The last line of R.S. Thomas’ poem Kneeling reads, ‘The meaning is in the waiting.’ When we pray or meditate we should not expect manna to fall from heaven. As T.S. Eliot says in Little Gidding, ‘Prayer is more than an order of words.’ We stand at a door. We knock. And we wait. Sometimes – often – it seems as though no one is going to open that door. Then there are days when the door opens an inch or two and we hear music as from another room. It is the sound of that music, heard however briefly, that encourages to persevere. Often without our being consciously aware, something is being worked through at a deep level within us: old problems resolved, old enmities, jealousies, lusts, angers, anxieties.
‘Death is indeed a fearful piece of brutality. There is no sense in pretending otherwise,’ Carl Jung wrote on the death of Emma, his beloved wife of 52 years. But, he added, ‘from another point of view death appears as a joyful event … in which the soul attains its missing half. It is a wedding.’ To this day it is the custom in many parts of the world to hold a picnic on the graves of departed ones on All Souls’ Day. Such communal rituals express the feeling that death is really a festive occasion. When we die our deeds – how we have lived our lives – will follow along with us, and so it is important that, at the end, we do not stand with empty hands! Such a reflection reminds us of the importance of each one of us living our lives to the full, fulfilling our individual destinies.
When a loved one walks out of our lives, or a beloved parent, child or friend dies, the pain is so overwhelming that it is impossible to meditate. Nor should we attempt it. We have to live with the pain, endure it, talk aloud to ourselves, go for a long walks, weeping all the while, and talking also to the loved one who has gone. Which is worse? A loved one who walks away from our relationship, or one who dies? There is no comparison. In each case something in us also dies. All we can do, especially if we want to avoid the pitfall of self-pity, is to endure the pain, talk about it, and slowly, slowly, work our way through it. There are no easy answers and the journey is different for each of us. It also takes time. The important thing always to remember is the good things we enjoyed with the person who has gone, and what we have learned from them. Then, slowly, we can begin to move on and it becomes possible once again to sit in silent meditation, drawing from the deep well of healing within each one of us.
The practice of meditation is essentially a solitary one, but meditating with others on a regular basis, perhaps once a month, is a variation that brings a different experience. When a group shares in silence there can sometimes be a very deep sense of another presence in our midst. It was when the disciples were gathered together that the Spirit descended on them like tongues of fire. Such a shared silence begets a deep connection, and out of such groups strong friendships often develop. There is a sense of being part of a community, something that may be lacking in church services.
As we enter our seventies it can be a useful practice after meditation just to sit quietly and reflect on our lives, on our journey thus far – and what may yet be in store. It is important, as we approach the end of our lives, to fill our water-pots for the journey that lies ahead, in which we shall have to learn to let go of all familiar props (including everyday worries and anxieties) and accept whatever awaits us. If there is nothing beyond death, nonetheless it is important to know and feel we have lived our lives to the full. And if there is a continuity beyond this life, then it is important to be ready for the next stage of the journey.
Sometimes, rather than following the breath or saying our mantra, it is enough to sit quietly with gently open eyes. This is best done in a garden or a place where there are trees and plants. If there is water around so much the better. At first there may be nothing but a babble of internal trivia. We can’t control it but simply have to wait until all the mental mud settles and the pool of the mind becomes clear. ‘Launch into the deep’, says one writer, ‘and you shall see.’ The secret of seeing is a pearl of great price.
At intervals in life it is important to do what Robert Frost described as ‘taking time out for re-assembly’. A visit to the country can often be nourishing to the spirit, for Nature is in itself deeply healing. Taking long walks and eating quietly on one’s own are also beneficial. It can help to make a note of whatever significant dreams occur during such a period of retreat (making sure to write them down at once before they vanish.) We must not try to solve them like crossword puzzles; but, rather, take them with us for long walks and reflect on what each is trying to tell, for such significant dreams come from a very deep part within us where all wisdom is stored. And for all couples occasional times of withdrawal can be crucially important. As Khalil Gibran wrote of marriage, ‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness.’
Jesus’s command to his followers is not as simple as it sounds. We have first to learn how to love ourselves before we can love anyone else. That does not mean being self-obsessed, but learning to come to terms with our own contradictions, hidden aggressions, lusts, vanities – with what Jung termed our shadow side. Only then can we love our neighbour as ourself, without any projections or expectations, but simply to be alongside them when needed.
We once seemed to have lost a sense of community and neighbourliness, especially in towns and cities; but the lockdown of 2020 during the pandemic has begun to revive awareness of our neighbours, as people reach out to each other in ways that have not been seen for many decades.
There are those who take every word said by Jesus literally, forgetting that he spoke in images rather than arguments, for his mainly unsophisticated rural audiences. Thus, when he said, ‘Take up your cross and follow me,’ he didn’t mean a path of suffering such as he himself had to undergo, dying on a cross.
A cross is a symbol of the intersection of two paths, hence the image of the crossroads. As Bani Shorter observes in If Ritual Dies, ‘Crossings and crossroads are of deep symbolic meaning in life. It was Hermes, the messenger of the gods, who was guardian at the crossroads in ancient Greece. There, where one is challenged by change of direction and choice, one encounters one’s god.’ Taking up our cross implies integrating the opposites within ourselves – which is indeed a lifetime task.
Carl Gustav Jung, in a famous television interview, responded to the question, ‘Do you believe in God?’ with ‘I don’t believe: I know.’ As Jung wrote elsewhere, ‘Suddenly I understood that God was, for me at least, one of the most certain and immediate of experiences.’ Belief in a God is not dependent upon going to church, temple or synagogue, and observing all the rules and regulations, which can be but just a matter of form. It rests upon an inner conviction of a relationship with that which is beyond our intellectual understanding but which, deep down in the very centre of our being, we recognise as the Absolute in our lives.