Lent and Fasting and When “No” can mean “Yes”

Lent is not about being unhappy or punishing ourselves. The word ‘Lent’ derives from the old English word for ‘spring’. It is a period of preparation for new life, for all that we celebrate at Easter. And if Lent can involve us deciding to say “No” to certain things, this is never about self-denial as an end in itself. Fasting is not about how much we eat. It’s not a religious diet programme.

The primary purpose of fasting is to help us de-clutter our minds and refocus our lives, to create a space within which our awareness of God who is Love can grow. Fasting, like prayer, is about living a simpler life. You might say that fasting, rightly practised, is prayer. It is about focussed, open attentiveness, and listening. It’s about laying ourselves open to the divine in the most ordinary moments of each day. However small the occasion, whenever we say “No” to ourselves we are fasting, and this “No” can be a prayer, an intentional act that says “Yes” to the Life that sustains and fills and is the truth within every moment.

The practice of meditation in the Christian tradition is a perfect example of prayer as a type of fasting. In this simple way of prayer we silently, interiorly recite a short prayer word or phrase, and gently say “No” to every conscious preoccupation that distracts us by returning to our practice each time we notice our attention has been stolen by some thought or feeling (which is likely to happen dozens of times, so there are no shortage of opportunities to hone our practice!).

Each time we notice we are distracted and turn our attention back to reciting our word or phrase, we are saying “No” to ourselves, to whatever has drawn our attention, fascinated, seduced, appealed to or worried us. In simply turning the focus of our attention back to our practice, we are following the command to deny ourselves (Matt. 16:24), to deny the self-conscious self we have constructed.

So, perhaps this Lent, we might take this simple step, and protect a short time each day to pray silently, calling-together our distracted, busy minds, clearing a space for Christ’s indwelling and the Spirit’s work.

And if this is too much, then just try to be silent and still and fully present in whatever you are doing. If you are enjoying an early morning coffee, just taste, really taste, the coffee. If you are looking at something beautiful, just look at it. And when you notice your attention has been stolen, gently bring it back. And if you have to bring it back a hundred times do not be disappointed. Each distraction is an opportunity to return, to say “Yes”, and can be viewed as a gift.

Each time we turn back to our practice we say “Yes” to God, we are turning towards our home, to the essential simplicity and peace in our hearts, to discover that this is where Peace itself indwells and is waiting to transfigure us.

 

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Preparing for the Birth of the Word: Advent Talk 1

Preparing for the birth of the Word

Introduction

It’s really good to welcome you to this first in a series of four Advent talks.

Each evening will follow the same format: a talk for around twenty minutes, then we’ll meditate in silence for around 20 minutes, followed with 10 – 15 minutes of conversation.

This evening I’d like to introduce the main theme of these four Advent talks, which is the eternal birth of the Word within us. And also introduce a very simple and ancient form of Christian meditation, which we will practice this during these evenings together.

Over the next three weeks we’ll look at:

  • What the Christian contemplative tradition has to say about this divine birth within us;
  • How meditation can help us find freedom from all the noise, expectations and projections that steal our attention so much of the time (and especially at this time of year);
  • At how the practice of meditation can help prepare the ground for this birth within us;
  • And at what the direct implications of this divine birth might be for how we live our lives with each other; because the birth of God’s Word must be the birth of compassion.

It’s all too easy for the meaning of Advent and Christmas to become buried in all the busyness of life, and especially in the run up to the festive season. It all too easy, even when people appear to be realising in greater and greater numbers that so much of life and its meaning is buried within the busyness of life, the distractedness of life.

Books on meditation are increasingly popular. Papers and magazines are full of conversation about it. And it’s no wonder. People are hungry for what it offers, for peace. Distractedness, you might say, is the disease of our time. And people are suffering. The distracted person is cut off from themselves, from others, and from God.

And if anything I have to say affects you, unlike the BBC I’m not going to give you a number to call. I’m going to suggest you come back each week, and meditate. Because much of our time together over the next few weeks will be about addressing our distractedness, about coming back to ourselves, and so to each other and to God.

I’m hoping these weeks will be something of an antidote to the busyness of our lives – a small injection of something helpful.

The meaning of Advent

It goes without saying that much of the focus of Advent and Christmas revolves around preparing for and then celebrating the birth of Jesus roughly two thousand years ago. For Christians, Jesus discloses what can be seen of God in a human life. He is the “Word of God” become flesh, incarnated and embodied in a human life. He is the epiphany, the revelation of what God is like – of God’s character and passion. As the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe put it, you might say that Jesus is God’s idea of God.

The Gospel readings for the season of Advent begin with John the Baptist warning that something extraordinary is about to happen; and end with the movement of divine life within the womb of Mary. The term ‘Advent’, from the Latin adventus, means ‘coming’, ‘approaching’. Something is about to be revealed, to be made present, manifest, disclosed to us. Advent is a time of waiting, of darkness, of anticipation, of warning and promise. Something extraordinary is promised that will challenge and undermine everything.

The messages of Advent are indeed deeply counter-cultural and challenging. One of these counter-cultural message is simply that we have to wait.

All around us enormous amounts of energy and ingenuity are being directed towards making us do anything but wait. Waiting is actively discouraged by the world we have created. Our credit-driven society urges us to buy now, have now, consume now. Waiting for anything seems to be a very odd and unattractive notion.

And yet, despite this, the church has something called Advent where four weeks are dedicated to waiting. This is deeply counter-cultural. I’m asking you to spend a good amount of time over the next few weeks doing something most people would think very odd indeed.

Now, part of what I want to draw out in these talks is that our waiting during Advent has a deep and essential value in itself. ‘Advent waiting’ is far from something entirely passive. Advent waiting is active, focussed consent, an expectant waiting that is our participation in and collaboration with a deeply creative act: not our act, but God’s act: the birth of the Word. And it is this birth that Advent anticipates and which this special type of waiting prepares us for.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus in the world. Advent prepares the ground for the birth of the Word within awareness.

The Eternal Birth of the Word

Listen to these words of  the fourteenth century German Dominican Johannes Tauler from a Christmas Day sermon, reflecting on the reading from Isiah, ‘A child is born to us, a Son is given to us’ (9:5):

“It signifies that very sweet birth which should and does occur every day and every moment within every just a holy soul if only it directs its attention lovingly toward that goal”.

“We read in Holy Scripture that a child is born to us, and a Son is given to us, which is to say that he is ours. He belongs to us in a special way, above all ways; that He is begotten in us always, without ceasing. It is of this very sweet birth that we wish to speak first”.

Advent asks us to prepare for this birth within ourselves, within our own awareness.

There is no ‘before’ or ‘after’ with God. Creation is a continuous activity. We are sustained in being by the ceaseless self-gift of God. We are being born, moment by moment, in the eternal birthing of God.

Just think about that for a moment. In the prologue of John’s Gospel we read that through the Word all things came into being (John 1:3). God has made all things through the Word. The Word is the expressive, creative outpouring of God’s being. You might say, we only exist because God is speaking this Word in us and in all creation, right now. Each of us and the whole cosmos is sustained by this outpouring of being. God is ceaseless being born in us. We are just, generally speaking, unaware of this. Through all those times when God might seem at a distance, when we can’t sense God’s presence, God is pouring himself into us and is, as Augustine put it, closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Our work in meditation is simply to turn our attention towards this presence, this life which is the light of all people. A very simple practice (though not easy), and the most effective way I know to turn us from the noise of commerce and all that encourages us to live a life distracted from the most extraordinary truth about ourselves: that God is here, with us, pouring into us, filling us with his life.

Union with God

Christian meditation is not about achieving union with God, but realising this union is our deepest truth.

It can be helpful to think of there being two aspects of this union with God. The first aspect of our union with God lies simply in the fact that we’re here, in our ontological ‘givenness.’ We are here, we are being sustained in being by God moment by moment, even if we are not aware of this.

A great many of us spend our lives largely unaware of this fundamental union and we can spend a great deal of time and effort trying to deny it. It can be a hard thing to accept our utter, fundamental dependence on God. We don’t even own our own being, It’s a gift, on loan as it were. This is a truly radical poverty.

But it’s the second aspect of union with God – which all prayer is ultimately directing us towards – which we will be thinking about – the union to be achieved through our becoming aware of God’s presence. Becoming aware of this union is what is meant by ‘the birth of the Word within us’. It is the birth of truth within awareness.

In our next talk we’ll look a little more closely at how the practice of meditation turns us towards this birth in awareness. But I’d like to say just a few things tonight about the heart of the message and experience that this tradition seeks to transmit to us.

It is the experience that Jesus had of the Father, which he spoke of as Abba, an incredibly intimate term for the most fundamental of relationships. Abba, the ground of all that is, as pure compassion and love, ceaselessly giving itself away to us, overflowing into every created thing. You might say that the four Gospels set out Jesus’ program to guide us to the resurrection of our minds, to the gift of transfiguration in the beholding of the One who is pouring into us and the entire universe.

You might say that Jesus was born to tell us that God is continuously giving birth, that we’re already totally in the presence of God – we’re just unaware of this. Becoming aware of this must be the most exciting and challenging adventure we will ever face. It is, as the life of Jesus tells is, the challenge of becoming fully, radically human.

How do we do this?

Well, it’s worth saying at the outset (and it’s worth repeating this to ourselves on a very regular basis) that we have nothing to achieve or even to learn. We need to unlearn a great many things, and most especially we must let go of any thought that we have ever been separate from God.

 

We can’t do this ourselves. We are not in the driving seat, we are collaborating, participating, responding. And we do not initiate anything. All is grace and the act of God.

What we can do, all we can do, is learn to consent. Meditation is not a time for speaking, however beautiful and heartfelt our words might be. When we come to enter into the depthless depths of our communion with God, we must leave all our familiar supports behind. All we need is to be willing and to try to turn to the Word of God within us, through becoming more and more still and silent, through the practice of turning our attention away from the thoughts and distractions that we are normally so fascinated with.

And instead of trying to think about God, we cultivate the habit of simply turning to him in loving attention. St. Matthew (6:6) speaks of the practice in this way:

“…whenever you pray, go into your hidden room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

As we turn to enter the “inner room” of our heart we leave everything at the door, our words and concepts and preferences. We must be naked when we enter, as naked as God was when he was born to Mary, as naked as he is within us.

 

Silence is absolutely necessary if we are to flourish and respond to life, those around us and to our environment fully and creatively It is in the depths of silence that we meet God, who is like silence, in an embrace which transcends the intellect and all our words.

In the silence of God you just have to let God be God. You don’t have to justify yourself or excuse yourself and there is nothing to achieve. You just have to experience who you are, more a ‘becoming’ than a being, an unfolding truth, hidden with Christ in God. And in this experience you become aware that you are completely free and God is just hopelessly in love with you.

To know this is to be enlightened, to be lit within. To call it a cosmic light bulb moment would be an outrageous understatement. It is the renewal, the transfiguration of the mind. It is quite literally life changing, because a new life is being born.

We are temples of the Holy Spirit

Is this just for a few of us, for some spiritual elite? Not at all. This is what we are made for. This is what all of us are made for. We are all temples of the Holy Spirit.

Christ makes his Advent, his coming, depend on what the Jews call teshuva, metanoia in Greek, conversio in Latin – ‘turning’ in English (very often mistranslated as ‘repentance’).

We turn to God liturgically in church, in the physical temple. We turn to God spiritually, to his presence in the heart of who we are, which is his image and the living temple that we are.

As my teacher, Sylvester Houedard OSB put it, the entire point of the New Covenant established by Christ at the Last Supper and in his death and resurrection, is that the Torah, the Logos or Word that God inscribed on stone for Moses to keep in the tent or temple, is identical with the Word that God has inscribed on the heart of every human being. Every human being, without distinction.

And how do we come to ‘read’ this Word? Well, in the stone temple the High Priest had to lift or part the veil. For us to read the Word written on the heart of who we are, we need to deal with the veil that our egos have created and strive to maintain.

This is the purpose to meditation. If we’re looking to ‘hear’ God, so to speak, we have to learn to be silent. We have to learn to turn to the silent depths within us learn to listen. We have to tune into this Word, as it were, and learn to live with His silence. We need to let God bring his Word to birth in our awareness.

That means stilling ourselves to enter into the silence and know God’s love and mercy. “Be still and know” says the psalmist (Psalm 46:10).

Silence is how God speaks his Word. As Elijah discovered, God was not in the great wind that split mountains and broke rocks, or in the earthquake, or the fire or any sound or familiar show of power: God was in “…a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12).

Silence is not an absence of something, but the ground, the womb of the unimaginable fullness of God’s creative and redemptive being, the Word, is spoken, is born. As we read in psalm 19, “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the earth”.

We need to learn to be still and listen in expectant silence. We just need to begin. And we continue to begin each time we meditate. If I have learnt anything over the last 30 years of meditating it is to be content with always beginning.

 

Let’s listen to these words from the end of Tauler’s Christmas sermon to lead us into our time of meditation. I will ring the prayer bell at the start of our meditation and again when it’s time to finish. Then we’ll have some conversation.

“What is truly needful is the creation of inner stillness and peace, a retreat protecting us from our senses, a refuge of tranquillity and inward repose.

Cherish this deep silence within, nourish it frequently, so that it may become a habit, and by becoming a habit, a mighty possession. For what seems quite impossible to an unpractised person become easy for a practised one. It is habit that creates skill.

May God help us to prepare a dwelling place for this noble birth, so that we may attain spiritual motherhood.”

December 2018

 

Abide with me…

Some brief thoughts given to someone for a short meditation retreat

The practice of meditation simply uses the self-conscious mind’s ability to focus narrowly, to come to the threshold of contemplation, or what you might call ‘simple’ or ‘naked’ beholding.

The classic way to do this in the Christian tradition (and many other faith traditions) is to focus the attention on a word or phrase throughout the period of meditation.

When we meditate we are not looking for something to “happen”, for some sort of experience. We are not looking for an extraordinary life, but to live each moment of our ordinary life extraordinarily well. For the Christian, it has already “happened” and is “happening” all the time.

Look at Matthew 6: 25-33. In meditation we are simply taking Jesus’s teaching not to worry about our life, about our past or our future. We are using a very simple practice to bring ourselves back to the present, which is, of course, the only place we can ever actually be. We are seeking the Kingdom first, before anything else. And the curious, wonderful thing is that as we learn to bring ourselves back to the present moment, the Kingdom appears.

Sitting Meditation

Try meditating for periods of 25 to 30 minutes throughout the day.

Christian meditation is perhaps the classic example of what is simple but not easy. Even if the basic practice is very straightforward.

First, make sure you are sitting comfortably, with your back as straight as you are able, with your body still and relaxed but alert.

Choose a word or phrase and recite it in your mind, in time with your breathing. For example, the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ…” with the in-breath, “…have mercy on me” with the outbreath. Or a single word, like “Love”, or just focus on your breath, follow it flowing in and out through your nose.

We use the prayer word simply to help focus the mind and to deal with distractions, to bring body and mind together, to bring us to stillness.

And when distractions come, don’t fight them, and don’t be discouraged. Whenever you notice your attention has followed a thought or feeling, just gently take your attention back to the word or phrase, or back to following the breath. Do not place any demands or expectations on yourself. And don’t try to judge or evaluate your meditation.

We focus on the word, until both word and self-consciousness recede. You might say that we use the prayer word to leave words behind. Meditation could be described as the ‘work’ we do to dispose ourselves toward the gift of simple, naked beholding. To use a familiar gardening analogy, we are fond of saying that we grow this or that, when in fact we don’t grow anything. Things are quite happy to grow and we can help this natural process by cultivating the right conditions, by tending the garden. Meditation is tending the garden. We work at clearing the ground, clearing a space for growth to happen.

We are not looking for a method or system or technique, but to cultivating an open, focussed (yet relaxed) outlook, an attitude you might say. We are seeking to dispose ourselves towards God, to Reality.

Meditation is how we dispose ourselves to the gift of contemplation. By ‘contemplation’ I just mean a disposition of open, attentive receptivity, which causes self-consciousness (our preoccupation with whatever thoughts and feelings happen to come into our mind) to recede. Contemplation itself is always gift, always gratuitous. Its arrival may be sudden, or a gradual unfolding of our hidden truth. We cannot ‘bring it about’. We cannot make it happen. What we can do, is work to create the right conditions for it to happen.

Working with our distractions is the path to peace and stillness.

Walking Meditation

You might want to try walking meditation.

Find somewhere quiet. Walk slowly and recite your word silently, interiorly, in time with your footsteps and your breathing, bringing body and mind together. Just practice as you walk, gently taking your attention back to your word whenever you notice your attention has been stolen by a thought or feeling.

Working with Scripture

“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because those apart from me can do nothing.” (John 15: 1-5)

“Abide.” This word and the beautiful metaphor of the vine and its branches speak of contemplation, the encounter which we try to speak about with words like “oneness” and “beholding”. The Greek verb for “abide” can also be translated as meaning to dwell, stay, remain, to not depart, to maintain unbroken fellowship with, to continue to be present.

We meditate to be present, to not depart.

We can easily recognise the branches, but we are being led to know the whole. When we meditate we are stepping back from our preoccupation with thoughts and feelings, from our tendency to focus on the branches, on whatever happens to be happening in our heads at any given moment. We use our practice to focus and centre our attention so we can, as it were, “step back and behold the vine.”

If you are not planning on working through a book or text, I would suggest you read as little as possible. Take a short passage like this one from John and ponder it, let yourself sink into it, let it sink into you (“abide in me as I abide in you”). You could use this short piece (or another) and abide with it over the days of your retreat.

Then meditate for regular periods throughout the day.

And remember that everything is gift.

 

The Harmony of the Uncreated

After meditation in the cloister of Gloucester Cathedral:

‘The word sounded invisibly within him, like a familiar scent filling the world until he knew nothing but its impression. Falling inwards, his words tipped out into a pool of silence, each drop a face rising up within his mind.

This pool was a lake, a sea, a silvered drop of dew suspended in his heart, dark cave, flowing out to touch all that was and is and will be.

Here the generations collected, a single mouth through which he danced, through which he knew them; one sound, their mouths filled with dust and light, their note sounding on in his breath.

Each sound he knew would fall into the next, flowing on within him; they pulled his heart towards its note, that he might vanish in the harmony of the uncreated, the unsung.

 

 

 

Being Compassion – A Sermon

Those seeking guidance from the Desert Fathers and Mothers often didn’t receive the teaching they expected.

Instead of a stimulating sermon, they were told “Watch me and do what I do.” They were to learn a way of being.

Jesus is similarly direct in today’s reading from Matthew 25:31-40. A striking call to action which I’d like to reflect on today, ‘Sanctuary Sunday’, when we turn our hearts and minds to the difficult, often desperate, plight of refugees.

“Watch me and do what I do”

As I’ve read Jesus’s words over the last couple of weeks I’ve kept hearing, “Watch me – and do what I do.” In the reading, those who cannot understand Jesus are referred to as “the righteous”. I think we can reasonably assume they are preoccupied with deciding who is deserving and who is not, distracted with law, with regulation, caught up in the whole business of judging. Trapped on the surface of life, they cannot see the essential relationship between themselves, the person in need and God.

As far as Jesus is concerned, the righteous cannot see, and are occupied with what is ultimately of no significance. They cannot see that the refugee is their brother, their sister.

We can only imagine what Jesus would have made of the slogan “America First” or the often divisive rhetoric that surrounded the Brexit campaign. To the righteous, Jesus’ immediate self-forgetful compassion is reckless, hopelessly idealistic. Perhaps today he would be accused of not “Putting Britain First”.

And they would be right, of course. He puts everyone first, gets on with what is needed, says everyone should have what is essential for life.

From my own experience, I suspect that a large part of what makes us hesitate to act, to give, is fear.Fear of losing things we value, of having them taken away. Of not being first in the queue or eligible for a benefit before someone else.

Yesterday I came across a wonderful story about a group of Christian missionaries who had travelled to Africa in order to convert various tribes. One of the missionaries decided to play a game with a group of children by placing a bowl of fruit under a tree, challenging them to a race – whoever got to the tree first would win all the fruit in the bowl.

As the race began, instead of running to the bowl, the children all joined hands and gathered around the tree sharing the bowl of fruit. They simply had no concept of how or why only one person would have all the fruit while others looked on. When it came to something as important as food, these children understood themselves not as competing individuals, but as a sharing community.

It is possible to see the world differently. Many of those who are refugees see the world like this. So alongside “Watch me and do what I do”, let’s add “Do not be afraid – because you are loved.

Being Compassion

Jesus is not just talking about compassion, but being compassion.

He has an extraordinary way of translating circumstances we find difficult to address, into direct, practical ways of being. His teaching, his life is uncompromising. When he sees someone hungry, he gives them food. When he sees someone thirsty, he gives them water. When someone is alone or finds themselves in a strange land, he makes them feel welcome and at home.

There is no hesitation. There is no fear. There is just giving.

Jesus is not calling for compassionate action tomorrow, or next week. Or when the economy picks up, or after we have first taken care of people living in our country. Or when the political powers have worked out how best to apply Jesus’ naive sounding words within the complex reality of the “real world”. He’s not asking us to think about compassion. He is showing us how to be compassion – today. Jesus’ words are like a searchlight. They reach deep into who we imagine ourselves to be and what it might mean to claim we are his followers.

The “righteous” simply don’t get it. They ask Jesus to explain what on earth he’s talking about. And he says to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Jesus sweeps aside all the familiar, conventional ways we use to decide who is deserving, and who we think of as “family”. His simple words are truly radical.We are all made in the image and likeness of God. We all owe our being to One Father. The refugees we see suffering each day in the media are our family.

Barriers

The problem is, we think we are separated from each other. Let me read you these words by the Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr:

“The “problem” of immigrants, welfare recipients, incarcerated, mentally ill…disabled, and all who are marginalized by mainstream society, is a problem of the incarnation. When we reject our relatedness to the poor, the weak, the simple, and the unlovable we define the family of creation over and against God. In place of God we decide who is worthy of our attention and who can be rejected. Because of our deep fears, we spend time, attention, and money on preserving our boundaries of privacy and increasing our knowledge and power. We hermetically seal ourselves off from the undesired “other,” the stranger, and in doing so, we seal ourselves off from God. By rejecting God in the neighbour, we reject the love that can heal us”.

The Incarnation is not finished. It is to be completed through us. And all the questions Jesus words and life raise for us find their answer in compassion: in being compassion.

You simply cannot think about being a Christian outside of active compassion in the messy, complicated reality of community life, local and global. This is living in the body of Christ. Being compassion is how we know that we remain in him and he in us, that he has given us his Spirit.

Why do we come to Church? To hear the Word so we can, with thanks and joy, immediately give it away!

What can We Do?

Jesus describes the compassionate as blessed by God and called to inherit the Kingdom. Being compassionate reveals that Kingdom is not some far distant destination, but within and amongst us. It is the “Light that shines in the darkness”, which gives birth to compassion, which lets us see the person in need. And to see that the person who gives and the person who receives are both rooted in God.

To see like this, to live like this, is costly. It’s hard work. Acting with unconditional compassion can make people very angry. It’s frightening. They will say it is idealistic, unrealistic, naïve, foolish. It threatens the virtual world we have created and the pictures of ourselves within it. But this is what being a follower of Jesus requires. Jesus shows us that this is what being fully, radically human, being really alive, looks like.

Jesus had no fear of being compassionate. He had no fear of being human. You can’t have one without the other. It wasn’t popular then, and it’s no more popular now. But that didn’t stop Jesus. He just got on with being wonderfully, fully human – until he was killed for it.

Some Final Thoughts

How do we become places for God’s light to enter the world? As we learn to recognise and manage our own need for control and power and affirmation, as we learn to love and be at peace with ourselves, we discover that our life is found in communion, through compassion.

You might say that we are made by Compassion for compassion. It’s what we’re here for.

And whatever the world may say or think, there is no need to be afraid. If we fall over, as I repeatedly do, God is there to catch us and walk beside us. So today, Sanctuary Sunday, perhaps I can leave us with two questions:

“Who are the members of my family?” and

“What do I have that I can give?”

 

Let’s pray together.

Lord, help us to become places of light in the world,

For refugees and all in need.

Help us to play our part in your marvellous work

Of bringing each of us, together, to the source of wholeness, wellbeing and peace;

And to see that our homecoming is to the whole of humanity.

Help us to act.

Help us to be compassion.

Amen

You can listen to the sermon here:

http://www.pipandjims.org.uk/cpt_sermons/being-compassion-a-sermon-for-sanctuary-sunday/

Beholding our True Face

Two Well-Hidden Secrets

The greatest cause of conflict and suffering is our simple ignorance of who we are.

You might know this wonderful tale about Rabbi Akiva. The tale goes that Rabbi Akiva, a deeply prayerful man, was walking one day, so caught up in his prayer that he walked into the wall of a Roman fort. Above him a voice bellowed down, “Who are you?” “Why are you here?” Rabbi Akiva looked up, saw the young soldier was a Jew and shouted back “Why are you here? If you come and work for me I’ll pay you double what the Romans are paying you!” The young auxiliary sensibly shouted back, “What do you want me to do for you?” to which Rabbi Akiva replied, “All I want you to do is to wake up before me, and each morning when I come out of my front door I want you to shout, “Who are you?” “Why are you here?”

Ask someone who they are and after saying their name, they will very likely list off how they fill their days. But if we lay to one side all that we do and all the pictures and narratives we routinely use to say who we are, we are left with some rather large and fundamental questions. Who is experiencing this life and what do they look like?

The purpose of meditation is to help us relax our grip on what we have always taken to be the answers to these questions, so the answer can begin to reveal itself.

Secret 1  

Despite all our cultural training to the contrary – we are not our thoughts and feelings.

Secret 2

Beneath all that we argue over, all that we think divides us – we all look exactly the same.

This certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise to Christians, who hold that all people are made in the image and likeness of God. And yet many of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, appear to spend most of our lives seemingly unaware of this.

Much of contemporary culture and education is directed towards the cultivation of the thinking, acquisitive mind. An overwhelming priority and status is given to this important but surface aspect of ourselves. While necessary for our daily life, an over preoccupation with the content of the surface mind seriously limits our enjoyment of life, and holds us at a distance from the depths of who we are, from each other and from God. Almost without realizing it, we can spend our lives watching the flow of thoughts, feelings and concerns that arise in us moment by moment. We can become lost in watching the clouds and forget the clear, luminous sky in which they appear. We can come to believe we are the clouds.

And if the narratives and pictures we use to make sense of our lives conflict with the narratives and pictures that others hold? Well, we all know what can and does routinely happen.

 Parting the Veils

We practice meditation that we may see clearly and act with compassion: that we may, in the words of Rowan Williams, “be capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom: freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them”.

Learning to meet our thoughts and feelings with silence, directly and as they are, without immediately reacting and adding commentary to them, can give us a powerful sense of the possibility of change in our lives. We start to glimpse beyond the clouds. We start to see beyond what we do and who we are starts to unfold. We learn to step back from judging and from building our judgement into structures to be defended against others, or forced on others. We come to the threshold of a subtle and profoundly important doorway.

I once knew a brilliant lawyer (we’ll call him David) who was regularly afflicted by severe bouts of painful anxiety. His clients loved him. He was technically brilliant and always gave excellent, detailed advice. Yet despite being a very good lawyer, he regularly suffered crushing waves of anxiety and was endlessly worried about making a mistake, of some calamity ensuing.

David just thought this was the way he was and how life would always be. In conversation he would shrug his shoulders and say “I’m just an anxious person”. This was where David began his meditation. But in time, having established regular periods of meditation at the beginning and the end of each day, David cultivated a new way of engaging with his anxious thoughts and feelings.

Firstly, he learnt to look at the afflictive emotion with stillness.

Secondly, he learnt to allow the fear to be present.

Thirdly, he learnt to let go of the reactive narrative he used to routinely wrap around the fear.

Before too long, David was able to be still and silent when confronted by an anxious thought. He learnt to recognise and step back from the negative narratives he formerly applied to himself and the world around him.

The practice of stillness and silence gently introduced David to an inner peace and stability he had never known before, which continued to flower and open as he continued with his practice. Month by month, David became increasingly aware of the clear, silent peace within himself. He came to experience his relationships with others and the world in a new light. He came to realise that he was not the anxious thoughts or feelings he was experiencing, but the person looking at them.

And it was at this point that David was able to ask a very fundamental question. If he was not his thoughts and feelings, but the person observing them, what did that person look like?

Meditation creates a space of opportunity. It disposes us to the peace that transfigures all that divides us and lays bare who we are.

 

Prayer and Compassion

Prayer and compassion can only be thought to be separate when we are mistaken about what prayer is.

This lovely story about the Desert Father, Abba Poemen, illustrates the point.Some old men went to Abba Poemen and asked, “If we see brothers sleeping during the common prayer, should we wake them?” Abba Poemen answered, “If I see my brother sleeping, I put his head on my knees and let him rest.”

For Abba Poemen prayer and compassion could not be separated: prayer is compassion and compassion is prayer. You might even say that a compassionate life, centered in God, is itself prayer.

We meditate to see clearly and act with compassion

When we pray we are being prayed in. We meditate to cultivate the simple awareness that whatever we happen to be doing, at any moment, is happening in God, in whom we live and move and have our being.

And if we need help with this, we don’t have to look very far. We all benefit from finding good teachers and a loving community to grow within. But we are living Temples, and the greatest teacher of all is close at hand; the very ground of who we are.

We must practice moment by moment turning back to God, turning from all that ensnares our attention. We must practice to step back from all our words and pictures and sit silently before God. A very simple practice, but not easy and one which takes time to cultivate.

And sometimes we just ought to be silent. Because God is always speaking. In fact he never stops speaking. Each one of us is a word being spoken by God right now, uniquely loved, completely known.

You might say that to shut up sometimes is the least we can do. You might say it is just good manners. You might say that we just need to learn to get out of the way. And a large part of getting out the way comes down to understanding and dealing with our own acquisitive and self-orientated habits.

We need to listen. We need to listen to the Word, so we can give it away in the service of others. We need to see clearly, so we can see our neighbour, the mystery and uniqueness and beauty of their being – so we can see God in our neighbour and our neighbour in God.

From a private paper written for me by the late Dom Sylvester Houedard OSB, headed ‘Rough Notes on Mind’, contributing to a dissertation I was writing on the selective non-treatment of severely disabled new-born children (set out below, as typed, in Dom Sylvester’s characteristic style)

MIND or MENS or SEMs is the ability to know, the possibility of knowing.

At one level the things we know are beings and each human is a being. This is the level of Buddhist ‘conventional truth’ – ie the conventional truth about a thing, that is is, that we are. At this level we can talk of God as ‘the supreme being’.

At a deeper level, any thing  that we know is not a being but a becoming and each human being is a becoming. This is the level of Buddhist ‘ultimate truth’ – ie the ultimate truth about a thing, that it is ’empty’, that we are ’empty’ – ie empty of svabhavasiddhi, of the power of ‘self-being’, of ‘a-seitas’ (from-self-ness), ie it is (we are) the effect of cause – not some long-ago cause but of a cause present each instant. Everything is (we all are) ‘ab-alio’ (from non-self, from other). At this level we say God is being but we become; God alone is, things and people become.

With regard to mind as possibility of knowing (and of knowing this) there is one thing we know with absolute certitude tho (as Ibn’ Arabi says) most people find it difficult since the only way of knowing it as a ‘home truth’ (in Zen terms) and not just as something we are told by other people, which is only ‘bought treasure’, is by meditation and it is the meditation (not the obvious truth to which meditation is a gate) which people find difficult. Ch’an/Zen developed out of this difficulty as a method for teaching novices to know it for themselves, to know the moon and not the pointing-finger.