Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12: 20-33

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Life is one damn thing after another. Religious people often deal with that by building walls and ramparts against change and thereby produce a religion full of damnation and condemnation. Religion is meant to be an enlightened and fearless way of managing change on life’s inexorable journey to God.

Today’s readings begin in the Axial Age – that evolutionary period of human consciousness that threw up the Buddha, the Upanishads, Lao Tse, Plato – and the Hebrew prophets. It was a time of deep, irreversible change in how we perceive ourselves. Jeremiah saw that his people’s understanding of God and themselves – the ‘covenant’ as they called it – had moved from a tribal deity with submissive worshippers who derived their superior sense of identity from it. Instead the ‘new covenant’ would consist not of an external Law but of one ‘written in their hearts’.

The upshot of this revolutionary change in religious consciousness was a new perception of equality uniting the whole people. Those who experienced God in this way forever look differently at each other. Teaching about God ceases to be from the top down. Now, ‘they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest.’ Such a perception of equality drove Pope Francis to call clericalism one of the three great corrosive temptations of the church. It also drove Mary McAleese last week to challenge him sharply to put this into practice in an incorrigibly patriarchal church institution and to respect the equality of women and men at all levels of its life.

In the second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, the beam of this revolutionary shift in consciousness is passed through the lens that is Christ. Or, more accurately, passed through the humility of Christ who learned (and who doesn’t?) to obey through suffering. Only leaders who are not afraid to show their wounds can bring redemption to those who follow them. If Jeremiah illuminates the equality of the new covenant, Hebrews reveals the transformative fraternity that Jesus opens for humanity through his way of living the human journey.
In the next reading Jesus speaks in that mysterious tone of voice we hear in John’s gospel. We meet the Word of God made flesh in his human tears and fears. The one damn thing after another has brought him to an ultimate, tearful and fear-filled moment in which he perceives the inevitable logic of his teaching:  it, and he, will be rejected by the power structures it exposes. He will fail; and we can only choose to follow him through that black hole or remain in a religion that has sold out to power. Oddly and disturbingly, this is what liberty really looks like.
Prophetic equality, mystical fraternity and liberty of spirit. These are the elements of the revolution we are all caught up in now, like it or not. A revolution that has, so far, still hardly begun.

Saturday Lent Week Four

Week4

I once visited a man in hospital who had taken a knife against his wife and child when she told him she was leaving him. In a deranged state he then turned the knife on himself. When I saw him he was calmer but in immense inner suffering and totally without perception about the reasons that had led him to his sad and sorry state.

He told me that he was totally surprised and unprepared for what his wife had told him. He insisted that for all their marriage they had been as much in love as at the beginning of their relationship. And, he claimed, they had never once had any kind disagreement but always been in tune and devoted to each other.

Perception can be a terrible thing when it is false and when anything that challenges it and the world-view it supports is at all costs denied. Sometimes the denial remains complicit in a group or marriage for long stretches of time. When it becomes unsustainable something – or someone like this poor man’s wife – snaps. Then the accumulated forces of self-delusion smash the mind and flood into all our feelings like poison. One of the greatest descriptions of this in literature is in Jane Austen’s Emma. As a novel it is a comedy: that means it ends happily with everyone getting married to the right person. But, as in many comedies, the dark side of experience and its great sufferings have to be faced first.

In the course of a few moments, at the end of the story, Emma realises what a foolish, arrogant and totally unperceptive young woman she has been. She was bewildered amidst the confusion of all that had rushed on her within the last few hours. Every moment had brought a fresh surprise; and every surprise must be matter of humiliation to her. How to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself, and living under! The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart! .. she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes… sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched — she admitted — she acknowledged the whole truth.’(Chapter 47)
It is impossible not to feel compassion for someone when the veil of illusion they have been hiding behind is removed. It is a violent surprise and the violence is often, as in the man I mentioned, turned, one way or another, against oneself. Friends are never more essential than at such times of shame and insight into one’s misperceptions.

The negative surprise and misery of dis-illusionment is the mirror image of what happens when reality bursts upon us and we surprised by joy and filled with delight. This too can be painful but in a way of growth, like realizing your life has been turned upside down and inside out by love.

The sand in an hourglass appears (another misperception) to run out more quickly at the end of the hour. Our forty days are running out. But whatever we have been disillusioned about prepares us for Easter and the biggest surprise of all.

Friday Lent Week Four

Week4

Ultimately the cleansing of the doors of perception leads to purity of heart and the consummation of all conscious perception in the vision of God.

Every degree of perception – they cannot be numbered – is a door into another. If we reach a certain level of awareness – for example in peace and clarity of mind or imageless awareness – we may be tempted to think that we have reached the end of the journey. God, however, into whom the journey is being made, is infinitely simple. To arrive always means to set out again.

In our way of meditation, this explains the teaching about saying the mantra continuously and accepting that ‘we do not choose when to stop saying it’. However this does not mean, as some fear when they first hear it, that we are condemned to life-sentence of monotonous and mechanical repetition. Quite the reverse, faithful practice clears the way. The mantra itself is like an ice-breaker opening the way into deeper and more subtle levels of perception.

As it does this, the mantra is recited more gently and attentively, with the degree of subtlety appropriate to the level we have been led to. John Main described this work of the mantra to climbing up a mountain side. The more we climb the more the mantra sounds more faintly in the valley below us; but we continue to say or listen to it as soon as we fall into earlier levels of distraction or turbulence.

At times this may lead us into complete silence which means the letting-go of self-consciousness and the observing self. We are in a sense now beyond experience, because experience in the ordinary sense is always how we remember or describe something that is no longer fully present. Many people who remember a good experience long to recover it and endlessly regret its loss. Often what they remember and call the experience looks very different from what actually happened.

This is living in the past. But the essence of contemplative consciousness is absorbing and integrating the past, and then moving ever further into a deeper entry of the present moment. Real cleansing of our progressive levels of consciousness, which is what growth means, brings about progress by touching and throwing open the deep core of our being, in the cave, the abyss, of our heart.

All that is good about our humanity is there awaiting liberation and fulfilment. At this level of being we undergo a transformation that cannot be observed because it is simultaneously within and outside us. Often we become aware of the inner change by perceiving the new power of forgiveness, truthfulness and compassion in our daily life. These fruits of the spirit point to an interior change that we cannot watch happen. Without trying, though, we become aware of it in the silence of a pure heart (without effort or control on our part).

We then see God but without an objectifying vision, with liberty of spirit. This is prayer and it is the answer to all forms of prayer.

Thursday Lent Week Four

Week4

Meditators can be the most egocentric of people, especially if the cleansing of their doors of perception (see yesterday’s reading) gets stuck at the starting gate. The perception of our egotism, however uncomfortable, is liberating, but only if it extends beyond itself. If the contemplative remains fixed in her self-perception she betrays the goal of her journey which is other-centred perception. In training children we call this ‘thinking of others’ and it is related to basic social graces. But its deeper sense is the clear, direct perception of others, their needs and their goodness, that happens when we become subtle enough to pass through the walls of the cavern of our ego.

Blake spoke of the cleansing of our doors of perception. We could also think of it as a training, the ascesis that is life itself. Every act of perception is a lesson and a step to deeper consciousness. Just as we gratefully perceive things more clearly after physical exercise, creative work or meditation, so we come to love the training for the kind of work it performs in us.

The training in this kind of perception takes many forms. Like every universal process it is never exactly the same for everyone. No one is exempt from this because it is the very meaning of human development. But we are each different in temperament and past experience, in the kinds and degrees of woundedness and in the combination of strengths and weaknesses that define both our limitations and our potential.

The training never stops until our last breath and, perhaps, not even then. It involves constant correction of the course we are on. Extremes take us off course – even though they may help us understand better where we are not going. At one extreme, for example is ADD, jumpy, short-lived, inconstant attention: when we struggle even to listen to the person who is speaking to us or to the page we are reading. At another extreme is OCD, fixated, mechanically repetitive, compulsive: when the needle of attention gets stuck on the vinyl and keeps replaying.

Any extreme eventually leads to discouragement or despair. But we can be reassured that even mistakes and neuroses have their positive side, when we perceive them for what they are. This itself is progress and we should feel a ray of the sunlight of consciousness enter our darkened minds just in this perception of our dysfunction. In biblical language, admitting your responsibility for the mess you helped create is a good thing, the beginning of repentance, which is simply putting things back in order.

Cleansing our perception is like sharpening a blunt knife or walking a narrow path. Seeing it is not enough. We have also, always, to take the next step. Which is why we say the mantra continuously.

Wednesday Lent Week Four

Week4

William Blake said that if we could only cleanse the doors of perception we would see everything as it truly is: infinite. ‘For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.’

It is always tempting to think that solutions lie outside us. Others who fail to collaborate can then be blamed for the problem. Slowly through life we learn that we cannot change the world or other people until we first change ourselves. It is very annoying that this is a universal law but there’s no getting around it.

One attempt to evade the need for personal transformation is to think that we can cleanse the doors of perception by taking something outside ourselves and putting it inside. Humanity has had a relationship with alcohol for ten million years and then mastered the arts of producing it about ten thousand years ago. Our drug-addiction epidemic today merely confirms how easy we find it to escape painful perceptions of reality by changing them by external means. Every alcoholic and addict witnesses to the ultimate failure of this attempt.

If we want to see things as they really are we have to cleanse the powers of perception that permit us to know ourselves as we truly are. There are many of these powers, as there are many dimensions of consciousness in the physical, mental and spiritual realms. Proprioception, or kinesthesia, is the medical term for one of these powers, which is perhaps the perception we most take for granted. It is the sense by which we can perceive the position and movement of our body. For example, even with our eyes closed we know where our left and right hands are and what they are doing. We also know by this sense whether we are feeling balanced. Athletes make good subjects for the scientific study of this form of perception.

We practice it – and cleanse it – each time we meditate, when we take a few moments to be aware of our body and its posture. Are we sitting upright, still, with neck balanced and hands in position – ‘comfortable and relaxed’? This intuitive checklist becomes second nature with regular practice and grounds meditation in the wonder of perception itself. That we can be aware of ourselves in this most simple and immediate way reminds us that we are sentient beings not just stressed, anxious, discontented or complaining individuals. A few moments’ attention to our posture shows a way out of the cavern in which Blake says we have incarcerated ourselves.

Paradoxical as it may sound, this most basic power of self-awareness, perception concerning our physical reality, initiates the journey into other-centredness. It is, if you like, basic mindfulness and however it is practiced it brings its own kinds of benefits. But, if we are not to get stuck at self-awareness and if we are to enjoy the fruits of self-knowledge, we need to take the next step. This is why we meditate and why some of us support it with the perception-cleansing work of Lent.

Tuesday Lent Week Four

Week4

I have been leading a retreat in Italy and learnt two things yesterday, each concerning my perception of the world that I thought I was seeing accurately.

The first came after I spoke about the purpose and value of ‘doing something for Lent’, which these daily readings for the past few weeks have returned to regularly. How doing something and not doing something can help re-orientate our minds and hearts, shift old patterns and even, without doing violence to us, trigger or enhance deeper levels of transformation. I assumed that a fair proportion of the hundred or so people I was talking to would have done something or given something up. It was a naïve assumption because when I asked for a show of hands of people who had a Lenten practice, and expecting at least fifty percent, only a very few did so. Now maybe they misunderstood me. Or maybe they were applying the warning of Jesus not to parade your good deeds before men. I don’t know. We misperceive our misperceptions too.

If I was right I had made a mental misperception. Later I was given two powerful digital art works made with striking colours and dynamically abstract. As I looked at them longer I saw a face in one. In the other I saw a shape that reminded me of an extra-terrestrial, though I didn’t say this to the artist. After a third look it struck me that the face I saw was very familiar and I did mention this. The artist looked at me, surprised that I had not recognised myself. When I looked at the other painting the alien merged into a new composition and I saw a different view of my face there too.

To become aware of our misperceptions of reality is always humbling and can also be humorous and enjoyable. In more serious matters where our reputation or privileges are challenged by acknowledging our mistakes we may pretend we always saw things correctly and were misunderstood in what we said before – or we simply deny and evade the embarrassment. As effective leaders know, it is always better to admit mistakes and if necessary say ‘sorry’ but it takes a contemplative detachment from ourselves and our image to do this.

One of the values of an ascetical discipline is the humility, the down-to-earthness it brings. We never practice them perfectly because, even if we are consistent, a measure of self-congratulation can always creep in. But the humble fidelity to what we set out to do nevertheless creates a detachment, an optimum distance from ourselves and our subjective view of the world. It allows our powers of perception to function within the flow of events rather than creating a model of reality that we defend at all costs even when it has been exposed as false.

This personal trait, which we can all be subject to without knowing it, also affects the collective psyche. Electorates who have made a big mistake, which is pointed out to them by subsequent events, rarely see reason and change their mind. To change our mind is the essence of human development. Like snakes we grow skins of perception that we have to learn to shed without regret when the time is come; just as, one day, we have shuffle off our mortal coil and enter naked into the kingdom where we see with perfect vision because we no longer objectify reality.

Instead of looking at it (and getting it wrong much of the time) we see with the eyes of the artist who made both us and the world that we are ever one with. Ultimately, we see because we see that we are seen.

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.