Our civilisation would seem to be approaching extinction. While employing every means to try and alert mankind to the dangers that lie ahead, sadly, tragically, few of the world’s politicians seem aware that we stand at the edge of a precipice. So, what can we, as individuals, do? Become better human beings! To be aware of what lies beyond this present existence, and especially how we relate to one another, for at this time of global trial, we are more involved than ever. Once again we come to the two commands that Jesus gave: to love God (however we interpret that word) with all our heart, and to love our neighbour as ourself. Unless we learn these lessons our civilisation will disappear. These are indeed sombre times.
‘Silence is Golden,’ goes the proverb. Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, calls it ‘The perfectest herald of joy … I were but little happy, if I could say how much’. And Hamlet, at the end of his tortured journey, declares, ‘The rest is silence.’
One of the fruits of meditation is that we become less prone to impose our own ideas and more aware that, just as there is a time to speak, so there is also a time to be silent. The media is awash with words, so that one is reminded of T S Eliot’s question: ‘Where is the wisdom that has been lost in knowledge, and where is the knowledge that has been lost in information?’ One of the great joys of a deeply committed relationship with another human being is when neither feels the need to speak, but is simply content to rest in the deep silence of love.
Even if you pay a considerable sum to learn Mindfulness meditation, this does not qualify you in any way. We each make our individual journey, and it is a journey that will continue well beyond this present existence. There are no diplomas in enlightenment!
A few may approach the summit of awareness, such as Thomas Merton, the Buddha, Dom Bede Griffiths, St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Rumi, and many of the Jewish mystics. But even they will find more ranges to climb and explore. Meanwhile, the rest of us plod along! We are the foot troops. And in that sense we encourage others, showing that the journey into silence is possible for everyone.
In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, The Secret Garden, the orphan Mary asks her guardian if she may have a bit of earth.
‘Earth?’ he replies. ‘What do you mean?’
‘To plant things in. To make things grow. To see them come alive.’
‘Do you care about gardens so much? A bit of earth?’ he asks. ‘Then you can have as much earth as you want. When you see a bit of earth you want, take it, child, and make it come alive.’
Which is exactly what Mary does with the help of Dickon and the old gardener.
When we nurture the seeds of meditation in our inner garden we, too, begin to come alive at a deeper level. Happiness is elusive: it comes and goes. What grows and becomes evergreen in our innermost garden is contentment.
The plant that you have in your house, have you ever truly looked at it? Have you allowed that familiar yet mysterious being called ‘plant’ to teach you its secret? Have you noticed how it is surrounded by a field of stillness? The moment you become aware of a plant’s emanation of stillness and peace, that plant becomes your teacher.
When we emerge from meditation we often encounter people and things as if for the first time, seeing them in their essence. The practice of meditation leads us to a deeper and fresher awareness of all things and of each another.
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.’
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.’