Monday Lent Week Four

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Meditators come to know that ‘experience is the teacher’. As they stop relying too much on external sources of authority and trust their own heart, they come to know what experience itself means. Not just what happens but what happens because of what happens. I mean, not just what happens during the meditation but what happens in our self and in life as a whole because of what happens in meditation, even if we don’t see it happening all the time.

Meditation is a source of wisdom because it teaches us this truth so simply. It helps us read the signs and patterns of life and to read the book of nature itself. In a relatively short time people around the world have been forced to stay at home, not rush around, fly, drive., shop, buy the latest model and go home and throw away the old, waste resources and time. A bit judgemental but I don’t exclude myself either.

Sometimes what we read in the book of nature is childishly obvious. Since these restrictions have been imposed their impact is apparent in the pollution readings in N. Italy gathered by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel Satellite. Emissions of nitrogen dioxide (vehicle exhaust) have dropped considerably. Pollution in China, especially in Wuhan and Hubei Province has also dramatically plunged.

This is what is happening but what is happening because of what is happening?

After the first meditation this morning I had as usual twenty minutes before the second. Usually I read in this time but as the morning was so fresh and beautiful, I walked around and found myself reading the book of nature. It wasn’t difficult. I didn’t have to measure nitrogen emissions or theologise. The birdsong was enough, the purity of the air and the lucidity of the silence. One sound I had heard but not identified before, became clear as a bird swooped down towards and emitted an odd raspy note. The frogs are beginning their cacophony. And because of the rain the lake is wonderfully full, and the fish look plump. Jean Christophe cut the grass and the smell of it is promising us the warm days to come.

With the Coronavirus is nature punishing us for how we have treated her? That’s one way of putting it. That’s what is happening karmically. But what is happening more is that we can be awakening to the infinite beauty of nature and the animal kingdom. Who doesn’t fall in love with the beautiful? And who can do harm to what they love while they love?

So, I walked in the fresh morning air, scents and sounds, thinking too of the dangers around us and the loneliness and fear that so many are suffering. I thought of my own sins. But more, I felt the amazing grace that restores our sight when we have become blind.

Beauty will save the world.

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Fourth Sunday of Lent

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Perhaps the question ‘why do catholic priests wear pink vestments this Sunday of Lent?’ is not the most pressing concern for the world just now. But it offers a glimpse behind the anxiety and inner and outer turbulence that our human family is suffering. Today is ‘Laetare (Rejoice) Sunday’ and the traditional liturgical colour for joy is pink.

What is there to be happy about? Not so much, but joy is different. Happiness (treasure it while you have it) depends on external circumstances or forms of relationship. While they last, we easily slip into a gratitude that assumes that the time of happiness will be permanent. And what, after all, is permanent? Joy, however, is not dependent on external circumstances and passing forms. It flows continuously from a source, a pure spring, from being itself. Nothing can block it except our own dark tendency to bottle the spring water, to possess, to pollute the sheer innocent reality of it with the illusions of our own making and greed.

Nothing is so painful at first as the transition from lost happiness to sheer joy.

For some decades now we have been aware that the unprecedented material happiness, identified with affluence, came at an unreasonable and unsustainable price. Our personal humanity, civility and social justice, sanity and our global home itself were being polluted and abused. But what could we do about it? The people who sounded the alarm were dismissed as cranks or exaggerators. The moaners and groaners also became a class, an industry. Politicians were among the people who held power. But we came to see that politics was increasingly a public mask of power. Trust and respect for politics and law, necessary for any form of civilisation, plummeted. We saw elected chaos and government by barabarians.

The joy of life was grdaually siphoned off and bottled in worsening degrees of unfairness and surreal selfishness: the richest one percent today own half of the world’s wealth – even now, as we are socially distancing and quarantined and the most vulnerable are suffering worst. Some of the one percent are generous and good people but even the worst of them were slowly realising it was a little too unreal to last. Anger may build against them – as it did in the passive aggression of populism. But demonising them is unfair and unreal too.

In today’s gospel Jesus cures a man born blind. His disciples asked him who were to blame for his misfortune, and he declined to point the finger of blame. He said the healing itself was the meaning – it revealed the divine fullness of life, the joy of being, pushing through human limitations and handicaps. Jesus cured the man by spitting on the ground and making a paste with the earth, applying it to the man’s eyes and telling him to wash in the spring-fed Pool of Siloam. Later the man said, ‘all I know is, once I was blind and now, I can see.’

Words used in 1772 by John Newton, the reformed slave trader in his hymn Amazing Grace. ‘And grace will bring us home’, the hymn also says.’

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Saturday Lent Week Three

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Taking stock of our priorities is never a waste of time. But where do we start? From the bottom up, the ground on which the house of life is built, and from the heart from which all growth comes: relationship.

Relationships are the sacred ground of human life. We have to take off our shoes when we turn our attention to them: to be simple, humble and truthful. Are we nurturing the happy, sustaining relationships, the friendships and intimacies we may be blessed with? Or do we take them for granted and lose touch with their inner life? And, to be realistic, if we don’t have the relationships we want and need, or if we have damaged relationships, some in crisis or on life-support, we should see that these too are sacred Just because they are suffering doesn’t mean they are not sacred. They need attention. Have we withdrawn, are we running away, are we blaming rather than forgiving? Like plants, relationships take time, pass through seasons in order to die and, somehow or other, be restored.

There is no relationship in life that is not rooted in absolute reality. We call this God. It is not mathematical, or philosophical but personal. Being the person we are and relating to others, depends upon insight into the personal nature of reality. Without a living relationship with the living God (named or unnamed) we have only dreams, memories and reflections.

Which is why any proper life-inventory involves an assessment of our spiritual life. Here, relationships with others, in God who is the common ground, converge with our self-knowledge and self-acceptance. How convenient for the ego if we could compartmentalise these without the painful awareness that we were being false to all of them.

Spiritual life is nourished by times of practice, thinking or studying as we can best, selfless work, and sharing the journey with others by exchanging support and teaching. We receive by giving and sometimes we give by receiving. For the meditator, the practice of sitting in silence is the key, the litmus test, that shows us where we really are: seeing life as a spiritual journey or seeing ‘spirituality’ merely as an element in the mix on our terms, something to find time for and the first thing to drop when we get too busy.

And so a life inventory highlights the actual values that make up life’s meaning: this is the most important thing. Are we celebrating what we should celebrate, grieving what needs to be mourned for, sharing everything that we can? If so we will be touched by the peace that passes all understanding, the power that leads us through the many deaths of life and the divinely foolish Hope that dispels fear and self-negation. This is more than enough to get us through the Corona crisis.

We are preparing a programme you might find helpful. Visit our international website (www.wccm.org) and your national website. Here, for example, all audio-visual media are collected in one place: http://www.wccm.org/media-page/ .

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Friday Lent Week Three

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Today, after a few days away teaching, I have back home to Bonnevaux where I will stay put for the foreseeable future. While I was away, we took the difficult but necessary step of suspending the Bonnevaux retreat schedule until we see how the global health crisis unfolds. The streets and railway stations are quiet. People are different. The first security person at the x-ray machine at the almost empty airport joked that today she would be giving me a personal welcome. The person after the x-ray looked delighted to have someone to investigate and took his leisure to empty out my backpack and hold up the offending Kindle.

When we meet in a crisis we look at each other differently. It affects us all equally and we know that none of us have control over events. This double awareness inclines us to be more friendly towards strangers. Life slows down. We look at each other more attentively. We become more present. We see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. All these changes in our ways of seeing and connection – in perception – surprise us at first. (Of course we may still be nervous and frightened.) These brief insights can fade quickly and we fall back into anger or anxiety. But a crisis can also awaken us to how a disruption of life like this is more than just an inconvenience, more even than a danger. It is a possibility. In time it will pass (what doesn’t’?). But it might also be a catalyst for a deep change of direction that we have known we needed for a long time, but never had the time to truly enact.

The corona virus is such a crisis – danger, certainly, but also opportunity. The great majority of those who catch it will recover completely. But there will be deaths and losses and suffering, which the most poor and vulnerable are always most hit by. We will find opportunities to be simply kinder, nicer, more reassuring to each other, especially to the lonely and frightened. We will better handle our fear and anxiety by thinking of others, making us discover that our neighbour is whoever we give our attention to.

We don’t know how long this social disruption of life will continue. Let’s hope we can look back on it as a ‘creative disruption’. However long it lasts, let’s not waste time. It can become our central Lent practice. I am consulting with several of our teaching faculty about how to develop an online programme adjusted to the conditions of the crisis. Most of us will be travelling less, maybe working from home, so we will probably have more time on our hands. This could be scary at first because, when our diaries are full, we don’t have time to use time well. We blame our being busy on our being busy, which translates into stress.

Let’s make a life inventory. What have we run out of? What are we doing too much of? What has been pushed to the back shelf? What are our genuine priorities? What would I do today if I fully felt how uncertain, changeable and short life can be?

Good questions at any time, especially in a Lent when life is disrupted by a pandemic..

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Thursday Lent Week Three

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I’d like to send this reflection to our community in Italy as they, with their 60 million compatriots are in lockdown because of the coronavirus. All our community worldwide would like you to know that we are thinking of you in these extraordinary days. More than just thinking about you, we are holding you with loving friendship in our hearts at meditation and in our prayers.

It is for you to tell us what you feel and what it is like for you and your families – and we will happily welcome your posts on our website or blog. I will speak with our national coordinator to see if they would like this connection with the wider community. But if I imagine what it must be like for you I think of two comparisons. The first is a Hollywood disaster movie. Much of the media coverage of the pandemic encourages this and indeed the scenes of empty streets and the cancellation of transportation suggests it.

But the other comparison I think of is a retreat that starts in one way and ends in another. The obvious difference is that a retreat is a free choice about how and where we spend our free time. Yet when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was released from the Gulag forced labour camp where he had been imprisoned for eight years, he said he looked back at it and wept. His tears were a mix of relief at his departure and gratitude for what the camp life had taught him about himself and the human heart. The experience he underwent and the people he met there inspired his books for years to come

Sometimes, when we are forced into something and feel imprisoned by a coldly impersonal, external force, we may burn up in rage at it or go into depression. And yet sometimes, just sometimes if we are fortunate, the experience of being compelled liberates us into new and surprising views of reality. We encounter something unexpected, a hidden grace that could not otherwise have been able to find us.

As in meditation, there are times when we sit in a desert, dry and endlessly distracted by our anxieties or losses. An empty desolation stretches as far as we can feel in every direction. Better, we think, to do something useful or self-indulgent. The solitude is not the open space in which we feel connected to a greater whole but aloneness, constriction, abandonment or the feeling of being forgotten. The spectre of affliction haunts our soul.

Then from an inner point, without location, an invisible ray of light touches and restores our shrivelled soul to life and hope. Not that all our wishes are fulfilled, in fact none of them may be, and the pain or loss may still be only too present. But a joy emerges that opens a pathway to the source of being, our being.

I hope that in some way for all our Italian friends, who are feeling trapped by external forces, some peace of this inner freedom may at least occasionally arise. We hope that the time of the shutdown and quarantine may be short. We hope this for your sake and because the rest of us need the beautiful things  – of your temperament and your country – that makes us love you.

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Wednesday Lent Week Three

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In the last war, while England was expecting to be invaded as other European countries had been, the government took measures to make things difficult for the enemy when they arrived. They used camouflage on coastal installations, set up a Home Guard of old men and boys with outmoded rifles, which the English today still feel nostalgic about; and they took down all road signposts. It is a funny idea that the mighty German army would have been seriously impeded by not knowing whether to turn right or left at a crossroads in the English countryside.

When I read about this I thought it reflected a feeling we have on any journey of faith – starting a marriage, beginning a new community, finishing the writing of a book or raising children. These are all journeys on which faith – personal commitment and trust – has to deepen at every juncture. And yet, often there are no signposts pointing clearly to reassure us we are on the right road or will take the right turning. Sometimes the signs are there but not very helpfully: like the time my decision-making powers were paralysed. I was driving from Bere Island to Cork. I came to a fork in the road. There was a sign. But one side pointed left saying ‘Cork’ and another pointed right saying ‘Cork’.

In the spiritual dimension the path itself is everything. The deeper we go into the silence and let go of words, thoughts and imagination, as we do with the mantra, the fewer conventionally reassuring signs there are. There is simply the path, the way we are treading. And there is the treading, taking the next step. At first we protest at the absence of reassurances and re-confirmation of our direction. Our senses of direction and confidence are challenged or confused.

Slowly we realise that the path itself is the reassurance. There comes a sense of relief that there is a way, through the jungle, through the maze of options that overwhelm people today. We have found it. There’s a big life-changing difference as we realise that we are on a way. We may feel, too, that it has found us because there is a sense, coming from the road itself, that we are being led by a direct, intimate connection with it. It knows us better than we know it. The connection is simply our treading the path, always taking the next step. You did not choose me, I chose you… I am the Way. This sense belongs uniquely to the spiritual dimension. It allows us to follow those stretches of the road that have no signs.

All this might sound flaky and impractical. The sign that it is real is read in daily life, on the parallel pathways of action and decision-making. In material matters there are difficult decisions to make with insufficient time or information. The faith of our inner journey is surprisingly useful here. We don’t panic, when necessary we wait and endure better. When we make a decision we have more clarity and make the best choice we can. We trust. If it turns out we were wrong we adjust by direction again.

If we are faithful in the deep issues of the inner journey we will be more faithful in the material issues of life as well.

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Tuesday Lent Week Three

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There is a false view of Lent – and spiritual ascesis (exercise) generally – that associates it with being or pretending to be solemn to the point of miserable. Jesus addresses this by saying, when you practice a discipline of self-restraint, don’t publicise it and look hard done by or pious. Go out of your way to be relaxed and cheerful.

There is a guilt dynamic embedded in our psyche. And another upsetting factor in the ego is the magical feeling that every happy moment uses up limited credit, like on a phone plan, and this has to be topped up by doing something hard or difficult. You pay for happiness. Happiness is a product not our natural state. We don’t have the right to be happy while the world is disrupted by a global virus, or there are a million refugees displaced in Syria or a friend is suffering.

What is happiness? For religious people, this slides into the idea of a God who only wants you to be happy on his terms, when you are worshipping him in a way he approves. And this God, a complex form of the idea of karma – you get what you deserve – then becomes a petty god who rewards and punishes. Religious training and cultural ideas of God often reinforce these ideas, but they are first formed in childhood as we observe how adults treat us. Good boy, here’s a present. Bad boy, go to bed.

Meditation has a surprising power to break up every self-reinforcing complex of ideas and compulsive loop-thinking. This works directly on all our thoughts and images about God – which are not just intellectual items but strongly emotional. If you believe that God will punish you for your faults you are emotionally affected in everything you do and in all your relationships. Then, as ideas of God change, so do our fundamental views of reality and our relations with other people.

Religious people are often made uncomfortable in the first stage of this process. They feel that God is disappearing, that meditation isn’t really prayer or that they may end up as an atheist. A man once told me he meditated faithfully but was not convinced it was really a form of prayer of which the Church or God approved.  So, he would begin each meditation with a prayer: ‘Dear God I am going to meditate now. But believe me, I am not really a Buddhist.’

As old ideas of God fade, nothing solid immediately comes to take their place. Time and faith however help us to realise that the nothing is poverty of spirit, that emptiness is the space of fullness and that the loss is the first part of a cycle that leads to a surprising fresh kind of discovery. We find what we have lost but it is changed because it was lost. In the distance it took from us while it was lost it or we changed. Sometimes we do have to lose our beliefs about God, even to stop believing and wait.  Until we believe again in a new way. Faith is deepened in the tunnels of time. And time is transcended by faith.

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Monday Lent Week Three

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Religious status or spiritual influence in any power structure is a source of temptation. Most of the dark side of the history of Christianity, since the edict of Milan in AD 313 (when the Empire stopped persecuting of the followers of Jesus), can be attributed to giving in to temptations of power. This was the illusion that Jesus so clearly saw through and refused during his own Lent.

I find it hard to believe that Jean Vanier was tempted by this kind of power.

I don’t know his inner world, but on the basis of his teaching and personality I would venture to say his self-inflicted wound that led him to wound others was not crude hunger for power but self-deception around his own handicap and hunger for intimacy. Clearly he did have power and misused it with people whom he should have been caring for, not using. But, my guess, is that it was not driven by the desire for power or acclaim. It was closer to what he often spoke about: weakness and handicaps. When these are not acknowledged they become dark forces.

But does this even make a difference? What matters for those he hurt is not his motivation but the consequences they suffered and the attention they now receive. I am not sure; it is uncomfortable for anyone to reflect on and get it right. But trying to understand it helps us to correct the mistakes we make about the important meaning of holiness. All religion proposes the idea of holiness, the enlightened, liberated state of individuals who have plunged more fully into the processes of human transformation. We may assume this process of sanctification is complete in someone when it is anything but finished. Don’t we all have good and bad, self-less and self-sacrificing, enlightened and shadow sides? When it is obvious that our process is not complete, no one calls us ‘holy’. If it is more advanced, people can jump to the conclusion we have arrived. And then up goes another pedestal and our human clay is re-used to make a plaster saint.

The only safe approach is to call no one holy (for Catholics not even the ‘Holy Father’). Jesus warned us to call no one ‘Father’ or ‘Teacher’ or ‘Master’. There is only one Father and one Teacher. Only God is holy. Only God is good. His warning to ‘judge not’ includes over-positive judgements of others as well as the total condemnations we like to make. It is complicated when someone we have learned from and whom we saw as a friend is exposed and we see how they harmed others. The first concern then is caring for those who have been hurt, the human collateral damage. Second, is being careful (for our sake and that of the truth) how we judge the offender. Even if, relatively speaking, we have only a splinter in our own eye, we need to take it out before we can see anything clearly. For example, how far were we, even unconsciously, facilitating a lust for power or the game of self-deception, which became, in a basically good person, an irresistible temptation?

It’s hard when heroes, especially our spiritual heroes, are shamed and downgraded. So maybe it’s good that there are no heroes anymore. Or only one hero. It’s better and safer for all concerned.

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Third Sunday of Lent

 

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Today’s gospel is about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman. She was a marginalised person both with regard to him as a Jew and to her own village because of her marital history. She didn’t put him or anyone else on a pedestal.  Maybe this is why they became so intimate in telling the truth about themselves to each other.

The first time I heard Jean Vanier teach, when he gave us a memorable John Main Seminar in 1990, it was about this story. I was moved and enlightened by how deeply he identified with it and spoke from a place of humble, spiritually intelligent wisdom. It was a difficult time in my own life and in a couple of personal meetings he gave me insightful and healing advice that helped me continue on my path.

Over the years Jean’s friendship with the meditation community continued and just a few years ago he gave his second seminar from Trosly. I cannot deny or rewrite the history of the grace of this connection or the good he did. He had a profound sense that religion was not about control but healing and leading people to fullness of life; and that each person, however marginal, was wholly worthwhile. His theme was human woundedness; and, as the more he expounded it, more people called him a saint. I don’t think he wanted to be put on a pedestal; but, although people might have wondered what his own handicaps and wounds were, he was widely regarded as better than most people. This made his posthumous fall from grace all the more an awful surprise.

When I heard the truth, about the pattern of his sexual relations with a number of women whom he was guiding, I disbelieved it. But the evidence and the conclusions drawn from it are now hard and clear. L’Arche must be commended for the independent enquiry that it conducted into these cases where lasting harm was done to vulnerable women. He was, it seems, not just a wounded but a wounding healer. The way l’Arche leaders have handled this revelation about their founder reflects the best aspects of his own teaching though not of his personal behaviour. In time I feel l’Arche will be stronger and wiser.

I asked a Buddhist friend recently for his perspective on this breaking of an icon. He mentioned the number of teachers in his own tradition who had also been exposed in similar ways. On one of them the Dalai Lama spoke out because of a personal connection. He said how easily the power and influence given to gurus in their tradition could go corrupt, as power of any kind risks doing. But, he added, how disappointing and how inexcusable is the failure, when this power gives the one who holds it a sense of exceptional privileges and entitlements and exempts them from the normal standards of decency and probity.

Before tomorrow, when I conclude this sad reflection, I would ask you to reflect on the issue in itself. And also on the language we use to think and talk about it. How can we respond to the revelation of sinfulness in those brothers and sisters in whom we once naively saw only grace?

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Saturday Lent Week Two

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There are no heroes any more, only celebrities. That is how it seems, anyway, in a culture where we project perfection on those we put on pedestals. Then, the exposure of human weakness, sinfulness or historical misdemeanour, incites mob rage on social media and a public execution on a virtual scaffold. How are the mighty fallen and how, secretly, as the media sales show, we enjoy their disgrace, their fall from grace.

Leaving the personal sin aside for a moment, the blame for this social state of affairs falls on both sides. There are those who create false gods and then idolise them. And there are the idols who exploit the privileges they receive, power, attention, wealth. Then there are idols who don’t want the privileges but just passively go along with it. Anyone who feels they are being idolised has a responsibility to declare and show they are only human. When Cornelius fell at Peter’s feet and worshipped him, Peter replied ‘get up. I am only a human being like you’. His own previous weaknesses were of course part of the story by them.

There is a lot of forgiveness, repentance and new beginnings in the Bible stories. But no perfect characters. Well, we would say there is one; but holiness and authenticity are better terms to describe him than perfection, which is more of a mathematical term than a human one. Perfection dehumanises us. Wholeness, integral humanity, loving-kindness, non-violence: these are the qualities we see in him. They are not superhuman or supernatural but simply fully human, revealing our own actual true nature. What we can be and what we are called to be is our true nature. We are not perfect but we can aspire to wholeness.

And what is this elusive wholeness we feel ineluctably drawn to through the never-ending healing of our serial imperfections and failures to be our true selves? Freedom from self-deception, freedom to love to the fullest human capacity, unflinching clarity of mind and a gentleness of heart taken to the most vulnerable degree, the humility to try again.

Moses was refused entry into the Promised Land because his faith had once faltered and he had failed as a leader. King David lusted after another man’s wife and killed her husband so he could have his way with her. Solomon the Wise ended his days as an old lecher with a thousand women in his harem. Elijah the prophet slaughtered 850 of his religious opponents after he had showed them the superiority of his God.

And so on, until our own times and the revelations of endemic sin and hypocrisy in the religious leaders of many traditions in whom people put their faith and, perhaps unconsciously, expected them to be more perfect than they were. Not surprisingly, the only sinners whom Jesus pointed angrily to were not the public sinners but the ones who hid their sin under their religious persona.

Lent is not a time to play at being more religious but for purifying our religiousness until it better conforms to the truth about ourselves. This cannot be done firstly in public but only in our inner room with the doors closed.

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