Holy Thursday

Psunday

Man does not live on bread alone. But bread is the first level of what feeds us and keeps us going. We need to ensure that we don’t eat too much of it and to recall that the materially hungry also need our help in finding what they need. Distribution of food exemplifies both physical health and the health of justice in any society.
 
The Eucharist was conceived in the last Passover ritual that Jesus shared with his disciples. He could not have foreseen the great liturgies taking place today in St Peter’s or Canterbury Cathedral. But it is hard to imagine that he did not know that he was plunging into the symbolic life of the ritual and transforming it; or that he might be giving a new expression to it by merging himself with it and with those who, in future, would identify themselves with him.
 
From childhood,  I was reared on Sunday mass and loved it in an unconscious way. In adolescence it lost its meaning for me, as the Church’s ability to address the major issues I was confronting faded. Meditation brought me back to the mass and to the Church in a meaningful and more mature way. I came to experience – and later to understand – that the meaning of the Eucharist is essentially the meaning of meditation practiced in Christian faith. The real presence is in the ritual as much as it is in the silence of the heart. This combination, for me, was explosive.
 
Bread and wine symbolize the first level of food. But we don’t go to the Eucharist to fill our stomachs (it seems the early Christians were a bit more rowdy than us, their sedate, passive descendants sitting in pews, and they went over the top in their celebrations). The Eucharist is a living physical symbol and enactment of the real presence. But it is also a sign of the kind of life we would be living in the world if we were really present to this real presence. This is the challenge. And only meeting this will ‘bring people back to the church’ (if that is how we want to put it). The Eucharist is not a closed club privilege. It is a witness to those who are not in the club that it is not a club but an open-hearted community.
 
The real presence of Christ is radicalizing. It is a threat to every power structure that humans have ever constructed, including Christian structures, including the often strange roles that clergy and laity play out together. The minister of the Eucharist is not the priest, but Christ himself – a nice idea often invisible in the practice but still an essential truth. Community, not hierarchy, is the message even though human beings long for hierarchy and some measure of subordination in order to feel safe. Liturgical change, for this reason, is usually the most bitterly resisted kind of change.
 
When a rich person or a celebrity comes to communion he does not demand more of the bread or a better chalice to drink from than that shared with the poor. The Last Supper is the first proclamation of radical equality that revolutionizes the relations between men and women and children – and of humanity with the planet. 
 
This message is so fresh in every celebration that we need meditation after communion to absorb it. To unite and embody the inner and outer presence.

Wednesday Holy Week

Psunday

I have been reading the three-volume biography of Kafka for some weeks, surprised at myself for plodding through it. He had an uneventful life revolving around a few compulsive obsessions including his irrepressible need to write and his perfect ear for literature. It was the compulsion to write that made this insurance lawyer who could not commit to love or escape from his parents one of the prophets of the modern era. His insight into the dehumanizing effect of bureaucracy and the sense of personal oppression and alienation caused by contemporary life speaks to us still with moving intensity.

In The Trial he describes the sickening influence of unjust power structures crushing down against the innocent. The Passion narrative of the show trial at which Jesus was condemned to death evokes the same nightmare scenario when paranoia is exposed as not imaginary and we see that we are indeed the innocent target of malevolent enemies.

But with Jesus this nightmare of persecution, though as real as a Stalinist purge, does not overwhelm him as the innocent victim. This is because he simply does not allow himself to identify himself as a victim. He is a sacrifice. And so there is a quite different outcome.

For a religious person – of any faith – the complicity of religious authorities in the injustice committed against Jesus is deeply disturbing.  So, to the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was the compliance of the Christian churches with the Nazis. In these cases we see – as today with the alliance of the Russian Church with its political regime – how power, false prudence and privilege corrupt faith.

Power is a flow of energy. If, from whatever source, it bears the virus of corruption it carries it to every part of the system. As the monstrous corruption of power turns personally against him, Jesus confronts it with rationality (‘if I have said nothing wrong why do you strike me?’), equanimity and silence. His own power, flowing directly from his source of being, confronts and engages with the systemic corrupt power held by those who have declared him to be the enemy.

When power is corrupted, the darkest shadows in human nature surface, from top to bottom of the hierarchy. The sadism of the death camps, or Srebrenika, or the inhumanity at Guantanamo authorized by civilized politicians on Capitol Hill are reflected in the torture and cruelty described in the Passion narrative.

Pilate, the consummate successful politician, is the foil of this confrontation between pure and corrupt power. His creepy question ‘what is truth?’ answers itself as he washes his hands of the injustice he has permitted. Every power system thereafter will see – and be forever disturbed – by seeing the innocent victim as the only character to walk away from this drama of corruption with integrity.

Tuesday Holy Week

Psunday

The Last Supper weaves a high level of consciousness around the polarities of friendship and betrayal. It refuses to see one without the other. It refuses to make an eternal enmity between them – as we do when, hurt or rejected, we say we will never communicate again with the person who caused us this suffering.

In this open and vulnerable state of mind Jesus walks across the Kedron Valley to Gethsemane, a small estate where he was used to pray. In the light of the Passover moon he would have seen the funerary monuments already built there. Muslims, Christians and Jews have since added their graves to this place of ancient memories. Once when I meditated in Gethsemane with fellow-pilgrims, I faced an olive tree reputedly 2500 years old which the eyes of Jesus would have seen. I also noticed some small red flowers I had seen earlier on the slopes of Galilee where the Sermon on the Mount was given. I wondered whether seeing these ‘lilies of the field’ on his last night, Jesus remembered his home and more peaceful days – days when he taught, before he was called to live, to be, his teaching with every cell and fibre of his being.

In this garden, in the night’s silence, he took a few close companions to pray. They fell asleep. In his solitude, he was overwhelmed by sorrow and the fear of death reared up from where it hides in each of us. Everything in him rejected his destiny; but something else appeared in this moment of panic. This was a sense of deep connection and ultimate purpose. With this he moved from panic to peace and acceptance. ‘Not my will but as you will it to be.’

‘In his will is our peace’, Dante said. But the word ‘will’, implying some contest of wills or clash of egos, may mislead. ‘Point of view’ or ‘way of seeing’ conveys the meaning better. We do not merely surrender our will to the divine will – surrender usually preserves a pocket of resentment. There is no violence done to us or by us in the union that happens between our way of seeing and the vision of God.

In this union of vision the illusion of our self as a separate individual is finally transcended. It is replaced by the self-recognition of a unique solitude. Centred, grounded in this solitude Jesus meets his betrayer’s kiss and the armed guard that comes to arrest him under cover of darkness. He is never more alone and never more equally connected to both friends and enemies. He is bound and led away to a mock trial, not as a victim but a universal symbol of freedom.

A singular detail in the story as told by Mark has intrigued readers since the beginning. A young male follower wearing nothing but a linen cloth was also arrested but escaped and ran away naked. Perhaps as tradition says, it is Mark himself. Because the figure is both anonymous and autobiographical, many readers find themselves identifying with this very vulnerable and for the moment rather absurd disciple of the Master.

Monday Holy Week

Psunday

Immediately after the dark and apparently motiveless scene of Judas selling his teacher for money, Jesus instructs his disciples to prepare the Passover which he will eat with them. This celebration of family, friendship and solidarity with the past will include the betrayer.  What would it say of Jesus as a teacher if Judas was excluded?

The exchange between Jesus and the disciples about preparing the Passover meal to be celebrated in Jerusalem is quite detailed. He tells them what to do and who they will find and where – an upper room with divans and cushions : a middle-eastern eating space for reclining not Leonardo da Vinci’s quattrocento table. The impression we receive is that he is actively preparing for what will happen to him. Some people, who know they are going to die and have accepted it, cease to be victims of their mortality. From the hospital room or bedroom where they will die, they become more concerned about others than themselves. Death becomes more than an individual, terrifying extinction but a passage for a group of people tied deeply together by bonds of love and faith. And wherever there is love and fidelity hope is never far away.

The upper room – later called the cenacle – is not just a rented hall but a community space. Tradition says that it is the room where the disciples gathered on the day of the Resurrection and later for Pentecost. It is not a virtual community – as we have come to understand it – but one physically connected and identified with particular space. As with Bonnevaux – increasingly for our community – the space feels filled with a living presence.

The shared meal (that became the Eucharist) was meant to be a joyful gathering; but a shadow is cast over this one by the consciousness of the coming betrayal. The old Fathers of the Church agreed that Judas took the bread and wine with the rest. It is an important detail because it shows that the shadow in ourselves – and the darkness in the world before and since – is absorbed by the very light it tries to block. What seems a contradiction (as to those excluding people from the Eucharist) then becomes a paradox in which transformation happens and reality is realized.

This is my body: this is my blood. Two Greek words with distinct, overlapping meanings point to the gift he is making. Sarx (flesh), Soma (body). If he meant sarx it would be a rather gruesome gift – the cannibalism that people thought the early Christians were practicing. But soma means the whole embodied self. If a woman gets disturbing blood-test results her family don’t just hug her flesh but her whole body-self. The pain of the flesh is relieved by the love experienced in the body. Perfect abs and biceps may be the attractive wrapping of our self; but we love the whole embodied person, even when they lose tone and put on weight.

Before the physical and mental suffering for which he was preparing them, he was touching them, as Leonard Cohen says, with his ‘perfect body’ and, even more, including them in it.

Palm Sunday

Psunday

No narrative has changed the world as deeply as the account of the Passion of Jesus we read today and that we will consider in this coming Holy Week. The themes we have been working on during Lent – ascesis, paradox, true values, consciousness – are embedded in the wholeness of the story and shine out in many of its smallest details. Some films begin with the claim that they are “..based on true events”. This story is not invented but it is also literature of the highest order. Let’s begin.

Two days before Passover, the central religious festival of the founding myth of his race, which claims God’s bias towards his chosen people. In Egypt (where we began Lent) the angel of death passed over the sons of Israel choosing their enemies instead. Of course, we already know that, in this story, Jesus will not have this privilege. From the first, he is seen as a victim of a corrupt and cruel power system. He is like K in Kafka’s ‘Trial’, like us in our paranoid nightmares of being targeted. Like and unlike. Like us in the ordeal, unlike us in his response.

Power brokers at the top level, when they work in solidarity, are unbeatable. They decide to eliminate him and we know he will be killed. Whatever the suspense in this story – and all stories require some – it is not about its outcome.

Scene change. Jesus was at a meal when a woman showed her feelings for him by anointing him with a jar of expensive ointment. She broke the jar and poured the fragrant contents over his head. (Christos means ‘anointed’). Some of the guests were angry – why waste the money rather than giving it to the poor? Jesus passionately defends the woman. This is another example of the gospel highlighting the superior wisdom of women. Maybe they are wiser not only because they are women: but because those who are excluded from power often see more deeply into the truth. The poor and powerless with whom Jesus identified are often closer to the Kingdom.

In protecting her, ‘Jesus says you have the poor with you always and you can be kind to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me.’ No politician would say this. But is he saying he is worth more than the poor? Or: that our option for the powerless derives not from socio-economic ideals but from the transcendent source of compassion. When you clothed the naked or gave food to the hungry, he says elsewhere, you did this ‘to me’. What may seem like a separation from human suffering is in fact an absolute identification with it. But it is expressed, not conceptually, but in the very particular way he defends this woman. Who is she?The whole of this story is universal because it is so authentically particular.

Scene change: Judas offers to betray Jesus to the chief priests for money. He will calculate the right moment to deliver him to them. The contrast with the mention of money in the previous scene about the ointment is stark. There money is incidental. Here it seems the controlling motive. We don’t know why Judas enacts this betrayal, which has made his name a universal byword for the worst of humanity. We never will understand it until we find the reason in ourselves.

 

Saturday Lent Week Five

bonnevaux_W5

Anthony of the Desert, the archetypal monk of the fourth century, once summoned all the brothers. When they gathered around him his words were few: ‘Always breathe Christ’. Reminded of their goal of continuous prayer, they returned to apply his teaching in each moment of their life.

In our stressful times we have forgotten Anthony’s meaning and miss the experiential authority of his teaching. But, when anxious loneliness and the fear of the void threaten our well-being and sanity, we are ready to re-discover the simple immediacy of what the desert wisdom teaches us.

Before the mantra becomes rooted in the heart, conscious breathing, paying attention to the in and out rhythm, is the simplest and quickest way to recover from an agitated mind and, as Jesus says, to ‘set your troubled hearts at rest and banish your fears’. We can’t deal with anxiety just by thinking about what is making us anxious. The body is the natural place to start.

John Main emphasises simplicity. Our body, although it is as complex as the cosmos, is radically simple. In the heart, the spiritual centre and inner room of prayer, body and mind unite. Fr John warns of the dangers of complicating the simple discipline of meditation by turning it into technique.

Like all masters of prayer, he understood the role of the breath in simultaneously calming mind and body and preparing us for a gentle, steady deepening of consciousness that we call the inner journey. Breath links mind and body.

He did not advocate only one way of synchronising the mantra with the breath; he was aware that some align it with another rhythm such as the heart. But probably most people say the mantra with the breath, either breathing it all in and breathing out in silence or (if you are saying maranatha as he suggested), saying the first two syllables on the in-breath and the second two on the out-breath.

If you self-consciously divide your attention between the breath and the mantra your meditation becomes more of a technique. The purpose of the discipline is to unify attention and become single minded. So at first you could rest the mantra lightly on the wheel of the breath, giving undivided attention to the mantra. Eventually the mantra finds its own rhythm in the subtle field of the spirit. Then we start sounding it more gently and listening to it more wholly.

In spiritual time the mantra leads us into deep silence where we move beyond my prayer, my meditation, my experience. When our prayer becomes the prayer of the spirit we truly ‘breathe Christ’.

Holy Week begins tomorrow by focusing on the mortal body of Jesus; but also on how this body becomes us, as Christ is formed in us, and we become his body.

 

Friday Lent Week Five

bonnevaux_W5

When we dramatise ourselves we miss the real drama, the real meaning, of experience. Self-posturing gets in the way of real presence and distorts our vision of things. Behind this universal tendency – Martha’s reaction to stress is a good example – is the sense of separation from ourselves.

Making a fuss about things: this may mean talking too much, gossiping with false sincerity, analyzing and psychologising others’ faults, attributing blame, playing the victim or the outraged person who has been dis-respected. It is not a good way of dealing with real instances of injustice.

We have ambivalent reactions to the great saints, like Francis of Assisi, who delighted in the opportunities that rejection or humiliation offered them to transcend their egos. At first their humility may win our admiration. But then, we may suspect they were masochists who enjoyed their humiliation.

As always, the test is in how grounded we are in deep silence. It is easy to be superficially silent when we feel calm and all is at peace around us. But, when we are upended by events, hurt or confused, silence is lost and replaced by the noise of our self-dramatising complaint. Then we lose the opportunity hidden in the hard lesson we are being taught.

Deep silence not only holds us steady through the storm. It also secretly contains the presence and the meaning, which want to reveal themselves to us. And which redeem the mistakes and transfigure the tragedies of life.

This deep silence is perceptible in many of the scenes of the Passion drama, which next week we will be listening to again. It is stronger than the noise of the crowds.

At the start of every meditation session we run into the busy traffic of the shallow dramas of our lives. Even though we know that these issues will have changed by tomorrow or next month or next year, now they absorb us – distracting us – as if they were of absolute significance. But, if we do the work of silence – pure attention to the ascesis of the mantra – we escape the traffic. We find the deep silence which in timeless stillness patiently, kindly awaits our arrival.

Free from the noise of our self-dramatising we move into the real drama of existence which is not the drama of desire, fear, anger or pride, but the drama of love.