Lent Reflections 2019
Ash Wednesday: Mathew 6:1-6,16-18
I recently returned from the Holy Land. I was with a group of contemplative pilgrims from many countries who had different styles of expressing their faith; but they were unified by the common ground of the holy land and, even more, by the common ground of being that we touched together through silence in our daily meditation.
Israel is a small, intense country with as much variety in landscape – desert, green hills, vineyards, mountains - as in religious and political opinion. It has been a place of violent contention from the dawn of history. I felt if its conflicts were ever to be truly resolved the ever-divided city of Jerusalem - where King David built the temple, Jesus died and rose again and Mohammed ascended to heaven – would instantly become the Heavenly Jerusalem described in the Book of Revelation. We are assured there will be no need for any temple or religious activity in that transfigured place because God will be all in all. The ‘peace of Jerusalem’ would inaugurate the peace of the world, the transformation of swords into ploughshares as Isaiah imagined would happen one day. Until then we each choose whether we work for peace or increase divisions and violence.
This is a choice we are able to renew in the daily practice of Lent. We make the choice to be peaceful, not on the global but personal level, not through external action but through interior work. It should as Jesus says be a modest and ‘hidden’ work so that the ego has less occasion to hook on it. Whatever we ‘do for Lent’ is a sign of the synergy between the inner and outer dimensions of reality. Personally and collectively we are a microcosm. As we are so will our world be. Be calm and you will create calm. You may give up alcohol or candy or Netflix or gossip or checking your phone before you meditate in the morning. You may make the two meditation periods a non-negotiable part of your day or add an extra short meditation at midday or read the daily gospel at the top of each of these reflections, or choose a book as your companion through the desert of the next forty days (you could do worse than ‘Sensing God’ which is designed for developing meditation this season of Lent). Perseverance and consistency work wonders in our state of mind and for the harmony of inner and outer: and because we are not perfect and not machines perseverance includes starting again when we fail.
These Lenten practices increasingly become sources of peace and delight as we try to be faithful to them. They are in fact among the simple, free pleasures of life - not burdens or bores. Through them, throughout Lent, we remember the virtues that are often downplayed or ridiculed in our culture – moderation, self-restraint, repetition, respect for our limitations. These are elements of universal, contemplative wisdom as we see in the Tao Te Ching: Simplicity, patience, compassion are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.
Give up something and do something extra. This is the heart of healthy exercise, called ascesis in the spiritual vocabulary. The fruits of Lent will not appear if you try to force them or just by thinking about them. They bud and flower and fall subtly, surprisingly and therefore delightfully. This is a wonderful season. I hope these reflections will help you enjoy it.
Thursday after Ash Wednesday: Luke 9:22-25
In today’s gospel Jesus calls us, as he called the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, to follow him by self-renunciation. He wisely doesn’t tell us how to do this. It is for each of us to decide: i) shall I listen to this call? ii) does it lodge in me somehow and not go away? iii) how can I ‘lose my life’ so I can fulfil it? His concluding question then puts every person in every generation on the spot: iv) what’s the point in gaining the whole world at the cost of ruining your true self? Lent is about listening to these questions so attentively that we don’t have to answer them: the power of attention itself makes the answer pop. Of course it may be a slightly different answer on different days but this is not because the truth changes but that every day is different and so calls forth the truth in different guise.
Seen like this our life these next forty days itself becomes a pilgrimage in a holy land. When I was in Israel I thought what a tiny piece of real estate, without oil or natural resources, and with such huge pretensions. It has the lowest place on earth – the Dead Sea. And during his forty days in the Judaean desert Jesus was swept up to the top of the temple parapet to view and be tempted by all the kingdoms of the earth. The three faiths that try to co-exist with each other while waging their own internal conflicts have stories and myths that still drive global politics. Here details matter for life and death. Every pebble and drop of water claims significance and indeed they are meaningful.
When we are really on the spot, making the land holy because we touch it here and now and not in our fantasy or through ideology, something amazing happens. We see how everything, however small or insignificant, is connected to everything else through all dimensions of reality. The smallest and the greatest respect each other. There is hierarchy of course – some things demand more of our attention than others – but there is no power-game, no oppression of the small and vulnerable by the great and mighty. This is a contemplative vision of reality and if enough people in the world could share it for a moment at the same time the world would begin to change without the need for force.
During Lent as we try to harmonise ourselves – inner and outer, mentally, emotionally and physically – we should try each day to observe our role in the power structures of the world, work, family and in public spaces. Harmony with ourselves makes for integrity and so for peace of mind. But the consequence is a greater integrity in the world we live and work in – politics, business, education, medicine, science or finance. In all of these we hear the words of Isaiah warning us not to let our spirituality become self-centred and ego-dominated. If you can steer clear of this (hard in our age of spiritual materialism and false ideas of integrity) the quality of action changes. Don’t oppress your workmen or strike the poor with your fist. Instead break unjust fetters and let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor. Build bridges not walls.
Then, he claims, you will feel the guidance of the Lord giving you relief in desert places. Remember, for Lent we focus on the microcosm in order to better understand the cosmos. These things are true and they prove themselves in the holy-land experience of our daily lives. If we take a time each evening, after meditation, to examine what the day was like, we will usually be surprised by the meaning that emerges. It’s endlessly surprising how self-renunciation restores us to ourselves and our place in the wholeness of things.
Friday after Ash Wednesday: Matthew 9:14-15
Today Jesus says there is a time to fast and a time not to fast. At Cana in Galilee where he performed his first ‘sign’ at a wedding feast that he was attending with his family and friends, he was certainly not fasting. He must have had a good time. But Lent is a time to fast – digitally as well as in food and drink – and we can have as good a time in doing so as when we are feasting. Jesus walked and talked across the valleys and mountains of his home land but he also took regular times alone in solitary places and often prayed through the night. There are many dimensions of goodness that need to be respected if life is to be whole and our land holy.
Conventionally we live in three dimensions of space and in a fourth of time. These are different ways of being and knowing the world. We should be turned on to all of them if we are to have a good time of life and make time itself deep, broad and long. Stress or depression are signs that time and space have not been harmonised in us. When Jesus took his forty days in the desert before beginning his public life he would have been intensely aware as well of the divine dimension of reality. This may not be a good term because it suggests the divine is just another dimension instead of the reality that contains and fills all dimensions. Let’s call it the spiritual dimension, then, and we see quickly how we have become tuned out from this by the hyper-activity of the four-dimensional world we think we inhabit.
In our narrow fixation on the material world and science, the spiritual dimension has been relegated to the margins or excluded altogether. Yet science itself – when it is conducted with the contemplative principles of attention and selflessness – shows us there are more dimensions of reality than we had imagined. A string theorist in modern physics will say there are at least ten dimensions by which we can ‘measure’ reality (up to 26 I think are proposed). If so, where are they? The physicists say they are just as real as the ‘big four’ we are familiar with; but they describe them as ‘curled up’ out of sight. This has been compared to the way we see the wires strung between telephone poles. From a distance they look one-dimensional, a single line. Up close we see they are round and three-dimensional. As the poetic visionary, William Blake reminds us: If the doors of perception are cleansed everything would appear to Man as it is, Infinite. For Man has closed himself up till he sees all things through narrow chinks in his cavern.
The purpose of moderate spiritual exercise during Lent is not to force altered states of consciousness to happen but to enable us to see more - and more clearly. Our daily discipline during Lent is like spring cleaning.We are not trying to see what we think isn’t there but the everything that is there. The spiritual dimension then can be seen as that dimension in which all dimensions of reality are known. It is the dimension of wholeness and integration: the Way, the Mystery beyond name, God. It is in this dimension that healing, flowing from wholeness and overcoming separation, repairs the damage done by conflict as it enters our own microcosm of and the cosmos.
This doesn’t mean we have to be able to name and understand all dimensions but we can ‘see’ them using the enhanced power of our cleansed perception. To those of us in the Northern hemisphere it is the pure joy and sense of revelation of finding a crop of crocuses under a wintry, still bare tree.
Saturday after Ash Wednesday: Luke 5:27-32
In today’s gospel Jesus is criticised for being around the unrespectable, the ‘sinners’. He replies that it is the sick who need the doctor not those who are well.
We are unconsciously selective about where we place our attention, who we follow. And so often we are secretly manipulated by the glamour of success, approval and good appearance. We gravitate towards those who seem to have these attributes and bask in their glory even as we envy them. It is merely the way of the world. The Oscars ceremony doesn’t pay attention to those whose name wasn’t in the magic envelope of fame but only to those on whom the searchlight is briefly but intensely focused.
Maybe the elusive secret of happiness is found in this dimension of reality that lacks glamour and doesn’t cover up the signs of human weakness and mortality. It is the dimension that Jesus prioritises and invests with his presence. (We are present where we place our attention). We should pay attention to his example and in our own small way try to imitate it.
His most influential followers have discovered this secret dimension of the mundane and ordinary. Today is the feast of the patron saint of Benedictine oblates ( St Frances of Rome). Oblates – such as those of the World Community for Christian Meditation who will be helping to run Bonnevaux, are men and women who without taking monastic vows live in the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict – in obedience, stability and the conversion of daily life. Like the Rule itself it is not a glamorous path but one in which the doors of perception are gradually cleansed showing more and more strongly the luminous presence that is in every detail and moment of each dimension of reality. It is not based on the heroic holiness of the individual but on the contribution each makes and receives within the spiritual family. It is not ideologically driven but energised by mutual obedience and compassion for each other’s weaknesses whether, as St Benedict says, ‘of body or mind’. Unlike the brief blaze of glamour it is sustainable and opens up ever more dimensions of reality – the ‘infinite riches of Christ’ in unexpected and surprising places. We lose glamour but gain the glory of the divine dimension.
Jean Vanier found this in his life with the intellectually handicapped. Mother Teresa with the street people. Frances of Rome came from a privileged and glamorous background in which she married and raised her children. But she turned her homes into hospitals for the sick and used her resources to help the deprived. When she was free of family responsibilities she founded a new kind of spiritual community to share and implement these same qualities of care and compassion within a contemplative life of prayer and meditation.
The secret it seems is not to look where the searchlight of others’ attention is pointing but to the shadows where reality is illuminated by the pure light of our own attention. Our daily rhythm of meditation helps strengthen, as a matter of habit, our capacity to place attention where it should be and to see what really is. The habit of this attention is what we call wisdom.