Tag Archives: yoga meditation

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.

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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.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 8 verses 34 – 37

And so Mark brings us through chapters 7 and 8 (see the previous blog post) to this defining statement of the ministry of Jesus:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life …. will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed what can they give in return for their life?”

I hesitate to add to the torrent of words that has been unleashed over the centuries by this brief statement. It has caused so much pain – I would say unnecessary pain; so much misunderstanding, as indeed Mark has been warning us with the stories he has placed before it in chapters 7 and 8.

Let’s begin with a couple of preliminary points.

First, verses 35/35 use the word ‘life. I prefer the New English Bible here (in spite of its sexist language) because it uses ‘true self’ instead of ‘life’:

“Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake and for the Gospel, that man is safe. What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self?”

Secondly, I would guess that most 21st century Christians no longer think these verses are promoting the idea that it is good to suffer here on earth for the sake of a heavenly reward hereafter when the injustices of this life will be reversed;  surely a view repugnant to everyone except suicide bombers?

There are two ways of thinking about Jesus. You can see both of them in the New Testament. There’s the orthodox picture: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, second Person of the Trinity, Saviour of the world. The second, much less obvious, picture is: Jesus of Nazareth, teacher and prophet in the Wisdom tradition of Judaism. I suspect it is the first picture that so many 21st century people reject or at least find difficult to swallow. It is the second picture which would appeal to those who seek their ‘true self’ and who often pay good money to learn how to meditate or be mindful or do yoga: all skills they ought to get for free if the church had not lost touch with Jesus the Wisdom teacher.

Jesus, the wisdom teacher, is offering us life if we deny self; not ‘true self’, but self. What’s the difference? Gerald May, in his book ‘Will and Spirit’ distinguishes between self and self-image. Self-image is, as another writer puts it, a “paste-up job”. For most of us the paste-job is all we know. If we are asked, who are you? after giving our name, we are likely to reply, ‘well I’m a …..’ and we go on to list perhaps the job we do, the skills we have, the roles we play in public. Some of us might be really honest and reveal something of our darker side: “I’m a recovering alcoholic/depressive person…..” and so on. Some bits of our self-image contain important information but none of it refers to our true self: who we truly are. And it’s difficult to answer the question, “Yes but who are you really?” Frank Lake, a Christian psychiatrist used to say, “I try not to get out of bed in the morning until I have reminded myself that I am a child of God.” The diarist Anais Nin began each day with the mantra, “I am nothing. I have nothing. I want nothing”. It was her way of clearing all the self-image clutter from her mind so that she could begin each day with a clean sheet. You might say that she began each day by denying herself, letting herself be lost in order that her true self might become a little clearer.

But why did Jesus use such strong language here? “Deny yourself and take up your cross”. If self-image is all we think we have, then losing it, letting it go, will feel scary. Nobody likes to say, ‘I’m a nobody’! It feels a bit like dying. That’s why we go for almost anything rather than letting it go: cosmetic surgery, shopping, alcohol (see my blog post for the 25th February, ‘Tradition, tradition’). If I let go of who I think I am then perhaps I really am a nobody. Jesus invites his followers to go through this scary process because he knows it is the only way to life, to our true self. This passage ends with the enigmatic words, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (chapter 9 verse 1). It’s realm we cannot see until we take the risk of letting go.

 

Mark’s Gospel chapter 1 verses 35-39. Moving on.

Pickpockets pounce when, in a busy street, we don’t honour the present moment. We don’t want to be here. The desire to be somewhere else claims our attention.  I am still seething with resentment about that thoughtless person who nearly bumped into me while chattering on their mobile. Or I am anxious about missing the bus and I need to get across the road through lots of traffic. The perfect moment for a pickpocket. There are a million reasons why I often don’t want to be here and now. They are all to do with either the past or the future.

Honouring the present moment is tricky. This morning while practicing my daily routine of yoga/meditation I had ideas about what to write in this post. I was tempted to get up at once and switch on the computer. I tried to let go of these persistent (brilliant – obviously!!) thoughts. They kept on stealing my attention. I really wanted to get to that computer! Honouring the present moment is tricky because it often includes honouring the fact that I am not honouring it! Of course we are  always moving on, that’s life. The question is when and how.

Here in chapter 1 verses 35 – 39 we have Jesus in the process of discerning when to move on:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’

Jesus has been an astounding success in Capernaum and still there’s lots more he could do there, so many needy people. He’s got the time (chronos) but is it the kairos? (see the post for August 13th – ‘The heart of the matter’). He withdraws to a deserted place and prays. The disciples find him and tell him, ‘Everyone is looking for you”. How flattering! Well, certainly I would be flattered anyway. ‘Perhaps I really ought to stay’. Or, ‘I’ve had enough of all these pressing people. I really want to get away’. Or, this job is really boring and the boss is a bully. We can always find reasons for not being where we are. The question is, are they the right ones and, if they are, when is the appropriate time (the kairos) to act on them and leave? It’s a question that can only be answered from a place of profound acceptance of myself, here and now, just as I am, without pretence. What if I get it wrong – as I often do? Then that too is part of the here and now, to be fully acknowledged, fully honoured, before moving on. The time to move on is usually only revealed as we learn how to wait. As T S Eliot says in The Four Quartets, “For the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.” Sometimes we have to wait pretty fast. Thank goodness there is such a thing as speedy waiting!