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.

We don’t know how to pray (Rom. 8:26)

We know from Jesus teaching on prayer (such as at Matthew 6:7) that we should not assume that praying just means saying prayers – speaking. Jesus tells that we should not always think of prayer as the use of words, and if that is our preferred way of prayer, we should sometimes try to avoid talking too much.

I’d like to suggest that at its heart, prayer is an attitude, an orientation to life, to God. And if prayerfulness is an attitude, an orientation, what you might call a state of consciousness, it’s no longer necessary to worry about praying with words if you don’t have them to hand or at all.

We could have this mind whatever we happen to be doing – living in the awareness of the presence of God, of the Kingdom within.

Prayer then would be more about how we live our life. And so we might start to see a very direct connection between living a prayerful life and living a compassionate life. And that a life lived in this way, with this disposition and intention, could itself be prayer.