How to Grow Tall

‘Learn to carry conflicts – don’t force solutions. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them.’
So wrote Sister Maria, a nun in the Orthodox tradition.

Pondering these words I thought back to something Dr Franz Elkisch told me in connection with his visits, as a Jungian analyst, to the Carmelite nuns at Quidenham in Norfolk who live in a house set in parkland which was given to them by the Duke of Marlborough.

On his first visit Dr Elkisch was invited to stay for three days. Each day he spoke to the whole community, whom he got to sit in a circle.

‘There is a need,’ he said, ‘not merely to let fresh air into such communities (this was in 1969) but also to let air out, to release the charged energy that builds up in such a community, in order to make easier the possibility of personal encounter.’

He spoke to them about the need to ponder and observe what was psychologically unfolding within each of them, and not to interfere with the process. ‘If I cut my hand, thousands of cells will at once set to work to heal it. If I keep removing the bandage to see how it is forming this will hinder the process. Similarly with the psyche – we must allow it to go about its own work of healing.’

Referring to the magnificent trees in the park, he added, ‘If a tree could speak, I would ask it: “Where did you get your great beauty? How did you come to grow so tall?” And the tree would reply, “By doing nothing. One must allow things to happen.”’


Weeding – and shedding

Perhaps because I was born in November, I have always loved the Autumn when the trees shed their leaves like rags, revealing the essential shape and beauty of their trunks and branches. Jesus said ‘Look at the birds of the air!’ but equally he might have said, ‘Look at the trees!’. Indeed, in the story of the mustard seed, he does.

If we can learn to let go of all pretensions and illusions and see ourselves as we really are, and others as they really are; if we can let go of our projections onto others, making of them heroes and heroines or villains; if we can let go of prejudice and greed, even of our own achievements and possessions – then our essential nature will emerge and with it a greater lightness and sense of humour!

As Robert Frost once said, ‘you have to grow by shedding’. This is why we need to have periods of spring cleaning ourselves – what Frost called ‘time out for re-assembly’.

I am also convinced that from time to time we need to make bigger changes, to clear the clutter in our inner attics so that there is space for something new to take its place. A garden has to be weeded constantly if the most precious plants are to flourish.

Finding One’s Own Path

In The Quest of the Holy Grail the story is told of how King Arthur and his knights were seated at the Round Table when, to their amazement, the Holy Grail appeared, covered by a cloth and carried by angels.

When the vision of the Chalice withdrew King Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain, stood up and said, ‘I propose that we should all vow to go in pursuit of the Grail to behold it unveiled.’

We then read how the knights felt it would be cowardly to go as a group, so ‘each entered the forest that he had chosen where there was no path and where it was darkest’.

And so it is for us. Though often in life there appears to be no path and the way seems very dark, that is the way one must go. Each of us has to set out on his or her journey alone – comforted perhaps by the knowledge that on the way we may encounter others travelling in the same direction.

I have been reflecting much on this because of a recent visit to Salisbury where I directed a production of 84 Charing Cross Road and stayed in a cottage owned by the former stage designer of the Salisbury Theatre. He told me how he had been a designer for some years when one day, seated on a hill, he thought, ‘Do I want to go on churning out a new set every three weeks for the rest of my life?’ and then into his head came the word ‘Soil’. At that moment he resigned from his post at the theatre and became a jobbing gardener, cycling to work and tending some twenty or more gardens, earning a modest amount each week. He is one of the most contented and happy people I have ever met, simply because, to use the famous phrase of Joseph Campbell, he has been able to ‘follow his bliss’.

At the end of one’s life it is not a question of how successful or wealthy I may have become, but did I become the person I was meant to be? So many young people are pressured by parents to play safe, to become a lawyer, an accountant, a dentist, when all that they really want to be, and know they should be, is, perhaps, a jobbing gardener!

Late Flowering

One Christmas a friend of mine was given a cyclamen in a pot. Eventually it stopped flowering and she was going to throw it away. ‘It’s only dreary leaves,’ she said, ‘cluttering up the place.’

‘You should water it,’ I replied. ‘Don’t throw it out’.

Weeks passed and when I next looked in on her it was a cluster of fresh green leaves. Months passed and she said, ‘I’ve been watering every day as you said but it still doesn’t flower, and the summer’s almost over’.

‘Wait!’ I answered. ‘It will flower in the winter.’

And then for nearly two months she saw it flowering, day by day, week after week. Flowers are a great teacher.

Too often we despair about ourselves or our relationships and want to chuck everything, throw it out, buy a fresh plant or start a new affair. Yet if only we will persevere and work at the situation or relationship, it will flower again. All living things need a time to lie fallow, a time when nothing much appears to be happening.

There are some lines from a poem by George Herbert that have helped me much in the past:

Who would have thought my shrivell’d heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite underground, as flowers depart
To feed their mother-root when they have blown:
Where they together
All the hard weather
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

Let it be!

I was once part of a consultation team for the BBC to do with religious broadcasting. One particular morning we were supposed to begin our meeting with a meditation led by a Dominican friar, Father Simon Tugwell. Somewhere outside the building there was the sound of the Beatles’ song, Let it be! At once Father Simon stopped the meditation and said we could not proceed until someone located the transistor radio and had it switched off. I thought then, and still do, what a missed opportunity that was, for the lyrics of the song provide a perfect beginning to a meditation: Let it be. Let it be. Whisper words of wisdom. Let it be.

Sometimes in summer our group will sit in the back garden to meditate. There is the sound of children playing in the park, the sound of birds, of passing ambulances, or an aeroplane overhead. We don’t try to ignore these but simply acknowledge children, birds, cars, aeroplanes, and even to include them in the meditation.

I recall how on one of my birthdays in Wales, my dear priest friend John Hencher was celebrating, as part of my 50th birthday celebrations, a special Eucharist in my study where about ten of us sat in a circle. During the consecration prayer the phone in the other room began to ring incessantly. John at once wove this interruption into what he was saying, observing that this was the outside world wanting to break in, and rather than exclude it, to hold in our thoughts whoever it was trying to make contact.

I have written elsewhere of the occasion when I was celebrating a Eucharist in a small country church in Herefordshire when, during the prayer of Consecration, little Becky, who was somewhat retarded, suddenly began to call out ‘Amen! Amen!’ Rather than ignore her or tell her to be quiet, I looked up, saw her shining face and joined in with her, saying over and over the words ‘Amen! Amen! Amen, Becky!’ The faces of all the others lit up with smiles. It was a moment of epiphany.

The inner voice in the silence

Today I am thinking about some of the people whose writings have had most impact on me.

One is Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, the Sufi master who is in charge of the Sufi Golden Centre in San Francisco. In his book, Catching the Thread, he writes:

For each seeker the spiritual path will be different, because each of us is different. Every lover makes his own unique pilgrimage within the heart. And He loves us for our own individual self. He loves the fact that we are different because He made us different. In this love affair there can be neither comparison nor competition. We each must find our own way of loving Him, of being with Him.

Many people have difficulty grasping the concept of God, perhaps because of the tendency to think of God anthropomorphically. But Father Timothy Radcliffe, the former Provincial of the Dominican Order in England, reminds us: ‘God is not another person. God is the deepest interior of one’s self’.

Father Bede Griffiths founded a Christian ashram in India where he integrated the spiritual teachings of the Upanishads with those of Christianity. My final quotation comes from him:

I believe that each one of us has an inner light, an inner guide, which will lead us through the shadows and illusions by which we are surrounded, and open our minds to the truth. It may come through poetry or art, or philosophy or science, or more commonly through encounter with people and events day by day.

Personally I find that meditation, morning and evening every day, is the best and most direct method of getting in touch with reality. In meditation I let go of everything of the outer world of the senses, of the inner world of thoughts, and listen to the inner voice of the Word, which comes in the silence. Then, in the silence, I become aware of the presence of God, and I try to keep this awareness throughout the day.

A Dream

Some years ago I awoke from such a deep dream that I immediately closed my eyes and went back into the dream in order to stay there as long as possible, absorbing the atmosphere of silence and stillness.

In the dream I was walking down the main street of a small country town, accompanied by the actress Jane Lapotaire. The impression was that we had come to a place of deep silence. It was early in the morning – very still. There was no one around.

Eventually we came to a building which had been a Catholic church in the 12th century but was now a Quaker Meeting House. On the door, acting as a handle, was a circular flower carved in wood. I intimated to Jane that we should enter for the Quaker Meeting but she intimated (no words were spoken) that we should walk on a little and stay in the open.

At the end of the street I saw an archway leading to an Oxford college and my thought was that I would like to show Jane this place of learning and scholarship. But she was leaning her head against the wall of a house, listening. I then did the same.

There was such a freshness in the air, like a day in the Mediterranean presaging great heat later on. No one stirred. The silence was intense and the air so pure. I was reminded of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn:

What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain built with peaceful citadel
Is emptied of this folk this pious morn?

It is in this Ode, of course, that Keats also writes:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
Beauty is truth, truth beauty! That is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

I have come to recognise that what the dream was telling me was to go deeper into this silence and the practice of meditation – and to leave the area of the intellect, of academia, unexplored at this time – to go with the heart and not the head.

Frequently since that dream, often in meditation, I have gone back into that place of silence.

Through a Stained Glass Window

The artist John Petts created some of the most beautiful stained glass windows I have ever seen. He once told me how one of his windows, depicting St Francis, came to be made.

He was asked to visit a very handsome and energetic woman who questioned him as to how long it would take to make a stained window for the local church. When he told her it would take several months she answered, ‘Oh dear: I shall be gone by then.’ She then told him that she was dying of cancer.

So he offered to put aside his other commissions and forge ahead, at which her face broke into a wonderful smile. ‘I have had such a blessed life,’ she said, ‘and this is just one way in which I can say thank you.’

John Petts offered to design a window of St Francis preaching to the birds. She did not want the usual inscription ‘in memory of’ but simply the words ‘A Thanksgiving – Margaret Griffiths’.

As the window grew, she shrank and became bed-ridden. Eventually it was completed but she was already near her end and, knowing she would never be able to get to see it in his workshop, John Petts had colour transferences made which were then projected onto the wall at the end of her bed.

In the window St Francis is dancing for joy; a salmon is leaping out of the river, a butterfly hovers overhead, and a hare is dancing on its hind legs, while birds of every description swoop and perch.

How did she respond? Her husband told him. ‘Such a smile! Such a smile as I have never seen!’

Basking in silence

I remember one man who asked if he might come to our meditation group in London. We were all seated in a circle, our eyes closed when, half way through the meditation, we heard him get up, leave the room and walk along the passage. He then came back noisily into the room and said quite loudly that he didn’t know how to open the front door. At this point I got up and quietly led him to the front door, opened it, let him out, then returned to finish the meditation. He was a gentle soul but clearly he found the silence disturbing.

Another friend, suffering from a painful bereavement and weeping constantly, was invited to join our group. I said, ‘You don’t have to say a mantra or even follow the breath; simply immerse yourself in the silence’. There was a very powerful silence that evening. During it she fell into a deep and healing sleep, and awoke refreshed and comforted.

Some meditation groups insist on everyone following the same formula, rather like joining an institution where you have a set of rules and regulations. In our group each individual follows their own form of meditating. Each of us is on our own journey and we follow the route that seems right for us. Just learning to bask in silence is for many a blessing in itself.

Only Five Minutes to Spare

In 1654 Blaise Pascal wrote, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

I thought of this when recently someone wrote to me to say their life was so crowded it was difficult even ‘to find five minutes for God’. It is as well, I thought, that God has no ego! The idea that out of twenty four hours one can only find five minutes in which to meditate is strange. And yet, if one is a beginner, better a regular five minutes than none.

What I find myself suggesting more and more to people, especially those who are busy, or have many preoccupations, is to find a phrase that can act as a mantra which they can mentally repeat at intervals throughout the day, perhaps when waiting in a queue at the supermarket, or travelling on a train or bus; which can be repeated during wakeful moments in the night. It may be a phrase such as ‘That I may be filled with loving kindness’, or like the one I use which is, ‘God is present. God is here. God is now.’

Such a form of meditation acts as a life-line, a reminder of another order of reality.