By Deborah Peterson
On the last weekend of November, close to 600 people gathered at the Catholic Junior College Performing Arts Centre for a retreat led by Fr Laurence Freeman OSB, organised by The World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) Singapore. The topic was the 8 big problems of life and how we can manage these problems, transcend them, and free ourselves to live more fully and joyfully.
When Father asked the first question as he opened the sessions, I knew that we were about to experience something transformative. “What are you most seeking in Life?” he asked. “The answer,” he said, “is that we are all seeking Meaning, Love, Truth, Beauty. All these are to be found within us...not further than a step away. They are to be found in a deeper dimension within us, in the space within our heart.”
And yet from the dawn of time, humanity has wrestled with Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Acedia, Lust, Sadness, Vanity and Pride. So how does one free oneself from their grip to get to that Truth, Love and Meaning, and to be more fully alive and at peace?
Fr Laurence set the background explaining that these problems were first formulated by the Desert Fathers of the 4th be known as the 7 Deadly Sins. The Desert Fathers, however did not view these faults in a moralistic way but saw them as negative states of mind. Seeing these 8 problems as “faults” and inherent “states of mind” which affect every human being regardless of culture, race, age, religion, allows us to move beyond the crippling guilt and shame associated with sin into decisive action and freedom.
In 4 talks covering the problems in pairs - Gluttony and Greed, Lust and Sadness, Acedia and Anger, Vanity and Pride – Fr Laurence patiently took us through an in-depth analysis of each of the faults. As he aptly put it “It is important to know your enemy better than your enemy knows you”. Understanding them and recognizing them clearly for what they are, will prevent us from falling into their traps. He explained that these faults were all interconnected and they all originated in our desire for truth, for love, for God. Not knowing where to find this, we imagine ways to meet these desires and then act on them.
We were led to see how all these states of mind could be overcome through the ascesis (spiritual self-discipline and exercise) of a deep and faithful spiritual practice. Fr Laurence taught meditation or pure prayer, the prayer of the heart, as a way of transcending these states of mind. The simple discipline takes us from the mind to the heart where we experience the transforming love of God. As one of the participants put it later, “Fr Laurence had such wisdom and imparted it with such clarity and meaningfulness that words are not enough to say it all”.
Illuminating as the talks, videos and Q&A segments were on those 2 days, my greatest personal take-away was being immersed in the 6 meditation sessions interspaced through the 2 days. As Fr Laurence shared with us, Meditation is not just a process but a relationship where we cultivate attentiveness to the presence of God. The meditation practice runs counter to the culture of narcissism and distraction, where we are excessively focused on , and this is why it is such a powerful force against the 8 Big Problems of Life. Meditation doesn’t claim to solve our problems. Rather, it transforms the way we look at them and is therefore, oftentimes, the starting point of our journey towards becoming free and living more fully and joyfully.
But how do we meditate or pray purely? Father taught that it was as simple as going back to God’s Words in the Bible: “Be Still and Know that I am God.” To meditate, all we have to do is to sit still and upright, close our eyes lightly, sit relaxed but alert. Silently, interiorly, begin to say a single word. The prayer phrase he recommended was “Maranatha”. It is in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. And it means “Come Lord.” Recite it as four syllables of equal length. Do not think of anything. And if thoughts or images come, let them fall away and keep returning to simply saying the word.
Incredibly simplistic as it sounded, it was obvious that people were touched by this deep, heart-centered prayer. As one of the participants later shared: “This seminar is so different. Upon the sacred word of God "Maranatha" my soul is gone with the Holy Spirit and I enjoyed the meditation calmly and joyfully throughout these 2 days”. Another said “We are convinced of the benefits that meditation can reap and be life transforming on an individual and global level.”
Throughout the sessions, I found myself wishing that my family members and close friends who were not there could have come too. I was therefore delighted to learn that the talks were being recorded and would be available later through Medio Media (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The weekend reminded me of Fr Laurence’s words on another occasion: A retreat is not where one goes to run away from problems, stresses, difficulties in one’s life. A retreat is about “coming home”, coming back to where you belong, to who you truly are. In many ways, the weekend proved to be a home coming for many of us. The retreat closed with a beautiful contemplative mass with meditation built in after communion. What better way to soak in the love of Christ than to sit with him in silence. It was no coincidence that the retreat closed on the first Sunday of Advent – the celebration of Hope.
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- Place: Singapore
- Date: November 2014