Those who care for the dying say that the most important ingredient in a good death is meaning. And meaning means connection. The sense of belonging, of being linked to another or to otherness itself. Meaning is more than explanation. Explanations, dogma, ring hollow at such times of unavoidable encounter with reality. (How we do anything to avoid reality!) At these times we find ourselves totally defenseless and exposed in front of the tribunal of reality. Concept turns into truth and we’d like to run as far away from it as possible. It is the totality of it that matters, and this makes the Passion of the Christ so absolute and so much of a portal for all humanity to enter utter, undifferentiated, stark reality. Then we are led into a form of experience so outside our realm of comfort and familiarity that we can neither explain nor control it. It just happens—a devastating loss or disappointment, a reversal of expectations or dreams, a turning upside down of, well, everything. At such times our only defense is our sense of defenselessness. Because it is the only thing there is, it is the most authentic thing we can identify with. Not just our weakness, but our acceptance of our weakness, proves—against all the odds—to be our strength and resilience. This transports us from the universe of the ego—which is a reflection and false representation of reality—into another world.
At critical moments in his life, Jesus was in solitude, but was solitary with his close disciples. When he knew he was a marked man waiting for the midnight knock on the door, or in his case the betrayer’s kiss in the garden, his instinct was to go near to the desert—a place associated both with solitude and with the deepest of all relationships, in the ground of being. And he went there with those human beings whom he understood best and who, for all their failings, understood him best. Solitude is truthful and often delightful, even when painful. Loneliness is a hell made up of the illusion of separateness. In solitude we are capable of strong and deep relationship because in solitude we discover our uniqueness, even (or perhaps, especially) if that uniqueness is associated with death. If meditation is about getting free from attachments and going to the desert of solitude, it is also about the discovery of the communion with others we call community. Knowing that we are with fellow disciples in the presence of our teacher is, even when things are falling apart, a source of incomparable joy.
Raising a family may be exhausting and seem to leave little time for specific “spiritual practice,” but it is all about other-centeredness. It is a good preparation for meditation. Conversely, monastic life may give us time for prayer but may also keep us in a shallow state of dissatisfaction, repeating the same unproductive cycles of thought and behavior. But it can be a good preparation for serving the world. We are attracted to the other-centered option because we crave relationship and connection, which, combined, deliver us into the experience of meaning. Marriage, family, friendship, community, service are all ways in which we can learn to pay attention to others. Very quickly, however, we realize that other-centeredness is hard to do and even harder to sustain. Yet we also realize that we are better, more free and more open to love when we are learning to live in this way. Then we see that the spiritual path is a work. In fact, it is a work of love.
Perhaps we never truly feel we belong to this world, even if we cling to it, make it serve us, and try to get it to accept us. A necessary detachment from the market forces of power and egotism can be cultivated even while engaging with those forces. We call this cultivation of detachment, which allows us to see and relate to the world as it is, “regular meditation.” Learning how to meditate regularly is what we call the asceticism, spiritual practice or discipline. Lent is first about remembering that we need such a discipline in our lives, because the world as we see it doesn’t exist any more than do permanent success or immortality. We relate to the real world as soon as we can say, “I do not belong to this world.” Only then may we have something useful to give to the world and be able to serve others in the games of thrones.
Clarity grows with the spirit of acceptance and the purifying of the mind. With this vision that is the result of a pure heart, we can see with clarity through all the illusions and self-deceptions, all the games the ego plays. But this clarity separates the one who sees with it from the crowd. Don’t we like to feel that we are right and better and then to feel our little ego magnified by the self-righteous people around us? We reinforce and flatter each other by targeting someone weaker who may be innocent or who has been caught doing something wrong. Our anger at the victim hides our own shame. It takes the courage of such clarity to break with the crowd and stand for the truth. But the Gospel reminds us, perhaps warns us, that being clear and being compassionate doesn’t equate with social success.
The human mind can be very reactive. We don’t get what we want and we rage, complain, or attack whatever we can blame for the disappointment. It is astonishing how cruel and irrational we can be even over relatively minor things, when things don’t go our way. Pain and sadness usually separate and isolate us. Sometimes they even sever us from the very hand that stretches out offering to save us by connecting us again to a source of compassion and healing. To another. Even in the midst of loss and confusion and fear, we can learn to choose another way. Rather than the reaction of anger there is the response of acceptance. Simply accepting what is. In that openness to truth—the truth is what is—the option for violence dissolves. We see with a higher reason that violence is a terrible lack of imagination. When we respond to events in this way we leave the past behind and a bright light from behind us illuminates the road ahead.
You have only to be truthful to cause trouble. But it’s a different kind of trouble when you are untruthful. You have to decide what kind of troublemaker you will be. Perhaps most people want to avoid causing any trouble because they are frightened of a backlash; but eventually we all have to decide. Are we going to tell the truth, to live the truth or to hide behind platitudes and half-truths? A heightened level of awareness through meditation can allow us to be truthful even when this carries a high cost. "The truth will set you free." When meditators experience this incremental liberation from fear and evasion, they more readily come out into the open to say what they really mean. And they stand on the side of those in need rather than merely on the side of those who will be the likely winners in a conflict. In the mysterious paradoxes of reality it can often happen that divisions are necessary to create healing and a stronger union. We break the bread in order to share it and be brought into unity. The mystery here is that of separation, which is necessary for us to know ourselves before we can give ourselves to another, to God.
When Yeshua moved about Galilee he was a consistently steady, still point manifesting in many places. People who stay at home but fantasize about trips and being elsewhere do not have anything like this stability. St. Benedict says the monk “must prefer nothing to Christ.” Quite soon in my monastic life I heard the ironical version of this, “prefer nothing to a trip,” from monks who had come to understand stability primarily in geographical terms. Of course we can also be on the move as a way of keeping one step ahead of reality, being on the run from something and protecting ourselves from it. But stability, whether you are busy or not, is a fruit of meditation. It produces the clarity, discernment and good judgment that improves the quality and other-centeredness of our lives. Stability brings the point of departure and the place of arrival together in a dynamic stillness and a radical openness to change. Not a bad goal to identify, even in the last part of Lent.
We slice up experience into beginnings, middles and ends and draw lessons from the slices. We stock our mental shelves with these stories, often adding to or refreshing them according to what we sense our listeners would like. The Irish make a living from this. Reality at the cutting edge, however, is characterized by frayed ends and incomplete conclusions. Chaos is another word for it, one that we don’t like to use about our lives. But we walk a very thin line between cosmos (order) and chaos, and most of the order we put into things has a tendency to unravel very quickly. Even when we get the key to understanding its meaning, like Jesus’s poor parents, we don’t understand it. But he went back and lived with them anyway which, for the time, was evidently enough. In the self-discipline of Lenten meditation, which sharpens our daily awareness, we get deeper and more piercing glimpses into this provisionality of life and, strangely, we even find it reassuring.