Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Lent_Beg

Askeo – which gives us the word ascetic – originally meant training for war but was also used to describe athletic training. A well-trained soldier who rapes and pillages or an athlete who cheats (or a businessman who acts unethically) betray the deeper purpose of their work however good they may be at it. In the same way, mindfulness used to train snipers or improve a currency trader’s performance misses the broader meaning. The larger context of the exercise has been lost and replaced by a view that is narrow and self-centred.

Whatever we do without respect for its deeper meaning turns to wormwood. But even bitter things gone through with faith in their final meaning turn sweet.

Nearly everything in the materialistic scheme of values that dominates life today becomes instrumentalised, turned into a technique which self-interest controls. People sometimes say ‘I’m really glad to have found meditation and I’m going to use it as a tool for balancing my life’. Anyway, this attitude is a beginning, a rather primitive start to understanding what asceticism means and what it is you are really being trained for. We start from where we are.

Good spiritual training reduces this attitude by achieving, quite naturally, the balance and harmony we seek. Then we notice them by surprise. These and many more benefits appear without our trying too hard to force their arrival. A lucid mind, greater and more selfless awareness, a more comprehensive ability to pay attention to others, a heart open to beauty and tenderness, to the joy in natural things and to a reduction in the compulsiveness of desire – these are fruits of the kind of asceticism we are beginning now in the lean, clean days of Lent. Some effort is needed to start, some will is called for to re-start when you fall by the wayside.

But grace is a bigger player in the process than willpower.

Where grace is allowed to enter and when it is welcomed, a sense of gift in everything will follow, subtly wound up with the wonderful ability to once again be genuinely surprised.

Turning everything into a tool, controlling all the outcomes, evaluating the results compared with the investment you are making are all eventually going to fail. Failure can be liberation from deception and a breakthrough into greater reality. But it is never easy to undergo the wrecking of your plans or the wasting of the spirit of joy that makes everything worthwhile. Asceticism helps here.

Ascetical training is not just for Lent then. The mantra is a continuous interior Lent and leads to a deeper spontaneity and sense of freshness in ordinary daily life. Prayer is the essential ascesis of the spiritual life. What you do and what you give up during the Lent cycle re-sharpens the edge of the knife that our spirit uses to cut through the dross that built up when we weren’t looking.

Ash Wednesday

Lent_Beg

We start a 46-day journey to Easter Sunday today. Traditionally we do something extra or give up something for 40 of these days. We might skip the six Sundays as these, traditionally, are days off, given to relaxing the discipline in order to remember an essential fact that we should not forget during Lent: that we have already arrived at where we are going.

Any spiritual practice is about realising reality, not making it happen. Although, of course, the process and stages of realisation are also a kind of happening.

Resurrection has happened or else we would not be observing Lent. We observe Lent not to make Resurrection happen, certainly not to make life hard for ourselves because of what we have done wrong (and will probably continue to do for the foreseeable future). Lent reduces the miasma of ignorance that bedevils our ability to live life to the fullest: it helps us to perceive clearly, to get priorities right, to restore balance where we have lost it.

I used to be more puritanical and think that I should keep up even on Sundays whatever practice I had chosen; usually as a child it was giving up pleasures like sweets or as an adult a pleasure like alcohol or movies. Today I am a bit more relaxed about it and forgiving of myself. If I keep the practice on Sundays it would be because I feel it is doing me good and so (in a healthy way) I am discovering the different kind of pleasure found through experiencing freedom and simplification.

I would suggest – if you haven’t already done so – to decide what you want to do and what you don’t want to do during the next 46 (or 40) days. The principles in choosing are, for example: Does what I abstain from and what I undertake respect and advance the healthy integration of mind, body and spirit? Is my Lenten practice an affirmation of goodness, not a punishment for weakness? Will it reduce addiction and moderate desire? Will it remind me of how time can be better spent and less wasted? Will it help to show me that behind my faults and bad patterns there is always something good that can be restored to health?

You could use Lent, for example, to start meditating (in which case would you skip it on Sundays?) To make the time for it you can give up something like Netflix bingeing or aimless surfing or gaming. For the meditator you can start meditating again as if for the first time and recover the fresh wonder of when this gift first entered your life. You could ensure that you do both the sessions, morning and evening (including Sundays, when you might also do a third). And you might be more conscious of controlling daydreaming – and, on things or people of apparently small account, bestow a generous bonus of pure attention.

I hope these daily readings will help me to keep this focus and find this deeper freedom and joy. If they do, they may also, I hope, be of some value to you on this journey we start together today.

Advent Week Four

(December 24th  2Sm 7:1-5,8b-12,14a-16; Rom 16:25-27; Lk 1:26-28) – READ HERE

Advent_W4

At its worst, which happens a lot, religion controls and patronises God. Rather than removing the human blocks and setting the spirit free in human affairs it can easily exclude the divine. Religious leaders often speak for God, telling others what God wants and doesn’t want, without ever exposing themselves to the risk of meeting God directly.

This is what David does in the first reading. He has won his battles and settled into his kingdom and then thinks ‘Oh, I should build a nice big house for God to live in which will be the Temple. What a good idea’. But God – more gently than he deserves – puts him down. ‘Do you think you can put me in a house? I bless you, not you me. But you will find me pervading everywhere in your life. That’s where I am and will always be. In you and in life.’

Paul, the former religious bigot, understood this after his transformative bout of blindness and a nervous breakdown. The truth is wider, deeper, broader and longer than can ever be expressed. The best we can do is try to express our growing wonder. And that is simply what ‘praising God’ means.

Today’s gospel of the Annunciation shows how the homeless presence of God, on earth and in the cosmos, saturates into the particular. There is a plaque in Nazareth, marking the supposed spot where Mary received her angelic visitor. It reads, ‘Et Verbum Caro Factum Est’: Here on this tiny piece of earth the infinite and eternal Word of God became flesh. The messenger explained to her her destiny. She, young and obscure, would be the house in which God dwells. She is frightened and confused. But she was conscious and responsive. She thought about it and then asked a question – how can this happen to me who am still a virgin?

It sounds like a simple fairy-tale and it is seen as such in nativity plays acted by little children around the world. The tale, however, is not only simple but profound and mysterious. How deeply it touches us, depends on whether we can suspend our scepticism and allow ourselves to be swept beyond the reserved mythical-literal dichotomy into a revelation that enters us and dwells in us for ever after.

‘Experience is the best proof’ of this and of everything else. If we can listen, be conscious and then say yes to what is beyond ordinary (dualistic) knowledge, we don’t have an experience. We become the experience.

The full celebration of Christmas depends on this surrender that is not a rejection of intelligence but an opening of the mind to the mystery dwelling in the heart. Mary doesn’t know what it all means and maybe she never did. But she teaches us the contemplative way when she simply assents to what is and knows what she doesn’t know – as we do in meditation. Her fiat, ‘may it be done to me according to your word’ allows the cosmos, materially, to become the temple that God soaks into by becoming, not only God but also human. No thing will ever be the same again.

 

 

 

Advent Week Three

(December 17th  Is 61:1-2A,10-11; 1Thess 5:16-24; Jn 1: 6-8,19-28) READ HERE

Advent_W3

We have to burrow deep down through disappointment and even despair to find the source of hope. Only at the place where it bubbles up from the bowels of the earth is hope more than wishful thinking, crossing your fingers, keeping up morale. This may be why prophets (and we all have a bit of the prophet in us) seem often to oscillate from the dark to the light.

Today Isaiah is all light. You would have to have a professionally hardened heart not to be moved by his vision of an event, a coming – that brings glad news to the poor, heals the broken-hearted, gives liberty to those held in bonds of fear or fantasy and sets prisoners free. At Christmas many people remember this hope, and feel connected to its pure, fresh and simple source. That is why Christmas is about a birth and children and Christmas go together so well.

This hopeful vision of the human theatre is usually buried deep in the noise and glitter and excessive indulgence of the festivities. Inevitably, we will hear about the economic impact of Christmas spending on the economy; much less about the special shelters for the homeless run by volunteers, the people who will search out and comfort those who with their families have lost home and livelihood because of war and are looked at by their new hosts with suspicion and hostility.

How do we dig down to find this spring of hope that can face the inhumanities of humanity and still not give up trying to make the world a kinder and more just place? After all, many who start off idealistically become cynical. Politics smothers purpose. And many more perhaps burn out in the process, giving themselves generously but imprudently in ways that break the mind or the body.

Paul says ‘pray without ceasing’. This hardly means spending all day in church, mosque, temple or synagogue. Nor does it mean thinking about heavenly realities all the time. It means unblocking the channel of consciousness that is the continuous pure stream of prayer in us.

I once sat down to meditate with a small group in my meditation room on Bere Island. Then an awful smell and a worrying sound of gurgling came from the nearby toilet. It was overflowing. Bad news, like we read of every day. My cousin, who is an expert in everything, came round and feared it was the septic tank. Big problem. Later as I walked around outside I saw a hole where the pipe led from the toilet to the tank. I looked in the hole and saw a stone lodged there. Hardly believing my luck and beaming with pride that I had solved the problem I plucked out the stone and everything flowed thereafter in the right way.

We don’t have to try to pray continuously. We just have to remove the blockages to enjoy what Paul calls the soundness, wholeness, of body, mind and spirit. This is the biblical understanding of the human – the triple dimension that lifts the duality of body and mind to transcendence. This third and most subtle dimension is clearly present in today’s gospel, as John the Baptist points away from himself to the ‘one who will come after’ him.

We can only say so much and see so much. We can only keep the attention on ourselves for so long. If we don’t clear the blockages in consciousness that foul up ourselves and the world, we will endlessly look and not see and chatter so much that we drown out the healing silences of life. The Baptist says ‘there is one among you whom you do not recognise.’

What a hopeful thing to say.

 

 

Advent Week Two

(December 10th,  Is 40:1-5,9-11; 2Pet:3:8-14; Mk 1:1-8) – READ HERE

Advent_W2

Stillness in meditation is, despite appearances, the fast lane of the spirit. Without knowing it we are covering a lot of ground and we do not become aware of it until we realise there is no going back. People stop meditating for a variety of reasons. One is impatience; another is fear that we are travelling too fast. Advent is an opportunity to readjust our awareness in the strange, fluid dimension of time in which we live and die every day. Tough love can be this wake-up call.

Isaiah today seems captivated by the melting tenderness of God. It is different but not incompatible with last week’s emphasis on the painful estrangement between the human and the divine. Actually nothing is incompatible with God. The greater the difference, the deeper the paradox to be resolved and then the greater the delight in seeing opposites united. But, the divine shepherd? If you have ever met a shepherd close to his sheep you may have been surprised by his manner. On one hand tough, unsentimental, masculine; on the other, gentle, attentive and nurturing to even the weakest runts in his flock.

In today’s gospel we meet another prophet, John the Baptist, the last of the pre-Christian ones, the same age as Jesus. The tradition has imagined him hairy, unwashed and angry, ascetical and denouncing corruption and hypocrisy. Maybe there is more to him than this. Prophets are characteristically hyper-sensitive, lonely, dysfunctional and they rarely get their message over without offending people on all sides.

But their intention (the true prophet’s) is kindly: the health and well-being of others. The call to change our mind and way of seeing things and to adjust our life-style to this new way of being is painfully kind. The people who came out into the desert to hear John asked him ‘what shall we do?’ They were – as we are often are, and more than we realise – quietly desperate.

There is not much that fills us with unconscious dread more than the glimpse of our lives trickling away from us without meaning, without discovering what we were really supposed to do with our lives, trying to keep the accusatory awareness of our mistakes and self-deception from surfacing above the waves of consciousness. Prophets get this out in the open.

But the tension between patience and urgency can resolve as we see in the letter from Peter today: ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years’. If we see that, then two meditations a day seem more doable. John Main said (prophetically) this was the minimum. Even if it takes a millennium to understand and comply with this, it is a truth always worth listening to.

The prophet may appear to us this coming week in many guises. In whatever outward form, tough or gentle, the effect should be the same: to make the glimpse of life’s urgency last a little longer until we steadily look the truth about ourselves in the eyes. Hard as that may be, we will not fail to sigh with relief that the truth is finally out and we can stop pretending.

 

Advent Week One

(December 3rd  Is 63:16b-17,19b, 64:2-7; 1Cor 1:3-9; Mk 13:33-37) – READ HERE

Advent_W1

Prophets are not fortune-tellers, much as we secretly crave to know what’s going to happen – or to think that we could see into the future. Isaiah is a prophet and his gift to us is not a prediction but a reminder – an urgent one – to be really, fully present. He is someone who has experienced God and can’t get God out of his mind – although, like any God-believer, at times he would like to be free of God. Isaiah deals with this by asking this searching question of God: ‘why do you let us wander from your ways and let our hearts harden?’

We won’t get final answers to this kind of question, but just asking helps powerfully to clarify the human dilemma. If God is God – good, loving, caring for us – why do we go off-track so easily, so ruthlessly and so often? Why Syria? Why human trafficking? Why political prisoners and torture? Why off-shore tax havens? For that matter, why the hardening divisions associated with American and European politics? As Advent begins, this is a good question to keep fresh and to keep our waiting increasingly, not decreasingly, conscious. ‘Advent’ means that something is coming and, good or bad, is heading straight for us.

Isaiah yearns for a time when we would be ‘mindful of you in our ways,’ rather than constantly forgetting that ‘we are the clay and you the potter.’ So perhaps the answer to the human failure to be humane is not in God but in us and especially in our forgetfulness.

So, today and throughout this season, Jesus has one word for us: watch. It means make an effort to see, take heed, look both ways, be alert at all times. Watchfulness is an ancient virtue. It does not mean packing in more words, plans, reports, meetings and projections. If we are watchful these will be mercifully reduced and our decision-making and collaboration greatly enhanced. To watch means simultaneously keeping focused and expanding our field of awareness. If this balancing act is lost, we become either distracted or obsessive. Then everything falls apart.

So the answer to Isaiah’s question is not an answer, but a response. The response is a change in behaviour, a practice. The mantra coordinates that for the meditator. The sign that we are watching is what Paul, in today’s second reading, observes with spontaneous gratitude: ‘giving thanks that we do not lack any spiritual gift.’ It’s really and presently all given if we can but see it.

(I was looking up Mark Chapter 13 to check the Greek text and googled ‘Mk 13’. The search showed me a ‘bolt-action sniper’s rifle’ used by the US Seals. That’s one kind of watchfulness but not the one we should work on during Advent.)

Images of Bonnevaux

We are now the owner-stewards of Bonnevaux. It is like becoming a parent of an old child waiting to become young again. Rejuvenation is the essence of all growth – which is why meditation is more than recharging one’s batteries. Over time the capacity of a battery decreases with each recharge. In prayer by contrast, we increase our capacity by becoming progressively more conformed to, more like God who is always younger than we are. ‘Though our outward humanity is in decay, yet inwardly we are renewed’ puts it well, as St Paul thought too.

Before him, the prophet Isaiah said:

And the LORD will continually guide you.. and you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. Those from among you will rebuild ancient ruins You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell. (Is 58:12)

With the renovation of a building the outward form is improved; and its capacity to welcome and become a place for others to be refreshed and renewed is enlarged. The work involved is deeply satisfying even to the degree that it is challenging. There is fundraising, planning, meetings, plans and decisions at the micro and macro level. It begins in faith and it will end in faith: lot of work, as in parenting, creating, restoring or loving anything. But the people caring for this work at Bonnevaux is an extraordinary phenomenon. It has been moving and wondrous to see how it attracts people to give their time, their talent and their treasure.

We are more than grateful. We are strengthened and energised by the messages of support, the donations, small and large, the fridge from the meditators in Poitiers, the Dutch meditators who came down for a few days to help clean the house, the architects, planners, monks, the archbishop, the local mayor, the French community who will provide the refreshments at the blessing next week, to Odile for the icon of Cassian we will bless and install, and countless others who are already forming the Bonnevaux family. These are all sacraments of love which will build to make Bonnevaux what it will be again – a place of contemplation for all, a home of peace and a maker of peace.

Some people have the impression from the beautiful photos that it is all ready to move into. Not quite… I’m afraid! The building work will start soon and take a year or so for the first phase. How quickly we finish will depend on the donations coming in. Our first group of pilgrims from Asia is booked in for next Fall – so we are working hard to be able to welcome them then.

 

collage02

 

Here are two images of the reality. Kailas Murthy, the architect with DPA who have contributed freely to the planning and vision of the building, working in the Bonnevaux kitchen. And a small group meditating in the library with Andrew and Delyth Cresswell who gave up their job and sold their house in Wales to come and be part of the community and the work from the beginning. The day we signed the sale they moved in to Bonnevaux, to care for it and prepare it for its transformation which is now under way.

We are working on a list of all the small things for the house and grounds – from kitchen things to gardening tools -we need to make this a reality and if you can help with any of these you would be a real part of this work.

You can visit the Bonnevaux website and here