Sometimes in mid-life there is a wake-up call to change direction, realising we have other potentials. The privilege of a lifetime, wrote Carl Jung, is to become who you are. As Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses it:
Myself it speaks and spells,
Crying, ‘What I do is me: for that I came.’
Those who practise meditation and arrive at this station in their journey will be quicker to recognise the announcement: ‘All change’!
Any good counsellor knows that the greatest contribution they can make to a person who comes to them in extremis, is not to offer any kind of ‘solution’, but rather to enable the person to tell their story in all its complexity. ‘Let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication,’ cries the Psalmist.
In my book Older I give an example of perfect listening. When I was being prepared for ordination at Glasshampton Monastery in Worcester, Brother Gregory told me how he had received a letter from the headmaster of a major public school asking if he would see a sixteen-year-old boy who was heavily into drugs. Brother Gregory saw the boy. Some weeks later he received a letter from the headmaster: ‘I don’t know what you said but he is completely changed.’
Brother Gregory smiled as he told me this and added, ‘I didn’t say a word! I simply listened.’ Clearly the quality of his listening acted as a mirror in which the boy could see himself. The lesson is that the more we practise silence in our meditation, the better able we shall be to respond to others by giving them our complete attention.
For Etty Hillesum, the most important skill to be learned in the spiritual life was the skill of listening. In one of her last letters from the transit camp before she was put on the train for Auschwitz, she wrote to a friend, ‘Things come and go in a deeper rhythm, and people must be taught to listen; it is the most important thing we have to learn in this life.’ On 17 September 1942, aware of her own exhaustion in the midst of that terrible war, she wrote:
Even if one’s body aches, the spirit can continue to do its work, can it not? It can love and ‘hearken unto’ itself and others and unto what binds us to life. Truly my life is one long hearkening unto myself and unto others, unto God. And if I say that I hearken, it is really God who hearkens inside me. The most essential and the deepest in me hearkening unto the most essential and deepest in the other. God to God.
Loneliness has become a symptom of the times in which we live. In the U.K. alone some 7.7 million people live alone, while the Alzeimer’s Society reports that 5 million people over 75 say their only company is television.
In addition to this, we know that, rather than feeling more linked with their peers as a result of digital technology, some children are feeling increasingly isolated. One can have a thousand friends on Facebook but not one with a flesh and blood face.
We must never lose the precious sense of being part of a community. In the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, ‘The greatest suffering in the world is being lonely, feeling unloved, just having no-one. I have come more and more to realise that the worst disease today that any human being can experience is being unwanted.’
We all travel two paths: an outer path which involves certain goals such as the exercise of ambition and commitment to a task; and an interior path. All too often the pressures of the first can result in a failure to nurture the inner self, with the result that, on reaching a peak of outward success, some people feel an emptiness within themselves.
I think often of a remark made by Joyce Grenfell during one of her lunchtime dialogues at St Mary-le-Bow in London: ‘I am less and less interested in being Joyce Grenfell the performer,’ she said, ‘and more and more in becoming the person God meant me to be.’ It is only when we are still, when we have learned to listen to the promptings of the heart, of that still small voice within each of us, that we begin to perceive who we are meant to be.
Personal note from James:
For those who may read these blogs and who are in their ninth or tenth decade (I am in the latter). If when meditating you find you fall fast asleep, don’t worry! Such a sleep is often very deep and healing. Regard it as a gift! In the late 1970s when I was at Glasshampton Monastery in Worcestershire, preparing for ordination, I would spend three or four hours each evening in the chapel in silent meditation. My only other companion was Brother David, then aged 80, who had been the first Provincial Minister of the Society of St.Francis. He would sit in his pew wrapped in a plaid shawl given him by a Scottish shepherd, while I would sit at the back of the chapel. Sometimes I observed he fell fast asleep, but always there was such a stillness about him. Whether we are awake or asleep we are always in the Presence. Accept what comes as a gift from the beyond!
We are in danger of becoming like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland: ‘I’m late, I’m late for a very important date. No time to say “Hello – Goodbye!”’ We find ourselves constantly rushing places, caught up in a whirl of activity, afraid to stand still for a moment … until one day we wake up and find that time has run out like sand through an hourglass. Then, like Richard II, we realise, ‘I wasted Time and now doth Time waste me.’ Suddenly, with a shock, we realise our time is up. It is because we don’t take time that repeatedly we fail to heed the wisdom that is in our bodies, in our dreams and intuitions. Yet once we do begin to listen then we realise, as in the words of the famous passages from Ecclesiastes, that ‘For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under the sun.’
When I was young we were all taught – either in school or from our parents and grandparents – many proverbs, which are kernels of practical wisdom. Sadly, most of these now belong to the past. But one could take any one of the following and mentally repeat it during the day, as a way of letting its wisdom penetrate one’s consciousness.
First in my list is one that I have very much lived by:
‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’
There are countless other such pearls of wisdom.
‘Opportunity didn’t knock until I built a door.’
‘When one door shuts another opens.’
‘Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today.’
‘A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what a ship is for.’
‘As you sow so shall you reap.’
‘If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain.’
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’
There are many more. See which appeals to you today!
‘I listen all day to what is inside me,’ wrote Etty Hillesum. Most people will meditate for perhaps fifteen minutes a day or even thirty, but Etty sets the example of an ongoing practice which might take the form of mentally repeating one’s mantra, or simply withdrawing into the inner silence, while doing chores. It is what a seventeenth-century Carmelite, Brother Lawrence, called The Practice of the Presence of God. As someone who wakes several times in the night I often find myself whispering into the darkness the words of the mantra I was given: ‘God is present. God is here. God is now.’ Repeated at intervals throughout the day it becomes a lifeline connecting one to the deep centre within one.
At a time when institutional religion is in decline there is, nonetheless, a deep hunger for authentic spirituality. This is where the story of a young Jewish woman studying in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, when thousands of Jews were being deported to Auschwitz (where she herself was to die aged 29) has become an inspiration to so many. She had no religious background, never went near a rabbi or synagogue, and never spent a large sum of money learning mindfulness meditation. She taught herself to meditate and in the process this is what she found:
Not thinking but listening to what is going on inside you. If you do that for a while every morning you acquire a kind of calm that illumines the whole day. I listen all day to what is inside me, and even when I am with others I am able to draw strength from the most deeply hidden source in myself. There is really a deep well inside me and in it dwells God. God is our greatest and most continuous adventure.
From: Etty Hillesum, A Life Transformed, by Patrick Woodhouse.
All myths of the frontier are maps of an interior reality. At the deepest level the frontier is within each one of us. And the frontier leads to others that we must cross as we search for the unfolding mystery of life and its meaning. Only at the end of the journey may it be said of us, as it was of Gilgamesh, ‘He was wise, he saw mysteries, and knew secret things. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn out with labour, and returning, engraved on stone the whole story.’