As I write this, I am still feeling the surprise of feeling the brilliant light of the huge moon in the early hours of this morning. Moonlight always feels as if it gently floods your body and then strokes the mind. I am distracted, however, from thinking about the lunar feast of Easter, the link with oestrogen and the forever melting and growing phases of the moon. Distraction comes from a continuous raucous noise, like a football crowd celebrating a championship win that is pouring into my room through the open windows in front of my desk looking out at the lake at Bonnevaux. Frogs in full choral disharmony. As the book I consulted puts it, boy frogs awaken from their hibernation with one thing on their minds and lady frogs swollen with spawn lay it and before you can blink it is fertilised.
I rose from the dead after drawing the sting of death and loosing the bonds of hell.. for lo the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. I have risen from the dead, I have offered peace (Origen: Homilies on Song of Songs)
Spring. The calm peaceful, influential cycle of the moon which shape the religious and farming calendars and our moods. The frenzied fixation and impatience of the mating rituals. Energy passing upwards in the body and bursting into spirit. Resurrection happens both in nature and in our psyche which reflects it. Mis-stepping in the dance between the inner and outer rhythms disturbs everything. Many have understood this through their harsh encounter with the virus, one face of nature during the past weeks. The difference between the Resurrection of Jesus and the biological cycle of nature is that in him the cycle of death and rebirth is not repeated but transcended. True, we continue to experience many deaths and rebirths, as always, the deeper the death the higher the rebirth. But through each cycle in our personal and collective lives, we can better breathe in the light of the risen, never to die again, Jesus and lose and find ourselves in him. The corona crisis has meant death for many individuals, myriad kinds of suffering and perhaps the death of a way of life. We have long known it was unsustainable. Growth out of control is cancer. Easter reminds us that we do not need to fear change or death once we are committed to real life. Our spiritual path, whatever form it takes, is that commitment. As we
enter into the cycle of death and resurrection more thoroughly, we become more aware of its universal truth, that it is the model of all being. We begin to appreciate what Mystery is…It is the cycle upon which each half-hour of meditation is based: death to the possessiveness and triviality occupying our ego and a rising to the liberty that dawns when we find ourselves by looking fully at the Other…We are dying and rising to new life every day.. Yet it is also true that there is only one death and one rising which Jesus underwent for all creation. (John Main Word into Silence)
Family or loved ones waiting beside someone on life support or – as in the corona crisis – not allowed to be beside them but waiting for news at a distance – as long as there is breath there is hope. However close the inevitable may be, it is another age, another world away. But when it comes, and the last breath is drawn, when there is no next inbreath, we enter the summum silentium of death. The great silence.
In monasteries this refers to the silence monks are supposed to observe strictly after the night prayer. It’s not unknown, however, for monks to get on zoom or chat with someone in the community after the great silence. With death, however, there is no choice, silence can only be observed. We can’t cheat death. And it is shocking how powerless we are. Like children who think they can get what they want by insisting, by charming, by crying, by threatening, we finally give up and admit we are defeated. What is gone is gone.
However much we replay conversations with the dead we will never again hear or see them as we did. Photos, old letters, personal objects we treasure are all meagre consolation and after a while they become impediments to the new relationship that is being formed in the tomb that slowly evolves to become a womb.
The unyielding, uncompromising silence of non-communication, the failure to make contact, to know what the dead person might be seeing or feeling – if anything. The silence of wondering if they care – if they are anywhere or in any kind of existence in which they could care about those who miss them. Eventually the grieving process allows the bereft to accept the obvious and the inevitable. Albeit with another weight in their heavy heart to carry, they move on. As we die into the death the summum silentium shows signs of life. Green shoots from dead soil.
This doesn’t mean that messages from the dead are getting through on a busy network but that the silence becomes deeper. We become better able to listen to the silence without populating it with our desires and fears and imagination. It becomes simple presence. Simple but more intensely present than anything we thought was real before.
Inbetween the lines of this pandemic and the painful, not meaningless disruption it is causing, we should be able to hear this great silence. If we don’t have one, or if it has fallen into disrepair, this is the time to start or re-service a spiritual practice. It is time to see how necessary for survival is the silence of things. The silence which empowers life through death.
Here at Bonnevaux I have noticed on my walks how much more present and friendly the birds and animals seem. I imagine this is my projection. It is I who have changed, not them. But who knows? Maybe it is after all, all about relationship, not just observation or being observed. It is time to start Lent again.
It matters how we die. And how we die depends upon how we approach dying. How we approach that inevitability depends upon how we have lived. How we live depends upon how much we have learned love.
In many wisdom traditions death is associated with a crisis – the word krisis means judgement. A reckoning has to be made and, like doing tax returns, no one looks forward to it but it is not as bad as it seems once you set your mind to it. The more complicated your affairs, the longer it will take. But unlike tax returns you cannot pay anyone to do it for you. Dying, we all become hermits and if we haven’t understood solitude before we will learn in this last crisis of life.
The Egyptians saw the last judgement as a weighing of the human heart against the feather of truth. If the heart of the deceased was too heavy, too impure, the goddess of truth would devour it and the unfortunate soul would be arrested on its journey into immortality, stuck in some intermediate limbo or netherworld.
So, scared of the unknown afterlife, people used to pray for a holy death. This meant letting go of life and one’s attachments and loved ones peacefully. Even when pain was acute one could achieve a dignified equanimity, no thrashing around dramatically complaining about that ‘dark night’ which the romantic poet Dylan Thomas said we should not go gently into. Rather, he said we should, ‘rage against the fading of the light’. But beside the witness of a holy death this sounds embarrassingly adolescent.
What about Good Friday in the middle of this pandemic in which so many have died, and which will take away many others before it has run its course? If we have been following Lent – and what a Lent it has been in 2020 – we should be a little readier to look death in the eyes and face our deepest fear. When fears are faced, they crumble. It is only when we run away that they become monstrous and wreck our lives and our capacity to love.
Even the death of the unjustly accused, of children, victims of genocide or of social inequality (as we see in the figures of Covid 19’s victims), even the most disturbing deaths teach us about life. Yama the mythical god of death in the Katha Upanishad is a teacher of humanity. So is the fully human, historical Jesus, not only in what he preached but in how he lived and died into his teaching, indeed becoming what he taught. If we die as we lived, our dying is a gift, an authentic teaching in itself, to those we take leave of. Even in grief we can feel the grace of a holy death and its joyful, birth-like expansion and release. Every death, Jesus shows us, can be redemptive.
He did not rage against the fading of the light. He saw the rising light. Spoken from this incommunicable awakening, his last words enlighten us: I am thirsty. Today you will be with me in paradise. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. It is accomplished.
Do this in memory of me’. Jesus says this during the Last Supper, which evolved – and is still evolving in Christian life – as the Eucharist. We ‘remember’ him as members of his mystical body and this remembering nourishes us and helps us to grow. It is food for the journey, a healing of the human condition, a celebration of life as it could be lived with the powers of forgiveness, equality and sharing. Of course, it is symbolic. But symbols are forces of transformation.
There are different kinds of acts of memory. There is a remembering of anger and resentment we call vengeance. There is nostalgia, of regret and sadness for what is lost in time. These kinds of memory keep us looking backwards. They fail to incorporate the past in the present. They cannot prepare us for what’s coming next in the flow of time, the unknown future. These forms of remembering do not guide us to the present moment. They are not the way of ‘calling to mind’ that the Eucharist is about.
In a contemplative Eucharist, such as we celebrate at Bonnevaux (and do online every Sunday), it is easier to feel the presence of Christ in the eternal now, the present moment where the past is healed, and we are renewed to build the future.
Many of the readers of these daily reflections have been forced to become more solitary and even isolated since the beginning of Lent. I was talking today to a meditator who has been in quarantine for two weeks in a hotel room. He is coping well, he told me. He hasn’t turned on the television at all. Some days he adds a third meditation to his regular morning and evening sessions. He keeps in touch online with family and close friends and he started a creative work project which is absorbing him. He began the enforced solitude and dramatic slowdown with the advantage of an already established spiritual path. He is glad to be going home soon but he has learned a lot from the experience and is grateful for it. He feels he will life differently, more simply and gratefully.
For many others the slow down or solitude have not been so easy. Time has hung heavy on them. They have felt restless, lonely, isolated, forgotten, abandoned. When we are in pain it is natural to seek distraction, to “take your mind off it.” But distraction can become a problem in itself, giving only temporary relief. As it becomes more addictive, higher does are needed to achieve the same result.
Many of us are addicted to some forms of distraction already. Finding ourselves in house arrest may mean we automatically increase the dose or look instinctively for other ways of fixing the problem – which they don’t. It can also be an opportunity to discover what a spiritual path and practice mean.
Meditation doesn’t solve the Covid-19 problem. If the virus is contagious before meditation, it will still be contagious afterwards. But a simple daily practice of meditation will, without doubt, change the way you approach and cope with the crisis.
The virus may have been physically present in humans for a long time. Circumstances came together that made the terrible mutation we are experiencing. Eventually, we will understand the science and find a vaccine. We don’t personally blame the virus itself for what it is wreaking, any more than we blame meteorological conditions for natural disasters. We would be foolish however, not to ask about the human element – disrespect for the environment, social injustice, exploitation of the weak – in the creation of these disastrous circumstances. Because every effect has a cause.
But at the human level – yesterday I was reflecting on the character of Judas and our capacity for betrayal – personal responsibility cannot be avoided. We always point a finger of blame somewhere. The husband of a friend of mine gave her an unwelcome Christmas present one year by confessing that he had been having an affair with her best friend for the past decade. In an instant (the same time it took for Satan to enter Judas) he transmitted the virus of the infidelity that shattered her world, inwardly and outwardly. It does not take long to kill someone. But later, as her life had begun to re-form, she told me she was still mad at him, but that she could see how it had happened and her own involvement in the circumstances behind the collapse of their relationship. He had become highly stressed at work, emotionally distant, and she had allowed him to become increasingly separate, convincing herself that this was the best way she could love him.
This week we are living the story of the last days of Jesus. It is a root story in humanity’s collective memory. It helps us read the story of our lives and see sense in the senseless, light in the darkness. To see darkness is the beginning of spiritual vision. What the story will not allow us to do, is evade the truth or deny reality. Unless we come to insight into the meaning of our own story, we will be condemned to repeat the works of darkness until the story of our life ends. So, we don’t know why Judas became the archetypal betrayer. And, if we did, it would make the story too personal and prevent it being the root story of humanity.
All we can say is that our dark deeds are bound to what darkness has previously touched and traumatised us. Who betrayed Judas? Why could he not bear the light? Whatever its cause, his betrayal lead to the climactic triumph of the dark forces of the Passion of Christ. From this moment of darkness Jesus becomes the Christ : his suffering has become universal.
We read the story by allowing it to read us. We see how our suffering and darkness are already contained in the story. We simply accept what we cannot avoid. With the wisdom this brings we penetrate the darkness. We need only a path to guide us into it and through it.
The path is our guide through the dark. ‘The Prince of this world approaches. He has no rights over me; but the world must be shown that I love the Father and do exactly as he commands; so up, let us go forward.’ (Jn 14:30-31)
Today’s gospel (Jn 13:21-33,36-38) is very strange. It is a mysterious moment in the story that is absorbing us this week, a story in which we are meant to find ourselves. If we do not find ourselves in the story, we will not find Jesus either.
He is at supper and falls into ‘deep agitation of spirit’. He is not approaching the end of his life with cool stoicism. But nor is he panicking. Philosophically, death is something we can objectify, distance from ourselves. It is out there, something affecting others. But, as the present crisis has shown us, it is not out there. Now or later, it is coming for all of us. Better be prepared and what better way than to practice dying? A spiritual path does not isolate us safely above the hard fact of our mortality. Jesus trembled before it. But deep prayer shows us what death the great unknown, really is. Meditation whether you believe or not is deep prayer.
We get a glimpse into the mind of Jesus whenever we see, in ourselves, how meditation makes us both more sensitive and vulnerable to suffering; but also frees from the instinct to lash back at those who hurt us. Suffering comes in many forms: at this moment in the story it is as the rawest pain of an intimate betrayal, the death of love.
Jesus tells the disciples directly that one of them will betray him. They are bewildered and start whispering among themselves who it might be. Peter asks John, the disciple most intimate to Jesus, who was reclining next to him, to ask him who it would be. Jesus complies; as an intimate friend he shares everything. He gives a piece of bread to Judas signifying that he is the one whose name will be forever cursed in history after this night.
At that instant ‘Satan enters Judas’. This is a dark inversion of what should happen. The bread Jesus gave Judas is the same with which Jesus identified himself: ‘this is my body’. By giving the bread he gives himself, as every Christian who celebrates the Eucharist in some way feels. But Satan? Suddenly, though, this becomes like a black mass, the kind that Satanists celebrate. Not the receiving of holy communion but blasphemy, the unleashing of the dark perverse of self-destruction.
The human heart is good, Godlike. People give themselves, like the 600,000 in Britain recently who in 24-hours volunteered to help others during the crisis. But there is also a heart of darkness to reckon with. There are splinters of this darkness in each of us. In human beings, even between those who are intimate, darkness can become personal and conscious: the people who coughed into the faces of the police who told them they were breaking the social distancing rules; the paedophile who grooms his victims; the serial killer; the addict; those whom power or wealth have corrupted.
The same darkness is waiting, unconsciously and impersonally, in the billions of Covid-19 virus that could fit into a space the size of this full stop. We don’t know much about the virus or why Judas betrayed his teacher and friend. Darkness is dark. The gospel says when Judas left table to betray Jesus, ‘night fell’.
Here at Bonnevaux I have a great view from the window of my study. It looks out on the lake and the valley leading down to what we have named the Resurrection Tree. This is the old oak where we lit the Easter fire on Holy Saturday night last year for the first time. We hope to do the same again, the same ritual in a very different world, in a few days. I’ll see if we can put a picture of this view and the tree on Daily Wisdom for today.
As the weather is warming up and the trees are greening rapidly, I am opening the window more often as I write here. As I did this just now I saw one of the Bonnevaux cats prowling around looking for prey. It looked up at me and emitted a pathetic mew and then resumed its search. On the lake the frogs are working up to their springtime love-making with great noise and sudden silences. The birdsong has become more 3-D. All animals, even the creepy centipede that frightened me when I went to the kitchen last night, are our friends. We need their companionship as well as our human friends. Perhaps we will treat both better from what we are learning in solitude these days.
Through the fresher, cleaner air after the reduced pollution, come waves of new scents. Our friend, the natural world, is able to share itself with us and remind us how we belong – together – to something greater.
Today’s gospel story opens with a dinner among friends, Jesus, Martha and Mary. Their brother Lazarus had been raised from the dead. Like all those raised, restored and resurrected, he was restored to this same life of companionship, knowing where we belong, but in a new way. He’s at the dinner too.
Mary brings into the room some very expensive ointment, pure nard. It grows in the Himalayas of China, Nepal and India. When I was in Israel a few weeks ago I was given a small tube of it and have just smelled it again. It is amber-coloured and used for medicine, incense (in the Temple in Jerusalem) and as perfume – three purposes with connected meanings.
Mary used this precious thing to anoint the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The four gospels tell the story with variations. In Luke, for example, the woman is a sinner, often taken to mean a prostitute. Anointing of the feet was a gesture of respect, although the detail of the hair is different and unusual. In John’s version Judas, reducing mystery and ritual to the material level, complains at the extravagance. Jesus defends the woman, connecting it to the day of his burial, which we know will be only too soon. These different accounts create a sense of uncertainty, the impossibility of rational precision: a transition period approaching a climax and new time.
Uncertainty – such as we are experiencing now in this pandemic – can also be richly mysterious and meaningful. If we know how to live with uncertainty and open to mystery we may smell the meaning, as they people in the story smelled the scent of the nard filling the whole house.
Today at Mass we read the whole of the Passion story, from the Last Supper to Jesus yielding up his spirit on the Cross.
Most of you who read this last sentence will know what I mean. Let’s remember the generation among us who haven’t the slightest idea what I am referring to. Yet all of us have known or will know what it is suffer the loss of someone we care for deeply and what it means to live with their new and strangely endless absence. I spoke this morning with a friend whose father died suddenly of a heart attack. She and her mother, who joined us on WhatsApp, have been transported in the few minutes that it took for their beloved father and husband to die, into a different world. There are very few words that one can say to those who are so fresh in grief. It is easier to speak of cosmic mysteries than personal loss. Yet the simple, caring presence of others in times when life has been upended and turned inside out can prevent us from collapsing or going mad.
As we see just how far-reaching is influence of this sudden pandemic and how it has stopped the world so suddenly, sending shuddering shocks through every aspect of our lives, the need for personal connection has never been more precious. Here at Bonnevaux the regular rhythm of our daily life, meditation, work, reading, conversation and friendship sustains us as we try to share the gift of a spiritual practice with others around the world through online events and messages. This morning I met meditated online with the workforce of
Singapore’s DPA Architects – who are overseeing the renovation of Bonnevaux – from their offices around the world from Shanghai to London. The Contemplative Path programme website will be up online shortly.
In our new slowed down, shut in world the way we oscillate between the global and the local has never been more obvious. Whether browsing or talking online or walking into the next room or the garden we feel how we are creatures who exists because we are connected, or seek connection, or grieve lost connections. We live on presence not on bread alone.
Suddenly losing what makes us flourish punches the breath out of us. Because it hurts, we may think we have done something to deserve it or feel picked on by an alien force. We also feel dis-illusioned because we took for granted that things would stay as they were for as long as we needed them that way. No blame in feeling this. It’s weird but eventually it makes some sort of sense.
But then there is the banality of grief. The suddenness of the loss is melodramatic, climactic. But climaxes slow down to routines of living with loss, more slow-moving, dull-ache sadness This is when we most need a path, a practice that gives hope through experiencing connection to an eternal spring of being in us. This is the dawning of the age of Resurrection.
This is the meaning of the Holy Week (whether you know what that means or not) that we begin today. Here at Bonnevaux, we would be happy to share that with you online, day by day, connected – Check the WCCM website for the latest.
In a crisis, feeling uncertain of how or if it will end, hearing myriad opinions and predictions from people who have just heard something they want you to believe, what is there to do except simply ‘do the next thing’?
Quite often we find the courage we did not know we had, simply by doing the next thing trustingly and without delay. The big enemy is always postponement driven by fear. Obey without delay, St Benedict says. In crisis times we hardly know what we are obeying. Yet often, not knowing what the next thing after the next thing will be, makes things turn out better than we could have hoped or imagined.
Crisis arrives in many ways. It can creep up on you slyly or suddenly hit you sideways and send you into spin on a slippery road. A real crisis though is always more than a temporary challenge or upset. It is there the next morning and the morning after that and for as far ahead as you can see. No amount of imagining or wishing will reverse what has happened. That is its stomach-turning finality, its unavoidability.
Despite this it, it keeps on taking new shapes, new fears, new questions about why and will there ever be an end to it Will you survive it? In a temporary upset this question can bring you to your senses: ‘well of course in time I will recover’, we say to ourselves. But in a real crisis you don’t know. You just know there is a real possibility you won’t survive. Maybe this is the last one. Hope depends on facing that possibility.
Increasingly, in a real deepening crisis, you realise there will never be a going back to the way things were and yet you are not sure if what lies ahead is a cliff-edge or a new world. Time will tell what kind of crisis this coronavirus has been. Many feel that life will never be the same, that the recovery will be hard and there may fundamental change for good or ill. Nor can we know if or for how long we will remember the lessons learned during the worst of it.
All of that is in the medium or long-term. What is facing us now is the next thing to do, in the shut-in, working from home or depending on others to keep us alive or provisioned. Will we go stir-crazy or will we gently, bravely dive into the present moment by doing the next thing with presence of mind? We have to hold on to mental balance while learning to let go of so many of the habits of mind that unbalanced us in the past. This is what I mean by finding a contemplative path through the crisis. It’s not about becoming suddenly religious or pious.
It means letting go of anxiety and fear and of our always trying to peer around the corner, predicting the future so that we can control it. Meditation is the way to train to do this. The fruits of meditation are many and quietly revolutionary. But don’t expect dramatic experiences or revelations. Wait till you see that you are doing the next thing with calm and clarity, despite feeling fear and anxiety. That shows you are on a contemplative path and that life has purpose and direction. Twice a day, meditation is the next thing.