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Press: Sacrament of coffee, and doses of meditation

23 April 2021

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THE GUARDIAN had a wonderful story from New Zealand, where the old Roman Catholic cathedral in Christchurch is being slowly demolished after sustaining irreparable damage in earthquakes in 2010 and 2012.

An earlier bishop, John Grimes, had been an enthusiastic collector, amassing relics of, among others, St Francis of Assisi, and someone whom the paper identified only as “Saint Vincent”. These had fallen out of fashion in the 1970s, and were taken off display and buried for safekeeping.

It was the chosen reliquaries that made the story: a lemonade bottle and two large jars that had once contained Gregg’s Instant Coffee. All these years, we have been making jokes about the sacrament of coffee, and the real punchline was buried in the rubble of a cathedral on the other side of the world.

 

STILL on the instant-coffee side of religious life, I am a little bewildered by the appointment of Dr Emma Ineson, currently Suffragan Bishop of Penrith, as “Bishop to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York”. It’s nice to know that the supply of jobs for the bishops remains buoyant despite the ravages of Covid, but what exactly is she supposed to do?

I’m sure she will do whatever it is rather well, but what is it? The Archbishop of Canterbury has a chief of staff; the Archbishop of York will have one soon; both men have chaplains. The invention of such a post is remarkably tone deaf at a time when there is already considerable suspicion of the bishops for excessive managerialism.

Talking of this, The Financial Times carried a letter following on from Henry Mance’s interview with Archbishop Welby. It is interesting in that it showed the absolute divide that remains in many people’s minds between “morality”, i.e. sex, and “prevailing secular issues”, i.e. almost everything else.

“The sort of careful, considered stance that the archbishop adopts is generally right. But it carries two risks: first, forever thinking how frank he’s going to be could lead people to question his sincerity and wonder whether his every utterance is calculated rather than heartfelt. And, second, it smacks of a politician’s approach rather than that of a prelate.

“Like it or not, the Church’s biblical background is one of absolutes — faith — in which rights and wrongs include personal and family morality rather more than prevailing secular issues such as climate change and bankers’ working hours.”

The division that really operates is surely the one between those absolutes that we are lucky enough to be able to live up to ourselves, and those secular matters where we have to compromise — and where the Bible is clearly not to be taken literally. There are always other people whose temperament or circumstances cause them to draw the line in a different place — and they are all disgusting heretics and sinners.

There is a delightful phrase for prostitutes — “ladies of negotiable virtue” — but, under globalised capitalism, absolutely everything is supposed to be negotiable. In fact, much effort is devoted to telling us that the process ought to be effortless, like the caramel-stuffed and chocolate-coated snack bar that proclaims on its wrapper that it contains “no added sugar”.

 

ANOTHER thing that is meant to be cost-free is meditation. It is supposed to be the only spiritual practice that cannot possibly harm you. So, the long piece in Harper’s Magazine about the dangers of excessive contemplation came as news to me.

The central character was a 24-year-old woman with no history of mental disturbance who went on a ten-day intensive retreat after a relationship broke down.

“On the morning of the seventh day, Megan went outside to meditate alone under a tree. She had by now logged more than sixty hours of meditation. She wasn’t sure how long she sat there. ‘Time had slowed down,’ she later wrote. The ferns and grasses were vibrating; they were made of vibrations, just as she was. Megan felt an exquisite serenity unlike any she had ever known. Tears came to her eyes.

“But hours later, Megan’s bliss dissipated. . . Walking into the meditation hall, she looked at the rows of silent meditators, their eyes closed or staring vacantly at the wall. . . Then a torrent of dark thoughts came rushing in: Is it the end of the world? Am I dying? Why can’t I function or move? I can hear the Buddha now. He is telling me to meditate. I can’t, I’m so confused. Is this a test? Am I supposed to yell out ‘I accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour?’ What am I supposed to do? I am so confused.”

She never recovered, and two months later killed herself.

It turns out that the medical consensus on the benefits of meditation is, in fact, that anything up to 30 minutes a day is unequivocally good; much more than that is increasingly dangerous, and psychotic breaks are a recognised side-effect, even among people who have no pre-existing mental-health conditions.

Perhaps meditation really can produce all the effects of psychedelic drugs — the bad ones, as well as the good.

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