Thursday Lent Week Five: John 8:51-59

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‘Before Abraham ever was, I Am.’ At this they picked up stones to throw at him.

You might have thought that anyone hearing such a statement, even if you didn’t like the person, even if you thought they were either mad or a genius, would have said ‘explain what you just said before I stone you to death.’ However, in this and in the other great “I Am” sayings, Jesus is revealing another dimension of reality so disturbingly different from our familiar way of seeing, that his very words threaten the existing order.

Under totalitarian regimes poets and artists are the greatest threat. Those resisting the power-holders, by political or violent means are more easily repressed. Great thinkers, however, change firstly, not structures. Their vision, insights born of direct experience, open new dimensions of reality for others. One of the greatest of modern mathematicians, for example, was Emmy Noether. On a par with Einstein, she opened new ways of perception in algebra and physics that forever transformed the way things in these fields are seen. Her original ideas entered so deeply into the basis conceptual framework that she is rarely even quoted. She didn’t just add words to the vocabulary but expanded the language itself.

Jesus does this to the whole human view of the world. This is why it is so depressing when his revolutionary sayings, born of his direct experience of the Father, are diverted from their true intent and used to defend particular moral opinions or religious structures. Not only are contemplatives the true revolutionaries. True revolutionaries, in any field, are contemplative by nature and mystical in their vision of reality.

Rightly, he was considered dangerous to the prevailing order but at an even deeper level than his critics imagined. It took his death to free him from the repressive power of his critics and to liberate his vision (his spirit) which continues to enter into human consciousness to change the nature of reality for us. It would have been nice if he had been recognised and listened to by the authorities. But that is bound not to happen when to accept such a new way of seeing threatens not only your institution but all that you have built your life upon. Nobody wants to undergo total transformation. We like change that we can control. So, his violent rejection by his contemporaries was bound to happen and, if we feel there was a plan, it was even part of the plan. Even those who loved him misunderstood him.

Our daily spiritual practice and the coming days of the Easter mysteries attune us to seeing this and to understand what Jesus meant when he used the ‘I’ word. Jesus was not saying – as those who wanted to stone or crucify him confusedly feared – ‘I am God’. He was saying ‘God is I am. This is what I am saying’.

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Wednesday Lent Week Five: John 8:31-42

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Yes, I have come from him; not that I came because
I chose, no, I was sent, and by him.

Yesterday, I was watching some new-born lambs. Like young children they bounce wildly along a spectrum: at one end, obsessive attachment to their mother, at the other boundless energy in exploring a brave new world. They are adorable, endlessly fascinating and delightful. Well, maybe not endlessly, but very charming. I thought ‘who could ever wish them harm?’ It must be their very innocence that makes them such a powerful symbol of innocence abused. From the paschal lamb sacrificed in the dark days of the Exodus to the ‘Lamb of God’ acclaimed at every mass.
 
Everywhere here the world is greening. Fertile smells long buried in the cold earth are emerging. Winter’s long solitude is expelled by endless new relationships of all kinds of living things appearing from nowhere, emerging into light and bringing light with them. Even on a chilly spring day there is the warmth of life. It’s all happened since time immemorial but it’s always fresh and new. The English poet George Herbert caught it in the opening lines of his great poem, The Flower, comparing the cycle of nature with the cycle of his spiritual darkness and rebirth: ‘How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean Are Thy returns!…’ 
 
In contrast to the oppressiveness of dark forces, like fear and oppression, or violence and rejection, with their secret history of guilt and shame, a new authority appears: the authority of innocence. It can look oppression and fear directly in the eye and disarm them. Spring is very tender compared with the brutishness of winter but it is irrepressible. At the right point in its cycle it is irresistible.
 
In the gospel of John, Jesus’s words often reflect what early Christians’ dawning realisation of who Jesus really is. Taken out of context, some of the words sound overbearing. They are spoken in the echo-chamber of the community that was discovering the Christ dimension. Today’s gospel includes the words I selected above, which show not self-fixation but a person in whom the dimension of eternal springtime is dawning. In the consciousness of Jesus, his innocence of pride is his authority. It is not constructed by him, but drawn entirely from an other: the one who ‘chose’ and ‘sent’ him.
 
‘Chose’ and ‘sent’ are words to describe an experience that awaits us, too, if we penetrate deeper than ego-consciousness. When we become our true self, we see that we are already living in a network of relationships as wide as the cosmos, a communion of being, a community of beings immersing us in ultimate reality. It makes us as humble as we can ever be. In Jesus that same humility flashes out as authority and self-knowledge. As an innocence of powerful vulnerability.

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Tuesday Lent Week Five: John 8:21-30

 

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he who sent me is with me, and has not left me to myself

I was on a crowded platform recently, waiting for the tube train. Usually I would read or listen to the mantra. Then I watched intrigued as a woman immortalised herself repeatedly on a selfie. It was quite a performance, as she was determined to get just the right smile and tilt of the head and just the right background. She would pose, smile winningly at herself, then check the result on her screen and try again. She was blissfully absorbed in this operation and wholly unaware that she was standing in the middle of a moving crowd on a narrow platform. When my train arrived she was still aiming for the perfect shot.

As a result of intensive scholarly research on Wikipedia I discovered that the first known selfie was a daguerreotype taken in 1839 and now on the photographer’s tombstone. Lacking a smartphone, he would remove the lens cap, run into shot and stay still for a minute or two, before running back to cover the lens again. A more contemplative selfie. Artists have always liked to paint themselves and mirrors have been around since 6000 BC. We love to see ourselves even when we don’t like what we see.

Like anything relatively harmless in itself, it can become an obsession and shape a whole way of life. To control it, we need to practice other-centredness. To make this a habit alerts us to see when self-fixation is desensitising us to others nearby. It rescues us from entrapment in the self-consuming loop of narcissism. When we embrace the work of other-centredness we glimpse the ultimate dimension enfolding all dimensions, which Jesus called the ‘Father’, his default other-centredness throughout his life. It is the secret of distinguishing between reality and illusion and ‘seeing God’. As I was raised in a city, I have to try hard, when I am out in the country, to read the book of nature. Bonnevaux is teaching me and so have many people who loved this book all their lives.

The English poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote some of the most beautiful poems about the natural world. He also used the word ‘self’ as a verb. To destroy beauty (one poem is about cutting down a group of aspen trees) is to ‘unselve’ the world. He saw God selving himself in the countless beauties of the world where ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places’. This recalls the Tao Te Ching’s ‘10,000 things rising and falling’, which we can also interpret as endless distraction. What turns distraction into the vision of God selving the world is othercentredness: not what we see but how we see.

Now, with our doors of perception just a bit cleaner after Lent and the polishing of the mantra, what is more intriguing than to see things as the Mind of Christ – playing even on a crowded platform – sees them.

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Monday Lent Week Five: John 8: 12-20

 

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I know where I came from and where I am going.

Many people today live in long-distance relationships. Because of work or other complicating factors they text, skype or call sometimes several times a day. Long absences can weaken and undermine relationships, or they can strengthen and mature them. Every relationship has an optimum distance. This focal length in which we ‘see’ each other is not a fixed measure. It adjusts to conditions. It is indeed tough for people who love, to be apart. They miss each other; but sometimes it’s a ‘good miss’, as someone I was close to once told me.

Ways of being in relationship have been radically affected by technology, globalisation and the internet. Love itself hasn’t been changed; but love grows through forms and habits especially in the early stages and in childhood. A child may be thrilled to skype with its frequently absent parent when he calls from an airport far away to say goodnight, but it’s not the same as being there every night.

During these reflections I have been returning to the different dimensions of reality. I keep harping on about the contemplative dimension because I feel that this one, which is weakened and frequently ignored in our fast-paced and fragmented global culture, is essential for dealing with the dehumanising aspects of life ‘on the grid’ today. Being online, available, instantly accountable, with little time to reflect and ponder, has its dangers as well as its positive aspects. It can, for example, become addictive. Meditators, like anyone else, find it hard to turn off their phones although they may better understand the need to do so periodically. People frequently say they want ‘to get away from it all for a while’. But when the opportunity comes they find an excuse not to. If we forget how to live in the contemplative dimension – still, silent, simple and now – we risk losing everything we have gained through technology and social progress.

The most distant of all relationships is with God, if we live exclusively in the three dimensions of time and space. We skype with him at church and squeeze in other appointments in our busy schedule. This makes God feel always distant and as real as a child’s imaginary friend. To the non-believer this proves God to be a human creation, a crutch, a drug, another source of false consolation, rather than Being, consciousness itself.

The power opening new dimensions of reality is love. (Meditation is the work of love.) For a couple separated by time zones and geography, love proves that they are always present with each other.

This is now bringing us closer to the purpose of Lent – which is to understand Easter better. And to see why meditation opens new dimensions of reality.

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Fifth Sunday of Lent: John 8 1-11

 

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he looked up and said, ‘If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.

In the small Sultanate of Brunei recently the national leader felt the impulse to introduce stronger religious laws for the well being of his people. These included amputation for thieves and stoning to death for homosexuals. I wonder how he would have responded if he had caught the eye of Jesus as he looked up from writing in the dust while the woman caught in adultery was awaiting her fate. Her judges were punishing her by the book. Jesus un-wrote all books when he knelt and wrote his silent words in the dust.

Religion has moral and intellectual dimensions, which bring the benefits of ethical principles and healing symbols for the misfortunes of life. They also help align personal faith and social mental health. But there is a hidden, additional dimension to religion  – the mystical – which is ignored at our peril. Without the influence of the contemplative experience, religious belief and behaviour slip into slow decline, becoming either insufferably superficial or moralistic. Or simply monstrous.

When you are convinced God is on your side you start speaking on behalf of God; and then, if others listen to you, before long you come to believe you are God. The paradox of true religious experience is that, when you have faced the infinite difference and distance between God and yourself, you discover that God is closer to you than you are to your self. You are then pulled into a process of transformative union on the other side of ‘identity’. Union differentiates. The distance of this intimacy beyond difference evokes the truth of what Meister Eckhart said: ‘there is no distance between God and me’.

This is less abstract than it may sound. The integrity of religion has to be protected and promoted because religion cannot be eliminated. Like politics it must be continuously purified by truth if it is to avoid corruption. Like music it should be played well. But I am not thinking immediately of the benefits this would bring to the Sultan of Brunei. I am thinking more of all the victims of retarded religion, the women caught in adultery, the homosexuals and robbers, the scapegoats of false religion and those sitting alone in prison cells whose lives have been blighted by the cruel piety of the self-righteous.

The woman caught in adultery strikes a universal chord of sympathy. Like the Golden Rule (treating others as you would like to be treated) it has an irreducible, incontestable simplicity as moral as it is mystical. Yet, so easily, we disconnect from its meaning: which is why we must practice the contemplative dimension and, for this, need both Lent and meditation.

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