Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas Eve

What a story! What superb story telling! No wonder it has lasted nearly 2000 years and still haunts and inspires the imagination of millions. I am thinking of course of the opening chapters of St. Matthews and St. Luke’s gospels: the story of the nativity of Jesus of Nazareth. How does a story like that come to be written? I think many of us have clues to the answer in our own experience. Something profound happens to us, some flash of inspiration, triggered by a chance meeting, a conversation, or a book, or just out of the blue as we see a familiar sight with fresh eyes. Suddenly something clicks into place for us. “So that’s what he meant!” we think, “now I see, now I understand what she meant!” It happened to me five years ago when, in early December, I read Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now’ and it was as if a string had been tugged to which were attached memories of books I had read, poems I remembered, unresolved problems I had laid aside as too difficult to solve, all came to the surface so that I thought, “So that’s what it was all about! Why didn’t I see it before?
Now imagine the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Their minds are stocked with memories of the only literature anyone knew in the Israel of those days: the books of what we now call the Old Testament; nothing else except the scriptures heard every Sabbath. Suddenly, in the light of the encounter with Jesus, life is transformed. “Aha! That’s what it’s all about! All those prophecies and other writings that I have heard and pondered all these years. Now I understand!” Later, perhaps 30 or 40 years later, two people sit down to write gospels and out of that original ‘aha!” experience comes the exquisite narrative that we now know as the Christmas story. Of course we would not, could not, write such a story today. We no longer believe in stars that hover over one place, or magi, or the possibility of virgin birth; nor are our minds saturated with the imagery of one piece of literature to provide us with a rich source of inspiration. What is possible for us a fresh ‘aha!” encounter which opens up a ‘now I understand’ insight.
The writer and spiritual guide Simon Parke says, "It is sad that we have forgotten the true meaninglessness of Christmas. Meaning is about control; Christmas about indefinable delight.' I prefer the secret sort; the secret Christmas which comes to find me quietly and in a manner quite unexpected. I think it might and I wish this experience for you."

Thursday, 4 November 2010

When I was a student at Lincoln Theological College in 1959, Trevor Huddleston, then a parish priest in Soweto, came to speak to us. He presented the Afrikaaner point of view so sympathetically that when he reverted back to a criticism of apartheid it was like coming out of a dream. Today I have before me the Times report of Anglican Bishop Wallace Benn's address to Reform in which he compared supporters of the ordination of women Bishops to Nazis (or at least to our situation in 1939 when we were threatened with invasion by the Nazis). Has he not known? Has he not heard? There is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God. The transformation of human consciousness that Richard Rohr (and many others) is pointing to will overcome the division which Reform wants to perpetuate. Perhaps the South African miracle of Truth and Reconciliation will heal these divisions too.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Healing versus wholeness

Here's what I said at this week's 'Beyond Words' session.

Anything I say should perhaps come with a health warning: “this may damage your spiritual wellbeing!” Why? Because I am not Jesus of Nazareth. I am a fellow traveller with you and we are all pioneers on this path. I bring some reading/specialist knowledge and some practice/experience which you may not have but I also bring my own past with its failings and its pain and its false assumptions. I tell you this because last week’s session (on the parable of the prodigal son) reminded me that there’s a good deal of the elder son in me and trying too hard is one of my default positions.

I quoted Martin Buber: ‘will and grace are two sides of the same coin’ and that is crucial to the whole human (not to say religious) enterprise. What has stuck with me from last week's parable are the father's words to his sulking elder son: “all that I have is yours”. How to realise that profound truth in ways which set me free to work on ‘home farm’. What happens in our regular practice of meditation (backed up by our sharing with others and our study – perhaps as members of a group) is a process of healing and re-ordering of our deepest selves. I now know where my tendency to try too hard comes from – childhood potty training!! My mother’s frequent injunction was ‘try hard’ and my childish word for any product of this effort was ‘try hards’!!

Now meditation is not therapy. It almost certainly has therapeutic effects but if we aim for them, if we make them our reason for meditating, we get into trouble. Our only aim is simply to ‘be there in the Presence’ – to put ourselves in the way of grace and to live it out in our lives.The Presence (of God if we find that word helpful) is unconditional and our aim is simply to be there unconditionally – to keep on coming home like the prodigal.

As we journey on in this life of ‘being there’ in the Presence, it is helpful to learn what our default positions are so that we can be aware when they are holding us back, tripping us up. For some people their default position can be a serious impediment – an addiction, for example, to alcohol, sex, violence, shopping etc. etc. Or there are hidden default positions which lie dormant until suddenly here they are, operating at full volume and devastating us, making us feel a failure or worse. There is what I have called a ‘kick-back’ experience: times when we get out into the world after meditation and everything goes wrong; our default positions seem to dominate the horizon.

In all this, just as in the more mundane distractions of our meditating, the advice is – be gentle with yourself; forgive yourself. How often shall I forgive someone who sins against me – seven times? No, replies Jesus, seventy times seven. And that applies to my forgiveness of myself. Let go and let be. Welcome the bad as well as the good; trust that underneath are the everlasting arms and that healing is going on.

So the quality of our meditation is a matter of our intention not the quality of our attention. It’s never primarily a question of our ability to concentrate (though that may well improve as we persevere in our practice). It is simply a matter of our intention to be there in the Presence.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Interrupting the flow.

Eating is your chance to multi-task - right?

At the very least we talk while doing it; or watch television together; or if we are eating alone we listen to music, or continue our journey on foot or on the tube. While we are chewing our hands are busy preparing the next mouthful on the plate; it’s on its way to the mouth before what’s in there already has been swallowed; or maybe it hovers on the fork, halfway to the mouth, while we make an important point in the conversation. Thank goodness that somewhere beneath all this activity we do manage to notice something of the quality of the food (the avoidance of harmful substances must be programmed pretty deeply in our brains) but the important thing is that we mustn’t let eating absorb our attention - right? Well that, surely, is what an observer from another planet would think about us humans and the way we eat. “Ah!” the visitor might think, “the future is more important than the present for these humans.”

Have you ever tried eating mindfully (to use a Buddhist word) – noticing what’s on the plate: its smell, its colours and textures; noticing this piece of food on the fork as it approaches the mouth; the feel and taste of it as it passes the lips; what happens to it as you chew and finally swallow; allowing a moment between that and returning to the plate for the next portion? It’s extraordinarily difficult in our doing, achieving, multi-tasking world. You might begin with just a single break in the cycle: a tiny pause between each action as you consume food; interrupting the flow. Apparently it’s a really helpful way to eat if you want to lose weight.

Interrupting the flow, however fleetingly, enables our magnetic centre to grow stronger so its pull is more insistent and more recognizable. Magnetic centre? That place of silence, stillness and space which we all carry deep within us: the place of Being, not doing.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Beyond Words.

Going beyond them (words, I mean) is what we are exploring in a group which has just started at St. Andrew’s, Waterloo, in central London (Wednesdays at 6.45pm). We are discovering the ancient Christian monastic tradition of lectio divina: sacred reading or, in other words, reading with the heart rather than the mind. The process takes seriously the belief that scripture (and this applies to the sacred writings of all major religions) is food. Of course it can, and should, be food for the intellect (an unintelligent faith is not worth living) but it must, above all, be food for the soul, for the heart, or we are hardly alive at all.

Traditionally, monks and nuns practiced lectio divina alone, perhaps walking around the cloister. There were four stages with Latin names: lectio (reading a short Bible passage slowly), meditatio (ruminating on the passage, entering into it imaginatively), oratio (prayer in any form which might arise from your ruminating) and finally contemplatio (resting quietly, beyond words, in trustful silence). Recently (well since the 1970s) this monastic practice has been adapted for use by us ordinary folk who go about our daily lives in the world (carrying our cloister within us) and practicing in a group is one of the adaptations.

There are dangers about doing it in a group however. The temptation to turn it into more of an intellectual exercise is greater. Cynthia Bourgeault says, “You’re not there to share or discuss or debate. It’s much more like a group meditation that shares its space with a scriptural text. Speaking happens, but the words are always framed in silence and must never overpower it.” We began with some basic stuff about contemplative prayer (see my blog post on February 27th this year) to get us in touch with the space, silence, stillness at the heart of each one of us.

Then we entered into the story in John’s gospel about Jesus at a well in Samaria asking a Samaritan woman to draw water for him to drink. (Chapter 4 verse 6). I am reminded now of words from Charles Wesley’s famous hymn, “Jesus lover of my soul”
Thou of life the fountain art;
Freely let me take of thee;
Spring thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity.

PS I have borrowed the title of this post from a book by my friend and colleague Patrick Woodhouse which sets out passages from the Gospel of Luke with helpful suggestions about using them for lectio divina.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Creative responses

The audience was anxious, worried, and it showed when their turn came to put questions to the panel members: instead of questions there were rants. What subject was getting them so rattled? ‘The Future of Climate Change’ was the title of a meeting at St. John’s Church, Waterloo on Wednesday addressed by an impressive panel including Phil Bloomer (OXFAM), Paula Clifford (Christian Aid), Claire Foster (Ethics Foundation) and Mark Dowd (Operation Noah and a journalist).

Faced with an almost daily news diet of overwhelmingly urgent, global problems making us feel anxious, guilty, angry, the temptation to give up and find the nearest bucket of sand can be strong. Perhaps Mark Dowd was most attuned to the audience’s level of guilt and anxiety. Practical actions - giving money for example - are, he suggested, prayers - sacraments even. “How much shall I give to the Pakistan Flood relief effort? Oh dear! I’m sending a cheque for the paltry sum of £50! What good is that?” But whatever the amount, it is still a sacrament of care.

It is counter-intuitive to relax when faced with an emergency but think about finding yourself trapped in a bog or quicksands: start flailing about and you increase your risk of death. Relax – that is, first forget about survival and accept the situation you are in – and you vastly increase the possibility of coming up with a creative solution to get you out of it.

Solutions for some people might include a dedicated life of heroic action in a great cause. Not so for most of us. Faced with global problems and headline-grabbing disasters, the appropriate response feels woefully inadequate. But each response, no matter how apparently trivial is a sacrament. Rants about the state of the world get us nowhere. Cynthia Bourgeault in her book The Wisdom Jesus writes:
“.... surrender [to what is the case here and now] is an act of spiritual intelligence resulting in a markedly increased capacity for creative response.”

Sunday, 19 September 2010

How to become a saint

Today the Pope makes Cardinal Newman a saint (well, almost - today he becomes Blessed Newman. He'll have to wait a while before he becomes St. Newman) Speaking earlier to children, the Pope urged them to aspire to sainthood.

So how do you become a saint? According to Paul (before the church made him an official 'saint') you don't become one: you are one. Writing to Christians in Corinth, Colossae and Philippae, he begins each letter with Dear Saints (or words to that effect).

Wouldn't we all like to be better people? Aren't most of us fed up, from time to time, with the way we are: our failure to love and care for our fellow human beings? "Oh! I'll never be a saint," we say, usually thinking of some outstanding person whose life is either an inspiration or a rebuke to us. "We feebly struggle, they in glory shine" goes the line from the famous hymn, 'For all the saints'.

But suppose the churches (all of them, not just the Roman Catholics) have got it wrong. Suppose it's not a question of finally getting there: after years of struggle and self-denial finally arriving at saintliness? Suppose it's really a question of discovering who we really are and letting that wonderfully profound, disturbing discovery permeate our whole being? True, the discovery might lead some of us into a life of struggle but not feebly: joyfully.

The whole point of this blog, as the title suggests, is that this realisation, this aliveness happens now; not in some static future but in each fluid, ever-changing Now. It can only happen in each Now. To be sure some of us are far more gifted than others but that is a matter of genes, not spirituality.

(Saint) Irenaeus said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive". Not, you notice, being good but being full of life.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Praying for the Pope

The Pope has asked me to pray for him. Not me personally, you understand: he was speaking to several million others at the same time. But if God has (presumably) already given a chap all he could possibly want what could I ask for on his behalf? Fortunately, I don’t understand ‘praying for’ someone as asking for things on their behalf – ‘praying with’ them would come nearer the mark. But even that is difficult to grasp imaginatively. The Pope’s life (not to mention his personal, psychological formation) must be about as far from mine as one human being can get from another.

Or is it? Somewhere under there, under all the flummery, all the media hype and the ecstatic adoring crowds, under all the theological training and expertise, under the deeply assimilated assumptions of the Roman Catholic church, under the Vatican bureaucracy (and presumably the personal attentions of private secretaries and serving nuns), somewhere under all that is a simple human being. He, Joseph Ratzinger, born of a woman, is exactly like me. We were both born. We shall both die. Now I am getting close to someone I can feel compassion for and with: someone sharing oxygen with the rest of the planet, made of the same stuff that originated with the Big Bang.

Giles Frazer, the Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral (London UK) said in a radio interview this morning:
“Ecumenical relationships work in practice but they don’t work in theory”.
He was referring to the fact that, in the Vatican’s eyes, he is not a priest (being of the Church of England) but that doesn’t stop him having good relationships with Roman Catholic clergy. It strikes me that in theory lots of relationships should not work but they just do because we ignore the theory.

I think I can confidently say, I am never going to meet the Pope but I can feel compassion for and with him because I can ignore the theory that the Roman Catholic church possesses unchallengeable truth. May we both know the peace that passes all theoretical understanding.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Training the mind

The Daily Telegraph reports research showing that meditation really does re-wire the brain. It refers specifically to something called Integrative Body Mind Training and I ‘google’ it. Someone has adapted ancient Chinese (probably tai chi-like) techniques, bundled them into a package and is now selling the ‘product’ with the advice that it cannot be learned from books or DVDs: one must pay this teacher to learn it.

I think I know how this process goes. One practices meditation in whatever form one has learnt it (whether from a teacher, books or DVDs) and gradually develops one’s own nuances: for example subtle movements and positions of the hands produce different shades of feeling and attitude. Then one starts teaching this modification and, if one is entrepreneurial, marketing it. There is no kenosis here, no giving away in love. I hope that people will benefit from this training but I also hope that people learn that there is more to life than avoiding stress. There is more to spirituality than simply training (important as it undoubtedly is). Whatever a guru may claim, there are many paths to inner awakening and most of them are free. The temptation to become a guru or teacher of spirituality is a subtle one to be treated with extreme caution, especially if one is thinking of charging people for the privilege of hearing what one has to say.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The power to see

Flying home from Zurich on Monday we are joined by about half a dozen Orthodox Jewish families: the young men in their distinctive (what? mid nineteenth century?) garb, the young sons (some perhaps no more than four years old) already sporting their ringlets and skull caps, the wives and daughters otherwise indistinguishable from the rest of us. I find myself suffused with emotion, a mixture of annoyance and resentment perhaps. Pondering this later, it dawns on me that they wished to insist that I see them as Orthodox Jews rather than simply as human beings. I understand now that I had entertained my emotional reaction, given it house room, instead of simply letting it go: letting them and me just be. I might then have recognised the presence of Being in them, in us all: a Presence which transcends their religious position as well as their clothing and my prejudice.

I experience similar emotions when I see a fully veiled Muslim woman. Again people (in this case Muslim men) are demanding that I see the religious commitment rather than the human being. In this case I do not see the person at all. It is a more extreme case of not seeing, of being denied even the possibility of seeing.

I am reminded of a poem by Rene Daumal (quoted in Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, ‘Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening’):
Sometimes a man humbles himself in his heart, submits
the visible to the power to see, and seeks to return to his
source. He seeks, he finds, and he returns to his source.

Bourgeault comments on the phrase ‘submits the visible to the power to see’:
“The observing ‘I’ carried in the magnetic centre, becomes the integral point of your being and around this centre intentional and conscious true self begins to manifest.”

Without this submission of ‘the visible to the power to see’ there is no chance of reconciliation in any conflict, but especially in those which are driven by religious demands.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

On-board flight announcement.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. This is your cabin steward speaking. Welcome aboard this Planet Earth Airways, long-haul flight to an unknown destination.

Please listen carefully to the following safety announcement.
All the emergency exits are now being indicated by our cabin staff .....
Some exits can only be operated with cash or a credit card; others are colour coded for the convenience of those who prefer to stick with their own racial type in an emergency. We have provided buckets of sand at convenient points in the cabin where you can bury your head if you prefer that when you are frightened.

One of the cabin staff will now demonstrate the brace position which you should adopt in the event of an emergency. ... As you can see this involves a considerable amount of muscle tension. We recommend that you keep your seat belt buckled and adopt the brace position at all times during the flight – it's bound to be turbulent.

Planet Earth Airways Plc earnestly desires your safety and comfort, so we will be providing you with endless entertainment, food and drink, and er.... drugs just to take your mind off things.

Thank you for your attention. Thank you for flying Planet Earth Airways. Please now sit back and try to enjoy the flight.


Friends, this is one of your fellow passengers speaking. As the cabin steward said, this is a long haul flight and we are in it together so I feel I should tell you that there is bad news and good news about our situation.

Let’s start with the bad news. That safety announcement is, I am afraid, seriously misleading. There are in fact, no exits. There is no way we can get off even if the oxygen runs out. The so-called exit doors lead to oblivion of one sort or another, whether drink or drug induced or through endless shopping and entertainment. I realise that in telling you this bad news there is a risk that some of you will be overcome by air rage or other forms of selfish or self indulgent panic behaviour; but wait! Here’s the good news.

Planet Earth Airways Plc may think it has all the answers but it is mistaken. For starters, it doesn’t even own the flight. It is attempting a take-over but it doesn’t understand how to run an airline of this sort. The truth is that the flight has been designed for our maximum safety and comfort provided we follow a few simple rules.

One word sums up the first rule: trust. I have to be honest with you and say that, given our current level of knowledge, we don’t really understand how the whole thing works. Indeed the flight seems to be on auto-pilot. There’s no one on the flight deck! However, what we have begun to discover is that in some mysterious way we are part of the control system. We are responsible for a lot of what happens on the flight. You might even say, we are the pilot.

Unfortunately Planet Earth Airways plc has made it very difficult for us to appreciate this simple but stupendous fact. The brace position they recommend makes it impossible to trust anything or anyone. So forget it. Never do anything while in the brace position. I recommend instead the trust position which is much more relaxed. Just try standing still for a moment and then start, very slowly, to raise your arms, turning your palms up as you do so. Notice what happens to your mental and physical condition.

The second rule for comfort on this flight is don’t judge. It’s helpful to put this rule in a positive way with just one word – YES. Always begin by saying yes to what is happening here and now, inside you and around you.. Don’t censor. Don’t label some things ‘good’ and others ‘bad’. Just observe them, without judgement. Once you start looking you will see that we do an awful lot of judging – our thoughts, our actions, our feelings, other peoples’ actions, words. Most of the time we hardly realise that’s what we are doing. The trick is not to try and stop judging. That only seems to make things worse. The trick is to observe, calmly, without judgement. That seems to put us in touch with a deep well of peace. You might even say it puts us in touch with our inner pilot! Then what to do in each situation (emergency or otherwise) becomes much clearer

So I recommend the trust position, or the relax-and-stop-judging position.

Friends, we are now travelling at the speed of love.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The narrow gate

I go to hear Tim Parks at the London Review Bookshop, talking about his latest book, ‘Teach Us To Sit Still’. It describes, in brilliant and entertaining detail, how he eventually found relief from years of intense pain by learning to meditate at an Italian vipasana. Later in the question and answer session he is asked how he coped with what the questioner describes as the ‘mumbo jumbo’ of Buddhist belief (in re-incarnation for example). With a dodgy microphone I am a bit hazy about Park’s reply: it is something like, ‘given the relief which this form of meditation has afforded me, who am I to worry about the wrapping it comes in?’

The audience’s level of ignorance about meditation surprises me. I am used to the assumption that only Buddhists or Hindus meditate - not Christians – but apparently no one in this well read and intelligent group of people knows about the manifold forms (wrappings!) in which we Europeans now practice the art.

I say ‘art’: ‘discipline’ is an equally appropriate word. The wrapping, the religious and cultural assumptions surrounding forms of meditation, are secondary. What matters: matters profoundly, is that we practice the discipline. Another questioner begins by saying, “I tried meditation a few years ago but.....”

William Leith, reviewing Parks’ book in The Observer, writes,
“About now, Parks has his spiritual breakthrough. He realises that, as a writer, he hardly ever lives in the moment – up to now, he's spent the vast majority of his time thinking about how to translate his experiences into words. He's been living in the past, and in the future, but never quite in the present.”
Precisely. Without the discipline of a meditative practice we are always going to be seduced, sucked away, into the past or the future. That’s why Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate....” Sometimes only severe pain gives us the motivation to persist in the search for that gate into the present, the Now.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The cheapest room in the house

I began last week’s posting with Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. Let’s just pick up that concern again briefly. If you haven’t heard of the Avaaz website it’s worth a visit. Having organised a petition against Sakineh’s stoning, they are following it up with more pressure on the Iranians to try and stop this medieval punishment altogether.

Is there an onward flow of human progress: a growth in right brain consciousness? This blog, The Now Show, arose out of my discovery that there is much more to life than left brain, ‘logical’ thinking. I am just one among many thousands (millions?) who are making a similar discovery, but it isn’t clear yet whether enough of us humans will develop this discipline soon enough to stem the tide of madness which sometimes threatens to engulf us.

People get frightened when the rules, as they understand them, are being challenged (the elder son for example in last week’s post about Jesus’ parable). Fear drives people to tighten the rules: to be less compassionate: less aware of our solidarity with all other humans on the planet: less able to exercise wisdom. It’s all perfectly logical of course; that’s the power of left brain thinking and it is essential for our humanity to survive and flourish. It’s just very dangerous when it isn’t tempered by right brain disciplined insight and wisdom.

The Vatican has just amended the Roman Catholic Church’s code of canon law. Law codes are left brain documents by definition: very logical. So now, apparently, it is a crime for any Roman Catholic priest to be involved in the ordination of a woman. What is it with religion and women?!! I know, I know – it’s just sex and us men have always had a problem with it. So maybe this is another example of men getting frightened and tightening up the rules.

The first example in Christian history came within fifteen years of the birth of the church. Jewish law said that all males must be circumcised and at first all converts were Jewish, so there was no problem. Paul, however, was making Gentile converts without demanding that they comply with Jewish law. Fortunately he won the argument with Peter and the rest of the new community in Jerusalem. Not that Paul was without prejudice: women, he thought, should not speak in church and should keep their heads covered ‘for fear of the angels’!

In Christianity, and I suspect in most religions, there has always been tension between law and grace: between left brain and right brain disciplines. I hope that we are living through a period of profound readjustment of the balance between the two. Christina Feldman, in her book, ‘Compassion’ quotes a Sufi saying,
“Fear is the cheapest room in the house and I’d like to see you in better accommodation.”
Well, amen to that.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Coming home : to non-violence

So we hope that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani will escape death by stoning in Iran, though they still might find some other way to kill her.

John’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus confronted by a righteous mob about to stone a woman accused of adultery. “The law says we should stone this woman,” they say to Jesus, hoping to trap him, “what’s your opinion?” Jesus says nothing, just sits there doodling in the sand. They press their question until Jesus finally looks up, says, “That one of you who is faultless shall throw the first stone,” then returns to his doodling. Sheepishly they all drift away until Jesus and the woman are left together. I can imagine Jesus looking round with mock surprise before saying with a twinkle in his eye, “Oh! Where are they all? Haven’t they condemned you?” “No, sir,” she replies. “Nor do I,” says Jesus, “Go, and do not sin again."

What is not so well known about this story is that the early Christians were worried about it. They didn’t know what to do with it. These days it appears in the 7th chapter of John’s Gospel beginning at verse 53 but in some of the very earliest manuscripts it is missing, or is placed in chapter 21; in others you find it in Luke’s Gospel at chapter 21, verse 38. Fortunately most of them were too honest to cut it out but clearly the startling moral liberality of Jesus was a problem for them. Of course, the story lacks the depth and subtlety of the actual human encounter between Jesus and the woman. A little bit of explanation might help us anxious moralists. What we’ve got are clues in some of the stories or parables Jesus told, like the one usually called ‘the prodigal son’. (Luke’s Gospel chapter 15 verse 11)

The ‘prodigal’ goes off to a foreign country and squanders his inheritance in riotous living. When he reaches rock bottom he has a change of heart and decides to go home. On his way he rehearses what he’s going to say to Dad when he gets back: “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” His father, who has been longing for his home-coming, rushes out to greet him with hugs and kisses. Son tries to go through with his stiff, formal, rehearsed statement but Dad interrupts him with delighted preparations to celebrate his return.

At one level the point of the story is pretty clear: God loves us and will always welcome us when we ‘repent’ and return. However, it’s not ‘the parable of the prodigal son’: it’s the story of two sons. The second one never left home and he resents the celebrations laid on for his feckless brother. Dad says to him, “Look, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.” So apparently, you can stay at home physically and just not get it: just not understand what home really is. There you are, keeping all the rules (even ones which say that adulterous women should be stoned to death) and somehow it’s not a happy place to be. Sticking to the letter of the law sows the seeds of resentment and anger because others are ‘getting away with it’. “I have to be hard on myself to keep these rules and there you are going off and just doing what the hell you like!”

No wonder they crucified Jesus! You can’t live like that can you!

Or can you?

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Lost in translation?

For the next edition of A History of the World in 100 Objects, they are going to translate something from English into French, from French into Greek and finally from Greek back into English using a standard internet translator thingy. The idea is to show how garbled things can get in such a process.

I ended my last blog with the word ‘compassion’. I’m reading a book with that title by Christina Feldman who is a Buddhist. It occurs to me that perhaps ‘compassion’ is more a Buddhist than a Christian word so I turn to my New Testament Greek lexicon. My computer skills don’t run to printing the Greek word which is translated ‘compassion’ so here’s a rough transliteration of it: splagxnizomai. It occurs five or six times in Matthews Gospel, four times in Mark and three in Luke (for example the Good Samaritan in the famous parable has compassion on the mugged traveller). There’s a dramatic use of the associated word ‘splagxnon’ in the Acts of the Apostles (chapter one) where some unfortunate has a serious fall so that ‘he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out’! So compassion in New Testament Greek is a matter of the guts: it’s visceral. When Oliver Cromwell said, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”, he was trying to have an argument in a compassionate way.

Now, the writer of John’s Gospel is not interested in the guts – never once uses the word. He’s your man for ‘agape’: one of the New Testament Greek words for ‘love’. Two of the others are, ‘eros’(from which comes our word ‘erotic’) and ‘philia’ (sort of ‘family love’). So you might be forgiven for thinking that love in the Christian tradition is somehow more of a mental attitude than a response of the whole person – body as well as mind and spirit; and you’d be in good company. Down the ages us Christians have been suspicious of our bodies; treacherous things leading us into lust; not at all helpful when it comes to loving our neighbours (never mind ourselves). But suppose we got it wrong from the beginning? Jesus spoke Aramaic not Greek. What was his word for love? Did we lose something in translating it into Greek? If there’s an expert in Aramaic out there who can help me I’d be very grateful.

Does it matter? It matters to me because, as my body begins to remind me that I am entering old age, I am coming to appreciate more deeply that it’s the only one I’ve got. With my discovery of contemplative prayer has come a much more respectful attitude to my body, including its aches and pains. I realise that there is no other way to the 'eternal' than through this transient physical form. It’s the only way to the attitude Wordsworth was exploring in the poem I quoted last week:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.”

Is that best described by the word ‘love’ or by ‘compassion’? Given our mangling of the word love, I prefer compassion.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Planets, plants and people.

I don’t know who Edmund Spencer had in mind when he wrote the following sonnet in 1595 but even if it was simply a woman, like all good poetry it means more than it says.

Lacking my love I go from place to place,
Like a young fawn that late hath lost the hind:
And seek each where, where last I saw her face,
Whose image yet I carry fresh in mind.
I seek the fields with her late footing signed,
I seek her bower with her late presence decked,
Yet nor in field nor bower I her can find:
Yet field and bower are full of her aspect.
But when mine eyes I thereunto direct,
They idly back return to me again,
And when I hope to see their true object,
I find myself but fed with fancies vain.
Cease then my mine eyes, to seek herself to see,
And let my thoughts behold herself in me.

We look in lots of places (even in monasteries and churches) for the truth about ourselves and then finally, if we are lucky, we find it in the depths of ourselves; and this leads, not to introspection, but to a sense of our being one with all that is: ‘planets, plants and people’ as someone said to me only this morning.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”. He coined the words ‘inscape and ‘instress’; ‘inscape’ meaning, “....that individually-distinctive form (made up of various sense-data) which constitutes the rich and revealing ‘oneness’ of the natural object....”; ‘instress’ meaning, “.... that energy of being by which all things are upheld...that natural (but ultimately supernatural) stress which determines an inscape and keeps it in being .... but not only the unifying force within the object; it connotes also that impulse from the inscape which acts on the senses....”

It’s relatively easy to appreciate the beauty of the so-called ‘natural’ world without allowing that human beings are part of it. (Planets, plants and people.) Wordsworth, another poet deeply moved by nature, allowed the inscape and instress to lead him into the depths of himself:
“Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened: - that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on, -
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.”

(From ‘ Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey.’)

To ‘see into the life of things’ (including people) is to be aware of their instress (their ‘thisness’) and their inscape (that which holds them, as well as me, in being) and this awareness constitutes the beginning of compassion.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Promises, promises

Like the debris which now floats in space the internet is littered with abandoned blogs. I am aware of not posting anything for weeks now. If anyone out there actually likes to read what I write, I apologise for disappointing you. But what to do? My wife, Yvonne, suggests promising just one posting a week. I’ll try it!

We’ve just returned from two weeks on the Greek island of Symi. Above the magnificent harbour is the church of Evangelismos with its tessellated pavement and tall cypress trees, each surrounded by a little wall exactly the right height to sit on. There, in the shade, with a gentle breeze to cool me, and a view across the water to the tumbled mountains of Turkey, as the yachts of the rich came and went below, I took to settling down for a daily meditation. I use a prayer word (or mantra) to help me focus: ‘Be still’, with ‘be’ on the in-breath and ‘still’ on the out-breath. It’s a phrase which has echoes of Psalm 46: ‘Be still and know that I am God’, and of Jesus’ words in calming the fears of the disciples when caught in a storm on lake Galilee. After a while I noticed that the pigeons on Symi have a simpler coo to those in London. It’s a three note call: a short beginning, a longer middle, and a much shorter third note – coo-cooooo-co. I heard, ‘be s-t-i-l-l now’. There was no need for me to repeat my prayer word. The pigeons were doing it for me!

The word ‘holiday’ comes from ‘holy day’ in the days when Christian festivals provided the only available break from work. Holidays on Symi are a bit like that. Life is simplified; no newspapers or television; and not much in the way of ‘entertainment’. I had taken with me, Martin Laird’s book ‘Into The Silent Land’. I know it well; in fact I had become over-familiar with it. This time, I read it slowly and mindfully, re-discovering its hidden treasures, and understanding, for the first time really, what he means by ‘the liturgy of our wounds’.

Stuff is stored away in our brains from earliest times and it’s the painful bits which seem to float up (or sometimes erupt) into consciousness; it’s the persistent annoying mental tics which never seem to give up, especially when one is trying to ‘be still’. I learnt this time to be compassionate with all that; to let it be, to forgive myself; to understand that this human body with its marvellous mental apparatus, its persistent weakness and failure and, ultimately, its death, is also the vehicle of – what? Some call it God but that word presents so many difficulties. Martin Laird is fond of paradoxical statements like ‘depthless depth’ and ‘the groundless ground that is the core of all being’. He writes,
“The very attention that gazes into this vastness is itself this vastness, luminous depth gazing into luminous depth. You are the vastness into which you gaze.”

Buddhists can describe this sort of thing somewhat less paradoxically but then they don’t have to cope with a tradition of God as an object out there. Still you cannot be much more direct and simple than Martin Laird’s, “God does not know how to be absent”.
See you next week, I hope (promises, promises).

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Speaking personally

Listening to a ‘homily’ this morning, I am reminded of Harry Williams’s dictum: ‘I am not speaking theologically unless I am speaking personally’. Too many sermons are confined to rehearsing the ‘facts’ presented in a Bible passage, together perhaps with reference to what the church has, over the centuries, made of these ‘facts’ liturgically. Thus the possibility that this episode might speak to me - now is missed. This kind of talk tells us nothing much about the speaker and conveys little of immediate value to the hearer.

Whatever else it was that the author of Luke/Acts was trying to express, it was certainly about conveying an experience; communicating it in a penetrating and exciting way to people of many different cultures and languages. This kind of ‘talk’ is only achieved through presence in the most profound sense of the word: Presence which transcends words.

But also, one doesn’t always need to get excited about it! Joy and excitement or enthusiasm are not inseparable. There is a deep still, silent joy as well as a wild enthusiastic one.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Approach and avoidance.

A passage in ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression’ helps me deal with yesterday’s collapse of the Now Show. As always, of course, it is something I already know but forget when it is needed. In this case a new helpful angle, however, is the distinction between the brain’s avoidance mode and its approach mode. Approach mode is Thomas Keating’s ‘Welcome Prayer’ in Buddhist dress. The heading is ‘Befriending Thoughts and Feelings’.
“In doing this work, we are learning how important it is to bring mindfulness to those times that we become alerted to the presence of unpleasant thoughts and feelings. It is tempting at such times to switch our attention away as soon as we detect that the thoughts and feelings are unpleasant and to return our attention back to the haven of the breath. But it is more skilful to pause long enough to bring to them a spirit of gentle inquiry and curiosity, an investigative awareness. ‘Ah there you are; let me see who you are’. In this way .... we are in much better shape to become familiar with the content of recurring messages. Furthermore, this sense of openness, curiosity, and exploration will activate the approach mode of the brain. In itself, this will directly counteract the avoidance mode and so provide a further steadying influence that can prevent us from getting caught up in and carried away in all our own imaginings.” (Page 176/7)
I love the calm, scientific tone of this, carrying no religious overtones at all. I had walked down the road to Cafe Nero and, having read this there, walked back a totally different person, set free from oppressive and afflictive thoughts. People must have had that experience when they encountered Jesus.

In the evening I hear Philip Pullman at the Queen Elizabeth Hall talking about his new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. He refers at one point to the impracticality of ‘Consider the lilies of the fields .... Take no thought for the morrow....’ He clearly doesn’t know about Keating’s ‘Wisdom’ approach to the message of Jesus. For example in a yoga/meditation session I have a plan, a goal: the sequence of poses – but it is important to take each moment as it comes, each pose and each transition is to be accomplished here and now without anticipation or judgement. Take no thought for the morrow does not preclude plans and goals. It is just that any journey, however long and complicated, begins with one step and continues moment by moment with each step.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Getting it wrong!

In meditation this morning: a wave of compassion for Paul of Tarsus who occasionally got it so wrong!
“For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself shall descent from heaven .... then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
It is easy to forget what a different world they inhabited; and yet, and yet: “If I speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Monday, 5 April 2010

'Doing God'?

Madeleine Bunting writing in today’s Guardian about the flurry of atheist books on the market, says that “religious faith in the west came to be interpreted as a matter of the head and the intellect, and was bound up with the authority of an institution which expected submission: God was regarded as something to think about rather than do in large chunks of western religious practice which, preoccupied with institutional power, ended up in this current cul de sac.” Looking back it’s obvious that I spent my thirty five years of priestly ministry in the dying years of that mindset. The clues to what might become the future were there for us to see but those of us who stayed within the institutional church (in my case, of England) didn’t really get it in spite of our unease with what we were expected to believe. It was something to do with the steady drip, drip of the liturgy which still emphasises the gap between us and God, in spite of Paul Tillich’s ‘ground of being’ approach, which Bishop John Robinson so controversially spelt out in 1963.

So now, says Bunting, it’s OK to ‘do God’ and I agree that praxis is more important than belief. It’s just that I’m a bit unhappy with that phrase, ‘doing God’. These days I prefer a much more controversial phrase: ‘being God’. In his ‘The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality’ the French philosopher, Andre Comte-Sponville, writes, “Whether they are believers or not, mystics are those who no longer lack God. But is a God who is no longer lacking still God?”

I don’t know the answer to his question. My response is to ask another question: Why is it that when human beings, in our left brain dominated world, learn how to access the right brain (i.e. to meditate) they experience love, compassion and a sense of connectedness with all living things? And what did Jesus mean when, according to John’s Gospel he said, ‘I and the Father are one’ and ‘I am the vine. You are the branches.’?

Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Resurrection of the body.

So we come at last to the end of Holy Week and, according to the Gospel writers, the tomb is empty.

For me it’s been a week of wordy services (apart from a moving silent Eucharist on Wednesday). What’s more, most of the words used do not help me; indeed they hinder my sense of participating in new life by encouraging me to forget my connectedness with other human beings and the rest of the created world. John’s Gospel has Thomas, who doubted the Resurrection, demanding physical proof. He wanted to touch Jesus, in contrast to Mary who, in the same Gospel, encounters the risen Jesus in the garden and is told, ‘Don’t touch me’. (See Titian's wonderful painting of this moment.) It’s an understatement to say that the Gospels are ambiguous about the post-resurrection appearances of Christ. They have him eating food but passing through closed doors and going unrecognised even by those who loved him intimately. The controversial 1980s Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, caused a storm by saying, ‘the Resurrection was not a conjuring trick with bones’, and ‘the bones of Jesus lie somewhere in Palestine’.

I wake up this morning feeling tired after a restless night and stuff starts flooding my head: ‘I shouldn’t be feeling like this’; ‘I’ll need a sleep this afternoon’; ‘my eyes are feeling prickly’. Then, mixed up with all this is theological stuff about what the church’s liturgy says that I don’t agree with. In other words I find myself forgetting that I am somebody: literally some-body. Eventually, I am reminded – yes, re-minded - and move from ‘doing’ mode to being mode by simply noticing, without judgement, the physical sensations that constitute the vibrant body that is me. Suddenly I feel alive again; connected with myself and the world in which I live and move and have my being and thus able to relate to my fellow human beings.
“Every breath we take includes a billion molecules of oxygen that have come from plants. And every molecule we breathe in has been at one time in the lungs of every one of the 50 billion humans who have ever lived. The simple act of breathing connects us in this intimate way with the plants and every person of the past of every race, religion and culture.”
So at least one molecule of oxygen that I breathe in was in the lungs of Jesus of Nazareth. Now that is resurrection of the body!!

Monday, 29 March 2010

Now. And then.

It’s Holy Week: the crux (and that’s precisely the word!) of the church’s liturgical year. The Gospels devote a surprising amount of space to the last week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth; six out of Mark’s sixteen chapters, for example. Like much else in the Bible and subsequent Christian teaching, however, we struggle to understand what it might all mean. We think we know and quite often reject the understanding we have inherited.

The genius of the Christian church was to preserve a memory of Jesus of Nazareth and his teaching. The problem for us in the 21st century is that it did so in terms which are now alien to us. However, the church also managed to preserve aspects of Jesus which contradict the orthodox view of him and his message. So Christians rapidly made him into a saviour and it’s doubtful whether he would have approved of that. By the way, didn’t they equally rapidly make the Buddha into a saviour?

‘Kenosis’ is a New Testament Greek word meaning something like ‘self-emptying’; letting go of my ego. Most of what Jesus taught only makes sense if we remember that. Good Friday also only makes sense in that light. Jesus taught and lived a life of ‘kenosis’. He did not ‘die for my sins’. He died because, at that point, in those circumstances, any other course of action would have been unthinkably inconsistent with his teaching and his way of living. His death was not unique. Lots of people have surrendered their lives willingly for the same reason.

What Jesus did was to point to and demonstrate profound truths about what it is to be truly human. His was the power of living each moment as it comes, as it is, without burdens from the past or worries about the future. The thrust of his teaching is: the Kingdom is always present and available to us – now, and if you look anywhere (or perhaps I should say ‘anywhen’) else you’ll miss it. This is what he called ‘the narrow gate’ which few find.

The effect of the church’s annual round of festivals is to obscure this fundamental truth. For example, if I attend a Holy Week service recalling that last week of his life, I do it now. On Maundy Thursday I do it now. On Good Friday I may be recalling the then of that first Good Friday but I am doing so now. I am writing these words now and you (whoever or wherever you may be) are reading them now (whenever that may be). There is only always the eternal Now in which I can experience the power of (to use the Christian word) the resurrection. A church service too often says, ‘Look back to where you’ve come from; and look forward to where you’re heading. Jesus says, ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead’. Don’t be concerned about the future – ‘consider the lilies of the field’.

The Gospel, the good news, is: there isn’t anything else to know or do. The price (if that is the right word) is to let go of ego which is almost exclusively concerned with past and future. It’s not that we don’t have to remember and plan; only that to be fully human we must get the present right and then past and future begin to fall into place.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The Welcome Prayer & Depression

As promised in yesterday's post – some thoughts on the Welcome Prayer when dealing with persistent low energy situations like depression. I must come clean and say that I have nothing useful to add to what you can find in a marvellous book called, ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression’, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn. If depression is what gets to you and if you don’t want to spend money on a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction therapist then this book is a must. The authors are not fly-by-night self helpers. Mark Williams is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford; John Teasdale is a research scientist at Oxford and Cambridge; Zindel Segal holds the Chair in Psychotherapy at Toronto University and Jon Kabat-Zinn is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Massachusetts University Medical School. We’re talking serious scientists here.

And by the way, if depression is not an issue for you, don’t be put off by the title. I found the book very helpful in my developing practice of meditation, not least because it includes a companion CD of guided meditations. However, back to the Welcome Prayer; or rather on from the Welcome Prayer to page 183 of my edition of ‘The Mindful Way .....’ where you find something called ‘the three minute breathing space’. Guess what? It’s the Welcome Prayer in Buddhist mindfulness clothes!

Which brings me to a vista which some devotees of every religion find disturbing; at this level of conscious there is a remarkable sense of the unity of all created things. If you depend on the idea that your religious commitment is exclusive, that what you believe is the TRUTH which believers in other religions don’t possess then this is a vista you will want to get away from as soon as possible. Of course the standpoint from which we each catch a glimpse of this wonderful vista is culturally conditioned. Most of us here in what was western Christendom share a cultural heritage which is deeply imbued with Christianity. The good news is that going deeply into contemplative prayer brings us to the point at which we can see how much we share with our fellow human beings, no matter what their cultural background. In our global society that is Good News indeed.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Welcome Prayer

After last night’s final session of St. John's Waterloo Lent course I feel a bit like St. Paul with his concern for the embryonic Christian communities that he has planted around the place. How will they survive, how are they doing now? Is there anything further I can do to help and support them in their deepening way of living the Christian life? (If Paul had had the internet we would not now have his letters to those fledgling communities.) Pioneers in this way of being-in-the-world (of any religion or none) need all the support they can get and it's not always obvious where to find it. I have provided links to some web sites in earlier blog posts. As a recovering human being I need to 'touch base' with others on the same journey, through web sites, books, the occasional lecture, and often chance encounters with fellow travellers. For many years I've had the following quotation in my file and I have no idea where it comes from (if you know please tell me):
From hand to hand the greeting flows.
From eye to eye the signals run.
From heart to heart the bright hope glows.
The seekers of the light are one.

So our final session was called 'Pray without ceasing'; a title which highlights the difficulty of interpreting the experience of New Testament writers. The word 'pray' is a verb, suggesting something we do, whereas what we are discovering is a way of Being in the world; and I've used a capital letter there to indicate that this way of living always involves me in something greater than myself.

But the prevailing zeitgeist is doing, not being, so we have to unlearn stuff while developing under-used spiritual/psychological muscles and at first this feels 'clunky' like when we start learning to drive and have to think carefully about which foot pedal to press.

Earlier sessions in the course were about formal periods of meditation during which new muscles are being discovered, brain synapses are being reconnected and re-routed, we are coming home from the far country to that centre of our being which underlies everything. In Christian terms we are discovering that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God. Then what? Then we have to get on with daily life in this 'doing' world. And, please, there's nothing wrong with doing! Without it we would not be human. What we are after is getting on with the doing without losing touch with the underlying being.

Last night we were concerned with what happens when things go wrong and we are blown off course. An appropriate foot pedal to press is called The Welcome Prayer. Developed by Thomas Keating and explained clearly and simply by Cynthia Bourgeault in her book 'Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening' it involves a four step process.

Focus: gently become aware of body sensations – thoughts, feelings, emotions
No judgement
No analysis
No ‘fixing it’ thoughts

It is as it is. Therefore I welcome it/all specific thoughts, feelings, emotions
NOT welcoming an outer situation only your reaction to it - the feelings and sensations of this moment.
It (this situation) is potentially for my healing/growth.

Let go of desire for
But only after taking the Welcome step.

Open to healing of the eternal presence; the healing action and grace within.

Do it as soon as possible after triggering event. With practice it becomes possible to do it almost instantaneously.

Surrender only to this moment after which you have three choices in dealing with the situation which provoked the ‘upset’:
change it;
if you can’t change it, leave it;
if you can neither change it nor leave it, surrender to it completely. This is not fatalism or quietism provided you have navigated the four stages (focus, welcome, let go, open).

Most of the triggering events we mentioned last night were of the high energy variety - resentments, fears, bad news, irritating behaviour - but what about low energy, persistent situations like depression? There's a helpful variation on this Christian approach in Jon Kabat-Zinn's 'The Mindful Way Through Depression'. As this post is already quite long enough I'll deal with it tomorrow.

Monday, 22 March 2010

God Is No More

'God Is No More' was the title of a book published in 1963 (What a year that was, with the publication also of John Robinson’s ‘Honest To God’!) The authors were Werner and Lotte Pelz who converted to Christianity from Judaism. Werner became an Anglican priest but I believe that they later returned to their Jewish roots. The book’s title is a quotation from William Blake:
If Thou humblest Thyself, Thou humblest Me.
Thou also dwellest in Eternity.
Thou art a Man: God is no more:
Thy own Humanity learn to adore,
For that is My spirit of life.

(I think one should take careful note of the words Blake chooses to begin with a capital letter)

In a foreword, the then Dean of Westminster, wrote:
“God is no more because he has become an idea – a mere word; and this has confined Him within neat and tidy systems. He is found at the end of an argument; His nature is formally stated; He is conventionalised, made familiar and respectable – and so he dies.”

Martin Buber,a Jewish philosopher, poet, and theologian, talked about ‘the eclipse of God’ as he grappled with the impact of Nazism and the holocaust on his people.
John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, published his groundbreaking book ‘Honest To God' in 1963. He wrote, ‘Our image of God must go’ in favour, he argued, of the idea of God as ground of our being. He thought it might take a hundred years for this idea of God to find its way into mainstream Christianity.

Nazism, the war and the holocaust, put skids under a process which had been slowly gathering pace since the mid nineteenth century. The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote in his melancholy poem, Dover Beach:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

But I suspect that the sea of faith to which Arnold refers depended on precisely the view of God which finally became untenable after Auschwitz; a God ‘out there’ who can be called upon to come in and help when the going gets tough.

What we have been exploring in our St. Johns Waterloo Lent course is based on the idea of God as ‘the ground of being’ which has continued as a more or less hidden underground stream in Christian history since at least the third century. The church (in western Christendom at least) has been like an beautiful ocean going cruise liner, well staffed by attentive stewards, and crew. The first class lounges have been marvellous places to be but somewhere in steerage, down in the bowels of the ship, there has always been a group of fellow travellers who possess some vital information about how the ship ought to be run. The irony is that these passengers might have drowned if they had not boarded the ship but their presence has been largely ignored ever since, in spite of the fact that they may be the only ones who know where the lifeboats are!

That’s why I am wary of using the word ‘God’. Is it time to abandon ship? Lots of people think so but it’s still a difficult call to make.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Lectio divina

Feedback at last night's session of St. John's Waterloo Lent course on contemplative prayer suggested that some folk were surprised that they could feel so bonded with other members of the group even though we spend time in silence together. It's common in many new groups for each member to introduce themselves by saying something about who they are. They usually do this by offering a few selected facts about ourselves - job, where I live, what my hobbies are and so on. We didn't do this and yet people feel they 'know' one another. In other words, there's a difference between 'knowing about' and knowing another person. We are tempted - seduced even - into thinking of ourselves as a set of facts. As we explore the art and discipline of contemplative prayer we are discovering that sets of facts are essential for our survival as human beings but they are not the most important truth about us; indeed they can obscure it.

And the most important truth about us is? That deep within each of us is the capacity for unconditional love. Without facts we cannot survive as human beings; but without unconditional love we are hardly human at all.

There's facts and there are opinions, which are easily confused or conflated, and which also help to boost our idea of who we think we are while hiding the deep truth about ourselves. Lectio divina is a way of reading the Bible (and other significant texts) while ignoring both facts and opinions about the passage we are looking at. It means 'sacred reading' and you might call it 'reading with the heart'. We tried it in last night's group. It goes like this:
It begins with a centering silence.
Then someone reads a short passage aloud and s-l-o-w-l-y.
Another silence.
A second slow reading of the passge.
Out of the silence each member of the group who wishes to speaks aloud the word or phrase which has 'lit up' for them.
A final reading, silence and prayer.

Perhaps you can see that this is not Bible study or discussion. What happens is both intensely personal and an intimate sharing which enriches the whole group. Have participants understood the passage in an intellectual sense? It doesn't matter. That would involve 'knowing about' which has its place but not here.

Traditionally monks and nuns did this alone and inevitably the process became systematised into this format:
Lectio: Reading the passage, preferably aloud and slowly - twice.
Meditatio: seeing (non-judgementally) what lights up for you.
Oratio: does your insight shape itself into prayer?
Contemplatio: resting in the eternal presence.

You perhaps notice that I say, 'in the eternal presence'. Why not 'God'? I'll talk about that in my next posting.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Body work in prayer

In my last but one blog I promised to say something about the importance of the body in contemplative prayer.

My daily practice owes much to three sources:
1. Cynthia Bourgeault has given me ‘Centering Prayer', a way of meditating taught by Fr. Thomas Keating, which recommends a prayer word as a symbol of one’s intention to be available to the eternal presence deep within. From her I have learnt the way of ‘kenosis’ (a New Testament Greek word for self emptying) so beautifully expressed in Paul’s great hymn in his letter to the Philippians:
Though his state was that of God,
yet he did not claim equality with God
something he should cling to.
Rather he emptied himself,
and assuming the state of a slave,
he was born in human likeness.
He, being known as one of us,
Humbled himself obedient unto death,
Even death on a cross.

2. Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed a sequence of simple yoga postures and the art of ‘body scanning’ to help people attending his clinic for those with chronic pain. From him I have learnt the importance of the body both as the inescapable reality of our human life (including its spiritual aspect) and as indispensible aid to meditation.
3. Donna Malcomson, a teacher of therapeutic yoga at Morley College in south London who has helped me to see the importance of moments and movements of transition; for example between one posture and the next and between the period of formal practice and one’s everyday life. She helped me to experience each body movement in minute detail and thus to stay with it rather than start anticipating the next posture.

Saturday, 13 March 2010


Today’s Times, Weekend section, proclaims that in “Anxious Britain” 70% of us are stressed, 55% have been depressed, 20% have had therapy and 31 million antidepressant drugs are dispensed every year. Inevitably these days, meditation is one of the recommended strategies for dealing with this onslaught. Earlier this week I read somewhere of the ‘commodification’ of meditation and it is apparent that self help gurus can make a handsome living, especially in the USA.

So, from the religious viewpoint, what are we to make of the current popularity of meditative techniques? Surely, we must welcome anything which might help people to develop a new way of being-in-the-world? They certainly don’t find much help in contemporary Christianity; perhaps the churches are rediscovering too late and too slowly, their ancient tradition of meditation and contemplative prayer.

There are pitfalls (for everone including religious people) when one uses meditation merely as a ‘technique’ to cope with stress or to enhance one’s life prospects. Jesus warned of these dangers when he is reported to have said,
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father.”
It’s not that Christians should be tempted to claim exclusive rights to meditation. We should welcome any signs that people are discovering what it might mean to be truly present in the world from the depths of their being. But as Jesus also said.
”Beware of false prophets .... you will know them by their fruits.”

So is there an added ingredient to Christian meditation? Well, compared with self help meditation there might be. It is already present in the Buddhist mindfulness approach since Buddhism regards the self as an illusion anyway. For Jesus the self was something to be 'denied' and the modern recovery of the Christian contemplative tradtition comes close to Buddhism in asserting that the self to which we are so attached is a 'paste up' job which is also pretty illusory. Illusory it may be but the ego - my picture of myself - will defend the illusion even if it is pasted up out of a random selection of memories, attitudes and roles which we play. Maybe most of our stress comes from our dogged attempts to preserve the ego we have so painstakingly constructed since childhood. As someone has said, 'Our anxiety comes mainly from our search for tranquility'.

The Christian added ingredient is 'kenosis' - the New Testament Greek for self-emptying - letting go of any idea we have about who we are until we find the truth deep within us. With no ego to defend stress is taken care of.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

John Main

"The important aim in Christian meditation is to allow God's mysterious and silent presence within us to become more and more not only a reality but the reality which gives meaning, shape and purpose to everything we do, everything we are." John Main.

Last night at St. Johns, Waterloo Lent course on contemplative prayer we heard the story of two monks walking along a riverside. The younger one keeps asking the other questions about the nature of the river: how long is it? how much water flows past every hour? what kind of wildlife does it support? how wide is it when it reaches the sea? Finally in exasperation the older monk pushes his companion into the water, waits a few minutes, then hauls him out and says, "Well now you know what the river is like!" Liz Watson, our storyteller, had come to push us into the river but first she gave us some guidelines on how to survive in the water; guidelines worked out by John Main whose life of contemplative prayer has given rise to a stream of meditation known as The World Community For Christian Meditation. As with Jill Benet last week, the guidelines are simple (though subtly different from Jill's):
Sit still and upright with eyes lightly closed, relaxed but alert. Silently begin to say a single word (a prayer word or mantra). The word 'Maranatha' is recommnded, recited as four syllables of equal length. Listen to it as you say it, gently and continuously. Try not to think or imagine anything, spiritual or otherwise. If thoughts and images come these are distractions during the time of meditation, so keep returning to simply saying the word. Meditate each morning and evening for between twenty and thirty minutes.

As Liz said, it is for each of us to discover what method of meditation best suits our temperament. The important thing is to find one and stay with it; to jump in to the river and find out what it is like.
Afterwards one member of the group reported that she found it quite possible to 'multitask' mentally while saying the prayer word. She could happily think about things which are labelled 'distractions' while saying the prayer word. Result - no experience of real silence. Perhaps this is not so unusual and it may be why some folk find that combining meditation with yoga is helpful (actually, yoga is meditation). We are creatures of the earth and spirituality is never an escape from that fundamental fact. Remaining anchored in the body is often a help with 'distractions'. I'll return to this in a later blog. I will also pick up another member's concern that maybe she is trying too hard.
Meanwhile, by request here is the prayer I use to end each session of our course:
O thou eternal Wisdom
whom we partly know and partly do not know,
in whom we live and move and have our being,
our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.
Grant that we may be still and know the truth of eternal presence,
and in that stillness and that presence may know the love and peace
which pass all understanding.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Centering Prayer

Last week we were thrown in at the deep end of silence without any instructions on how to swim. This week at the St. John's Waterloo Lent course Jill Benet of Contemplative Outreach came to teach us how to swim in our silent depths using the Centering Prayer approach developed by Fr. Thomas Keating. You can see a video of him describing the approach on Youtube.

Jill reminded us that contemplative prayer was quite common in the first 1000 years of Christian history. Then, somehow, in the middle ages it came to be seen as the preserve of highly specialised people - monks! Not nuns, in spite of the fact that there were some remarkable women in England and Germany for whom this would have been a perfectly natural way of praying if the men had not said females weren't up to it. Fortunately they got on with it anyway and even managed to write about it which is why we know about them now.

Jill gave us a set of guidelines for Centering Prayer:
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably with eyes closed,settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word.
3. Whenever you become aware you are engaged with thoughts return ever so gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the prayer period remain in silence with eyes closed for a few minutes.

The sacred word can be any short word (or maybe two)not necessarily religious. "I do," as the answer to "who wants to be a millionaire?" is totally different from the answer to "do you take this man/woman to be your wife/husband?" It's the context and the use of the word that makes it sacred.

Jill's handout gave us four "Rs" about 'thoughts' when engaged in Centering Prayer:
Resist no thought
Retain no thought
React emotionally to no thought
Return ever so gently to the sacred word

The purpose of Centering Prayer (and indeed of all meditation/contemplative prayer) is not having no thoughts but having detachment from them. "The only distraction or failure is if you get up and walk out or deliberately entertain thoughts."

So now there are 20 of us who don't need to become monks or nuns. We can carry our cloister around with us, rather like a snail who takes home with it - except that our 'home' is deep within.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Will the real Jesus please stand up.

'Will the real Jesus please stand up' is the title of the first session of a Lent course on contemplative prayer that I am running for St.John's Waterloo

The course is a 'journey home' - to a place that is familiar and safe -
“We remember wholeness so readily because we don’t have far to look for it. It is always within us, usually as a vague feeling or memory left over from when we were children. But it is a deeply familiar memory, one you recognize immediately as soon as you feel it again, like coming home after being away a long time. When you are immersed in doing without being centred, it feels like being away from home. And when you reconnect with being, even for a few moments, you know it immediately. You feel like you are at home no matter where you are and what problems you face.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, page 95.)

Or as St. Augustine said, "You have made us and our hearts are restless 'till they find their rest in you."

Home has two doors: one, our physical body (the temple of the Spirit) and two, the present moment (the 'narrow gate')

We looked at the announcement of Jesus's message at the beginning of Mark's Gospel: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel." The good news Jesus was announcing is that the contemplative life is for everyone: the Kingdom is now and it is within and it is about 'repentance' - but how wrong can you be about repentance!

We entered another brief period of silence after which I asked people to look again at the verse but this time to focus on the negative spaces, within and between the letters. This I suggested is repentance; it's a change of focus, of one's field of view, and way of looking at things. A mind shift has taken place which is what Jesus wanted his hearers to understand.

In feedback on this one person who is a graphic designer talked about using gobbledogook when designing a layout so that the designer's brain doesn't focus on the sense of the words but on the pattern of the layout. "The devil is in the detail" she said, and we had great fun with that; the 'devil' undoubtedly confuses the big picture with details! The trick in the contemplative life is not to lose sight of the big picture. Especially don't let the details of my life, who I think I am, blind me to the truth about me which is that I am rooted and grounded in love - and so is everyone else no matter what the external details of their life and behaviour may be.

But when we enter the silence of contemplation what about distractions? Are they the same as 'temptations'? We thought they were. Distractions are always temptations to leave the present moment and the object of meditation is to let the past go (leave the dead to bury their dead) and not anticipate the future (take no thought for tomorrow). It's not that the mind can ever be free of distracting thoughts. The big question is what you do with them. Confession, I suggest, is the basic stance of prayer, i.e. acceptance of whatever is going on in us without judging it as 'good' or 'bad'. Nothing can be effectively dealt with until it is fully acknowledged. Two of the most important words Jesus said were, 'judge not'.

Next week Jill Benet of Contemplative Outreach will be leading us into the art of Centering Prayer.