Saturday Lent Week Four: John 7:40-52

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So the people could not agree about him

At Bonnevaux there are three springs. In each one, a continuous flow of pure water bubbles up from the invisible world below, of water tables or underground streams. When I stand beside them, seeing the gentle disturbance breaking the surface from the hidden source, I sense a long history. Springs have always attracted human beings not only as a source of the water on which life depends but as sacred places, life-enhancing symbols of the meaning, the connectedness, of life. ‘Believe in miracles, cures and healing wells’, Seamus Heaney wrote in his poem ‘Cure at Troy” and repeated in an address to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

World mythologies contain many stories of the quest for the ‘fountain of life’. In dreams, water is said to symbolise consciousness itself. Jesus wanted us to discover the stream of living water that flows from our heart. Every person’s heart is a spring through which the life of consciousness flows from a common source of being. It enters this tangible dimension of reality where at this moment I write and you read. Hearts, however, close when the negative states of mind with which we all contend, until the end of time, distract and overwhelm us. It may take some years to notice that your heart has been closing. But when you do see it, it explains a lot of what has gone wrong. It exposes the habits of character and patterns of behaviour that have gradually entrapped us and with which we falsely identify ourselves.

When the heart closes, we separate from our source and from the flowing nature of reality. We take rigid, fixed positions. Opposition follows and before long, conflict and varied forms of violence. Closed and separated in the pride of being right and condemning those who disagree as wrong, we can never agree. We then lose touch with the mysterious pathways between the dimensions of reality. These connections are not tangible or conceptual in the way we are used to, and so are easily dismissed as imaginary. The price we pay is to become stranded, inflexible,. Without the spring of new life our ideas become stale and our arguments monotonous. We fail to agree about anything or with anyone except ourselves. Finally, we cannot even agree with ourselves.

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Friday Lent Week Four: John 7:1-30

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but I know him because I have come from him and it was he who sent me.

In the long movement towards self-awareness, human beings have come to recognise different levels of consciousness. It seems that dogs dream but they don’t seem to be interested in the difference between the waking and dreaming state. We have grown in awareness of different kinds of knowledge and operations of mind. Whether all this evolution of consciousness has made us better than the dogs and gods we worship, or what it means, is another question.
 
Perhaps we need to take two steps forward and one step back. I mean, as we grow in self-awareness, we need to remember directly the difference between levels of consciousness. For us and our relationships it is important to distinguish between dream and reality. In a media-saturated culture where we easily become addicted to our devices and deprive ourselves of even ordinary degrees of peace – let alone the peace of God that passes understanding – it is crucial that we remember the existence of a level of pure consciousness. This is why we go the desert every day to do the work of silence. ‘Abandoning’, as John Cassian said in the 5th century, ‘all the riches of thought and imagination’, we find the royal road to poverty of spirit – detachment and the capacity to enjoy and understand without possessiveness and the illusions that carries. The meaning of Lent and daily meditation.
 
Socrates told of a scholar who approached an Egyptian king with a wonderful new product called writing. He claimed it would expand people’s memories: ‘my discovery provides recipe for memory and wisdom’, he claimed. The king was too smart to sign up immediately for a subscription to this wonderful new medium. He concluded that the invention would have the opposite effect because ‘people will cease to exercise memory’. Instead of drawing directly from within themselves they will come to depend on the ‘means of external marks.’ He sounds like a modern person complaining that with Google and electronic calculators we have lost the habit of memory, mental work and the art of learning.
 
It’s hard to be completely convinced of this extreme position, especially as Socrates’ words had to be written down by his student to reach us today. But the differences between direct and indirect knowledge have never been more important to address. However wonderful a TV nature documentary it is not the same as real trekking. Discussing meditation or doing research into its benefits is not the same as meditating. Coming to an experience of God through ideas, symbols or ritual has immense value. We are weaker without this language. But to know that ‘I know God because I have come from God and it was God who sent me’ is a form of knowledge that cannot be digitalised in a binary system or even the most beautiful writing.

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Thursday Lent Week Four: John 5:31-47

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As for human approval, this means nothing to me.

I have been tempted, no doubt like many in recent times, to stop following the news. First there is the endless accounts of failures: of leadership, building consensus, respecting the common good, caring for the vulnerable, protecting the dysfunctional and corrupt. There is also the sense that what we hear as ‘news’ is a considerably distorted and incomplete version of events and of what the main players really think. I concluded that, however frustrating and disappointing the present state of affairs in national and global society, we have a responsibility, as a member of the family, to maintain a certain level of knowledge and involvement in it all even if it seems like a bad soap opera at times.

Maybe in a hermitage deep in the woods, off the grid, we could be excused from following the news but that would be because at the deepest level of human fellowship we would be present to all and, in a mysterious way, even influential. Ramana Maharshi, who was for most of his life in an unbroken state of samadhi, of contemplation, never left his ashram. He followed the same personal routine every day. Many came to see him and sit with him in his loving silence. Once a visitor asked why he didn’t travel and bring his peace to the far corners of the world. Ramana smiled and replied ‘how do you know that I don’t?’

But for ordinary mortals like ourselves we need to balance, in the fluctuations of time, both contemplative work and active work. If we have no time for contemplative work – for being rather than doing – we run the risk of becoming increasingly busy and noisy and less and less really useful. We run a lot but cover little ground. We work intensely but produce less good work.

So much of modern busyness and confusion revolves around the un-integrated ego. Personality issues and gossip occupy more and more of the news concerning those who have responsibility on our behalf to run institutions and keep the world safe. Excessive anxiety about human approval – what people think about us – disrupts the detachment we need to make good judgments and serve on their behalf. This is dramatically true in the case of leaders but applies mystically to all of us because we form a single social body in which each individual is connected to every one else.

To be detached from human approval has a positive but also a very negative sense. Negatively, it means we do what we like, lie, cheat, extort and destroy and don’t care what anyone says because we can either simply deny it endlessly or eliminate the opposition. This is the fate of lonely leaders who have lost their solitude, winning the world at the cost of their true self.

But the positive sense means that we are detached, not disconnected. We are not absorbed in the heaving crowd of humanity, we stand outside it. But we live consciously in the community of humanity. The more detached we are, the more compassionately we are at the heart of society.

This is the wisdom the story of the last days of Jesus conveys – a story we are preparing to re-tell and listen to afresh as Lent draws to a close. It is a unique story. But, even if it doesn’t meet with much human approval, the wisdom is universal. As Lao Tse says, the wise ‘knows without having to stir, accomplishes without having to act.’

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Wednesday Lent Week Four: John 5:17-30

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my aim is to do not my own will, but the will of him who sent me

Other-centredness: a more difficult idea than self-centredeness. We are all more familiar with the self-centred state of mind, although usually readier to accuse others of it than to see it in ourselves. Its opposite is at the core of all wisdom teaching and the basic dynamic of meditation itself.

The truth – that we are most fully alive and most truly ourselves when we are oriented towards others rather than our own interests – is hard to practice. Yet, little by little and with many relapses, as the re-orientation of our minds, feelings and motivation moves us in this new direction, we discover a new form of happiness. A new level of meaning in life emerges. Meditation, properly understood, embraces this change of mind wholeheartedly as we learn to take the attention off ourselves.

At first, and for some time, it seems we are battling against a powerful head-wind. Attention reverts frequently to the thoughts, plans and memories that we are trying to lay aside by saying the mantra. The mind, like a puppy that is being house-trained, keeps on making the same mistake. It requires, not force or punishment but a great patience that reflects the love we feel for it. Current concerns, with old familiar anxieties, keep coming back demanding our attention. It seems very plausible that we could use our time most profitably by solving our problems or re-analysing them. Soon we see, however, that unless we learn the art of directing our attention, every thought or plan, including even those that concern the well-being of others, is quickly hijacked by self-centredness. The mantra gently but consistently retrains our mind with a higher level of other-centred attention which brings true benefits to ourselves and to all aspects of our work.

It is good work because it brings out the best in us and produces benefits for others. What we do in our training sessions of meditation thus bears fruit across the whole range of our conscious choice and activity; but it also transforms our unconscious habits of mind and feeling.

So a new horizon comes into view. We see the innate moral order of reality, the essential goodness of the universe which is itself the ultimate good work. This is reflected in our instinct for consistency – in faithfulness, justice, truth and kindness – in everything concerning us, in body, mind and speech. Even as we recognise the consequences of our words and actions and see our responsibilities as they really are, we sense that it is not only our own will that we are following. There is a will in the universe that is other-centredness itself, established in the nature of reality. Lao Tse called it the Way. Jesus knew it as the Father.

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Tuesday Lent Week Four : John 5:1-16

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‘Do you want to be well again?’

Some statistics about Jesus. From the gospel record we know that he asked 307 questions. He was asked 183 questions of which he answered 3.

One of the dispiriting aspects of modern public discourse is the familiar one – the new norm in politics – of politicians speaking a lot but saying nothing. The art of not answering the question is fundamental to political life today. No wonder politics is losing the people’s trust.

In the case of Jesus, by contrast, his refusal to answer most of the questions he was asked deepens our trust in his authority and integrity. Many of the questions were traps. So, even if he didn’t answer them he did respond to them, correcting them by telling a story. Honest fictions, like a parable, help to get us to the truth more directly than purely ‘factual’ replies. On some occasions, he was simply silent, refusing to be drawn into the maze of words; but at these times his silence exposed the falsity of the questions in order to reveal the depth of the truth.

He taught, that is, more by asking questions than by giving answers. This highlights the difference between the contrasting motivation of a teacher and an instructor or an officer of orthodoxy of belief. A teacher is driven by the desire to awaken direct knowledge in the student. Just downloading the information or the answers does not lead to understanding, however well they are repeated.

I was once reading a student’s essay. Her English skills were poor but I was trying to put that aside and see what they were trying to say. Then a passage suddenly appeared, in perfect English. After a while the language collapsed again.– a not very subtle case of plagiarism. There was more truth, more direct knowledge in her struggle with language than in the dishonesty of another’s words. Politics, religion, business, medical discussions, all human communication, break trust by hiding behind words.

Why do questions, better than answers, awaken direct knowledge? Because they lead us to accept personal responsibility, practice integrity and to be humble. In this state of mind, the answer we find, even if it is ‘I don’t know’, can come as a revelation and breakthrough. We become part of a learning community, a disciple, who sees that any answer, however right, is a step on the journey not yet the destination.

The question ‘do you want to be well again?’ rings true. It focuses attention not on the speaker but on the other person, which always opens the door of truth.

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Monday Lent Week Four : John 4: 43-54

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While he was still on the journey back his servants met him with the news that his boy was alive.

Desire is a two-edged sword. It can cut through confusion and doubt and help us commit wholeheartedly to a direction and course of action. Or it can turn on us and incapacitate us. Be careful what you pray for in case you get it, is ancient wisdom. Be careful about what you desire is equally important because it decides whether we make progress or get stuck in the trajectory of transcendence which is our true life.

Parents anxious for a sick or wayward child feel an overwhelming desire to help the child, to sacrifice themselves for the child in any way necessary. This desire is so instinctive it is hardly desire as we usually think of it but a need rooted in deepest nature. Compare this with the overwhelming desire of a politician to be elected, someone climbing a hierarchy to get higher or an athlete poised to compete and win. In these cases desire will also lead to a willing sacrifice of time and even health in order to fulfil it. Whether this ambition is largely motivated by ego or a desire to do good is a matter of self-discernment. Managing the desire, so that it doesn’t become an all-consuming obsession or a destructive force, requires courageous self-knowledge.

With all desire comes attachment. This means that a deep part of our identity becomes fused with what we desire. With attachment comes suffering, the pain of hoping to succeed or the fear or pain of loss or failure. Even with the euphoria of success the relief of pain doesn’t last long before we wonder how long it will last. So we are well advised by the wisdom of the ages to develop a habit of detachment in order to manage desire. We cannot live without desire but, unmanaged, desire can suck the joy and freedom out of life. Meditation is the simplest and most natural way to develop this habit of detachment, the best insurance against the equal perils of success or failure. Times like Lent and particular practices of self-restraint and deeper commitment also help to loosen the grip of attachment. They free up some of the identification we have made between our selves and our object of desire. We still accept that we have things to desire but we don’t over-invest. However great the desire, we remember that we are not what we want. Good discipline sets us free.

Then there is the desire to be enlightened, for God, for holiness, the desire to be without desire. This needs to be managed very carefully. It can produce great fruits and liberation. Or it can cause us much distortion of soul and make us insufferable bores to others. The greater the good we desire, the greater the detachment needed to manage it. Then, as for the man in today’s gospel, what we desire can arrive when we least expect it with the transcendent force of something utterly free of us.

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Fourth Sunday of Lent: Luke 15:1-32

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‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

To be rejected, to be cast into the outer darkness away from the group sitting around a tribal fire, is one of humanity’s deepest fears. The rejected suddenly become the enemy of the group rejecting them. To associate with them is a sign of disloyalty and makes them toxic and infectious.

In the British film Apostasy, a Jehovah’s Witness church excommunicates a young woman for breaking their rules and her family confront (and fail in) an agonising choice between rejecting her and remaining members of the elect. The most diabolical aspect of the drama is the inverted religious language of self-justification and the false, creepy tone of hard-hearted self-righteousness. The word ‘diabolus’ implies the state of di-vision, throwing apart. The opposite word is ‘symbolum’ which unites and brings the separated together. The diabolical attacks in the name of God. It divides, using every trick, including quoting scripture, to make it seem on the side of the angels.

Cliff-edge moments come around from time to time when we are forced to choose where we stand. Do we stay in the security of the crowd baying for blood, or stand in solidarity with the outcast? Take immigrants for example. In some parts of affluent society today it is dangerous to speak compassionately about immigrants. Once your head of state has accused them of being ‘drug dealers, criminals and rapists’ their dehumanisation has begun. The bar on abusing them, the most vulnerable, has been raised.

‘Sinners’ is a common term of rejection in religious vocabulary, even though it is often used wrongly. Jesus associated with ‘sinners’, people off the purity radar. He saw that the sin that matters is not being unacceptable, like the untouchables in the cast system. The Greek word for sin means ‘missing the mark’. Not in the sense of not getting into respectable society, but in the human sense of failing. When we try to throw a piece of paper into a basket and miss, should we rage and curse or pick it up and try again?

To understand sin we need to be straight about our own interior divisions and contradictions, the universal symptoms of human weakness. Otherwise, we plunge into the collective hypocrisy which is the binding force of any mob.

Those who dine with sinners put themselves at risk. But, even when they in turn are despised and rejected, they pull the plug on the power of hypocrisy. They expose the real sinners in the human drama – not the victim but the victimisers, dividers not the divided. It becomes clear how easily we slide from the side of angels to demons. It is the casters out not the outcast who really sin.

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