There is a series of paintings by an American artist, Thomas Cole, which depict the stages of life, from infancy to old age. In the first image an infant is seen in a small boat while at the helm stands a radiant angel who guides the vessel out of a dark cavern into a misty dawn light. In the next painting the infant has become a youth and the landscape opens up into a vast and exciting prospect. The youth now takes the helm while the spirit gestures farewell from the bank. In the third canvas, entitled Manhood, the boat is poised at the brink of a dangerous cataract. The helm is broken, the sky dark with menacing clouds, and the grown man now seems lost. Only in the upper corner of the painting can there be seen a faint light of hope where we can just make out the delicate shape of his angelic companion.
The final scene, Old Age, shows the stream of life reaching the ocean to which all life is tending. The now time-worn traveller recognises that his journey in life is ending and for the first time he sees the spirit who has accompanied him throughout, and the spirit is pointing ahead to a brilliant light.
In the Celtic tradition, as John O’Donohue reminds us in his book Eternal Echoes, there was a strong sense that each of us has an invisible companion who walks the road of life with us. The Christian tradition says that when we were sent here onto earth a guardian angel was chosen to accompany our every step, to watch over us and keep a circle of light around us lest any negativity damage us. Without our even knowing it our angel is always at work for us.
I learned this when I developed cancer of the thyroid some years ago. I was alone, my companion being in India at the time, and I was filled with fear. Then, one night I awoke with an interior voice saying ‘You are not alone. You have an angel working alongside you.’ And from that moment I ceased to have any fear.
Entering into meditation is like slipping into water and floating on our backs. Lying with the immensity of the sky above and the depth of the ocean beneath us, we float. We are at one with the sea and the sky, only a slight movement of the hands helping us to keep afloat, rather as, in meditation, we watch the breath coming in and going out.
And so now, as we each enter our meditation, let us allow ourselves to float in the Great Silence.
On the wall, facing me as I sit at my desk, are some words calligraphed on canvas by my friend John Rowlands-Pritchard, the founder of Opus Anglicanum. The words are: ‘At midnight noon is born.’
It is a reminder that at those moments of deepest darkness in our lives a new life is stirring, a new day will dawn with fresh opportunities. Nature has its own wisdom.
I recall how my life’s companion, Hywel Jones, in the first years of our knowing each other, wrote to me after spending a few days with his family in the village of Llangynog in the Berwyn Mountains. ‘The wonderful peace and quiet of the dark that I remember from my childhood is still here,’ he wrote. ‘We must try and spend some time together here, because after dark the mountains and the stillness have a kind of spiritual quality and I am sure it would help us to share it together.’
This is one of the things one learns from the practice of meditation: to wait, not knowing when the dawn will come – but certain, nonetheless, that our inner sun will rise.
At one level meditation can be seen as a natural process – clearing away distractions in order to have a more direct access to our unconscious. At another level it can be seen as establishing a link with the Transcendent, that union with God of which both Sufis and Christians speak.
When Jesus prays of his companions ‘that they may all be one, as you, Father, and I are one – that they may be in me, and I in them, as I am in you,’ he is not speaking of a united Church but of the profound connection that one experiences through the practice of meditation. In spite of all differences, we perceive our common humanity. This is also at the heart of Buddhism: compassion for all sentient beings.
The words ‘Be still and know that I am God’ which in our meditation group we all say aloud before entering the Silence, speak of an existential experience of Something Other. Some may call this God or a Higher Power, though that is only a name. Some, like Carl Jung, may refer to it as the Self, with a capital S. It is also a realisation that the whole of creation, of which we are a part, is still unfolding. As James Dean’s character in the film Rebel Without A Cause, cries out, ‘But Mum, we are all involved!’ There is a pattern and a purpose which, occasionally, we are fortunate to glimpse. There is an intelligence behind the entire universe.
I’ve noticed that at exhibitions these days everyone is so busy taking Selfies in front of famous paintings that they don’t seem to give themselves time to absorb the art.
In the same way both Twitter and Facebook, while useful, too often encourage off-the-cuff, unthought-through, comments. I recall Robert Frost saying, ‘You don’t take notes during a love affair. You experience it, you live with it and through it. Only later may you want to make some observation.’
Real insights take time, grow out of silence, and in due course flower into words. It is interesting that in her first novel, The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf has someone ask a young writer what kind of books he wants to write, and he replies, ‘Books about silence – about the things that people do not say.’
Mother Teresa once wrote, ‘Loving as He loves; helping as He helps; giving as He gives; serving as He serves; being with Him 24 hours.’
Working with the terminally ill our aim is be present as fully as we can. We may be tempted to preach to the dying and to give them our spiritual formula. We must avoid this temptation absolutely. Our task is not to convert anyone to anything but to help them get in touch with their own inner strength. Above all we need to allow the dying person to pass on in silence and in dignity. There is no greater gift that we can give than allowing a person to die well.
I have found that to sit for an hour or more in total silence, holding the hand of a dying person, is more powerful than any words – which is not to say that there may be occasions when some words of reassurance are called for. But the main thing is that we should be totally present.
Dom Bede Griffiths wrote, ‘There is a deep centre in your being where God is always present. In this deep centre you are loved by God. You are in Him and He is in you.’
Similarly St Augustine wrote, ‘I was searching without while you were within, more inward than my most inmost self’, a view echoed by that great mystic, Meister Eckhart: ‘God is closer to me than myself.’
It is interesting that Jung, as a psychologist, wrote, ‘Every day I am thankful to God that I have been allowed to experience the reality of the Divine Image within me.’ As Jesus also said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.’
Slowly, if we persevere in deep meditation, each of us will come to this realisation. God is indefinable, but we shall sense a presence within us, and around us. Indeed, as Joseph Campbell once wrote, ‘One has only to know and trust and the ageless guardians will appear.’ We are never alone.
When the pain of rejection or the experience of someone’s animosity is so intense, we need to breathe in the pain and then release it on the outgoing breath. We take the spear right into our hearts. We breathe in the pain and then release it. And, if need be, we do this for half an hour or whatever is the length of our meditation. It won’t automatically heal the wound, but if we persevere we sense a change, perhaps even learning to accept that there are some situations in life which may never be resolved.
I am reminded of an exercise I often used in my ritual workshops. People would form pairs and, seated in chairs facing each other, would be asked to gaze into their partner’s eyes for twenty minutes, never looking away, but gazing as lovers do. In this silence, in this gazing, each enters deeply into the other, unafraid, becoming naked and vulnerable, meeting at a depth that we rarely achieve.
I am reminded too of the story of the Buddha’s wordless sermon. It tells how, towards the end of his life, he was sitting out of doors with his disciples when he picked a flower and, without saying anything, held it up. Alone among the group one young monk, looked at the Buddha, smiled and nodded. The Buddha smiled back, for he knew that the monk had understood in silence what no words could express.
We live at a time when, increasingly, we need to study and absorb other religious traditions, for the emergence of a global society has brought with it the idea that we must develop a new consciousness and identity as world citizens, finding enrichment by relating to wider perspectives.
The only true way forward is the way within. It is a movement that must well up within each one of us. The way forward is quite simply the way inwards. That is the way in.