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Thoughts on Easter
16 April 2007


I'm just back from a week's holiday in Wilson's Promontory National Park with my family and my parents who are visiting from the UK. Before Easter I started to put down some reflections on the meaning of Easter, but didn't complete them before we went away. Probably it was meant to be, because in the stillness of various mornings over the last week I have reflected further and am happier with what I now write.

This year there was a convergence of Western and Orthodox Easters and also the Jewish Passover (Pesach). Both feasts recall and celebrate defining moments in the histories of Jews and Christians. In re-telling these stories Christians and Jews affirm our particular identities. But at a deeper level these stories speak of something more universal – the call to freedom.

I think it is no accident that the issues of identity and freedom are linked in this way. An essential core of freedom is knowing who we are. Without that knowing we tend to form identities around externals such as our posessions, our jobs, our family or tribe. Once we do that we fall into a trap, believing that a threat to my possessions is a threat to my very essence or that if something good happens to my family then I am somehow also better. My sense of self is no longer in my hands – it is at the mercy of external events. Even worse, despite my 43 years and all the books I have read, it still seems that a lot of my identity is bound up with what other people think of me, leaving me vulnerable to being destroyed by a careless remark or a scornful glance.

For me the essence of Easter is found in the two acts of dying and forgiving. To become free we first have to let the false self-identity, the ego, die. Many prisoners of conscience have described the ways in which they hve gained a strong sense of inner freedom through losing external liberty. By being stripped of all the external trappings (note the word!) of identity – even down to clothing and, in extreme cases, physical health – they were forced in on themselves to discover who they really were. Victor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps in World-War 2 put it this way;

'We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one last thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.'

Easter is preceded by Lent – a time of fasting. Most religions emphasize renunciation in some way, but even this can be a trap if we identify ourselves as 'people who fast' or 'people who are not materialist'. I have just been reading Eckhart Tolle's book A New Earth where he has a lot to say about the ego. Tolle writes: 'There is nothing that strengthens the ego more than being right. Being right is identification with a mental position – a perspective, an opinion, a judgement, a story. For you to be right, of course, you need someone else to be wrong... Being right places you in a position of imagined moral superiority in relation to the person or situation that is being judged and found wanting. It is that sense of superiority the ego craves and through which it enhances itself.'

Sin is a word that is little used nowadays. For those of us who grew up going to church, sin meant breaking the rules or disobeying those in authority. But the word 'sin' originally comes from an archery term meaning 'to miss the mark'. I like that! When I am doing mathematical sums, sometimes I get it wrong. Getting it wrong doesn't mean I have to beat my breast and feel guilty – it is just a matter of going back and doing it right. 'Sin' is not meant to produce a paralysis of guilt and negative thoughts. But in life, 'going back and doing it right' is not usually as straightforward as it is with mathematics.

All of us are shaped by the past, particularly our childhood family experiences. Jesuit educators understood this well when they said 'give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man'. Like a precious orchid, given the right conditions we grow to be healthy, strong and beautiful. But painful experiences such as lack, rejection, loneliness, abuse (physical, sexual or emotional) and guilt can set up harmful self-beliefs and behaviours. About 100 years ago, Sigmund Freud began to recognize that these operate in the subconscious mind. Painful memories are not only forgotten, they may actually be repressed. For a long time, Freud and his followers believed that the key to becoming free lay in uncovering these buried memories and bringing the experience into the light of consciousness. My own experience – particularly through Journey retreats – is that the real liberation comes through working through these issues to get to a point of forgiveness.

True forgiveness is not easy. I have often told myself and others that I have forgiven somebody (because I know it is 'the right thing to do') when in reality I have not forgiven. To really forgive there has to be an 'honest conversation' where we can express what needs to be expressed, feel the emotions that may have been pushed down, and know that we have really been heard. Then we have to be ready to hear how things were from the other person's perspective – to step into their shoes and see the situation or events through their eyes. Sometimes this is possible with the actual person but other times that is not possible – the person may have died or is simply not ready to talk on this level. In these cases the 'honest conversation' can still take place, but using the imagination and our internalized image of the person concerned.

Writing this, it sounds very mechanical and I realize that there is an essential ingredient I have not yet mentioned – the mysterious spiritual quality of grace. A couple of weeks ago some Sudanese youth in Australia were having a weekend retreat as part of an ongoing dialogue process between Northern and Southern Sudanese after decades of civil war. During the weekend, one of the group shared his sadness that he had had a disagreement with his closest friend in the refugee camps which had led to them becoming estranged. Later the friend had accepted an offer to study at a university in Eastern Europe where he was tragically killed in a car accident. The group prayed for healing for this and other past events. A few hours later the youth received a phone call. It was from the mother of his dead friend saying that she had had a dream the night before in which her son asked her to 'say to my brother that everything is OK and not to worry'. 'I knew that he meant this message for you', said the mother.

I don't think I would attempt to define grace, but this story expresses well what it means to me. So perhaps I should add grace alongside death and forgiveness as the three essential elements which make Easter special, and which lead to freedom and new life.




COMMENTS

Thanks for this....
Amazing Grace, death, forgiveness=freedom and a new Life. ..
.Gave George and I a real Spiritual Lift as we read this out load in our Morning Watch Time. We have fond memories of meeting you in our MRA Scattering and Gathering Experiences 1974 ...onwards.
May you keep on ...keeping ON.
Best regards to mutual friends of FAC.
Berni

Bernice and George Lemon, 30 April 2007


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