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

Wednesday Holy Week

a19512e6-b60c-4dfe-bfc9-0269c2f9cc9a

 

Jesus was popular for a while and then rejected. He seems never to have courted the crowd, only to have loved the ordinary people whom he saw to be mistreated, demeaned and manipulated by their leaders. Like a modern western electorate the people projected their hopes for a strong leader onto him for a short while. Success breeds success. The more people praise, the more the bandwagon starts rolling. But then it crashes as it did for him.

Modern populism, which is as fickle as any mob has always been, raises and pulls down its great leaders once they fail to deliver on its dreams. Love can turn to hate as quickly in politics as in romance.

Jesus shatters the myth of the strong leader who habitually needs to create a myth around and about himself. It is this myth that leads to self-corruption. Jesus is an incorrupt leader who does not pretend to be what he is not. He carefully and guardedly reveals the full truth about himself because it is so easily misquoted and exploited.

In today’s gospel, as we approach the climax to the story, we are given another angle on the central theme of betrayal. In the reading from Isaiah we are given an unexpected insight into the nature of the suffering servant who is to lead us to a better life through the paradoxes of failure and rejection. This insight sheds light on the mystery. Strange or offensive as it sounds, the great leader is a servant who suffers and a teacher who is a disciple.

The Lord has given me a disciple’s tongue. So that I may know how to reply to the wearied, he provides me with speech. Each morning he wakes me to hear, to listen like a disciple. The Lord has opened my ear.’

He has been telling us this about himself all along. ‘For I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak… My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me.’ This doesn’t sound like the Christ of the Sistine Chapel or the stern Pantocrator (‘Almighty’) of later imagination. It is the opposite of the great leader’s inflated ego.

Modern management theory tends to dismiss the great leader idea, preferring the more corporate and collaborative model. If any one model can, this one fits Jesus better. He wishes to empower those he leads and to show the way and blaze the trail by example rather than by coercion. He is the kind of leader who transforms the landscape he is working in, to open new horizons and to lead by a force of inspiration interiorised by his team rather than imposed from outside.

This is not how the church has always understood it; and it is not an easy model for anyone to follow. Power seduces us all. It is why the church is most like Jesus when it is most lacking in ego.

If we can hold onto this truth about him, we can confidently follow him wherever he leads.

With Love

Laurence

signature

Tuesday Holy Week

24cd011e-d0f5-40ad-8ac9-7953122ca2e1

In today’s gospel (Jn 13:21-38) St John describes the discussion of betrayal that took place at the Last Supper. We need to remember this dark side of the story if we are to recognize the light that dawns at the end of the story. It is as disturbing to us as Iago, the corrupter and traitor in Shakespeare’s Othello, is to watchers of the play. At the end of the play, after he has destroyed his master, Iago is exposed and condemned but refuses to explain his motives. He only says: ‘Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak a word.’ If we want meaning we have to look deeper than mere motives. The truth of this mystery is not found in explanations.

In today’s reading from Isaiah we are reminded of the identification of Jesus with the ancient prophetic, indeed archetypal figure of the suffering servant and the wounded healer. Isaiah says:

..pay attention, remotest peoples.
The Lord called me before I was born,
from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name.

The secret we are looking for is always about our origin. Who am I? means Where do I come from? And, only then, ‘why?’ But just as the answer to our origin lies in a pre-linguistic state, before I was born, so the question of meaning lies in the silence that follows after language.

Like ours, the story of Jesus enters time with his conception and birth, with his body that was formed in a womb and was then pushed out into the world. The same story, like ours, ends with his last breath and burial, when he was pushed back into the womb of mother earth. In no faith tradition is the body more important. It is true that western Christian moralists often gave the body a junk bond credit rating. It was full of temptations and drives. These ran counter to an idea of holiness, which was itself so far removed from the vision of wholeness that the angelic, bodiless state seemed higher.

There were exceptions as any theology of the Incarnation made inevitable. The puritanical, gnostic impulse in Christianity could never wholly denigrate the body. Jesus was raised ‘in the body’. ‘In  my flesh I shall see God’. Angels were closer to God, but we were more like God ‘because we had a body’. And so, in Jesus, did God. In him, too, God wept, got tired and impatient, drank wine and loved, was betrayed and suffered.

Other wisdom traditions take the body more seriously as an instrument of spiritual development. Yoga, Tai Chi, Tantra have a practical, body-based wisdom that Christian spirituality has generally undervalued. But the Asian traditions, while also conceiving of some kind of transformation, tend to see the physical body as a packaging, a vehicle, an aggregate that dissolves back into its elements. The body of Jesus, evolves into the Body of Christ. It evolves through a resurrection that reveals the bodily destiny of each of us. We have a spiritual body to look forward to. But, as Teilhard de Chardin , says ‘spirit is matter incandescent.’ We will glow and we will be embodied for eternity.

Sounds good. But then, who knows for sure, until we know?  For now we reflect on Jesus as a bodily person: like us anchored in the world and the present moment through a changeable body that does not work like a machine and that is always our interface with the deepest nature of reality.

With Love

Laurence

signature

Monday Holy Week

b95a62f4-b752-4283-9ba9-934e1d0df5a2

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

signature

Palm Sunday

6e80ebc4-588d-41d4-837d-62193a08ca6e

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

signature

Saturday Lent Week Five

6e80ebc4-588d-41d4-837d-62193a08ca6e

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

signature

Friday Lent Week Five

6e80ebc4-588d-41d4-837d-62193a08ca6e

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

signature