We live with so many scenarios of the future in our tormented imagination that it’s hard and it takes time even for astonishingly good, life-changing news to sink in.
That the prophecy is fulfilled.
That the great divide has been bridged.
That we have a faithful friend, an advocate to help bring us to our full potential.
That we are free from the fear that kept us locked into the old cycles that took us nowhere.
That we have somewhere to go and we are fuelled by hope.
That we are empowered to live this life from today in a new way.
That the Lord is risen.
That it’s real Alleuia!
St Anthony of the Desert once called all the monks to him. When they gathered he said ‘ Only breathe Christ’ and sent them home.
In a way unusual for most religious philosophies Tibetan Buddhism offers quite a confident account of what happens after death. Although we are naturally curious we are also, most of us, happy to remain ignorant about the journey we continue in this shadowy realm. Easiest of all is to believe that nothing happens. That this life is it, and after the light of consciousness goes out there is infinite darkness.
Tibetans believe that, for most of us, in entering death there is an initial state of unconsciousness. This is followed however by six bardo realms, transitional states, with very vivid visions and perceptions. We pass through these until rebirth happens. From one perspective, everything is transitional, even life itself. From another, every state, even that between two breaths or two thoughts is a world of its own with a particular meaning and purpose. Today is a bardo realm but something is definitely happening.
Christian understanding of the meaning of Holy Saturday, the transition between the death and resurrection of Jesus, is that he was intensely active. He harrowed hell. He penetrated into the deepest and darkest layers of the human to where the human first emerged, to where consciousness begins. He dived deeper and deeper. Unlike most of us he was not diverted by the vivid content of the different realms. He saw them as projections of consciousness not consciousness itself.
The truth and the love that he had discovered in his lifetime and longed to share propelled him now like a missile of redemption. His mission of irresistible compassion harmonises all layers of consciousness with reality itself.
There is now nowhere we can go where he has not been and been conscious of being there. Even unconsciousness has been impregnated with the seed of loving consciousness. As we make our own progress through the bardo realms and meet his presence, fear dissolves as soon as it forms.
Instead of rebirth, we are led beyond the cycle of repetition into the state of Resurrection where we no longer breathe in and out. We simply breathe Christ.
‘Do this in remembrance of me’, Jesus said at his last supper. But this came to be seen by those who remembered him as also throwing a direct light upon the meaning of his death. He did not kill himself. But, through his being so present to what he was going through, he made his death a self-offering in the same way that he offered his real presence at the Last Supper. This connection makes today Good and Jesus unforgettable.
We don’t remember him as a past event. We are re-connected to him as a present reality flowing through history. Through the personal connection of faith we are turning the past into the present by the alchemy of love. (The beginning is faith, the end is love and the union of the two is God – said St Irenaeus).
The word is ‘anamnesis’. It exists in medical terminology, too, to refer to a patient’s ability to recall and express the full history of his condition. For today it means that what Jesus went through in his death, and what he released, is fully present to us. This presence is there. It therefore has an influence on everyone, or so Christian faith understands.
But it is only real when we become really present to it. It is like discovering that the person we have fallen in love with does actually have feelings for us. We begin to hope. The hope heals the wounds that we didn’t even know we had. And finally, when love can be fully declared, maybe after much suffering, there is an expansion of being beyond the ego of separateness that cannot be described.
Many of you will be going to a Good Friday service today – one of the most popular in the Christian year. Some of you may choose to join the line that forms to reverence the cross. We do so taking our turn, not rushing to the head of the queue. This reminds us that what makes today Good is that it has opened us to a new relationship with this fountain of love. It has also changed our relationship with each other.
I can remember quite vividly the moment I became aware of food. A friend was saying what a good meal we were having or perhaps was recalling a good meal in the past and I remarked that I never really bothered about what I ate. (This was a long time ago). He looked at me with astonishment, maybe because, being Jewish communal meals and what was prepared to nourish and please the people at table, were sacramental to him. For me it was one of those moments when you see something you did not see before. A discovery.
Until that moment I was a bit like the philosopher Schopenhauer who told his landlady that he didn’t mind what he ate as long as it was the same thing every day. He didn’t want to be distracted from thinking by anything as banal as food.
Something similar happened to me with regard to the Eucharist whose foundation from the Jewish Passover meal we remember today. Seeing how John Main celebrated it with such reverence and depth of meaning and then discovering the light shed upon inner world through meditation, made me realize, with a sense of discovering what I had long been familiar with but never understood, that this really was food to be enjoyed and taken seriously.
Then I saw through reading the great reverence and grateful delight that the early Christians felt towards the Eucharist. Slowly it dawned on me that both meditation and the Eucharist are about the same real presence manifesting in different ways. What makes it real is of course reciprocity. There is nothing more destructive of presence than distraction. Sitting at a meal with others who are constantly sneaking a look at their phone and texting, for example. This is probably what Judas was doing at the Last Supper.
To make this point Jesus shocked and woke them up by washing their feet. The Eucharist feeds us at source with this spirit of humility. Jesus gives himself in this medium without reserve. He is not self-important. Nothing is more important than not being self-important. Then, by throwing open the interior doors of love, we are flooded with a sense of discovery. We see what has always been there but what we failed to understand.
Communion is about being re-membered.
Conversation reassures us that we are not alone. The great loneliness of the human heart is not only psychological. It is cosmic. Even though we have seven billion people to converse with, it disturbs us deeply to consider that we may be the only ‘intelligent life’ in the universe. We scan the radio waves from the furthest galaxies in the hope of ‘making contact’. Probably if we did we would soon be either trying to exploit them or destroy them.
The spiritual conversation of this week – with the scriptures and with each other – reveals something more about this compulsion and fear that has shaped human history as it can so easily shape and distort our own lives. When we turn towards a common point of attention and live together in that orientation what do we hope to find? An answer to our curious questions? Wisdom that will help us cope? Power that will make us succeed?
What we find in a conversation that has become truly silent – a conversation with the experience of silence – is that what we turn towards is already turned towards us. Furthermore it is holding steady, as we fail to do with our short attention span to anything other than ourselves. In this conversation we make contact with intelligent life that beams waves of love towards us, around us, through us. It is a real presence.
For presence to be real (not a group of people sitting in a room texting other people), there must be mutual presence. Jesus has real presence in himself even if we are distracted. He is present – as he says often in the gospels of this week – to the Father. His presence to us is an invitation to become present to him and so also to his Father and our Father. This alone allays the fear of the human heart that we are forever and everywhere alone.
We have started the Holy Week retreat on Bere Island. This partly explains my lateness in delivering this daily reflection – for which I apologise to the wonderful team of translators in our community who are sharing them in ten languages.
I have appreciated many readers of these daily reflection for taking the time to send me their comments. This has reminded me that we are all part of a conversation. The word ‘conversation’ usually evokes the sense of speaking together but this is a late meaning – from the 16th century I think. Its original meaning is suggested by St Benedict’s vow of ‘conversatio morum’, change in values and our way of life.
Conversation is primarily about ‘turning towards’ something together, training our attention on a common point and ‘living together’ in that way of looking and seeing. (To look at is not always to see. But you have to look first before you can truly see what is).
This holy week we are in conversation with each other and also with the great story of the last days of Jesus. The Christian scriptures however are not sutras or upanishads. The great intellectual and theological reflections of the faith I around the person of Jesus came later.
The heart of the conversation of this week is a story. It may be puzzling why the gospels, the core scriptures of Christianity, seems to give such disproportionate attention to the end of his life. Yet, when we recall the last days of life of someone we have loved, we understand why: the meaning of life and love becomes clearest when it is most vulnerable and fragile. Meditation teaches us this if we let it make us poor.
There is a unique quality of self-possession and detachment in the way Jesus goes through his ordeals. From our common experience of facing crisis and transformation, loss and mortality, it could be interpreted as a lack of feeling, self-anaesthesia. We are all prone to bury our heads in the sand when we don’t like what we see. From a quasi-theological point of view it could be misread by saying, ‘well he was God as well so it didn’t hurt him really. He knew it would all turn out well in the end.’ We tend to prefer an idealised spiritual master or an olympian god who is above rather than within the realm of our humanity
The thing is that the story is all meaningless – and also we have wasted our time in Lent – if we don’t get it that Jesus was as human as we are and is as human as we will be.
How do we deal with loss, mortality, betrayal and disappointment? Who on earth does not experience these in some measure at times in our brief lives? Our response to suffering determines how we also deal with discoveries, regeneration, love and the fulfilment of our hopes. These also, in some measure, characterise human existence. There’s no doubt what we would prefer to choose from the palette of human colour. But nor is there any doubt in the end that both teach and form us and we must embrace both with equal humility.
The detachment we learn over time and that makes for maturity of character means we don’t throw a tantrum whenever we don’t get what we want. Nor do we plunge into total despair when we lose what we have. In the same way we don’t become possessive when the good things of life come our way. We don’t delude ourselves that there aren’t problems round the corner. But it is this very fine balance of response that allows us to go beyond the see-saw of emotion and the ego’s clinging to the pain-pleasure perspective.
Meditation as part of life, our Lenten attempt to live a better balance of life point to the great sign we will contemplate in these coming days. To go through suffering, to release ourselves into death when the time comes, to let go of all we love and the delights of life without resentment: thus we encounter a goodness beyond good and bad, a fulfilment beyond finding and losing, a life beyond life and death. More, we discover it is not there on Mount Olmpus but here written into our very DNA.
If Lent was about trekking in the desert for forty years Holy Week is about coming come and saying an exultant thank-you from the bottom of our hearts.