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.’
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!
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!
‘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.
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.’
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?
We should not be distressed by lapses from grace. They may well be necessary. We may have been trying too hard, or have become inflated by what we imagine as our progress in the practice of meditation, so that a sudden fall jerks us back to earth. It is like the game of Snakes and Ladders. In our practice we shall, time and again, slide to the bottom of the snake. As Jesus said, ‘No one, having put their hand to the plough and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of Heaven.’ We plod on!