These daily readings by Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk and Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, are to help those following them make a better Lent. This is a set time and preparation for Easter, during which special attention is given to prayer, extra generosity to others and self-control. It is customary to give something up, or restrain your use of something but also to do something additional that will benefit you spiritually and simplify you. Running through these readings will be an encouragement to start to make meditation a daily practice or, if it already is, then to deepen it by preparing for the times of meditation more carefully. The morning and evening meditations then become the true spiritual centre of your day. Here is the tradition, a very simple way of meditation, that we teach:
Sit down, Sit still with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Breathe normally. Silently, interiorly begin to repeat a single word, or manta. We recommend the ancient prayer phrase ‘maranatha’. It is Aramaic (the language of Jesus) for ‘Come Lord’, but do not think of its meaning. The purpose of the mantra is to lay aside all thoughts, good, bad, indifferent together with images, plans, memories and fantasies. Say the word as four equal syllables: ma ra na tha. Listen to it as you repeat it and keep returning to it when you become distracted. Meditate for about twenty minutes each morning and evening. Meditating with others, as in a weekly group, is very helpful to developing this practice as part of your daily life. Visit the community’s website for further help and inspiration: wccm.org
Between 1347 and 1350 one quarter of Europe’s population died in one of the worst outbreaks of the plague. A forty-day quarantine period was instituted for travellers. Doctors wore leather protective costumes. Weird quack remedies appeared. Infected people were restricted to their houses with a cross painted on their door. It was blamed on a punitive God because of human sins. As it’s difficult to attack God, the Jews were often scapegoated, a favourite conspiracy theory throughout history. Hospitals were over-filled. The economy crashed. Groups of penitents and flagellants processed in city streets, singing litanies to avert God’s wrath. And also to comfort each other, because, when we suffer or are confronted by mortality, we feel frightened by the loneliness and inner chaos we discover within. Our regular routines are shattered and the usual things we complain about are overwhelmed by fears that challenge everything we think we know.
Why ash? It is an ancient symbol reminding us of mortal human nature. ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return’. Adam (the name means ‘earth’) heard God speak these words after his eyes had been opened by disobedience and he had first felt shame at his nakedness. Job covered himself with ash when his sufferings overwhelmed him. Putting ash on our forehead today is a kind of sympathetic magic or homeopathy where we use a small dose of plants to stimulate the healing process. All healing is self-healing but often needs help from outside. (‘Go your faith has healed you’, Jesus says someone he cured). The ash signals acceptance of our mortality. Strangely, it makes us feel better because we are no longer in denial about it. We live better lives when we accept that we are dust – because then we see we are also more than dust.
Why Wednesday? I’m not sure. Maybe because it’s the middle of the week. Probably because it starts the countdown of 40 days to Easter. Maybe because it’s the day of Woden who was the god of the element of earth. More important is ‘will I use this season to grow more aware that life is a spiritual journey’? There’s no such thing as a spiritual life inside my existence that I have to make space for. Life is the journey. If so, how will I do Lent this year?
Maybe begin by putting some ash on your forehead to remind yourself you are mortal - and more. It shows we are all in this together. Even in a pandemic (cruel but not as bad as the 14th century), in shutdown, we can grow into a sense of community. Instead of joining self-flagellating processions, meditate online at least once a week with others. Instead of wearing sackcloth and ashes say the mantra with deeper attention and fidelity. A more contemplative approach to the situation we are in.
To start, you could do a renewal course in the essential teaching on our new website. There’s a timer, a short animation-video introducing meditation and two free courses on the How to Meditate page (wccm.org/meditate/how-to-meditate/).
I’ll look forward to making the journey of Lent with you, Writing these reflections is my Lenten task which I hope will prove helpful to you.
Lenten Reflections 2021