Category Archives: Religion and Spirituality

Life on the Edge of an Unjust System

This post was first published as an article on the Australian on-line journal Eureka Street on April 26, 2019 under the title ‘My Newstart Conundrum‘. If you are able and think it worthwhile, please support Eureka Street with a donation.

Recently I was placed on the Federal Government’s Mutual Obligation program, otherwise known as ‘Work for the Dole’. This happened as a result of being on a partial Newstart payment for twelve months. I have been underemployed for around three years now and Newstart provided a welcome top-up as I continued to look for more work.

Each Newstart recipient is given a Job Access Provider (JAP) to help them look for work. My JAP informed me that I was required to do 21 hours per week of Mutual Obligation activity. This was in addition to looking for work, made up of applying for at least 20 jobs every four weeks.

My JAP worker assured me that the 21 hours per week would help me to remain motivated and focused on the task at hand: finding work. I replied that I would now have to stop doing the things that were keeping me motivated to satisfy my Mutual Obligation requirements.

I live in Western Sydney. My JAP had me volunteering with a Christian outreach program doing good things in the area for people living with significant financial and personal disadvantage, largely via housing and food initiatives. It is safe to say that many of these people are unemployed.

After four weeks on ‘Work for the Dole’ I decided that it was best for my own well-being to go back to the things I had been doing to remain motivated. This meant coming off Newstart. Fortunately, I have good support. Others are not so fortunate.

The others with me doing their own Mutual Obligation hours were diverse: people living with various forms of mental and emotional disorder deemed by their JAP and the Federal Government as employable. There were also people with differing physical conditions similarly assessed as employable. Add to this underemployed people and itinerate workers between jobs. One person I spoke to, who was an underemployed casual teacher, said that her Newstart benefit was paying her rent.

A common experience of those I spoke with during this time was that their long-term experience had been one of a slow decent into hopelessness and powerlessness. The combination of an inadequate Newstart while searching for 20 jobs a month plus compulsory Mutual Obligation, (as well as, for some, underemployment), had become overwhelming.

A recent federal budget news report contained an estimation that 28,000 people in Australia have been receiving Newstart for more than ten years and that 60 per cent of all Newstart recipients have been on this benefit for more than 2 years. That’s a lot of job searching and Mutual Obligation required from people struggling to find enough work, or any work at all. In my view, this expectation is quite unreasonable.

Another issue relevant here is the idea of full employment. What exactly is it? The Reserve Bank had been, until recently, operating with the idea that full employment is 5 per cent, though it might now be lower – perhaps somewhere between 4 and 5 per cent. This means that there is little or no work currently available for 4 to 5 per cent of the population that are assumed to be work ready, let alone those who, realistically, are not.

What we now have in this country is a cohort of our fellow Australians who will never find work, or enough work. This fact is due to a combination of personal and systemic factors. Either they will be deemed unemployable by potential employers, or adequate employment options are just not there for them.

It is unjust to provide a sub-standard Newstart allowance and compulsory Mutual Obligation to those genuinely struggling to find adequate employment in a system that does not provide enough opportunity for employment. Is there an alternative?

Currently the tax-free threshold is $18,200 per year. What if we were to give all Australians of working age currently unemployed $18,200 a year. Those of us who are underemployed would be given enough money to also have us on $18,200 per year.

For example, if someone is earning $12,000 a year working, they would be given $6,200. Any income after $18,200 would be taxed at the normal rate, regardless of whether that income be from Newstart or employment. For the unemployed single, this would guarantee around $674 per fortnight in addition to a Newstart benefit of $555 per fortnight. This would mean that the single unemployed person would be on $32,396 per year after tax, much better than the current $14,985 per year (tax free). This is, of course, before any increase in Newstart.

As for the Mutual Obligation hours, let’s not make Newstart dependent on doing these hours, and let’s tailor the activities more towards each person and their circumstance. Yes, we might need practical encouragement to remain motivated, however, we may already be doing this for ourselves. Let the system recognise this.

 

 


David’s Place Retreat

This was first published in a David’s Place newsletter and in the December 2018 edition of ‘Via Vitae’, a newsletter for the oblates of The World Community for Christian Meditation (which can be viewed and downloaded here). The retreat was run in October 2018.

For the last seven years, members of Sydney’s David’s Place community have made their way to St. Benedict’s Monastery, near Arcadia (in Sydney’s north west), for their annual retreat. Oblates from The World Community for Christian Meditation have been invited, each year, to support them.

What is David’s Place?

David’s place is an inner-city space where Sydney’s homeless and marginalised can come to find friendship, peace, spiritual nourishment and connect with the wider community.

It was created to be a place where Jesus would have liked to hang out, where it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, or where life has led you.

David’s Place brings together both rich and poor, breaking down barriers in our city. Division in our communities is where many of our societal problems arise. To experience David’s Place for yourself is to know that such separation is avoidable. (from davidsplace.com.au)

Jesus was not about class. Jesus was about the Kingdom, or Kin-dom of God: places and ways of life that are about kindness, compassion, and just relations. Attempting Kin-dom living can be a challenging way to operate. It can involve being with people very different to ourselves. This can reveal to us our tendencies toward fear in the face of difference. Division can be a product of this fear.

It is familiarity that breaks down uncertainty and fear. Community is the place where the stranger becomes familiar, where the stranger can then become a friend. David’s Place is such a place.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2Cor 4:7)

The clay jar of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a great metaphor for the human condition. We are all jars of clay. In our psychology and physicality, we are the stuff of the earth. Some jars have been mostly looked after, cared for; others have been neglected. Some jars have been shaped with weaknesses, fault lines in the clay that are just there. Some jars are stronger in their shape and can bear a load that other jars cannot.

This year’s David’s Place retreat was a time for us, as clay jars, to come away and rest. For many, the load of living in the inner-city was set aside; fault lines were eased.

The wonderful thing about being jars of clay is that the ‘weaker’ ones can remind the ‘stronger’ ones what we all carry: the treasure that is Christ. This is what happened at this year’s retreat. Human acts of love and kindness revealed this treasure within: wheelchairs pushed through the mud and the rain; words of encouragement and love given amid challenging circumstance; concern voiced for those upset; inclusion valued above everything else; prayers of thanks and intercession offered; gratitude abounding; silence shared.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. (2Cor 4:8-10)

Many at David’s Place live with fragile clay. It bends, it cracks, it can break. And so it can be with all of us. This year’s retreat showed that fragile acts of love are the strongest acts; in their vulnerability they reveal the invincibility of divine love in human experience. Love is an extraordinary power that lives in us, waiting to move and act as us. Fragile clay is love’s sacrament.

During the retreat our breaks and cracks were on display – we could not help it. And not being able to help it is the gift. In all this is a treasure shines through, transfiguring weakness into ways of love. This is what happens when fragile human beings dare to love each other. This is what happened at this year’s David’s Place Retreat.

For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2Cor 4:11-12)

What can happen for us who accept something of the clay that they are, the jar we have become, and still together attempt love? We experience that this Jesus, this treasure of Christ within us, is mysteriously one with who we most deeply are. The humanity of Jesus is his solidarity with us. Being human is enough – whatever jar we are.

Each year, at St. Benedict’s Monastery, the David’s Place Community are their own human face of divine love for each other. This is what all community can be, both for each other and for the world.


Chapter 7.11: Humility

This is a post from another blog that is being run in conjunction with Lines From Inbetween. The blog is called The Rule of Benedict: Reflections from Christian Meditators. Posts appear on this blog about once a fortnight.

The Rule of Benedict

The seventh step of humility is that we not only admit with our tongues but are also convinced in our hearts that we are inferior to all and of less value, humbling ourselves and saying with the prophet: “I am truly a worm, not even human, scorned and despised by all” (Ps. 22:7). “I was exalted, then I was humbled and overwhelmed with confusion” (Ps. 88:16). And again, “It is a blessing that you have humbled me so that I can learn your commandments” (Ps. 119:71, 73).

This step of humility seems harsh. To be convinced that we are worthless and inferior – surely this cannot be good for us; to be despised by all – this is being mistreated and bullied, yes? And to deny our humanity – what kind of humbling is this? Here, are we not being led into the extremes of humiliation, rather than into a…

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Bonnevaux: The Walls of the Monastery Without Walls

Recently, on his blog, Fr. Laurence Freeman wrote about the “patterns and resonances in life, personal and communal, luring [us] ever deeper into the experience of meaning.” (Not a Nostalgic Reflection). Laurence wrote about the patterns and resonances of The WCCM[1], from its foundations in Montreal (40 years ago), to its growth into the global community that it is today, and the folding into this of Bonnevaux: our new international retreat centre to be, in France.

Bonnevaux is a big part of the growth happening now in The WCCM: our community that is a ‘monastery without walls’. Paradoxically, Bonnevaux has walls – ancient walls. Internationally, Bonnevaux is to be les murs du monastère sans murs (the walls of the monastery without walls).

Paradox cannot be ‘figured out’. It is not something to problem solve, something to be unlocked rationally. Paradox finds a home deeper in us, in the heart; over time it comes to a quiet and mysterious resolution there. And over time, from the heart, a gentle ‘paradoxical wisdom’ is released for us to intuit and live. As we meditate, as we attend into silence, our consciousness is infused with this wisdom of the heart.

In time, Bonnevaux will become the international heart of The WCCM. Its walls will resolve in the wall-less global community of meditators it will serve. In this it will also grow into a global agent and sign for peace. This is the vision. This is what we hope (in faith) that the patterns and resonances happening now are luring us into.

With Bonnevaux we continue on our way as part of the re-emergence of the human reality that Christianity calls the contemplative life. This re-emergence is profoundly needed today. Bonnevaux’s deep Benedictine roots sit well with the Benedictine roots of The WCCM. Benedictine roots are also human and Christian roots: one more paradox.

..I think in a deeper sense we could say that we have become the stewards of this sacred place [Bonnevaux], where the contemplative life has been lived in a spirit of service for hundreds of years. And we are pledging ourselves to continue that vision and that tradition in a contemporary way. (Laurence Freeman)

Some context for us: around 800 years ago, when Bonnevaux was first established, there was a major shift forming in Christianity: the separation of spirituality and theology. This happening has been historically personalised via a 12th century debate that happened between Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard. Bernard, a French Cistercian Monk, wanted spirituality and theology to remain united. Abelard, a French philosopher and theologian, supported the rise of theology as a discipline standing largely apart from monasteries. Bernard won the debate, however the die was cast[2].

In the last 40 years or so this separation has begun to be addressed. I see John Main and The WCCM as part of the resolution of this separation. Christian spirituality divorced from theology risks self-indulgence and a certain vagueness. Meanwhile theology apart from authentic spirituality risks staying a rarefied specialisation of the few.

In the broad context of the history of Christianity, it does seem significant that this separation of spirituality and theology that was happening whilst Bonnevaux was being established, is on its way to resolution as we become Bonnevaux’s stewards.

 

 

 

[1] The World Community for Christian Meditation

[2] David Ranson, Across The Great Divide: Bridging Spirituality and Religion Today, 11.


Cemetery In My Mind: Midnight Oil

The Australian band Midnight Oil are back together and touring the world. Their Great Circle Tour is circuiting the globe with the band’s distinctive sound and message. Politics, the environment, social justice, and the ‘human condition’: all are featured. Distraction and lethargy are not an option. The prophets have returned to wake up the dead and jolt the living.

I had a search through their catalogue to find a song that might be of use for us. While most of their music is decidedly action-focused, there are some that attempt an ‘introspective kick-in-the pants’. Cemetery in My Mind is one such song.

For me the message of the song is blunt: what do you want to be – death alive or living a life?

There is a dynamic in culture that distracts from purpose, from meaning, from the heart’s calling. It would have us in the mall, the shopping centre, consumers. How many of us seek to salve emptiness with the latest product or device?

Life as going through the motions, life as avoidance of hurts, life as fear of possibilities: all this can make a cemetery of the mind and life.

What of our dreams, our purpose, our meaning, our calling? How do we find these? How do we deepen in them? Is it too late? Purpose, meaning, calling: what is the experience of these things?

When life becomes dry enough, when dreams die, when no direction affects us enough, despite fear we can start to ask deeper questions: ‘You can fall, but can you rise?’

In the now, not in tomorrow, is the heart. In the centre of consciousness, in the centre of mind is the always alive spiritual heart. It has for us purpose, meaning, and calling. Amid distraction, hurt, and fear we can (if we want to) learn to steadily hear it. In the hearing, there is the following.

We cover consciousness and the heart with too much thinking. Too much imagining, reflecting, assessing – all this and more can keep attention from being in touch with the deeper wisdom of the heart. We then forget how to hear the heart, or if we do, the hearing can often be fleeting – like an echo of the sound of something loving and familiar.

Healthy spiritual paths will have practical ways to guide us into the hearing of our hearts. If all we get are ‘mother statements’ – listen to your heart, follow your dreams – with no practical ways, then hope becomes strained and frustration can rise because the path has become ethereal.

Long standing spiritualities and religions do have practical ways to the heart. One such practical way is meditation. How can meditation help? By giving attention to a word or phrase, for at least 20 minutes a day morning and evening, there will be an effect. Regular practice of this way will see the mind, over time, quieten. As thoughts and imaginings soften, there will be more space for feelings to rise and fall, heal and integrate. Thinking will become something that happens more appropriately and less often. In the space now within, a space once occupied by too much thinking and emotional disorder, the heart moves into awareness.

As we become aware, we experience the heart’s drawing and longing. In time and with guidance we can come to understand that certain people, places, and things draw our hearts and cause them to long. The practical ways in which we follow this drawing and longing become our way of purpose, of meaning and calling.

Life can be more than ‘wake work drink sleep retire’.

 


Meditation Creates Community: A Day Together (Part 2)

Our retreat day notes continued (from part 1):

In prayer, grace quietly and gently heals the ego. Ego is then, over time, less reactive as we relate with each other. Over time our relating becomes more compassionate, kinder, more loving. We are not so self-conscious; we grow in just being with each other. And over time the lines between prayer and community become blurred. Both become each other.

For meditators, because the practice of meditation is so central to our lives, it follows that as meditators decide for a community life we would begin to meditate together.

This is why the weekly meditation groups of The WCCM are so important. In these groups the meditator’s commitment to community, wherever it may be for them, is included in their meditation practice. In time, the group itself may even become a community.

Perhaps it could be said that a meditating community is a meditation group that lives together.

Meditating together is being alone and together at the same time. Community remains balanced if its members can be both alone and together. Solitude is a part of community.

So how can it be that meditation actually creates community?

Attention on the mantra, in stillness, is a participation in the healing of the ego by grace. Over time ego and heart integrate.

As this happens what is revealed in our own experience is our true nature as human beings: we are “being-in-relationship” – with ourselves, each other, creation, God. Meditation is not reflecting on this experience; in meditation we experience who we truly are without reflection, in growing thought-less-ness, in growing stillness, and in growing silence.

We then take this experience, this new and emerging awareness of our communal human nature, into our daily and ordinary communal relating. There we discover ourselves in a new relating: one that is more and more compassionate and patient and less and less reactive and fearful. This happens as we experience together in meditation our nature as being-in-relationship.

It is not just meditation that creates community. Any practice that has us, together, giving attention into stillness and silence can help us come into contact with divinity, our true nature, and the reality of all creation as a unity.

Our true nature as being-in-relationship is the image of the divine life: being-in-love. Meditation and community enable our relating to become the expression of divine being-in-love.

Yes, it continues to be a struggle. The ego resists who we truly are. However, regular meditation practice, when done as part of the practice of community, reveals and empowers our true nature for each other and the world.

Over time community can become more about the practice of loving as ourselves in the everyday and less about fears of being alone, overwhelmed, or abandoned.

*******

Our retreat day finished with a labyrinth walk together. Our labyrinth walk leader, Donna, suggested that as we walked into the labyrinth we ‘release‘, simply let go, allowing as best as we could whatever was happening as we walked. The centre of the labyrinth was a space for us to ‘receive‘ whatever there was for us there. The walk out was a time to ‘return‘, gently back.

A labyrinth walk can be an invitation to self-knowledge: perhaps impatience at the person in front as they move ‘too slowly’; frustration as our thinking fails to settle into quiet; discomfort as a hidden pain emerges; learning as we realise that we are walking like a task ‘to do’, rather than as a contemplative practice that grace wants to use for our slowing into the moment.

As we walked together, weaving in and out in differing directions, we all walked at our own pace. Some were quicker than others; some would stop to experience their feet in mud (it had been raining). We paused as we let others walk; turned shoulders to give room. A flow of being together emerged.

Like meditation, walking a labyrinth helps attention to move beyond the ‘aware that we are aware’ experience of the  self-conscious mind and into simple awareness. This awareness is an inner space were we be, together; it is a space where the place of community slowly matures.


Meditation Creates Community: A Day Together (Part 1)

Recently a group of meditators gathered for a day at the  Blue Labyrinth Bush Retreat in The Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Australia. The day included meditation and a labyrinth walk. The day was organised as an offering by the younger meditators of the Australian Christian Meditation Community in Sydney. Also included were a couple of sessions exploring the theme ‘meditation creates community’. Below is part one of the notes that I prepared for those sessions.

*******

The seeds of community lay in our commitments. When people are committed to something together, perhaps to a common cause or a relationship, community could happen.

Community cannot happen if we are by ourselves in our commitments.

The husband and wife who spend little or no time together; or people house sharing, eating separately, and with a TV in each bedroom; or people working for social justice by themselves.   

Community requires a certain amount of time spent together and being present to each other.

So we can say that community can begin to stir when we make the decision to be conscious of and present to each other in our commitments, seeking mutuality and support from one another.

Co-workers who start taking lunch together; or the friendship group that meets for drinks; or the social justice group.

As this turning to each other starts to happen, something else happens: our personalities and temperaments begin to interact. Likes and dislikes begin to emerge. Talking with one person is easier than talking with another person. Given enough time together, some of the judgements, the hurts, the longings, the joys, the annoyances (and more) that live in us will stir and surface.

Within us there is who we truly are and there is what stops us from expressing who we truly are. What stops this expression started as a defence and a protection of who we are in the midst of an overwhelming and primal experience of the world. For most of us, defence and protection has (to some extent) taken over and assumed the role of who we are.

Whatever the case, as we turn to each other, and relating begins to happen, it is then that our egos become involved.

When egos rub there is a choice: we can practice staying present to this experience or we can opt out. Community starts to happen when we remain present to the tension of egos rubbing. We may go through periods of disassociating from the others we are committed to. We may repress the inner tension that is happening as we relate, or we may project it onto others calling them what we dislike or hate in ourselves. In community, we stay present to the patterns and ploys of the ego.

Maybe at this point we might ask ourselves: what is happening, why do I do this? With these questions honesty begins and self-knowledge can grow. For there to be community, there needs to be honesty.

So if community stirs when we are conscious of and present to each other, it begins to be nurtured when we commit to honesty, with ourselves and (when appropriate) with each other.

Many have discovered that, for them, it is too hard to do this without the divine life. This life provides context. And divinity heals us for each other in ways that we cannot do ourselves.

A common prayer life grows in the midst of this. We prayer together so that we might be able to love: ourselves, each other, the world, and God.

It is important that community prayer does not replace individual prayer. Both become a part of each other.

So if community stirs when we are conscious of and present to each other, and it begins to be nurtured when we commit to honesty, for many of us community matures as we pray, both together and alone.

The Chartres Labyrinth at The Blue Labyrinth Bush Retreat


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