Monday Lent Week Three

 

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One of the graces of Lent is the chance to grow in self-knowledge through a relatively low-risk exercising of the will. For example, you decided two weeks ago to give up something, to let go of something and to do more prayer or to do it more faithfully. If you are a marine you will have no difficulty in keeping to this regime. If you are not, you may have a more or a less well-trained will. You may therefore have already wobbled or fallen off. It is how you deal with that which will be the occasion for deeper self-knowledge.

It is probably not the greatest moral crisis of your life if you did decide, in a weak moment, to have a glass of wine, have a dessert or miss your Lenten daily reading – if any of these were your chosen ascetical exercise. What matters is how you deal with the failure of the will and whether you start again.

A young meditator who has a very modern (and healthily guilt-free) approach to discipline illustrated this for me. He believes strongly in meditation and knows how it helps him at all levels; and he sees how, through the daily discipline, grace silently builds on nature. I was surprised then when he told me that he had quit for a week. I asked why. He said that he had struggled with his meditation because he could not get rid of his expectations and demands and self-examination of his progress. This was dragging him back. He knew he should let go of it all but he couldn’t. He knew meditation is about detachment, so he decided to practice detachment from meditation – for a week. He thought this was a cool idea and, for him fortunately, it seems to have been. The desert fathers said we should not make the way to become free of the passions into a passion.

First of all, he had a very difficult week without meditation, which taught him just what a necessary and beautiful gift meditation is for him. He felt old patterns of anxiety and irritability surge back and the sense of connection weaken on all fronts. This sense of connection is the measure of meaning in anyone’s life. It arises from the connection between our surface and deeper self, from the connection to those close to us and then to those we meet as strangers or even as enemies. After this week of turbulence he resumed his meditation and found, as he had hoped, that he could practice it now with more detachment and a less anxious measuring of results.

John Main also gave up meditation in full stream, though for different reasons and for longer. He was obeying his novice master who did not understand this way of prayer. But when he came back to it, after rediscovering of his own tradition, he said he returned to meditation ‘on God’s terms, not my own’.

These examples point to the question of the self, through very particular personalities and circumstances which are perhaps to be learned from rather than imitated. This is the central question for any spiritual path. Who (really) am I? And this question is lit up by our experience of desire and the will that we usually identify with freedom. To be free is to do what we want, surely? So, the question ‘who am I?’ also means what does it mean to be free? We will continue to explore these during our third week of Lent.

(If you did fall away, why not just start again?)

With Love

Laurence

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Third Sunday of Lent

 

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Time is flying – third Sunday of Lent – and what have we learned? What have we lost, or renounced, or let go of, that we should have? Has our level of fear decreased a bit? Have we understood better that the ‘fear of God’ that we hear so much about doesn’t mean fear of God as we were taught it meant – fear of getting punished when we get caught. It means what the Samaritan woman at the well discovered it meant one sweltering noon.

Today’s gospel draws us into one of the most Shakespearian dramatic encounters we have of the life of Jesus. One day, hot and tired by his walk, he stopped to rest by a well. His disciples went off to the shops and he was left alone. A woman from an alien racial group appeared to get water. From what she says later in the conversation that ensued, we guess that she didn’t want to come to the well in the evening when the other woman of the village liked to come and gossip. Because she herself was the object of their gossip. Like Jesus, she was alone.

It’s worth reading the whole story: John 4: 5-42, which must be one of the most examined and commented upon texts of any tradition.

Her solitude had not turned her into a bitter or frightened woman. But she was sharp-tongued and (having had five husbands) unfrightened by men even in one of the most misogynist of cultures. The verbal sparring between her and Jesus at the beginning, shows her spunkiness and his openness to people where they are, without any condescending sense of his own superior importance. This clash of personalities, as equals, produces a dramatic result. She returns to her original innocence (and to her community) and she recognizes, even in a male figure, the truth, wisdom and love that was (we might imagine) what took her through her serial relationships.

She was fearless but she had not, till that hot noontime, yet found the partner in intimacy who allowed her to use this fearless freedom in order to love.

Have we?

If not, are we looking in the right place? Might a well be a good place to start?

With Love

Laurence

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Saturday Lent Week Two

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Politics and sport together make up most of what we call ‘news’. Most of us feel that we need to keep in touch with what’s going on. Yet, sometimes, we somehow get hooked addictively to the global stream of consciousness that the media keeps flowing constantly. Not only our opinions but even our emotions are then manipulated or injected into our passively receptive minds that become increasingly less capable of thinking for themselves. We get the news we like to hear to keep the dose of stimulation high. Critical thinking even seems subversive in some societies. Reacting against this we may then reject ‘news’ and media altogether, like parents who opt for home-learning.

As always the best is the mean, the medium, the moderate. This, Lent remind us, is not the primrose path of the easy option, the route of compromise or the evasion of hard questions. It is a  knife-edge, a high-tension tightrope, a fragile rope bridge across a deep abyss. Jesus called it a ‘narrow path that leads to life’ and he added the unpopular remark, ‘and few they are who find it’.

Somehow that added disclaimer has always made me feel reassured. Not because I can dance on the wire of moderation for very long before wobbling dangerously or falling off, because I can’t, but because it shows me there is a true way. It does actually exist. Oddly, it is because I can’t properly find it, that  I know it exists. Even if I can’t walk this path very well, at least it is there and even if I lose it periodically, like dropping the mantra during meditation and solving the problems of the world instead, I find it again. Or, perhaps, it finds me again.

Politics and sport and ‘other news’ are uncomfortably similar to our psyches and unconscious. We project onto the screen of ‘local or world news’ what is happening in our own inarticulate depths. All politics is psychic politics, which is why it is so easy to psychoanalyze politicians – no wonder we don’t trust them anymore – but also why we find it so hard to know ourselves as we really are.

This week we have been thinking about beauty – how the asceticism (spiritual exercise) of Lent – awakens and refines our sense of beauty. Fear is the great enemy of beauty – perhaps because fear is the antithesis of love and we cannot perceive beauty without loving it. So, whenever we see the rise of a politics of fear (and hatred is always hidden in fear), we should sound the alarm, because it spells the desecration of the beauty of life and, with it, the innocence, the readiness to be taken by surprise, the childlikeness that is our way – however imperfectly followed – to the fullness and meaning  of our short human life.

With Love

Laurence

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Friday Lent Week Two

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A bit more about beauty. And how important it is to see our own beauty if we are to act and respond rightly respecting the beauty of the natural and human world. Justice, the fair distribution of wealth, immediate response to a famine, whatever caused it, holding true to the democratic principles we profess even when it is not to our political advantage: these are beautiful things too. They save us from chaos, inhumanity and the breakdown of civilized values.

But they depend upon our having seen our own beauty. Our capacity to see this is partly a matter of social and psychological conditioning. This struck me once when I was teaching meditation in a developed Asian country. I noticed two students sitting apart from the rest looking and listening with a strong sense of detachment from the group. After the session they came up and shyly introduced themselves. They were on a business scholarship from North Korea. In good English they told me that they had not understood a word I was saying. That, I thought, explained the way they were looking at me during the talk. I must have seemed like an extra-terrestrial. All the concepts I was developing were strange, foreign and meaningless. They had no religious, spiritual or intellectual framework to make sense of them.

Until, at least, they heard me say that meditation is transformative because it makes us aware and brings us into contact with our own essential goodness. This is a relatively familiar idea, even a platitude, for most of us. But for them, from a culture of what seems a devastatingly bleak, fearful, and oppressive landscape, where the art of living is replaced by the monochromatic art of survival, this simple idea hit them like a meteorite.

Lent is a time where the skills of the art of living are refined. Pencils sharpened, instruments tuned, words rinsed out. One of its benefits may be that we, too, get a healthy shock when the platitude becomes an original insight. My true nature is a work of beauty. It resonates with beauty in all forms around me in which I participate. I am not perfect, but beautiful. My many imperfections even show up the beauty more clearly and, perhaps, more heart-breakingly. Like a stain, a tear or a break in the pattern of a beautiful carpet. (There is no beauty that hath not some imperfection in it).

With Love

Laurence

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Thursday Lent Week Two

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Lent gives us the opportunity to see life as more than coping, more than an endless sequence of problem-solving. Under stress, that is often how it can seem, because time contracts, energy is dissipated in short bursts of imperfect attention and a feeling of failure and missing an important appointment grows stronger every day. No wonder burnout is such an issue in so many walks of life today.

If we think of life as an exponential series of problems clamouring for our diminishing attention we are heading in the wrong direction. A Chinese saying of staggeringly obvious wisdom says ‘if you keep going in the direction you are going, you will arrive where you are going.’ In other words, repent and believe the good news: or else go over the edge of the cliff. Repentance is a change of direction, saving ourselves from disaster.

Instead of seeing life as impossibly problematical, why not see it as artistic? The three pillars of Lent we have looked at are ways of developing the art of living, for the rest of our life as well as this special season of simplification and focus. The outcome of any art is beauty.

‘Late have I loved thee, Beauty so ancient and so new. Behold, you were within but I was on the outside, looking for you. And I pounced on the beautiful things you had made.’ St Augustine’s describes his great turn around as a discovery of the nature of beauty. Like Dostoevsky, he felt beauty as a personal salvation. But facing the violent chaos of his time the Russian mystic said more: the world will be saved by beauty.

Not technology, not ideology, not politics, not power or economic growth, but beauty. This cannot mean only aesthetic beauty, art, music or poetry. Nor just the beauty of the natural world that so entrances and delights the artist and the mystic but remains invisible to those whose interiority has, like Augustine’s before his conversion, been shut down.

Beauty is the breaking out of the whole in a part. It breaks the rules. It is exceptional. It can happen in a poem or a piece of music, in a beautiful face or voice, but equally in a gesture or a moral act which astounds and delights us and makes us say ‘wow, what a beautiful (and unexpected) thing to do’. We are wowed by beauty because it cannot be manufactured, only created and creation is the source of wonder.

The most urgent problem we must solve is a lack of perception. Our perception of beauty in art, nature or human behavior depends upon our having discovered our own beauty and goodness. If we do not see that we are beautiful we cannot see the beauty of a rain forest, music that becomes us when we listen to it or the heroic humanity of those who forgive and show compassion for no reason other than that this is the right and natural thing to do.

Meditation is a continuous Lent because it constantly cleanses the doors of perception, opening us to this primary level of beauty. This is knowing ourselves, not just as parts of the whole, but as a manifestation of the whole.

With Love

Laurence

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Wednesday Lent Week Two

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Shakespeare didn’t waste his energy inventing stories. The plots of his plays were already on his bookshelves. He had only to read them and by the power of his creative imagination to utterly transform them, lifting old tales and soap operas into the realm of timeless and unforgettable reflections of nature and the infinite, interactive shades of human character. In one scene he can show how a number of personalities respond differently to the same events. He was also a theatrical businessman and shrewd investor and when he had made enough to retire into obscurity in his hometown he did. Like Bach, he became an incomparable genius by being rather ordinary, always perfecting his craft, faithful to his gift, and keeping his feet on the ground.

We don’t all have this kind of talent. But we all have the genius of holiness in our capacity for wholeness. Lent is a time for being rather low key, undramatic and unflashy. These days, we focus on the small details and routines of our observance and see what they are teaching us as they rub away a little of the accumulated grime of bad habits and blow off the dust of laziness.

The ego is being serviced during Lent. We give it a performance review and tell it to behave better. It doesn’t like this at first and after a few days, when the glitter of novelty wears off, it gets fidgety and looks for ways to assert itself. It may do this in predawn tweets that embarrass us in the light of day or during the day when it wants to grandstand. Fidelity to the practice will easily undermine these hackneyed old attempts to be original.

Originality is not something we can manufacture. The ego likes to stand out in front and be applauded, even by itself if the audience won’t. But if we try to fabricate originality we are shown up as third-rate. Originality, creativity, the goodness and wholeness we call sanctity, has to happen by itself and take everyone, ourselves included, by surprise. Jesus reminded us on the first day of Lent, not to be self-conscious, to take the attention off ourselves. Can we imagine how surprised and humbled Shakespeare or Bach must have felt when they wrote the last line or note of a new masterpiece? Because they were also ordinary they must have felt a ripple of self-satisfaction before sensing the next tidal wave of their imagination arriving.

Lent helps us recover our original innocence. It refreshes our capacity to be surprised and to live in the ever-amazing present. It makes us see that our life is a work of art and our way of living it our genius. That is why we can think of the mantra as a continuous Lent.

With Love

Laurence

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Tuesday Lent Week Two

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Progress is an interesting illusion which Lent invites us to revisit. Hope that we have really learned a lesson from life or achieved a long-sought objective is very seductive. We tend to assume that as soon as things change on the surface, the same change has thoroughly worked its way all the way down. And then we are surprised and disappointed to discover that is not the case. Old patterns often return, sometimes with a vengeance.

After long periods of persecution the Christian church, in the fourth century, must have felt God had let it win the lottery when the Emperor of Rome announced his conversion. Constantine saw the Christian god as a powerful ally in his domestic and military policies. He had no spiritual interest in his new faith. But it seemed to the small, scattered, marginalized  congregations of the empire that the great exorcism of the Cross had eventually spread to the highest realms of power. As the churches swelled in numbers their faith was diluted. Before long, whenever possible, Christian leaders used their upper hand to destroy the temples and chop off the heads and legs of their statues of the old gods, with all the intolerance of the Taliban today or the Puritan reformers of the sixteenth century. They did not martyr the pagans because they were still numerous and widespread, but the Christian leaders ridiculed their beliefs and outlawed their rituals. We are not very pleasant when we are so sure we are right and even less so when we think we have won.

This tide of arrogance and disrespect, however, also called forth a different kind of Christianity exemplified in the monastic movement of the desert. Here Christians came to live the mystery of Christ in the deepest and most humble personal way. Even on their deathbed, the old teachers of the desert reminded their disciples that the inner struggle with one’s own demons and especially the demon of pride and self-deception was what mattered. And that struggle continued, for us all, to the end. Even Jesus struggled with the demon of fear on his last night.

Lent humbles us in this way. It is most effective when what humbles is something small and trivial. It only takes a sudden craving for what you gave up, or the surge of attachment for what you had let go of yesterday or a struggle to sit through the whole evening meditation, for us to land with a bump. As the self-woven illusions with which we clothe ourselves unravel, we are embarrassed to discover we are naked and that we don’t look as good naked as we do when we are dressed up. We see that progress isn’t forever, nor is it as linear as we thought. Perhaps the real progress is in discovering this.

With Love

Laurence

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