Palm Sunday: Luke: 22:14-23:56

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Yet here am I among you as one who serves!

The story opens with a triumphal entry and ends with total rejection and failure. Between the beginning and the end comes the great unravelling. It is the recurrent pattern in life that we prefer to ignore. Success, completion, contentment come with a graciousness that we could not have imagined filling us with the delightfulness of gratitude. There is nothing more wonderful than the gift of feeling full of thanks. Instead of asking or imagining we only have the need to receive.

But before gratitude has had time to be fully enjoyed, the wheel turns. We are usually taken by surprise by a new turn of events in which celebration is replaced by anxiety or anger. The rejoicing crowd melts away and a mob surges forward intent only on causing us harm by depriving us of the ability to thank.

Meditation and personal discipline certainly train us in some measure of detachment so that we can be better prepared when we discover the gash leaking the contents of the bag of flour just received as a gift. But meditation and asceticism do not solve or avert problems. They only bring us to an encounter with the mystery in which the pattern repeats itself and which enables us to transcend it only by going through it. Today I saw a photo circulating everywhere in the media, the first photo of any black hole which was taken from a hugely distant galaxy called M87. It has a dark centre, the event horizon beyond which not even light can escape, surrounded by a halo of brilliant, joyful light. The co-existence – or sequencing – of opposites seems to be an integral part of nature everywhere. Life and death cannot, apparently, exist separately.

In human consciousness this mystery would crush us, as surely as a black hole would swallow us, if it were not for the miracle of the spirit of service. Self-giving is the only way to survive the roller-coast ride of life. Jesus rode in triumph into Jerusalem, like a successful political candidate. Everyone loves success. Crowds are at their most adoring when they are high on success. But he seemed unmoved, unattached to it all.

Before he was sucked into the black hole in Gethsemane, he celebrated a last meal with friends among whom he knew the one would push him over the edge. The mood was not sombre but serious. Seriousness, as John Main said, leads to joy. The tone of the evening was surprising, set by a leader who had always been a man for others, who would serve to the end even those who betrayed him and his hopes. Service reveals a different kind of thankfulness, which cannot be obliterated by its opposite.

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Saturday Lent Week Five: John 11: 45-56

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You fail to see that it is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be destroyed.

As a young boy I was brought up in the richness of Catholic faith. Its powerful symbolism opened new dimensions of reality for me. I had as mature an image of God as I could at that age. Increasingly, though, I related to this distant, elevated ever-observing, supposedly loving and yet terrifyingly cold construct of our collective imagination a bit like a bank robber would to a surveillance camera.

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” St Paul insists that we have to grow up religiously and break through into the reality, not the construct, of the divine dimension. These words from today’s gospel come from the High Priest who, with a political ruthlessness ever present in the corridors of power, gives us a key to this maturation of our understanding about the Easter story. This re-telling is soon to go into high gear for those of us following the liturgies.

As a child I was given a simple, in fact a greatly over-simplifying, explanation of this myth-shattering story. Debt-redemption. The suffering and death of Jesus, the innocent lamb-sacrifice, was explained as the paying off a debt that humanity owed to a good and loving Creator. If you asked what the debt was, you were told the story of Eden and the fatal piece of fruit that brought death and misery into the human condition. In that form it was an inversion of the Santa Claus story. Father Christmas gives you something for nothing. God the Father punishes people for things they didn’t do and calls it original sin. Like a credit card debt you can’t pay off, the guilt just kept getting bigger and bigger.

After a certain age and level of reflection this becomes an insult to most people’s intelligence. They look for a better explanation or they go off looking for the truth in another direction altogether. The High Priest’s comment helps. It exposes a universal dynamic in every human society and all communal relationships. Rene Girard, the French thinker, recognised it as a scapegoat mechanism whereby in a time of crisis a group in conflict blames its woes on an innocent victim – who is sacrificed, brings a temporary peace and is often later divinised. We still do it with Jews, gays, immigrants, anyone who is ‘other’ to the majority.

The Passion of the Christ reflects this universal dynamic, but does so uniquely from the victim’s perspective. The mask is exposed – although, because it is such a useful mechanism, we continue to use it, choosing to be unconscious of what we are doing. Lent and meditation are able to change this choice and make us conscious of what we are doing and what our true relationship with the Father is. The problem is not with the divine nature but with the human psyche. How can you help people to grow up and take responsibility for themselves? By treating them as adults. The Easter story is for grown-ups.

Inside the crowd mentality, however, humans act like animals or young children. We go with the strong and trample the weak if that seems the safest thing for us to do. The story we will soon be re-telling reveals the huge solitariness of the alternative to the crowd. It shows how personal experience and myth merge. Rejection, suffering, death and the tomb are solitary ordeals. Let’s face it. But it is not the whole story, nor, happily, is it the end of the story.

 

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Friday Lent Week Five: John 10:31-42

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If you refuse to believe in me, at least believe in the work I do

What might that work be – then and now?

After St Anthony of the Desert meditated for twenty years in solitude his friends came to find him, expecting him to be dead or deranged. Instead he emerged physically and mentally radiant, healthy and rational. For the rest of his life he was known for healing the sick, comforting the sorrowful and reconciling the divided. These are not bad ways to understand what good work and a meaningful life means. But these works express a deeper state of being. Whoever touches that in themselves and stays there, becomes capable of changing the minds of others – turning them towards the same depth in themselves. It doesn’t matter if you ‘believe’ in that person or not.  Or, at least, your opinion of them is secondary to your being touched and changed by them, through them.  Believing what you see their work makes it easier to see who the person behind it really is.

This implies a certain kind of leadership. Not the kind that is merely defined by results and success or charismatic powers of persuasion. But the kind that exposes the hidden dimension of goodness both within us and at the heart of all human relationships. This is disturbing, indeed revolutionary, because so many of our assumptions, about ourselves and others, are constructed on a major under-estimation of our essential goodness. Often it is even worse, we have a low sense of self and a basic distrust of others.

The court is corrupt, the fields are overgrown with weeds, the granaries are empty; yet there are those dressed in fineries, with swords at their sides, filled with food and drink and possessed of too much wealth. This is known as taking the lead in robbery. Far indeed is this from the Way. (Tao Te Ching LIII)

The socially destabilising impact of vast discrepancies of wealth in society is increasingly obvious. Is it unreasonable to think that Brexit might be related to almost four million children living in poverty in the UK? When Lao Tse was writing, in the sixth century BC social expectations were very different but the wise person’s insight into essential goodness was the same as ever. With that insight comes outrage and the deep sadness of the prophet when they see how deluded we can all become and how unmerciful and unfair we can act in that state of delusion.

The mystical meaning of Easter we have been preparing for nearly six weeks cannot be separated from its works. It is not, firstly, about belief but experience. Belief grows from experience. To be touched by the Resurrection sends us back to life with new ways of seeing and a radical challenge to our values.

Unfortunately, for those who think the guide book is the journey, how this happens can only be understood by passing through the whole process that leads to resurrection. Suffering and ultimate loss cannot ultimately be avoided. That’s the good news.

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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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