Thursday, 29 September 2011

Mental ecology

Stuff lies around in our brains: the detritus of years of experience including the pain – perhaps especially the pain. Do you, like me, find it more difficult to access pleasant memories? I have to make an effort to recall them. The painful ones keep popping up, unwanted, like adverts on the websites I visit. If advertisers could imitate our brains they would love it. They do their best to engage our emotions but that’s nothing compared with the way our brains flash up the emotions that went with the experience we are unwillingly recalling. In this week’s St. John’s Waterloo ‘Beyond Words’ group we pondered verses 4 – 8 of chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
“The peace of God which is beyond all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts .....”
Distracting thoughts are part of the human condition and the contemplative tradition in most major religions has developed ways of dealing with the problem. For most people the word ‘mantra’ goes with yogis or Buddhists. The ancient Christian tradition of a ‘prayer word’ is less well known but performs exactly the same function: it gives the memory recalling part of the brain something to do while we get on with the task of going ‘beyond words’ into that silent land of Presence and peace which passes our understanding. Writers on contemplative prayer advise the use of just one word or at most a short phrase. Anything else will provide food for the hungry brain to seize and worry with like a dog with a bone. It helps, in my experience, if the repetition of one’s prayer word can be coordinated with the breath, for example repeating it mentally on each out-breath. Gradually, with persistent practice, the ecology of our mental landscape is purified and calmed.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Found in human form

The quotation in the title above is from Paul's letter to the Philippians (chapter 2, verses 5-9)
Let the same mind be in you that was in in Christ Jesus
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross.
This is one of the readings set for Church of England worship next Sunday. We used it as a basis for our meditation at St. John's, Waterloo contemplative prayer group on Wednesday, this week, here in central London.

We use a meditation method known as 'lectio divina' (Latin for sacred reading) borrowed from ancient Christian monastic practice. A short passage (usually, but not exclusively, from the Bible) is read aloud very slowly. A short silence follows before the passage is read aloud again, slowly. Following this second reading each person is free to drop in to the communal silence a word or short phrase from the passage which is resonating with them. The passage is read a third time, slowly and we enter a longer period of silence. This is not an intellectual excercise; not a time for discussion or airing doubts or problems about the passage. This is reading with the heart, or allowing the words to seep into the synapses. There is no discussion: no one asks, 'why did you choose that word?' The mood is one of trust and openess.

For two people in our group the resonating phrase was, 'being found in human form'. It was not the phrase which struck me personally but it has stayed with me since. There in the second line of the passage are the words, 'though he was in the form of God'. So here is 'the form of God' ....'found in human form'. Here, in the headwaters of Christianity, is the shocking idea that the place to look for God is in another human being and therefore even more shockingly by implication - in myself. Presumably, that's why Paul begins this passage, 'Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus'. How did the Christian church manage to bury this insight under such a weight of dogma that for centuries God has seemed to be so far from us humans? Fortunately it was never completely buried. Throughout the centuries there have been those who have tried to express this conviction that the Presence of God is what fundamentally defines us.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Why are you here?

Why are you here? That's the question we asked ourselves at last night's first meeting of the autumn series of the St. John's, Waterloo, meditation/contemplative prayer group. It was the question faced by that Old Testament prophet, Elijah.
Elijah's in real trouble – Jezebel threatens to kill him. He flees into the desert, sits down under a bush and wishes he was dead. But something happens while he sleeps: according to the story an angel touches him and says, ‘have something to eat’; so he does but then promptly lies down to sleep again. But this dratted, insistent angel prods him and urges him to travel even further into the wilderness. This time it’s a forty day journey to the sacred mountain, Horeb. Here he finds a cave to spend the night in. The question comes, ‘Why are you here, Elijah?’, and he pours out his troubles. ‘Israel’s in a mess and I have been trying very hard to put it right. I’m the only one left who knows what’s right and my life’s in danger’. Suddenly there’s a hurricane. Then there’s an earthquake. Then .... nothing.... silence.... no! wait! ... a still small voice! After that the future suddenly looks hopeful once more. There are things to be done: not grand schemes but quite specific tasks.

So, why are we here in this group, in Waterloo, central London? We have each come from somewhere with desires, needs, fears, grand schemes which don’t appear to be working out. Something is prodding us, something that won’t let us rest. What? enter this wilderness?! How’s that going to help?. The world’s in a mess and I really ought to be part of something that will help to put it right: you know, something really dramatic, earth shattering.

Wait. Keep on waiting in the depths of this silence. Let go, be still. The next step will become clear: something quite specific, just for today.

(Later in our meeting we meditated on Paul's great hymn in his letter to the Philippians. I'll say something about that tomorrow.)

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Men only?

A pretty young woman passes and, even at my age, I notice her figure. I can understand why the fourth century monks in the Egyptian desert stressed the need to keep away from women and why, so I am told, a 21st monastery somewhere won’t even have hens on the premises. What do they do for eggs, I wonder?! I also wonder if the Sermon on the Mount was intended only for men? “If a man looks on a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And: “If a man divorces his wife for any cause other than unchastity he involves her in adultery.” There are no injunctions intended specifically for women in this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.

With, I hope, great respect to those 4th century desert fathers (and any egg-less 21st century monks) I think they got it wrong. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, defined chastity as “the total orientation of one’s life towards a goal.” The goal is what Jesus called the Kingdom of God: that state of being in which the presence of God is discovered in everything and everyone. With practice one learns to discern that Presence in the most unlikely places and people. I learn to see that black hoodie, that begging homeless person, that raucous half drunk teenager as a bearer of the Presence, part of the kingdom of God. I do so in spite of my instinctive reaction. I may not like their mode of dress or their behaviour but I have the capacity to see beyond what is being presented to my eyes.

Human biology being what it is I have an instinctive male reaction to a pretty woman. But beauty must be a problem for the bearer of it because, like being drunk or homeless or behaving outrageously, it can hide the real person inside. To enter the kingdom is to find myself in that realm where the Presence is discernable. The Gospels record several occasions when Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” Do I see the real person, a bearer (just like me) of the Presence? Thank goodness I don’t need to find a desert place miles from the nearest female.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Spaced out.

I wonder what Richard Dawkins would make of me, a spiritual person, finding some of his writing inspiring? Yesterday’s Times science magazine, ‘Eureka', has extracts from his latest book, ‘The Magic of Reality’. He writes,
“Suppose we represent the nucleus of each carbon atom in the [diamond] crystal by a football, with electrons in orbit around it. On this scale the neighbouring footballs in the diamond would be more than 15km away.” “But,” he goes on, “each electron on our football scale, is much smaller than a gnat, and these miniature gnats are themselves several kilometres away from the footballs they are flying around.”

We human beings, likewise, are mostly empty space. So why can't we walk through walls? Ah - this is where Dawkins talks about 'forces' which I don't understand. I tell my daughter (a geo-physicist) about this article and she responds that if the whole human race were to be crushed together so that all the atomic space was squeezed out, the resultant mass would be no larger than a hazel nut. And, she reminds me, it was a hazel nut that Julian of Norwich imagined held in the palm of God’s hand. My daughter is a poet as well as a scientist. We share a lack of belief in God but we both manage to combine it with the kind of trust in the universe which Julian’s image of the hazel nut expresses. Neither of us can bring ourselves to adopt the description ‘atheist': too aggressive, while 'agnostic' is a bit wishy-washy. I prefer Richard Kearney’s term ‘anatheist’. (See his book ‘Anatheism') But why did William Blake write, "every stone breathes forth its joy..."? or why did David Waggoner write, "Stand still, the forest knows you are here..."? or why do so many speak of an 'atmosphere' which some places and buildings seem to exude? Maybe Richard Dawkins is so busy being an evangelical atheist that he doesn't have time to stop and appreciate what contemplatives and mystics of many religions have known about this universe all along.