Friday Lent week Two: Genesis 37: 3-28

 

‘Here comes the man of dreams’ they said to one another. ‘Come on, let us kill him and throw him into some well; we can say that a wild beast devoured him. Then we shall see what becomes of his dreams.’

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Sea of Galilee

This passage comes from the story of Joseph’s brothers, jealous because he was their father’s favourite, plotting to disappear him. They wouldn’t kill him – that would have been bad luck – but planned to leave him to die slowly at the bottom of a well. It exposes the hidden history of the world and much of our family life and religious and civil politics. It is disturbing how often jealousy operates as the deciding factor in our behaviour. Even God is a ‘jealous God’. One zealous commentary, defending the literal meaning at all costs, says, ‘God’s jealousy is appropriate and good’. Jealousy is an inevitable consequence of favouritism: a chosen race, the prophet who trumps all predecessors, the saved, the elect in any form. Yet, how hard it is for the monotheist, longing to be loved more than others, to believe (like St Paul) that ‘God has no favourites’.

You probably have a virus scan on your computer. It protects against the digital terrorism of hidden, isolated individuals who have probably come to feel they connect to others only online. The online persona is a risky gamble. So, we need an interior scan, too – examination of conscience, spiritual alertness, guarding the heart. Viruses like jealousy, racism or perfectionism lurk in dark attachments in our deep hard drives. Meditation searches them out. We have to be prepared for the struggle they will put up before they are deleted – or their energy is converted back into our original goodness. Lent is a time for this kind of spring-clean.

Modern affluent cultures give great attention to lifestyle choices and ways of improving our physical and psychological well-being. How many topical conversations revolve around food that’s ‘good for you’, the latest celebrity vegetable, diets that will save the world, new nuggets of esoteric wisdom revealed for all. These ‘discoveries’ and the reactions they evoke in the modern consumer-of-news feels like a flock of birds rising together and swerving in ever changing directions. Much less attention is given to our mental state.

We care less about what we allow our minds to absorb and become concentrated on or addicted to. So, the healthy-liver and eater today can resemble the ‘proud virgin’ of earlier centuries. We can be so careful (and right) at one level and yet blow it all away in another. Pride like jealousy is our common downfall. All that’s needed to make this double-standard a concealed lifestyle is enough people who agree with you.

Why do we love our own ‘dreams’ so much and so often despise or ridicule the dreams of others? To share a dream can inspire self-sacrifice and service. Or it can unleash a collective nightmare and the scapegoating of the most vulnerable. Watch your dreams.

To scan our deep mind for possible viruses and to test the mettle of our dreams – this is the work of pure prayer. The only sure test is to let go of all representation of our hopes and beliefs – conceptual, verbal or visual. Whatever regularly survives this radical cleansing of our mind can be trusted (most of the time).

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Thursday Lent week Two: Luke 16:19-31

 

‘There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even came and licked his sores.’

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Sea of Galilee

Our material, physical well-being is a sensitive issue. We feel it every time we pass a beggar in the subway or street. Aware of our privilege, for a moment, we forget our normal complaints and problems: it could all be much worse, we think. If we keep the thought for more than a few seconds we might consider the not impossible scenario in which our roles could be reversed. The mighty are sometimes pulled down from their thrones. But then we think, do we give something? Why are we really doing it? Who are we being kind to? Does this brief encounter with the other side of society have lasting impact on our way of living, our lived values?

Once on a lovely summer day I came out of a building into bright sunlight. Everyone was looking happy. Even the young man sitting on the pavement with his hand out. Our eyes met and without thinking I said, ‘what a lovely day’. He nodded enthusiastically and said, ‘yes fantastic…hope it lasts.’ It was a momentary confusion of roles but still part of the lovely day.

In today’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus we hear of ‘a great gulf (that) has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours.’ It refers to the karmic consequences of self-isolation, being so preoccupied with improving or protecting our own well-being that we, in effect, wilfully ignore the opportunity to improve the condition of those in greater need or even to simply relate to them. The ‘great gulf’ in the karmic (afterlife) realm is visible and tangible every day to those who have a minimum of sensitivity. It is a major cause of the instability and turmoil of the modern world – the protest of the humiliated. ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ Jesus said but the size of the gulf has become our big issue.

In our Lenten practice – giving something up and doing something extra – we hope to re-sensitise ourselves to reality. Unfortunately, we tend to be selective about the aspects of reality we recognise and relate to. Some bits we highlight and enjoy. Others we deny or choose to forget: ‘deliberate hebetude’ (choosing not to see) is a phrase of TS Eliot’s that exposes our mind games and exposes the fragility of any false peace built upon it: The serenity only a deliberate hebetude, The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets. Useless in the darkness into which they peered. Or from which they turned their eyes.

We cannot be selective about reality without compromising everything. Essentially the ‘holiness’ we aim for in Lent is not a moral virtue but a matter of perception, how we see the whole we belong to. And saving ourselves is not about avoiding the punishment of eternal hell-fire but saving time now. (Springtime begins today).

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Wednesday Lent Week Two: Matthew 20: 17-28

 

‘You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you.

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Sea of Galilee

The gospel imagines. It summons up before us a new, extraordinary vision of humanity and society. If we don’t feel a bit confounded by this we haven’t imagined it. It perplexes us because it sounds both absolutely right and yet highly improbable ever to be realised. Even if it is unrealistic, if we reject it, we are diminishing ourselves. Are you serious? A world order in which those who hold power genuinely act as servants, where they love people not lust after power? Among other things, Lent is an opportunity for us all to audit our ways of using any power we have and review our sense of service to those who have none 

We cannot begin to imagine at this level unless we have been pulled up short by the limits of what we can see and understand. Religion is about doing this. Confronting us with questions not ramming answers into our heads. This is why the great religious geniuses had the genius of simplicity and make us gasp with wonder rather than just cheer at victory. Take the parables of the Kingdom for example.

The reign of God is like someone who found a treasure buried in a field. She buried it again and for sheer joy went and sold everything she had and bought the field. Thirty-three simple words describing a clear sequence of events that can keep a group of intelligent people talking for hours and come back the next day for more. To interpret the multiple meanings in the elements of this passage is to expose yourself and, if you are willing, to know yourself better than before. Why did the person bury the treasure again? (To prevent others from knowing about it. To keep it safe. Because it belongs in the field. Because she wanted others to come and enjoy it. Because it needs to be there to grow) Why did she feel such joy? Why did the joy lead to the recklessness of selling everything? What does ‘buying’ the field mean? Are some answers right and some wrong? Are some more right or wrong than others?

After morning meditation we jump up and go into the world with an open mind, not to impose pre-set answers on every situation, forcefully converting others to our view, but feeling for the truth with a questing, spiritual intelligence. By the evening, interiorly more dishevelled than we were in the morning, we sit down and let the inner space tidy up, not just evaluating the day as good or bad but testing its meanings. In this rhythm, we replenish the power of Imagination and restrain the perennial tendency of Fantasy to lead us astray.

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Tuesday Lent Week Two: Luke 2:41-51

 

‘Why were you looking for me?’ he replied. ‘Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?’ But they did not understand what he meant.

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Sea of Galilee

There’s still a lot about what Jesus said that we don’t understand. We can cope with this failure by i) thinking he is not saying anything relevant to us because we don’t like being brought up against the limits of our understanding. Or, ii) we reduce his meaning to what we can handle easily – ignoring the deeper spiritual sense by settling for a black and white moralistic message. Whichever of these approaches we take towards the spiritual dimension will be reflected in how we find meaning in the events of our lives.

A few days ago a white supremacist rampaged in a quiet civilised city in a decent socially responsible country and committed an appallingly insane massacre of God-fearing men and women at prayer. For a while the whole world feels one, one with the families of the victims and all the people of Christchurch and New Zealand in their traumatised grief. Once again, we are reminded by an outburst of inhuman hatred of the need to affirm the common ground of humanity. We remember that what unites is more meaningful than what separates. Then, somehow – this is the paradox – the worst evokes the best.

Darkness can invade and flood the human being, singly or en masse. We call it dark because it produces behaviour that makes us want to close our eyes. We would prefer not to see it. It is darkness become visible and the demonic become tangible: a nightmare. Worse still, it demeans humanity everywhere. Just as heroic virtue or holiness lifts our self-esteem by reminding us what we are capable of, so inhumanity makes us question if perhaps we really don’t possess buddha nature, we’re not created in God’s image, we cannot be ‘other Christs’.

Unless we choose to see otherwise. ‘Seeing the darkness’ implies the presence of some dark, invisible light. We cannot see without light because seeing – consciousness – is light. Just as the universe is suffused with a mysterious dark energy that we do not understand, so a certain kind of light that we cannot understand shines in the densest darkness and the dark cannot quench it.

If we hate those who hate us what reward can we expect other than an escalation of hatred, the orgy of self-destruction that eventually concludes every triumph of evil? When people at prayer are mown down by a madman, the innocent imprisoned or the poor routinely exploited we should feel the pure anger of prophets. But if this anger leads to deeper hatred and violence the darkness merely thickens. When in the short formal remand ritual, the judge called the arrested man ‘Mr’, he refused to dehumanise even people who deny the humanity of others. The light shines in darkness. We see, through tears, how evil’s triumph can be reversed by humanising forgiveness, the ultimate winning card.

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Monday Lent Week Two: Luke 6:36-38

 

Give, and there will be gifts for you: a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.’

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Sea of Galilee

Yesterday we reflected on the physical transformation that accompanies deep spiritual reality. This has more meaning than the thickening of the brain’s grey matter observed by scientists studying regular meditators. The gospel links this flooding of the spiritual into the physical to compassion – ‘be compassionate as God is compassionate’. This is what triggers the overflow. Nothing could more pervert this than the ‘prosperity gospel’ of rewards and punishments that seduces so many today by linking it to opportunistic greed in a financial transaction. (‘Send a donation to the preacher and God will double it for you.’)

I was once visiting Mother Teresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta. The beds were all occupied, and the overflow of suffering individuals covered the floors. The Missionaries of Charity ran a compassionate but efficient and immaculately clean operation. One of them asked me briskly to go over to a very slight body, whether male or female you couldn’t tell, lying on the ground with its back to us and give a blessing. When I knelt down, I saw the thinnest of young men and by his stillness I assumed he was already dead. I touched his shoulder and was shocked when he moved and with surprising quickness turned towards me. He lifted himself on his thin arm and looked into me with wide-open eyes filled with bliss. I weakly wondered for a moment if I had distracted him from what he was contemplating. But he was undistractible. It was I who had been blessed as his look penetrated through the walls of our distinct identities and brought me momentarily into the vision.

St Augustine says that the vision of God, which is the goal of human destiny, does not consist in watching God as a separate being at a great distance. This is the image we see in many old paintings, the hierarchy of human society repeated in heaven with the haves sitting in the best seats up front and the rest in receding importance behind them. Instead, Augustine says, the vision consists in turning towards each other and looking into each other’s eyes where we see God. That produces in us a bliss which the other perceives and understands better because they have seen it in our reflected look. That makes them more blissful which increases our happiness – and so on until forever.

The ‘giving’ in the quote above is unquantifiable. To quantify it is to fail. But the proportionality is real. The more we give the more we receive until we fall over the waterfall in a cascade of joy. It lasts until we start to wonder how long it will last and if we could lose it.

Compassion, like goodness, is not rewarded. It releases and is the reward, the flowering in unbounded generosity, of itself. It begins with a mutual look and goes forward  into infinite feedback .

So, perhaps, Lenten practice for today: make and hold eye contact without fear.

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Second Sunday of Lent: Luke 9: 28-36

 

As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning.

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Sea of Galilee

Some years ago, a very discontented young woman used to come regularly to our meditation centre in London. She looked resolutely on the dark side of life, habitually focusing on everything she lacked rather than on the positive side. She was hyper-sensitive, reactive and everyone trod very carefully with her. One day she told us – as if it was proof of her long-held conviction that the universe was determined to get her – that she had been diagnosed with an aggressive and terminal cancer. Over the next few months she continued to come to the centre and meditate with us and some members of our community in particular showed her great kindness and patience. Her bitterness in life increased but at least she didn’t wholly reject the patience and compassion she was shown. We helped her find a place to end her days. When she was taken into hospice care we used to visit her.

One Sunday after our community mass I took her communion in hospital. She looked terrible and her pinched expression held a lot of anger. When I said I had brought communion she grimaced unpleasantly and said ‘well that won’t do me much good will it? No thanks.’ But she said she would like me to sit with her a while. We chatted a little as she complained how some celebrity of the moment who had a notorious life style was revealing in fame and success. She, by contrast, had been ‘good’ all her life, obeyed the commandments and ended up like this alone and dying young. I listened. She then took out a notebook, looked at me and asked if I would like to read her poems. I dishonestly said yes and looked in the book but couldn’t read her handwriting so I asked her if she would read them to me.

She began to read a poem called ‘whale-song’ describing the songs that whales sing to each other across vast distances deep in the oceans. It was true and deeply moving, rendering her intense lonely suffering into words of beauty. She sang herself beyond herself. She shot me a quick look to see how I was reacting and saw I was moved. In that instant she too, like Jesus on the mountain in today’s gospel, was physically transfigured. Her thin emaciated face radiated beauty and a kind of glory. Her eyes shone joyously with a vision of a reality beyond the veil of flesh and its attendant woes. It was brief but timeless. She had had her communion after all. Soon her normal expression descended again, though more thinly now. She died a few days later.

Pure prayer flows in the human heart deeper than words and thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it breaks the surface and the body itself thrills and is physically changed. This season’s spiritual practices remind us that the body is an instrument and a sacrament. It doesn’t play this music every day.  But you never know.

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Saturday of Lent Week One: Matthew 5:43-48

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He causes his sun to shine on good and bad alike and his rain to fall on the honest and dishonest alike.

The idea that God doesn’t and cannot punish can be very offensive to some people. It challenges a widely accepted idea of justice in which wrongdoers should pay for their crimes and the good be rewarded. It upsets their view of the universe as a morally coherent system in which good and bad are in perpetual conflict. The truth is far more simple than that.

The fault lines among religious people run along this divide. A godly world of reward and punishment reinforces the security of those whose religion plays a big role in their life-insurance policy and need for safety. Everything is clear and simple in this dimension but it comes to depend upon a scaffolding of definitions, rules and rituals to keep this world-view standing. In this dimension, excluding other people on the margins, followers of other faiths, and sexual minorities makes you feel safer. In extremes this kind of religious dimension resolutely blocks out all trace of the free and living Spirit of God – like the Christian faith that blessed apartheid and napalm bombs and turned  a blind eye to the holocaust. Shake the scaffolding and it may seem as if the whole building will collapse. If they catch you shaking it, watch out. The vision of God that Jesus embodies, and Lent helps us find, is more challenging but less obviously secure. 

I hope that by now you will have failed enough in keeping Lent to be able to see through this two-dimensional state of mind to which we all are at least partially attached. It thinks that God is like us whereas the gospel sees human destiny as becoming like God. There is an important difference in perspective here. To embrace the more challenging reality of a multi-dimensional universe we need to puncture in several places our self-righteousness and confidence of being on the right side. Each puncture, each failure in life is potentially a window onto this more expansive and inclusive view of reality, an escape route from the harsh conditions of the prison of fundamentalism and duality.

But doesn’t the Bible show us a God punishing the wicked (even sometimes a little excessively perhaps)? And doesn’t Jesus also speak on occasions about the bad being cast out into a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth? How to square this circle? Looked at impersonally the universe is a system in which the law of karma rules: good deeds produce good results, bad deeds you pay for. But wake up more, seeing yourself in a universe pervaded by the spiritual dimension, the mind of God. You then see a higher law than karma. 

This is the ultimate dimension of love, to which we can – for all our failings, perhaps because of our failings – awaken. Karma and love co-exist but karma dissolves on conscious contact with love. Does the father of the Prodigal Son punish? Can he? We expand into this greater dimension through loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, turning the other cheek. All the idealistic, impossible things that we are incapable of doing, unless we become ‘like God’.

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