Passion Sunday 2020

 

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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.

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Saturday Lent Week Five

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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.

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Friday Lent Week Five

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Although the response to the Contemplative Path programme has been keeping us online and in touch with the meditators around the world, we have been living a regular, quiet life here at Bonnevaux. But yesterday I disturbed the peace by setting off the fire alarm in the house trying to light a fire in the fireplace in my study because it suddenly got colder here. My failed attempt produced clouds of smoke that blew inwards rather than up the chimney. I thought I had learned by now how to start a fire with wood in a small fireplace. But once again I discovered again how little I know and how easy it is to repeat mistakes.

Of course, to light a fire you start with paper. How much to lay down is always a difficult decision to make. Then you add kindling, small pieces of wood or cardboard. You can’t be sure the wood is dry enough and sometimes it rejects your advances to ignite it. The firelighters I then add are annoyingly temperamental and usually go out as soon as you place anything on top of them. Or. they fall between the wood and the paper and I attempt to save the fire by lighting the paper. This produces an initial gratifying blaze and a flickering sense of achievement. I feel successful, or to be honest, just lucky. But it is a false hope.

Some of the small pieces of wood eventually catch fire half-heartedly. I hope this will spread to the larger pieces of wood that I have waiting nearby to add. As I am very impatient, I usually put the bigger logs on the new flames too quickly. I hope, I imagine, I pray they will catch the fire. But after a while everything dies down. I have made too much of a demand on the small flames and expected too much. Soon there are just a few burning embers left. At this point it’s easy to despair. It’s not a big issue in life, lighting a fire, but the smallest disappointment can trigger darker moments of despair. Just misplacing your car keys can trigger a series of previous more painful losses in your life. Why not just switch on the electric fire?

But my Irish determination fights against despair. I run outside to pick up a new supply of small pieces of wood. When I get back the embers are almost dead, but I carefully put the new kindling on top of them. I throw in one of the useless firelighters as well. What’s there to lose? Lying on the floor I blow long and hard into the glowing embers and eventually a few glorious flames appear. Encouraging but not to be trusted.

An hour or so later, after frequent interventions and near-death experiences, the fire is burning merrily. The secret of course is not what you put on top but what lies underneath. When the foundation of the fire is hot and glowing, anything you add will be consumed. Fire like love consumes what it feeds on. There is a glorious union and then it’s over. The room is almost too warm and it’s time for bed.

I won’t bore you with an explanation of this poor parable. I think it’s obvious. For Lent. For a pandemic. For daily meditation.

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Thursday Lent Week Five

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Not so long-ago experts and specialists were out of fashion. They were rejected as part of the ‘establishment’ and replaced by ‘the people’, the ordinary people who wanted their views heard. Now in a full-blown global health crisis that is changing the world as neither the establishment nor the people could have done, experts have become the ones we trust. We trust them because, unlike those leaders who are preaching denial and false hope, these medical experts, statisticians and epidemiologists, admit to a large mix of uncertainty in their opinions. They don’t claim to have all the answers and generally they recognise this is not the time to point the finger of blame.

Living with uncertainty is a right brain function. It is part of the contemplative path through life, including all life’s crises. In an un-contemplative lifestyle, where everything is done to excess and at unnecessary speed, we leap from one false certainty to another. The sudden slowdown and shutdown affects us all – from people working alone from their computers in the suburbs, to those who have lost their jobs and cannot afford to feed themselves or their families, to the millions of migrants workers in India forced at four hours’ notice to walk hundreds of kilometres to their home villages. Suffering and fear can isolate us, but they can also become a bridge when we see how we are feeling the same things as everyone else. The shock is to find how radical uncertainty is. So, how necessary it is that we know how to live with it wisely. The shock, too, is a suddenly altered sense of time.

One good source of wisdom is the 6th century monastic rule of life written by St Benedict that we adapt to our life here at Bonnevaux. Benedict knew about uncertainty: one community he founded tried to poison him, the great city of Rome (the Washington DC of its day) was invaded and sacked by barbarians and he lived with a group of people of greatly differing temperaments who could fly off in different directions any day – or several times a day. His main solution to uncertainty was to make a daily schedule and – with reasonable flexibility of course – stick to it.

Maybe that’s a first step for many people isolated at home with others or alone: make a realistic timetable including the things you need and want to do and post it on your fridge door. Look at it and see if it feels balanced. Does it represent ordinary common humanity – physical needs, mental needs and spiritual needs?
Adjusting it to reflect basic human needs is a first step to getting a handle on the feeling of fear and panic that uncertainty and slow-down. It is step to curing the virus of fear and panic. It helps us to see health differently even in the midst of a pandemic. When we have re-connected to the sense of the present we will find that peace – the peace we lost in all that stress – is closer to us, deeper within us, than we had ever imagined.

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Wednesday Lent Week Five

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Many people today are becoming oddly aware that in life before the virus they had forgotten something obvious. That above everything else life is, a spiritual journey. Many are remembering that a spiritual path is necessary to remain conscious through all the excruciating uncertainties and extremes, that life is a spiritual journey.

And for those who before struggled to be faithful to a regular spiritual practice, to meditate twice a day, it is clearer that a spiritual path is  more than a lifestyle choice: it is the ‘one thing necessary’ (Lk 10:42) To remember this is to become conscious again. To be conscious is to be alive. Our best chance of surviving is to be awake. This is the work of the humble practice of daily meditation and the mantra.

Thank God for the internet and social media. Whatever bad use we made of them before the virus we are now discovering how they can be a lifeline to meaning, to connection. Depth and meaning come through inner connection with others, being reminded by them of the necessary grace of friendship. Shared spiritual practice does not make us perfect; but it builds community.

Feeling connected to a community builds resilience and deepens peace through these lonely, often bewildering days of social isolation. The response to the WCCM’s A Contemplative Path through the Crisis has been amazing. A surge of people have been signing up to join the path and receive the teachings, short videos, audio and print media from which you can choose what will best help you at that moment. Above all it supports practice with a sense of community. We follow a spiritual path and take the responsibility for ourselves. But the solitude to which it leads, reveals the deep connections we have with all others. It is not a club, but an inclusive community is especially felt between who follow the path together, supporting, being supported, now giving encouragement, now receiving it.

To have a spiritual path enriches us with the gift of spiritual friendship. No price, no membership fee can match this gift, healing the isolation and loneliness which are also viruses long at work in our culture. A path also feeds and calms the mind, giving us essential tools and insights to help us endure when we encounter suffering, disruption, loss or fear. Without a path we are so overwhelmed. Yet we are never far from it. We have. A sense of homecoming when we connect with it again.

For the first time most churches in the West are closed for public worship because of the coronavirus. They have been becoming emptier for a long time because the spirit and form of worship increasingly seemed, especially to the more free-thinking younger generation, empty of meaning, lacking connection with an inner spiritual path. Religion without connection to a contemplative practice, eventually merges with external ritual and outward works. It lacks heart, the most precious dimension of human existence.

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Tuesday Lent Week Five

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Where is our memory stored? The materialist’s answer is in the hippocampus of the brain for long-term memories and the neocortex of the brain for what I had for dinner yesterday. A more subtle answer that takes the spiritual dimension for real (not just as an accident of the brain) would say that all memory is stored in the deeper level of consciousness. As our Buddhist dialogue partner in the recent inter-contemplative dialogues, Alan Wallace, said we don’t think that the memory of a computer is stored in the keyboard. Why should we think the brain makes us conscious?

An old aunt of mine suffered Alzheimers for ten years and could not communicate at all. Her daughters decided they would tell her that her husband, their father, had died although they knew she would be unaware and unresponsive. She continued to jabber meaninglessly as they told her, but then, tears rolled down her cheeks. That may not prove anything scientific about memory; but it suggests something about consciousness surviving the atrophy of the brain just as it has been shown to survive the clinical death of patients under medical care.

To see someone whom we have lived with and loved for a lifetime lose their memory and drift away from us is dying while alive. We pass through deaths at many levels of intensity in a lifetime, but this must be one of the worst. And yet, in this too, there is a substratum of consciousness that connects us, even when all the signals we exchange to show that we recognise and care for one another have flickered out.

The persistence of deep memory – and love is a kind of memory continuously remembered and renewed – does not negate death. In a way it makes death all the more final and terrible. Yet it transcends death and shows life as the great constant. Life is inextinguishable. Consciousness itself is life and memory shows love to be stronger than death.

Personal relationships teach us this. So do great spiritual traditions which are a transmission in a stream of consciousness of a living memory that connects us to our source while it carries us forward on our individual journey. For all of us today our individual journeys in life are connected by the threat and fear of the coronavirus. For some of us it has already meant the death of loved ones. For all it triggers the awareness of our mortality and the uncertainties of change we cannot control.

In such dark times, however, a collective memory, suppressed by hyper-distraction, becomes conscious again: the memory of life experienced as a spiritual journey beginning and ending in mystery, full of inexplicable pain and joy but full of wonder. It is wonder in the end that frees us from fear. We are first exposed to our real predicament: of not having a spiritual path in times like this, lacking a source of meaning, not seeing the spark of life hidden in the darkness of our deaths. All these are symptoms of another virus rampant in our materialism and delusion. To remember this is to beat the fear of death and dying.

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Monday Lent Week Five

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What’s normal? Once I was talking with someone who had been greatly angered and felt deeply betrayed by a friend. The friend had, I thought, acted badly. Yet, it was easier for me to be ‘objective’ and think ‘well, maybe they didn’t want to hurt this person and maybe they didn’t really know what they were doing’. This is much easier to say when you’re not on the Cross yourself.

Jesus reached the highest objectivity, not the false one most of us claim to speak from. It is reached at the base of the greatest subjectivity – when he knew himself totally and was about to give up his spirit to his source, ceasing to be separate in any way, and abandoning any clinging to himself. He was on the Cross at that moment and said, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.’ Interestingly, he didn’t say ‘Father, I forgive them…’

When it is “I’’ doing the forgiving, there is too much personal attachment to the pain and the drama of forgiveness. In calling forth forgiveness for his enemies’ appalling and vicious ignorance, from the ground of being, he was connecting to the source itself. His last words teach us where he had reached and what we should aim for.

Anyway, back to this life. The person I was speaking to, who felt betrayed, was analysing and condemning the person who had hurt her. We all do it, trying to understand how this could have happened, explaining it in a way that blames but pretends to be objective. We use psychological language for this today most of the time. Maybe there is some truth in the psychological assessment we make of others. But it may not yet be a truth we have earned the right to use. This becomes obvious when we say something like, ‘it’s just not normal. There’s something wrong… abnormal about them.’ Jesus didn’t say of his final predicament, ‘it’s just not normal.’ In fact, it was only too normal: that we blame others and crucify them in order to protect ourselves from the truth. There’s nothing more normal in human relationships and institutions than scapegoating.

It’s hard even for the most devoted Christian to say exactly what the Cross does for the world and why it matters. In fact, outside the radiance of the resurrection, it’s impossible to do so. But, one helpful particle of the total truth of the mystery of his suffering and death is that it exposes the falsehood, the self-deception, the terror of the truth that hurts us, which scapegoating others is one way of running away from.

Suffering, and we are all experiencing it in this crisis, should be avoided or reduced, if we can. But if we can’t, let’s learn from it. Let’s hope that after this passes and we begin the recovery, we will have a better understanding of what ‘normal’ really means.  Normal use of time, normal weather, normal relationships. How we use this time can help us find the centredness and balance that the Cross also symbolises. Then we will be less prone to blame and more ready to act well. Just by being who we are (like Jesus did) we will be agents of change for the normal that is real.

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Fifth Sunday of Lent

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So much of our training in how to approach life is about achievement, so little about realisation, so little about actually just living. It was helpful for me to learn yesterday  that one hard working bee in its busy bee life makes no more than one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. Of course, it has many companions (up to 60,000) so, together, they may make enough to cover a piece of bread. But as they seem to enjoy their work, presumably they have different ways of assessing the meaning of existence and they must be less obsessed with quantity and individuality.

Today’s gospel is about the raising of Lazarus, a friend whom Jesus loved, brother of the sisters Martha and Mary whom he also loved. When Jesus arrived at their home, four days after his friend had died, Martha, a busy bee, came out to meet him. She did the same in the story in Luke where she becomes distracted by her many tasks and shows the classic symptoms of stress. Jesus reminds her to balance her over-achieving personality with the qualities of her contemplative sister, who is more into simply being. In today’s extra-ordinary and yet movingly human story, both sisters seem relieved that their friend has come to console them in their grief. When he sees them ‘Jesus began to weep’ and people say, ‘how he loved him’.

He then calls Lazarus back to this life. The dead man emerges from the tomb still wrapped in his funereal cloths. Jesus says, ‘unbind him and let him go’. Like other experiences that we recognise as authentic and yet cannot explain, we either dismiss it as a fairy-tale or we fall silent before what it is saying, in dense symbolic realism, about the person of Jesus.

As in his other extraordinary deeds, Jesus shows no interest in using his achievement to impress or recruit people. It seems to have no quantifiable meaning, nothing you can cash and bank. It is what it is. It changes a life and the lives of those people who share the individual’s life. For Lazarus it was a reprieve because he would die again eventually. So, it is not rising from the dead, as Jesus was to do. For him, the cycle of death-and-rebirth, which is the repetitive pattern of our everyday busy bee lives, was broken and transcended, giving us hope that we are not condemned to repeat the failures-and-successes of life endlessly.

Was this great act an achievement? Is Resurrection an achievement? Although the story of Lazarus made him famous and led to his arrest and execution, it is not described as something to add to Jesus’ defence. It was a sign rather than an achievement, a revelation rather than a proof.

This is another way of measuring the sweet honey of life, which is not always so sweet. In our slow-down and shut-down, social isolation and quarantine, can we make use of the time to do a life-itinerary in these terms?  Forget the achievements we get credit for and the failures we are debited for. Look instead at what events, relationships, outcomes, sweet or sour, revealed meaning and illuminated our true nature.

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Saturday Lent Week Four

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A good friend may give you consolation and a comforting word when you feel desperate, but a true friend will never give false hope.  Politicians who want to get re-elected, parents who just want to be liked, employers who want to avoid confrontation may decide to deceive those who look to them for leadership by throwing them scraps of illusion. It’s like throwing something you don’t want to a cat who looks excited but after it has sniffed it turns up its nose and looks at you with disgust.

Simone Weil never minced words and so many find her insight too concentrated a form. She once said, ‘all consolation is deception’. I think she meant false consolation and false hope all of which come from the ‘father of lies’ not the ground of being.

‘The virus is fake news; we’ll be back to normal by Easter. Business will boom again very soon.’
‘Of course, meditation doesn’t need discipline. Do it when you feel like it.
‘It was all their fault, obviously. Blame them.’
‘You don’t need to suffer. Live as if you’ll never die’.

In one form or another, from legislators, pulpits or lifestyle gurus we swallow lies all the time. After a while, we need bigger lies. When false hopes aren’t realised, we need more outrageous ones to make us believe them. But as the stakes get higher the stronger becomes the addiction and the denial of reality. I’m not saying we should be grateful for the virus or for suffering in general but we should acknowledge that it can teach us to see reality more clearly and change patterns of self-deception that allow others unscrupulously to deceive us.

The Desert Fathers understood acedia as one of the major blocks to human development. It means discouragement leading to negativity and cynicism, the rejection of anything that doesn’t give us what we want. It denies that we have to pass through tunnels before coming out into the light. It distorts our perception of truth and tells lies we want to hear because we have heard them so many times before. They have only the virtue of being familiar,  having been replayed from our internal archives perhaps for decades. Acedia is not our fault.

If people feel this while in isolation during the great shutdown, they don’t have to blame themselves. It’s the same with boredom. You can’t help being bored. But we can do something about these unhappy states of mind. We can recognise them and try another remedy from those we have used before. Stillness rather than activity. Silence rather than raising the volume, Simplicity rather than looking for something new. The collective terms for this alternative approach to living is contemplation. The contemplative path may look like a narrow one compared with what we were doing before. But once tried, we find it ‘leads to life’.

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Friday Lent Week Four

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The global virus is teaching us all many things. Each person is receiving this teaching individually through the context of their own history and personality. And of course, we are learning hard and necessary lessons collectively. As the financial impact of the crisis causes deep concern, we are forced to ask unwelcome questions about fundamental values – are we going to continue insanely believing that GDP has to increase continuously? Will we learn to live within our limits? Can we discover what ‘enough’ means? Will we teach the next generation that being content with enough is the condition of the ‘happiness’ that we have been seeking in the wrong places and in the worst of ways.

Firstly, though, the virus is teaching us realism. We cannot control the spread of the virus by going on warm days to crowded beaches or parks. What we are seeing on the screens is real in our personal lives. With a strong dose of realism, we become ready to learn patience.

Patience is a precious virtue because it is a basic element of learning anything at all. Maybe after the crisis when schools and colleges open again, we will remember what patience means. We will not approach education as something to be heated up quickly in a microwave and delivered as a qualification. We will find it repulsive that education, even at the elementary level for young children, produces stress, anxiety and mental illness because of its competitiveness and obsession with quantified evaluation. Will we remember that the raising of children requires time spent with them because they need to be soaked in personal attention not put in front of digital babysitters. Maybe we will learn that it takes time to learn anything: that our millennial impatience to become expert at something in an overpaid fast track does not lead to good work.

Maybe we will remember that meditation was not invented and packaged to help us cope with stress; or to solve problems merely so as to continue lifestyles that cause those problems. We meditate, as John Main said, because we are made to meditate. Meditation is about opening our eyes to reality in its colourful diversity and wondrous simplicity. Meditation teaches us patience and we need patience to enjoy.

WE also need it to know how to suffer. Those who have become patients at home or in hospital, having caught the virus, learn how patience teaches, as the root of the word itself shows, that patience is the quality of suffering. Thinking that patience is just about waiting for something to come or go, only makes us finger-tappingly impatient. Patience teaches us how to accept and grow through suffering. How to endure, be resilient, be peaceful, caring for others even in our own distress.

In a hedonistic world, pursuing happiness in the wrong places, we create suffering without learning how to suffer. The inescapable secret of life is to know how to suffer. So, let’s remember this is the second half of Lent. We are preparing to contemplate the Passion of Christ.  Passion, in this sense, is the deepest patience, the bridge between suffering and joy.

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