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Like Ramadan, the Christian season of Lent offers the practitioners of their faith an opportunity with many graces, to interiorize their experience of the mysteries. We do this by purifying and simplifying our minds as well as our ordinary lives. It is a time to accept that the spiritual is less an ideal than the real. It is about healing and wholeness rather than a perfectionism which dangerously feeds rather than diminishes the ego. About moderation rather than extremes.
It can be a stimulus and refreshment to take on new spiritual disciplines. It can also be a risk. Are they taken on as techniques that we can master to cajole or even force God to reward us? Are they ways of reprimanding ourselves for our weaknesses in a ways that secretly makes us more proud rather than leading to the humility that is self-knowledge?
This is why Jesus insisted that his disciples don’t make a show of their fasting – especially to themselves. The ego is always an appreciative audience of our spiritual ambitions. To avoid this pitfall we draw on the wisdom tradition that also informed the teaching of Jesus himself. With discrete fasting there is also the complementary practice of almsgiving. In the first we reduce our own consumption. In the other we expand our generosity to others in need.
In the midst of our global economic crisis fasting may seem inevitable. People will spend less because they have less to spend. But as the poor always suffer most in such times it is important also to give more. We should not ‘spiritualise’ this away in order to justify possessiveness and self-interest. But also we should understand that reducing our consumption applies to more than what we buy or eat. It may also mean how much we unmindfully take in through our addiction to the media and entertainment. How much additional time we give to meditation and lectio. A day without television, a morning without the radio. Almsgiving, too, covers not only material goods but also the time, care and loving attention we give to others. An extra session with someone we know needs to be heard. A moment to notice with appreciation a lonely person.
The best way to balance one’s spiritual life and daily life – and make them more harmonious - is to be faithful and generous in the time we give to meditation each morning and evening. It is easy to avoid this interior fasting and almsgiving – meditation is both a reduction and an expansion – by dramatizing external practices. We look for ways to wriggle off the hook of the true ascesis. John Main helps us understand this when he says that meditation is the essential ascecis of the spiritual life.
Ascesis means not self-denial or the infliction of discomfort. It means, literally, ‘exercise’ or training. If we use the coming forty days to get into better shape we will better celebrate the Easter mysteries. If we happily embrace this time of the desert above all by being faithful to its interior silence and stillness we will better see that the desert is not deserted. It is filled. It is not a diversion from the Kingdom but its true portal.
With much love
With the determination of the born multi-tasker not to let anything drop Maria declined our offer to postpone the visit. In addition to being a wife and mother and coordinator of the meditation groups she was the principal carer for her dying mother. All her children were warmly committed to the care also and willingly took on additional times to sit with their grandmother who had lain in bed at their home for several months. She was not in pain or distress but slept deeply or drifted quietly in and out of consciousness day and night. Her existence seemed already to have migrated to a different plane of consciousness without fully leaving the one we familiarly know as life, the daily life filled with activity, thought and the preoccupying sense of time, of keeping appointments, enjoying mealtimes and making plans.
Even as we followed the schedule of the visit, talks and meetings, a retreat day and sessions with schoolchildren, we received frequent reports about the dying woman. They were reports of no change, all is well, she is peaceful, reassuring to Maria especially as she placed herself more fully in the plane of daily life. Yet in reality she was evidently not separated from the presence of her mother and the peculiar peace and patient expectancy that the process of dying well can silently create.
On our last and quite full day Maria asked us to her home for dinner, at a Latin hour, with her family and some supportive clergy. We tried politely but unsuccessfully to decline. I should have remembered that the things we try to avoid frequently turn out to be the ones we never forget. So, when we were feeling ready for bed we found ourselves instead sitting with a large and very energetic and energizing group around a very well laden table.
As the end of the feast, as we were preparing to leave, Maria asked me to visit and pray with her mother. I was embarrassed to realize that I had sat through the meal quite forgetful of the dying woman in the same house and I was further moved when I discovered that her room was right next to the one where we had been dining so merrily. As we stepped into it we entered the atmosphere that universally accompanies the last phases of life, surprisingly similar to the expectancy and uncertainty of an approaching birth. It is a liminal experience, here and there at the same time, a frontier moment. Maria's mother lay in a neat, well-made bed that spoke of the loving attention that surrounded her, her head resting peacefully on a pillow, not looking at all sick or restless. She was breathing gently and calmly and her presence filled the room in an egoless way. Like the divine presence it made no demands, or a total demand, and so felt both irresistible and unthreatening.
Maria and I sat beside her and meditated silently for some time. I then prayed in words and we were silent again. She showed no sign of responding to our presence except through a deepening sense of her presence. It was communication in silence, the communication that is silence. After a while we stood up to leave. I blessed the dying woman and Maria led the way out of the room. As I moved away from the bed I looked at her mother and saw that her eyes were open looking directly at me. A full gaze of an abyss filled with light. Later one might call it a blessing. I called Maria back but her mother's eyes were closed again. Intuitively we sat down once more, not with any purpose or intention, just to be there and, in the full sense of the phrase, to see what was happening. It was a moment, rare in life, of full certainty that we were in the right place at the right time and had nothing to do except to be present. The dying woman continued to breathe gently but the sensation of an imminent change grew stronger. After a time her respiration changed, she seemed to gasp for breath one last time and then effortlessly gave up the instinct to survive and surrendered fully into another kind of life. Her last breath seemed to throw open a dimension of unrepeatable stillness, a sacred finality that at that instant consumed all sadness and loss in a total consummation.
The only moment of life that fully matches the drama of birth had come to pass. As at levels of deep prayer feeling and thought were temporarily irrelevant. Peace and joy were not identifiable experiences but simply accidental aspects of a reality that spoke for and of itself alone. Maria's mother had died. Maria had lost her mother.
With much love
Spring Message 2009
Dear Group Leaders and Friends, Fr Laurence has been visiting Fiji and the Solomon islands over the past weeks. Fr Denis Mahoney the Fijian coordinator described Fr Laurence's arrival where he was given a traditional Fijian welcome with a kava ceremony and presented with a chief's lei and fans.There were 500 at some of the talks and Fr Laurence meditated with children at one of the many schools where meditation has been introduced. On his arrival in Honiara the capital of the Solomon Islands Fr Laurence was crowned with flowers and welcomed with song. He later visited the outer islands by canoe to introduce meditation. We look forward to reading news of fr Laurence's visits to these communities on his return.
From the Solomon Islands Fr Laurence flew to Indonesia where Dr Hendra Widjaja and the council have planned a varied programme in Semarang, Yogyakarta, and Klaten. In Kanisius Fr Laurence will launch translations of Prayer of the Priest, My Happy Heart and Christian Meditation as well as Margaret Rizza's CDs and the DVD Journey of Meditation. The tour will conclude in Jakarta where Fr Laurence will give a talk at Atma Jaya University on The Quiet Mind “Meditation for Busy People, a press interview and a session for teachers and parents on introducing meditation to children.
At the end of February Fr Laurence will lead a retreat weekend at Alfragide near Lisbon with the theme What does Holiness mean for us today? The Portuguese coordinator Maria Cristina Guedes de Sousa has arranged an interreligious dialogue with Fr Laurence, Buddhist and Muslim leaders on the theme: Changing the World, Changing Yourself: Contemplation Today.
In Ireland there will be an Easter retreat with Fr Laurence on Bere Island April 6 to Easter Sunday April 12. There will be talks by Fr Laurence, meditation, Easter liturgies with the island people and time for solitude, walks and reading. All are invited though some sessions will be particularly addressed to younger people (20-45). For details and registration click here or email email@example.com
Many of you commented on the youtube videos in my last email and some sent the link to younger family members and friends.Â Five short talks by Fr Laurence have been added which I am sure will interest all- Meditation, Jesus, Martha and Mary, Attention and The Kingdom. Click on link. http://uk.youtube.com/user/thewayofpeace
Congratulations to Fr Joe Periera the National Coordinator in India and Director of the Kripa Foundation, who was awarded the Presidential honour of Padma Shri in the Republic Honours list for his work with chemically dependent and HIV affected persons.
Australia over the past weeks has been suffering from horrific bushfires in Victoria as well as disastrous flooding in North Queensland. 208 lives were lost in the firestorms and 2000 homes destroyed - and the bushfires continue to threaten townships. Australia will have a National day of mourning on Sunday. Please hold our communities who have suffered such terrible losses in your prayers.
Fr Laurence's moving Tablet column 'Maria's mother', below, will touch you deeply as he reflects on the sacred final moments of a much loved mother in the midst of busy family life.
As we approach Lent we are reminded of Fr John Main's words - Because we observe Lent in the dawn light of Easter it is a time of joy. The Paschal mystery is completed and we enter into it through the Sprit, preparing ourselves with the silence and stillness of our meditation.
Love and blessings Pauline
Fresco from Sacro Speco, Cave of St Benedict, Italy
Dearest Friends, When we celebrated mass and meditated at the parish church of Fond des Blancs in Haiti two weeks ago I promised the local people who filled the church that we would all be with them in spirit during the Christmas celebrations. Their small town is fortunate to host the hospital of the St Boniface Foundation who were organizing the pilgrimage I was making to this, on of the poorest countries in the world, with a small group of American meditators. As at the schools, colleges, nursing school and other churches where I spoke our group was able collectively to share the gift of meditation. We found a very grateful reception of the gift. Yesterday I was pleased to hear from Dr Inobert, a meditator, pediatrician and our coordinator in Haiti, that on Thursday twenty people came to the first meeting of the new weekly Christian meditation group in Fond des Blancs.
For us, even in the financially challenged first world today, Christmas is a time of conflicting values. The spiritual meaning of the feast, the deep reflection on its interior meaning, family and social gatherings and the sheer frenzy of the consumer culture in this shopping season combine to make a contemplative Christmas a big challenge to most people. With our present anxieties about the global economy it may help us to keep Christmas spiritual by reflecting on what poverty means.
The birth of Jesus is set in poverty (no room at the inn, the shepherds) and marginality (exile, the flight into Egypt). From the beginning Jesus, the Word made flesh, illustrates, humanly, the divine self-emptying that is the mystery of the Incarnation. Extreme, degrading physical poverty as found in Haiti is no virtue. It is usually the result of oppression and injustice. But poverty is the privileged metaphor for the quality of soul we need to cultivate if we are to enter the Kingdom, to know the God who knows us with such passionate compassion. Economically poverty is relative. In the UK it refers to those who live at less than 60% of the average income. In Haiti this poverty would be prosperity indeed. But poverty of spirit is absolute and universal. Rich and poor, black and white, poverty of spirit is the primary beatitude.
To calculate our degree of poverty of spirit we have only to evaluate our desire. What are we desiring and how are we desiring it? Usually the more we desire the less poor in spirit we are. Heightened desire leads to a discontentedness and self-centredness that blocks the natural flow of compassion that is the life of the spirit and the authenticating brightness of our enlightenment in Christ.
Our pilgrimage to Haiti became a Way of Peace event, a sign of the interdependence of contemplation and action. There is no doubt that meditation changes us, loosens the grip of possessiveness that opposes poverty of spirit. As Fr John said, we learn by saying the mantra generously, to love generously. How we give of ourselves will be our particular vocation. We won’t all go to Haiti or work with the oppressed. But we can genuinely hold them in our heart as a community and in communion with them as we celebrate this great feast of universal humanity and of the mystery of the divine poverty.
With much love and wishing you and your family a very joyful and peaceful Christmas and a new year of spiritual growth.
Laurence Freeman OSB
Traveller, Fond des Blancs, Haiti
Dear Group leaders and Friends,
As the year draws to an end I want to thank you for your continuing leadership of the community. We gather in our groups each week from Latvia to Uruguay, from Uganda to Vietnam, from Prince Edward Island in Canada to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific united as a community in the silence of our meditation.
Fr Laurence has been teaching and leading retreats in many parts of our global family this year. Last month he spoke at the Italian National Conference in Padova, at an inter-religious event in Rome and led the annual Meditatio meeting in Warsaw. He spoke at a Christian-Muslim encounter at New York University, and had a two week teaching tour in Brazil. Last week he led a pilgrimage to Haiti with US meditators and will be on personal retreat and writing until February. In his Tablet column below he reflects on his visit last month to Salvador Brazil.
As we start the countdown to Christmas we're often overwhelmed by the demands of the season. More than ever as we prepare for Christmas we need our twice daily times of meditation to help us grow in awareness of Christ's presence in our hearts, and in the grace-filled moments of our daily lives.
John Main said 'the feast of Christmas reminds us that God in his gift to us did not just give us a lot, he gives us everything of himself in Jesus. Somehow we must understand that, and we must understand it in the silence of our own heart. We must understand it in the eternal silence of God.'
May these remaining days of Advent fill our hearts and our world with joyful hope, peace and love
Love and blessings
Pauline (WCCM - Australia)
Tablet Salvador Dec 08
Lunch at the Community of the Trinity, in the lower, poorer part of the city of Salvador, in the tropical northeast of Brazil, was very different yet strangely similar to a meal in the monastery. San Sebastiano was the first Benedictine monastery founded outside Europe. It still has the long wide corridors with wooden floors polished by generations of monks and the spacious whitewashed cells of the colonial period. Meals are, as in most monasteries, choreographed rituals of efficient eating and social organization, framed in the language of prayer. As individuals the monks betray little of themselves.
In the Church of the Trinity the community is made up of street people. The food is cooked on a wooden stove in the open air. The young woman responsible for cooking that noon hour seemed anxious because the meal was a little late. Unfortunately it was rice and beans again but the watermelon looked (and was) irresistible. The food was placed on a long serving table and there were rough benches around the peeling walls for the community and their guests. We sat listening as the community’s leader Brother Henrique quietly read from the gospel, prayed and welcomed us. Beside me was Maria a large, deranged but, at the time, exuberant personality. For years she had lived a life of abuse on the streets, regularly made drunk and then sexually exploited. Her toothless smile floated over years of degradation slowly being redeemed by the welcome and sense of belonging she found at the Comunidade da Trinidade. The meal was informal and relaxed but in its own way dignified and orderly. Henrique’s gentle, observant authority, conveyed peace.
The other members of the community are also street people, mostly struggling with drugs or alcohol or coming out of prostitution. Their histories were written in their eyes and in the cautious way they rested in the friendship and love of the older members who had learned stability and how to practice hospitality. Each night they and any others who turn up sleep on cardboard on the floor of the church.
I first met Henrique, short, wiry and ascetic, five years ago when he attended a meditation retreat, and again a few days before on another retreat. For many years he obeyed the call to follow Jesus as he lived and traveled as a homeless pilgrim around Brazil. Like the Russian Pilgrim he prayed continuously as he walked or when he was moved on by the police. When he came to Salvador he began to sleep on the floor of the abandoned and dilapidated church that sits on a small hill in a favella looking over the rough district of the old port. A now extinct French community working for the liberation of slaves had started the church. When others began to take shelter there with him Henrique asked the diocese for the church. The roof was repaired but otherwise the church is still rough, part dormitory, part place of worship.
Morning and evening prayer incorporate a period of silent meditation which the street people love. Outside, a few metres higher, there is a small lush garden and a couple of single rooms which Henrique proudly shows me as their hermitage, They are used by the members of the community and sometimes by priests of the diocese who come to refresh their hard lives working with the poor.
It was when I asked Henrique what happened if the members of the community went back onto drugs or drink that I understood how remarkable this tropical epiphany of the Kingdom - and of life lived according to the Gospel - really is. He said, as any abbot would, that it all depends. Each case, each person is unique. The good of the person and of the whole have to be balanced. Living with a person taking drugs makes life even harder for those trying to quit. The point however is that the community is not a social project, measuring success by the rehabilitation of its clients, but essentially and actually a community.
Easy to mistake for a drop-in centre or refuge for the homeless it is more than that. It is in fact a very real and serious contemplative community that, like any other, has its problems and personalities. Prayer is at the heart of the life and regulates the rhythms of the day like and perhaps even more than in many monasteries. At the heart of the prayer is the spirit of love. When members leave, Henrique said, they are bidden farewell as gently as they were once welcomed. No success, no failure. What matters, he said, smiling with his shining eyes, is that they can remember, maybe at some desperate moment of loneliness on the streets again, that they once had dignity and were truly loved.
Laurence Freeman OSB