Wednesday Lent Week Three

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In the last war, while England was expecting to be invaded as other European countries had been, the government took measures to make things difficult for the enemy when they arrived. They used camouflage on coastal installations, set up a Home Guard of old men and boys with outmoded rifles, which the English today still feel nostalgic about; and they took down all road signposts. It is a funny idea that the mighty German army would have been seriously impeded by not knowing whether to turn right or left at a crossroads in the English countryside.

When I read about this I thought it reflected a feeling we have on any journey of faith – starting a marriage, beginning a new community, finishing the writing of a book or raising children. These are all journeys on which faith – personal commitment and trust – has to deepen at every juncture. And yet, often there are no signposts pointing clearly to reassure us we are on the right road or will take the right turning. Sometimes the signs are there but not very helpfully: like the time my decision-making powers were paralysed. I was driving from Bere Island to Cork. I came to a fork in the road. There was a sign. But one side pointed left saying ‘Cork’ and another pointed right saying ‘Cork’.

In the spiritual dimension the path itself is everything. The deeper we go into the silence and let go of words, thoughts and imagination, as we do with the mantra, the fewer conventionally reassuring signs there are. There is simply the path, the way we are treading. And there is the treading, taking the next step. At first we protest at the absence of reassurances and re-confirmation of our direction. Our senses of direction and confidence are challenged or confused.

Slowly we realise that the path itself is the reassurance. There comes a sense of relief that there is a way, through the jungle, through the maze of options that overwhelm people today. We have found it. There’s a big life-changing difference as we realise that we are on a way. We may feel, too, that it has found us because there is a sense, coming from the road itself, that we are being led by a direct, intimate connection with it. It knows us better than we know it. The connection is simply our treading the path, always taking the next step. You did not choose me, I chose you… I am the Way. This sense belongs uniquely to the spiritual dimension. It allows us to follow those stretches of the road that have no signs.

All this might sound flaky and impractical. The sign that it is real is read in daily life, on the parallel pathways of action and decision-making. In material matters there are difficult decisions to make with insufficient time or information. The faith of our inner journey is surprisingly useful here. We don’t panic, when necessary we wait and endure better. When we make a decision we have more clarity and make the best choice we can. We trust. If it turns out we were wrong we adjust by direction again.

If we are faithful in the deep issues of the inner journey we will be more faithful in the material issues of life as well.

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Tuesday Lent Week Three

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There is a false view of Lent – and spiritual ascesis (exercise) generally – that associates it with being or pretending to be solemn to the point of miserable. Jesus addresses this by saying, when you practice a discipline of self-restraint, don’t publicise it and look hard done by or pious. Go out of your way to be relaxed and cheerful.

There is a guilt dynamic embedded in our psyche. And another upsetting factor in the ego is the magical feeling that every happy moment uses up limited credit, like on a phone plan, and this has to be topped up by doing something hard or difficult. You pay for happiness. Happiness is a product not our natural state. We don’t have the right to be happy while the world is disrupted by a global virus, or there are a million refugees displaced in Syria or a friend is suffering.

What is happiness? For religious people, this slides into the idea of a God who only wants you to be happy on his terms, when you are worshipping him in a way he approves. And this God, a complex form of the idea of karma – you get what you deserve – then becomes a petty god who rewards and punishes. Religious training and cultural ideas of God often reinforce these ideas, but they are first formed in childhood as we observe how adults treat us. Good boy, here’s a present. Bad boy, go to bed.

Meditation has a surprising power to break up every self-reinforcing complex of ideas and compulsive loop-thinking. This works directly on all our thoughts and images about God – which are not just intellectual items but strongly emotional. If you believe that God will punish you for your faults you are emotionally affected in everything you do and in all your relationships. Then, as ideas of God change, so do our fundamental views of reality and our relations with other people.

Religious people are often made uncomfortable in the first stage of this process. They feel that God is disappearing, that meditation isn’t really prayer or that they may end up as an atheist. A man once told me he meditated faithfully but was not convinced it was really a form of prayer of which the Church or God approved.  So, he would begin each meditation with a prayer: ‘Dear God I am going to meditate now. But believe me, I am not really a Buddhist.’

As old ideas of God fade, nothing solid immediately comes to take their place. Time and faith however help us to realise that the nothing is poverty of spirit, that emptiness is the space of fullness and that the loss is the first part of a cycle that leads to a surprising fresh kind of discovery. We find what we have lost but it is changed because it was lost. In the distance it took from us while it was lost it or we changed. Sometimes we do have to lose our beliefs about God, even to stop believing and wait.  Until we believe again in a new way. Faith is deepened in the tunnels of time. And time is transcended by faith.

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Monday Lent Week Three

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Religious status or spiritual influence in any power structure is a source of temptation. Most of the dark side of the history of Christianity, since the edict of Milan in AD 313 (when the Empire stopped persecuting of the followers of Jesus), can be attributed to giving in to temptations of power. This was the illusion that Jesus so clearly saw through and refused during his own Lent.

I find it hard to believe that Jean Vanier was tempted by this kind of power.

I don’t know his inner world, but on the basis of his teaching and personality I would venture to say his self-inflicted wound that led him to wound others was not crude hunger for power but self-deception around his own handicap and hunger for intimacy. Clearly he did have power and misused it with people whom he should have been caring for, not using. But, my guess, is that it was not driven by the desire for power or acclaim. It was closer to what he often spoke about: weakness and handicaps. When these are not acknowledged they become dark forces.

But does this even make a difference? What matters for those he hurt is not his motivation but the consequences they suffered and the attention they now receive. I am not sure; it is uncomfortable for anyone to reflect on and get it right. But trying to understand it helps us to correct the mistakes we make about the important meaning of holiness. All religion proposes the idea of holiness, the enlightened, liberated state of individuals who have plunged more fully into the processes of human transformation. We may assume this process of sanctification is complete in someone when it is anything but finished. Don’t we all have good and bad, self-less and self-sacrificing, enlightened and shadow sides? When it is obvious that our process is not complete, no one calls us ‘holy’. If it is more advanced, people can jump to the conclusion we have arrived. And then up goes another pedestal and our human clay is re-used to make a plaster saint.

The only safe approach is to call no one holy (for Catholics not even the ‘Holy Father’). Jesus warned us to call no one ‘Father’ or ‘Teacher’ or ‘Master’. There is only one Father and one Teacher. Only God is holy. Only God is good. His warning to ‘judge not’ includes over-positive judgements of others as well as the total condemnations we like to make. It is complicated when someone we have learned from and whom we saw as a friend is exposed and we see how they harmed others. The first concern then is caring for those who have been hurt, the human collateral damage. Second, is being careful (for our sake and that of the truth) how we judge the offender. Even if, relatively speaking, we have only a splinter in our own eye, we need to take it out before we can see anything clearly. For example, how far were we, even unconsciously, facilitating a lust for power or the game of self-deception, which became, in a basically good person, an irresistible temptation?

It’s hard when heroes, especially our spiritual heroes, are shamed and downgraded. So maybe it’s good that there are no heroes anymore. Or only one hero. It’s better and safer for all concerned.

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Third Sunday of Lent

 

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Today’s gospel is about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman. She was a marginalised person both with regard to him as a Jew and to her own village because of her marital history. She didn’t put him or anyone else on a pedestal.  Maybe this is why they became so intimate in telling the truth about themselves to each other.

The first time I heard Jean Vanier teach, when he gave us a memorable John Main Seminar in 1990, it was about this story. I was moved and enlightened by how deeply he identified with it and spoke from a place of humble, spiritually intelligent wisdom. It was a difficult time in my own life and in a couple of personal meetings he gave me insightful and healing advice that helped me continue on my path.

Over the years Jean’s friendship with the meditation community continued and just a few years ago he gave his second seminar from Trosly. I cannot deny or rewrite the history of the grace of this connection or the good he did. He had a profound sense that religion was not about control but healing and leading people to fullness of life; and that each person, however marginal, was wholly worthwhile. His theme was human woundedness; and, as the more he expounded it, more people called him a saint. I don’t think he wanted to be put on a pedestal; but, although people might have wondered what his own handicaps and wounds were, he was widely regarded as better than most people. This made his posthumous fall from grace all the more an awful surprise.

When I heard the truth, about the pattern of his sexual relations with a number of women whom he was guiding, I disbelieved it. But the evidence and the conclusions drawn from it are now hard and clear. L’Arche must be commended for the independent enquiry that it conducted into these cases where lasting harm was done to vulnerable women. He was, it seems, not just a wounded but a wounding healer. The way l’Arche leaders have handled this revelation about their founder reflects the best aspects of his own teaching though not of his personal behaviour. In time I feel l’Arche will be stronger and wiser.

I asked a Buddhist friend recently for his perspective on this breaking of an icon. He mentioned the number of teachers in his own tradition who had also been exposed in similar ways. On one of them the Dalai Lama spoke out because of a personal connection. He said how easily the power and influence given to gurus in their tradition could go corrupt, as power of any kind risks doing. But, he added, how disappointing and how inexcusable is the failure, when this power gives the one who holds it a sense of exceptional privileges and entitlements and exempts them from the normal standards of decency and probity.

Before tomorrow, when I conclude this sad reflection, I would ask you to reflect on the issue in itself. And also on the language we use to think and talk about it. How can we respond to the revelation of sinfulness in those brothers and sisters in whom we once naively saw only grace?

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Saturday Lent Week Two

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There are no heroes any more, only celebrities. That is how it seems, anyway, in a culture where we project perfection on those we put on pedestals. Then, the exposure of human weakness, sinfulness or historical misdemeanour, incites mob rage on social media and a public execution on a virtual scaffold. How are the mighty fallen and how, secretly, as the media sales show, we enjoy their disgrace, their fall from grace.

Leaving the personal sin aside for a moment, the blame for this social state of affairs falls on both sides. There are those who create false gods and then idolise them. And there are the idols who exploit the privileges they receive, power, attention, wealth. Then there are idols who don’t want the privileges but just passively go along with it. Anyone who feels they are being idolised has a responsibility to declare and show they are only human. When Cornelius fell at Peter’s feet and worshipped him, Peter replied ‘get up. I am only a human being like you’. His own previous weaknesses were of course part of the story by them.

There is a lot of forgiveness, repentance and new beginnings in the Bible stories. But no perfect characters. Well, we would say there is one; but holiness and authenticity are better terms to describe him than perfection, which is more of a mathematical term than a human one. Perfection dehumanises us. Wholeness, integral humanity, loving-kindness, non-violence: these are the qualities we see in him. They are not superhuman or supernatural but simply fully human, revealing our own actual true nature. What we can be and what we are called to be is our true nature. We are not perfect but we can aspire to wholeness.

And what is this elusive wholeness we feel ineluctably drawn to through the never-ending healing of our serial imperfections and failures to be our true selves? Freedom from self-deception, freedom to love to the fullest human capacity, unflinching clarity of mind and a gentleness of heart taken to the most vulnerable degree, the humility to try again.

Moses was refused entry into the Promised Land because his faith had once faltered and he had failed as a leader. King David lusted after another man’s wife and killed her husband so he could have his way with her. Solomon the Wise ended his days as an old lecher with a thousand women in his harem. Elijah the prophet slaughtered 850 of his religious opponents after he had showed them the superiority of his God.

And so on, until our own times and the revelations of endemic sin and hypocrisy in the religious leaders of many traditions in whom people put their faith and, perhaps unconsciously, expected them to be more perfect than they were. Not surprisingly, the only sinners whom Jesus pointed angrily to were not the public sinners but the ones who hid their sin under their religious persona.

Lent is not a time to play at being more religious but for purifying our religiousness until it better conforms to the truth about ourselves. This cannot be done firstly in public but only in our inner room with the doors closed.

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Friday Lent Week Two

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Joy in the grip of despair: a contradiction. Paradoxes are positive contradictions by which truth slips out of our sealed preconceptions and packaged thinking. The Greek for ‘truth’ (aletheia) means disclosure or a clearing. Whenever we have the truth wrapped up we are in for a surprise, sometimes pleasant, sometime hard. God always takes us by surprise when we see Him or Her happening. We catch a glimpse of an imperceptible presence that doesn’t fulfil our wishes but lets us know it is there.

Some years ago a young woman told me of how she had once felt this in so ordinary way that it seemed silly to speak of God in it at all. She was in a deep sadness and felt quite desperate. A relationship in which she given all of herself had gone through a meltdown and seemed destroyed.

She was numbed by emotional waves making her dizzy with a sense of unreality. She felt guilt, anger, and abandonment, darts of denial and foolish mental bargaining, deep grief. It was a death agony. To really die while still alive is so awful that, understandably, thoughts of choosing to end it all arose. Why not die now rather than hang on a cross with nothing to hope for but death?

One day. on her way to work, she realised that her sweater was full of holes and decided to buy a new one. In a shop she saw a range of sweaters she liked. As she was looking, a sales assistant appeared. As the young woman was getting a respite from her heavy emotions, looking at the colours and styles, she felt irritated But the assistant didn’t go away and turned out to be genuinely helpful and concerned and had good taste. Between them they made a choice.

Pointing to the holes in her old sweater, the young woman said she would wear the new one immediately. As they went to pay, the assistant, an older foreign woman, said that if the woman had twenty minutes, she would repair the old sweater for her with no charge. The young woman was totally, wordlessly taken by surprise. Less than twenty minutes later, it was repaired so well she couldn’t see where the holes had been. She offered money to the assistant but was strongly refused. As she sought words to thank the older woman, her own emotions welled up uncontrollably and she began to weep. She looked at the older woman, pressed her hand and hurriedly left the shop.

I thought of this story a few weeks ago walking with the pilgrims early in the morning on the Via Dolorosa. Three times on his way to the Cross, Jesus fell. It was physically, emotionally all too much. At the first fall, a passer-by, who entered history that day, Simon of Cyrene, was made to help him carry the Cross. His helping didn’t prevent the Crucifixion. But we remember it two millennia later.

Entombed in her despair, what did the young woman feel, surprised by that extraordinary grace from a shop assistant? A stranger, who sensed her customer’s overwhelming sadness and was moved, not to intrude, but to manifest a presence greater than herself in an uncalled-for act of kindness.

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Thursday Lent Week Two

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An atheist intellectual I met once said to me, ‘I wish I was a Catholic who could believe that lighting a candle for someone in trouble did any good.’ It’s an attitude to faith that many non-believers have, wishing they weren’t so intelligent and free of illusion so they could have the false comfort of believing in an illusion.

What difference does lighting a candle make? Or the Eucharist? Or any of the kinds of prayer that might seem to relieve our anxiety or loneliness but don’t make any difference to the cause of the problem. Like buying a lottery ticket, we know we won’t win but buy it anyway.

‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.’ In times of distress, especially, these words can be fatally misinterpreted. What they truly mean can only be understood when we have discovered what they don’t mean. Discovering their truth shakes our idea of God to its roots, and dissolves long held and cherished illusions about ourselves as a child of God. Children have strong expectations. For example, you cry out in your valley of darkness for an end to the pain, for relief or a good outcome of all you are going through. During the First World war the solders in the trenches would hear their wounded companions dying alone all night in no man’s land. At first, they would cry out to God to save them. Just before they died, they would simply be calling for their mother.

Appealing to God, from a sincere heart, to change things when they become unbearable may bring relief. But when the prayer comes back unanswered, ‘return to sender’, and things continue to get worse, relief changes to bewilderment and despair. How can God be so cruel, so unresponsive to his children? It is then that our version of God begins to die.

The gods of the ancient world, who depended on human devotion and credulity, began to disappear as people ceased to believe in them and transferred their loyalty to the new gods. False gods are always dying and new ones being born. But it is very hard to discover and accept that the God we are praying too with such heartfelt hope is silent because he doesn’t exist.

Yet that same terrible, negative silence can turn into the true silence of the living God. We have to endure it, sit in it, learn to wait without hope because hope would be hope for the wrong thing. The sterile emptiness of the dead space of our old faith becomes pregnant, how or when we don’t know. As the new-born and true God grows in us we feel a hope and joy in the stirring of life. This is the desert spirituality of Lent – allowing the newly-conceived to be formed in our enduring waiting without anything we may think of as hope. And finding, against the odds, joy even in the midst of suffering.

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Wednesday Lent Week Two

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When was the last time you read a novel? Or watched a Netflix series, which is taking the place of novels in meeting our story-telling needs?

Western literature could be said to originate in the teeming imagination applied to all the things that fill the passage of life–from the daily chores and routines to the tragedies and times of bliss. In yesterday’s reflection I thought about how the mind, especially in times of great distress, jumps from scene to imaginary scene trying out different versions of reality. A great writer selects from this overwhelming choice of parallel universes and focuses on creating a convincing version of one of them. A very great writer also leaves a trace of the teeming mind in the order he creates, a sense of all the possible other ways in which characters and the storyline could have developed. This, oddly, is what makes a good story seem ‘real’ and therefore satisfies us.

For many modern writers, story and making order out of chaos, seem secondary to portraying the reality of the restless imagination. They leave us with a. sense of flux and without an ending. This too is vanity, the pursuit of the wind, as Ecclesiastes say. Even stories that don’t satisfy our expectation of a beginning, middle and end, help us make sense of life. Poems and photography are forms of this too and even music tells a story without words or images.

Living in the moment may not be good for novelists. They need to float and wander among different possible presents. Yet they too need the discipline of sitting down regularly and taming the mind. Like us meditators.

Despite rapid economic globalisation and the contagion of Hollywood culture the world remains an enigmatic, infuriating and wondrous mosaic. If our minds and lives are teeming, what about the planet? So, despite the westernisation of the ‘East’, the erosion of its wisdom cultures by materialism, and the cultural collapse of the ‘West’ we can still speak of these two hemispheres and add to them the North and South manifestations of humanity. Western mind and culture is shaped by storytelling, from Homer and the bible on, as a way of knowing the unknowable and expressing the ineffable. Without stories we would be as lonely as Adam without animals.

At many times and on different levels, we share our personal story with others as a sign of trust and growing love. The gospel is a story of a person in whom the inner and outer became or always were extraordinarily one. That oneness, his Spirit, continues to move among us in our own inner and outer universes. It embraces humanity, offering itself without force or blame. If we recognise this, we are walking our life in his footsteps, and hein ours, in a wisdom always entwined with love. His spirit teaches us to accept whatever is, now, to separate fantasy from reality. To be faithful and not to run away from ourself.

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Tuesday Lent Week Two

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The Judaean desert that Jesus knew and where John the Baptist baptised is not far from the ever-ancient modern city of Jerusalem. It is located on a plateau 800 metres above sea level between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean, two bodies of water as far apart in nature and personality as one could imagine. Israel is a small land of big extremes and polarities, including its geography.

We persuaded our guide and driver to take us to the desert which meant a high quiet spot where we looked over hills that, as it has been a wet winter, had an unusual slight wash of green. You can still feel the aridity and bareness which the sun would soon parch. We sat and looked down at the monastery of St George, clinging to the walls of a steep valley. Like Skellig Michael and other remote monastic sites, one wonders why the search for God in the heart of the self and in creation so often calls some people to such odd and even dangerous extremes.

One thing is certain, that the search for God is not for tourists. It turns us into pilgrims. It is an inner pilgrimage that in the end ‘demands not less than everything’. This isn’t such a bad deal as we get everything – called the kingdom. We may go our own natural pace – even take time off – without getting punished for it. But it still requires us eventually to see all aspects of our life as relentless revelations of the sacred, whether through a joy that dissolves our being into the universe or suffering that drives a bolt of iron through the soul. The life of Jesus retraced in the Holy Land leads the pilgrim from the green hills of Galilee where, among birdsong and the lilies of the field, he delivered his version of universal wisdom, the sermon on the Mount, to sweating blood in Gethsemane,  abused and tortured and executed in Golgotha.

Package tourists enjoying idyllic resorts may also go through dark nights of the soul, but this is not how the tour operators advertise them – a ‘wonderful holiday on the beach where you will touch the heights and depths of human experience.’ I am not saying that suffering is desirable but inevitable and always meaningful. Hotel guests at a hotel complain when they don’t get everything they want. But life is not so much about complaint as interpretation.

To see the meaning of the spectrum of experience we need to hold the ends together so the unity can be felt. We then see and feel the harmony between our own nature – the personal and inner sense of self – with external nature, the world as it is.

Except, learning how to wait in pain without fantasy in the desert and how to dance on the boat in the silent Lake of Galilee, is more than harmony. It is being one. ‘When you make the two into one, and the inner as the outer… then you will enter the kingdom’, says the Gospel of Thomas (22).

When what we are going through interiorly is not integrated with the people and nature around us, we have an ecological emergency. When they are one, we are peace and beauty, the sign of God’s presence, bathes everything in itself.

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Monday Lent Week Two

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It is hard to meditate when we have a toothache, or are burdened by sadness or anxiety, hunger or even a runny nose. In the days of collective faith people better understood the advice to keep healthy so that they could pray. Today, when we find it hard to get beyond ‘my experience’ as the test and meaning of everything, we come to meditation as a tool  for ‘wellness’.

Perhaps the problem is that we have to jump in at the deep end. We have such little good religious or spiritual formation to prepare us for suffering or for the discipline of an other-centred practice like meditation. Yet, having lost so much that gives meaning and balance to life, we have to get in the deep end and start meditating when and for whatever reason we can find. Then eventually, if we persevere, we will find that the experience itself teaches us a pricless lesson: to go beyond our experience.

Say you are meditating regularly. Life is calm and regular and has brightness and promise. Then an affliction – death of a loved one, personal loss, separation or rejection, illness – breaks over your life and an iron bolt enters your soul. You keep meditating because the practice – regardless of what part of the growth cycle you may be in at that time – has worked its way into your skin and biorhythms. You are a meditator now: it is as much part of you as breathing. But when you sit down and try to say the mantra your mind seems worse distracted than on your first day at the job. Trailers from scenes that have not yet happened flash through your imagination. Anxiety, grief, anger, sadness are let loose and like a gang of thugs they invade your inner room and wreck your ordered personal space.

You know it’s happening and that it will pass. But when? There are moments, like a sunny interval on a stormy day, when you find yourself in the peace of the Lord and you know that joy is ever-rising there. Nevertheless, the battle of thought and feeling is being lost. The turmoil of thoughts is unstoppable because they come from feelings that cannot be controlled. They cannot be reasoned with. We say, ‘that’s a nonsensical idea’ or ‘it’s not worth worrying about, there’s nothing I can do now’. But the feelings in the heart zone and the solar plexus that manifest these thoughts have a life of their own.

In such times we learn why Jesus said’ do not worry, set your troubled hearts at rest, have faith in me’, knowing perfectly well how hard that is. Yet for the person of faith it makes a world of difference to remember these teachings. It is so hard to wait without, demands or expectation, fears or hopes, so hard not to plan for an unreal future which first we have to construct imaginatively before we can fantasise about it. It is the unreality of it all that is so heavy. And tiring. We are conflicted: helplessly imagining what might happen, tossed from hope to despair; but also dreading the end of the waiting time because it might actually be the worst we imagined.

Somewhere in all this the mantra is sounding. And something is teaching us.

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