A short reflection on amazement


I was trying to remember what piece of information I heard yesterday as I was being shown around a monastery in Korea. It took time to come back but I remembered saying at the time ‘amazing’.

We used to say ‘interesting’, then ‘very interesting’, then ‘amazing’, and now, at least in cool circles, or circles trying to be cool, ‘awesome’. An American waiter will routinely say ‘awesome’ when you give your order. This inflation has diminishing returns on the capital sum of experience. How quickly we forget or become bored with what we spend all our resources on praising to the heights. The value of the currency of language tumbles.

In the same way, marketing – whether of new devices, snack food or books – starts off at the astral level of praise. A book is acclaimed as the ‘definitive’ work on the topic for a decade – or ever. After twenty pages you see the signs of a few ideas being repeated according to the publisher’s orthodoxy of the rules for a best seller. (Maybe we ought to be allowed to rent books and claim our money back if duped in this way).

The truly amazing and awesome things – which make up the real interest of life – lie beneath this glittering surface of success and acclaim. If we cannot penetrate the mystery of failure and face the fear of repetition and boredom that accompany perseverance in anything, we condemn ourselves, to the underworld, which for us means constantly skimming the surface of reality.

It is time then, if we are awake, to reduce our expectations, our consumer craving and demands, so that we can start the journey below the surface. First we we will be sincerely interested and our attention is engaged. Then we commit and become very interested. Then we are amazed and eventually lost in awe, in wonder at what is emerging and enfolding us.


Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier during the John Main Seminar 2016 at Trosly

With a heavy heart the world is facing the reality of Jean’s absence. At first it seems a lonelier place as we feel the desperate need for a spirit, as civilised and humane like his in our so often brutal world. But to have the heart touched even in this painful way is to be more awakened to our human capacity for love and wisdom. Across decades and continents, his life, words and actions and his way of looking at you, seeing you, achieved this awakening. So, sadness, yes, but also the beginning of resurrection in a sense of thankfulness. Because such a gift cannot die.

In a world dazzled and deluded by materialism and mechanicalism Jean’s genius was to show the unconquerable power of weakness, where the sacred really resides; not in pomp and celebrity but in the ground where we meet each other in truth and humility. Like Jesus his master, he spoke with authority, accurately seeing all the forces at work in people and situations but restraining judgement. To see everything without judging is the benchmark of holiness – as with God so with us.

The lodestar of Jean’s life was the simple acknowledgement, taught him by the most vulnerable members of any society, of the need to love and to be loved. To forget that, he realised, is to diminish our humanity. This is therefore our greatest vulnerability and our greatest strength in daily life and throughout our lifetime. We never lose this need – as with us so with God.

On Tuesday  morning at our daily meeting, I shared the sad news of Jean’s passing with our new community forming here at Bonnevaux. We took a time for silence before resuming. As I walked outside in the fresh morning air under a clear spring sky I sensed how Jean’s spirit, was now released from the mortality which had taught him about God. And I thought with a surge of confidence stronger than loneliness, that it would soar. It will grow in the space prepared but still not filled by the spirit of Jesus, his lifelong master and friend.

I was always struck by Jean’s intense emotional sensitivity and his lack of sentimentality; by the way he prioritised the human but recognised the need for structure. He advised and accompanied our community worldwide for thirty years and contributed not only his wisdom and care but a practical genius for organisation. When I asked him

if he thought that we should proceed with our new international centre he replied he was sure we should. I said ‘France?’ and he said ‘yes’. Then he added ‘make sure it’s beautiful’.

In 2016 Jean led his second John Main Seminar from Trosly. Here at Bonnevaux we are going to listen again to his talks online. I was moved then by his insight in merging the vision of l’Arche and of the World Community. From the wisdom of l’Arche he saw that meditation, too, is not about self-sufficiency but inter-dependence, not about being superhuman but fully human. I pray that our two communities, complementary ways of manifesting the human capacity for love and simple kindness, will continue to be guided and grow closer through his spirit now expanding around us.



Laurence Freeman OSB


Easter Sunday


Rise! Let us go forth; for you in me and I in you,

together we form one undivided person.

(From an ancient homily)

It took time for those who first experienced the presence of the Risen Jesus to find words to describe it – and even the faith to recognize him. They felt fear and incredulity before recognition fully dawned, the light became stronger and the sunrise of recognition broke over them.

It is the same for us.

There are many things in life’s mystery of which this can be said. But nothing of which it is as true as the Resurrection.

He enters our room without making a noise. He is with us without taking up space. He accompanies us without charging for his time. He is at the centre of everything without forcing our attention. He is invisibly visible.

He is a new way of being, which we are all heading for and which we are beginning to get glimpses of now. He wipes guilt from the doors of our perception.

He surprises us.

He makes death transparent and life radiant.

Lent has launched us.

Easter is everywhere.

We are allowed to say Alleluia again.

Holy Saturday


A day of transition. Of choosing between patience and restlessness. Of ‘waiting in joyful hope’ or of anger at loss of control.

I told someone recently of a mutual friend who was ‘in transition’, meaning they were at one of those in between periods of life. The person I was telling looked shocked and utterly taken aback. ‘I would never have thought..’ they started to say. As we could say ‘in transition’ of ourselves or of anyone on pretty well any day or in any phase of life, I was surprised by their response. Then the misunderstanding crept out of the corner where all misunderstandings hide. By ‘in transition’ they thought I meant gender change.

This would indeed be a major transition, filled with fear, hope and anticipation by whoever feels compelled to undertake it. But, in fact, the transition of Holy Saturday for the patient Christian is not less. When we reflect on what is happening deep down in the earth, out of sight, far out of reach of the dualistic mind we see an irreversible, evolutionary change is underway. Having crossed the valley of death, Jesus dives deep into all the layers of matter and consciousness from which the human has arisen, through all the stirrings of planetary and cosmic consciousness.

Icons illustrate this as the ‘descent into hell’, the nether regions that remain untouchable and unknowable to the ordinary functions of the human mind. They are  alien to what we think of as civilisation. Reaching this deep mind of creation, Jesus – and perhaps all who die – touches the source where it is also seen as the point of return. In every cycle there is a turning point, where yin transitions to yang and in time yang yields to yin. In every journey there is a point where we shift imperceptibly from being the one who left to one who is arriving.

Hamlet peers into this journey over the event horizon ‘from whose bourn no traveller returns’. What if one traveller does return? What if that unity that allows us to speak of humanity as a whole, not just as a mass of individuals, were to be touched and gathered into one who makes this journey not just for himself but with and, compassionately, for us? What would that say about our life on the daily surface, about the unity of the human family unity and about the meaning of death, our final finality?

It would be worth waiting patiently for, just to see. We would need patience for the coming of that moment of consciousness, called the vision of faith, where we see that the return has happened because it is happening. To rise from this depth would be more than a transition to another point on the spectrum. It would be a complete transformation, a bridging of opposites, the conquest of fear. Not less, in fact, than a new creation. While still going through the cycles of life, we would be already sharing in the mind of the one who returns, seeing through his eyes. We would feel as if – along with all humanity before and after us – that we were, finally, waking up.

Good Friday


To all appearances it is not a very good day. So how do we understand the tradition that calls it good? Not because what happened today – the triumph of injustice and the judicial murder of an innocent – was good. Not because humanity missed the opportunity to be changed by one of their own who was ahead – light years ahead – of his time. It is good because of what flowed from the collective failure to accept the message this man carried and  – to those who see him with the eyes of faith – embodied.

When someone we love dies, or in the death of a great spiritual artist, as Jesus was, we feel stricken by all that is lost. We foresee all the events that they will not be there to share with us; we suffer the loss of that unique participation in our life which once enriched us and now leaves us feeling half-dead. 

Death has this effect. But over time, as the trauma of grief reduces and we find we are engaged in life’s challenges again despite ourselves, we discover that the absence is not merely the grey void we thought. It is a new and more spacious dimension of life, pain notwithstanding, in which the physical and psychological presence of the absent person is interiorized. This absent-presence saturates consciousness. It reveals the spiritual in a strangely enhancing way.

Death however is always the great disrupter. It shatters all routines. For a time we live on automatic pilot waiting to see whether anything new will happen – often in despair that it will not.

Pilate was surprised that the crucified Jesus died so soon. The purpose of any death penalty is to have the longest possible deterrent effect. However at the deeper level of meaning the suffering of Jesus is not the main source of today’s good influence. We are not saved, healed, transformed, liberated from illusion by the suffering but by the love shown us by one who was not afraid to love God with his whole self: because, Christian faith goes so far as to say, his self was one with God.

Now we have also seen the inner working of sin – fear, cruelty, denial, untruth, addiction to power. The façades of civilization have been stripped away and the veil of religious institutionalism complicit with power has been rent in two. Seeing life through the eyes of the compassionate crucified one we can never see anything the same way again. The old deceptions, hypocrisies and hidden fears that corrupt all relationships have been disempowered.

We are shattered by this but not destroyed. In place of the old deadening routines a fresh way of being forms. It is too soon to see this new life. But it is already conceived through death, in the womb of the earth, awaiting its birth, ready to begin its transformative growth among us.

Holy Thursday


Man does not live on bread alone. But bread is the first level of what feeds us and keeps us going. We need to ensure that we don’t eat too much of it and to recall that the materially hungry also need our help in finding what they need. Distribution of food exemplifies both physical health and the health of justice in any society.
The Eucharist was conceived in the last Passover ritual that Jesus shared with his disciples. He could not have foreseen the great liturgies taking place today in St Peter’s or Canterbury Cathedral. But it is hard to imagine that he did not know that he was plunging into the symbolic life of the ritual and transforming it; or that he might be giving a new expression to it by merging himself with it and with those who, in future, would identify themselves with him.
From childhood,  I was reared on Sunday mass and loved it in an unconscious way. In adolescence it lost its meaning for me, as the Church’s ability to address the major issues I was confronting faded. Meditation brought me back to the mass and to the Church in a meaningful and more mature way. I came to experience – and later to understand – that the meaning of the Eucharist is essentially the meaning of meditation practiced in Christian faith. The real presence is in the ritual as much as it is in the silence of the heart. This combination, for me, was explosive.
Bread and wine symbolize the first level of food. But we don’t go to the Eucharist to fill our stomachs (it seems the early Christians were a bit more rowdy than us, their sedate, passive descendants sitting in pews, and they went over the top in their celebrations). The Eucharist is a living physical symbol and enactment of the real presence. But it is also a sign of the kind of life we would be living in the world if we were really present to this real presence. This is the challenge. And only meeting this will ‘bring people back to the church’ (if that is how we want to put it). The Eucharist is not a closed club privilege. It is a witness to those who are not in the club that it is not a club but an open-hearted community.
The real presence of Christ is radicalizing. It is a threat to every power structure that humans have ever constructed, including Christian structures, including the often strange roles that clergy and laity play out together. The minister of the Eucharist is not the priest, but Christ himself – a nice idea often invisible in the practice but still an essential truth. Community, not hierarchy, is the message even though human beings long for hierarchy and some measure of subordination in order to feel safe. Liturgical change, for this reason, is usually the most bitterly resisted kind of change.
When a rich person or a celebrity comes to communion he does not demand more of the bread or a better chalice to drink from than that shared with the poor. The Last Supper is the first proclamation of radical equality that revolutionizes the relations between men and women and children – and of humanity with the planet. 
This message is so fresh in every celebration that we need meditation after communion to absorb it. To unite and embody the inner and outer presence.

Wednesday Holy Week


I have been reading the three-volume biography of Kafka for some weeks, surprised at myself for plodding through it. He had an uneventful life revolving around a few compulsive obsessions including his irrepressible need to write and his perfect ear for literature. It was the compulsion to write that made this insurance lawyer who could not commit to love or escape from his parents one of the prophets of the modern era. His insight into the dehumanizing effect of bureaucracy and the sense of personal oppression and alienation caused by contemporary life speaks to us still with moving intensity.

In The Trial he describes the sickening influence of unjust power structures crushing down against the innocent. The Passion narrative of the show trial at which Jesus was condemned to death evokes the same nightmare scenario when paranoia is exposed as not imaginary and we see that we are indeed the innocent target of malevolent enemies.

But with Jesus this nightmare of persecution, though as real as a Stalinist purge, does not overwhelm him as the innocent victim. This is because he simply does not allow himself to identify himself as a victim. He is a sacrifice. And so there is a quite different outcome.

For a religious person – of any faith – the complicity of religious authorities in the injustice committed against Jesus is deeply disturbing.  So, to the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was the compliance of the Christian churches with the Nazis. In these cases we see – as today with the alliance of the Russian Church with its political regime – how power, false prudence and privilege corrupt faith.

Power is a flow of energy. If, from whatever source, it bears the virus of corruption it carries it to every part of the system. As the monstrous corruption of power turns personally against him, Jesus confronts it with rationality (‘if I have said nothing wrong why do you strike me?’), equanimity and silence. His own power, flowing directly from his source of being, confronts and engages with the systemic corrupt power held by those who have declared him to be the enemy.

When power is corrupted, the darkest shadows in human nature surface, from top to bottom of the hierarchy. The sadism of the death camps, or Srebrenika, or the inhumanity at Guantanamo authorized by civilized politicians on Capitol Hill are reflected in the torture and cruelty described in the Passion narrative.

Pilate, the consummate successful politician, is the foil of this confrontation between pure and corrupt power. His creepy question ‘what is truth?’ answers itself as he washes his hands of the injustice he has permitted. Every power system thereafter will see – and be forever disturbed – by seeing the innocent victim as the only character to walk away from this drama of corruption with integrity.