THURSDAY OF LENT WEEK 4
Gospel Jn 5 31-47. How can you believe if you look to one another for approval?
Meister Eckhart praises things which the human mind usually runs away from. He saw detachment as the essential dynamic of our progress to God, our process of enlightenment. But not a superficial detachment, like giving up sweets or gin and tonic for Lent. He is more like Benedict who says, ‘the monk’s life is a continual Lent’. At this point most say, ‘well thank God I’m not a monk’ and most monks say, ‘well let’s see how we can interpret that’. Eckhart uses the vocabulary of Lent for every day - and for daily meditation: desert, emptiness, poverty, nakedness of mind.
These terms don’t refer to external practices or ascetism but to how we learn not to be dependent on external things for our sense of who we are and are called to be. One of those external things is people’s opinion of us. Jesus refers in today’s gospel to our tendency to seek human approval rather than ‘God’s approval’ which we might describe as ‘authentic being’. This is a good marker to self-knowledge as we come closer to the greatest human drama of the Easter story. At the centre of this theatre of life is the death that follows detachment, seeing plainly how not depending on others’ approval may lead to violent rejection.
All of this would be very unattractive if it were not, in fact, about human flourishing, realisation, not degradation or loss. The desert blooms when we understand and accept its simplicity. Emptiness fills to infinite degrees of fullness when we have completely pulled the plug. Poverty becomes ‘grand poverty’: as Cassian describes the effect of the mantra. Nakedness of soul, when we divest ourselves of self-imagery and vanity, overrides shame, duplicity and the fear of being known. Eckhart’s style of mystical thinking is robust and positive, especially when he talks about things that at first sight make us want to withdraw from the path or at least to slow down.
I think people who struggle to meditate every day, although they’d like to, are more likely to improve their practice if they understand the meaning of meditation in this way. It is simply understanding what is the meaning of life, with its joys and griefs, losses and discoveries, loves and loneliness. Life is a serious business and, when we realise that, we can be joyful about it in its wholeness.
Eckhart said the journey is about being ‘un-formed, in-formed and trans-formed’. John Main understood this as the absolute nature of meditation while recognising it needed to be achieved by stages. What matters for him is actually starting the journey and ‘being on the way’ rather than thinking we should be doing better and becoming too self-discouraged to start again. For him, the mantra combines these three stages of the journey in one: one simple act of pure, poor faith repeated and always leading us deeper.
We find encouragement to practice this full interior detachment in scriptures like this:
‘I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.’ (Phil 3:8-10)
Lenten Reflections 2021