Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Annunciation. This must be one of the most frequently painted scenes in the history of art. One of my favourite versions is by the 16th century painter Pontormo which shows Mary walking up a staircase, turning around with one foot between steps as she is surprised by the angel’s presence behind her. It captures the unsuspecting innocence of her youth encountering a world larger than she had ever known or suspected. From this moment she is awakened from the dream of childhood and begins to be a woman who will love and suffer intensely. She is told she will be known by God. God waits and she consents.

The Gospels and, much more, later tradition emphasise the virginity of Mary. However we may understand the meaning of this doctrine, it evokes the state of pure openness and the capacity to be surprised even by that which, for a long time, we have strongly desired. In the ancient world, virginity was regarded as a high, if fragile, spiritual condition. In modern culture it is treated as amusing and transient. But these are social attitudes. A deeper mystical insight is found in the monastic idea of recovering virginity (wherever the individual may start from) as a pregnant harmony of body and spirit full of potency and joyful hope. This is the readiness in which the awakening, the eternal birth, of the Word of God can happen in us and the Word becomes our own flesh. I think this is more what the Gospels are intending to convey but it requires a more contemplative kind of reading. Don’t you feel more virginal, in this sense, after meditation?

This is an archetypal, unforgettable scene which starts the life of Jesus ticking. Mary’s virginal state permits the dialogue with the angel to happen unself-consciously and without our feeling it to be false. In some way, the believer feels, it really happened. Yet it is forever strange. What is being discussed between Mary and Gabriel is an event in time that impregnates time with eternity. The same event throws the duality of God and creature up in the air. It flies up beyond sight and when it comes down to earth, in her womb, these two are inseparable and one.

The youth-filled pure heart of Mary and her conception of a new life, join together in creating a new expression in time of the eternal nonduality of God. Humanity can see its own source and its way back in the ‘heart-breaking beauty of its young’. From Nazareth and Bethlehem on, this human beauty is now impossible to disentangle from the God who is always younger than we are. Even in the worst and ugliest of humanity’s thoughts or deeds, this beauty will be always there to save us from ourselves.

Laurence Freeman OSB

Third Sunday of Advent 2020 – Gaudete Sunday

Today the Church throws a splash of pink into its sombre vestment colours. Purple, the colour of Lent and Advent – the seasons of waiting and preparing – is not my favourite colour. In my travelling days, it saddened me to see all the passenger assistance people at Heathrow airport funereally dressed in it as they stood around looking for people to help. 

Cheer up. Today is ‘Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday’; and to make the point there’s a bit of pink. The point is that even in the long runup to a big celebration, a long-awaited event (birth, graduation, anniversary, opening a new centre) the waiting for completion should not obscure the right to be joyful. Of course, someone telling you to be joyful is immediately depressing. For the sake of politeness, we may pretend. But the smile vanishes as soon as the need passes. This is a characteristic of many religious people who believe they should be polite to God to hide their inescapable sadness and anger. 

Waves of sadness run through life even for the most fortunate. But you can ride a wave of loss or failure or decrepitude while not losing the joy of being which is described in today’s readings:

the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.. in my God is the joy of my soul. (First Reading)

Maybe not for everyone, but for me these words ring true and bring a consolation that (rarely) is not false even in the most troubled times. By pointing to the bubbling joy at the heart of things, they invoke a spring of purity in the nature of consciousness itself. Just to be aware is to share in the joy of being. 

It’s hard to experience this continuously. It flickers on and off, during meditation and from day to day. Glimpsed once, touching the tongue even once, however, it can never be refuted. But self-isolation, so rampant in today’s culture in the rejection of intimacy and trust as painful threats to my autonomy, stifles joy and blocks the spring. This sadness is an impossible hole to get out of by ourselves.

Help always comes in the form of another. Even when the other emerges invisibly from within, it will have an expression we can see and touch. Waiting for him we learn to drop expectations and all imagining of what he will be like. That’s the purple, apophatic, imageless splash. It’s needed because we so arrogantly interpret him. We judge him from the ego’s higher bench of observation. We tell him what he is like. All this protects us from the revolution in consciousness he brings, from his painful joy of ecstasy. 

Meditation makes us like John the Baptist in today’s gospel. He is so confident the other will come that he feels his presence already. This makes him so ridiculously and impregnably humble, that his joy flows over; and makes you see him as the prophet in pink.

Laurence Freeman OSB

Second Sunday of Advent 2020

This year I have been especially helped in preparing for Advent in two ways. Let me share them with you. The first is listening to a talk each day by John Main from his ‘Collected Talk’s series (available online and as old-fashioned CD’s). I was present as all these talks were given to the first meditation groups that met at the old Montreal priory, the embryo of the WCCM. In fact, I also recorded them, amateurishly, with an old-fashioned tape recorder on cassette. The effect that listening to them today is not nostalgia. It is more of what is called ‘anamnesis’, a term mostly used with regard to the Eucharist, a ‘making present’ of what was eternal, timeless in the original historical event. The opposite of amnesia. Time and eternity flowing together and mingling form the all-inclusive Now.

The talks on average are 15-20 minutes. Each time I hear one it has the effect of hearing it for the first time, familiar but new, like being there again for the first time. This is how the Gospel works on us when we are really present and truly listening I am not a particularly nostalgic person. Friends are often surprised that I need to be reminded about important moments we shared in the past. After a while, it is easy to let go of the past, even though one may still remember it. It is impossible, though, to let go of the present. As for the future, that’s a bridge too far and I am usually content to leave it in God’s invisible hands.

My other Advent practice is sharing the tradition we belong to with the younger members here at Bonnevaux. Some are birds of passage for a few weeks or months, pilgrims. But they can be serious seekers. Even if they were nominally raised in Christian faith, they may know little of what the foundation of our life is here and in the WCCM. What little they do know, however, is precious because it is a foundation for them to build on. Sharing the wisdom of the desert tradition, reading the gospel of Mark, discussing the Rule of Benedict each morning or celebrating the mass with them has a rejuvenating effect on them – and on tradition itself. It blows away the dust of deference and fear that have built up as accretions and restores the pure, illuminating doctrina, the teaching of Christ.

In one life we only have so many Advents and Christmases. Doesn’t it make sense to approach each one without sentimentality or nostalgia, but rather as a rediscovery and rebirth. Advent means ‘coming towards’. What is coming at us, at the speed of light, is therefore already here. What does preparing for it mean, then, except realising the eternal birth of the Word, the Son of God, within the historical birth in Bethlehem and, crucially, no less in our ourselves. 

In today’s gospel, today John the Baptist ‘prepares the way’ for Jesus. Though applauded by his contemporaries (before he was executed), his ego was not hooked by his audience. When Jesus appeared, he was humble enough to bow his head to John and be baptised. And John was humble enough to baptise him as a way of recognising Jesus as the one he was waiting for. The collision of these two personal humilities launched the public life of Jesus on his way to Calvary, even as it marked John’s leaving the stage. Meaning and purpose cannot be found without embracing mortality. The birth of Jesus includes the full reality of death and the whole cycle of birth, death and so ultimately of resurrection.

Laurence Freeman OSB

First Week of Advent 2020

Here at Bonnevaux – in the Northern hemisphere – Advent begins in the Fall. Christmas arrives in the dead and dark of winter when the sun, though imperceptibly, is reborn at the solstice. The wheel turns again. The end of the Christian year – and like all ends it is also a beginning – happens while most trees are silently losing their glory, shedding their leaves. They fall one by one, like shooting stars or dying souls. The magical palette of Autumn fades into the dark silhouettes of bare trees outlined against the sky: the art of nature at its most minimalist. On the ground the leaves are everywhere, blown around by the wind or slowly decomposing in what’s left of the warmth of the sun. The cats love curling up in them.

Then the most un-contemplative aspect of all this, Jean-Christophe arrives with his mechanical leaf-blower. Making horrendous noise (but saving a lot of time and effort), he blows them into geometrical patterns on the grass so that he can gather them more easily for disposal. I thought of this when I read the first reading of today’s mass


We have all withered like leaves

and our sins blew us away like the wind.
 

The reading from Isaiah may sound over-negative to the untrained ear, full of straying and hardened hearts, divine anger, rebellion and uncleanliness. However, we don’t read scripture merely to be consoled; but to allow the razor of the Word of God to slice through our mental games and arrogance. And to diagnose us. The Word of God reads us even if we think in our pride that it is only we who are reading. If we can feel this, reading because we are read, knowing because we are known, what a relief! It makes us feel better just to get a proper diagnosis; one that we can trust and that makes sense of all the symptoms we are feeling.

If we can deeply feel this interaction with the Word, we will read it more insightfully and be better enlightened by it. It is also easier to interpret – for example to see ‘God’s anger’ symbolically. God cannot be ‘angry’. But the karma, the inevitable consequences of our own misdeeds can indeed feel like someone’s anger directed at us personally. The ecological crisis, for example, is the result of collective sin – impersonal ‘punishment’ for greed and the desecration of nature. 

Reading scripture in this way, sometimes means we have to reverse the role-play described in the text: for example, Isaiah says to God ‘you hid your face from us and gave us up to the power of our sins’. This means that we hid our face from God. In seeing this, the sweet mercy of the Word brings us balm: “we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand.” Can you feel the sense of being restored to normality in those words? 

The gospel today, at the beginning of Advent, reinforces this with great economy. It has two messages to guide us into a good season of preparation for the festival of the Incarnation: 1. ‘you don’t know’ and 2. ‘stay awake’. Staying awake in a condition of unknowing. That is how we prepare to recognise and receive what is coming towards us at the speed of light. This speed means that what is coming towards us is here already.

Laurence Freeman OSB