Last year Zuleika Books published Older, a day by day journal of my 91st year. The reason for mentioning it is that often people say to me, ‘I am old!’ and I reply, ‘No: you are older.’ The word ‘old’ with its final ‘d’ is like a heavy door slamming, whereas the word ‘older’ more accurately reminds us that life is a journey of continual learning. As T.S. Eliot wrote (and had he been writing in prose he would also have added ‘women’) ‘Old men should be explorers still.’
The practice of meditation should not make us complacent but, rather, deepen our awareness of others and enable us to listen in depth to what is often a sub-text: they are talking about one thing but we sense there is something else they are wanting to say and if we listen, we shall eventually hear it.
This is why in the summer I sometimes invite our meditation group, which meets once a month, to sit in a circle outside in the garden, and, rather than try to shut out all the sounds, to be aware of them. We hear an aeroplane, an ambulance going by, children playing, birds singing, and we slowly become aware of the sap rising in plants and trees. We don’t try and shut all this out, but rest in a deep inner silence.
For some 50 years I lived in an attic flat in Belsize Park Gardens, high above the tree tops. It had a balcony and often in the summer I would sleep out. At night I would lie gazing up at the brilliance of stars, the moving pageant of clouds and the changing shapes of the moon. Sometimes very early in the morning I would be woken to hear and see a flight of birds crossing the sky like some calligraphy. .
In the West our relationship with Nature barely exists ,which is why the National Trust has launched a major scheme to encourage people to explore the countryside. How few children today get to climb trees, kick up autumn leaves , or watch hares boxing. And while lockdown has encouraged more people to take long walks, how many actually stop to sit on a bench for say fifteen minutes, keeping very still, being aware of the life around them.
Trees alone have so much to teach us as our forefathers and mothers knew in these maxims :
What is well rooted survives.
As the twig bends so the tree will grow.
Severed branches grow again. (to all who have been wounded, emotionally or physical, such words bring reassurance.)
Every tree is known by its fruit.
A rotten tree bears rotten fruitful.
Trees are full of secrets.
It is as St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, ‘ What I know of the divine sciences and holy writ 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, stones will teach you more than you can acquire from the mouth of a teacher.’
In Frances Hodgson Burnet’s The Secret Garden little Mary, the orphan, asks her guardian if she may have a piece of earth. ‘A piece of earth?’ kh repeats. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘to plant things in, to make things grow.’ He replies ‘Child, when you see a piece of earth, take it and make it come alive!’
Which is exactly what Mary, aided by Dickon and Colin, does when they discover the secret garden. They weed it, they plant it -and then what do they do? They sit cross-legged and meditate!
And this reminds me of some words of Rumi ‘When we nurture the seeds of meditation in our inner garden we begin to come alive at a deeper level than that of mere happiness. Happiness is elusive, it comes and goes. What grows and becomes evergreen in our innermost garden is contentment.’
In my bedroom hang two brush and ink drawings given to me by an American-Chinese artist. The first is of a Buddhist monk with a tall staff setting off on his journey into a thick wall of mist. This is an image of our journey in meditation. Day in, month in, patiently we persevere in this cloud of unknowing. The second picture shows the same monk seated cross-legged on a precipice, looking down at a storm raging in the valley below. And so, at times when we are meditating, hidden resentments, jealousies, lusts, distractions may assail us. Our task is not to try and repress them but to look them steadily in the face and then continue our silent meditation. Meditation is about letting go, emptying ourselves so that we may be filled with silence and all the richness that arises from our unconscious.
Christians make the sign of the cross, thinking in terms of the Trinity, but this sign, this meeting of the opposites, is to be found in many cultures throughout history. We reach upwards for strength and draw it down deep into us. Having done that, we then make a horizontal line, from left to right, cutting across the vertical. And it is at the centre of this tension that we unite the opposites within us.
As Carl Jung wrote, ‘Collectively we cannot do anything; the only place where we can do anything is in ourselves.’ If we are in the place where all opposites are united, it has an inexplicable effect upon our surroundings. It is in this sense that I make the sign of the cross before meditating.
Just as we clutter our lives with many possessions so, when we meditate, distractions assail us as we go round and round this and that. Yet we have to learn how to let go and be an empty vessel that can be filled. Be still and know!
For his distinctive contribution in exploring over 65 years the relationship between art and life, the creative and the spiritual.
James Roose-Evans has made a special contribution to the theatre and the arts, considered as a vehicle for the Spirit. His own autobiographical or semi-autobiographical works (Inner Journey, Outer Journey, Opening Doors and Windows, and Blue Remembered Hills) show something of his spiritual journey – the background to his ordination in mid-life and his work to establish the very remarkable Bleddfa Centre for Spirituality and the Arts in Radnorshire in 1974, making use both of a redundant church and its neighbouring outbuildings and of his experience in spiritual practice. His interest in theatre and ritual has also led to important publications. His writing is vivid and fresh, and he combines an unfussed candour about his own experience (including his sexuality as a gay man who spent many years in a committed relationship) with a hospitable and literate curiosity about the classical sources of Christian spirituality and a clear, practical approach to how they are to be inhabited today. The Bleddfa venture grew out of many years of living part of the year in that remote area of Mid-Wales and ministering there in rural parishes when needed. There is an impressively ‘rooted’ quality to what he writes, and some of his books could stand alongside Kilvert’s diaries as a witness to local life in the area. The combination of his formidable reputation in the professional theatre (where he is a very highly regarded director indeed) with his record as a teacher and communicator of spiritual tradition is unusual if not unique
Did you know, you can watch videos of James all in one place? Visit the videos page.
It is said that when you tell a child the name of a bird he or she no longer sees the bird but only a sparrow, a thrush, a swan. Too often we never see beyond the label. And so it is with religion, with the result that for many the word ‘God’ gets in the way of the reality that lies behind the word. It comes with too much baggage, especially all the anthropomorphic images of God as an elderly gentleman with a long beard seated on a throne! As the great Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart wrote, ‘God is no thing’.
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:
What 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 an hour’.
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 reward.
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.’