complex emotional and logistical anxieties are relativised and right proportion reigns. Meditation doesn’t solve your problems. It makes you aware that you are not your problems and that you are not imprisoned in them. You no longer have to decorate your mind, tidy it or make yourself look attractive. You become like a person totally assured of acceptance and love.

Outside the present moment we are always fiddling around trying to make things better or nicer. Inside the present moment we see that things are always becoming better and nicer if we allow them and collaborate with the power of goodness that is in all things all the time. We don’t need to re-create the world but to be in the world as it is.

The deep human instinct to decorate oneself, beautify oneself and one’s surroundings yields to the perception that we are adequate, more than adequate. We do not have to win recognition or admiration. We can quietly celebrate – and if we feel like it, even loudly – celebrate this.

Nevertheless it is hard to accept at first. The first stage of the opening of the present moment, as we get free of compulsive analysis of the past and scanning of the future, is surprisingly ordinary. You might then think, ‘well it’s calm and quiet and trouble free, but all a bit plain. Like being given a plain digestive biscuit rather than your favourite cookie. Is anything more going to happen? What about the glory of the Lord, ecstasy and bliss?’

You are not ungrateful but still wondering ‘what next?’ and that tells you you are no really in the present moment. It is a good place to be and you have to learn to be there and work inside and outside from this new place of calm and quiet. It is within you but you will find that you are influencing the external dimension too. Martha and Mary get on better. The ordinary is just what it seems because it is not what it seems.

So, when the mind calms down in meditation, keep up the work of attention, let go of the remaining thoughts and questions. And then, in this plain and quiet mind, pure streams of joy begin to bubble out of their deep source

Tradition

Traditional, traditionalist are two ways of describing how we relate to tradition as a human transmission of experience. There are, however, many nuances within the idea of tradition that we need to be alert to if we are to get our relation to the past and the future right. And in our era of instant excitement and chronic amnesia, getting it right is necessary to our survival

bernardLast week at the annual John Main Seminar (hosted this year by our Houston community) the presenter, Bernard McGinn was one of the great scholars of the Western Christian mystical tradition in our time. At eighty he radiates energy and a contagious enthusiasm for the field of study and research to which his life has been dedicated. The presence of his wife and colleague Pat and the benevolent evidence of their decades together was another kind of reminder that the past does not need to be the dumping ground of redundancy and obsolescence.  The past lives on when it is integrated into the present and fuels us for the future.

‘New’ does not only mean what has just now been invented or discovered. Human existence is not restricted to youth. Delightful and beautiful as youth is, it (and all beginnings and the early stages of things) has many limitations which only experience through time, trial and error can correct. On the physical plane, there is a price to pay for this, because of mortality and the fourth law of thermo-dynamics. Probably since humans first began to think about life they have been amused and saddened by the disparity between the capacities of youth and the knowledge that can only be acquired by ageing which involves the loss of capacity.

By the time we learn why we are making mistakes we have often lost the opportunity to repeat them as enjoyable and painfully as before. And even those in the full bloom of youth often undermine their own enjoyment because of a divided mind: thinking of what they might have chosen to do while doing distractedly what they did choose.  Transmitting the wisdom of experience is one of the defining responsibilities of the old to the young. To resist letting go of youth betrays this responsibility.

Usually, it seems inevitable that the young will make errors that their elders can foresee and perhaps cushion but rarely prevent. Their role then becomes one of giving reassurance and hope for the future.

Human existence is traditional. It involves the transmission of knowledge gained through mistakes and discoveries across the chasm of mortality. There are huge failures in this transfer of experience and wisdom, which is why we continue to repeat the same mistakes – such as the use of violence to resolve differences and the construction of unjust economic systems. But there are also amazing successes such as in the transmission of mystical knowledge that has created the interweaving wisdom traditions of the world.

In Houston, we learned more about our own mystical tradition from a mind and personality who had for long acquired and stored it in his tissue in ways with which Google or any hard-copy library could not compete. Humour, perspective, seeing new linkings across familiar territories, deepening one’s love for what is already very familiar – these are aspects of the transmitting of spiritual wisdom. The written texts are important – as will be the audios and videos of modern culture – but they are not enough. Tradition is not static. When it begins to gather dust it is not longer tradition – the inter-personal transmission of knowledge – but merely an archive. Dr McGinn reminded us several times that he was ‘only an academic’;  as a musician might remind us he is only an interpreter, an instrument player, not the composer. Nevertheless he communicated what he had learned with human skills that awoke or deepened curiosity and delight in us.

His listeners were fired with the excitement of making new discoveries, seeing new patterns. Some bought big books, which they won’t finish. For us all, the outcome was both a renewed understanding of our daily contemplative practice and of the importance of passing on the gift of meditation.

snowmass

From St Thomas University in humid Houston to the great cool valley of Snowmass monastery in Colorado, 8000 feet high in the Rockies. Last night we had the first meeting of a group of younger contemplative teachers and practitioners drawn equally from the World Community, Contemplative Outreach, the Center of Action and Contemplation and the Shalem Institute. The leaders of these four contemplative networks, with the inspirational support of the Trust for the Meditation Process, have invited these representatives of the coming generation of teachers who are taking responsibility for re-discovering and re-transmitting the contemplative tradition of Christianity in our time.

Bridges and personal relationships between the generations are vital. It is vital that the young take responsibility and use their capacities to the full with all their dedication and commitment. It is vital that their elders help them, offer sustained friendship – and, when necessary, get out of their way.

Easter Sunday

747e89e5-a88f-469a-8593-5776b9b52874

For forty days and nights – and more – we have been in the desert. And now, on Easter Day as the sun rises we have put the most difficult part behind us.

The way we see the desert is now transformed. We see the same things, life’s routines continue as before, the trees and clouds are what they were before, politicians and bankers, artists and therapists and monks do their thing as before. Nappies still need to be changed and petrol tanks filled. The pilgrimage of meditation morning and evening continues.

But our Resurrection – and it is ours no less than his  –  has changed the way we see life in this realm of existence. The veil between us and all the other realms of the cosmos is now shimmering.

If we still have fear, we do not need to. If we are still clinging to resentment, we do not need to. To fully change, we need only to see him. Not hear about him or talk about him but see him. It is he who makes the new creation shimmer.

“For anyone united to Christ, there is a new creation.”

It has been good to travel with you through the desert this Lent. It is good now to see with you how we recognise the risen Jesus in all the shimmerings of life.

Three days ago we began the formal process for moving to Bonnevaux, our new home and centre in France. In the summer, we hope to begin the move and to begin the renovation work.

I look forward to seeing the shimmering Christ there in Bonnevaux with you one day. Please keep this step into a new life for our community in your heart.

Happy Easter and blessings on all the coming days!

With Love

Laurence

signature

Holy Saturday

HOLYSATURDAY

 

Death is always dramatic. It is the ultimate closure. The days after death may be anything but dramatic . They are often mundane and colourless, the beginning of a slow, relentless depression. Those who feel left behind on this empty beach of existence begin to adapt to the empty space, the void left to them by the one they loved. Their lives once revolved around that person in ways they were only half-aware of before, and at depths in themselves that they had never noticed before.

This must have been the case for those personally stricken by the death of Jesus on the Cross. The bystanders and bloodthirsty mob forgot him quickly, just another victim of the violent times they lived in. His family and friends would have moved backwards and forwards across a spectrum ranging from shame and guilt to disappointment, fear and anger.

We need this time to mourn and grieve and occasionally despair or rage. Holy Saturday symbolises this time, a watershed with no water, a bridge broken midway, an empty chair, a half-occupied bed.

Anyway, this is true on the surface. But, from the depths below, we hear the missile of Christ’s spirit penetrating into all the hidden, forgotten and buried layers of consciousness. They are present in us, if only we knew, from the beginning of the evolution of the human. But we would rather not know because it would confuse us to know how many stages of pre-human development still remain in us, how many ancestors we have.

As the not yet risen Jesus harrows hell, we wait for his resurgence into the human realm, where we recognize ourselves. But will we recognise him risen? Soon we will see how we have changed, how once heavy chains are lighter, loosened if we wish to test them.  We will begin, over the coming centuries, to feel how a new peace replaces the old fears, a new gentleness the ancient violence. We will see connections growing between the preconscious and the conscious. Insights into justice, human freedom and dignity, religion and human relationships emerge from this new consciousness as the human is understood in the light of its source and goal.

But will we recognise him risen? He who said ‘you and I form one undivided person’?

With Love

Laurence

signature

Good Friday

 

GOODFRIDAY

 

Do you remember Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent?

Good Friday is the end of the line we have been following since then. We need to feel its finality in order to enter into the epilogue which is a new beginning.

Many of those who remember why it is a Bank Holiday but don’t usually darken the doors of a church come to church for the special service. Like non-observant Jews with Yom Kippur, it has a religious mystique that cannot be ignored and demands some measure of devotion or recognition.

This is why we call this Friday Good. What is good about it? A good man and great teacher is arrested in secret, dragged through a quick fake trial, rejected by his people, deserted by his friends, crucified  by an occupying enemy force. He dies on the Cross with his mother and a handful of friends beneath him.

Why does such another tragic waste and failure deserve to be called good? Why do we line up, the great and the small of us, to kiss the cross in silence at the ninth hour, 3pm, today, aligning ourself in solidarity with its silent victim and his humiliation?

Do we see the smaller crosses of our own lives within this one great bare Cross that casts its shadow over the world, uniting its collective suffering in its anonymous embrace? In the simplification of this unifying symbol, do we not find a healing of depression, a redemption from the isolation and loneliness that death, suffering, rejection, failure and humiliation repeatedly plunge us into?

‘It is accomplished’, Jesus said, one of his seven sayings from the Cross. It is a relief to feel that the worst is over. From this relief, even in the dead end alley, comes a hope. For something we have as yet no imagination for.

For once, silence is easy.

With Love

Laurence

signature

Holy Thursday

HOLY_THURSDAY2

Bede Griffiths was a great advocate of the Second Vatican Council. However there was one  sentence in one of the documents with which he disagreed and which said that the ‘source and summit’ of the church’s life is the Eucharist. He loved the Eucharist and celebrated it beautifully, every day in his Benedictine ashram in India. But he felt it was better theology to say that the source and summit of the Church is the Holy Spirit.

The different implications of each version are great. If it is the Eucharist , which is a sacrament whose form of celebration the church authorities control, this means the source and summit of the Church is dependent on church law and its lawmakers. But if we say the Holy Spirit is the source and summit – well what a lot of dangerous freedom that releases. Where the Spirit is, there is liberty

Today, Holy Thursday, we remember – we make present through a concentrated act of recall – the moment when Jesus took bread and wine and called them his body and blood. He was reclining at table for the Passover meal with his companions, not standing behind an altar. The ancient ritual of this living transmission of wisdom was also a meal for friends and family. The meal opened with a surprising and for some shocking event, when Jesus insisted on washing the feet of his disciples, whom he called his friends not his servants or disciples. This reversal of hierarchy mirrors the flip that takes place in what became the agape meal of the early Christian house churches and eventually the more formal sacrament of the Eucharist. The sacrificial protocol was flipped around; it was not, as was customary with sacrifices, offered by the priest to God on behalf of the people. The sacrifice was the person offering the sacrifice and it was self-offered to the people around the table, none of whom were refused the bread and wine. Even Judas was not excluded, was he?

If we don’t approach the Eucharist conscious of this radical reversal of roles and unexpected flip in the archetypal idea of sacrifice we may easily turn it into another religious ritual, affirming group identity, with predictable roles performed in front of a passive audience. Sadly this often happens. This misses its mystical nature. One way to rescue the nutritional spiritual value and transformative power of the Mass from this banality is to open up its contemplative dimension – to add silence, to share the readings two-way not just one way downward from the pulpit; and to meditate  after the highest mystical moment after the bread and wine have been consumed.

Some Christian churches downplay the importance of the Eucharist, others have over-exploited it at the expense of other aspects of Christian prayer. My own experience has been that over the years I have come to love and grow in wonder at the ever fresh mystery of the Eucharist. The more I share it in a contemplative way, giving it sufficient time, holy leisure, listening to the readings and breaking the Word as we break the bread, linking the real presence in the bread and wine to the same presence in the heart of each person present, the more it touches and satisfies my spiritual hunger and thirst. It is meditation made visible.

With Love

Laurence

signature