Monday Holy Week

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I was at the theatre recently and half way into the first act a latecomer was allowed in. She caused general consternation as we made way for her to squeeze past everyone to get to her seat in the middle of the row. Once the show is underway, we should try to keep our attention focused because it is the uninterrupted flow of events that leads to the fullness of our response when the climax comes and the curtain falls.. and rise again. The same applies to Holy Week. If we get distracted from the quickening pace of the story, don’t waste a moment complaining but restore your attention to its focus.

Looking at a number of paintings of the Last Supper recently I noticed the different ways that Judas is positioned. In Leonardo’s famous mural, he is sitting, with a very criminal look fifth from the left, holding a revealing bag of silver (Peter is holding  dagger with which he will later cut off the servant’s ear). In Ghirlandaio’s, Judas is sitting alone facing the rest of the group. In some pictures Judas is stereotyped as the most Jewish looking of them all. Generally, Judas is singled out as an unattractive and isolated figure, although in the narrative he has the moment of strongest, even mysterious intimacy with Jesus who knows what he is going to do and who quietly tells him to get on with it. (‘Night had fallen’)

Faces reveal and expose us. We recognise with happiness a familiar face in the airport crowd of welcomers waiting at Arrivals. Suddenly the crowd of strangers dissolves as a smiling face and friendly wave dispel the anonymity which is the worst part of travelling .

When we see a photo of ourselves we think, do I really look that like? From our faces, we understand uncomfortably, people may know us better, or at least differently, from how we know ourselves. If differently, who is more right?

In an instant a face may morph from a tense and anxious dark look into a radiant and childlike joyfulness. A wave of emotion sweeps over the soul and the muscles of the face involuntarily mirror it within moments. It takes time before we can regain control over what our facial expression is telling the world.

Even when our face is in repose and we are in between strong feelings of any kind, it always shows to everyone, though maybe least of all to ourselves, the sum total of all we have been. Formed over decades through countless muscular contractions, through frowns, tensely held jaws, phases of anger and sadness, pain and grief – and good things too – we have the face we deserve. It is all we have lived through. No amount of cosmetics or surgery can really hide the character of our face. Ageing is the least we have to worry about.

The face of Judas is our own worst fear about ourselves and it can therefore trigger the deepest, most transformative compassion. True conversion happens from a place far from the control of the will, a redemptive place of grace. When it happens we are rejuvenated and, if only for a moment, our original face, our truest self is visible to ourselves and to those who may still be looking at us with any interest after all those years.

In the face of Judas as of less obviously complex people, the face of Jesus Christ can suddenly flash forth, like a treasure held in earthen vessels:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Cor 4:6)

With Love

Laurence

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Palm Sunday

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One of our deepest needs and desires is for security. In early life, physical and emotional security are essential for healthy growth. In a good home the child has space to test and provoke, to push against the limits imposed by loving parents. These limits are both the predictable security we need but also, eventually, the lines we need the courage born of security to cross. As with all growth and health, and immigration policies, the secret is the right measure of creative tension.

Children are deeply affronted and hurt by injustice and betrayal. But these failures of the human do not only shake the secure lines of our world; they also raise our awareness to see the meaning of justice and fidelity, the world of virtue rather than merely the systems we defend in order to keep us safe within our limits. If, as adults, we are only preoccupied by the security of our borders we have not matured as human beings capable of real freedom, of seeing the happiness of being citizens in the world of virtue – goodness, kindness, humanity, compassion. In this world of grace there are no borders.

Today, in Christian gatherings around the planet, the story we have been preparing for during Lent is told again. We only have a limited number of opportunities in life to hear this story, told in this way: in a community of faith and in days where the sacred symbols are particularly irradiating. Each year, during Holy Week and according to our capacity to pay attention and be present, we listen to and interiorise the story of the last days of the life of Jesus. How he – and we – face the great insecurity of death is the big test of virtue and spiritual maturity. He shows it can be done; and, if we listen to the mysterious end of the story, the bursting out of light and life from the deepest darkness of death, we see that this is a story whose end is, in fact, a new beginning in which fear itself has been transcended. It is the story of all stories.

It pivots on the most terrifying and painful of insecurities, which is not physical pain but the extreme suffering of betrayal. There is nothing worse than being let down by someone in whom we have placed trust. Anger and profound sadness ensue with a disillusionment that cannot be consoled. We may also glimpse how we too have let them or others down. Betrayal usually has a reciprocity that we are forced to recognise over time. There are always contexts. But there are also betrayals where we are the innocent party. The suffering here is acute because it threatens our very sense of self. This is why abuse is such a crime against children, usually committed by those who have been abused themselves, because in the depth of the psyche sin is contagious and requires deep healing. This story is about the universal healing of karma.

As you listen to the story today – this year it is Matthew’s account (Matthew 26:14-27:66) – spare a thought for Judas, so close, even in the spelling of his name, to Jesus. We don’t know why he betrayed him, only that he felt remorse afterwards. His character in the story is the archetype of the worst in human relations. Yet, he was included in the great forgiveness that from the Cross Jesus extended to  humanity in all our private and public guilts. It was a force of mercy that split the Temple in two: temples are so often places which deny forgiveness.  So, let’s work on forgiving Judas and we have then got the point of the story.

With Love

Laurence

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Saturday Lent Week Five

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Having a good Lent might mean just feeling pleased with oneself for not having fallen off the wagon of one’s observances. Jesus sharply warned against this pharisaic error. It might also mean that we feel lighter and more present simply because our attention has been strengthened and purified. As I said yesterday, doing something habitual (like reading texts we know by heart) can easily lead to automatic pilot and inattention. But there is also a joy in having these embedded bridges of familiarity and friendship connecting different levels in our daily existence.

Rosamond Richardson found this when she discovered what became for her an expansion of what she was already very familiar with, the natural world of trees and plants, into the parallel world of birds. They slowed her down and gave her admission to a new way of being attentive and present. In her book she quotes Kierkegaard who speaks of this attention in the present as a discovery of joy. ‘This joy is achieved by being in the moment…Joy is the present tense with the whole emphasis upon the present.’

Rosamond says ‘I soon discovered that the attention required to watch birds was a form of meditation: the stillness and absorption it required took me out of myself.’ When we pay attention we may be stimulated to do so by discovering something new. The modern world however is often deceived by false novelty. New packaging and advertising campaigns drive consumerism. But we learn something as soon as we slow down our consumption. In doing so, we may be reducing economic growth but we are also preparing the way for a more just distribution of resources.

When we become present and attentive we discover that even the most familiar is not really a mechanical repetition. In real life we can’t copy and paste. We can’t duplicate images as we can while editing our photo gallery. A snow-covered landscape or avalanche is composed of a countless number of individual snowflakes. From the time that snow first fell on the earth, no two flakes have been identical. The same is true of people. And birds. And everything.

After she had entered her new bird world, Rosamond describes seeing a flock of yellowhammers emerge from a thicket, rising and falling, ‘gaining ground again and again, dispersing in a burst of gold each time.’  She had not yet learned the name of this bird. A year later she knew what these lovely birds were called and could recognise a yellowhammer’s song. Familiar and fresh simultaneously. Like all birds they are attentive. They don’t bump into each other when they perform these celestial performances. They are individual and one with each other. Those who watch them learn from them, their attentiveness and their adjustment to each other in community.

To meditate develops attentive presence in all things. (If you won’t meditate, try walking or watching birds). It is not only a source of joy but indispensable to our sanity. Earlier thinkers called it Natural Contemplation. Merton thought it was what modern novices lacked when they arrived at the monastery. It is certainly lacking in the latest US Presidential executive orders on the environment.

With Love

Laurence

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Friday Lent Week Five

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Clearly, the level of conscious attention in daily life in the world is dropping. You give an order at a restaurant or deliver information to someone, clearly and concisely, and in their reply they ask a question about it, blatantly not having listened to what you said a few seconds before. Some people may not have enough attention even to notice that the other person wasn’t paying attention. That is particularly worrying as the ensuing conversation resembles that between two mentally disturbed people who are so isolated in their own imaginative worlds that they cannot listen to or see anything outside it. They end by speaking at others not to them.

This chronic inattention in our world exposes the lunacy of over-action and excessive mental stimulation. We feel compelled to do many things simultaneously even though it is obvious that multi-tasking damages the quality of the outcomes of what we are doing. Behind this compulsion may be the desire to escape from reality, avoiding difficult truths. Or, perhaps, anxious competitiveness and the fear that others, by doing more than us, will make us look second-rate or losers. The first thing that goes then is the joy of work and the satisfaction of creation. We become merely doers, measuring quantity and covering up our shortcomings and inattention with jargon and, of course, ever more low-quality work.

Naturally the amount of activity that we can do, without losing sanity and attention, will vary – from person to person and according to external factors. Some thrive best on a busy life. St Benedict said idleness is the enemy of the soul and was the first great consultant on time-management, scheduling each day in order to get things done in a balanced and enjoyable way. But he knew that some are slower, which does not mean duller, than others and that community (a good team) must accommodate many kinds of personality.

When a monk is praying his office there are many texts that he knows by heart. He doesn’t need to read them from the page. But this means he can easily drift into multi-tasking. While repeating the Benedictus in the morning, he suddenly realizes he has lost the thread of the lines because he has started to plan the day or solve a problem or even think of the next Lenten reading. This is the cue to start again, to go back and repeat the Benedictus from the beginning. Perhaps the spiritual value of the exercise is more in strengthening his own power of attention than in telling God what God already knows.

Simone Weil learned the mantra in this way. She set herself to repeat the Pater Noster regularly with absolute attention. As soon as her mind drifted she would return to the beginning. This is the basis for her insight that the essence of prayer is not intention but attention.

Prayer is not only an explicitly religious action. A waiter taking an order at a table on a busy night is turning his work into prayer if he listens, gets it right and delivers the right food to the right person. And the tip he gets may reflect this, provided the customer was attentive enough to notice it.

With Love

Laurence

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Thursday Lent Week Five

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I went recently to hear a talk, at the launch of her new book, by a friend of mine who lives in a small village in East Anglia. Rosamond Richardson has written several books about the countryside, on the cultural history of wild flowers and trees and about food. She loves to walk. She writes from a place you trust and would like to know better. Her talk was about birds and meditation, though she never mentioned meditation.

Surprisingly, it was only recently that she discovered the world of birds. During a time of personal pain this new world brought her an expansion of awareness, a new relationship with the natural world (that Aquinas said is the ‘primary and most perfect revelation of the divine’) and with a new source of healing. As a true herbalist will tell you, if you know anything about nature, you will always discover more about how nature itself is the source of health.

Rosamond’s new book, my recommendation for the last week of Lent especially for those who feel they have had too much religion, is ‘Waiting for the Albino Dunnock: How Birds Can Change your Life’.

Her writing about the countryside and the bird world she has discovered there conveys to us, her readers, more of the full experience of creation than any TV wildlife documentary. It shows how words are more powerful than a thousand pictures, though in our media-frenzied world we believe the opposite. She is, as she confesses, a busy and curiosity-driven personality. She took up running. But birds introduced her to contemplative walking and to the joys of still, patient, silent waiting.

In her talk I learned that the verb ‘to saunter’, meaning to walk in a slow, relaxed manner, to stroll or amble, derives from the French ‘sainte terre’ or ‘holy land’. The pilgrims who walked to the Holy Land to visit the sacred sites where Jesus lived, taught, suffered and died, sauntered there. They didn’t go to Gatwick or Newark and shop, drink and consume while waiting for the over-packed plane. Then take a bus waiting at the next airport to the hotel. They sauntered. The burgeoning number of modern pilgrims on the Camino to Compostella, whom we hope to welcome soon at Bonnevaux which is on that ancient way, are rediscovering this.

Everything in modern culture is about speeding up. This has many advantages, of course. But we lose much in the process. Slowing down opens up. Discovering Nightjars taught Rosamond this. They are nocturnally active birds with a vast range of dramatic song. Sound-recordists have analysed nineteen hundred notes to the minute, showing how limited is our human hearing. Visually too: ‘Unearthly his streamlined beauty, a bird the size of a small hawk, spectral, elegant and mysterious.’

To walk slowly is not to stop. To be still is not to be unproductive or disconnected. Rosamond has learned much from Thoreau, the 19th century American radical naturalist who knew the spiritual value of walking, whose ancient wisdom is caught in the Latin adage ‘solvitur ambulando’ – roughly translated as: ‘sort it out by walking’.

So, if you need a new Lenten practice, try sauntering. If you feel too restless and stressed to meditate, go for a walk first. And to help you say the mantra, listen to the birds, morning and night.

With Love

Laurence

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Wednesday Lent Week Five

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As we come closer to Holy Week, I need to get something off my chest. It is my problem with religion, religious words, ritual, symbolism, belief. From childhood these things have been quite precious to me and frequently a source of deep enrichment. They have been, and still are, bridges from the surface of things to the deeper levels of reality. For me, they have been a way of avoiding the mundane horror of living on the surface, as if one were a stone skimming across the waves, before sinking like – well, like a stone. I feel a natural affinity with the language of religion. A life or world-view that ridicules or excludes it seems to me very incomplete. Attempts by twentieth-century totalitarian regimes to eradicate religion failed, as would attempts to ban music, art, or (as Plato wanted to do in his ideal world) poetry. Nevertheless, we should expose and avoid bad religion which is just as much a possibility as bad music or bad art. We won’t get here into how to decide what good and bad mean. Most people would agree that American TV evangelism that exploits the poor and promises favours from God in return for donations to the evangelist’s luxurious lifestyle is an example of bad religion. Or a religion that disrespects other religions.

Yet, Lent for me feels in some way a refreshing break from religiosity, a reduction in the dosage. The emphasis is on the desert rather than the church, silence rather than words, stillness rather than ritual. The monk’s life, as I quoted from St Benedict some weeks ago, is a perpetual Lent. I take it in this sense, not only walking the tightrope of moderation but not allowing religion to get out of proportion. For example, Benedict (who was not a priest) said that the work-tools of the monastery should be treated with the same reverence as the vessels of the altar. Religion should not be sequestrated, isolated from ordinary life. The sacred and the profane must merge in a religion centred on the Incarnation and the humanity of God.

This does not mean the desert monks or St Benedict were Quakers. A life without the Eucharist, for me, would feel like walking in the desert of life without manna. But it is a sacrament not magic, a sign of a reality whose source lies within us, not a way of manipulating things, or a compulsive activity. This is why the contemplative experience, as awakened by daily meditation, although threatening to some pious people, actually helps those who are put off by the church’s religiosity to reconnect to its symbolic life and language in a new way. You don’t need to be religious for meditation to lead you into the experience of contemplation. One can’t say that meditation will make you religious, in the conventional sense of becoming a regular church-goer; but it will reveal the true nature and meaning of religion.

Aquinas said that ‘creation is the primary and most perfect revelation of the divine’. To be in communion with nature is therefore a form of worship. Creation, the beautiful world, is the essential church. I came across this quotation from Aquinas in a book I would like to tell you about tomorrow. Not a book of Lenten readings, I hasten to add, but still a good book for Lent.

With Love

Laurence

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Tuesday Lent Week Five

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In the first of the readings for today we see the Israelites again finding the trek through the wilderness overwhelmingly tedious. They crave for variety and novel stimulation, just as they longed earlier to return to familiar food even at the cost of resuming the condition of slavery. If you know your addictions, you will easily recognise this recurrent tendency in the will.

In recompense for their inability to remain bored and so transcend their will, they got fiery serpents to bite them. It is a powerful symbol of what it is like being controlled by your desires. And again it is something we can all recognise, at gross or subtle levels. Woe to anyone who thinks they have complete mastery over themselves.

The second reading continues to expound the painful cry of Jesus in the wilderness of his relationships with those who contested and could not recognise him. These people personify the short-sightedness and bloody-mindedness of the resistance to the desert. It shows the conflict between their ignorance and his failure to communicate to them what he longed, with the eternal longing of the enlightened part of ourselves , to share completely. ‘I have shared with you everything I have learned from my Father,’ he tells his disciples on the eve of his death.

When his detractors ask him ‘who are you?’ they are stopping the flow in order to label the experience. To receive what he tries to share they would have to let go of the illusion of control, the modelling of reality, that is our worst addiction. It is one degree of poverty too far for them, as it is for us in life most of the time and in meditation much of the time. He cannot answer their question in their terms and remain truthful. He would have to lie to put it in a way that would satisfy them and feed their self-justification. So he keeps in the flow and responds by invoking the ‘one who sent him’, who is truthful and who has taught him everything that he wants to ‘declare to the world’

In this breakdown of communication and the beginning of hostilities that will lead to his death, he reveals a vast tenderness. Whether his Father has a long white beard and sits on a throne, or not, he is an ocean of truthful tenderness. It is accompanied by the ever-vulnerable gentleness of self-recognition that happens when we are absorbed in the truth, in beauty or in love. In God.

He is not trying to paste one label over another in a war of ideas. He is not trying to win, to control, to establish theological mastery. Confronted with the worst of religion (that hatefully denies God in God’s name), he abandons religion and all we can see is the burning luminosity of his spirit, his relationship to his source.

With Love

Laurence

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