Thursday Lent Week Four


Meditators can be the most egocentric of people, especially if the cleansing of their doors of perception (see yesterday’s reading) gets stuck at the starting gate. The perception of our egotism, however uncomfortable, is liberating, but only if it extends beyond itself. If the contemplative remains fixed in her self-perception she betrays the goal of her journey which is other-centred perception. In training children we call this ‘thinking of others’ and it is related to basic social graces. But its deeper sense is the clear, direct perception of others, their needs and their goodness, that happens when we become subtle enough to pass through the walls of the cavern of our ego.

Blake spoke of the cleansing of our doors of perception. We could also think of it as a training, the ascesis that is life itself. Every act of perception is a lesson and a step to deeper consciousness. Just as we gratefully perceive things more clearly after physical exercise, creative work or meditation, so we come to love the training for the kind of work it performs in us.

The training in this kind of perception takes many forms. Like every universal process it is never exactly the same for everyone. No one is exempt from this because it is the very meaning of human development. But we are each different in temperament and past experience, in the kinds and degrees of woundedness and in the combination of strengths and weaknesses that define both our limitations and our potential.

The training never stops until our last breath and, perhaps, not even then. It involves constant correction of the course we are on. Extremes take us off course – even though they may help us understand better where we are not going. At one extreme, for example is ADD, jumpy, short-lived, inconstant attention: when we struggle even to listen to the person who is speaking to us or to the page we are reading. At another extreme is OCD, fixated, mechanically repetitive, compulsive: when the needle of attention gets stuck on the vinyl and keeps replaying.

Any extreme eventually leads to discouragement or despair. But we can be reassured that even mistakes and neuroses have their positive side, when we perceive them for what they are. This itself is progress and we should feel a ray of the sunlight of consciousness enter our darkened minds just in this perception of our dysfunction. In biblical language, admitting your responsibility for the mess you helped create is a good thing, the beginning of repentance, which is simply putting things back in order.

Cleansing our perception is like sharpening a blunt knife or walking a narrow path. Seeing it is not enough. We have also, always, to take the next step. Which is why we say the mantra continuously.

Wednesday Lent Week Four


William Blake said that if we could only cleanse the doors of perception we would see everything as it truly is: infinite. ‘For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.’

It is always tempting to think that solutions lie outside us. Others who fail to collaborate can then be blamed for the problem. Slowly through life we learn that we cannot change the world or other people until we first change ourselves. It is very annoying that this is a universal law but there’s no getting around it.

One attempt to evade the need for personal transformation is to think that we can cleanse the doors of perception by taking something outside ourselves and putting it inside. Humanity has had a relationship with alcohol for ten million years and then mastered the arts of producing it about ten thousand years ago. Our drug-addiction epidemic today merely confirms how easy we find it to escape painful perceptions of reality by changing them by external means. Every alcoholic and addict witnesses to the ultimate failure of this attempt.

If we want to see things as they really are we have to cleanse the powers of perception that permit us to know ourselves as we truly are. There are many of these powers, as there are many dimensions of consciousness in the physical, mental and spiritual realms. Proprioception, or kinesthesia, is the medical term for one of these powers, which is perhaps the perception we most take for granted. It is the sense by which we can perceive the position and movement of our body. For example, even with our eyes closed we know where our left and right hands are and what they are doing. We also know by this sense whether we are feeling balanced. Athletes make good subjects for the scientific study of this form of perception.

We practice it – and cleanse it – each time we meditate, when we take a few moments to be aware of our body and its posture. Are we sitting upright, still, with neck balanced and hands in position – ‘comfortable and relaxed’? This intuitive checklist becomes second nature with regular practice and grounds meditation in the wonder of perception itself. That we can be aware of ourselves in this most simple and immediate way reminds us that we are sentient beings not just stressed, anxious, discontented or complaining individuals. A few moments’ attention to our posture shows a way out of the cavern in which Blake says we have incarcerated ourselves.

Paradoxical as it may sound, this most basic power of self-awareness, perception concerning our physical reality, initiates the journey into other-centredness. It is, if you like, basic mindfulness and however it is practiced it brings its own kinds of benefits. But, if we are not to get stuck at self-awareness and if we are to enjoy the fruits of self-knowledge, we need to take the next step. This is why we meditate and why some of us support it with the perception-cleansing work of Lent.

Tuesday Lent Week Four


I have been leading a retreat in Italy and learnt two things yesterday, each concerning my perception of the world that I thought I was seeing accurately.

The first came after I spoke about the purpose and value of ‘doing something for Lent’, which these daily readings for the past few weeks have returned to regularly. How doing something and not doing something can help re-orientate our minds and hearts, shift old patterns and even, without doing violence to us, trigger or enhance deeper levels of transformation. I assumed that a fair proportion of the hundred or so people I was talking to would have done something or given something up. It was a naïve assumption because when I asked for a show of hands of people who had a Lenten practice, and expecting at least fifty percent, only a very few did so. Now maybe they misunderstood me. Or maybe they were applying the warning of Jesus not to parade your good deeds before men. I don’t know. We misperceive our misperceptions too.

If I was right I had made a mental misperception. Later I was given two powerful digital art works made with striking colours and dynamically abstract. As I looked at them longer I saw a face in one. In the other I saw a shape that reminded me of an extra-terrestrial, though I didn’t say this to the artist. After a third look it struck me that the face I saw was very familiar and I did mention this. The artist looked at me, surprised that I had not recognised myself. When I looked at the other painting the alien merged into a new composition and I saw a different view of my face there too.

To become aware of our misperceptions of reality is always humbling and can also be humorous and enjoyable. In more serious matters where our reputation or privileges are challenged by acknowledging our mistakes we may pretend we always saw things correctly and were misunderstood in what we said before – or we simply deny and evade the embarrassment. As effective leaders know, it is always better to admit mistakes and if necessary say ‘sorry’ but it takes a contemplative detachment from ourselves and our image to do this.

One of the values of an ascetical discipline is the humility, the down-to-earthness it brings. We never practice them perfectly because, even if we are consistent, a measure of self-congratulation can always creep in. But the humble fidelity to what we set out to do nevertheless creates a detachment, an optimum distance from ourselves and our subjective view of the world. It allows our powers of perception to function within the flow of events rather than creating a model of reality that we defend at all costs even when it has been exposed as false.

This personal trait, which we can all be subject to without knowing it, also affects the collective psyche. Electorates who have made a big mistake, which is pointed out to them by subsequent events, rarely see reason and change their mind. To change our mind is the essence of human development. Like snakes we grow skins of perception that we have to learn to shed without regret when the time is come; just as, one day, we have shuffle off our mortal coil and enter naked into the kingdom where we see with perfect vision because we no longer objectify reality.

Instead of looking at it (and getting it wrong much of the time) we see with the eyes of the artist who made both us and the world that we are ever one with. Ultimately, we see because we see that we are seen.

Monday Lent Week Four


Forty is the biblical number that symbolises an extended period of time during which a process of transformation is completed. We have not finished the whole journey after this period of time but we are prepared to embark on a new and possibly quite different phase.

Most of our long-term commitments – in marriage, parenthood, in any long work undertake or in monastic life – will take us through this cycle of transformation and bring us to moments of transitional completion. The whole process includes long periods where there is a combination of daily repetition and self-renewing acts of fidelity leading at unpredictable times to total surprises. Growth is a series of forms of completion that we could never have imagined and that, when they come to pass, re-write the plot line of our lives. It is better not to fast-forward or skip to the end of the book because we miss a lot of the meaning of the story.

Each meditation is a microcosm of this forty-day process: of exodus, purposeful wandering and arrival at a promised land, which then sets us a new set of challenges and points of departure.

Perseverance is essential. We need to identify and dismiss the siren voices of frustration or desperation that urge us to turn back. The Israelites in the desert longed for the food they had left behind in Egypt, having got bored with the miraculous manna and quails that fell from the heavens every day to sustain them. Everything, even miracles, can eventually become mundane when we begin to crave variety or the imagined security of the past.

But after a while perseverance can become an unattractive idea as our desire to take a new route or spice up our routines gets overwhelming. Then we need to see that it not all just a mechanical repetition we are committed to but a faithful repetition. It could be boring to get the children fed and off to school every morning but not if it is done in love and for love. Love transforms boredom into quiet wonder. Meditation is a work of love built into the daily routines of life.

A young meditator told me recently that he liked the boredom of meditation and he felt that his generation had been deprived of the value of boredom by the continuous stimulation and diversions of their lifestyle. I got what he was saying but I wouldn’t put it like that. I can’t say I have ever found meditation boring – often difficult and tempted to skip, it but never boring. There is always a surprise even if it comes after the meditation when you realise what a bad idea it would have been to miss it.

There is a subtle level of perception which faith awakens that allows us to know something new – that perseverance, faithfulness has a meaning and constructive purpose which though we cannot quite put our finger on and describe is more real than the greener grass we imagine on the other side of today.

Fourth Sunday of Lent

2Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21


People endlessly wrestle with questions about the existence of God and of what God is like.

The Bible thinks that only the ‘fool says in his heart there is no God above’. But calling the atheist a fool doesn’t help the discussion today. The importance of believing in God today is not that we avoid being burned at the stake in a theocratic tyranny but so that we remember the equally important questions about human existence and meaning. Without a connection with the living symbol of transcendence we cannot fulfil our human-ness.

The first reading uses the familiar metaphor of God’s wrath descending on those who are unfaithful to the Covenant. It is still a metaphor that many take seriously because it offers an easy explanation for the mystery of suffering and gives the believer a sense of superiority over those he condemns for disobeying God. If we don’t decode the metaphor we end up with the Taliban.

The second reading helps to deconstruct this by stating – shockingly to anyone at that time – that we do an injustice to ourselves by thinking of God in this punitive way. We can only know anything about God through the self-knowledge which at source is God’s love for us. The text says that we, the human, ‘are God’s work of art’. And, that we receive salvation – the potential to come to fullness of being in union with God – through faith and as a ‘gift from God. The question of God is always a question about ourselves. The way we believe in God reveals what we really think about ourselves. Are we a miserable guilty sinner or a glorious work of art. If the work of art, then God must look on us as an artist looks at his masterpiece, not as an art object with a price tag but as an extension of himself.

As always, the gospel condenses all these ideas into the single, simple question of Jesus and of his meaning for us. In him we see that God loves us, his creation, so much that he is incapable of being cruel to it. On the contrary, he humiliates himself as a passionate lover does, discarding dignity and rights, loving the incomplete work into perfection. If we can see ourselves as his work of art, receiving the gift of his continuously creative attention, we have stumbled upon what human perfection really means.

The artist stands back from her work and contemplates it. She intervenes but does not interfere with its emerging identity. While it is still imperfect, she falls in love with it. While still working on it she knows that its beauty, its truth, is her own. What a Sabbath rest when it is finished. What a perfect work when it looks back at the divine artist and says thank you for making me.

Saturday Lent Week Three


The way through any crisis is to go deeper, to find the stillness that never changes and yet is the creative source of all change through the countless shifting shapes that life takes.

Culturally we no longer revere this stillness. We even deny it and have long worshiped the golden calf of speed and action for its own sake. We have forgotten the power of stillness to release peace and creativity upon the sufferings and challenges we confront. If it seems hard for us to regain contact with this stillness it is because we have lost touch with the obvious ways to do so – of which meditation is the most obvious, most simple and most immediate.

There are, however, states and stages that come at different times and in which access to this stillness suddenly becomes clear and simple. It may be a state of great joy, when we have first found love with another person, or a state of profound loss when what we thought would always be there is suddenly whisked away. These kinds of states and their variables come and go. But they are recurrent windows of opportunity that we can recognize if we take sufficient detachment from the emotions they throw up in us.

Stages are more like milestones. They remind us that we are on a journey through a linear experience of time even though there seem to be many cycles repeating themselves as well. In other words, none of us are getting any younger. Except in the sense that, as our union with God deepens, we realize God is always younger than we are: so we do become younger as we grow older if we have awakened to the purpose and meaning of time.

Stillness is not a state of piety or belief. It is their source as of all our devotion and values. The special stages of life in which we can most readily enter this stillness and ‘know God’ are childhood and, if we have stayed awake, old age. But the reassuring thing is that we can access the childlike state here and now because ‘the kingdom of heaven is very near to you’.

Children themselves are the most powerful authority for teaching this. I would also add those who found wisdom through suffering or those who enjoy prosperity with poverty of spirit. But children are the best teachers. This was brought out well last night at the Meditatio Centre in London, where we were launching a book by a former teacher who has written a book on meditation with children.* He has given a voice to the children he spoke with about their experience. Their simple and profound comments are very economical.

Ella (9) said, ‘When I meditate it feels like me and God are connected.. like he’s giving me loads of love when I’m meditating. I can feel his love. And sometimes in my dreams, I’m meditating and I can see God sitting there beside me meditating’. And Aideen (11) said, ‘I think we can all be like God if we try, so.. we all have a little bit of God in us.’

The anxiety and fear that often dominate us in later life are frequently linked to our childhood. We almost expect to become more burdened and complex as we get older and so forget that this state of childhood is still accessible. We give up the attempt to reconnect to it too quickly, too pessimistic and lacking faith in the wonder of our own being.

Stillness, simplicity and silence are the undivided trinity of states that lead us to become like children again.

Friday Lent Week Three


I hope you are not getting tired of seeds because there is one more parable to look at. It is the most famous of all seed stories, simple and inexhaustible. Non-dogmatic, but it won’t let us go until we have been read by it. Luke 8:5-8

A sower went out to sow. He scattered the seed in all directions, with varying results. Some fell along the path and the birds came and ate it up. No response, predictable waste. Some fell on stony soil and it sprang up but for lack of moisture withered. Quick response but bad conditions. Failure. Some fell among thorns which were also growing and soon choked the seedling. Bad company. Disappointment. Some fell on good soil and grew healthily, a hundred times return on investment. A successful outcome of nature.

Jesus delivered this story, we are told, to a large crowd of people who were pouring out of the towns to see and hear him. He told this parable to a multiplicitous multitude: some real seekers, some curious, some just following the crowd as they would attach themselves to any crowd. Didn’t he realise that his words would fall on their ears as the seed in the parable fell on different types of soil? If he had wanted to win them all over and enjoy a short-lived Oscar award he would have chosen another message with less of the fullness of truth buried in its apparent emptiness. At the end he throws the ball into our court by saying: ‘Anyone who has ears to hear, let them hear.’ Our own ears are the soil into which the seed of his words fall.

This could lead to different conclusions about the crowd – which now includes the (say) two hundred generations that have heard the same story since. Or, the twenty hundred-year old people that, hand to hand, link us to that moment of the first teaching. We could conclude that all his listeners would be ranked in terms of their receptivity to the seed of his teaching. A pity then for everyone who is not in the good soil category. And most of us would suspect we are not in that. Are we really producing a hundredfold on the investment he has made in us?

Or we can conclude that at different times, different phases of our life, in different moods, subject to different conditions, each of us contains all these different responses. We are after all very inconsistent, much of the time.

In search of lost time, we see our many failures and missed opportunities, many misunderstandings and not a few stupidities. If we can’t, others will point them out to us.

The birds who ate the seed before it germinated, the short-lived and the choked seedlings – are they not also part of the great cycle of nature? Is anything really ever wasted? Does anything really die? Of course it does. But when it is accepted and seen in the big picture it is, as Wittgenstein saw, touched by ‘redeeming love’. What is the greater force in the germination of the seed of our life: failure or forgiveness?