Relationship and life-threatening illness
‘There are things known and there are things unknown and in between are the doors of perception’
To perceive things differently can feel both an advantage and a threat. Most often it is refreshing to see something differently - to be released from a familiar view into the freedom of new interpretation. I had a simple experience of this when casually turning on the radio last week. A choir had just begun to sing the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’. Music means a lot to me and I would not necessarily be riveted by a hymn but these beautiful words were being sung with a complex harmony and over- riding descant that released new meaning and depth. ‘Re-clothe us in our rightful mind … in simple trust ... the silence of eternity ... noiseless let thy blessing fall ... speak through ...O still small voice ... .’ The mysterious presence to be found in my daily meditation was being sung and met a response in my own being. Yet how many times have I heard that hymn without such meaning revealing itself?
Similarly I saw something differently when Mark and I were walking by the sea in Aldeburgh a couple of weeks back. We happened upon Maggi Hambling’s ‘Scallop’, a four-metre high steel sculpture erected on the beach. It is visually stunning: a large, strong depiction of a shell, recognised more familiarly as small and fragile. Seemingly washed up on the beach and holding imagery of pilgrimage, this tough structure portrays lightness and travel. Cut through the steel are words illuminated with colour and texture from the sky behind and given breath by a light sea wind: ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned.’ Silence, yet ‘the sound of a gentle voice’, fragility and strength, are familiar paradoxes we hold together within our meditation.
However new perception is not always a creative discovery. I find, in the context of a life-threatening illness, that new ways of perceiving life are thrust upon me. This imposition demands a re-adaption on my part that I certainly would not choose to make. A wide range of side-effects accompany my almost continuous chemotherapy, insisting that my body reacts to them. I tire easily, some drug regimes increase my weight, others mean I lose it. A natural appreciation of food and wine is challenged by nausea and mouth ulcers, my range of physical activities are significantly reduced. Currently I am deaf in one ear. Rather like Alice in Wonderland such bodily changes can be bewildering and upsetting. ‘Drink me’ says the label on the bottle - but what will happen if I do? Alice’s response was to drink it anyway and await the consequences. In fact this attitude releases her into a whole new world of experience that she would not otherwise have known. The discomforting step of walking through a mirror or tumbling down a rabbit-hole, result in her leaving behind the familiar to discover a whole range of people, places and a way of relating to them that demand flexible interpretation. This of course is a story of fantasy - a dream, yet at times my own turn of events seems similarly unreal. Surely one day I will wake up?
One of Christ’s most firm instructions is to ‘wake up’, not to an old reality or future dream but to now, the present moment. This asks for a courageous spirit. Marcel Proust writes ‘A real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’ Maintaining such an attitude alongside extreme bodily discomfort and limitation is far from easy. However I find it the only attitude that makes any sense or difference. Within the ‘private room’ which Jesus describes as a place where the communication of true prayer may be known, I find resources of rest and loving connection. This does not remove the frustration and pain of trying circumstances but does provide a wider context where these things may be held with acceptance and love. Learning how to live lovingly with forces that seem to militate against life is to grasp a hard lesson of new perception.
Perhaps David the psalmist knew something of this experience when he wrote these words in Psalm 139. I am always moved to hear them sung to music by John Rutter:
If I scale the heavens you are there,
If I lie flat in Sheol, there you are ...
I will say, ‘Let the darkness cover me,
And the night wrap itself around me,’
Even darkness to you is not dark
And night is as clear as the day.
The psalmist reveals his own knowledge of a light offering new perception, not only when life is good but equally in times threatened by darkness. My continuing prayer is for that vision to be alive in my life, bringing some transformed understanding, even in the darkest days.
Editor’s comment: Anne McDonnell, a much-loved member and teacher in our Community in the UK, died on the morning of the Feast of All Saints, 1st November, 2015. Anne was the WCCM regional coordinator for East Anglia and she and her husband Mark founded and ran 'Noggs Barn', a contemplative space in their garden for meditation and retreat days.
Anne faced terminal cancer with deepening peace and wisdom which she shared with fellow meditators worldwide through her blog posts and interviews on the WCCM website http://www.wccm.org/, and a Meditatio booklet, called "Meditation & Dying" which is available through the Meditatio Store.