Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Annunciation. This must be one of the most frequently painted scenes in the history of art. One of my favourite versions is by the 16th century painter Pontormo which shows Mary walking up a staircase, turning around with one foot between steps as she is surprised by the angel’s presence behind her. It captures the unsuspecting innocence of her youth encountering a world larger than she had ever known or suspected. From this moment she is awakened from the dream of childhood and begins to be a woman who will love and suffer intensely. She is told she will be known by God. God waits and she consents.

The Gospels and, much more, later tradition emphasise the virginity of Mary. However we may understand the meaning of this doctrine, it evokes the state of pure openness and the capacity to be surprised even by that which, for a long time, we have strongly desired. In the ancient world, virginity was regarded as a high, if fragile, spiritual condition. In modern culture it is treated as amusing and transient. But these are social attitudes. A deeper mystical insight is found in the monastic idea of recovering virginity (wherever the individual may start from) as a pregnant harmony of body and spirit full of potency and joyful hope. This is the readiness in which the awakening, the eternal birth, of the Word of God can happen in us and the Word becomes our own flesh. I think this is more what the Gospels are intending to convey but it requires a more contemplative kind of reading. Don’t you feel more virginal, in this sense, after meditation?

This is an archetypal, unforgettable scene which starts the life of Jesus ticking. Mary’s virginal state permits the dialogue with the angel to happen unself-consciously and without our feeling it to be false. In some way, the believer feels, it really happened. Yet it is forever strange. What is being discussed between Mary and Gabriel is an event in time that impregnates time with eternity. The same event throws the duality of God and creature up in the air. It flies up beyond sight and when it comes down to earth, in her womb, these two are inseparable and one.

The youth-filled pure heart of Mary and her conception of a new life, join together in creating a new expression in time of the eternal nonduality of God. Humanity can see its own source and its way back in the ‘heart-breaking beauty of its young’. From Nazareth and Bethlehem on, this human beauty is now impossible to disentangle from the God who is always younger than we are. Even in the worst and ugliest of humanity’s thoughts or deeds, this beauty will be always there to save us from ourselves.

Laurence Freeman OSB

Third Sunday of Advent 2020 – Gaudete Sunday

Today the Church throws a splash of pink into its sombre vestment colours. Purple, the colour of Lent and Advent – the seasons of waiting and preparing – is not my favourite colour. In my travelling days, it saddened me to see all the passenger assistance people at Heathrow airport funereally dressed in it as they stood around looking for people to help. 

Cheer up. Today is ‘Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday’; and to make the point there’s a bit of pink. The point is that even in the long runup to a big celebration, a long-awaited event (birth, graduation, anniversary, opening a new centre) the waiting for completion should not obscure the right to be joyful. Of course, someone telling you to be joyful is immediately depressing. For the sake of politeness, we may pretend. But the smile vanishes as soon as the need passes. This is a characteristic of many religious people who believe they should be polite to God to hide their inescapable sadness and anger. 

Waves of sadness run through life even for the most fortunate. But you can ride a wave of loss or failure or decrepitude while not losing the joy of being which is described in today’s readings:

the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.. in my God is the joy of my soul. (First Reading)

Maybe not for everyone, but for me these words ring true and bring a consolation that (rarely) is not false even in the most troubled times. By pointing to the bubbling joy at the heart of things, they invoke a spring of purity in the nature of consciousness itself. Just to be aware is to share in the joy of being. 

It’s hard to experience this continuously. It flickers on and off, during meditation and from day to day. Glimpsed once, touching the tongue even once, however, it can never be refuted. But self-isolation, so rampant in today’s culture in the rejection of intimacy and trust as painful threats to my autonomy, stifles joy and blocks the spring. This sadness is an impossible hole to get out of by ourselves.

Help always comes in the form of another. Even when the other emerges invisibly from within, it will have an expression we can see and touch. Waiting for him we learn to drop expectations and all imagining of what he will be like. That’s the purple, apophatic, imageless splash. It’s needed because we so arrogantly interpret him. We judge him from the ego’s higher bench of observation. We tell him what he is like. All this protects us from the revolution in consciousness he brings, from his painful joy of ecstasy. 

Meditation makes us like John the Baptist in today’s gospel. He is so confident the other will come that he feels his presence already. This makes him so ridiculously and impregnably humble, that his joy flows over; and makes you see him as the prophet in pink.

Laurence Freeman OSB

Second Sunday of Advent 2020

This year I have been especially helped in preparing for Advent in two ways. Let me share them with you. The first is listening to a talk each day by John Main from his ‘Collected Talk’s series (available online and as old-fashioned CD’s). I was present as all these talks were given to the first meditation groups that met at the old Montreal priory, the embryo of the WCCM. In fact, I also recorded them, amateurishly, with an old-fashioned tape recorder on cassette. The effect that listening to them today is not nostalgia. It is more of what is called ‘anamnesis’, a term mostly used with regard to the Eucharist, a ‘making present’ of what was eternal, timeless in the original historical event. The opposite of amnesia. Time and eternity flowing together and mingling form the all-inclusive Now.

The talks on average are 15-20 minutes. Each time I hear one it has the effect of hearing it for the first time, familiar but new, like being there again for the first time. This is how the Gospel works on us when we are really present and truly listening I am not a particularly nostalgic person. Friends are often surprised that I need to be reminded about important moments we shared in the past. After a while, it is easy to let go of the past, even though one may still remember it. It is impossible, though, to let go of the present. As for the future, that’s a bridge too far and I am usually content to leave it in God’s invisible hands.

My other Advent practice is sharing the tradition we belong to with the younger members here at Bonnevaux. Some are birds of passage for a few weeks or months, pilgrims. But they can be serious seekers. Even if they were nominally raised in Christian faith, they may know little of what the foundation of our life is here and in the WCCM. What little they do know, however, is precious because it is a foundation for them to build on. Sharing the wisdom of the desert tradition, reading the gospel of Mark, discussing the Rule of Benedict each morning or celebrating the mass with them has a rejuvenating effect on them – and on tradition itself. It blows away the dust of deference and fear that have built up as accretions and restores the pure, illuminating doctrina, the teaching of Christ.

In one life we only have so many Advents and Christmases. Doesn’t it make sense to approach each one without sentimentality or nostalgia, but rather as a rediscovery and rebirth. Advent means ‘coming towards’. What is coming at us, at the speed of light, is therefore already here. What does preparing for it mean, then, except realising the eternal birth of the Word, the Son of God, within the historical birth in Bethlehem and, crucially, no less in our ourselves. 

In today’s gospel, today John the Baptist ‘prepares the way’ for Jesus. Though applauded by his contemporaries (before he was executed), his ego was not hooked by his audience. When Jesus appeared, he was humble enough to bow his head to John and be baptised. And John was humble enough to baptise him as a way of recognising Jesus as the one he was waiting for. The collision of these two personal humilities launched the public life of Jesus on his way to Calvary, even as it marked John’s leaving the stage. Meaning and purpose cannot be found without embracing mortality. The birth of Jesus includes the full reality of death and the whole cycle of birth, death and so ultimately of resurrection.

Laurence Freeman OSB

First Week of Advent 2020

Here at Bonnevaux – in the Northern hemisphere – Advent begins in the Fall. Christmas arrives in the dead and dark of winter when the sun, though imperceptibly, is reborn at the solstice. The wheel turns again. The end of the Christian year – and like all ends it is also a beginning – happens while most trees are silently losing their glory, shedding their leaves. They fall one by one, like shooting stars or dying souls. The magical palette of Autumn fades into the dark silhouettes of bare trees outlined against the sky: the art of nature at its most minimalist. On the ground the leaves are everywhere, blown around by the wind or slowly decomposing in what’s left of the warmth of the sun. The cats love curling up in them.

Then the most un-contemplative aspect of all this, Jean-Christophe arrives with his mechanical leaf-blower. Making horrendous noise (but saving a lot of time and effort), he blows them into geometrical patterns on the grass so that he can gather them more easily for disposal. I thought of this when I read the first reading of today’s mass

We have all withered like leaves

and our sins blew us away like the wind.

The reading from Isaiah may sound over-negative to the untrained ear, full of straying and hardened hearts, divine anger, rebellion and uncleanliness. However, we don’t read scripture merely to be consoled; but to allow the razor of the Word of God to slice through our mental games and arrogance. And to diagnose us. The Word of God reads us even if we think in our pride that it is only we who are reading. If we can feel this, reading because we are read, knowing because we are known, what a relief! It makes us feel better just to get a proper diagnosis; one that we can trust and that makes sense of all the symptoms we are feeling.

If we can deeply feel this interaction with the Word, we will read it more insightfully and be better enlightened by it. It is also easier to interpret – for example to see ‘God’s anger’ symbolically. God cannot be ‘angry’. But the karma, the inevitable consequences of our own misdeeds can indeed feel like someone’s anger directed at us personally. The ecological crisis, for example, is the result of collective sin – impersonal ‘punishment’ for greed and the desecration of nature. 

Reading scripture in this way, sometimes means we have to reverse the role-play described in the text: for example, Isaiah says to God ‘you hid your face from us and gave us up to the power of our sins’. This means that we hid our face from God. In seeing this, the sweet mercy of the Word brings us balm: “we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand.” Can you feel the sense of being restored to normality in those words? 

The gospel today, at the beginning of Advent, reinforces this with great economy. It has two messages to guide us into a good season of preparation for the festival of the Incarnation: 1. ‘you don’t know’ and 2. ‘stay awake’. Staying awake in a condition of unknowing. That is how we prepare to recognise and receive what is coming towards us at the speed of light. This speed means that what is coming towards us is here already.

Laurence Freeman OSB

Easter Sunday


Rise! Let us go forth; for you in me and I in you,

together we form one undivided person.

(From an ancient homily)

It took time for those who first experienced the presence of the Risen Jesus to find words to describe it – and even the faith to recognize him. They felt fear and incredulity before recognition fully dawned, the light became stronger and the sunrise of recognition broke over them.

It is the same for us.

There are many things in life’s mystery of which this can be said. But nothing of which it is as true as the Resurrection.

He enters our room without making a noise. He is with us without taking up space. He accompanies us without charging for his time. He is at the centre of everything without forcing our attention. He is invisibly visible.

He is a new way of being, which we are all heading for and which we are beginning to get glimpses of now. He wipes guilt from the doors of our perception.

He surprises us.

He makes death transparent and life radiant.

Lent has launched us.

Easter is everywhere.

We are allowed to say Alleluia again.

Holy Saturday


A day of transition. Of choosing between patience and restlessness. Of ‘waiting in joyful hope’ or of anger at loss of control.

I told someone recently of a mutual friend who was ‘in transition’, meaning they were at one of those in between periods of life. The person I was telling looked shocked and utterly taken aback. ‘I would never have thought..’ they started to say. As we could say ‘in transition’ of ourselves or of anyone on pretty well any day or in any phase of life, I was surprised by their response. Then the misunderstanding crept out of the corner where all misunderstandings hide. By ‘in transition’ they thought I meant gender change.

This would indeed be a major transition, filled with fear, hope and anticipation by whoever feels compelled to undertake it. But, in fact, the transition of Holy Saturday for the patient Christian is not less. When we reflect on what is happening deep down in the earth, out of sight, far out of reach of the dualistic mind we see an irreversible, evolutionary change is underway. Having crossed the valley of death, Jesus dives deep into all the layers of matter and consciousness from which the human has arisen, through all the stirrings of planetary and cosmic consciousness.

Icons illustrate this as the ‘descent into hell’, the nether regions that remain untouchable and unknowable to the ordinary functions of the human mind. They are  alien to what we think of as civilisation. Reaching this deep mind of creation, Jesus – and perhaps all who die – touches the source where it is also seen as the point of return. In every cycle there is a turning point, where yin transitions to yang and in time yang yields to yin. In every journey there is a point where we shift imperceptibly from being the one who left to one who is arriving.

Hamlet peers into this journey over the event horizon ‘from whose bourn no traveller returns’. What if one traveller does return? What if that unity that allows us to speak of humanity as a whole, not just as a mass of individuals, were to be touched and gathered into one who makes this journey not just for himself but with and, compassionately, for us? What would that say about our life on the daily surface, about the unity of the human family unity and about the meaning of death, our final finality?

It would be worth waiting patiently for, just to see. We would need patience for the coming of that moment of consciousness, called the vision of faith, where we see that the return has happened because it is happening. To rise from this depth would be more than a transition to another point on the spectrum. It would be a complete transformation, a bridging of opposites, the conquest of fear. Not less, in fact, than a new creation. While still going through the cycles of life, we would be already sharing in the mind of the one who returns, seeing through his eyes. We would feel as if – along with all humanity before and after us – that we were, finally, waking up.

Good Friday


To all appearances it is not a very good day. So how do we understand the tradition that calls it good? Not because what happened today – the triumph of injustice and the judicial murder of an innocent – was good. Not because humanity missed the opportunity to be changed by one of their own who was ahead – light years ahead – of his time. It is good because of what flowed from the collective failure to accept the message this man carried and  – to those who see him with the eyes of faith – embodied.

When someone we love dies, or in the death of a great spiritual artist, as Jesus was, we feel stricken by all that is lost. We foresee all the events that they will not be there to share with us; we suffer the loss of that unique participation in our life which once enriched us and now leaves us feeling half-dead. 

Death has this effect. But over time, as the trauma of grief reduces and we find we are engaged in life’s challenges again despite ourselves, we discover that the absence is not merely the grey void we thought. It is a new and more spacious dimension of life, pain notwithstanding, in which the physical and psychological presence of the absent person is interiorized. This absent-presence saturates consciousness. It reveals the spiritual in a strangely enhancing way.

Death however is always the great disrupter. It shatters all routines. For a time we live on automatic pilot waiting to see whether anything new will happen – often in despair that it will not.

Pilate was surprised that the crucified Jesus died so soon. The purpose of any death penalty is to have the longest possible deterrent effect. However at the deeper level of meaning the suffering of Jesus is not the main source of today’s good influence. We are not saved, healed, transformed, liberated from illusion by the suffering but by the love shown us by one who was not afraid to love God with his whole self: because, Christian faith goes so far as to say, his self was one with God.

Now we have also seen the inner working of sin – fear, cruelty, denial, untruth, addiction to power. The façades of civilization have been stripped away and the veil of religious institutionalism complicit with power has been rent in two. Seeing life through the eyes of the compassionate crucified one we can never see anything the same way again. The old deceptions, hypocrisies and hidden fears that corrupt all relationships have been disempowered.

We are shattered by this but not destroyed. In place of the old deadening routines a fresh way of being forms. It is too soon to see this new life. But it is already conceived through death, in the womb of the earth, awaiting its birth, ready to begin its transformative growth among us.

Holy Thursday


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


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


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.