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.

 

Thursday Lent week Five

bonnevaux_W5

We crave drama, anything to animate the monotony of the mundane. But this craving contradicts the need for security and the advantages of routine that usually win the day. We are attracted to risk but we do everything we can to manage it. We want growth and progress but haggle over the price. Cliff-edges are dramatic places that sharpen our senses and give us a buzz: but there are always persuasive reasons for not jumping.

How to handle this contradiction and get to the paradox? Entertainment offers a quick solution though not a very satisfying one. Hollywood and Bollywood feed us a buffet of crime drama, war movies, passionate romances and cliff-edge series. In a well-run buffet the serving dishes are constantly replenished and our appetite re-kindled by fresh food. In a similar way, our consumption of vicarious thrills through sensational news, disaster weather warnings, TV and movies is fed so continuously that we don’t know we are becoming addicted. (‘I don’t have time to meditate but it’s been a hard day and I have earned a couple of episodes of…’).

Life is dramatic because we are unique and so no modelling of the future can really prepare us for what is going to happen next. Prediction works well for weather, less well for economics and hardly at all for when we fall in love or when love seems to die. We cannot predict when the contemplative dimension of the soul awakens and eventually disturbs the entire pattern of our priorities and habits.

This is the real cliff-edge of the human journey but it is usually a slower dramatic transformation than we have come to expect in the course of an action movie or even a gripping novel.

The other day I was watching a child acting out the intense dramas of his imagination in a world of his own. He was oblivious to everyone around him. I wondered what programs or cartoons were animating his rich and turbulent inner world. Such fantasies are part of our development. In the middle ages he would have fancied himself as a knight in a jousting match or as a hero slaying dragons. When you see a young adult walking down Islington High Street dressed like the long-coated character in The Matrix, and walking like him, you wonder where fantasy feeds the imagination and when it cannibalizes the creative forces of the mind.

Without knowing it we dramatise ourselves, occupying self-generated roles of succeeders, heroes, victims, unrecognized geniuses or neglected sages. We typecast ourselves and thereby cease to be surprised by the wonder of our own being and our liberty of spirit.

Meditation smashes the shells of fantasy that entrap us. Then we feel at risk; and we are. We risk the cliff-edge of reality, the passing through the portal. The very non-dramatic nature of meditation is what opens us to real wonder and amazement at the way things truly are.

Wednesday Lent Week Five

bonnevaux_W5

A key word in relating to the mystery of Christ is kenosis or ‘emptying’, We are told that Jesus ‘emptied’ himself or ‘became as nothing’. This applies especially to the ordeals of his last days of life which are described as the ultimate act of service – using the metaphor of a slave or servant who has no identity of their own but has become wholly other-centred. It also illuminates someone caring for another who chooses, in love, to put the other first. Psychologically this sometimes raises alarm signals for modern people but theologically it opens the window into the deepest mystery.

Emptiness  – sunnyata in Buddhist thought – refers less to the way we relate to others but it is still an indispensable element in compassion. ‘No self’ refers rather to the essential nature of everything. Nothing has independent or permanent existence. This is reflected in the Beatitude of Jesus that he calls poverty or poverty of spirit. It sounds like a deprivation or afflicted state. But, if as he says, it is the direct way into the kingdom, then it is more truly understood to mean detachment, renunciation or letting go.

These ideas might sound abstract to the non-meditator or anyone who has not reflected on the meaning of their life-experience. Meaning arises through connection. Meditation is a universal way to meaning because – another paradox to add to the list – the solitude we enter when we meditate opens up the reality of our fundamental connectedness. This begins with feeling connected with our selves as we overcome the illusion of separateness and the suffering it brings. But this is only the beginning.

Exactly how these general truths work out in the story of our lives – as it did in the life of Jesus – make for the uniqueness of our existence. This singularity of human existence is also the basis of love and justice. We love another because they are unique and their singularity somehow resonates with our own. Justice treats each case, each person, on their unique merits. All love is solitude transformed in communion.

In the case of the story of Jesus this touches not only the individuals he loved, his family and friends, but us as well – ‘us’ meaning all those who have ever lived or ever will.

However much we like to postpone thinking about it, death is also an indispensable element in the meaning of life. It makes us see that every life-story, however insignificant it may be in terms of the power-and-wealth systems of the world, is a universal drama. Properly reverenced, each human being and his or her unique story, thus reveals the cosmic mystery.

Tuesday Lent Week Five

bonnevaux_W5

Paradox is the portal to truth.

This may easily sound glib. Paradox can be fudged into something merely confusing where we don’t really suffer through the awkward contradictions of life, the bitter disappointments, betrayals of hopes, hurricanes of egoism, jungles of illusion and those swamps of misunderstandings that separate us from others for decades. We skirt around them rather than enduring the passion of them. Passion is undergoing.

Paradox – as the Tao and the Gospel testify, together with every sacred text that the human spirit has given birth to – is more than just not getting what we want or having a setback. It is ultimately not less than everything, not less than the Cross.

In a few days’ time, the purification of mind and heart that Lent has worked in us – to whatever degree – will be tested in the way we re-tell the story of the last days and hours of the life of Jesus. These occupy a disproportionate amount of space in his biography because they squeeze and distil, from the driest of stones, the meaning of his words and of his very nature. His story is who he is : the eye of the needle.

On Netflix – which is taking the place of novels in many people’s world – there is a menu selection of films or series that you have watched before and that you might like to ‘watch again’. In a world of relentless novelty, it is rather comforting that the world’s greatest marketing minds recognize the deep human need for familiarity and repetition.

As the perceptive Oscar Wilde said “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” The portal of paradox is rarely recognised at the first encounter and, if it is, it is often quickly denied. It requires many second visits before the full demand of reality can be faced.

Repetition burns away the dross of distraction. In meditation, as in any other form of faithful love, we learn to put our whole self into it. Then we have to take our whole self out of it. Even the idea that it is ‘my work’ or that it will bring me benefits must be given up. Having invested everything and then renounced everything, what is left is our true self, an authentic work, a new creation.This is what makes for a good story and one we can never forget because we come to love it as a child loves.

Monday Lent Week Five

bonnevaux_W5

According to the Te-Tao Ching, an ancient Chinese wisdom text, right living depends on wisdom; and wisdom consists in a paradox as radical as that we find in the Beatitudes and the meaning of the story of the life and death of Jesus.

The Te Tao Ching, like Jesus, uses homely language not a hifalutin intellectual tone.

Thirty spokes unite in one hub
It is precisely where there is nothing that we find the usefulness of the wheel..
We chisel out doors and windows
It is precisely in these empty spaces that we find the usefulness of the room

The word ‘precisely’ in this translation engages our attention. We respect and demand precision, the right word, the accurate financial report, the correct assessment of a situation. Businesses and governments spend fortunes trying to achieve the appearance of precision. It is the new ‘virtuous’ and a universal value in an age where everything must be probably useful.

Used in this wisdom context, in a powerful but mundane metaphor, however, precision is not the same as scientific proof. Because the scientific method is our very highest value, it is easy to dismiss words like those above as mere folk-wisdom. We may read it on the train to work or in bed at night but we don’t feel challenged to apply it to the actual ways we live or run our institutions.

Our materialist value-system revolves around verifiable usefulness. What’s the point if something doesn’t produce obvious benefits? Naturally, wisdom is about making life better but not necessarily obvious. Lao Tzu – and the gospel story we will be plunged into next week – make a very disruptive point. The most useful may be the least obvious.

Meditation is a wisdom path. It is a narrow one – in the way Jesus meant when he said that the way to life is narrow. But its narrowness produces immense expansion in the way that two converging lines, meeting in a single point, ricochet outwards into an infinitely expanding trajectory. A point is infinitely small; it has a position but no magnitude.

It is like the emptiness of a window or the hub of a wheel, like death itself.

We owe an immeasurable debt to the transmitters of wisdom in every field who illustrate this in ways we can understand, even for a fleeting moment before we forget again. Such teachers of wisdom are not like loquacious consultants paid by the word or the length of a report. They say everything in almost nothing.

At which point in my failed attempt at Lenten minimalism I should stop.