It has probably only happened to me twice, properly, unselfconsciously. Once, when I was a child, once when I was in my 30s. Both times I was alone.
The first time I had wandered away from my parents who were sitting with friends and their children. We had been playing games on the beach and occasionally bathing in the cold, brown waters of the sea off West Wales. We had eaten squashed, warm, sandwiches, munched biscuits, drunk Dandelion and Burdock "pop”. I then wandered off, quite safely, over to where the rock pools were. I remember that they were shimmering in the bright afternoon sun, rocks covered in crustaceans over which I had to step carefully in my bare feet. I was spoilt for choice, for when I got there, there were pools to my right, pools to my left, pools in front, pools all around, all of different sizes, depths and seemingly to a child’s imagination, with different personalities. One pool especially caught my attention, the shape and size and depth of it appealed to me for some reason and I applied myself to a safe passage to its edges.
A small patch of bleached blond sand, warmed by the sun, gave my young feet a few moments respite from the bite of the sharp shells. I crouched down and peered into the water of my carefully chosen rock pool. The cries of the children playing on the beach were muted, the shrieks of those splashing in the waves were silenced as I gazed below me into the silent other-world of the pool which was cradled within the walls of the rocks.
There were tiny fish darting around, disturbing the sand on the pools bed with a whoosh, which took ages to settle again. There were small crab-like creatures, walking in their staccato way, hurrying and then resting, hurrying and then resting. Garlands of seaweed were swaying, pebbles shone brightly on the pool’s bed. I looked, I gazed, I was mesmerised. I was lost to all save this silent world of wonder, a world which seemed to exist oblivious to all else, independent of all else, a self-contained world which was so real and which only I could see. And in the intensity of looking, I even lost my sense of self. What I saw before me was the only thing which existed. What I saw below the surface of the water was all that was. I heard no other sound, I was aware of nothing else, I had no physical existence apart from my eyes. I, Jeff, ceased to be, becoming what I saw.
I have no recollection of how long I sat there, looking. Time was as suspended as was my sense of self. Then gradually I inhabited my body once again, became myself again, ceased to be as one with those I had watched. For a moment, for an eternity, I had become the pool, it had been the whole world to me. Then I had to adapt to the strange business of being myself again, where rocks regained their raggedness and where the cries and shouts of others pierced the warm air.
Although the experience was profound to me in childhood, I never quite lost my sense of self again for a long time, in such a complete, all-consuming way. Teenage years are acutely self-conscious, so too during the years when one’s self emerges in one’s twenties. It was not until my thirties were well underway that I experienced anything like that again. I was on a retreat in Sussex, at a Monastery called Crawley Down. I had never been there before and actually have never been there since. It is an odd place in many ways. I recall ‘phoning to make a booking. I asked the Guest Master for directions: "Well, you know the War Memorial?" he said in a lullaby Scottish accent. "No, I have never been there before." "Well, just turn left there”, he replied, rather unhelpfully.
One morning we, my Godson’s father and I, had got up, gone to chapel, eaten breakfast, then the rest of the morning was ours to do with as we wished. I went for a walk, I was beginning to relax, the sun was warm on my face, the trees were tall all around me, the birdsong was shrill and merry, the fronds of fern my body brushed past were lime green and cool to the touch, the air was clean and scented with bluebells. My walking and my breathing slowed, so too my mind. The calm of the countryside soon influenced my inner landscape. I sat, seeking the shade of a tall hedgerow on the perimeter of a large, sloping field. I became aware of a warm breeze bending the tall grasses and looking up saw a cornflower blue sky with the brightest of white clouds occasionally floating past.
I thought they must have been rabbits at first, but no, they were too large to be rabbits, hares then? I slowly raised my body from the cool bed I had made in the grass and knelt and looked more closely. They were two young deer, fawns, just a few days old, smaller than I had ever imagined them being. Their eyes were bright with merriment, flickering with mischief, their legs unsteady, uncoordinated, unwilling to do as they were told. But their sense of fun, their desire to leap, was extraordinary. They danced, they played, they jumped, they fell over, completely oblivious to anything but the delight of being alive and having fun. And for only the second time in my life, I was so completely absorbed in what I was watching that it was as though I ceased to be myself, becoming those I gazed upon. My adult sense of self, my preoccupations with my parish, my concern about others, my self-conscious attempts to relate to friends and loved ones, my inability as I saw it to pray, became as nothing, were completely washed away and I was taken out of my body and became what I observed. The moment probably didn’t last for long, but then to reinhabit my body, my mind, my personality, my history, was prose after poetry, discord after song, a deep anticlimax of consciousness.
Becoming what one observes, losing one’s sense of self, abandoning one’s preoccupations, becoming oblivious to one’s obsessions, feeling the liberation of such freedom, may happen only fleetingly, occasionally, but those moments stay close, as though beyond the touch of time, to draw on in barren seasons of the soul. And I wonder if this invitation which is given to us all, as people of spirit as well as mind and body, to leave the confines of our self-conscious self and become what one observes beyond oneself, is partly what contemplative prayer is all about.
You are probably familiar with paintings of the Adoration of the Magi, or pictures of Mary gazing in awe and aching wonder at her infant Son, Jesus. Such adoration can be the leaving aside of self and engaging, reaching out in love, connecting with the wonder of another. Sometimes I have seen, when a parent looks at their child, that exquisite, tender look, seemingly saying: "How can this child exist, is it real? It is perfect, beyond wonder, how can I possibly have been biologically responsible for the making of it?" Other times I have seen one member of a couple gazing at their lover who is unaware of their look, overwhelmed by the extraordinary beauty of the other, seemingly saying to themselves: "What can they possibly see in me, in comparison with them I am nothing, surely they will see through me, I could not bear not to be with them, they are the most incredible of people, with them I feel truly alive." This capacity to move beyond the limitations of our own lives, this ability we have, usually through love, to become acutely aware of another, is perhaps the most spiritual experience any of us have in this life. This innocent abandonment of who we are in favour of what we see, what we observe, what we love, is possibly the most mystical adventure some of us will ever know.
But you and I, like the all too human Jesus before us, are also called to such contemplation in our prayer: to lose our sense of self and become what we observe; being liberated from guilt, shame, feelings of unworthiness; to know the freedom of acceptance and belonging; in forgetting, to discover who we really are. You and I would not have this capacity to become what we contemplate unless it were given us by God, given to help us move on in our journey toward fuller integration with the rest of His creation and deeper communion with Him.
So let us try to be open to spending time contemplating Him. Perhaps choosing a moment in the Gospels, in the story of Jesus, which speaks specifically to us, the person we are, the situation we are in and go there in our God given imagination. Let yourself engage all your senses in the scene: to see Jesus, His hair, His eyes, His cloak, His sandals, His hands. To hear Him when He speaks, hear the words He uses, His tone of voice, as He reaches out into other people’s needs, fears, questions, anxieties and longings. Simply spend time with Him, get to know what it is like to be in His presence, be present to His presence and even perhaps see Him look at, smile at, you. Such moments are beyond the touch of time and feed us, inspire us, heal us, transform us, equip us, empower us in our attempts to follow Jesus. Relationship and communion are what He longs for with you. He notices and sees you, He knows you intimately, He understands what it is to be you. Let us similarly look at Him and feel something of the wonder and the warmth, the tenderness and tranquillity, of what it must be like to be Him. May He richly bless you as you open yourself to contemplate Him and as you allow Him to contemplate you. Dare to look at the one who looks at you and become one with who you see. With blessings and best wishes,
LENT AT ST MARY’S
We will be holding 5 sessions at 7.30pm on Mondays in Lent, beginning on 7th March, when we invite you to come along and meet others in the St Mary’s family. We will be reflecting on what we have all, collectively and individually, been experiencing over the last 2 years and on how, if at all, our faith has helped us through. To stimulate discussion, we will be looking at how the first disciples experienced the presence of Christ in similarly difficult and unpromising situations. Do please make a note of this in your diaries and make a special effort to join us.
With all good wishes Jeff
At St Mary’s on the Third Sunday before Lent, as we worship in the 09.30 Eucharist in church and at the 17.00 Zoom service online, we shall be reflecting on the Gospel passage: Luke Ch 6 vv 17-26.
ALMIGHTY GOD, WHO ALONE CAN BRING ORDER TO THE UNRULY WILLS AND PASSIONS OF SINFUL HUMANITY: GIVE YOUR PEOPLE GRACE SO TO LOVE WHAT YOU COMMAND AND TO DESIRE WHAT YOU PROMISE THAT, AMONG THE MANY CHANGES OF THIS WORLD OUR HEARTS MAY SURELY THERE BE FIXED WHERE TRUE JOYS ARE TO BE FOUND. THIS WE ASK THROUGH JESUS CHRIST YOUR SON, WHO LIVES AND REIGNS WITH YOU AND THE HOLY SPIRIT, ONE GOD, NOW AND FOR EVER, AMEN.