Traditional, traditionalist are two ways of describing how we relate to tradition as a human transmission of experience. There are, however, many nuances within the idea of tradition that we need to be alert to if we are to get our relation to the past and the future right. And in our era of instant excitement and chronic amnesia, getting it right is necessary to our survival

bernardLast week at the annual John Main Seminar (hosted this year by our Houston community) the presenter, Bernard McGinn was one of the great scholars of the Western Christian mystical tradition in our time. At eighty he radiates energy and a contagious enthusiasm for the field of study and research to which his life has been dedicated. The presence of his wife and colleague Pat and the benevolent evidence of their decades together was another kind of reminder that the past does not need to be the dumping ground of redundancy and obsolescence.  The past lives on when it is integrated into the present and fuels us for the future.

‘New’ does not only mean what has just now been invented or discovered. Human existence is not restricted to youth. Delightful and beautiful as youth is, it (and all beginnings and the early stages of things) has many limitations which only experience through time, trial and error can correct. On the physical plane, there is a price to pay for this, because of mortality and the fourth law of thermo-dynamics. Probably since humans first began to think about life they have been amused and saddened by the disparity between the capacities of youth and the knowledge that can only be acquired by ageing which involves the loss of capacity.

By the time we learn why we are making mistakes we have often lost the opportunity to repeat them as enjoyable and painfully as before. And even those in the full bloom of youth often undermine their own enjoyment because of a divided mind: thinking of what they might have chosen to do while doing distractedly what they did choose.  Transmitting the wisdom of experience is one of the defining responsibilities of the old to the young. To resist letting go of youth betrays this responsibility.

Usually, it seems inevitable that the young will make errors that their elders can foresee and perhaps cushion but rarely prevent. Their role then becomes one of giving reassurance and hope for the future.

Human existence is traditional. It involves the transmission of knowledge gained through mistakes and discoveries across the chasm of mortality. There are huge failures in this transfer of experience and wisdom, which is why we continue to repeat the same mistakes – such as the use of violence to resolve differences and the construction of unjust economic systems. But there are also amazing successes such as in the transmission of mystical knowledge that has created the interweaving wisdom traditions of the world.

In Houston, we learned more about our own mystical tradition from a mind and personality who had for long acquired and stored it in his tissue in ways with which Google or any hard-copy library could not compete. Humour, perspective, seeing new linkings across familiar territories, deepening one’s love for what is already very familiar – these are aspects of the transmitting of spiritual wisdom. The written texts are important – as will be the audios and videos of modern culture – but they are not enough. Tradition is not static. When it begins to gather dust it is not longer tradition – the inter-personal transmission of knowledge – but merely an archive. Dr McGinn reminded us several times that he was ‘only an academic’;  as a musician might remind us he is only an interpreter, an instrument player, not the composer. Nevertheless he communicated what he had learned with human skills that awoke or deepened curiosity and delight in us.

His listeners were fired with the excitement of making new discoveries, seeing new patterns. Some bought big books, which they won’t finish. For us all, the outcome was both a renewed understanding of our daily contemplative practice and of the importance of passing on the gift of meditation.


From St Thomas University in humid Houston to the great cool valley of Snowmass monastery in Colorado, 8000 feet high in the Rockies. Last night we had the first meeting of a group of younger contemplative teachers and practitioners drawn equally from the World Community, Contemplative Outreach, the Center of Action and Contemplation and the Shalem Institute. The leaders of these four contemplative networks, with the inspirational support of the Trust for the Meditation Process, have invited these representatives of the coming generation of teachers who are taking responsibility for re-discovering and re-transmitting the contemplative tradition of Christianity in our time.

Bridges and personal relationships between the generations are vital. It is vital that the young take responsibility and use their capacities to the full with all their dedication and commitment. It is vital that their elders help them, offer sustained friendship – and, when necessary, get out of their way.

What’s the Meaning of Prayer?


In the commonly understood sense today, prayer is difficult to make sense of. It may be tolerated when we are in a state of desperation. No one would mock someone who is facing a terrible crisis if they pray for help. Credible belief collapses. But a bankrupt kind of hope allows us to believe in anything. In desperation, we have to believe in something, however incredible. Diagnosed with a terminal illness, facing the bleak landscape of a life without your loved one, disappointed in love or failed in life, fallen from grace and favour with the world.

But in normal circumstances, prayer in modern culture is generally felt to be amusingly or distastefully self-deceptive, superstitious, superficial or just an embarrassingly cheap escape from reality. Better to sit facing the harsh blank wall of reality like an impassive zen monk, waiting for nothing or for the final end of an endless series of finalities, than to pin up on the wall pictures of false hopes on to which we project weak fantasies drawn from filtered childish memories of people who come to our rescue. In real life there is no escape. In reality, there is precious little altruism directed towards us even in childhood and even less after. In extremis, prayer may be excusable, because it is understandable in the light of human frailty, how hard it is to face reality honestly without false consolation. But, as a regular means of escape from the discomforts or loneliness of existence, it is merely a fantasy that diminishes human dignity.

There is another attitude to prayer. According to the seventh-century monk Isaac the Syrian, a person prays a lot when there is no other help. The more he prays the more ‘his heart becomes humble’ because you can’t cry out from a state of helplessness without acknowledging your powerlessness. This is the wisdom of humility as seen in the first of the twelve steps of recovery. We see here the beginning of a different approach to prayer in extremis. It is not that the person praying is expecting a supernatural divine intervention. But the very act of praying – and here prayer might mean no more than the verbal or mental expression of troubles, feelings and needs – the very act of praying changes us. It brings us to an experiential self-knowledge and self-acceptance that actually transforms us. Here, then, humility and self-knowledge are the same. To be in this state is to gain the happiness associated with poverty of spirit: depending on none of our own resources because we see that undeniably we have none to rely on, except the blessed ability to acknowledge this poor fact.

This is the opposite of passivity and despair. It is a long way from the fantasy of winning the lottery of God’s special attention. But it needs to be worked at and persevered in.

Isaac the monk says that until we have found this humility it is impossible not be scattered. Our imagination is working on one fantasy solution after another. Humility gathers the heart together, he says. It makes us single-pointed, mindful, still.

In this state the very thing that is not expected or fantasised about, happens. A sensation of divine compassion touches us surprisingly in the very poverty of our hopes. If we try to possess this, to manipulate it to obtain what we wanted before we stopped wanting, then God will be scared off and we will be in extremis again. But, let go of the anxiety generated by fantasy and what Isaac calls the ‘strength of trust’ returns.

Prayer then takes on a very different meaning. As indeed does God.

This is why the desert monks used to say ‘pray for the gift of prayer’. It is not that prayer fulfils our wishes but that prayer is the fulfilment of our deepest needs arising from the place of poverty that we usually prefer to avoid entering. This is pure prayer. The prayer that the great masters mean when they extol the fruits and blissful state of prayer.

Now, interestingly, this state of prayer, where words and intercessions, petitions and desires, are completely left behind because they are no longer necessary, can be entered by means of these words and cries from the heart. Provided they come from the heart. When that is, they arise from the pure need or bare desperation itself, not from an intermediary state of fantasy and addictive wish-fulfilment. Then we don’t need to stay long with the words. Or we reduce the words to a bare minimum. We don’t need imagination because the actual experience is more real and present. Then, as soon as they are faced in this poverty of spirit, the feelings of pain and anxiety themselves begin to change. Stay in this place, simple, undemanding, silent, and prayer itself – the direct participation in the presence of God – is the reward.

Meditation? Simply putting this into daily practice. It is the way of making this blessed realism a permanent state. Prayer then is understood not as an escape from reality. Not a lottery of wish-fulfilment. But as not less than a way of life that transforms, enhances and brings our humanity to the highest degree of being. Nothing to laugh at in this which becomes the laughter of the spirit.


“.. when he feels that God is there and that he comes to his aid, immediately his heart is filled with faith and he then understands that prayer is the source of our help, the source of salvation, the treasure of our trust, the port that has been freed of the storm, the light of those who are in darkness, the support of the weak, shelter in time of trial, help at the crisis point of illness, shield that saves in combat, arrow sent out against the enemy. In a word, a multitude of good enters into him by means of prayer. So from then on, he finds his delight in the prayer of faith. His heart glows with trust. ((See, Isaac the Syrian, Spiritual Discourses, 1st series, no. 21)


Compassionate Contemplatives


Photo by Turelio, 1986/CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently read these thoughts, quoted below, of Mother Theresa of Calcutta about the meaning of contemplation. Although controversial in some eyes, she was loved by most of the planet because of her passionate care for the poorest and most derelict and abandoned members of society. Members of her still thriving order are recognisable the world over. I often see them sitting in small groups of two or three at the back of the room or church, when I am giving a talk or leading a meditation. Quiet, observant, listening, in their white sari-like habits lined with a little blue border.

Whenever I see them I remember my meetings with Mother Theresa, the talks I gave to her sisters and the retreat she asked me to give to her contemplative sisters who live in a simple community close to Calcutta railways station. She was totally unconcerned by her celebrity. If she had a fault it was her intense concentration on her work and its expansion and the force with which she drew others into it in accordance with her plans. I felt it myself and it was hard to resist.  But I noticed too how totally, freely, she let go of the ego when she felt the force of a direction other than her own.  When I last saw her, at the funeral of the priest who had been her close friend and companion for many years, she told me with enthusiasm that he would now be praying fulltime in heaven for her intention of getting a house for her sisters in China.

She understood meditation intuitively and deeply. For her sisters, she said, the most important times of the day were the hours of silence at the beginning and end  of the day. In between they were to be unconditionally and boundlessly committed to the service of the poorest, on the streets, in the soup-kitchens, in the homes for the dying. But without these two pillars of contemplation each day their work would not be God’s work. She recognised in John Main’s teaching a reliable source of practical wisdom and authority that her sisters could draw on to nourish and deepen their contemplative prayer.

The Missionaries of Charity show a very special kind of vocation, as are all forms of consecrated and monastic life. But they testify to a healthy and demanding understanding of contemplation relevant and necessary to every walk of life. “Contemplation has nothing to do with shutting oneself up in a dark cupboard,” she says. True contemplatives are often hard-talkers and usually outspoken, like Thomas Merton who irritated his fellow monks when he told them they were not living a real contemplative life but were more like ‘introverts saying prayers all day’.

In our digital, media-saturated, individualistic culture, pathological introversion is a chronic danger. It is the symptom of a life-draining self-centredness like the dementors in Harry Potter. Behind it is an often undiagnosed narcissism, that manifests (as we can see today) in the highest corridors of power. It seeks, sucks attention rather than giving it. It is fascinated by images of the self rather than living the direct experience of the self that takes the attention off ourselves.

Outward forms of life – working with street poverty or living in a  monastery – do not in themselves produce a contemplative life. Each person in the unique solitude of their calling need to discover the sources and resources of contemplation for themselves. What is common to all, however, is the wisdom that urges us to adopt a contemplative practice – one that converts introversion into interiority. And this shows us that contemplation is no more and no less than being in the present, seeing things as they really are and relating to reality from the real centre of our being – a relation that is proven by the quality of our love and our spirit of kindness.

Meditating twice a day, morning and evening, is as universal a practical wisdom for living this as we can find anywhere.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) 

We have been called to love the world. And God loved the world so much that he gave Jesus to it (Jn 3,16). Today, he loves the world so much that he gives you and me to the world to be his love, his compassion and his presence through our lives of prayer, sacrifice and self-surrender. The response that God is waiting for from you is to become a contemplative, to be a contemplative.

Let us take Jesus at his word and we will be contemplatives at the heart of the world, because if we have faith then we are his permanent presence. In contemplation the soul draws directly from God’s heart the graces that the active life has been entrusted to distribute. Our very existence is to be intimately bound to the living Christ within us. If we do not live in God’s presence, we cannot keep going.

What is contemplation? It is to live the life of Jesus. That is how I understand it. To love Jesus; living his life at the heart of our own; living our own at the heart of his… Contemplation has nothing to do with shutting oneself up in a dark cupboard but in allowing Jesus to live his Passion, his love and his humility in us, to pray with us, to be with us and to make holy through us. Our lives and our contemplation are one. It’s not a question of doing but of being. In fact it is about the complete happiness of our spirit through the Holy Spirit who breathes God’s fullness into us and send us out into all creation as his own, personal message of love (Mk 16,15).

After the Election

children_01The immediate post-election comments by the President, the President-elect and the defeated candidate were more gracious and civilised than anything during the campaign over the past eighteen months. This campaign reflected such an obscene breakdown of civility that it was hard to believe it was happening. It seemed surreal – worse and more frightening than the hypocrisy and evasiveness we have sadly come to associate with much of the political class. It has done lasting damage to a civilised approach to politics anywhere, even in a world where we see ethnic cleansing, the bombing of hospitals, the uncontested invasion of sovereign states, the callous closing of borders to refugees.

The US election highlighted what is happening politically in many other places: the polarising of global and national identities. Nationalism is a mounting force that rejects the challenges of the newborn sense of global citizenship. As history shows, nationalism begins with the euphoria of false hope and ends in mutual destruction.

Is there a contemplative response to this? There is. But it is not sectarian or ideological. The contemplative response is conscious of the common ground. It builds communities of faith in this ground among people of widely different beliefs.

This collective vision of the human community can only happen politically in the most civilised societies.  But it happens between friends and groups of friends who quietly restore an uncivilised society to humane values. Their experience of the truthfulness of silence helps them trust each other with their differences. Those differences can be respected without violence or divisiveness.

Societies lacking the root system of such contemplative networks, nourished by silence, must face an erosion of civilised values because contemplation is the foundation of civilisation.

I recently spent time in Venezuela, a society in severe distress. But I was inspired to see that our community there is even more deeply and compassionately committed to the practice and teaching of meditation, particularly to the young. It is also creating civilised forums for open dialogue. They prove that a contemplative response to crisis does really exist. The World Community is privileged to have such members.

I feel sure that the WCCM USA will respond in the same way to their post-election situation where such deep divisions and turbulence have been exposed. You will be an example to others of the real American dream, which is the greatness you show in resolving difference.

I am not preaching to you but reminding you of what, as contemplatives in the world, you know already. As a fellow-meditator I know you do not see meditation merely as a refuge. We see it rather as a way of facing the painful facts of our world with faith, hope and love, thereby making the world more civilised – simply by the way you live and tell the truth. We are never more truthful than in the silence of meditation which affects all our ways of communication and action.

This involves curbing our feelings of triumph or defeat with the emotional perspective that meditation brings. It involves trying to see reality through the eyes of others even when their view seems to contradict ours, the essence of redemptive dialogue. It brings hope where there is fear. Good, not cruel, humour where there is hatred.  Truth where there is dissimulation.

It involves loving our enemies even when we feel like humiliating or deleting them, patronising them, giving them false signs of peace, taking revenge for their past deeds or punishing them. We turn the other cheek at first interiorly, not as an excuse not to fight for truth but to ensure that, when we do fight for it, we do so without violence or hatred.

To love means to pay attention. If our meditation only makes us mindful but doesn’t enable us to pay other-centred, loving attention to those we would prefer to ignore, what does meditation mean? It is wondrous how naturally our actions towards others are regulated simply by paying attention to them. Such attention begins as pure prayer, which dismantles the thick filters of prejudice and caricature that obscure the real identity of others.

What can contemplatives, who are defined firstly by their commitment to being, actually do? They can meditate and be more than ever faithful to balancing each day on the twin pillars of silence, stillness and radical simplicity. They can meditate together in weekly groups and begin new groups especially where the wounds of division are most open.

You can also plan to come next August to the John Main Seminar in Houston where a world authority on the Christian mystical tradition will be leading us into a deeper relationship with one of our most precious sources of wisdom in a chaotic world. We need to know in what a powerful tradition we meditate.

This is our contemplative approach. Although it is not a political force, it does help to dissolve the violence of political polemics at root. I can also assure you – and it is reassuring I think to know this when we so often despair of our leaders – that in our community, and beyond, there are eminent leaders who build their lives on daily meditation. They are not power-hungry individuals but genuinely driven to use their influence and talents to make a more humane  and civilised world.

Leaders or led, in a contemplative community all are equal because all see each other in the greater oneness. We all need each other and we need to share our needs. This is the meaning of the new global consciousness. We all give support to each other especially to those who are least supported. We all walk on the common ground that, to the eyes of faith, is the consciousness where I see you in myself and myself in you.

Never before in America or elsewhere, have we needed this contemplative mind more urgently. It is not in the end about politics and elections. But it  will define the kind of politics that shape the world we make for ourselves and leave to our children.

The Great Peace


* Originally published at Meditatio Newsletter April 2016

Dearest Friends,

It was a lovely spring afternoon in London, warm with just the edge of winter left. I had not seen Calum, my young godson, for some time and took him out for lunch and a walk by the river. He brought with him the camera that his sister had passed down to him. He had become absorbed in its video function. So he was filming everything that we passed by on the street and, when we got down to the river Thames sparkling in the sunshine, he went wild with excitement. Swinging the camera in experimental manoeuvers he chased after a flock of ducks and back again to capture an endless supply of new scenes. There was nothing not interesting enough to film in the beautiful light of the day. Everything shone with the wonder of the world’s ever-surprising diversity. Life flooded through him with abundance and excitement. He was radiant and free-spirited with all the colours of life. And it was vitalizing to be playing the life-game with him.

And it was Easter. As it always is Easter. The important theology of Easter is that once it happens it never stops happening. To symbolize that liturgically the church extends the day of Easter Sunday for eight days and the season to forty. ‘Ordinary time’ which follows Pentecost can never be ordinary again. On the other hand what is extraordinary is that it does remain ordinary. We do not become astral beings. We go back to this life to live it in a new way, discovering its newness afresh continually. We remain delightfully embodied and thrillingly mortal. Death, the great threat to human happiness, takes on a wholly different meaning in the new experience of life we call Resurrection.

The danger is, that in speaking of these mysteries of faith that revolve at the heart of Christian life we sound to others a bit out of touch with reality. And sometimes Christians can, in fact, sound like promoters of a wonderful holiday resort that they haven’t quite yet visited for themselves. In fact, if we have been touched by Resurrection, we are in touch with reality, ‘the solid reality’, as St John puts it, that ‘is Christ’.

I was recently speaking with a class of MBA students who had started to learn to meditate. Many of them said they wanted to meditate because it offered them a way of dealing with stress. The depth meaning of meditation, of life itself, had been fore-shortened by this great and now universal blockage to real life. I was struck by the depth of this problem, the prevalence of the social malaise we call stress – the anxiety and damage to health it causes, the enemy of all the joys of life, breeder of fear and anger.

Of course life is stressful. It has a visible shelf life that changes daily. Anything that is unpredictable, like life, has to deal at best with probabilities. Anything that shows us that nothing is certain until uncertainty has been fully accepted will ever be easy.

The problem is not stress itself, then, but whether we understand the stressful aspects of life from within the great peace. Or, whether we experience only stress and find that stress feeds and grows off itself. Then we are deceived – usually by mammon – into thinking that the more stressed we are the closer we are coming to the great idol of Success.

A century ago the most civilized nations of the world were in the middle of ‘The Great War’ to end all wars that resulted in thirty-eight million military and civilian casualties. Taking a short breather to re-militarise, the ensuing peace of Versailles that was typical of  ‘peace as the world gives it’, led to a new world war that cost up to eighty million lives amounting to three percent of the human family at that time.

Whether it’s the death-lust of war or the tragedy of unhappy lives blighted by the diseases of affluence, why is it we find the gift of life so hard to accept? Why does the great peace seem so elusive? Out of the new life that filled the risen Jesus with the playful love of the Holy Spirit he has breathed his peace into us. His physical respiration ceased on the cross. He breathed his last and gave up his spirit. But this plunged him irrevocably into the inner breath of God, the life-cycle that over-rides the cycles of death and rebirth. He entered the source and return-point of all that exists. From this inner breath of the eternal Easter he breathes the great peace into the human heart at the point where we are one with each other in a common humanity.

On Bere Island this year the meditators on the Holy Week retreat took time again to listen to the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The time it took was again richly repaid with a clearer understanding of time and the gift-nature of life which Easter is all about. It comes to us as a story. It is above all a story. Christian scriptures are not a string of abstract truths plucked from real life. They are a certain, amazingly intimate way of telling a story which plays out in the lives of all those listening – both in their inner lives and their outer lives. Once we have opened our heart to this story, we feel an integration and harmonizing of the inner and the outer – a new simplicity. We see in a new way the unfolding of our own lives.


We are in conversation with God. In daily use ‘conversation’ means a chat, an exchange of ideas through words or other symbols of meaning. But this is a more modern definition, coming into use as culture began to shift away from its spiritual balance towards an excessively rational and outer-directed  perspective. From about the 16th century it came to mean only ‘talk’. ‘Conversation’, however, means literally a turning towards something with another. In other words, keeping company with, living with, playing the game of life with…

The New Testament is not a sutra. Later there did come Christian sutras, great intellectual reflections and cathedrals of the mind, which help to interpret the conversation, the telling of the story which is the heart-mind of the gospel. The gospels are simpler than abstract truths. They are strikingly direct, intimate tellings of a story that is both cosmic and personal.

We don’t read the gospels only at Easter. Throughout the year the ‘lectio’ of these texts should be part of our daily prayer-practice. But we always read them in the light of the Easter truth. Christian identity and the Christ-centeredness of our meditation depend in part on the place of this way of prayer in our spiritual lives. Meditation brings us many benefits and fruits. One of the greatest of these is that meditation teaches how to read the gospels in a way that draws our whole being into the person of Jesus, not only as an historical figure but as a personal and actual presence.

For I in you and you in me together we are one undivided person.  (From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday)

Christian thought is like a conversation that continually integrates all the reflections and contributions that have been made from ancient times until today. It is always fresh and yet its richness is always growing. We are part of it and as it changes, it changes us.

Many of us will have felt this as we read of Pope Francis’ deep and simple insights into the mystery of Christ. ‘Mercy’ is his signature phrase, especially to some church leaders who were felt to be becoming increasingly, judgmental and punitive. With wise gentleness Francis is delivering one of the periodic prophetic body blows to the institutional frame of the church that we all need to reset the church’s course. They wake us from the sleep inflicted on the hard of heart and the self-righteous. They restore us – as the same ancient homily I just quoted puts it- to the new life that fills us with the great peace, when we allow it to:

I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

As long as we listen to the story from the outside, only as observers and sceptics, we will think that the new life it speaks about is a return to the Garden of Eden. But who really wants to go back to Eden? The garden from which the Resurrection reaches into humanity and changes us is not a lost paradise but the kingdom of God. This is a special kind of place – neither here nor there, in us or among us but one that is an experience that simply and mercifully is.

So, the conversation is not talking to or thinking about but living with and keeping company with God. And so, it is at its fullest in deep silence. In silence we are not trying to look at the risen Jesus, because then, as outsiders, we will always fail to recognise him. But when we are seeing him in the same glance of love as that with which he sees us, then we recognise him as we are brought to full self-knowledge.

Resurrection shows us the way we need (and want) to follow into the conversation with silence itself. (‘Nothing is so much like God as silence’, the mystics tell us). To start this conversation is to activate the seed of contemplation planted at birth, our original act of existence. Every follower of Jesus is therefore called to be a contemplative, just as every spouse is called to tread into deeper union. The levels of silence – of tongue, body, mind and heart – are the great milestones of life and – for the meditator – this is one with the journey of our daily practice. As these levels become deeper we become simpler and more childlike. One day we even learn how to play the game of life, once  again with unlimited joy.

For the contemplative Christian prayer is not, essentially, speaking to God, or thinking about God. It is about entering into a silent conversation with God through the mind of Christ. It is not about opposing our will to God’s or negotiating a settlement over our differences of opinion about what is good for us. It is about an active, whole-hearted surrender to the will of God who knows our needs with an intimate and unique love because he is part of our humanity, sharing with all our woundedness and complexity.

As Christians of our time this kind of language may speak best to those who have already started the conversation with silence. But for many others it can still suggest an image of a ‘personal God’ which is suspect and even offensive. It is true that this image of God can be abused. Personal, in human terms, can also mean jealous, possessive and controlling. It is an image that religious people in the three sister religions of the Word, all born in the same troubled and violent part of the world, sometimes claim to be their own exclusively. Twisted out of its true meaning in the silence of the great peace, the idea of a personal God can infantalise us, become a source of oppression in the power structures of wealth and politics and even a justification for the massacre of innocents.

Yet it is still the greatest of gifts – provided we know how to share it.

A Taoist ruler once said you should rule an empire the same way you cook a little fish. (In one of the great Resurrection appearances by the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus does just this). In another Taoist wisdom story the crew of a big boat saw a small craft sailing directly into its path. They leant over the side and shouted insults to those in the boat approaching them. Then they realised the small boat was empty and fell silent.

Empty and silent like the tomb of Jesus on the Sunday morning, the new sabbath. The empty tomb is recorded in each of the gospel perspectives on the Resurrection. Finding it empty disturbed and mystified the disciples, and Mary wept. Yet emptiness is the correlative of fullness. They are opposites yet perform the same function in the grammar of meaning. The divine kenosis, or self-emptying, produced the incarnation of God in which the fullness of the godhead was able to dwell embodied. We cannot recognise the risen Jesus unless we have looked into and entered the empty tomb of our own heart. It may sound metaphysical theology but it is proven in our human psychology and in daily experience, including the daily practice of meditation, of poverty of spirit. As for the jeering sailors in the big boat (of reason) the discovery of emptiness in the small craft (the egoless self) leads us to silence.

The obvious question reputedly posed to the Buddha once – what do you get of meditation? – is best answered by ‘nothing. But I lose a lot.’

Today we need to cultivate this quality of emptiness and silence if we are to survive the impossible contradictions on which we have built our world. These contradictions torment and threaten us  – irresponsible affluence and the endless exploitation of the earth, nonstop communication and increasing loneliness, luxury and increasing anxiety. The perennial value of the wisdom of contemplation has been drowned out by a compulsion to put utilitarian or commercial values on everything whether a price-tag is relevant or not. Doing this distorts the value of everything. A young lawyer told me recently how the law firm where he worked was systematically squeezing all humanity out of the work by reducing every fifteen minutes of the day to a billable slot; he had to account even for his visits to the bathroom. At the end of such a process we will find not emptiness, which is the correlative of fullness, but nothingness and a vacuum of meaninglessness.

‘Remembrance of God certainly brings comfort to all hearts’, says the Qu’ran. The basis for the dhikr form of prayer in Islam is the interior repetition of short phrases or the Names of God. Its meaning is to remain in the mindful presence of God while performing the most ordinary actions of the day, like rising from bed or walking. In the same way, John Cassian urged the desert monks, and we their successors, to recite their formula, or mantra, while performing any kind of work or service, or on a journey, answering the calls of nature, while falling asleep and on waking up. So, rather than being an esoteric practice for a spiritual elite the prayer of the heart is intended for all as a very simple and ordinary way. It is an immediate, unmediated, way of experiencing that emptiness is the way to the fullness of God. In this incarnate spirituality of daily life, where a contemplative discipline becomes truly part of our life and connects the surface and depth levels of consciousness, we discover that learning and living are the same.

Remembering. Spiritually, this is not a nostalgic exercise. It is not even primarily about thinking of the past. It is bringing the most meaningful essence of events that first happened in the past into the present and making them present now. The theological term for this is anamnesis (‘do this in remembrance of me’). In medical vocabulary the word refers to a patient’s complete and accurate recall of his condition. Spiritually it means recapitulating our past into the present.

There is no greater fear than the fear of forgetting. In dementia, the intimate spouse of the person suffering from this dying of the brain in the one they have loved for a lifetime, watches their loved one progressively fade from reality and withdraw. A very deep act of love is necessary to stay re-membered to someone who is apparently losing even their memory of you as they become dis-membered. Perfect love alone can cast out this fear.To deal with the inevitable fading of memory – which begins as soon as memory begins to function – we need to understand the present as more than the time shown on a digital clock.

To deal with the inevitable fading of memory – which begins as soon as memory begins to function – we need to understand the present as more than the time shown on a digital clock.Easter means the experience of presence, the continuum of real presence in which we are mutually, reciprocally, present to one another and at the deepest level with God. As Jesus was present to the Father and the Father to him, he became present to us by drawing humanity into the most intimate presence of God to Himself which we try to describe as the Trinity.  In this ever-present presence, past and future meet. The fear of forgetting, of death itself, fades. The experience of life in the boundless fullness which, as children, we were able to enjoy on occasion, returns in full force.

Easter means the experience of presence, the continuum of real presence in which we are mutually, reciprocally, present to one another and at the deepest level with God. As Jesus was present to the Father and the Father to him, he became present to us by drawing humanity into the most intimate presence of God to Himself which we try to describe as the Trinity.  In this ever-present presence, past and future meet. The fear of forgetting, of death itself, fades. The experience of life in the boundless fullness which, as children, we were able to enjoy on occasion, returns in full force.


Before Easter this year we let go of Eileen Byrne (photo), a beloved member and teacher in our UK and global community. I first met her when I was a member of the lay community at the first Christian Meditation centre in London. She was an important link with the foundation of the Montreal community and later became Director of the Centre in London. She was quintessentially English but also a citizen of the world and filled with insatiable artistic and cultural curiosity. When we were in Montreal she once drove me, still a monk in training, up to the country and a very active diocesan youth camp which I rather dreaded going to. As she drove away she shouted back to me in a loud voice: ‘Laurence, remember you are a contemplative!’ Eileen, I try…

May she rest in the great peace and may all whose paths she smoothed towards a contemplative knowledge of the risen Jesus thank God for the gift she has been to us all.

Happy Easter!

With much love

Laurence Freeman OSB