Bible stories such as The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son no longer seem to find much resonance in today’s culture, as few people have been brought up on the teachings of Jesus. Yet each of these stories has a profound psychological meaning and is as relevant today as in the past. In throwing out conventional Christian teachings, we have lost much wisdom and insight into human nature. Each of the major religions has stories, spun from human experience, that can deepen our understanding. 40,000 homeless people sleep on the streets of New York every night. The story of The Good Samaritan is as relevant today as it ever was.
The Sufi master Llewelyn Vaughan-Lee writes in one of his books, ‘There are as many routes to God as there are individuals.’ As the composer John Taverner said, ‘ There is only one absolute being. Whether you call it God, Allah or Brahman, God gave to each tradition different Saviours and Avatars. Christ is God for the Christian world, as Krishna is God for the Hindus.’ We have to go beyond labels to what lies at the very heart of existence. As a small boy, whom I have quoted before, once said to me with passion, ‘God is a feel, not a think!’
Though I have learned much from Islam (especially Rumi) Buddhism, and from Indian Hindu teachers, I am primarily rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the deep and abiding conviction of an all-encompassing presence which we call God.
What all forms of meditation reveal, is that there is an underlying love that holds us, a love which passes all understanding. As the Psalmist says, ‘On God alone my soul in stillness waits.’
Our civilisation would seem to be approaching extinction. While employing every means to try and alert mankind to the dangers that lie ahead, sadly, tragically, few of the world’s politicians seem aware that we stand at the edge of a precipice. So, what can we, as individuals, do? Become better human beings! To be aware of what lies beyond this present existence, and especially how we relate to one another, for at this time of global trial, we are more involved than ever. Once again we come to the two commands that Jesus gave: to love God (however we interpret that word) with all our heart, and to love our neighbour as ourself. Unless we learn these lessons our civilisation will disappear. These are indeed sombre times.
‘Silence is Golden,’ goes the proverb. Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, calls it ‘The perfectest herald of joy … I were but little happy, if I could say how much’. And Hamlet, at the end of his tortured journey, declares, ‘The rest is silence.’
One of the fruits of meditation is that we become less prone to impose our own ideas and more aware that, just as there is a time to speak, so there is also a time to be silent. The media is awash with words, so that one is reminded of T S Eliot’s question: ‘Where is the wisdom that has been lost in knowledge, and where is the knowledge that has been lost in information?’ One of the great joys of a deeply committed relationship with another human being is when neither feels the need to speak, but is simply content to rest in the deep silence of love.
Even if you pay a considerable sum to learn Mindfulness meditation, this does not qualify you in any way. We each make our individual journey, and it is a journey that will continue well beyond this present existence. There are no diplomas in enlightenment!
A few may approach the summit of awareness, such as Thomas Merton, the Buddha, Dom Bede Griffiths, St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Rumi, and many of the Jewish mystics. But even they will find more ranges to climb and explore. Meanwhile, the rest of us plod along! We are the foot troops. And in that sense we encourage others, showing that the journey into silence is possible for everyone.
In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, The Secret Garden, the orphan Mary asks her guardian if she may have a bit of earth.
‘Earth?’ he replies. ‘What do you mean?’
‘To plant things in. To make things grow. To see them come alive.’
‘Do you care about gardens so much? A bit of earth?’ he asks. ‘Then you can have as much earth as you want. When you see a bit of earth you want, take it, child, and make it come alive.’
Which is exactly what Mary does with the help of Dickon and the old gardener.
When we nurture the seeds of meditation in our inner garden we, too, begin to come alive at a deeper level. Happiness is elusive: it comes and goes. What grows and becomes evergreen in our innermost garden is contentment.
The plant that you have in your house, have you ever truly looked at it? Have you allowed that familiar yet mysterious being called ‘plant’ to teach you its secret? Have you noticed how it is surrounded by a field of stillness? The moment you become aware of a plant’s emanation of stillness and peace, that plant becomes your teacher.
When we emerge from meditation we often encounter people and things as if for the first time, seeing them in their essence. The practice of meditation leads us to a deeper and fresher awareness of all things and of each another.
Sometimes in mid-life there is a wake-up call to change direction, realising we have other potentials. The privilege of a lifetime, wrote Carl Jung, is to become who you are. As Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses it:
Myself it speaks and spells, Crying, ‘What I do is me: for that I came.’
Those who practise meditation and arrive at this station in their journey will be quicker to recognise the announcement: ‘All change’!
Any good counsellor knows that the greatest contribution they can make to a person who comes to them in extremis, is not to offer any kind of ‘solution’, but rather to enable the person to tell their story in all its complexity. ‘Let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication,’ cries the Psalmist.
In my book Older I give an example of perfect listening. When I was being prepared for ordination at Glasshampton Monastery in Worcester, Brother Gregory told me how he had received a letter from the headmaster of a major public school asking if he would see a sixteen-year-old boy who was heavily into drugs. Brother Gregory saw the boy. Some weeks later he received a letter from the headmaster: ‘I don’t know what you said but he is completely changed.’
Brother Gregory smiled as he told me this and added, ‘I didn’t say a word! I simply listened.’ Clearly the quality of his listening acted as a mirror in which the boy could see himself. The lesson is that the more we practise silence in our meditation, the better able we shall be to respond to others by giving them our complete attention.