Lent 2023: Thursday Lent Week Four

In many zen and Christian desert stories a breakthrough in consciousness can be triggered by a trivial incident or a single remark from a wise teacher.

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In many zen and Christian desert stories a breakthrough in consciousness can be triggered by a trivial incident or a single remark from a wise teacher. They are unpredictable moments of enlightenment which seem to pop out of nowhere but which have been in waiting during a long hidden process of preparation. When the right moment arrives it is irrepressible. A long-existing self-delusion or a fatal projection is undone in an instant

This example is from the early 2nd century apocryphal work the Acts of John. One day St John was sitting outside when a partridge flew down and started playing in the sand in front of him. (You can check sand partridges on YouTube. What John was watching was probably a sand bath.) John was absorbed and amused in watching the creature playing when an old priest came by and saw the great man wasting his time enjoying the antics of a partridge and was secretly shocked. As in many such stories, including scenes of Jesus in the gospels, John read the thoughts (or maybe interpreted the facial expression) of his critic.

He turned to the priest and said ‘my son it would be better for you to look at a partridge playing in the sand than to be getting up to the shameful things you are doing, and with which are contaminating yourself. This is why God, who expects the repentance and conversion of everyone, has brought you here today. I don’t need a partridge playing in the sand. The partridge is your soul.’ The priest instantly knew he was known and fell to the ground and asked Christ’s beloved disciple to pray over him. John did and gave him teaching and instructions and sent him home.

‘The partridge is your soul’. The insight that brought about this sudden moment of metanoia was not only his knowledge of what the priest was thinking and of his secret life. More profoundly, it was his awareness of what we would today call projection. The priest, who was involved in some kind of shameful behaviour that dishonoured his true nature, was projecting his guilty self on both the innocent partridge, which was only doing what it was its pure nature to do, and upon John, whom he condemned for enjoying it.

The steps that lead us to judge and condemn others can be subtle and complex and reinforced by strong, deceptive self-righteousness. Argument or rational explanations from outside rarely have the sharpness necessary to penetrate this concrete bunker of self-preservation. But there is one missile that can do so. It is insight into the major root of the problem fired with crystal-clear honesty and precision. It crosses the wasteland surrounding the bunker in a loving way that is intended to release and not to destroy its target.

‘You are the partridge’. Not a noble beast, perhaps, but lovely in God’s eyes and in the eyes of those who see with those eyes, lovely and worthy of contemplation.

Know yourself to be lovely and play in that innocence as you are made to do.

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