Monthly Archives: July 2014

The light dawns

Matthew chapter 4 verses 12 to 17.
Still following Mark’s general pattern, Matthew now comes to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He is fond of introducing ‘Old Testament’ quotations by way of making his point. Here he gives us a passage from Isaiah:

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’

I am reminded of a little liturgical piece. (I can’t trace its origin – can anyone help?) The question is asked

How will I know when the dawn breaks?

And each time there’s a different answer:

You will see through to the innocence of others….
You will move in the world more freely…..
You will notice yourself more clearly…..
You will exist in the world more generously…..
You will suffer in the world more lightly…..
When you accept the night as a friend, the dawn has already broken…..

In verse 17 Matthew follows Mark with Jesus’ proclamation:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
I dealt in detail with this crucial summary of Jesus’ teaching in one of my earliest blog posts.  See The Heart of the Matter on Mark’s Gospel, chapter 1 verses 14 & 15

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One more thing about temptation

I can’t resist including this verse from John Donne’s lovely poem, ‘Sweetest love, I do not goe…’. He compresses into this one verse our capacity to try and hang on to thoughts and experiences we label ‘good’. We always fail of course, and the second half of the verse expresses our skill at feeding and hanging on to thoughts and experiences we label ‘bad’.

O how feeble is mans power,

That if good fortune fall,

Cannot abide another houre,

Nor a lost houre recall!

But come bad chance,

And wee joyne to’it our strength,

And wee teach it art and length,

It selfe o’r us to’advance.

As we shall discover in the next few weeks, Jesus teaches in the sermon on the mount that letting go of thoughts and experiences (whether we label them good or bad) is the key to the kingdom: a key which lies in our hands, not Peter’s.

 

 

How to resist temptation – DON’T!

Matthew chapter 4 verses 1 – 11

Did Jesus win the battle with Satan when he was tempted in the desert? No he didn’t. Not if you think of dealing with temptation as the kind of warfare so much in the news. To get nearer the truth we must borrow from Japanese martial arts techniques. Here strength is not met with opposing strength but with a cunning yielding that uses the opponent’s physical impetus. By going with the flow of the assailant’s attack he is taken off balance and floored. Most of us know from experience that resisting temptation, fighting it, seems only to increase its power. We lose the battle too often and get discouraged. If you find the image of ‘spiritual warfare’ helpful, think less of nuclear strikes and more of ju jitsu.

Yet again we find hints, hidden gems suggesting this approach, in the Christian contemplative tradition. The anonymous author of the 14th century spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, (one of the earliest books written in the then emerging English language) speaks of ‘looking over the shoulder’ of temptations. Thomas Keating http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Keating is an American monk who has helped to recover this ancient Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. Using The Cloud of Unknowing he advises us to welcome temptation. Each distraction, every tempting thought is an opportunity to return to ‘the Presence at the heart of the universe that therefore is at the heart of each one of us,’ (to use the words with which I ended my previous blog post). With others Fr. Keating developed Centering Prayer – a 21st century adaptation of the approach adopted in The Cloud of Unknowing. In designated times of contemplative prayer the advice is to remember the four ‘R’s:

Resist no thought.

Retain no thought.

React emotionally to no thought.

Return ever so gently to the sacred word (a Christian version of what Buddhists would call a mantra).

We have all forgotten who we are. Fr. Keating suggests that we are all the victims of ‘programmes for happiness’, devices designed to prop up who we think we are – the false self. Happiness, we fondly imagine, depends upon us satisfying three sets of needs:

Power/control

Security/survival

Esteem affection.

I suggest that these three pairs of needs correspond to the three temptations in Matthew’s story of Jesus in the desert.

Which of these is uppermost for each of us depends on our unique history and make-up as well as the demands of each present situation. Spiritual ‘warfare’ is mostly a patient training (like attending a martial arts class) to learn how to spot our own personal version of these programmes for happiness. With practice we learn to see the temptation coming and welcome it as yet another opportunity to return to the truth about who we are. So, the advice goes: temptation? Bring it on! It’s a reminder to return to that Presence at the centre of our being that is also the centre of the universe.

You can read an extended exploration of all this in Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, chapter 9 http://www.contemplative.org/books.html or in Thomas Keating’s book, Invitation to Love http://www.amazon.com/Invitation-Love-The-Christian-Contemplation/dp/082640698X

Matthew’s Gospel

So far in this blog the focus has been Mark’s Gospel. Now it’s time to turn to Matthew. The author of this gospel had a copy of Mark and borrowed passages from it. Perhaps he had a more strongly Jewish background. Although he follows Mark’s general pattern, he expands it a lot, usually with Jewish Christian readers in mind. Some scholars suggest Matthew mirrored the Pentateuch (the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament) with his own five sections:

  1. The Sermon on the Mount. Chapters 5, 6 and 7
  2. Instructions for the twelve Apostles. Chapters 9 verse 35 to 10 verse 42.
  3. Parables. Chapter 13.
  4. Community regulations. Chapter 18.
  5. Condemnations and judgements. Chapters 23, 24 and 25.

There’s a wrap-up verse or two, the scholars suggest, at the end of each of these sections: Chapters 7 verses 28-29; 11 verse 1; 13 verse 53; 19 verse 1; and 26 verses 1-2.

So, focusing on Jesus as a Wisdom Teacher, the elusive Jesus of Nazareth (please see my very first blog post for this approach) we start with John the Baptist in chapter 3 who had an important influence on Jesus. John baptises Jesus and it’s clearly a profound experience for him (for Jesus, I mean). Following Mark here, Matthew goes straight on to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in chapter 4 verses 1 to 11. He expands Mark’s terse account (Mark chapter 1 verses 12 and 13) in a way which later Christians found helpful as they searched in the third and fourth centuries for clues about the spirituality of Jesus. These ‘desert fathers’ as they are called (though women were probably involved as well) had gone into the Egyptian desert to try and recover the essence of Christian spirituality. They spotted that Jesus dealt with temptation by using verses of scripture. Remember, no one was actually there in the desert with Jesus so he must have taught his followers this technique for coping with temptation.

You don’t believe in the devil? Neither do I but sometimes it feels as if what goes on in my mind is part of a deliberate policy to unsettle me! Perhaps Matthew did believe in the devil. It doesn’t matter. The point is that temptation is taken seriously here in chapter 4. “If you are the Son of God…..” The lure of the first two temptations is, ‘so you think you have a calling? think you’re someone special do you? Well then, surely you should have these special powers’. On holiday recently I found myself thinking, ‘what’s the point of all my meditating when it doesn’t make me special? All these people around me on this lovely sunny Greek island seem quite happy without all the spiritual stuff that I try to practice. Surely I ought to stand out from the crowd?’ But, what if I stop expecting anything special? What if I carry on with my daily spiritual routine without any expectation? What if I just try to be present, to live each moment as it comes, without foresight, without forethought? Hmm! Jesus had something to say about that kind of attitude in what we call the sermon on the mount, later in this Gospel. 

“All these I will give you……” This, the third temptation, is still surprisingly relevant to me, even in my ninth decade. I can still find myself regretting my lack of achievement, feeling I should have ‘made it’ in some way; or that I haven’t been recognized enough. This is the temptation to enter the kingdom of ego and pursue power, profit and reputation at the expense of truth. Of course younger people should exercise power, create profitable businesses, be successful politicians. Without all this human society can hardly function. The temptation however is to lose sight of the truth about who we are, to forget our essential vulnerability, to lose touch with the still, silent, immense Presence at the heart of the universe that therefore is at the heart of each one of us. More on these temptations in my next blog post in about a week’s time.