Thursday of Lent Week One

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A cardiac surgeon in a group I was once introducing to meditation asked me to stop using the word ‘heart’ in my talks. He said it was distracting him with thoughts of his work and also, he added, in all his operations he had never seen anything in the heart that looked remotely spiritual.

At least it made him think. Many people when they hear the word heart used non-anatomically associate it with feelings and emotions. This is closer to the meaning of the word than the doctor’s materialist response. Emotions are indeed ‘felt’ in the chest area: we say we feel heart-broken or that our ‘heart drops’ for reasons that might be connected to a link between the emotion centre of our brain and this region of our body. That may explain something of interest but not much. Love, interestingly, is said to be ‘felt’ throughout our body.

We can’t reduce feelings or emotions to the central nervous system. The heart is a spiritual symbol of the personal centre of conscious awareness and core identity. All the physical, mental and most subtle dimensions of human being converge and resolve in this centre of simple, abiding wholeness. We are our heart.

When we meditate we need to be prepared for different waves and kinds of feelings at different times. At first we may feel basic restlessness and itchy feet. It just seems impossible to sit still and do nothing in this unfamiliar posture for twenty or thirty minutes. Many struggle with even twenty seconds. Later, after our capacity has increased, we may feel a wave of anger directed at others or ourselves, or shame, or lust or greed, or a profound sadness and sense of loss. Feelings of nothingness and being dragged down into meaninglessness may be the worst we have to endure.

Meditation does not repress, deny or ignore these feelings. It is good they arise and are consciously felt. They come from somewhere and it is better they are outed. If we can sit through them we are calmer, freer and gentler with ourselves. In this sense meditation purifies our emotions by allowing these under-assimilated memories and associations to resolve and release their energy for better use.  It is not the heart that produces these feelings, however. Rather, it offers us the still centre, the stable core of conscious awareness and attention that allows us to ride the waves, however stormy, and approach closer to the depth of being where pure consciousness, calm and clarity reveal a feeling beyond feeling and an emotion beyond emotion that we call the love of God.

Compassion and love are more than feelings: they may be associated with any feeling depending on circumstances and personal character. They flow effortlessly out of our true nature if they are not blocked by negative forces within ourselves. We cannot control or manufacture them because we are them.

The mantra – and our small daily practices of personal discipline and generosity to others – is our surfboard to this harbor of peace.

Wednesday of Lent Week One

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What we may ‘give up’ in Lent is simply serves the greater renunciation on which any integrated for of life grows into fullness. Lent helps us remember what this greater ‘letting go’ means and how each of us is called to make it absolutely – when the time is ripe. Until then, we simply learn day by day to be as real as we can be.

In many religions it was widely believed that the big renunciation of life could only be achieved through the monastic path. For the great majority, family and worldly affairs dragged them down and blocked that full gift of self which is the highest human achievement. By turning their back, not only on career and fame, wealth, sex and family but all ‘worldly affairs’ monks soared into enlightenment. on a higher plane of reality. The words of Jesus – the way to life is narrow and few find it – were misinterpreted to imply this.

Of course, lay people can come as close or closer to the renunciation of attachment to the ‘worldly affairs’ in their daily work and family responsibilities. All kinds of vocation have the same primary potential. What matters is not the outward form – the family hearth or the cloister – but how we fulfil the responsibilities associated with the particular path we are following.

To understand this means seeing how renunciation happens. When you push some ‘worldly’ aspect of life away from you – say an addiction or an excess -it does not automatically or immediately leave you alone. Things repressed tend to return. When you expel something by force it often springs back in some way if only as a compulsive desire or fantasy. There is a stray cat on Bere Island which I feed in the kitchen but throw out of the house, only to find it has had the nerve to re-enter through an open door or window in another room. Lent and the mantra both teach us this swing between renunciation and return. What appears to leave often returns.

Renunciation when it comes is a gift, a simple happening, a natural occurrence. To renounce we have to renounce the idea of renunciation as well. We cannot renounce by will-power if the essential renunciation is the renunciation of the will. We can loosen the grip but renunciation happens by itself.

So we come to see that the only renunciation that matters is what leads us into full freedom and spontaneity. This awaits the renunciation of all kinds of force and allows us to be filled instead with the power of the spirit.

Tuesday Lent Week One

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Do you think of yourself as an ‘upright person?’

-Do you mean a respectable member of my community who keeps to the standards and values of my group?

Kind of. What else does upright mean?

-Sitting or standing with your back straight

Or being of greater length than width.

-So what’s the point of this?

The point is to suggest there is a connection between sitting upright in meditation and living in an upright way – being moral, fair, kind, true.

-All I have to do is have a good physical posture then and I will be a good human being?

If only. No, but when we meditate we are told to sit in a ‘good’ posture which means with the back straight. This helps breathing and the discipline of stillness during the meditation and therefore helps us meditate. There is a link between physical posture and mental alertness and clarity – and even the sense of purpose that lies behind meditation. It is usually more difficult to meditate if your posture is slouched, lazy and uncomfortable

-But could I meditate and be a cheat, liar and heartless exploiter of the weakness of others? Could meditation help me escape my conscience and make me better focused on my bad actions?

Maybe for a while, of course, but I think it would be unsustainable. In meditation as we sit in stillness we move. The deeper the stillness the greater the acceleration. This still movement takes us into our essential, interior uprightness. (We are essentially upright). Along the way we encounter interior postures of mind, maybe recent or well-established, maybe on the margins of our personality but also possibly in what constitutes our personality – and these postures may contradict our essential uprightness. They can be twisted and deformed aspects of ourselves.

-Facing these will be very hard, then, and we will fight against being straightened out. It’s probably why we abandon or reduce our full commitment to the times of sitting upright.

I agree. It’s hard to meditate if you have just lied or slandered someone, had an orgy of gossip or over-indulged. But we can always correct our posture, inner as well as outer. If we don’t give up we can re-align ourselves with our essential value – our essential uprightness.

By discovering our inner value, we truly begin to live by the values we believe in and we can say sorry when we fail to do so. Are you still listening?

Monday Lent Week One

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It is hard to write about the spirituality of Lent with the cry of Rachel filling the public space we occupy.

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. (Jer 31:15)

The families in Parkland Florida, the soul-sick nation it belongs to and the members of human family anywhere who know about it are painfully penetrated by the tragedy of the high school shooting. The image of the pathetic, broken perpetrator, finally getting the attention he craved but not the kind he was looking for, evokes the sense of hopeless helplessness that we will soon contemplate in Holy Week. Nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz is not a Christ-figure but it would be a strange Christian who could not see Christ in him. In this incident, at the beginning of Lent, the Cross has come to us early, wrenching our attention away from ourselves for a while. It confronts us with the mystery of the thick darkness that any journey into the light must pass through and struggle with.

In the face of other people’s helplessness we don’t know what to say or do. We would like to help, console, explain but we are disarmed of all these means. Hardest of all – and yet most valuable – is to do nothing. But we usually escape helplessness through platitudes and talk of prayer. Uncomfortable soon with the tone of our own voice, we beg to leave and move on.

Bitter sadness seeks to escape from the prison of its anguish and loneliness. Increasingly in our affluent culture of fake freedom and limited opportunity, those suffering most intensely are offered least care. Without sufficient attention, and balm for the damaged soul, little can prevent loneliness from mutating into madness. Our human options in the face of loneliness are limited. We can deal with the pain by turning it inwards and destroying our own psyche. We can try to escape it by inflicting it on others. Or, with the love of another refusing to give up on us, we can, with difficulty, transform the angry sadness of our soul into peace and compassion.

The prayers of politicians at a time of collective tragedy may give some temporary, formal relief: even the most dysfunctional and shallow of personalities may occupy a kind of parental role for the people in a crisis. Yet, prayer without action on the causes of the suffering is fake prayer, a cover-up and deliberate distraction. It is perverse because it actually participates in and belongs to the darkness and corrosive deception that causes the pain.

Our Lent should continue in solidarity with the weeping Rachels of Parkland and all those other Rachels to come. It will not be empty if we work honestly to cast out the false voices and self-deceptions from our own inner room.

First Sunday of Lent

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The readings in the Mass today give a lot of food for thought about the way of meditation or any spiritual practice that takes us deeper than thought. They also remind us – as the spirit of Lent is meant to do – to desire the right kind of food, healthy food and the food by which we truly live.

The first reading is the story, the myth found in many ancient cultures, of the Great Flood. To the modern imagination it is rather comical because we look at things factually and miss the mythical meaning; and so we see the story of Noah as a kind of cartoon. Yet when you give it a chance and sit with it for a while it speaks much more resonantly to us. Who has not at times experienced an inundation in their life – of loss, grief, suffering or major disappointment of hopes? We would not be able to nod in reply if we had not also found an ark that enabled us to get through it with enough to start again.

And, let us hope, we also saw the colourful bow in the sky that became a sign that we could always be resilient in the future. The sunlight shining through raindrops revealing the distinct, colourful beauties of the part of the spectrum of light that we can see and suggesting more of the beauty that is out of our present range of perception.

In the second reading, the waters of the Flood remind Peter of baptismal initiation into relationship with Christ. The deepest relationships of our lives often begin when we are in crisis and grow deeper over the years through adversity. We are baptised into every meaningful relationship. As Christ grows in us and we grow in Christ, we understand better what Peter means by saying that he ‘preaches to the spirits in prison’. Those parts of us swept safely away from sight, as we do with criminals we fear, begin to hear a new message that make us aware they are prisons of our own making.

The gospel is taken from Mark, who is the least wordy and most direct of the gospel narrators. He simply tells us that the ‘Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days and was tempted by Satan”. That is enough of a metaphor to work with to understand our own Lent. “He was with the wild beasts and the angels looked after him”.

What are your wild beasts? And who or what looks after you?

Afterwards, Jesus proclaimed the Good News which he had heard in the desert silence. It is compressed in an easily remembered campaign slogan: “The time has come and the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good News”.

What do you feel – excitement or fear or both – on hearing that the “time has come”?

Time for what?

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

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Hunger for power, in any of its multiple forms, domestic, sexual or political, is perhaps the deepest human craving. If we so often feel dissatisfied and restless it is because this hunger conflicts so directly with our hunger for love. Power as we imagine it – possession, domination and control – is irreconcilable with love. The conflict between them accounts for much of interior human suffering.

Love is the real power. Everything else is eventually exposed as a kind of substitute. Love may be missing in our life or our capacity for love may be chronically damaged. When this is this case we seek alternatives, false gods to worship in place of persons to love, positions, possessions or projects. No doubt many great works of art and political achievements have resulted from this transference from love to power, born from deep, unsatisfied human longing. These may have incidentally brought much joy and many benefits to others.  But equally, this dysfunction in the human soul has caused immeasurable social disruption and often triggers huge regressions in the path of human evolution.

The lonely tyrant, in any field of human endeavour, may be ruthlessly cruel in the process of acquiring and holding onto power. At the same time they reveal – especially as power drains away from them – the pathos of loneliness caused by the transfer of our attention to a false god. If we witness the last moments of a tyrant’s fall from power – whether in a family or on the stage of global politics – and see their pride and prejudice crumble, revealing a vulnerable and neglected child; and if we then feel only a cruel glee at their humiliation, we are showing ourselves to be likely addicted to false power as much as they were.

The narrative of Lent unfolding in scripture and liturgy builds up to the most intense and transformative story every told and passed down the generations. Over the three days of the paschal mystery the falseness of the power-lust is stripped away. Innocence not tyranny is humiliated and rejected. But extreme vulnerability, like the sun breaking through dark clouds, reveals the one and only true power to be the divinity of love,.

Easter is an amazing, annual opportunity to reset our lives on the axis of true priorities. It displays in heroic but simple terms the meaning of love on a cosmic, not an egotistically romantic, scale. Because of Easter bunnies and public holidays celebrating nothing, this opportunity is barely even recognised let alone embraced.

That is why we train in Lent for the three day marathon of the Triduum. What we are doing or not doing during this training, what we take on or what we give up, have meaning beyond themselves.

Friday after Ash Wednesday

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The successive days of Lent – like a good addict just taking it day by day – are an opportunity to become clearer about our lives, their functioning or dys-functionality and also their greater meaning. If this happens during these forty (or forty-six) days it will feel more by accident than will-power. We do however need to prepare ourselves for the accident and to be surprised.

Clarity and obscurity, however, are never far from each other. We are never clear about everything, except perhaps sometimes in a deep dream where all things may appear for a timeless flash of eternity-as-a-whole and beautifully connected in a cosmic order that fills us for a moment with wonder and huge relief:  a homecoming where we no longer need to think or worry or plan any more.

But most of the time, some things, or some angles of the same thing, are crystal clear while others are simultaneously as murky as the lake of Bonnevaux after heavy rain. Naturally we prefer to take refuge in the few clear patches of our perspective on the whole picture. Nor are these to be disregarded. But in fact it may well be the unclear things – the fog of life – which are more significant. In any case, we must account for and equally respect both the clear and the obscure.

This helps us to deal with the problems of moral obscurity, when we are not sure what to do or what is right or wrong. Few things and even fewer judgements about things are simply black and white. Motives – and human character itself – are often mixed or weak and unstable. The good can morph into the bad and the dark can suddenly surprise us with astounding brilliance. Living with this oscillation between good and bad (as we see them) is at times a little messy and irrational. But at least it defuses the worst viruses of prejudice, racism, intolerance and many of the other stupidities that cause such extreme misery.

Lent – by this I mean the daily Lent of our morning and evening meditation and the moment by moment Lent of the mantra – help us to stay on the middle path. It leads us securely through the patches of obscurity and helps us to avoid falling into the abyss of the great darkness, which is also the greatest superficiality and waste of time and always what we should fear most.