There are some very sharp turnings in life, as we know – and if we don’t we’ll find that out soon enough. Most of us, most of the time settle into a pattern of living that we imagine will go on forever. Here today, here tomorrow.
It doesn’t, of course, because life is full of turnings – broken relationships, serious illness, sudden death. A phone call, a knock on the door, a tap on the shoulder and, from that point in time, nothing is ever the same. We never know, as the cliché reminds us, what’s around the next corner. The trick is not to become lulled into the present as an unchanging pattern stretching into the far distance. The trick is to see the present moment as the good times that in later years we’ll look back on with fond memories.
Easier said than done. Especially in today’s world where everyone is so busy, busy, busy. And despite all the worldly wisdom, so few creating any kind of space to provide an opportunity ‘to smell the roses’. Where have all the years gone, we keep asking ourselves, as if no one ever asked it before. It’s a more pertinent question now. I remember visiting my uncles farms this time of year as the ritual of hay making took place. This was a monumental physical effort where everyone rolled up their sleeves to help in a wonderful process. We shook the hay. We raked it into wind-rows. We lapped it. It took time, saving the hay was a sacred ritual. Recently I watched huge tractors and associated technology descending on a ten-acre meadow and two hours later the whole crop was in a silage pit in the corner of the field, a harvest done and dusted.
It’s the way of our lives now – the work we do, the transport we enjoy, the myriad facilities we take for granted. We never had so many time-saving devices and yet we never had so little time. The conundrum of our days. And how do we cope with the stress that comes from never having enough time to do the things we want to? Open practically any paper or magazine now and you’ll find something about stress or pressure or tension. And invariably the antidote to our modern ills is some version of the same bit of advice Jesus gave his followers 2,000 years: ‘Go away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while’. In the midst of our busy world, full of noise, movement and deadlines, we’re given some straightforward advice about making a little space, creating a still centre so that we find our bearings in the hustle and bustle of life.
But where is this ‘lonely place’ where we can get sufficient perspective to enable us to distinguish what’s important from what, relatively speaking, hardly matters at all? Where is this still centre that helps us to create a workable balance in our often crazy world? Everyone needs this ‘lonely place’. Everyone needs a periodic visit to a place of stillness, silence, solitude. We need to let life sit with us so that we can place the cares and concerns of life in a healthy context. Some people sit in a church. It’s quiet and usually empty. Some pray, others just sit in silence. Maybe just sitting there allowing the stillness to envelope us. Listening to the beat of our own hearts. Or our own breathing. Letting the thoughts come. Giving it time. Others like to go for a long walk along a beach and use the rhythm of their walking to calm the demons of distraction so that they can get outside themselves in order to view reality with more clarity and perspective.
Others again go away for an entire day, bring a packed lunch, read a book that stimulates a quiet reflection on the lives they lead, the people they love, the work they do. Mammy’s day for herself, as I heard children describe it once. That’s one part of the message. The other is that we can’t stay in silence, stillness and solitude and we have to make our way back into the mainstream of our lives again. But the hope is that out of the silence and solitude will come a renewed commitment to the lives, responsibilities and commitments that God has given to us. There is, I believe, a road to that lonely place, that like the apostles, God wants each of us to take. And there is a road too out of that lonely place back into the movement of our lives. Giving space to both creates a perspective and a balance that enriches and enhances both experiences.
Mother Teresa made it a rule for her nuns, that even in the busiest of places the windows of their chapels were left open. You’d imagine that in Calcutta, for example, where the teeming multitudes by common consent create such an oppressively noisy environment that the first instinctive response to getting indoors is to close the windows. But Mother Teresa’s instinct is to recommend not opting out of the environment of life (in whatever form) but living purposefully within it. I’m not too sure that she’s right. Saints – she is now Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta – usually set the bar high, especially for their followers and tend to urge difficult if not impossible standards. For the rest of us non-saints, I think the triple guidance of stillness, silence, and solitude is a surer bet in our busy, busy world.