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:
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
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
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:
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
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.
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.