There is, as we all know, personal sin. We all know our faults—or suspect them. They are the causes of our individual, psychological hell—the domain of the false self. However painful, they present no great obstacle to the love of God welling up through our cracks to heal us and give us always another chance. But there is something else in the realm of sin that affects us because it conditions us through the culture we live in. It is more collective and impersonal than our personal faults. This sin possesses not just individuals but whole groups. It gives an ersatz sense of community—a perverse and self-destructive version of the solidarity that all human beings seek. Sin, personal or collective, is sticky. Even when we try to detach ourselves from it, it becomes more attached. How can we extricate ourselves and our world from the horrible stickiness of sin? Heavy injections of the reality serum. The work of meditation, according to the fourteenth-century Cloud of Unknowing, dries up the root of sin. A big claim. But true. And it won’t make you popular. Meditation is a powerful dissolvent of the glue of illusion and selfishness. Like a great product we discover that does a household job we have not been able to complete, meditation does what it promises. Provided we use it. Lent is the time to get these jobs done. Keep going—it’s worth it.
Experience is a stronger persuader than argument, and we act well to the degree that we see clearly. The parable (better called the parable of the two brothers) has an obvious moral point. Given the two brothers’ personalities, which seems closer to the father? They are in fact equidistant. The prodigal brother can’t understand the nature of the father’s expansive love. The older, killjoy brother is entirely lacking in the generosity that characterizes his father. They are the two faces of the ego in all of us: the one part that wants to run after pleasure and the other that likes to take the moral high ground and feel justified in condemnation. Without knowledge of the essential truth of the joy of being and the unconditional nature of love, the ego will prevail. Each time we meditate, we are like the prodigal returning home to be embraced and also like the older brother learning that being good is more than doing good. Lent is a time when, by simplifying selected aspects of our lives and strengthening our discipline where it is weak, we can see ourselves in each of these three characters and decide—is it so difficult?—which one we want to be.
The ecological dream is to produce new energy by reprocessing all waste. Whatever has been thrown away or rejected is then reintegrated into the economy of life and a sense of equanimity and balance is achieved. But this is as hard to do in the inner life as at the global level. Whenever something is thrown away (waste) or labeled as useless (rejected), there is an accompanying feeling of failure, or of a missed opportunity, or of incompleteness. The deepest human instinct is for meaning, wholeness, connection and integration. Nothing should ever be seen as separated from the whole simply because it can’t be separate. We all have memories or relationships that we want to exclude because they don’t fit in with the desired pattern of our life. We need to realize that rejection never works. It only entangles us more with those aspects of a memory we dislike. Eventually it returns (as the rejected Jesus did) and is seen very differently. The rejected stone becomes the foundation stone.
We live continuously with a chasm between the haves and the have-nots, the healthy and the sick, the smart and the dull, the gorgeous and the ugly, the slim and the fat, the lucky and the cursed. It’s what we mean by “the world.” The question is how deep and wide this chasm should be allowed to become. The wider it is, the more unreal we become; the deeper, the more painful is the chasm. If we don’t work now to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor it will increase exponentially and we will be irreparably divided. In Gospel wisdom, the end is always a beginning. A change of heart, in the hard of heart, is the beginning of compassion, of active concern for the needs of others. When the spring of compassion is released, the human chasm, the ego, the isolated self, is reconnected. In reconnection (the literal meaning of the word religion), the great healing happens.
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many It’s amazing how the Church can repeat these words of Jesus from a place of hierarchy and privilege. The only thing that exonerates the Church is the presence of people within the system who are well and painfully aware of this inconsistency. The spirit of service and the true humility, which is the mystical–moral core of the Gospel, is inevitably linked to the knowledge of mortality. In meditation as well as in the lessons of life, mortality and immortality totally invert the power structures that Jesus is exposing. If you haven’t yet seen this aspect of Lent, I hope you do soon.
We trust Jesus because of his suffering and its transcendent aftermath, and because he spoke from a passionate addiction to truth that is the only kind of addiction that sets us free. Religion itself is laid bare, not just one denomination. The corruption of the best is the worst, and so deserves the highest level of exposure and condemnation. You are all brothers and sisters—how are we going to square that uneconomic idealism with the need for hierarchy and privilege masquerading as service and humility? Jesus is so radically disruptive. How can we domesticate him, how can the Church put a spin on this disturbing so-called "good" news that turns the world as we know it—and our minds as we use them—upside down? That’s easy too. Create systems that have the labels of truth but not the healing touch of the truth. Then idolize the systems. How can we resist this inevitable tendency to the counterrevolutionary? If you don’t know yet, let’s pray this Lent will teach you as you learn how radical meditation really is.
Morality says to do to others what you want done to you. This can lead to saying that if that doesn’t happen, then it’s an eye for an eye. So we need to see the mystical, the transcendent underlying the moral; justice tempered with mercy. Learning to meditate is a journey into the mystical depth of morality. It’s here in the expression about the good measure “running over [that] will be put into your lap.” It is a measure that cannot be measured because it spills over the container into which it is being poured. Transcendence. The mystery of the altruistic gift of genuine generosity. Not earned income, not harvested produce, not accidental or merely cause and effect. What pours? And not into your cosmic karma account. Into your lap.
We tend to diverge from the truth the more we analyze, complicate and define. We usually speak too much about things we don’t understand but much less about things whose truth we really feel. This is why meditation is so economical, cutting out the waste of thoughts and words in the work of silence and getting directly to the simple end. In the Transfiguration story, Peter (typically) got it wrong by talking, but without knowing what he was saying because “they were terrified.” Why does the truth—and the simplicity that is the medium of truth—scare us so much? Why is silence (the letting go of thoughts) so challenging? Why do the simple disciplines of Lent that we started recently often seem too much? Is it because we find it too simple to harmonize the means and the ends in a way that brings us to ourselves in the radiant glory of the present?
"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Get this and you get the whole Gospel and it changes your life. Fail to get it and the Gospel goes in one ear and out the other and your life is stuck in a repetitious cycle. The key is understanding the word perfect. Seeing it to mean that we are flawless both condemns us (to continuous failure and second-ratedness), and lets us off the hook (there’s no point in striving for the impossible). Perfection means not that we have not failed or won’t do so again but that we know what wholeness, integrity and completeness mean. There is a big, humbling gap here, of course, that is bridged by the other element of the Gospel teaching, which is forgiveness. When we think of it like this, forgiveness obviously has to begin with forgiving ourselves.