I quoted Clemency Burton-Hill from her excellent book ‘Another Year of Wonder’ in a recent post entitled ‘Year of Wonder’ [the title of her previous book]. In it I quoted some lovely words of hers for the beginning of the year. Both her books offer a piece of classical music, together with a short introduction, for every day of the year. For me they’ve become treasured spiritual resources. So much so that I have to quote her again. Recently she introduced a piece of music in the following way:
“Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll most likely be aware of the enthusiastic modern embrace of the ancient practice of meditation. Hardly a day goes past without some article or other extolling the virtues of its almost-miraculous effects on our brain chemistry. I want to get on the meditation bandwagon. I really do. But the truth is: I struggle. My brain is noisy as hell and, although I realize that makes me even more of an ideal candidate for what it can do, I often end up feeling even worse after an attempted meditation session than I did before I started. Enter music. To me, this piece is like a secret free hack to get me in the same headspace, if I really open up my ears and allow it to do its work. The net effect is similar, and it costs nothing. Incredible”.
AMEN, I cry. Religions have a problem [maybe it’s a human problem and not peculiar to religion] whereby they make simple things complicated. I guess that it’s a power thing. Meditation is in principle simple. Just about everybody has a natural way into it. Its whatever you do that takes you into a still, quiet, safe inner space, where you can find and be yourself . You don’t need to sign up for a mindfulness or meditation course, you can, and you may find it helpful, but for many there is a simpler & more natural way. Suffering can take you there, but the most common route is through something that you enjoy doing. For Clemency that’s listening to music, but it can be almost anything. For me its sitting smoking my pipe, being amidst greenery, looking up at the stars on a clear night, mulling on a poem or a work of art. It might be cooking or sitting drinking tea, gazing out of the window, doing the cleaning or playing with children, or just lying in bed awake at night. Anything that can take you into that still quiet inner room that’s yours alone. As Clemency says it costs nothing, can be life changing, and it’s often highly pleasurable. That’s the easy bit.
The challenging bit is what comes next. Having discovered that quiet inner room within you, it’s a matter of recognising those moments when you naturally find yourself there, and then, setting aside a a regular time to be there, and allow the experience to change you, which it will. You wont be in control of that change, all you can do is turn up and allow it to happen. It may feel easy & wonderful to start with, but that feeling will soon wear off. Its tempting at that point to give up, and allow the busy-ness of life to take over again. That’s when you have to do the hard miles and just keep at it. You need to be disciplined and patient.
Set this alongside what Clemency wrote earlier this year;
“Among the most curious paradoxes about the place that classical music occupies–or fails to occupy–in contemporary life is this: that even as our Western societies become ever more secular, there is a real and growing hunger for spiritually-inflected music that seems to fill a void or meet a real human need. On digital music-streaming platforms, sacred choral playlists abound, often being voraciously streamed and consumed by the very same people who say they no longer align themselves with an organized religion”.
She suggested that many who have no link with organised religion are seeking the divine [named or not named] through music. I think that this is equally true with respect to the visual arts, literature and poetry, as well as through our engagement with the natural world, whether its going out walking, doing the gardening, or watching David Attenborough. People seek and are often met by the divine [named or not named] in all of these ways.
That’s cause for some modest celebration. You can’t keep a good creative God down: when religion isn’t doing it for people than God finds another way to connect.