Tuesday Holy Week

Psunday

The Last Supper weaves a high level of consciousness around the polarities of friendship and betrayal. It refuses to see one without the other. It refuses to make an eternal enmity between them – as we do when, hurt or rejected, we say we will never communicate again with the person who caused us this suffering.

In this open and vulnerable state of mind Jesus walks across the Kedron Valley to Gethsemane, a small estate where he was used to pray. In the light of the Passover moon he would have seen the funerary monuments already built there. Muslims, Christians and Jews have since added their graves to this place of ancient memories. Once when I meditated in Gethsemane with fellow-pilgrims, I faced an olive tree reputedly 2500 years old which the eyes of Jesus would have seen. I also noticed some small red flowers I had seen earlier on the slopes of Galilee where the Sermon on the Mount was given. I wondered whether seeing these ‘lilies of the field’ on his last night, Jesus remembered his home and more peaceful days – days when he taught, before he was called to live, to be, his teaching with every cell and fibre of his being.

In this garden, in the night’s silence, he took a few close companions to pray. They fell asleep. In his solitude, he was overwhelmed by sorrow and the fear of death reared up from where it hides in each of us. Everything in him rejected his destiny; but something else appeared in this moment of panic. This was a sense of deep connection and ultimate purpose. With this he moved from panic to peace and acceptance. ‘Not my will but as you will it to be.’

‘In his will is our peace’, Dante said. But the word ‘will’, implying some contest of wills or clash of egos, may mislead. ‘Point of view’ or ‘way of seeing’ conveys the meaning better. We do not merely surrender our will to the divine will – surrender usually preserves a pocket of resentment. There is no violence done to us or by us in the union that happens between our way of seeing and the vision of God.

In this union of vision the illusion of our self as a separate individual is finally transcended. It is replaced by the self-recognition of a unique solitude. Centred, grounded in this solitude Jesus meets his betrayer’s kiss and the armed guard that comes to arrest him under cover of darkness. He is never more alone and never more equally connected to both friends and enemies. He is bound and led away to a mock trial, not as a victim but a universal symbol of freedom.

A singular detail in the story as told by Mark has intrigued readers since the beginning. A young male follower wearing nothing but a linen cloth was also arrested but escaped and ran away naked. Perhaps as tradition says, it is Mark himself. Because the figure is both anonymous and autobiographical, many readers find themselves identifying with this very vulnerable and for the moment rather absurd disciple of the Master.

Monday Holy Week

Psunday

Immediately after the dark and apparently motiveless scene of Judas selling his teacher for money, Jesus instructs his disciples to prepare the Passover which he will eat with them. This celebration of family, friendship and solidarity with the past will include the betrayer.  What would it say of Jesus as a teacher if Judas was excluded?

The exchange between Jesus and the disciples about preparing the Passover meal to be celebrated in Jerusalem is quite detailed. He tells them what to do and who they will find and where – an upper room with divans and cushions : a middle-eastern eating space for reclining not Leonardo da Vinci’s quattrocento table. The impression we receive is that he is actively preparing for what will happen to him. Some people, who know they are going to die and have accepted it, cease to be victims of their mortality. From the hospital room or bedroom where they will die, they become more concerned about others than themselves. Death becomes more than an individual, terrifying extinction but a passage for a group of people tied deeply together by bonds of love and faith. And wherever there is love and fidelity hope is never far away.

The upper room – later called the cenacle – is not just a rented hall but a community space. Tradition says that it is the room where the disciples gathered on the day of the Resurrection and later for Pentecost. It is not a virtual community – as we have come to understand it – but one physically connected and identified with particular space. As with Bonnevaux – increasingly for our community – the space feels filled with a living presence.

The shared meal (that became the Eucharist) was meant to be a joyful gathering; but a shadow is cast over this one by the consciousness of the coming betrayal. The old Fathers of the Church agreed that Judas took the bread and wine with the rest. It is an important detail because it shows that the shadow in ourselves – and the darkness in the world before and since – is absorbed by the very light it tries to block. What seems a contradiction (as to those excluding people from the Eucharist) then becomes a paradox in which transformation happens and reality is realized.

This is my body: this is my blood. Two Greek words with distinct, overlapping meanings point to the gift he is making. Sarx (flesh), Soma (body). If he meant sarx it would be a rather gruesome gift – the cannibalism that people thought the early Christians were practicing. But soma means the whole embodied self. If a woman gets disturbing blood-test results her family don’t just hug her flesh but her whole body-self. The pain of the flesh is relieved by the love experienced in the body. Perfect abs and biceps may be the attractive wrapping of our self; but we love the whole embodied person, even when they lose tone and put on weight.

Before the physical and mental suffering for which he was preparing them, he was touching them, as Leonard Cohen says, with his ‘perfect body’ and, even more, including them in it.

Palm Sunday

Psunday

No narrative has changed the world as deeply as the account of the Passion of Jesus we read today and that we will consider in this coming Holy Week. The themes we have been working on during Lent – ascesis, paradox, true values, consciousness – are embedded in the wholeness of the story and shine out in many of its smallest details. Some films begin with the claim that they are “..based on true events”. This story is not invented but it is also literature of the highest order. Let’s begin.

Two days before Passover, the central religious festival of the founding myth of his race, which claims God’s bias towards his chosen people. In Egypt (where we began Lent) the angel of death passed over the sons of Israel choosing their enemies instead. Of course, we already know that, in this story, Jesus will not have this privilege. From the first, he is seen as a victim of a corrupt and cruel power system. He is like K in Kafka’s ‘Trial’, like us in our paranoid nightmares of being targeted. Like and unlike. Like us in the ordeal, unlike us in his response.

Power brokers at the top level, when they work in solidarity, are unbeatable. They decide to eliminate him and we know he will be killed. Whatever the suspense in this story – and all stories require some – it is not about its outcome.

Scene change. Jesus was at a meal when a woman showed her feelings for him by anointing him with a jar of expensive ointment. She broke the jar and poured the fragrant contents over his head. (Christos means ‘anointed’). Some of the guests were angry – why waste the money rather than giving it to the poor? Jesus passionately defends the woman. This is another example of the gospel highlighting the superior wisdom of women. Maybe they are wiser not only because they are women: but because those who are excluded from power often see more deeply into the truth. The poor and powerless with whom Jesus identified are often closer to the Kingdom.

In protecting her, ‘Jesus says you have the poor with you always and you can be kind to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me.’ No politician would say this. But is he saying he is worth more than the poor? Or: that our option for the powerless derives not from socio-economic ideals but from the transcendent source of compassion. When you clothed the naked or gave food to the hungry, he says elsewhere, you did this ‘to me’. What may seem like a separation from human suffering is in fact an absolute identification with it. But it is expressed, not conceptually, but in the very particular way he defends this woman. Who is she?The whole of this story is universal because it is so authentically particular.

Scene change: Judas offers to betray Jesus to the chief priests for money. He will calculate the right moment to deliver him to them. The contrast with the mention of money in the previous scene about the ointment is stark. There money is incidental. Here it seems the controlling motive. We don’t know why Judas enacts this betrayal, which has made his name a universal byword for the worst of humanity. We never will understand it until we find the reason in ourselves.

 

Saturday Lent Week Five

bonnevaux_W5

Anthony of the Desert, the archetypal monk of the fourth century, once summoned all the brothers. When they gathered around him his words were few: ‘Always breathe Christ’. Reminded of their goal of continuous prayer, they returned to apply his teaching in each moment of their life.

In our stressful times we have forgotten Anthony’s meaning and miss the experiential authority of his teaching. But, when anxious loneliness and the fear of the void threaten our well-being and sanity, we are ready to re-discover the simple immediacy of what the desert wisdom teaches us.

Before the mantra becomes rooted in the heart, conscious breathing, paying attention to the in and out rhythm, is the simplest and quickest way to recover from an agitated mind and, as Jesus says, to ‘set your troubled hearts at rest and banish your fears’. We can’t deal with anxiety just by thinking about what is making us anxious. The body is the natural place to start.

John Main emphasises simplicity. Our body, although it is as complex as the cosmos, is radically simple. In the heart, the spiritual centre and inner room of prayer, body and mind unite. Fr John warns of the dangers of complicating the simple discipline of meditation by turning it into technique.

Like all masters of prayer, he understood the role of the breath in simultaneously calming mind and body and preparing us for a gentle, steady deepening of consciousness that we call the inner journey. Breath links mind and body.

He did not advocate only one way of synchronising the mantra with the breath; he was aware that some align it with another rhythm such as the heart. But probably most people say the mantra with the breath, either breathing it all in and breathing out in silence or (if you are saying maranatha as he suggested), saying the first two syllables on the in-breath and the second two on the out-breath.

If you self-consciously divide your attention between the breath and the mantra your meditation becomes more of a technique. The purpose of the discipline is to unify attention and become single minded. So at first you could rest the mantra lightly on the wheel of the breath, giving undivided attention to the mantra. Eventually the mantra finds its own rhythm in the subtle field of the spirit. Then we start sounding it more gently and listening to it more wholly.

In spiritual time the mantra leads us into deep silence where we move beyond my prayer, my meditation, my experience. When our prayer becomes the prayer of the spirit we truly ‘breathe Christ’.

Holy Week begins tomorrow by focusing on the mortal body of Jesus; but also on how this body becomes us, as Christ is formed in us, and we become his body.

 

Friday Lent Week Five

bonnevaux_W5

When we dramatise ourselves we miss the real drama, the real meaning, of experience. Self-posturing gets in the way of real presence and distorts our vision of things. Behind this universal tendency – Martha’s reaction to stress is a good example – is the sense of separation from ourselves.

Making a fuss about things: this may mean talking too much, gossiping with false sincerity, analyzing and psychologising others’ faults, attributing blame, playing the victim or the outraged person who has been dis-respected. It is not a good way of dealing with real instances of injustice.

We have ambivalent reactions to the great saints, like Francis of Assisi, who delighted in the opportunities that rejection or humiliation offered them to transcend their egos. At first their humility may win our admiration. But then, we may suspect they were masochists who enjoyed their humiliation.

As always, the test is in how grounded we are in deep silence. It is easy to be superficially silent when we feel calm and all is at peace around us. But, when we are upended by events, hurt or confused, silence is lost and replaced by the noise of our self-dramatising complaint. Then we lose the opportunity hidden in the hard lesson we are being taught.

Deep silence not only holds us steady through the storm. It also secretly contains the presence and the meaning, which want to reveal themselves to us. And which redeem the mistakes and transfigure the tragedies of life.

This deep silence is perceptible in many of the scenes of the Passion drama, which next week we will be listening to again. It is stronger than the noise of the crowds.

At the start of every meditation session we run into the busy traffic of the shallow dramas of our lives. Even though we know that these issues will have changed by tomorrow or next month or next year, now they absorb us – distracting us – as if they were of absolute significance. But, if we do the work of silence – pure attention to the ascesis of the mantra – we escape the traffic. We find the deep silence which in timeless stillness patiently, kindly awaits our arrival.

Free from the noise of our self-dramatising we move into the real drama of existence which is not the drama of desire, fear, anger or pride, but the drama of love.

 

Thursday Lent week Five

bonnevaux_W5

We crave drama, anything to animate the monotony of the mundane. But this craving contradicts the need for security and the advantages of routine that usually win the day. We are attracted to risk but we do everything we can to manage it. We want growth and progress but haggle over the price. Cliff-edges are dramatic places that sharpen our senses and give us a buzz: but there are always persuasive reasons for not jumping.

How to handle this contradiction and get to the paradox? Entertainment offers a quick solution though not a very satisfying one. Hollywood and Bollywood feed us a buffet of crime drama, war movies, passionate romances and cliff-edge series. In a well-run buffet the serving dishes are constantly replenished and our appetite re-kindled by fresh food. In a similar way, our consumption of vicarious thrills through sensational news, disaster weather warnings, TV and movies is fed so continuously that we don’t know we are becoming addicted. (‘I don’t have time to meditate but it’s been a hard day and I have earned a couple of episodes of…’).

Life is dramatic because we are unique and so no modelling of the future can really prepare us for what is going to happen next. Prediction works well for weather, less well for economics and hardly at all for when we fall in love or when love seems to die. We cannot predict when the contemplative dimension of the soul awakens and eventually disturbs the entire pattern of our priorities and habits.

This is the real cliff-edge of the human journey but it is usually a slower dramatic transformation than we have come to expect in the course of an action movie or even a gripping novel.

The other day I was watching a child acting out the intense dramas of his imagination in a world of his own. He was oblivious to everyone around him. I wondered what programs or cartoons were animating his rich and turbulent inner world. Such fantasies are part of our development. In the middle ages he would have fancied himself as a knight in a jousting match or as a hero slaying dragons. When you see a young adult walking down Islington High Street dressed like the long-coated character in The Matrix, and walking like him, you wonder where fantasy feeds the imagination and when it cannibalizes the creative forces of the mind.

Without knowing it we dramatise ourselves, occupying self-generated roles of succeeders, heroes, victims, unrecognized geniuses or neglected sages. We typecast ourselves and thereby cease to be surprised by the wonder of our own being and our liberty of spirit.

Meditation smashes the shells of fantasy that entrap us. Then we feel at risk; and we are. We risk the cliff-edge of reality, the passing through the portal. The very non-dramatic nature of meditation is what opens us to real wonder and amazement at the way things truly are.

Wednesday Lent Week Five

bonnevaux_W5

A key word in relating to the mystery of Christ is kenosis or ‘emptying’, We are told that Jesus ‘emptied’ himself or ‘became as nothing’. This applies especially to the ordeals of his last days of life which are described as the ultimate act of service – using the metaphor of a slave or servant who has no identity of their own but has become wholly other-centred. It also illuminates someone caring for another who chooses, in love, to put the other first. Psychologically this sometimes raises alarm signals for modern people but theologically it opens the window into the deepest mystery.

Emptiness  – sunnyata in Buddhist thought – refers less to the way we relate to others but it is still an indispensable element in compassion. ‘No self’ refers rather to the essential nature of everything. Nothing has independent or permanent existence. This is reflected in the Beatitude of Jesus that he calls poverty or poverty of spirit. It sounds like a deprivation or afflicted state. But, if as he says, it is the direct way into the kingdom, then it is more truly understood to mean detachment, renunciation or letting go.

These ideas might sound abstract to the non-meditator or anyone who has not reflected on the meaning of their life-experience. Meaning arises through connection. Meditation is a universal way to meaning because – another paradox to add to the list – the solitude we enter when we meditate opens up the reality of our fundamental connectedness. This begins with feeling connected with our selves as we overcome the illusion of separateness and the suffering it brings. But this is only the beginning.

Exactly how these general truths work out in the story of our lives – as it did in the life of Jesus – make for the uniqueness of our existence. This singularity of human existence is also the basis of love and justice. We love another because they are unique and their singularity somehow resonates with our own. Justice treats each case, each person, on their unique merits. All love is solitude transformed in communion.

In the case of the story of Jesus this touches not only the individuals he loved, his family and friends, but us as well – ‘us’ meaning all those who have ever lived or ever will.

However much we like to postpone thinking about it, death is also an indispensable element in the meaning of life. It makes us see that every life-story, however insignificant it may be in terms of the power-and-wealth systems of the world, is a universal drama. Properly reverenced, each human being and his or her unique story, thus reveals the cosmic mystery.