Friday, November 19, 2010

Is the Cross the victory of love over justice?

I'm sure that most Christians would answer "Yes" to the question. I wonder, however, whether we always grasp what it means.

Somewhere I came across the description of the Crucifixion as a "family matter" within the Trinity. Not having found the original reference, in Moltmann I think, I have spent years coming back to the image: father and son at odds with Sophia mediating - a family like our own so often. On the cross, Jesus continues to be human, to represent the powerless child confronted by the all-powerful father, asserting his freedom. It is the freedom to forgive, against all the dictates of 'natural' justice.

Legend tells us that when Clovis, the king of the Franks, heard for the first time, from Saint Eloi, about the arrest of Jesus in the garden, he drew his sword and call his house knights to ride with him to Jesus' rescue. When we heard this story at school, we knew, even then, that Clovis had got more wrong than simple confusion that the event was long over We may not have articulated it then but the arrest is necessary to the story, to the evolutionary event of the Passion. As Vanstone  outlines in The Stature of Waiting (Darton Longman & Todd. London. 1982. ISBN 0-232-51573-5), Jesus choses to become the object of action rather than the actor - he "hands himself over", joins the victims, the prisoners, the bed-ridden.

The processes that the evangelists describe suggest to me that, purely in legal terms, Pilate was obliged to find Jesus guilty, thus he experiences hearing a verdict which is deserved - if only under the secular law. He is again handed over, to be flogged and to the people's verdict. He was, indeed, rejected and despised.

In the justice of his father, he can claim redress. He does not. He goes against all logic and demands that the Righteous Judge forgive. Traditional sermons present Jesus' "Forgive them" as a challenge to us to forgive but the text is clear: he is challenging the Father. He is going against the judicial view, not simply the legalistic. He even challenges the ethical.

What then do I make of his final 'handing over', his consigning himself to the Father? This, for me, is the most touching moment and the one which truly marks the victory. The 'beloved Son' trusts, unreservedly, the Father's love and, thereby, becomes a channel for that love into all of Creation as its representative.

There is no question of 'substitution', nor of 'paying the price of our indebtedness'. It is love, pure and simple, transformative and, thereby, salvific.

If we, then, are to try share in this transformation for ourselves, which is, surely, the promise of the Resurrection, we have to let go of justice in favour of love. When Saint Paul instructs us not to resort to the courts to settle our disputes, the meaning goes far beyond breaches of contract or, even, retribution for law-breaking. I hear a challenge to forgive and forgive and forgive. After all, seventy times seven may not even be enough times.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Life as Pilgrimage - 1

Have you ever been on a pilgrimage? Not the organised trip to the Holy Land or the annual trek to Walsingham in the company of fellow-pilgrims. I mean the sort that takes you into the unknown. Your destination may seem clear but the way there is across seas and plains in those areas of the map marked "Here be dragons". Perhaps you are the sort of person who has done all the research and sets out, all preparations made, with confidence, light-hearted. Or perhaps, like me, your mind has been so dazzled by the goal that the way there has rather slipped your notice. And coming to the days before departure, we desperately try to foresee all the eventualities of such an undertaking.

This was how it was in the closing days of March 2001. It could so easily have been a well-planned expedition. There had been quite enough time. Particularly when it is realised how many years had led me to the moment when we were sitting in the Kuwait Air 'plane, waiting to take off for Kuwait City and New Delhi at the start of our pilgrimage to meet the Dalai Lama.

All the threads of life appear to weave together as I look through my memories to try and find the first moment that I became aware of the Dalai Lama. It must have been during the 1950s. Probably the first time that I came across any mention of Tibet was in Hergé's Tintin Au Tibet. The occasion of our decision to go to India was a film, Kundun, half a century later and one of the first questions that I asked Dorje, our guide in Dharamshala, was whether it was true that Tibetans stuck out their tongues in greeting: it was almost all that I remembered from Tintin. And, of course, there was Sam Jaffe in Lost Horizon and the lama in Kim.

Another memory is of the cover of another book, Lobsang Rampa's The Third Eye.

I have learned not to mention this book in the company of serious-minded people, particularly Buddhists. To most people, "Lobsang Rampa" was no more than a fraud and perhaps he was. But, to me, at about 14, even with my growing scepticism, I was entranced and not a little horrified. Some years later a girlfriend's father who was a Zen Jew gave me a more measured picture.

It wasn't until the late '70s and early '80s that I began to take meditation seriously. I can clearly remember the first time I experienced 'non-experience', the silence the other side of the inner (and outer) chatter, although I cannot be sure of the year, around 1978, I think. It was as if all the previous experiences of retreats and, particularly the Ignatian 30 days a decade earlier, had burst into blossom.

After that and especially during the times I was working with CF and people with AIDS, I became increasingly aware of both the power and the limitations of a meditation practice.

Buddhism came back into my life from counselling clients. One in particular was a Zen practitioner. It was my habit to discover as much as I could about clients' 'context': their reading, beliefs, musical preferences and so on. I would get them to tell me about them, particularly if they were unknown to me. I would read up and listen in so that I learned their language. As a result, I began to look at Buddhist texts and anything else I could lay my hands on. I was hooked.

During my training as a Spiritual Director, we were invited to find an image for our spiritual journey. My own was a sort of Monopoly board where the squares were people who have influenced or marked me. The dice take me in an apparently random order, from person to person, each with a gift - some good, some less good. In the past 20 years the number of 'random', 'coincidental' encounters with Buddhism and Buddhists has increased. They have reshaped my pilgrim's journey and have been a source of great comfort and challenge.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Field of Reeds

One of the attractions of the Egyptian afterlife was the Field of Reeds (Aaru), the place of bliss if one's heart is no heavier than Ma'at's feather. To get there, the soul has to go through trial and judgment.

In the Book of Exodus, Yhwh parts the Yam Suf to allow the Children of Israel to go forward towards the Promised Land by escaping Pharaoh, his slavery and his 'false gods'. And Yam Suf means "sea of reeds", not Red Sea.

Noticing this coincidence, I am led to reflect that modern archaeology now suggests very strongly that there was no 'exodus' as described in the Bible and that Israel was progressively settled by waves of immigrants from Egypt and elsewhere across centuries, and that there was no single War of Conquest. If this is the historical fact, what, I wonder, do we make of the Exodus story?

If the original writer knew the facts, there must be a subtext and I would suggest that it was written simply to demonstrate Yhwh's victory over 'false gods', not as history. And there is a subtext for Christians too: not about power but about Christ's setting all of humanity free from slavery.

Even the Buddhist mind can find an allegorical lesson about going beyond.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What is 'spirituality'?

Spirituality is a process rather than a state or accumulation of beliefs and practices.

It starts with a collection of concepts and convictions. In Buddhism, for example, the Four Noble Truths and how we understand them Other concepts may also be present, along with presuppositions and prejudices about, say, Ultimate Reality (God, liberation, and so on). Included in this concatenation are beliefs about who 'I' am, how this 'I' relates to others and the world around me and the purpose, if any, of these convictions.

This ensemble lead us to make choices about values, likes and dislikes and our life-style and plan. These choices are then underpinned by supportive practices, leading to our individual response experiences. What is often described as 'spirituality' refers to these practices and experiences. These do not, however, stand alone; they are contingent and dependent on the other loci.

It is these experiences strengthen or challenge our concepts and conviction, to maintain them or to change.

When I was first shown this model, I realised that it can be applied far beyond what is normally deemed 'spiritual'. Indeed, it may be seen as a description of scientific method with experiment and supportive evidence as the supportive practice locus

I am grateful for this model to Sister Ishpriya. Below is the schema she gave us on a study retreat. Whilst it refers specifically to the religious practice and experience, I believe that it has a much wider application.

It is particularly useful when we want to change (or help another to change) because we can see very quickly where we are likely to meet the strongest resistance to change and where the least

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The True Levellers

Years ago, I came across the work of Gerrard Winstanley and the "Diggers" as a result of reading a book called Ringolevio by 'Emmett Grogan'. I was struck by the coincidence that, in 1968, I had given away some 500 books of my library to a school in Weybridge where Winstanley had set up the first Digger community (1649) during the Second Civil War. Searching for more information about this strange character from our attempt to establish 'God's republic', I came across his pamphlet The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men

This extraordinary document is now online but it is its first sentences which really stuck in my head:
"In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning: That one branch of mankind should rule over another."

The notion that creation is a "Common Treasury" and that property 'rights' are a confidence trick practised by the powerful to oppress the powerless chimed with my understanding of reality. Indeed, although I have always been a great fan of the Enlightenment, I had been dubious about the third 'right' proclaimed by John Locke, the 'right to property'. It cannot be a coincidence that, despite the fact that the American Revolution was a revolution by property owners, Jefferson amended this to read "the pursuit of happiness". Winstanley understood that happiness is not a result of ownership because all ownership is an illusion. Even though it wasn't until 1840 that Prudhom declared that "Property is theft", the True Levellers had lived it out, one of the first communities since the Acts of the Apostles to hold everything in common.

Today, we are deeply concerned about the state of our planet, about climate change and about the ecological damage that is increasingly apparent, Winstanley's call to care for our Common Treasury resonates even more loudly.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


"Be still and know..."

Listening today to Something Understood on Radio 4 about the role of ways of knowing other than the rational, I am brought to reflect on reflection as preparation for both activity, including writing, and for meditation.

Saint Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises as we practised them in the novitiate and on retreat, gives a prayer to be said before each period of meditation to purify the intention and one of my earliest Buddhist teachers used to spend preliminary time focusing on intention.There is, however, more to preparation than simply intention, particularly preparation for action and for discursive or visualisation meditation. There is the 'wake up' call to the unconscious processes.

Sometimes I find that music helps to set my rational mind freewheeling, although I will turn it off for meditation time itself. I notice that surgeons (and pathologists) often work to music.

At other times, I will read a short passage over a few times. I used to use Scripture or the sutras but, today, I am much more likely to use poetry or a story (Anthony de Mello is useful) to set mood and tone.

Of course, once the task, be it writing or meditation is under way (under weigh? like a ship), there is no guarantee that the initial tone will persist but that hardly matters. This is just like an athlete warming up. Saint Paul compares the Christian to someone in a race and those of us who have done sport will know the importance of the warm-up session - and, indeed, a cool down afterwards. I have found that a pre- and post-meditation discipline has helped enormously. The addition of prostrations before sitting seems to have enable a greater quiet, although it is harder to practise this when I am in a semi-public place like Emmaus House. My solution is to try to turn up a bout ten minutes before meditation time.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I have posted a long-ish conversation about the encounter between Buddhism and Christianity on my website:

Buddhist-Xtian Synthesis: A Dialogue.
Once again, I start out in the hope that I can break away from my need to respond rather than initiate ideas. Making this part of my daily discipline, perhaps?

This is a memory piece that may start me off. I am describing
moments that remain in memory as "marked with a white stone". It is 1961, we are all around 17 and our philosophy master asks us about freedom. He was returning our essays in which we compared and contrasted Rousseau and Sartre's notions. I shudder, today, to think what trash I wrote - the content? Prothesis, antithesis and synthesis in the approved fashion, they have all have passed into the blank places of my memory. - Did we imagine ourselves free? M. Chambon asked us.
- We are subject to social, parental, school and, for some, religious structures, rules and injunctions. How can we call ourselves free? We are creatures of instinct and biological pressures (17, for God's sake! And sexual intercourse not yet invented). Is any part of our lives free?
The debate lasted nearly the whole two hours, continued through to the next day, in forbidden coffee bars and cluttered bedrooms. No internet and the 'phone rationed but gatherings of small groups. The next day, M. Chambon walked in to the classroom and wrote, in his neat, legible hand, on the blackboard (I can even smell the chalk today):

L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature; mais c’est un roseau pensant. Il ne faut pas que l’univers entier s’arme pour l’écraser: une vapeur, une goutte d’eau, suffit pour le tuer. Mais, quand l’univers l’écraserait, l’homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue, parce qu’il sait qu’il meurt, et l’avantage que l’univers a sur lui, l’univers n’en sait rien.
Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée. C’est de là qu’il nous faut relever et non de l’espace et de la durée, que nous ne saurions remplir. Travaillons donc à bien penser: voilà le principe de la morale ."
(Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1660), fragments 347-348, Éd. Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1976, pp. 1156-1157.)
[My translation:
Humans are reeds, weakest thing in nature; but they are thinking reeds. It does not need the whole universe to crush them; a mist, a drop of water are enough to kill them. Yet even if the universe crushed them humans would be nobler than their killer because they know that they are dying and the universe has no understanding of its advantage.

It is clear, therefore, that the whole of our dignity rests in thinking. That is what we must understand, not space or time, neither of which can satisfy us. Let us work to think well: that is the basis of the good life.]

It is at that time that my own fascination with Christianity (a strange body of belief to a good secularly-educated boy) led me to ask the Catholic priest who came to give after-school catechism lessons: "Should we read books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum?" His answer was that it was OK if they were set by our teachers - an intriguing 'jesuitical' reply, but it did give me pause to reflect on what was meant by the contemporary debate on freedom of conscience. The Pope had called the Second Vatican Council but it had yet to meet, let alone decide anything. We were very excited and exercised by the possibilities.

Over the years, I have encountered both mainstream religions and the sort of esotericism beloved of some, with their churches and lodges. At that time, I was reading Blavatsky, Steiner and Alice Bailey as well as more mainstream, canonical and deutero-canonical Christian stuff. They all have one thing in common: they have an imposable structure, rules and emphasis of loyalty. The same limitations on freedom are imposed by some of the humanisms.

To round off the memories from so long ago, I recall that we were given Voltaire's
Zadig to read with its wonderfully characteristic Voltairian episode with the angel, and to contrast it with the Book of Job. I fear that when I am told to bend the knee before someone else's 'truth' (for their own, specific definition of 'truth'), my "Inner Zadig" pipes up with "But......?" Nevertheless, I also hold to a hope, rather than a belief, a faith perhaps, that there is no such thing in the universe as waste so the time (cumulatively, probably, years) on encounters with faiths, their stories and practices, the baggage that I have acquired and which decorates the temporary mansions of my mind like the objects brought back from my travels, add up to something of use on the path, if only on my own path.