A friend once sent me a card of the Upper Basilica of St Clement in Rome: ‘James, I lit a candle and said a prayer for you here.’
Lighting a candle in church is an act of poetry as well as piety. Electric candles are not the same. They do not have that quality of a wax candle which diminishes even as its flame stretches upwards, so that, in giving light, it is at the same time disappearing. The candle is a living, vibrant presence. When we leave a church, we know that, as the candle we lit dies down, it will be replaced by other candles and other flames, just as other prayers will be added to ours.
All over the world people are coming and going in churches and temples, lighting candles and votive lamps, and saying prayers. We think of the tongues of fire at Pentecost and are reminded of how, now more than ever perhaps, people long to be set on fire and inspired. As we read in the Book of Esdras, ‘I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart, which shall not be put out.’
The weather is constantly changing: one day there is blazing heat, on another day drenching rain which causes floods and ruins people’s homes; while other days are simply cloudy or damp. And so it is with our emotions. It is here that a particular mantra can be of very practical use. Some time ago I read about one such mantra in an article by a Catholic nun who had been to India to learn meditation from a famous guru. He taught the following: ‘Today I feel lousy; it will pass.’ ‘Today I feel wonderful; it will pass.’ A very salutary mantra!
The writer Pearl Binder once remarked, ‘I always travel slowly and obscurely, on cargo ships and slow trains. I travel for the sake of what I see on the way.’ Today, however, we seem more concerned with getting as quickly as possible from A to Z. How rarely on a train journey do we put down our mobile phones and look out of the window at the passing scenery?
There are times when, though we lower our bucket down into the well of meditation, the source seems to have dried up. What is the point of it all? we cry. And yet, unknown to use, there are many mountain springs deep down, so that, if we persevere, then our well begins to fill again.
It is the same in any marriage or committed relationship. The American author Madeleine L’Engle, writing in Two-Part Invention, observes:
The growth of love is not a straight line but a series of hills and valleys. I suspect that in every good marriage there are times when love seems to be over. Sometimes these desert lines are simply the only way to the next oasis. Most growth comes through times of trial.
And so it is with the practice of meditation.
Society can only be renewed by renewing individuals. And in order to do this we have to give individuals the opportunity to contact their own inner resources. As the psychotherapist Ira Progoff once observed:
We gradually discover that our life has been going somewhere, however blind we have been to its direction, and however unhelpful to it we ourselves have been. We find that a connective thread has been forming beneath the surface of our lives, carrying the meaning that has been trying to establish itself in our existence. It is the inner continuity of our lives. As we recognise and identify with it, we see an inner myth that has been guiding our lives unknown to ourselves.
Joyce Grenfell once said, ‘I think what I am doing is losing Joyce Grenfell and finding out the person God made me, as in the quotation, ‘become what you are’, in other words become what your true potential is, your spiritual wholeness.’
Carl Jung maintained that we each begin with a blueprint for life. Each one of us has an unique destiny. But what counts is how we relate to that destiny. It is like being given a hand of playing cards. Some are given a good hand, with all the aces, and yet end up throwing away their chances; while there are others who start off with a poor hand but, by playing skilfully, end up winning the game. We each have a destiny but we are not pre-destined. It is our task to work with our individual destiny and yet, at the same time, allow life to shape and make us, for there are surprises in every game and we have to learn how to improvise, how to remain open to the unexpected and to absorb it into the final blueprint. If we are to live our meaning, to sing our own song, tell our own tale, before we go hence, then we have to be prepared to go on a journey into the interior, in search of the riches that lie within each one of us.
Keep up your practice. The results do not happen fast; this is no instant realisation. And as you practise, you will become aware of a change of consciousness. Do not become attached to your method, for when your consciousness changes, you will recognise that all methods are intending the one goal.
In other words, persevere in practice but also be open to change.
The suicide rate for young people, especially men, has risen sharply in recent times. In addition to this there is a major problem which no Government has yet begun to consider seriously, namely that as technology takes over more and more jobs, increasingly people are going to be without meaningful occupation or purpose to their lives. And so there is an urgent need to find an inner centre which, all too often, our churches no longer provide. For some, if they can afford it, therapy can help, but even simpler is the practice of silent meditation which enables one to reach the centre of one’s being and to become more aware of how each of us is meant to live our lives. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of our times.
I have never forgotten the first time I saw Martha Graham dance her work Errand into Maze, in which we saw her enter the labyrinth, there to meet the Minotaur. At first she was too terrified to glance at it. Then came the moment when she turned and looked it full in the face and, overcoming her fear, mounted it and rode it triumphantly out of the maze. The Monster is, of course, the beast that is in each of us, what Jung referred to as our shadow side. Until we have come to terms with it – Jung referred to this as the individuation process – the monster within will seek to wreak havoc. I think this is what lies behind the story of St Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio which was killing local people and creating havoc. It strikes me as a marvellous illustration of the need to tame our own inner wolf, just as the story of St Francis of Assisi embracing the leper is another illustration of our having to have the courage to embrace our dark side and bring it under control, harnessing its energies.
There are a variety of forms of meditation, and we each have to find the one that works for us, and stay with it, although, after years of practice, we may find ourselves changing the form. Sometimes it is enough to mentally repeat a particular phrase, over and over again during our half hour. Thus recently I found myself repeating the phrase ‘Be still’. The quiet repetition of these two words, sometimes just staying with the word ‘be’ or the word ‘still’, allowing the words to sink deeper and deeper into our sub-conscious, is a powerful stilling of the ever-active mind. It is also a good practice to mentally repeat our mantra at intervals throughout the day and whenever we wake in the night.