Gospel Jn 12:1-11. Mary anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair
I am sometimes not very observant. It was only yesterday that I fully appreciated something I have been doing for a long time, walking a narrow little path up the hill from the Abbaye to the Barn here at Bonnevaux. The path was formed gradually, imperceptibly over a long time, through all weathers, under the pressure of many pairs of feet treading in single file several times a day.
I was thinking of how to describe what ‘tradition’ means for a meeting with young people in the first of a monthly series. Of course, I could say that tra-dition means‘ bridging plus giving’, a handing on of a wisdom insight or just a pattern of behaviour. But that seemed a little cold because it doesn’t describe the feeling of discovering that we already belong to a tradition: we ‘exist’ in this continuous transmission and we touch our deep ‘longing’ in it. The idea that we merely choose our tradition from what’s on offer is much less interesting and deep. It is a huge relief to know that we already be-long.
Seeing the little path up the hill, cut through the grass, that we have all made month after month, unconsciously and faithfully, was also a relief. I hope we never formalise this little path and put gravel down, although it can get slippery when wet and we often bring clumps of earth back into the house. Thus traditions evolve.
As I spoke with the young people in our inter-continental gathering, it seemed to mean essential need of our fragmented time to belong; to find ourselves united on paths we inherit but also help to maintain and shape. One is the common path of spiritual practice, deep self-development. Another, the path of engaging with and understanding each other’s cultures. Yet another is protecting our common home and having a duty of care, compassionately expressed, for those the Bible call the ‘anawim’, the poor, oppressed and marginalised. It also refers however to the poverty of spirit we embrace in meditation. The most important terms in religious though teach have two sides. Think of ‘jihad’ which can be hijacked to refer only to external conflict but whose deeper meaning is interior, the sense of self-mastery.
If a path is made by walking it continuously, it has two sides formed by pairs of feet moving in an easy natural walk. A tradition is also formed through the balance of external and interior meanings. Then the narrow little path becomes a great tradition. It becomes our own when we see that we belong to it and help to make it.
Then, what we find passing daily up and down the path never ceases to delight and enrich us. The Bach cantata I listen to, if I have time, in the morning. Or the story of today’s gospel. Mary’s love for Jesus is silently poured out as she anoints his feet with precious oil. Nard relieves stress and anxiety. As she strokes the oil into his feet, her tears fall and she wipes them with her hair. It is the most intimate physical description of Jesus to have travelled down the tradition, along the path that he became and that we still walk.
'And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’ (Jn 12:3). Not just the house but time.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2021