Among some of the most haunting stories in the
Gospels is Jesus’ cry to his sleeping friends, knowing he is about to be arrested,
tortured and executed: ‘Could you not watch with me one hour!’
I am thinking of those who are dying and how few
people know how to respond. Some talk in very loud voices as though the dying
person is deaf. Some talk entirely about themselves, or make mundane remarks.
All that is needed is that we should be totally present to that person, perhaps
holding their hand, silently keeping watch, and responding if the dying person
chooses to talk. Those who practise meditation will know best how to sit
silently for an hour, holding that person closely in love.
It is a sad comment on our deeply divided country that some half a million children arrive at school without breakfast, and so are unable to concentrate because they are undernourished. The gap between rich and poor seems to grow ever deeper and our politicians are not facing up to it. Charities and food banks try to fill the gap. One such is the Magic Breakfast charity which seeks to provide children from disadvantaged backgrounds with at least one solid meal a day.
The sharing of food is one of the most important as well as practical rituals we have, even if it is only inviting someone in to have a cup of tea, or a bowl of soup. It is often over such a simple exchange, that we share also the anxieties and burdens of others, especially in our society today when there is less and less a sense of community. The latest statistics show that loneliness is not only the problem of older people: it is increasing among the younger generation too. Jesus’s command was, ‘Feed my sheep’ and the fact remains that sharing a simple meal with others is one of the most positive things we can do.
Church prayers usually end with the phrase, ‘Through
Jesus Christ Our Lord’, and there is a sense in which the man Jesus is like a
window through which we see beyond to that ultimate reality – the force, the
energy, that holds the entire universe together. In the same way, each of us,
whether we are Buddhist, Christian or Muslim can be like windows reflecting
something that lies beyond. But we need to keep our windows clean! One way is
through the practice of meditation. As Elizabeth Mills writes in her book In The Stillness:
We need to be open For the Divine To enter in Not too full of self That there is no room Making space By being humble And seeking to live in Simplicity Asking for Love to flow in And make its Home In the centre of our hearts.
In other words we need to learn how to step aside to
let the light through!
As we grow older it is important to be open to change, and when we reach
our seventies onwards it is important to learn how to let go. It may be letting
go of too many possessions, or too busy a social life. As we grow older it
becomes ever more important to listen to the silence within. From a busy
outgoing life we realise our task now is to cultivate our own garden, to
practise silence, and just being, not having to do anything. In this way we become a still centre to which,
perhaps, others are drawn and we find ourselves listening to their needs. The
wisdom of old age is something that our society needs to rediscover.
At the end of the play, Hamlet’s last words are ‘The
rest is silence.’ Words can convey so much, but not everyone has the ability to
articulate their feelings. As Robert Frost once said, ‘If I write a poem about
heart-ache or heart-break, and a reader says, “That is exactly what I feel but
I couldn’t have put it into words,” then I know I have achieved what I set out
to do.’ Again to quote Shakespeare: ‘I were but little happy if I could say how
much.’ Which is why silence between close friends is such a gift, just as
silence is at the heart of the spiritual journey.
The word ‘God’ can be a stumbling block, partly
because of the anthropomorphic image, cultivated over the centuries, of an aged
man with a long white beard. The Arabic word ‘Abba’, which Jesus used, means
both parents, mother and father, as well as the divine source of all being.
Yet, even to refer to God as father and mother is to remain stuck in
anthropomorphic imagery. Meister Eckhart wrote, ‘God is no thing.’ For myself,
Hamlet’s use of the word Divinity (i.e. a force, an energy) is helpful, as when
he says, ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.’
And the image that comes closest for me is St. Paul’s reference to God as ‘an
ocean of Love … in which we live and move and have our being’.
Gustav Mahler wrote that ‘Tradition is the handing
on of the flame, not the worship of ashes’. It is all too easy for spiritual
teachings to become enshrined as part of an organisation with rules and
regulations. It is often forgotten that Jesus said, ‘I have come to bring fire
to earth and what will I but that it be spread!’ The simple practice of
meditation is one important way in which we can keep that flame alive within
There are times when, though we lower our bucket down into the well of meditation, the source seems to have dried up. What is the point of it all? we cry. And yet, unknown to use, there are many mountain springs deep down, so that, if we persevere, then our well begins to fill again.
It is the same in any marriage or committed relationship. The American author Madeleine L’Engle, writing in Two-Part Invention, observes:
The growth of love is not a straight line but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis. Most growth comes through times of trial.
Society can only be renewed by renewing individuals. And in order to do this we have to give individuals the opportunity to contact their own inner resources. As the psychotherapist Ira Progoff once observed:
We gradually discover that our life has been going somewhere, however blind we have been to its direction, and however unhelpful to it we ourselves have been. We find that a connective thread has been forming beneath the surface of our lives, carrying the meaning that has been trying to establish itself in our existence. It is the inner continuity of our lives. As we recognise and identify with it, we see an inner myth that has been guiding our lives unknown to ourselves.