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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Friday Lent Week One: Matthew 5:20-26

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If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven

In defence of hypocrites we ought to remember that much hypocrisy derives from a lack of awareness even when we half-choose to remain unaware. Waking up, especially if you have been asleep a long time, is always hard. We resist the transition to a bigger, less passive dimension of reality. We push away the hand shaking us awake or press the snooze button and turn over. This reluctance to be awake is also perceptible in how we vote and spend our free time.

The value of anything can best be understood in reference to its opposite. We value sleep because it helps us be more awake during the day. We value silence so we can communicate better. We value wealth so we can give it away. The relationship between opposites produces balance, healthy living and nice people who are kind and just to those in need. Clinging to one side of the equation – staying in bed all day, talking nonstop, clinging to possessions – drives us deeper into the one-dimensional, illusory world of self-absorption, where we are unaware of the many other dimensions we live and move and have our being in. In such a world life then becomes a continuous selfie shot. Instead, ‘stay awake’, the gospel tells us. The Buddha was walking along one day when a passer-by was struck by his radiance and powerful presence and asked him ‘Are you a god?’ ‘No’. ‘Then are you a wizard?’ ‘No’. ‘Who are you then?’ ‘I am awake,’ the Buddha replied.

Wakefulness is part of the universal wisdom found in all true teaching. To be truly awake is beyond what we think of as morality or, let’s say, it is the fundamental basis of moral judgement. The hypocrite in us is quick to condemn others, enthroning itself on the moral high ground from which it can act with amazing cruelty. But it is in the dimension of dreams, not the real world.  We see the effect of wakefulness in the difference between good work that brings out the best in us, producing benefits for others, and work that leads to burnout and divisiveness. In another sense, wakefulness shows the difference between a beautiful artistic representation of the human form and an obscene image. 

It is hard to see how in the speed and information overload of modern life we can stay awake without a contemplative practice integrated into daily life. Lacking this, how (even with the best intentions that the hypocrite in us often starts from), can we avoid being swept into the torpor of over-activity, the dream-state of the half-awake? 

The same balance that keeps us awake also reduces our hypocrisy. The key is accepting our limitations. Lent is not about putting ourselves down or denying the gift of simple pleasures. It is about accepting that our limitations are the way we steer steady between extremes. Physically we are limited by biological limits that we must fulfil adequately – for example in sleep or food. Intellectually, we are limited by how much data we can take in and also by the need for healthy content, not endless entertainment. Only in the spiritual dimension are there no limits. 

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Thursday Lent Week One: Matthew 7:7-12

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Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened

The confidence in these words is compelling. But we might feel they describe an unreal world of fantastic hospitality, a world of always happy endings. The universe is not so welcoming and accommodating as this. Every day children cry for food and perish of hunger, the innocent pray for justice and are treated badly. 

Even so, his authority compels us to dig below our scepticism for a deeper spring of meaning. Seek deeper and it soon seems we are plunging in freefall, toward a bottomless ground. From this point the journey into the silence of the desert becomes both more demanding and more rewarding as we undergo an awakening we did not bargain for.

So far, we have just learned to sit still in the four familiar dimensions of space and time – with an upright but comfortable posture. At the morning meditation thoughts fly around us like gales. In the evening, like mosquitoes and itches. But soon we see that the stillness itself is revealing another dimension: a journey into meaning deeper, stranger, more familiar, more self-verifying and richer than we could have imagined. We feel welcome on this journey: a sense of homecoming, despite the strangeness, a genuine hospitality not a false consolation. 

Each step on this path advances the transformation being worked in us. Our mind itself becomes more lucid and more loving. To sustain this journey step by step we say the mantra: a word we repeat first in the mind superficially and eventually in the heart resonantly. With practice we evolve from saying it to listening to it. This interior evolution is reflected in the far-reaching changes in how we interact with people, work and time. We see meaning in what seemed to us before as merely contradictions or absurdity. From deep within the apparent nonsense of saying that we will always receive what we ask for, there arises a light-winged wisdom.

The word we recommend is maranatha: a sacred word in the gospel tradition, Aramaic, the language the historical Jesus spoke. The word means ‘come lord’.  But as the mantra is for laying aside all thoughts even the thought of its own meaning and because saying the mantra is the work of silence, we don’t think of the meaning as we say it. To the babbling mind this is refreshingly challenging. You can choose another word but the same principles apply to any word used as a mantra – it is better if it is not in your own language and best to say the same word continuously throughout each meditation period from day to day. This plants the seed deep and allows growth to happen, ‘how, we do not know’ as the gospel says.

Meditation takes us through the jungle overgrowth of all our thoughts, imagination and feelings. It is a narrow path – but better have a narrow path in a jungle than no path. The mantra is a short step and a giant leap of faith. Each time we return to it, we take another step on the path. For however long we may wander off it, into the undergrowth of fears and desires, we are happily never more than one step from re-joining the path: we simply start saying the mantra again. This immediacy introduces us to the dimension of the present moment. Here, asking and receiving become one.
 

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Wednesday Lent Week One: Luke 11:29-32

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This is a wicked generation; it is asking for a sign.

Craving for signs is like demanding that one answer will resolve all the aspects of a question. It locks us into the most superficial dimension of reality. We miss out on the deeper and more satisfying significance of life and the tangible truth of full experience. Get over it, Jesus says to the superstitious and their near allies the fundamentalists.

Through direct experience meditation teaches us what thinking and talking cannot. Communication without this dimension of silence becomes babble and leads to the conflict that arises from confusion. ‘Let’s sit down together and get things cleared up’, we say in difficult personal situations. That is precisely what we do in meditation. It doesn’t look like this, however, until you have tried and tested it.

Why does going into the desert (eremos) help us live better in the world of the city? The desert is more real than we imagine. The city is more illusory than we like to admit. In the desert there is nothing real to contemplate except nature itself in its simplest, barest forms. How do we know – what is the sign – that what we are doing is real? Perhaps it is the experience of beauty, meaning the instantaneous penetration of our being by the whole mysteriously present in a part which touches and changes us. We don’t think beauty or decide to feel that something is beautiful. We cannot deny beauty or explain it. We surrender to it. Imitation beauty seduces us but its fakeness is soon exposed. The real thing , like the beauty met in the desert, exposes the glamour of the mall. Once the false has been seen we need to drop it quickly. If not, illusion gets a grip and addiction will ensue.

This is why we need eremos, to sit and be. Children, to the amazement of their teachers and parents, can and love the interior desert. For us it involves a re-learning. Unless you become like little children. . . The learning begins with physical posture. The body is the greatest of all signs, the primary sacrament, the beauty (even after it has started to decline from its physical peak) that is truth. An emaciated, wasted body is no less sacred or essentially beautiful than the fit and firm because the body never lies. Even more than being a sign, the body is our primordial symbol. A sign merely points. A symbol embodies. Not body image. But the body that embodies you.

The way you sit in meditation expresses your mental attitude to the session you are beginning. It frankly reveals to you the truth of your mind and expectations. If you are slouching or slumping that’s where your mind is and it will make the interior uprightness of meditation more difficult. So sit upright. This will also help you to breathe better which helps you to be calmer and more awake. If you are on a chair you might shift forward,  towards the edge of the chair to keep the back straight. Maybe put a small cushion behind you. If you are tall sit on a cushion. If you are short put something under your feet letting your feet form a 90 degree angle with your knees. Sitting on the floor, you probably need a cushion so that your back is straight and your knees touch the ground. If you kneel with a prayer bench, keep the back straight, hands on lap or knees. Shoulders relaxed, jaw loose, breathing normal, chin slightly bent to straighten the back of the neck. 

What could be more beautiful? What a sign to you and others around you that when we sit and are who we are we don’t need to look for signs.

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Tuesday Lent Week One: Matthew 6:7-15

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In your prayer do not babble on as the pagans do….

Babbling means long-winded, empty chatter such as, unfortunately, we find in many a church, temple, mosque and synagogue, not to say in most political discussion.

We are on the seventh day of Lent. Quite possibly the energy of the fresh resolutions of Ash Wednesday (to give up something and do something extra) may already need renewal. Knowing what it is we need and consciously looking for it puts us half-way to finding it. It’s true, if we truly seek we will really find. Finding means seeing now that what we were hoping would appear later is already here, just waiting to be recognised. The dimension of time undergoes an alchemy once we and the present moment touch each other here.

Between good intentions and action there is usually a short-lived connection. It quickly disconnects before the fruit has ripened. Addiction is existential. Unhooking from its patterns is healing. The good intention to meditate is a good idea that makes us happy we decided for it. But, when we run up against a glass barrier between intention and action, the optimism of our will crumbles. We see clearly what we want to do but an invisible force comes between us and what we want and feels impenetrable. This is where the babbling starts as we talk, read or think too much about what we are still not yet doing.

We come up with infinite reasons to justify this failure which lead us to reject as fake the very thing we had until then been trying for. This betrayal of trust explains why relationships can suddenly plunge from bliss into misery. The glass wall is reinforced by noisy, often malicious babble, until we become deflated. Anyone listening to the Brexit debate knows the feeling. We are left with the unsavoury experience of shame and disconnection that follows all division and violent conflict. Divided against ourselves, failing to do what we want, we experience the meaning of ‘sin.’ Far from being the mere breaking of a rule, human or divine, sin is only understood when we confess how powerless we have been made by our own inner divisions and self-rejection.

Whatever we do in this collapsed state of egoism brings little good to us or others. Many hands will be extended towards us when we ask for help in escaping it. Some of them ask for an agreed price to be put in them, before they will pull us out. Happy are we who grasp a hand that asks for nothing except the honour of helping us. Our sense of worth is already restored. These are the elements found in that interior movement of consciousness called metanoia (change of mind) and often badly translated as ‘repentance’. Not guilt but a change in consciousness.

This is what Jesus starts to say after he leaves the desert, empowered by all that he has transcended. We begin the process of change not by building a steely will but simply by changing the direction of our attention – giving our attention elsewhere. Reality is where we place our attention. It cuts through the babble of the mind and dissolves the plate glass wall of inaction.

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Monday Lent Week One: Matthew 25:31-46

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For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was a stranger and you made me welcome….in prison and you visited me.

After his desert experience, not just ‘filled’ but overflowing with the Spirit, Jesus set out to do his work. Happy are we if we have found our work in life and if we see that our real work is not what we get paid or praised for. The Upanishads show how to recognise our true work, saying that whoever has found the ‘work of silence and knows that silence is work’ is happy. This work produces all the lasting fruits of our life and takes time. It also slowly penetrates the whole dimension of time we inhabit, helping the ego to let go. Then, it produces in a natural way, the fruit of wisdom in the unselfconsciously good deeds described in today’s parable. Goodness has no trace of ego.

The first known instrument for measuring time is an Egyptian sundial from 1500BC. Mechanical clocks appeared in the 13th century. Today we measure time with sub-atomic precision but the more precisely we measure it the less time we feel we have. It takes time to undo this self-entrapment. ‘Only through time, time is conquered.’ There is a moment when we know we are really seeing what meditation is about: when we see how absurd it is to begrudge the minimum twenty minutes twice a day by claiming we are too busy and too impatient to unhook from the stress of being time-dependent. The process of learning to meditate is universal but each of us has a unique way of living its pattern. Some dive in with two daily periods from day one, others slowly measure out the meditation time in teaspoons – five minutes a few days a week. Ultimately what matters is not how much we do or succeed but that we do –  in physical fact not mental fiction – start to sit and be still and do the work of silence.

Sitting.  Half-way between standing and lying down. You can meditate in any posture or activity but you will be very unusual in achieving this continuous state if you have not first learned to sit. Sitting still in a calm environment allows the mind to settle. At first we feel the opposite of settled: anxious, restless and confused confronting the pounding waves of mental and emotional agitation. We see how distracted we are but instinctively seek distraction from distraction by more distraction. Letting go of thoughts is the simple response for overcoming this reaction. But we confuse it with the goal of blanking out the mind and so feel we have failed if, after forty seconds, we are still distracted. So we then decide instead not to waste our time, do something useful and postpone meditation for another forty days.

In order not to surrender to distractedness, we need two things: encouragement that we can trust and that comes from outside ourselves; and genuine openness to something new and unimagined.  As these take time, we need the virtue of what Japanese call gamon: perseverance, the determination to carry on against the headwind, enduring defeat with patience and dignity and so transforming failure into wisdom. When Japanese-Americans were interned during the war their fellow-American gaolers misinterpreted their gamon as passivity and lack of initiative. Similarly, today we can see the good work of meditation as unrealistic, replacing it with ‘well-being’ or relaxation. But we then miss the real fruit of the work of silence: the un-selfconsciousness of genuine compassion.

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First Sunday of Lent: Luke 4:1-13

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Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan and was led by the Holy Spirit through the wilderness, being tempted there by the devil for forty days.

The Jordan is not the Mississippi or even the Nile. It isn’t much bigger than the little River Rhune that flows through Bonnevaux. Great or small, we never go down to the same river twice. Like our own identity over the decades, it flows ever onwards and yet we always recognise it. When recently, early one fresh morning, we renewed our baptisms in the Jordan, it was a very moving moment. The dimension of time separating us from the baptism of Jesus became less important than the spiritual dimension which the skeptical might dismiss merely as imagination. It opened us to a presence that stretched through all four dimensions and went beyond space and time. That particular space, the Jordan, however, was meaningful. And time is always precious: we squander it whenever we don’t let it intersect with the timeless. 

After his baptism Jesus was ‘filled with the spirit’: his spiritual capacity had expanded. It propelled him not to the shopping mall or back to his carpenter’s workshop but into the Judean wilderness for forty days. (Forty is a Biblical shorthand for a period of time that separates two epochs. We catch something of it in the way we say we are ‘in transition’.) The Greek word for wilderness where he spent this time – it is our Lent – is eremos. It gives us the word for hermit, the solitary life. This is more relevant to all of us than many think, however busy with family, friends, fun and work we may be. We are more solitary than we care to admit. But if we ignore or deny it, we contract rather than expand, we avoid rather than meet our whole and true selves. Meditation is a time-respecting way of accepting and recognising our solitude, which is why it helps us understand the inner meaning of Lent. As  a part of each day, it sends us back to our life, work and relationships clarified, purified, recharged and energised – as it did Jesus. But it also awakens us to the eremosdimension within.

Eremos can be translated in unattractive words: wilderness, desert, lonely region, uninhabited, desolate, bereft. Nonetheless, we might ask ourselves why are we drawn to it when we are filled with the spirit, or need to be? What is there in this kind of space – physical or mental eremos – that promises us something that other locations and activities  do not. I had to spend three hours in a mall recently getting my phone repaired. After twenty minutes of over-stimulation I felt ‘wilderness’ or ‘lonely place’ described it well.  But this is a different kind of desert from the one Jesus ‘was led’ into. Lent highlights this difference.

In the desert he was tempted by the forces of the ego that most of us spend at least forty years wrestling with: desire, power, pride. The time we spend in our eremos is not easy, just as meditation is not easy. Malls are easy. If meditation seems easy perhaps you are only shopping or browsing not meditating. Not easy but simple and empowering. Each meditation period, in which we try to be simple and choose to be free from the ego, lasts ‘forty days’.

Finally, having ‘exhausted all these ways of tempting him the devil left him, to return at the appointed time’. To guard the heart, until the next time, the meditator understands why we need eremos every day.

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