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: email@example.com
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!
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
‘Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man,’ wrote the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. It is only when we prefer analysis to silence, he says, that they become constant and insoluble problems. We are not meant to resolve all our contradictions but to live with them and rise above them. As the Orthodox nun Mother Maria used to say, ‘Learn to carry conflicts, don’t force solutions.’ And so, patiently, through the practice of meditation, we learn.
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.’
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.