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There’s a French expression ‘pensée d’escalier’ – a thought on the staircase – that evokes an unexpected, creative breakthrough that comes just a little too late to be useful but is still most welcome. For example, you’re at a glittering occasion where conversational wits are flashing and you can’t keep up with the flow. Walking down the stairs as you leave the event the brilliant riposte you should have made pops into your mind. It takes shape out of nothing. It is conceived.
Pontormo shows Mary’s moment of conception as she is walking up the stairs. ‘Conception’ precedes birth. The root meaning is to ‘grasp’ and it happens both at the mental and physical dimensions. It is to understand at the deepest level where something that didn’t exist before begins to exist and have a history. Every conception, every act of creation or birth exposes the reality of dimensions different from what we have domesticated into routines and take for granted. In becoming visible, they invite us to see the transparent overlapping of these countless perspectives; and life becomes mysterious again, not just a succession of problems to solve. The word ‘mystery’ comes from a root that means closed or secret, something revealed to initiates. To experience conception, something truly coming out of nothing, is like being led into something, being initiated. Not like a cruel student hazing, but a welcoming into a fellowship with an untold number of doors, one leading to another. (‘Meditation creates community’).
Birth is tangible. But conception first emerges in the deepest untouchable solitude and silence that first makes us feel the presence as an absence. No one has ever seen God. Yet God’s Word makes Him known, graspable although never as an object. It is an imagining, imaginative not imaginary. Because meditation leads us into this solitude and imageless silence it releases creative potential at all levels of ourselves. In time, we surprise ourselves with newfound freedom, the glorious liberty of the children of God.
Our era is running dangerously low on creativity. The responsibility of leaders is to nurture the conditions in which people can grasp conception, birth and freedom throughout their lifecycle. Leaders then must have some experience of it themselves. If they never look inwards, they miss the transparency of things and collapse into the imaginary realm of the ego, dazzled by images of power, fame, wealth. Eventually, their missed conceptions form an illusion of immortality, a radical denial of reality. Soon this can only be fed, like an addiction, by destroying other lives, laying cities waste, transporting children.
Old illusory securities that justified our addiction to unsustainable production and soul-destroying consumption are dismantling before our eyes. It has happened before though never on this scale. We don’t know how to shore up the ruins.
‘The axe lies ready at the root of the trees: every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  John replied, “Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.” (Mt 3:10)
John the Baptist is the first monk of the new era, conceived by Jesus and still being born.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2023
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