In his journal, Markings,
Dag Hammarskjöld, former Secretary-General of the United Nations wrote, ‘Now. When
I have overcome my fears –of others, of myself, of the underlying darkness at
the frontier of the unheard-of. Here ends the known. But from a source beyond
it, something fills my being with its possibilities – at the frontier.’
At this time of the year many, especially the
elderly, find the long darkness of winter difficult. As one woman wrote to me,
‘This is always a bad time of the year for me. I seem to go down as the
darkness descends and only pick up a bit when it starts to get light again.’
no wonder, therefore, that our ancestors in the West grew fearful at this time
of the year, and lit beseeching fires that the Sun might not die but recover. And
each year, with the coming of the Winter Solstice, they regarded with wonder
the rebirth of the Sun, as light began to return, redeeming the darkness. The
old Celtic spirituality was deeply rooted in Nature, and it is from Nature that
we learn the ultimate lesson: that at the moment of deepest darkness light
returns – at midnight noon is born.
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:
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.
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