Monday Lent Week Four

Week4

Forty is the biblical number that symbolises an extended period of time during which a process of transformation is completed. We have not finished the whole journey after this period of time but we are prepared to embark on a new and possibly quite different phase.

Most of our long-term commitments – in marriage, parenthood, in any long work undertake or in monastic life – will take us through this cycle of transformation and bring us to moments of transitional completion. The whole process includes long periods where there is a combination of daily repetition and self-renewing acts of fidelity leading at unpredictable times to total surprises. Growth is a series of forms of completion that we could never have imagined and that, when they come to pass, re-write the plot line of our lives. It is better not to fast-forward or skip to the end of the book because we miss a lot of the meaning of the story.

Each meditation is a microcosm of this forty-day process: of exodus, purposeful wandering and arrival at a promised land, which then sets us a new set of challenges and points of departure.

Perseverance is essential. We need to identify and dismiss the siren voices of frustration or desperation that urge us to turn back. The Israelites in the desert longed for the food they had left behind in Egypt, having got bored with the miraculous manna and quails that fell from the heavens every day to sustain them. Everything, even miracles, can eventually become mundane when we begin to crave variety or the imagined security of the past.

But after a while perseverance can become an unattractive idea as our desire to take a new route or spice up our routines gets overwhelming. Then we need to see that it not all just a mechanical repetition we are committed to but a faithful repetition. It could be boring to get the children fed and off to school every morning but not if it is done in love and for love. Love transforms boredom into quiet wonder. Meditation is a work of love built into the daily routines of life.

A young meditator told me recently that he liked the boredom of meditation and he felt that his generation had been deprived of the value of boredom by the continuous stimulation and diversions of their lifestyle. I got what he was saying but I wouldn’t put it like that. I can’t say I have ever found meditation boring – often difficult and tempted to skip, it but never boring. There is always a surprise even if it comes after the meditation when you realise what a bad idea it would have been to miss it.

There is a subtle level of perception which faith awakens that allows us to know something new – that perseverance, faithfulness has a meaning and constructive purpose which though we cannot quite put our finger on and describe is more real than the greener grass we imagine on the other side of today.

Fourth Sunday of Lent

2Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21

Week4

People endlessly wrestle with questions about the existence of God and of what God is like.

The Bible thinks that only the ‘fool says in his heart there is no God above’. But calling the atheist a fool doesn’t help the discussion today. The importance of believing in God today is not that we avoid being burned at the stake in a theocratic tyranny but so that we remember the equally important questions about human existence and meaning. Without a connection with the living symbol of transcendence we cannot fulfil our human-ness.

The first reading uses the familiar metaphor of God’s wrath descending on those who are unfaithful to the Covenant. It is still a metaphor that many take seriously because it offers an easy explanation for the mystery of suffering and gives the believer a sense of superiority over those he condemns for disobeying God. If we don’t decode the metaphor we end up with the Taliban.

The second reading helps to deconstruct this by stating – shockingly to anyone at that time – that we do an injustice to ourselves by thinking of God in this punitive way. We can only know anything about God through the self-knowledge which at source is God’s love for us. The text says that we, the human, ‘are God’s work of art’. And, that we receive salvation – the potential to come to fullness of being in union with God – through faith and as a ‘gift from God. The question of God is always a question about ourselves. The way we believe in God reveals what we really think about ourselves. Are we a miserable guilty sinner or a glorious work of art. If the work of art, then God must look on us as an artist looks at his masterpiece, not as an art object with a price tag but as an extension of himself.

As always, the gospel condenses all these ideas into the single, simple question of Jesus and of his meaning for us. In him we see that God loves us, his creation, so much that he is incapable of being cruel to it. On the contrary, he humiliates himself as a passionate lover does, discarding dignity and rights, loving the incomplete work into perfection. If we can see ourselves as his work of art, receiving the gift of his continuously creative attention, we have stumbled upon what human perfection really means.

The artist stands back from her work and contemplates it. She intervenes but does not interfere with its emerging identity. While it is still imperfect, she falls in love with it. While still working on it she knows that its beauty, its truth, is her own. What a Sabbath rest when it is finished. What a perfect work when it looks back at the divine artist and says thank you for making me.

Saturday Lent Week Three

Week3

The way through any crisis is to go deeper, to find the stillness that never changes and yet is the creative source of all change through the countless shifting shapes that life takes.

Culturally we no longer revere this stillness. We even deny it and have long worshiped the golden calf of speed and action for its own sake. We have forgotten the power of stillness to release peace and creativity upon the sufferings and challenges we confront. If it seems hard for us to regain contact with this stillness it is because we have lost touch with the obvious ways to do so – of which meditation is the most obvious, most simple and most immediate.

There are, however, states and stages that come at different times and in which access to this stillness suddenly becomes clear and simple. It may be a state of great joy, when we have first found love with another person, or a state of profound loss when what we thought would always be there is suddenly whisked away. These kinds of states and their variables come and go. But they are recurrent windows of opportunity that we can recognize if we take sufficient detachment from the emotions they throw up in us.

Stages are more like milestones. They remind us that we are on a journey through a linear experience of time even though there seem to be many cycles repeating themselves as well. In other words, none of us are getting any younger. Except in the sense that, as our union with God deepens, we realize God is always younger than we are: so we do become younger as we grow older if we have awakened to the purpose and meaning of time.

Stillness is not a state of piety or belief. It is their source as of all our devotion and values. The special stages of life in which we can most readily enter this stillness and ‘know God’ are childhood and, if we have stayed awake, old age. But the reassuring thing is that we can access the childlike state here and now because ‘the kingdom of heaven is very near to you’.

Children themselves are the most powerful authority for teaching this. I would also add those who found wisdom through suffering or those who enjoy prosperity with poverty of spirit. But children are the best teachers. This was brought out well last night at the Meditatio Centre in London, where we were launching a book by a former teacher who has written a book on meditation with children.* He has given a voice to the children he spoke with about their experience. Their simple and profound comments are very economical.

Ella (9) said, ‘When I meditate it feels like me and God are connected.. like he’s giving me loads of love when I’m meditating. I can feel his love. And sometimes in my dreams, I’m meditating and I can see God sitting there beside me meditating’. And Aideen (11) said, ‘I think we can all be like God if we try, so.. we all have a little bit of God in us.’

The anxiety and fear that often dominate us in later life are frequently linked to our childhood. We almost expect to become more burdened and complex as we get older and so forget that this state of childhood is still accessible. We give up the attempt to reconnect to it too quickly, too pessimistic and lacking faith in the wonder of our own being.

Stillness, simplicity and silence are the undivided trinity of states that lead us to become like children again.

Friday Lent Week Three

Week3

I hope you are not getting tired of seeds because there is one more parable to look at. It is the most famous of all seed stories, simple and inexhaustible. Non-dogmatic, but it won’t let us go until we have been read by it. Luke 8:5-8

A sower went out to sow. He scattered the seed in all directions, with varying results. Some fell along the path and the birds came and ate it up. No response, predictable waste. Some fell on stony soil and it sprang up but for lack of moisture withered. Quick response but bad conditions. Failure. Some fell among thorns which were also growing and soon choked the seedling. Bad company. Disappointment. Some fell on good soil and grew healthily, a hundred times return on investment. A successful outcome of nature.

Jesus delivered this story, we are told, to a large crowd of people who were pouring out of the towns to see and hear him. He told this parable to a multiplicitous multitude: some real seekers, some curious, some just following the crowd as they would attach themselves to any crowd. Didn’t he realise that his words would fall on their ears as the seed in the parable fell on different types of soil? If he had wanted to win them all over and enjoy a short-lived Oscar award he would have chosen another message with less of the fullness of truth buried in its apparent emptiness. At the end he throws the ball into our court by saying: ‘Anyone who has ears to hear, let them hear.’ Our own ears are the soil into which the seed of his words fall.

This could lead to different conclusions about the crowd – which now includes the (say) two hundred generations that have heard the same story since. Or, the twenty hundred-year old people that, hand to hand, link us to that moment of the first teaching. We could conclude that all his listeners would be ranked in terms of their receptivity to the seed of his teaching. A pity then for everyone who is not in the good soil category. And most of us would suspect we are not in that. Are we really producing a hundredfold on the investment he has made in us?

Or we can conclude that at different times, different phases of our life, in different moods, subject to different conditions, each of us contains all these different responses. We are after all very inconsistent, much of the time.

In search of lost time, we see our many failures and missed opportunities, many misunderstandings and not a few stupidities. If we can’t, others will point them out to us.

The birds who ate the seed before it germinated, the short-lived and the choked seedlings – are they not also part of the great cycle of nature? Is anything really ever wasted? Does anything really die? Of course it does. But when it is accepted and seen in the big picture it is, as Wittgenstein saw, touched by ‘redeeming love’. What is the greater force in the germination of the seed of our life: failure or forgiveness?

Thursday Lent Week Three

Week3

The funny thing about a seed is that although it contains a living embryo it often appears empty. Holding a handful of seed you can feel, in this smallest and most fragile of beginnings, all the potential of the living thing it will, under the right conditions, grow into. I held some newly born kittens the other day, still with their eyes closed, as their full-grown mother roamed the kitchen in her feline way. Not long before, they were a miniscule fertilized egg. Bound by time as we are, considering how old we are or how much time there is left, we easily forget the continuum of life in which beginning and end, seed and harvest, are interwoven.

First the seed produces tiny roots, breaks open and then the emptiness germinates and bursts into fullness. Eastern wisdom incorporates the complementarity of these two apparent opposites: ‘fullness is emptiness, emptiness is fullness.’ The Christian parallel is the first Beatitude – poverty of spirit – as the live link into the kingdom of heaven. And if the kingdom is not fullness, what is?

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (Jn 12:24).

Lent softens us up to read into the language of paradox. The combination of giving up something and doing something extra makes ascesis work. Physically we send a message to our deep mind and if we are doing it with the right intention (to train not to punish) the physical experience is interpreted. Then we become aware of a different way of seeing everything. Lent thus prepares us for the greatest of all paradoxes in the human range of experience: death and resurrection. Yesterday I heard a brilliant writer speak scathingly of, as he saw them, such myths and crutches generated by religion. Paradox seems nonsense unless you decipher the code, and this happens not just intellectually. It is the vision of faith.

Wittgenstein, no mean intellectual, understood this:

And faith is faith in what is needed by my HEART, my SOUL, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can only say: Only LOVE can believe in the Resurrection. Or: it is LOVE that believes the Resurrection. We might say: Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to Resurrection …

I am jumping ahead by three weeks, I know. But the Resurrection is folded into the meaning of Lent. And to prepare for a deeper insight in the three days’ drama of Easter, we need to prime our response to paradox. After all, it pervades every moment of our life.

The seed that dies so that it can bear much fruit: this is another parabolic key to open the door into this core dimension of reality. Is this death as we imagine it – is death anything like what we imagine and fear – in the light of this paradox? Is it a termination or a transformation? An end that becomes a beginning? We cannot see the answer to this unless we fall into the ground. To fall is to let go, to lose control.

Wednesday Lent Week Three

Week3

Yesterday I mentioned the seed parable of Jesus. Actually there are several parables where he uses the seed to convey his teaching. This is one:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Mt 13: 31-32)

The mustard seed is in fact one of the smallest seeds in the world; and when I first saw a full-grown mustard tree, in India, I was astonished how massive it was. How does Jesus see the kingdom of heaven in this, that he had obviously seen and wondered at himself? The simplicity of his language, as of his teaching, reflects this experience of what was later called the ‘contemplation  of nature’ – the facility to read the book of the natural world in symbolic depth rather than just skimming over it unobservantly, literally as we usually do.

It is the natural world he is looking at but also the human intervention in it. ‘A man took and planted’ the seed in his own field, that is in his life and being. The act of taking and the act of planting change nature without harming it. He is not crudely exploiting but respecting the forces of nature in his work of cultivation.

Our spiritual practice should also respect the natural process and the conditions in which we practice. What may suit one person may be harmful to another if applied in an unobservant way. Anyone can meditate; but someone suffering mental illness, for example, may need to adapt the discipline. Children can meditate but for less time and with less emphasis on the daily discipline (although many children do choose meditate daily). St Paul said we ‘work out’ our salvation. The Buddha continued to practice meditation even after his enlightenment. The church, for all its historical faults, extends the life of Christ ‘until the end of time’. Taking and planting the seed suggests a practice that starts small but continues indefinitely. Although this is a natural process, it is not, at any stage, a passive one.

Growth happens when the conditions are right: if the developing seed is properly cared for. The focus of the parable is not to zoom in on the minutiae of the process, to observe what is happening moment by moment. Similarly, when we meditate it is not helpful to evaluate and measure each meditation period. If we do so we will fall into thinking of good and bad meditations and we will make the process, the perseverance, much more difficult for ourselves. Instead, allow yourself to see the larger picture in which the seed of your practice (the seed of your mantra, your ‘little word’)  is growing. As it grows it also expands the world view you are living with, your universe. Our very way of judging is changed by this growth; and so to cling to the old way, limited, narrow and self-referring, sets up a resistance to the very growth we want to go with.

We grow beyond isolationism, beyond private goals and desires. We grow into inter-dependence, into reality. The seed becomes a tree that is not competing with other trees but offers hospitality to the birds to come and rest and nest on its many branches. The tree has become, as we hope we may become when we grow up, strongly rooted, multi-dimensional and wholly other-centred.

Tuesday Lent Week Three

Week3

The philosopher Spinoza is said to have the gift of giving peace to his readers by clarifying things and leading them to understand the big picture of life for themselves. ‘To understand is to be free’. It was he who said that ‘all our happiness and all our misery solely depends on the quality of the object to which we are attached by love.’

Or, as Jesus said ‘where your treasure is there will your heart be also’ (Mt 6:21).

There is a thriving happiness industry today. One side of it is entertainment which offers us continuous stimulation and more distraction than we can consume in a lifetime. Ancient history, for this generation, the days when television shut down at 11pm and people went to bed. The other side of the compulsion to be happy is the contemporary self-help, self-improvement industry. This offers a production line of courses, publications and quick tips, of varying quality, which promise that secret of happiness which entertainment-addiction patently fails to deliver.

It is our right, as the Declaration of Independence asserts, to pursue happiness. Politically, though, this means something different from what it means spiritually. The spiritual declaration is about inter-dependence; and we do not pursue happiness as a state of private satisfaction and fulfilment. We realise it.

We are all happier than we think. If we detach from thought in the right way (entertainment is not the best way), we transition into deeper levels of awareness where happiness is waiting for us. We find it, as Jesus described in his parables, like a treasure buried in the field or a seed that grows naturally into its full potential.

Our happiness is not our own. It is the happiness of the universe in being itself. Each of us, as an interdependent entity, shares in this joy of being. We cannot grab or possess it. This is blatantly obvious to us when we are surprised by true happiness. But we forget it as quickly and go back to pursuing it independently. Most of the time we don’t know where our treasure is; and therefore we have lost track of where our heart is. The ironical thing, too, is that we then forget what we truly love.

Reducing and slowing down our consumption and clarifying and improving our mental activity – which Lent and meditation can help us to do – show us where our heart is; and also, as Spinoza said, the real quality of what we have become attached to. There is no love without attachment. But no less truly, no love can grow without detachment.

Your smart phone probably has a feature showing you where your car is parked. Very useful when you parked it unmindfully and are wandering the streets looking for it. Meditation reminds us where our heart is and, in addition, clarifies for us what it is we truly love.

Monday Lent Week Three

Week3

There is a fair consensus today that something fundamental has gone wrong with the way we do things. The gap between rich and poor, how democracy works, how medicine is practiced, the goals of education, the use of technology and the media, corporate culture – and the role religion plays in society. The dysfunctionality in all these areas seems stronger than those who try to change things and so stress is at epidemic levels.

Something is missing. Let us call it ‘heart’. When the Mid-Staffordshire National Health Trust broke down some years ago it was meeting all its government-set targets. Unfortunately it was doing so at the cost of an unacceptable – the numbers are disputed – avoidable deaths. A US advisor was asked after the enquiry if he could identify one essential cause of this institutional disaster. He replied ‘a lack of love’.

The loss of heart in modern life has many consequences. Until we understand this we will continue to be overwhelmed by the feeling of helplessness and impending disaster. Many actually hope a general disaster will happen to allow everything start over again. Heart, however, does not mean only emotion. Racists lack heart but are driven by strong emotion. The financial markets are very emotional but often heartless.

‘Heart’ is a universal symbol of wholeness, justice and tenderness. If a politician speaks with integrity and tells the truth as he sees it, he exhibits this quality. The lack of heart in politics and in business today makes the rest of us feel hurt by this lack of heart. We are a heartsore generation. When the solution to mass school killings is to put more guns into schools the heartless image of armed teachers shows the lunacy that a lack of heart leads to.

What can we do? Take time. You cannot raise a healthy family without giving it time and attention. Too much stress destroys the joy of life and replaces inner peace, which is our true state of being, with anxiety, fear and violence. Take time to be, not to plan, review or do. Just to be. It is amazing how this quickly initiates a personal transformation in the individual and how this is then reflected in the way they work and relate to people. Families, businesses, hospitals, schools become different places when the people who work there rediscover their heart

Facing their crisis, the Hebrew prophets called on people to exchange their hearts of stone for hearts of flesh. Today we can contribute to this healing of our world through teaching a contemplative practice that teaches us again how to be, how to open our hearts.

Self-contradicting institutions and wounded and wounding people need to be exposed to this in the simplest and most inclusive of ways. It is not about religious propaganda but neither is it about reducing the human person to neurons and synapses. It is about finding again the universal truth that our full humanity is finely balanced in that centre of consciousness we call the heart. The result of this balance is a better, fuller life.

This is why we teach meditation – as a healthy ascesis, a liberating discipline. By the beginning of its third week, Lent should be showing us this.

Sunday Lent Week Three

Week3

Ex 20:1-17 – 1Cor 1:22-25 – Jn 2:13-25

After Easter I will be going with a group of pilgrims to the oldest Christian monastery, St Catherine’s, at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses, according to today’s first reading, received the ten commandments in the cloud that covered the mountain after he had left the people and climbed it. We will also see the burning bush, but no longer aflame I think.
There is real power – and benefit to our inner journey- to be found by visiting the sacred places of our own and others’ traditions. Pilgrimage symbolises the process of purification, simplification and transformation that we call our spiritual path – a journey that is no less interior than exterior because it eventually transcends all dualities. Without the sacred – in the form of space or time or ritual – our life is diminished, under-nourished by the power of symbol. But it is easy to polarise the sacred and the secular, the mystical and the rational; whereas, in this human quest we are all on, both need to be integrated and transcended.

Cecil B de Mille’s Ten Commandments, a Hollywood blockbuster of the 60’s, with Charlton Heston as Moses, was faithful to the mythical narrative text of today’s first reading but it is unconvincing and laughable today. We have to suspend our disbelief in order to read this kind of story, not to believe it literally. By missing the point, fundamentalism betrays revelation. In that state of suspense the truth of symbol can be felt. Seeing this is part of the spiritual journey we make from childhood to maturity.
St Paul matured with a bang – evidence of which we see in the second reading – when Christ exploded in his consciousness. He underwent the shattering of duality that happens when we plunge into paradox, comparable to the sci-fi astronauts who take their ship into a black hole and find new dimensions of reality. For Paul Christ is the eye of all paradox, crucified and risen, foolishness to the world, wisdom in the divine dimension, apparently weak but actually strong.

In today’s gospel Jesus cleanses the temple. He drives out the money-changers along with those running the animal sacrifice industry. The authorities are outraged, and with good reason. Without traders, how will the Temple be self-sustaining as no doubt they were told they must be? Such behaviour is also awful for tourism, like the terrorist attacks in Egypt some years ago. But when the sacred becomes profane it demands to be shattered which is why the history of religion is full of reform movements.

We see at the end of the gospel, however, that Jesus was not concerned about running a successful movement. If you understand him, follow him. If you don’t, well, wait. This detachment from his own message also propels us beyond literalism and duality into a deeper level of reality, higher up the holy mountain. Any meditator would realise from reading this that we too must purify the temple of our hearts of any thought or practice, however reasonable, that betrays it.

Saturday Lent Week Two

Lent_W2

There is a false peace which comes merely from the feeling that we are in control and can explain everything that is happening. It is what Jesus called ‘peace as the world gives it’ and he distinguished it from his own peace which he bestows as gift. Like all gifts from a truly authentic source it is without conditions, regardless of whether the beneficiary – us – deserve it or not.

Peace as the world gives it breaks down and is easily dissolved leaving us confused, frightened and angry. What we had relied on is no longer there and its disappearance undermines our trust in the benevolence of the universe. We can no longer be sure we will be treated fairly by life. Any number of misfortunes may cause this breakdown of peace. It might be the loss of an epiphany of love that we had cautiously allowed ourselves to believe in and felt would last forever. It could be an unexpected medical diagnosis or a letter telling us we are made redundant. In a moment the peace which gave us a cushion, on which to ride out the small bumps of life with a smile, is gone in a puff. We land with a hard bump on an earth that has suddenly become hard and inhospitable.

Worse of all it makes no sense. Religious platitudes may give temporary relief: God works in mysterious ways. We have to take the rough with the smooth. Jesus suffered like this too. It is not that they are untrue but they remain tasteless platitudes, ungrounded and bloodless, until we have experienced their meaning. Once we have, we may use them, sparingly.

There is no explanation. At least none that takes account of the full range of human destiny including the comedy and the tragedy of life. Explanations seek harmony and present an orderly view of things. As in music, we relax into harmony and allow it to soothe us. Bach has many sections in his glorious harmonies where he tips this apple cart over and, for a while, lets the apples roll chaotically around the listening mind. These are the times when he deliberately introduces dissonance. It sounds as if things fall apart, just as they were taking beautiful shape. Why does he do this: is he really a secret cynic laughing at our gullibility for believing in ultimate harmonies? Or is revealing the dark secret that it will all end in chaos.

These explanations of why Bach sometimes denies us the harmony of explanation do not flow with the deep faith that pervades his music. His use of dissonance might be a statement that the inexplicable has to be accepted just as much as the predictable and all the orderly explanations we like to protect us. But none of these are complete or real unless they can co-exist with what is at times senseless and resists being given any reason. A mother who has lost two children in a car accident should not be told by a young priest eager to smooth away this fatal dissonance, ‘don’t worry, they are in a better place.’ There is no trustworthy explanation that does not respect the inexplicability of things.

Our Lenten disciplines are a sort of controlled dissonance that can teach us this in a small way. So does the ebb and flow of feeling in daily meditation over the years.