The material world about is visible to us. What we can see with our own eyes, touch with our own hands, we can verify. But the invisible world, the reality beyond the present reality, which we cannot physically touch or see – how to verify that? There is no way, scientifically or intellectually, that we can come by such knowledge, for it is knowledge of another order. No one can be argued into a knowledge of God. Truth remains a revelation. No one can be talked into falling in love. Love remains an experience. And in the silence of meditation there will come a knowledge that has nothing to do with questionnaires or encyclopedias, a knowledge that cannot be proved scientifically or even pinned down into words – and yet it is a knowledge of unshaken and unshakable surety.
‘Our real journey,’ wrote Thomas Merton, ‘is interior. It is a matter of growth, deepening and of an ever-greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts. Never was it more necessary to respond to that action. I pray that we may all do so.’
So many people today hunger for the things of the spirit which all too often they do not find within our churches or synagogues. And yet the treasure that is beyond all price is waiting there for us, as Teilhard de Chardin discovered:
And so, for the first time in my life perhaps – although I am supposed to meditate every day!- I took the lamp and leaving the zone of every day preoccupations and relationships where everything seems clear, I went down into my inmost self, to the deep abyss whence I felt that my power of action emanates… but I became aware that I was losing contact with myself. At each step of the descent a new person was disclosed within me… And when I had tostop my exploration because the path faded from beneath my steps, I found a bottomless pit at my feet, and out of it came – arising I know not where – the current which I dare to call my life.
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.
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!
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.’