Saturday, 22 June 2013

Cancer (1): Turning Back

Cancer, by Dan Hodgkin

Cancer is the sign of the summer solstice, when the sun begins to reverse its direction. The symbol of Cancer is the crab, a curious, scuttling creature which has its skeleton on the outside and which carries its house on its back. Cancer symbolises the urge to protect and to nourish and is associated with the family, the nation, traditions, memory - ‘the flag, mom, and apple pie’. Its virtue is loyalty, its vice clannishness, its motto, ‘Blood is thicker than water’. Along with its ‘ruler’ the moon, it is said to govern the stomach. The name of one of its stars, Ma’alaph means ‘numbered thousands’. Its decans are Ursa Major and Ursa Minor – The Great Bear and the Little Bear – and Argo, ‘the ship that conquered the waters’. Notice the strange ‘crab like’ journey Jesus makes in 7:31. (See map)

Mark 6:30-44

he apostles came back to Jesus and told him everything they’d done and taught. There was so much to-ing and fro-ing that they’d not had a chance to eat, so he said to them, ‘Come. Go off by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for a while.’ They went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted spot, but many people who’d seen and recognised them as they were setting off ran on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them. When Jesus disembarked he saw a huge crowd and he was moved with pity for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. He began to teach them many things. It was already late and his disciples came up to him and said, ‘This place is off the beaten track and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so that they can go into the surrounding towns and villages to buy themselves something to eat.’ Jesus replied, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said, ‘It would cost six months’ wages to feed them all!’ He said to them, ‘Go and see how many loaves you have.’ When they’d found out they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ He told the people to sit in groups on the green grass, so they sat down in groups of fifty or a hundred, looking like so many garden plots. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he blessed and broke the bread and gave it to his disciples to distribute. He also divided up the two fish. They all ate their fill and, after five thousand men had eaten, there was enough bread and fish left over to fill twelve baskets.

Mark 8: 1-10

 In those days, when once again there was a big crowd of people with nothing to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I’m concerned about the crowd because they’ve been with me three days and they’ve not eaten. If I send them off home hungry they’ll faint on the way, and some of them come from far away. His disciples replied, ‘Where can anyone get enough bread to satisfy these people in this lonely place. Jesus asked them, ‘How many loaves have you got?’ ‘Seven,’ they said. He gave orders to the crowd to sit down on the ground, and taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to the disciples who distributed them to the crowd. They also had a few little fish, and when he’d blessed them he told them to distribute these too. They ate their fill, and they collected up seven baskets full of leftovers. There were about for thousand men. Finally he let them all go.

Story: The Monkeys and the Caps

Aurangzeb sold caps for a living. He would travel to a village, set up his stall in the market place and sell his caps to the locals. One day, while travelling from one village to the next, he was very tired. The sun was shining, and he’d had a busy morning, so he put down his heavy sack of caps and sat down in the shade of a mango tree for a snooze. After an hour or so he woke up refreshed, but when he picked up his sack he found that it was empty. ‘Where are my caps?’ he thought. ‘I’m sure this sack was nearly full when I went to sleep.’  Just then he looked up into the tree and he saw a gang of monkeys each with a cap on its head. ‘Hey, those are my caps!’ shouted Aurangzeb. ‘Give them back to me!’ But the monkeys just seemed to mock him, imitating his shout. So he pulled a funny face, and each of the monkeys pulled a funny face, too. But they wouldn’t give him back his caps. He picked up a stone and threw it at the monkeys. They responded by throwing mangoes at him. He was really angry now, and in his frustration, he took off his own cap and threw it to the ground. The monkeys took off their caps and threw them to the ground! They were imitating him! Without further ado, Aurangzeb picked up all the caps from the grass, put them in his sack, and went on his way, thinking how clever he’d been to outsmart the monkeys.
     Fifty years later, Habib, Aurangzeb’s grandson, was selling caps. He’d inherited the family business. He was travelling from one village to the next on a hot day, and he felt he needed a rest. He sought out the shade of a mango tree, put down his sack of caps, and sat down for a snooze. He woke refreshed after an hour, but when he picked up his sack he found it was empty. ‘Where are my caps?’ he asked himself. ‘I’m sure this sack was nearly full when I went to sleep.’ Then he looked up into the trees and saw dozens of monkeys, each with a cap on his head.  How could he possibly get them back? Then something stirred in his brain. He remembered a story his grandfather had told him many years ago, about how he’d outwitted some monkeys by getting them to imitate him. So Habib stood up. He put up his right arm; the monkeys put up their right arms. Habib put up his left arm; the monkeys did the same. Habib scratched his nose; the monkeys scratched their noses. He pulled a face, rocked from side to side, stood on one leg. Each time the monkeys copied him. Then…….Habib took off his cap and threw it to the ground. The monkeys didn’t respond. So Habib tried again. He put up his right arm, his left arm; he scratched his nose, he pulled a face, rocked from side to side, stood on one leg. Each time the monkeys imitated his actions. Once again he put his hand to his head, took off his cap and threw it to the ground. No response from the monkeys.
            Feeling miserable, Habib picked up his empty sack and began to walk back home. He hadn’t gone far when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked round and saw a monkey with a big smile on its face. ‘Do you think you’re the only one with a grandfather?’ asked the monkey.

This sermon was given in Dublin on 24th June 2007

‘War is God’s way of teaching Americans Geography.’
Ambrose Bierce

Last Thursday, the 21st June, would have been my father’s one hundredth birthday. He was born on 21st June 1907 but, sadly, he died just a little short of his 72nd birthday, in April of 1979. The 21st of June is also the anniversary of my ordination as a Unitarian minister. I became a minister on 21st June 1994 at a ceremony held in Unitarian college Manchester, where I had been a student.
            So, the 21st June has special significance for me. But the significance of the day extends beyond my own parochial concerns. June 21st is the day of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the day on which the sun seems to change direction. Since last December, the sun has been moving higher and higher in the skies of the northern hemisphere; now it begins its slow journey downwards, the days becoming gradually shorter and shorter until, on December 21st, when there is barely any daylight, it will change direction once again
            These two solstice points – along with the two equinoxes - always had great significance for our ancestors, who were much more aware of these celestial cycles than we are, and who celebrated the ‘stations’ of the sun with parties and bonfires, singing and storytelling. Ancient sites in Ireland and Britain testify to the importance of the solstices to ancient peoples. Newgrange is primarily associated with the winter solstice, but Stonehenge marks the summer solstice, and there would have been plenty of activity around these two sites on Thursday last, as well as on the Hill of Tara in Co. Meath, and at Dowth in the Boyne valley. In some parts of the world, there have been revivals of ancient dances, in which men and women move in snake-like procession through the streets, imitating the undulating movements of the sun in its yearly cycle through the heavens.
            Today, Sunday the 24th June, is St. John the Baptist’s Day, exactly six months before Christmas Eve because, you remember, St. John the Baptist was said to be six months older than Jesus, and the Gospels consistently contrast these two figures, associating them, in my opinion, with the two solstices. Jesus, ‘the light of the world’, is born when the light is born in December; John is associated with the midsummer, when the light starts to decline. As John himself says in the Fourth Gospel, ‘He (meaning Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30)
The Sun rising over Stonehenge
On the day of the summer solstice the sun enters the zodiacal sign of Cancer, the Crab, but the crab is only one of a number of creatures that have been used as images of this sign: the tortoise, the crayfish, and the lobster have at various times and in various cultures been used to represent Cancer. These creatures have one thing in common; they seem to be embodiments of the principal of reversal, because they appear to be constructed inside out. The crab’s skeletal system is on the outside – as anyone who has tried to eat one will be aware. What’s more, the crab moves in a strange way, scuttling rather than walking directly, moving forwards, backwards, and sideways in an apparently random fashion. This may give us a clue as to why Jesus is shown making such an apparently ridiculous journey in chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. The text tells us that he went from the region of Tyre and Sidon to the Sea of Galilee through the middle of the Decapolis. If you consult a map of the area (see below), you will see how strange this journey is; it has been compared with travelling from 

Jesus’ strange journey: ‘And again, coming out of the region of Tyre he went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee up (through) the middle of the Decapolis’ (Mark 7:31)

London to Cornwall via Manchester, and it has given scholars no end of trouble for centuries, and fuelled numerous theories. It shows that Mark didn’t know his geography too well, they say, or that he was probably not a native of the area. But, in reality, it is a little joke by the Gospel’s author. It shows a crab-like, scuttling, to-ing and fro-ing movement, and it is Mark’s way of putting yet another Cancerian signature on this section of his Gospel.
            The zodiacal sign Cancer reflects the crab in a number of curious ways. People born at this time of the year often present a hard shell to the world, as a means of protecting an extremely vulnerable inside. Cancerian people are highly emotional, but guarded and defensive, with a strong sense of family identity, an appreciation of
Marcel Proust: Typical Cancerian
traditional values, and a concern for history and ancestry. The past has an enormous influence on the strongly Cancerian person, and it is absolutely appropriate that the world’s greatest literary celebration of the past, Marcel Proust’s A La R├ęcherche du Temps Perdu – Remembrance of Things Past – should have been written by a Cancerian. Proust was born on July 10th 1871, and, according to his biographers, he spent much of his time wrapped, crab like, in a cocoon of blankets.
Cancerians are nurturers and protectors, figuratively putting their arms around those close to them, in an attempt to shield them from life’s vicissitudes.
America, ‘born on the 4th of July’, is a Cancerian country. This sounds absurd to the modern ear: ‘How can a whole country be represented by a single image, and have a collective identity?’ we ask. And yet, on one level, these attributions do seem to be appropriate. The iconic images of American life – ‘the flag, mom, and apple pie’- are all connected with Cancer, as is food in general, and popcorn, another iconic American image, is itself an expression of the Cancerian desire to eat forever and never get full or fat! In the figure of the zodiacal man, Cancer is shown as being associated with the stomach. (Incidentally, archetypal Cancerian Proust was constantly plagued by his stomach. Apparently he informed his doctor that he couldn’t even drink a whole glass of Vichy water at bedtime without being kept awake by intolerable stomach pains. And what is it that sparks off the remembrance of things past? A madeleine, a plump little cake which looks as if it had been moulded in a scallop shell! And what job did Proust say he would like to do if he weren’t a writer? Bake bread! Cancer again. The universe is a strange place!)
The Crab manifests in other ways in the American psyche, and I was amused in the 1980s when President Reagan began proposing his ‘star wars’ project, whose intention was to place a ‘protective shell’ around America to keep out all enemy missiles: ‘protective shell’ was the actual term used. The so-called Monroe Doctrine – American isolationism – is another political expression of Cancer, as is the persistent call for those ‘family values’ which all American politicians must claim to espouse if they are to have any success whatsoever at the polls. Even the apparent obsession of American visitors to Europe with discovering their ancestry, and explaining with some precision that they are one eighth English, two fifths Danish and three tenths Cherokee, reflects the sign Cancer, and it is strange to think that Mormonism, the one major world religion which can claim a uniquely American birth, has a preoccupation with genealogy as one of its distinguishing characteristics. You may be inclined to retort, rationalists that you are, that the American obsession with genealogy is simply a feature of their colonial past. A good try, but it won’t work. You don’t find nearly the same preoccupation with ancestry among Australians and New Zealanders.
And, of course, we may tend to think of Americans as great world travellers, but, in reality, they are not. Only 21% of Americans hold passports. While researching this figure on Google, I came across the following on a website called Yale Global:

As the world becomes accustomed to the American way of life, Americans are tuning out the rest of the world. US citizens have paid less and less attention to foreign affairs since the 1970s......... The number of university students studying foreign languages has declined, and fewer Americans travel overseas than their counterparts in other developed countries. News coverage of foreign affairs has also decreased. Why are Americans withdrawing from the global village?

‘Withdraw into your shell.’ It’s a perfect image of Cancer. Yesterday, having completed this sermon, I settled down to read the Guardian, and what did I find? An article by the American novelist Sara Paretsky which reinforces this very point.

In America today, we seem to prize the self-reliant ideal more than ever. In fact, so much do we prize it that we don’t want to pay taxes to support the common good. In one hyper-wealthy Silicon Valley town, where houses commonly sell for more than $2m, the streets are full of potholes: when I visited, I was told that town residents would rather ruin their own cars than pay taxes so that someone else could drive in safety.
The American dream is of a private home with a private yard, in which each child has their own room, their own iPod, their own computer, and, by the time they’re 12 or even younger, their own mobile phone. We spend our waking moments plugged into our Game Boys. We seem to withdraw as far as possible from each other encased in our own worlds. (Guardian Review 23/6/07)

Strange, isn’t it, that another great icon of America, Walden, by Thoreau, which every American child has to read, and which has become a Bible of self-reliance describes a withdrawal from normal society and an attempt to live in virtual isolation. Thoreau was born on 12th July 1817, making him a Cancerian.
Withdrawal, ancestry, traditions, clannishness, food; these are all associated with the sign Cancer – although I must stress that they are not the exclusive concerns of people born in late June and early July; they are human preoccupations and tendencies, and all human beings have to come to terms with them. These are the principal themes of this little section of Mark’s Gospel (from 6:31-8:26) as even a cursory glance will show. The only episode that seems a little out of place is the account of Jesus walking on the Water, but even this relates to Cancer, since Cancer is a Water sign and Jesus’ ability to walk on the water is a symbolic account of the spiritually evolved person’s dominance over the turbulent emotions symbolised from time immemorial by the waves of the sea. In addition, one of the decans of Cancer, that is, one of its surrounding constellations, is Argo, the magical ship of the Jason and the Argonauts which was said by the Roman writer Manilius to be ‘the ship that conquered the water’. Here Jesus, whose name, by the way, is just another variation of the name Jason, is shown making a symbolic conquest of his own.
            But the dominant image of this whole section concerns food. It begins with the account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (which occurs, you notice, after Jesus asks the apostles ‘to withdraw’ for a while), and it goes on to discuss the Jewish obsession with dietary laws, the tradition of ritual cleansing before food, and later it deals with ‘the leaven’ or yeast of the Pharisees. We’ve only got time today to look very briefly at the feeding stories. Notice, there are two of them. This has given headaches to traditional commentators for many years, some scholars suggesting that Mark included two accounts of the same event, showing himself to be less than a competent historian – just as Jesus’ strange journey shows Mark to be a poor geographer. Liberal scholars who view the Gospel as ‘exaggerated history’ will often explain these stories by saying that all the people really had food hidden away, but they were too mean to advertise the fact; but after listening to Jesus they were ashamed of their selfishness and willingly shared what they had and everyone was satisfied. But this kind of explanation – harmless enough in its way – is rather patronising to the Gospel’s author, implying that he allowed evangelistic piety to cloud his judgement.
            But the author of this Gospel was no fool to be patronised, still less was he a poor historian or a poor geographer. In my view he was nothing short of a genius, and he knew perfectly well what he was doing. He deliberately has two feeding stories because he wants to make a very important point relating to Jewish clannishness. The stories are indeed the same except for a few details. But the details are crucial to a proper understanding of their meaning. Bread and fish are used in both – for reasons which we will discuss on another occasion[iv] - but while the feeding of the Five Thousand takes place in Jewish territory, the feeding of the Four thousand occurs in a predominantly Gentile area. And the numbers are significant. In the feeding of the Five Thousand, the predominant numbers are 5 and 12 – ‘Jewish’ numbers – the ‘five’ reflecting the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, considered to be Judaism’s holiest books; and the 12 representing the twelve tribes of Israel. So, in this incident, Jesus is shown feeding the Jews. The predominant numbers in the other incident are 7 and 4, readily identified as ‘Gentile’ numbers: the Jews believed that there were 70 Gentile nations (the zero is irrelevant in this kind of numerology) scattered around the ‘four corners’ of the earth.
            So, the two stories show that God’s spiritual ‘manna’ is to be distributed to all people, not just to the Jews, and read together, they constitute an attack on the narrow exclusivism and parochialism which characterised much Jewish thinking at the time the Gospel was written, and which have characterised much religious thought and practice before and since that time. Taken together, these stories ask the same question the monkey asked in the story I told the children this morning: ‘Do you think you’re the only one with a grandfather?’ Or, to put it another way: Do you think that your people are the only people who have traditions? Do you think that God only speaks through your prophets and your religion? We will explore these vital issues again next week when we will have another look at the Cancerian section of Mark’s Gospel. 

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Gemini (3) How do we wake up?


Story: The Magic Pebble


Once upon a time, while aimlessly browsing through some library books, a man discovered a folded piece of parchment, which had been slipped between the pages of an ancient volume. The writing was minuscule, and the ink had faded, but, with the aid of a magnifying glass, he was just able to make out these words:


On the shores of the Black Sea, there is a pebble which will turn everything it touches into gold. This magic pebble looks like every other pebble, but there is a difference: while the other pebbles feel cold, the magic pebble feels hot.


The man was overjoyed at his good fortune. ‘Just imagine,’ he thought, ‘a pebble which will turn everything it touches into gold! I must have it! I shall be richer than anyone else alive!’ He immediately resigned from his job, sold everything he owned, borrowed some money from his relatives and friends, and set off to the Black Sea to find the magic pebble, and make his fortune.

            He soon discovered that it would be a daunting task, because the shore was covered with millions of virtually identical pebbles. But the man set about it with great enthusiasm. Each day he would go down to the beach at dawn and spend the day picking up pebbles and feeling their temperature. If a pebble was cold, he would discard it, but in order to make sure that he didn’t pick up the same pebble again, he didn’t throw it back on to the beach, he threw it into the sea. This went on hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month. At the end of a year he hadn’t found the magic pebble, but he wasn’t discouraged. He travelled back home, borrowed some more money with which to keep himself alive, and then returned to the beach to resume his search.

            On and on he went. The same process, day after day. Lift a pebble; feel its temperature; throw it into the sea. But he still could not find the magic pebble.

            Then, one evening, just as he was about the finish for the day, he picked up a pebble. It was hot, but through sheer force of habit, he threw it into the Black Sea.




ast Sunday I was speaking about the story of Jairus’ daughter in the Gospel of Mark, and I said it should be understood as an exhortation to us to ‘wake up’, to cast off the slumber induced by habit and respond to life in a new way. I said that this was the consistent testimony of all the spiritual traditions, and that ‘waking up’ was the primary objective of the spiritual life. Naturally, such statements prompt the question, ‘Well, what is the awakened state, and how exactly do we reach it?’ - the very questions I was asked over coffee by Annie, and so important are these questions that I have decided to postpone the topic originally announced for today’s sermon – Stories and Truth - and to address the practical issues involved in the process of waking up.

            I’ve dealt with this topic before, on numerous occasions, and those of you who have been attending for some time will be familiar with what I am going to say, but this is so important a topic that a little bit of recapitulation will not go amiss. We can all do with a little gentle reminding about something so central to spiritual living.

Five years ago today I was in hospital in Leeds. I had been diagnosed with cancer of the kidney, and so extensive was the cancer that the doctors in Tallaght hospital thought that an operation would be pointless. I was given just over a year to live, but it was thought that immunotherapy just might work (there was a 1 in 10 chance) and so I found myself in St. James’ hospital in Leeds on the weekend of my birthday, preparing to receive this relatively new treatment. I remember asking the nurses on the evening of the 10th June if it would be okay for me to go for a few pints to the pub across the road because, I said, this might be the last birthday I ever celebrate.

            It’s strange to be told that you are going to die quite soon. It doesn’t quite register in the way that you think it will when you are well. There is dreadful sadness at the prospect of leaving the people you love, of course, and those expected feelings of regret for lost opportunities, but something else occurs, something perhaps that one doesn’t quite expect. How do you think you would respond?

            This was a question that was posed in the summer of 1922 by a Parisian newspaper, which invited its readers to consider how they would react to the news that some great cataclysm was about to destroy the world.

The responses to the question were just as one might suppose. One man said that the news of impending calamity would drive people either into the nearest bedroom or the nearest church; a woman correspondent thought that people would lose all their inhibitions once their actions had ceased to carry long-term consequences; and a third person declared his intention to devote his final hours to game of bridge, tennis, or golf.

All very predictable, and some variation on these conventional responses I would have given myself before I was told of my impending death. But, in the event, I responded quite differently and quite surprisingly. In fact, I responded pretty much as Marcel Proust had predicted in his reply to the newspaper’s question. This is part of what he wrote:


I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say.  Just think how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies it – our life – hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.........But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! The cataclysm doesn’t happen, (and) we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.


‘Life would suddenly seem beautiful it would become again!’ This exactly mirrors my experience. Watching the sunrise, experiencing the intense colours of the flowers – as if for the first time –, talking with friends, standing on the pier at Whitby with Morag, listening to the birds, all of these things and countless more took on an incredible freshness. The commonplace became thrilling; dross was transformed into gold; a new mind was born within me, a new aliveness which was overwhelmed by the beauty, the strangeness, and the mystery of even the most ordinary sight, the most humdrum experience. This is the paradox of grief: as we feel our own life – or the life of one who is close to us – ebbing away, we become aware of life’s depth and its delights with a new intensity. This is why the Sufi mystic Jelaladin Rumi says that ‘grief is a gift’. He doesn’t mean that grief is pleasant, or even that it is to be desired; he means that it inevitably sharpens our perceptions, breaks the deadening power of habitual thought and action, and brings us to a new level of awareness.

            It is this new level of awareness that the spiritual life calls us to nurture, without having to rely on tragedy or grief to confer it briefly. This is ‘the awakened life’, ‘the resurrected life’, ‘eternal life’, ‘the kingdom of God’, ‘abundant life’, as opposed to the dreary, sleepy, and unsatisfying life that most of us lead most of the time; lives, in the words of Thoreau, of ‘quiet desperation’. Life is not – or should not be – as some have suggested, cynically, a long process of dying; it is, rather, a long process of becoming awake.

            We may never reach this state. Some suggest that it takes many lifetimes to reach it. Some people think that we can only reach it by arduous spiritual practice necessitating withdrawal from the world into some sort of monastery, and the renunciation of normal human activity – frugality in diet, celibacy, hours and hours of prayer and meditation. If this is the case then it is foreclosed to all of us here. But the Sufis, and others, tell us that this state is not beyond the reach of the ordinary person pursuing the normal activities of life. We don’t need to change our life circumstances too radically; we just need to change our attitude to our life circumstances.

            There are numerous ways of doing this, and, as I said last week, a significant part of why we come to this church is so that we can teach each other how to do it. One way is to make a conscious effort to break the habit patterns which blunt our perceptions. After all, it was sheer habit which caused the man to throw the magic pebble into the sea. ‘Habit,’ says Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot, ‘is a great deadener’. A contemporary Buddhist says that we should try to do some of the following:


When in company act as if alone

When alone act as if in company

Spend one day without speaking

Spend one hour with eyes closed

With eyes closed, have someone you are close to take you on a walk

Think of something to say to someone particular. Next time you see them, don’t say it.

Go somewhere particular to do something. When you get there, don’t do it.

Walk backwards

Upon awakening, immediately get up

Get dressed to go somewhere, then don’t go

Just go out immediately, as you are, anywhere

Do what comes next

Walk on!            


Here are three more things we can all do which will take us a little further on the road towards awakening.

            The distinguishing characteristic of the awakened life is that it is a grateful life. The awakened person is one who readily gives thanks, who appreciates the giftedness of life, whatever its circumstances, whatever its vicissitudes.  But we live in a culture of comparison, and instead of expressing thanks for the incredible gift of life, we spend our time lamenting that we are not taller, richer, thinner, younger, more intelligent than we are, blighting our experience with envy and dissatisfaction, and fomenting all manner of personal conflict and communal strife. Learning to appreciate what you have and what you are is the foundation upon which the spiritual life is built. Stop worrying about the deal the other person is getting. God has been gracious to you; accept the gift and resist the petulant response of the spoiled child who is constantly complaining that his sister has received a bigger slice of the pie. Your day should begin and end with a moment of thanksgiving. Immediately upon waking I say the first line of E.E. Cummings’ ode to spring: ‘I thank you God for most this amazing day!’ and I end the day with these lines from G.K. Chesterton:


Here dies another day

During which I have had eyes, ears, hands,

And the great world about me;

And with tomorrow begins another.

Why am I allowed two?


The awakened life is also a reflective life. Thoreau advises that part of our reflection should involve just ‘sauntering’. How strange that a word associated with purposeless meandering should be employed to describe a positive spiritual practice! But ‘sauntering’ comes from the French ‘Sainte Terre’, Holy Land, and ‘saunterers’ was a name applied to certain people in the Middle Ages who would beg money to take them to the Holy Land on pilgrimage. Whether they ever got there, or whether they even intended to go, is doubtful, but, says Thoreau, we must go there. Every day we must be ‘saunterers’, headed for the Holy Land, in a daily walk, in the countryside if possible, and free from the distractions of the personal stereo and the desire simply to stretch our legs. This is not entertainment, or passive relaxation, or exercise, but a conscious, determined, and deliberate attempt to become aware of the sights and sounds of the world which is full of the life of God, but which we are ordinarily too busy to imbibe. Some time, too, should be spent in quiet contemplation. This does not mean drifting into reverie; still less does it mean thinking about our problems or trying to puzzle out the meaning of existence. It simply means striving to be aware, learning to pay attention.

Thoreau says that he was for many years a self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms, and he did his duty faithfully. What can you appoint yourself an inspector of?

            One of the problems of the contemporary busy world is that we don’t take our silence seriously. It embarrasses us. Radio and television dominate our lives, and we don’t know what to do with quiet. Anne Morrow Lindbergh says that even those of us who practise some form of silent contemplation don’t take it seriously enough to make it sacrosanct. ‘If one sets aside time for a business engagement, a trip to the hairdresser, a social engagement, or a shopping trip, that time is accepted as inviolable.  But if one says, “I cannot come because that is my time to be alone”, one is considered rude, egotistical or strange. What a commentary on our civilisation, when being alone is considered suspect; when one has to apologise for it, make excuses, hide the fact that one practices it – like a secret vice.’ Honour the quiet time is good advice for one who wishes to awake.

            The awakened life is also a compassionate, generous life. I’ll have more to say on this when we look at the next section of Mark’s Gospel, but it is important to mention it in passing here because every day we should make an opportunity to behave in a way which expresses our concern for others. This does not mean interfering in people's lives like some busybody, and it is best done anonymously anyway. Each day try to do something for which you cannot possibly be rewarded, even if this means picking up some litter from the street and putting it in the bin, smiling at babies, saying ‘thank you’ to shopkeepers, giving money to those in need. These are ways in which we can flex our social muscles, make ourselves more aware of those who share the joys and sufferings of life with us.

Finally, and above all, the awakened life is a joyful life; not always happy. One doesn’t have to go around with a ridiculous beaming smile all day, pretending to be free from problems, but gratitude, reflection, and generosity work a silent magic on our psyche and enable us to cope with life’s vicissitudes, and to radiate a sense of peacefulness and calm which can have extremely positive effects on those around us.

            I can’t promise you that doing these things will bring you to a state of nirvana, but I can confidently assert that practising these simple things faithfully will raise your level of awareness, and will have a dramatic effect on the way you live your life.