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 us.
‘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.
‘Learn to carry conflicts – don’t force solutions. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them.’
So wrote Sister Maria, a nun in the Orthodox tradition.
Pondering these words I thought back to something Dr Franz Elkisch told me in connection with his visits, as a Jungian analyst, to the Carmelite nuns at Quidenham in Norfolk who live in a house set in parkland which was given to them by the Duke of Marlborough.
On his first visit Dr Elkisch was invited to stay for three days. Each day he spoke to the whole community, whom he got to sit in a circle.
‘There is a need,’ he said, ‘not merely to let fresh air into such communities (this was in 1969) but also to let air out, to release the charged energy that builds up in such a community, in order to make easier the possibility of personal encounter.’
He spoke to them about the need to ponder and observe what was psychologically unfolding within each of them, and not to interfere with the process. ‘If I cut my hand, thousands of cells will at once set to work to heal it. If I keep removing the bandage to see how it is forming this will hinder the process. Similarly with the psyche – we must allow it to go about its own work of healing.’
Referring to the magnificent trees in the park, he added, ‘If a tree could speak, I would ask it: “Where did you get your great beauty? How did you come to grow so tall?” And the tree would reply, “By doing nothing. One must allow things to happen.”’
Perhaps because I was born in November, I have always loved the Autumn when the trees shed their leaves like rags, revealing the essential shape and beauty of their trunks and branches. Jesus said ‘Look at the birds of the air!’ but equally he might have said, ‘Look at the trees!’. Indeed, in the story of the mustard seed, he does.
If we can learn to let go of all pretensions and illusions and see ourselves as we really are, and others as they really are; if we can let go of our projections onto others, making of them heroes and heroines or villains; if we can let go of prejudice and greed, even of our own achievements and possessions – then our essential nature will emerge and with it a greater lightness and sense of humour!
As Robert Frost once said, ‘you have to grow by shedding’. This is why we need to have periods of spring cleaning ourselves – what Frost called ‘time out for re-assembly’.
I am also convinced that from time to time we need to make bigger changes, to clear the clutter in our inner attics so that there is space for something new to take its place. A garden has to be weeded constantly if the most precious plants are to flourish.
In The Quest of the Holy Grail the story is told of how King Arthur and his knights were seated at the Round Table when, to their amazement, the Holy Grail appeared, covered by a cloth and carried by angels.
When the vision of the Chalice withdrew King Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain, stood up and said, ‘I propose that we should all vow to go in pursuit of the Grail to behold it unveiled.’
We then read how the knights felt it would be cowardly to go as a group, so ‘each entered the forest that he had chosen where there was no path and where it was darkest’.
And so it is for us. Though often in life there appears to be no path and the way seems very dark, that is the way one must go. Each of us has to set out on his or her journey alone – comforted perhaps by the knowledge that on the way we may encounter others travelling in the same direction.
I have been reflecting much on this because of a recent visit to Salisbury where I directed a production of 84 Charing Cross Road and stayed in a cottage owned by the former stage designer of the Salisbury Theatre. He told me how he had been a designer for some years when one day, seated on a hill, he thought, ‘Do I want to go on churning out a new set every three weeks for the rest of my life?’ and then into his head came the word ‘Soil’. At that moment he resigned from his post at the theatre and became a jobbing gardener, cycling to work and tending some twenty or more gardens, earning a modest amount each week. He is one of the most contented and happy people I have ever met, simply because, to use the famous phrase of Joseph Campbell, he has been able to ‘follow his bliss’.
At the end of one’s life it is not a question of how successful or wealthy I may have become, but did I become the person I was meant to be? So many young people are pressured by parents to play safe, to become a lawyer, an accountant, a dentist, when all that they really want to be, and know they should be, is, perhaps, a jobbing gardener!