At intervals in life it is important to do what Robert Frost described as ‘taking time out for re-assembly’. A visit to the country can often be nourishing to the spirit, for Nature is in itself deeply healing. Taking long walks and eating quietly on one’s own are also beneficial. It can help to make a note of whatever significant dreams occur during such a period of retreat (making sure to write them down at once before they vanish.) We must not try to solve them like crossword puzzles; but, rather, take them with us for long walks and reflect on what each is trying to tell, for such significant dreams come from a very deep part within us where all wisdom is stored. And for all couples occasional times of withdrawal can be crucially important. As Khalil Gibran wrote of marriage, ‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness.’
Jesus’s command to his followers is not as simple as it sounds. We have first to learn how to love ourselves before we can love anyone else. That does not mean being self-obsessed, but learning to come to terms with our own contradictions, hidden aggressions, lusts, vanities – with what Jung termed our shadow side. Only then can we love our neighbour as ourself, without any projections or expectations, but simply to be alongside them when needed.
We once seemed to have lost a sense of community and neighbourliness, especially in towns and cities; but the lockdown of 2020 during the pandemic has begun to revive awareness of our neighbours, as people reach out to each other in ways that have not been seen for many decades.
There are those who take every word said by Jesus literally, forgetting that he spoke in images rather than arguments, for his mainly unsophisticated rural audiences. Thus, when he said, ‘Take up your cross and follow me,’ he didn’t mean a path of suffering such as he himself had to undergo, dying on a cross.
A cross is a symbol of the intersection of two paths, hence the image of the crossroads. As Bani Shorter observes in If Ritual Dies, ‘Crossings and crossroads are of deep symbolic meaning in life. It was Hermes, the messenger of the gods, who was guardian at the crossroads in ancient Greece. There, where one is challenged by change of direction and choice, one encounters one’s god.’ Taking up our cross implies integrating the opposites within ourselves – which is indeed a lifetime task.
Carl Gustav Jung, in a famous television interview, responded to the question, ‘Do you believe in God?’ with ‘I don’t believe: I know.’ As Jung wrote elsewhere, ‘Suddenly I understood that God was, for me at least, one of the most certain and immediate of experiences.’ Belief in a God is not dependent upon going to church, temple or synagogue, and observing all the rules and regulations, which can be but just a matter of form. It rests upon an inner conviction of a relationship with that which is beyond our intellectual understanding but which, deep down in the very centre of our being, we recognise as the Absolute in our lives.
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche writes:
To learn how to die is to learn how to live. To learn how to live is to learn how to act not only in this life, but in the lives to come.
Not everyone will accept the idea of re-incarnation, but it is important to appreciate, as he says, that ‘everything is inextricably related: we come to realise that we are responsible for everything we do, say or think, indeed for the entire universe’.
When Hywel Jones, my partner of 54 years, was dying of a brain tumour and came home for the last two weeks of his life, I would silently say Hail Mary’s for him, knowing that the eternal Mother was holding him, as well as his own angel. There was pain in realising that I would no longer be able to kiss those lips or embrace him, but I would sit in deep silence alongside him, knowing that all was well.
Where did this acceptance come from? I recall a friend writing to me about the death of her husband: ‘Oh, how I wish I had your faith. When you lose the one you love, the rest of your life is like a journey on a long road where you might be ambushed at any time, around any corner, as in the old days of highwaymen. Now it is tears that come from nowhere and you have to pick yourself up again and smile, and drive on to the end.’
We each have to learn how to navigate our way through waters so deep and difficult that many drown or merely skim across the surface. For every individual the journey through bereavement will vary.
When Jesus says, ‘In my Father’s house there are many mansions,’ I think of this as ‘many dimensions’. People who have had a Near-Death Experience overwhelmingly report a feeling of certainty that life continues after we have deceased. Those who have had such an experience – and there are now millions of recorded instances – speak of death as nothing other than a different state of being. They set less store by money and material possessions, and report instead a deepening of spiritual values. They realise that everything and everybody is connected.
I have never forgotten how, when I went up to Oxford to be interviewed for a place at New College, I was met by two sons of the writer (and translator of the play Lady Precious Stream) S.I. Hsiung, who was at that time Head of Chinese Studies at the university. They met me, entertained me and then insisted on walking me back to where I was staying, some two miles outside Oxford. When I protested, they replied, ‘Confucius says: “Always go the extra mile!”’
Bible stories such as The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son no longer seem to find much resonance in today’s culture, as few people have been brought up on the teachings of Jesus. Yet each of these stories has a profound psychological meaning and is as relevant today as in the past. In throwing out conventional Christian teachings, we have lost much wisdom and insight into human nature. Each of the major religions has stories, spun from human experience, that can deepen our understanding. 40,000 homeless people sleep on the streets of New York every night. The story of The Good Samaritan is as relevant today as it ever was.
The Sufi master Llewelyn Vaughan-Lee writes in one of his books, ‘There are as many routes to God as there are individuals.’ As the composer John Taverner said, ‘ There is only one absolute being. Whether you call it God, Allah or Brahman, God gave to each tradition different Saviours and Avatars. Christ is God for the Christian world, as Krishna is God for the Hindus.’ We have to go beyond labels to what lies at the very heart of existence. As a small boy, whom I have quoted before, once said to me with passion, ‘God is a feel, not a think!’