Tag Archives: Contemplative Christian

A Thorny Problem

My aim throughout this blog is to try and recover the message of Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing comes closer to his authentic voice than the parables. Here, at the beginning of chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel, is the well known parable of the sower.   Thorns are one of the reasons why the seeds don’t grow and I have to admit that, for me, there are several large thorns in the rest of the chapter. Look at the sequence of chapter 13.

  • Verses 1 – 9 the parable of the sower.
  • Verses 10 – 23. The disciples don’t get it so the parable is explained, but would Jesus himself have told parables deliberately to keep people out of the kingdom of God?
  • What’s more, in verses 24 to 30, the parable suggests that those who don’t get it are in for some gruesome punishment.
  • Verses 31 – 33 give us two simple parables, the mustard seed and the yeast, suggesting the way the kingdom of God opens up for us.
  • But then in verses 34 to 43 we’re back with explanations of the parables and more gruesome punishment for those who don’t get it.

It’s true, those early Christians had severe problems. They were confronted by their fellow Jews who not only didn’t get the message of new life offered by Jesus but actually persecuted those ‘heretical deserters’ from the ancient ways of Judaism. I can’t help feeling, though, that Matthew is putting words into the mouth of Jesus that he would not have spoken. In fact he tells us as much in verse 34: “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.” The contrast between the beatitudes of the sermon on the mount and these dire predictions of eternal punishment is too great for me. Fortunately, hidden in this chapter among these thorns, we catch glimpses of the open invitation to enter the kingdom offered by Jesus: the mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price. R S Thomas expresses the truth of these parables in his poem The Bright Field:

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had

treasure in it. I realize now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

 

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

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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:

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.

Matthew’s gospel chapter 8.
So moving on from Matthew’s ‘sermon on the mount’, we come to chapter 8 which begins with:

“When Jesus had come down from the mountain….”

My aim in this blog is to re-discover Jesus the wisdom teacher. I am not trying to write a general commentary on the gospels so the three healing stories that Matthew tells here (chapter 8 verses 1 – 17) are, for me, an interlude. I wonder if Matthew had Moses in mind when he composed these verses. When Moses came down from the mountain on which he had received the ten commandments he was confronted with problems which had developed amongst the Israelites while he was up there for forty days (see Exodus chapter 31:18 and chapter 32). Perhaps Matthew saw the ‘sermon on the mount’ as the new commandment of love and now here’s Jesus as the new Moses responding to the crises he encounters.

Anyway, sticking to my overall plan, I can skip to verses 18 – 22 which include these startling words in response to a scribe who says he wants to follow Jesus:

Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

And to someone described as a disciple who says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus replies:

Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.

Is Jesus being hard hearted here? I think not. I think this is the good news, the gospel, that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God. If the bereaved son or daughter thinks that following Jesus involves dropping all responsibility they have misunderstood the message. The time to follow Jesus is always now. Get that right and all one’s responsibilities take on an entirely new dimension. Elsewhere (Matthew chapter 22) Jesus tells us the parable of guests invited to a banquet who all begin to offer excuses. The crucial message is: I do not necessarily have to change what I am doing. It’s the way I am doing it that is profoundly changed when I have discovered how to follow Jesus. The banquet the guests are refusing to attend (the kingdom of God as it is called in the gospels) is always here and now. If I refuse the invitation I am saying, this is not the way I want to live my life. I am deaf to the message of Jesus, blind to the possibilities that his way of living opens up. No thanks, I’m too busy. I’m more concerned with my future, too burdened with responsibilities to follow you at this moment.

Now, why does the storm on the lake story follow on from the verses I have just been looking at and what about the story after that: the Gadarene demoniacs? I cannot possibly know what the author of Matthew’s gospel was thinking but I assume that he (she?) had reasons for arranging the stories in this particular order. For me personally the sequence makes sense. Jesus tells the grieving disciple to get the funeral arrangements in the right perspective. When the storm swamps the boat he tells his followers to have faith. When the mentally deranged Gadarenes come charging up to him yelling at him, the healing Presence of Jesus brings stillness and calm to them. People who have discovered the ‘Power of Now’, who practice the contemplative way of life, are not exempt from life’s trials and suffering but they are not swamped by them. What goes on in my head can be scary. What goes on around me in the world can sometimes threaten to swamp me. The good news is that the more I practice the way of Jesus the more these events and situations do not disturb the depths of the lake that is me. The surface may be very rough. The deeps are always still.

It’s not what it says on the tin

Beware of false prophets….you will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles. (Matthew chapter 7 verses15-20) 

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Matthew chapter 7 verses 21- 23)

I find Roman Catholic imagery and worship off-putting so I was unsettled when one of my children married a Roman Catholic and became one also. But they and their two children are the most wonderful loving family and I love to spend time in their presence. Then again there are atheists and agnostics who exhibit the loving presence that I aspire to. And of course the same is true of Buddhists, Muslims and any other religious practice you can think of. As Brother Roger of Taize said, “Nothing is really serious except the loss of love.” So the message for me is, don’t judge the contents of the tin by its label. Incidentally, I owe a great deal to Roman Catholic writers, who have opened up for me the path of contemplative prayer and living. I ‘know them by their fruits’.

Reader, if you care to go back to the very first post of this blog you will find there the principles on which I approach the Gospels, especially this from Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch: “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). Suddenly, at the end of today’s two passages you get a sense of the way in which the distinctive original voice of Jesus has been overlaid by the kind of conversation that produced Matthew’s Gospel: “Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you: go away from me you evildoers’.” Here the immediacy of Jesus’ message has been exchanged for a future event called the Kingdom of God from which some people will then be excluded.

It has taken me years to accept that the first Christians were not a perfect bunch! True, they were part of an astonishing transformation of human society. It is also true that, just like us, they struggled to hear and understand the truth that Jesus taught. That is why the Gospels reflect that struggle; sometimes faithfully recording words that Jesus spoke; sometimes making assumptions that have shaped Christian history so that we too can find ourselves struggling to understand. The blog http://earliestchristianity.wordpress.com sheds light on that struggle and is worth looking at if you fancy a more scholarly approach to these questions than I am capable of.

Richard Rohr, one of those Roman Catholic writers I have found helpful, puts these words into the mouth of Jesus, “Don’t worship me. Follow me!” Now there’s a bright light to shine into the mysteries of the New Testament.

If not now, when?

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.  (Matthew chapter 7 verses 13 and 14)

The narrow gate? What did Jesus mean?

I am part of a dispersed community called Contemplative Fire. Most of us live in the United Kingdom, though there are Companions on the Way (as we are called) in Canada and elsewhere on the planet. We commit ourselves to a threefold rhythm of life: A learning journey, crossing thresholds and the pivotal one, on which the first two depend is:

‘Encountering the present moment in quietness’.

I suggest that the narrow gate of which Jesus speaks is precisely this: the present moment. Isn’t this the key to much of his teaching? Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now is a world-wide best seller. There’s nothing new in what he says. Look carefully through the teaching of many Christian saints and sages and we discover that they all say the same thing in many different ways – ‘if not now, when?’ If we wish to discover the abiding Presence that we call God we should stop searching here, there, in the past, in the future. In fact we must simply stop searching. Rather, we must, in the words of the Psalm: Be still and know…..

I’ve been talking about addiction in the last few posts – our addiction to worry, anxiety, fear, resentment, anger and all the afflictions that our minds fill us with. Is this what Jesus calls the wide gate and the easy road? Surely he doesn’t mean that we actually prefer this state of mind? But look around you; look within yourself. It really does appear that we do rather like worrying, being resentful, angry and all the rest of it! Otherwise, why do we persist with such states of mind? Why do our newspapers and televisions successfully appeal to our sense of outrage, dissatisfaction and blame? Perhaps Jesus is right: it appears to us easier to put up with all the pain than to find the narrow gate, pass through and start out on the disciplined road of the present moment.

Even those of us who believe in the power of prayer and seek to practice the presence of God can be hoodwinked. We get upset about something and we think, I must get to church, go to Confession, find a quiet spot, book a session with my therapist, wait for this wait for that. What we often fail to appreciate fully is that, to quote Martin Laird,

God does not know how to be absent.

 This is why searching is pointless. What could be more pointless than looking for something that is already Present? This is why encountering the present moment in quietness is the key. It’s simple but it’s not easy. Given the pressures of our past personal experience and of contemporary life, we all need to keep practicing our spiritual five finger exercises (prayer, meditation, yoga – whatever helps us to excavate the present moment). For some of us the wounds of our past life are so deep seated that we can benefit from the outside support of a sensitive therapist or a spiritual accompanier. For all of us the rhythm of withdrawal/engagement is essential. As we practice, gradually it becomes a state of being that we live within moment by moment, whatever the outward circumstances of our life. Eckhart Tolle says, “If you miss the present step on the journey, you miss your life”. Let’s spell Life with a capital L because that’s what Jesus is inviting us into.

Compassionate action

So, if you have followed me through the last seven blog posts on Matthew’s ‘sermon on the mount’: his skilful summary of Jesus’ teaching, we are ready to take an axe to the roots of our consumerist society. Well, that’s what these next words of Jesus seem to suggest –

“…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Chapter 6 verse 25)

 Monks and nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Those of us who desire to live the way of Jesus in our complex secular lives must find our own interpretations of these vows. I talked about chastity in my last blog post. Some rare and courageous individuals take the vow of poverty quite literally in their daily living – Hindu and Buddhist monks with their begging bowls for example as well as some Christians. The difficulty for them is that they have to rely on the rest of us who do plan ahead.

Looking carefully at verses 25 – 34 of this chapter 6, I do not think those of us who make plans for the week, or month, or even years ahead are excluded by Jesus’ teaching. Last week I heard the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University talking about their research programme. He told us that it has taken the last 8,000 years to achieve a 40% increase in agricultural productivity (No, I have not added a nought by mistake). Given the rapid increase in world population we need a similar 40% increase over the next 30 years. Scientists don’t have much time to help us avert a catastrophe. We can say the same about our response to climate change.

There are, of course, Christians who think the end of the world is a good and inevitable thing that God might bring about in our lifetime. Reading my blog, I think you will guess that I’m not one of them. The teaching of Jesus makes sense whatever we may think about the way the world might end. Notice one little word in verse 32. In the version I use it’s the word ‘strive’. Our consumerist society depends upon striving for the latest fashion, or some newly created take-away food. Jesus says,

“Strive first for the kingdom of God. So do not worry about tomorrow….” 

Notice, it’s not strive only but strive first. Get your priorities right. If you are an activist, be a contemplative activist. Act out of enlightened consciousness, not out of fear, desperation, hatred, contempt for politicians who are ‘getting it wrong’ or any other ‘I’m-right-you-are-wrong’ attitude. A Buddhist might say, listen to the cries of the world and act out of compassion and a Christian can fully embrace that. I am profoundly grateful for all the contemplatives-in-action whose compassionate striving is part of the silent revolution that is this stage of the evolution of human consciousness. They might help us avoid panicky short term solutions.