Category Archives: Ground of Being

Liberte. Egalite. Fraternite.

Just occasionally my systematic journey in this blog synchronises with a newsworthy event. In this case the advice in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel is about living according to the Way of Jesus of Nazareth in a world that has startling similarities with the slaughter in Paris last week and the gruesome mayhem perpetrated by jihadists in several other countries. Before going any further I remind myself that more Muslims are killed by jihadists than Christians. I wish to write in solidarity (fraternity, the French might say) with my brothers and sisters of other faiths, these fellow human beings of mine.

I confess my ignorance of the Quran but I believe it speaks of Jesus as a prophet rather than the Saviour of the world. I can live with that! I have spoken elsewhere in this blog of the human tendency to turn a prophet who points us to the truth into The Truth itself. In my (I hope humble) opinion the truth is not a person, it is a Way of being and living. I try to practice the contemplative path and, if asked, I refer to myself not as a Christian contemplative but as a contemplative in the Christian tradition. There are times when I feel I have more in common with a Jewish, a Buddhist, or a Sufi practitioner than with some of my fellow Christians.

Matthew invites us all in chapter 10 of his gospel:

  • to live in this troubled world like sheep among wolves, being wise as serpents and innocent as doves (verse 16)
  • to love our enemies, even if they persecute us (verses 16 – 25)
  • to love the truth more than our human families (verse 37) always provided that we understand truth as a way of living not a set of beliefs or doctrines.
  • to let go of all we think we know about ourselves, especially the thoughts we cling to in the mistaken belief that without them we could not exist (verses 38 and 39)
  • to live with compassion for all human beings because, like us, they are made in the image of God (verses 40 – 42). The virtue of fraternity, enshrined in the French constitution, comes close to that of compassion. It underlies the expression of both liberty and equality as Paul of Tarsus understood when writing to Christians in Corinth. Some of them were offended by fellow believers who felt free to eat meat that had been offered to idols and then sold on the market. Of course their freedom was compatible with the gospel, Paul agreed, but perhaps they should restrict their freedom out of loving sensitivity to the consciences of those who were offended. (1 Corinthians chapter 8)

Amid all the human sin and tragedy a new consciousness is arising on the planet and it is not restricted to any one of the great religions. To be sure, each in its own way has managed to encode the truth, whatever difficulties we in the 21st century might experience in decoding it.

Finally I recommend an article in the Guardian newspaper about Sufism:

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Christmas distractions

This morning at my daily practice of Centering Prayer I was besieged by distractions. They included creative thoughts about writing this post. I was tempted to go and note them down in case I forgot them. I tried to let go of the temptation. Then I was besieged by worries about dementia. If you practice this form of prayer you will recognize what I am describing! The Silence within us is often drowned out by noisy thoughts, even good creative ones. We so easily lose touch with that Presence we call God.

Here is the idea I had while praying. (See, I didn’t forget it!) My purpose in this blog is to recover more of Jesus the wisdom teacher. I began it back in 2013 with this quote:

“Then came Jesus, whose distinctive, original voice I have argued can still be heard through the conversations of his followers which have shaped the Gospel text.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘Silence: a Christian History’ page 219)

Sometimes the conversations of the followers of Jesus are in danger of drowning out his distinctive, original voice. They can even do so with beautiful, creative parables like the nativity stories of Luke and Matthew. For example, the author of Matthew’s gospel has Jewish Christians in mind and his aim is to relate Jesus to Jewish history and tradition. He does it in ways that are sometimes obscure to us. He presents Jesus as a second (better?) Moses. He is very fond of relating his Jesus story to passages in what we Christians call the Old Testament.

Now I have to confess that the idea of Jesus as a second Moses and the details of Jesus birth and childhood are a bit like those distractions I experience in prayer. They can drown out that distinctive voice whose message resonates with 21st century people for whom traditional religion is off-putting. I am pretty familiar with the Bible and it is helpful to see how Jesus uses scriptures he was familiar with. But is not essential for me. I find much more help and inspiration in modern writers and speakers, for example Eckhart Tolle, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr and many, many more who point out to me the Way I should follow. We are in the midst of a profound shift in religious and spiritual consciousness. The miracle is that the teaching of Jesus still has the power to enable that shift to continue. The miracle was that the Gospel writers had collections of the sayings of Jesus to work with and modern scholarship is a great help in discerning when they are using those sources. My purpose in this blog is cautiously to sift out the teaching of Jesus from the ways in which those earliest Christians encoded it. Ultimately (and paradoxically) what can be drowned out is the sound of silence. Within that silence is the Silence of true Being. I believe Jesus was continually pointing to that silent Presence, inviting us to enter into it, there to discover who we truly are.

I’ll continue my sifting of Matthew’s gospel in my next post. Happy New Year.

Christmas interlude

Nine years ago it was – December 2005. In a bookshop here in central London I picked up a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth’. It was one of those apparently random choices that produce an extraordinary Aha! experience. Suddenly I could see clearly what I had been searching for since the 1950s. Books I had read over the years, experiences, fumblings in the dark, all fell into a pattern. “So that’s what it’s all about” was my underlying feeling/thought.

Isn’t this what happened to those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth? Especially the authors of the Gospels? Whether or not they had actually met Jesus in the flesh, things fell into place when they heard his message and reflected on his life. What they had read and pondered over the years before was what we Christians now call the Old Testament. Suddenly in the light of their experience of Jesus, it was alive with startling fresh meaning. ‘So that’s what it means’ must have been their frequent response.

Time and again the Gospel authors weave passages from the Old Testament into their accounts. This year in the approach to Christmas I have been struck as never before by the astonishing creativity of both Luke and Matthew in their nativity stories. Are there any other passages in the whole of literature that have been the source of such a two thousand year stream of artistic and spiritual inspiration as these two?

Might it be one of the gifts of this doubting, skeptical age to accept the liberal scholarly consensus that we are dealing here, with poetic mythical writing, not a factual account? I for one am set free as never before to relish and revel in these stories, allowing them their own artistic integrity.

I must admit that I prefer Luke’s version. He concentrates on the women: more appropriate, don’t you think, for a story about a birth? Matthew is a bit too dark for me, though I can understand why folk feel it’s more appropriate in our present troubled world.

Luke’s story of the angelic messenger to Mary ends with, ‘then the angel departed from her’. After all the commercial hype, that’s what happens on Christmas day, don’t you think? It can feel a bit flat. However, in the midst of whatever happens to you at Christmas and in the coming year may you know the Presence that does not depart.

I’ll be back with my next post on Matthew’s Gospel in the new year.

Know-it-all

Matthew chapter 7 verses 24 to 27:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock…….”

This morning as I sit to write this post it feels as if the rain is falling, the floods are rising and the wind is blowing. I won’t bore you with the personal details; just to say that I am thinking, who am I to be writing stuff about spirituality when I am feeling like this? The other temptation when I am feeling like this is to look around for help. Maybe, I should re-read that book, visit that church to pray, talk to that person ……?

The uncomfortable truth is that I am a ‘know-it-all’ – a phrase normally used in a critical way about bores who think they know everything. But in the spiritual life there does come a point at which being a ‘know-it-all’ is good. Finding yet another inspirational book, or speaker, or retreat centre can become an escape, a failure to act on what I know. What I need to know, or rather to remember, is that my house is built on rock; that ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’; that there is ‘nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God’. This is what I forget too often and, of course, inspirational books and people do help me to remember. However, eventually I have to recognise that getting more knowledge won’t help. I am talking about  head knowledge. What I know in my head has to become stuff that I experience at a gut level, almost literally in my body. I re-member it, re-embody it and that is a process that can only happen from moment to moment. Perhaps this re-membering, this re-embodying, is the narrow gate through which Jesus says we must pass into the kingdom.

When J. S. Bach wrote his cantata ‘Ich habe genug (I have enough) he had in mind the old man Simeon who according to Luke’s Gospel, took the baby Jesus in his arms and said, in effect, ‘now I’m happy to die because I’ve seen all I need to see.’ (Luke 2: 29) You can hear Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the cantata at www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSTDibqXuGo

So, at the end of this series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount you could say, “That’s it. That’s all I need. I have enough.” I could make this my last post for this blog but I think I’ll continue in the hope that I’ll find different ways of saying the same thing which, come to think about it, is probably what Jesus was doing. Words point to the reality but they are not that reality itself. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, ‘Don’t go babbling on’ and why he warned that not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’  enters the kingdom.

Perhaps this from Aldous Huxley’s novel ‘Island’ is a good way to finish a series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount

“….people ought to take their religion warm from the cow, if you see what I mean. Not skimmed or pasteurized or homogenized. Above all not canned in any kind of theological or liturgical container.”

It’s open. Come in!

Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!                                   Matthew chapter 7 verses 7 – 11

William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s, said, “When I pray coincidences happen.” My personal experience verifies the truth of this. Yet it was precisely this experience of ‘answers’ to prayer that undermined my traditional belief in a personal God ‘out there’ somewhere managing the affairs of this world (caricatured as the bearded old man above the skies). Why did this ‘God’ apparently ignore so many requests? There have been times when I wonder if my prayers have an almost geographical range. Blunderbuss requests for peace in Iraq or the poor in Africa have no (immediate) discernable effect, whereas sniper rifle shots at a specific, limited target seem to fall within the Archbishop’s truth. Please note that I speak here very tentatively. In my last post I referred to my unease when this mysterious process becomes the primary focus of religious events from Lourdes pilgrimages to Pentecostal healing services. Most of them are concerned with healing of one sort or another and of course I deeply desire healing: for people I love, for people I hear about in the media. The suffering of the world moves me.

The Archbishop’s point about coincidences can include physical and mental healing. Again, I can verify the truth of this from my own experience but still I find myself in the presence of mystery. Trying to explain it gets us into real trouble, especially the temptation to think that we can manipulate the process for our own selfish ends. (There are warnings about this kind of temptation a few verses after today’s passage and I’ll explore them in my next post.)

This morning in bed I was flooded by a sense of profound peace. What more could I want? There was no point in asking for anything. To do so would have been to superimpose my puny desire on this ineffable mystery. What I personally want seems pointless in the midst of such reality. So, still speaking very tentatively, I read “Ask and it will be given to you; search and you will find……” in the context of the rest of chapters 5 to 7. Apart from physical healing the question arises, how desperate am I to find the narrow gate; to enter the realm of the rule of love; to begin the rehabilitation process for my addiction to anxiety, resentment and all the rest of the mental junk that afflicts us? The good news, the Gospel, is that the door I am knocking at is open. The truth I am looking for, the peace I desire, is already present. As many saints and sages have testified, the God I am looking for has already found me: is and always was present in every fibre of my being. I am simply one beggar telling any other beggar who might be interested, where I have found bread.

Salt and light

Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5 verses 13-16

How did Jesus read the scriptures (what we Christians now call the Old Testament)? The answer must surely be: with an entirely fresh and startling (not to say revolutionary) insight. There are clues, for example in Luke’s gospel 4: 14-21 when Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue and comments on the passage. Or think of Psalm 37 verse 34: “Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land,” and compare that with, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”

So what are we to make of, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil….” (verses 17 – 20). Jesus is inviting us, not into an ever stricter legalistic approach; he’s saying make the shift from your head to your heart, see into the heart of things. In other words, repent, that is enter into an entirely new and revolutionary way of being in the world. When we make this shift, this change of consciousness, we become those who are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

That’s why those who make this shift are blessed. They (we) become part of a much wider shift in human consciousness, a river you might say, that is sometimes little more than a trickle, sometimes a broad steady flow. It is not confined to any one religious tradition. In my tradition today some call it emergent Christianity.

The collection of pithy sayings we call the Sermon on the Mount explores some practical consequences of this shift in consciousness. Whether or not Jesus actually uttered them in this order as one sermon doesn’t matter. What really matters is to read them as clues to what happens when we discover who we truly are. Of course they often show us how we have forgotten who we truly are; when it comes to anger, for example, or our ‘enemies’. The good news, the gospel, that also emerges in these chapters of Matthew’s Gospel is that failure is always an opportunity, an invitation to return home to that centre and ground of our being. More on the sermon on the mount next time.

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.

No ego – no problem

Mark’s Gospel Chapter 9 verses 33 – 37 & 38 – 41

‘No ego – no problem’, goes the Buddhist saying. There is a problem however: we’ve all got an ego! So how do we deal with it? The teaching and life of Jesus give us lots of clues: for example, in the next few sections of chapter nine as Mark builds up to the climax of his gospel.

All three of the synoptic gospel writers give us stories of Jesus and children. Here in verses 33 to 37 we have the disciples’ egos arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus, his arms around a child, tells them:

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

I don’t know about the place where you live, but here in London UK almost all public statues of men demonstrate their powerful egos. I know of only one place in Europe where you will find a statue of a man being gentle. Pestalozzi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Heinrich_Pestalozzi) stands in the centre of Zurich with his arms around a child – surely a reference to the next words in this story of Mark’s:

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Verse 37)

Our egos like to compare themselves with others. They can easily feel threatened by what they see. Either, they feel better than that other person, or they feel worse. Either way, there’s a problem for the ego. Notice, I keep referring to the ego in the third person. That’s because the good news is that fundamentally we are not our egos. We are all human beings in the image of God. That’s the reality underneath all the shinanakins the ego gets up to.

Verses 38 – 41 reveal the disciples’ egos at work again. They say to Jesus:

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

‘Not one of us’, is a favourite ego attitude. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by, ‘not one of us’!! Nothing strengthens the ego more than being right and making other people wrong. Egos are blind. They cannot see through to the deep reality about every human being on the planet. God is the very ground of our being.

The next section (verses 41 – 49) tells us how seriously Jesus wants us to take the problem of the ego. All right, so the language is over the top for modern readers but maybe that was Jesus’ startling way of saying, wake up; pay attention; this really matters.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 4 – Storm on the Lake

A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the  boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion (verses 37/8)

Google ‘storm on the lake’ and you find at least a dozen famous artists whose imagination has been caught by this story. (I wish I could reproduce one here but I haven’t worked out how to do that yet!)

Everyone in the boat is terrified but there is Jesus – asleep amid all the chaos. How could experienced fishermen get themselves into such a state? They must have been used to the turbulent winds which suddenly spring up on that lake. So what is going on here? Well, take a look at Psalm 107: 23 – 30 (and Psalms 18:16; 69:1-3;  77: 16 & 19;  89:9;  93:4). There you have it! This is a story about the Presence of God; a Presence deep within every one of us even when things are going seriously wrong. It must have been obvious to those around Jesus: that utter stillness of real, moment by moment Presence which is also dynamic energy.

Notice, I said a Presence deep within every one of us. I know we easily forget it when things go wrong, especially if we haven’t been practicing our gardening. Gardening?!! See my previous blog post on the parable of the sower.

It’s not that there are no storms once we have learned how to rest in that Presence. Martin Laird, in his book ‘Into The Silent Land’, has a moving account of a drug addict who has learnt how to cope with his craving through the practice of the stillness of contemplative prayer. He comments, “Through his own journey of prayer, struggle, vulnerability, and community, he has glimpsed, however briefly, that precious gateway into the silent land. His struggles have not gone away, but he struggles less with his struggle.”

Charles Wesley must have had this storm on the lake story in mind when he wrote his famous hymn,

Jesu lover of my soul
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high;

Several years before Mark wrote his Gospel, Paul of Tarsus had written his letter to Christians in Rome. In chapter 8 he wrote:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God….

If you are not convinced try reading Martin Laird’s ‘Into The Silent Land’ or ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 3. Who am I?

‘Mark’ (whoever he was) is a skilful writer. He has a plan. The stories he gives us are meant to fit together. It often helps to read a whole chapter in one go. That way we can get his drift and begin to understand what he is telling us about Jesus.

Chapter 3 is about people who just don’t get what Jesus is about, even his family. At the end of the chapter, Mark gives us a strong hint about how to get it – how to really ‘see’ Jesus.

The chapter begins in a synagogue with people who don’t see. Or rather they only see what they want to see. They’ve made up their minds and are watching, waiting to pounce if Jesus puts a foot wrong, breaks the rules….

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent…..

Mark has just given us the story about new wine bursting old wineskins (see my previous blog post). Here’s the new wine of Presence and love overriding religious rules.  As Brother Roger of Taize said, “Nothing is really serious except the loss of love.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but ‘they’ can sometimes be the critical voices in my head which are watching to see if people are going break the rules. I mean, I’ve got standards haven’t I, and I think people ought to live up to my standards! The voice in my head can be lightening quick with criticism of others (and incidentally of myself when I fail to live up to my own standards). Like those watching Jesus in the synagogue, I can be afraid of the reckless, outrageous, healing  abundance of Compassionate Presence.

Jump for a moment to verse 21:

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him,  for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebub, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.’

The gossip is upsetting Jesus’ family. It’s serious: much more serious than not keeping the religious rules. So Mark follows this with a comment about the stark danger of cynicism, of a blindness so absolute that it is impossible to see compassion and love when it is staring you in the face.

….whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never receive forgiveness….

Then comes Mark’s punchline story.

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting round him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’ Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

Some time before Mark wrote his Gospel, Paul of Tarsus had written a letter to Christians in Galatia:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Our sexual orientation, the circumstances of our life (whether inherited or adopted), the roles we play – father, mother, business person, social reformer, etc. etc. – are all an important part of living but they are all secondary to the essence of who we are.  To follow the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth is to discover this profound truth about ourselves: we are human beings-in-communion, with God, and with the whole of creation. Discovering the will of God, as Jesus puts it, is not a question of, ‘Right, this is what I have to do next.’ It is the startling discovery that – to quote Irenaeus, an early Bishop – ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive.’