Animal Lessons

Time and again animals are our teachers. So many of the Saints are associated with them: St Jerome and his lion, St Anthony Abbott and the wild pig, St Hugh of Lincoln’s swan, St Philip of Neri’s cat, St Benedict of Nuria’s raven, St Brigid’s fox, and many more.

The animal story which most fascinates me is that of St Francis of Assissi taming the wild wolf of Gubbio. There is a sense in which we can interpret such a story symbolically, the wolf representing Francis’ shadow side. Each of us has such a psychic shadow, and until we have learned to come to terms with it and harness its energies, it will continue to threaten us, as the wolf of Gubbio threatened the people of that region.

For the Millennium at Bleddfa I raised the money to commission from the Irish sculptor, Ken Thompson, a life size statue of Tobias and the Angel, which was unveiled by Rowan Williams who was then Archbishop of Wales. We see the angel talking earnestly into the ear of the young Tobias, but what is especially moving is the figure of Tobias’ small dog, standing of his hind legs, as though saying, ’It is all very well for you, Master, talking with angels, but don’t forget me down here!’ for animals are so often our teachers and healers.

I remember when I was a student at Oxford, there was one morning when I lay on the floor in despair, and my marmalade cat came and lay on my chest, his paws on either side of my neck, his face looking into mine and purring deeply. Slowly I relaxed, breathing deeply and fell into a profound sleep.

And I am reminded of the story told me by a friend who is a psycho-therapist and who had one client who had AIDS and was too frightened to speak. On one occasion my friend forgot to close the door of his consulting room and his dog came in, went straight to the man, and jumped up onto his lap and settled there. The man began to stroke the dog and suddenly was able to speak.

Three Forms

There are three main forms of meditation.

The first is called, in the Indian tradition, bhakti, meaning devotion. It is for those who reach out to a Supreme Being, whether that is called Allah, God or Brahman. It usually involves the use of a mantra, a sacred word or phrase which is mentally repeated over and over. In India it may be Om or Ram; in Islam it involves chanting the 99 names of Allah, while for the Russian Orthodox Christian it is the repetition of the Jesus Prayer:  ‘We may all be one, as Father you are in me, and I am in you, so they are in me and I am in them, that we may all be one.’

For the agnostic or atheist, or those who find that religion gets in the way, there is a simple form of meditation taught for centuries as part of the Buddhist tradition, which consists in observing the breath as it comes in and out. Simply following the breath is a means of reaching an inner centre, psychologically and spiritually, without any religious commitment. By concentrating on the breath at the tip of the nose the breathing becomes finer. Gradually the breath slows and the mind goes towards the heart, to the very centre of our being. It heightens what Eckhart Tolle calls ‘the Power of Now’, a deepening awareness of the present moment and of a centre within that enables us to withstand the ebb and flow of emotions. It is called Mindfulness Meditation, and it is easy to see why it is so popular in our present culture in the West.

The third form of meditation is that practised by Quakers. It consists of centring down into the silence, gently dismissing all wandering thoughts, focusing on the silence within. During such silence an insight or an image may arise from the unconscious and float to the surface of our consciousness, where it might provide the answer to a current problem, or deepen our understanding. Sometimes in a Quaker Meeting an individual may be moved to speak aloud and share such an insight. But some of the most powerful Meetings I have experienced have been sixty minutes of vibrant silence.

Divining Within

The Buddha taught meditation primarily as a means of understanding the transience of all things. Buddhism does not posit a Divine Being, but is a philosophy for life.

However, meditation can sometimes also lead to an awareness of a Divine Being. St Augustine wrote, ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.’ And the Psalmist says, ‘ I strove to fathom this problem – too hard for my mind – until I pierced the mysteries of God’.

In order to re-connect with the inner core of our being we have to descend into our own depths. It is in those depths that some, like Etty Hillesum, encounter that which they call God.

Once, teaching a course on ritual at the University of Colorado I set my students the task of writing a prayer to the known or unknown God. The most moving of these was this one, written by Dickson Musslewhite:

With the unsecuring sea stretching
Before me,
To mystery
I make my pledge.
To search
To swim
To dive as deep as I can.

With the unsecuring sea stretching
Before me,
To mystery
I give my thanks.
For you I am thankful
With you I am,
Without you I am not.

Walking with Words

I recall Robert Frost saying how certain lines of great poetry have a way of clinging to one like burrs caught on a country walk. The line from a Shakespeare sonnet, ‘He that has power to hurt and will do none’, had meant much to him, he said.

Many people from my generation kept – do they still?- what were called ‘commonplace books’ in which they would jot down fragments of prose that they wanted to remember. I have kept countless small notebooks for such a purpose and opening them now I realise how certain sentences provide themes for quiet reflection and meditation. They are the kind of sentences one can take for a walk, mulling over them, letting the words sink deep. Here are a few for you to choose from:

From Lady Elwyn Jones (who wrote under the name of Pearl Binder):
‘I always travel slowly and obscurely on cargo ships and slow trains. I travel for the sake of what I see on the way.’

From Sir Isaac Newton:
‘To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me.’

From Jack Kornfield:
‘To meditate and pray is like throwing the doors and windows open – and you can’t plan for the breeze!’

From an unknown source:
‘To enter silence is a journey. Enlightenment is to give birth to something within one’s self, to know that we are part of a greater whole.’

Beyond Words

I remember celebrating an early Eucharist at St Mary’s, Primrose Hill, in London, which was regularly attended by an elderly couple, Francis and Elsie Meddings. On this particular Sunday the Vicar had left me a note to say that Elsie had had a stroke, and that he wasn’t sure whether Francis would be in church, but would I say a special prayer for them?

Well, Francis was there and at the end of the service, before I disrobed, I saw him at the back of the church talking with two women. As I approached him he turned towards me as I opened my arms and came into my embrace. I simply held him. Nothing was said nor needed to be said.

And it was the same when my partner of more than half a century was dying. In the final two weeks he was unable to move or speak but we spent much time gazing into each other’s eyes. Again I felt that any words at such a time would be intrusive. We knew what each other felt and what we meant to each other. And when in the final moments the night carer said to me, ‘Pour out your heart to him’ I couldn’t for that would have seemed to me like an intrusion of my personal grief at such a solemn moment.

Words are a great gift and each person, each child, should be taught how to use them, for the difficulty in so many relationships and situations is that people don’t know how to give expression to their feelings, and this can lead to much misunderstanding. But there does also come a time when we need to go beyond words – to rest in the silence of trust.

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.