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 wonderful.....how 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
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. Whitby
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.
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
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.