It is said that when you tell a child the name of a bird he or she no longer sees the bird but only a sparrow, a thrush, a swan. Too often we never see beyond the label. And so it is with religion, with the result that for many the word ‘God’ gets in the way of the reality that lies behind the word. It comes with too much baggage, especially all the anthropomorphic images of God as an elderly gentleman with a long beard seated on a throne! As the great Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart wrote, ‘God is no thing’.
The world around us, the world of nature is our best teacher. One has only to sit quietly in a garden in spring, in the early hours, to become aware of an intricate trajectory of invisible lines criss-crossing the garden as birds flit and whirr about their tasks, never colliding. We, too, are birds of passage and yet we are a part of the whole. We move through time, yet eternity is all about us. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote:
What I know of the divine sciences and holy scripture, I learnt in the woods and fields. I have had no other masters than the beeches and the oaks. You will learn more in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you more than you can acquire from the mouth of a teacher.
Which also is why, whenever we can, it is good to meditate out of doors, in a garden or a park, aware of all life around us learning, in the words of William Blake, to ‘see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour’.
Time and again I am moved by the sheer goodness of those who practise no religion yet whose lives are like lanterns illuminating the surrounding darkness. Perhaps the most vivid example of such goodness is that of the fire-fighters who raced into the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11, at risk to their own lives, unconcerned with self, not seeking any fame or reward.
Mathew Parris, writing in The Times, recently commented on how ‘from time to time one meets people from whom goodness simply leaps. These people have something extra-ordinary. Could it be God? I ask myself. Is God the explanation of human goodness?’ The answer strikes him with absolute clarity. ‘There is no need,’ he concludes, ‘to explain human goodness. It exists. It is a positive fact. It can be seen and not only in the devout. Goodness is human, not divine.’
That such goodness is endemic in human nature was acknowledged by Pope John Paul II in his Lenten message for 2003 in which he said, ‘The inclination to give is rooted in the depths of the human heart: every person is conscious of a desire to interact with others and everyone finds fulfilment in a free gift of self to others.’
The word ‘spirituality’ seems to appear with increasing frequency in the media, as in this article from The Times:
There is a spiritual crisis all over the western world. People hunger for a framework of meaning and purpose that can transcend the individualism and selfishness of the competitive market. They want to be connected to some higher vision of good and find some way for their lives to contribute to that good.
Spirituality refers to that dimension which gives meaning to our lives. It would appear to be part of our make-up as human beings. Our spiritual journey is as one with our emotional and psychological journey. The practice of meditation can play an important role in clearing the ground for the growth of the spiritual, for until we can view objectively our often irrational behaviour it is difficult for the spiritual to grow.
I know that quite a few who have a regular practice of meditation, including myself, are finding it difficult to concentrate in these testing times. It all becomes a struggle. The virus has brought a hidden fear that is bound to affect us and also affect our bodies in one form or another: perhaps an all-over itching, or an increasing difficulty in sleeping. It is not surprising since we are all living in a time of rare global crisis.
And so it may help to practice the open-eyed meditation (which I describe in Finding Silence), to sit with open eyes, focused on whatever lies ahead of us: plants, trees, birds, and simply rest in the knowledge that we are not alone.
We may like to take as our mantra at such a time the words:
Thou, o Lord, art in the midst of us.
With love, James
Thus declares Prospero in The Tempest, speaking of the monster Caliban whom earlier he had called ‘a demi-devil’.
The story of St. Francis taming the wild wolf of Gubbio is symbolic of the need we each have to tame our inner wolf, that aspect which Jung refers to as our ‘shadow’. All too easily we project our darker side – meanness, jealousy, lust, anger – onto others and fail to see that it lies within us.
A commonly recurring image in dreams is that of a house in which unsuspected rooms are discovered, or dry rot is found. In such dreams, as also in reality, a person may have within them many locked rooms which have never been entered, where the shutters remain unopened and no light penetrates. It is not surprising, therefore, that we speak of ‘skeletons in cupboards’.
Until we have learned to open up all our rooms, whether through meditation or some form of therapy, we cannot expect to grow spiritually. It is like a garden. Until the ground is cleared of weeds, bright new shoots cannot break through.
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.
A note from James:
In my last blog, I quoted a verse by Elizabeth Mills. She has now produced a small book entitled, ‘The Beauty of Stillness‘ which offers simple reflections, one for each day. This book is endorsed by Laurence Freeman OSB, Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation Movement. Copies are £2.50 plus postage and you can order yours by contacting Elizabeth: firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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!