Sometimes I go down to our local church, when it’s open but there is no Mass going on, and sit in the pews for a while. It’s very very quiet, there is often incense burning, and occasionally quiet Gregorian chant over the loudspeakers along the aisles. I’m not catholic, and for the first few times I went I would worry that a priest might approach me and check my religious credentials, but after a while I realised no-one had any interest in my presence, and I could use the church as a temple, a place to settle and find some real peace in that quiet space.
I’m fascinated by the other people that come in, mostly elderly Spanish ladies, 90% women in fact, some younger than me, and one middle-aged man who comes and kisses the feet of the life-size crucified Jesus’s feet perhaps 50 times before leaving by the back door. There is an elderly man too who prepares the alter for the next Mass, then walks around and around the outer aisles, clearly using the near-empty church as his exercise grounds.
Recently I looked up at the alter and was struck by the wooden panels depicting scenes with the Saints. What struck me was the bright golden halo around the Saints’ heads, painted as a thick gold band similar to these (not from the local church, courtesy of wikipedia):
What was it that these men and women had done to earn that halo? Can you imagine living a life so worthy that an aura of gold should shine around you? The halos seem very real to me and bring to mind great goodness, kindness, compassion, strength, faith, peace. Not religious qualities necessarily, but qualities of the greatest human potential for good. And those figures with halos fill me with a desire to live a life that embodies these qualities too. They really inspire me.
In our garden we have a statue of Buddha, that I often pop down to see when I’m feeling troubled. He too embodies many of the qualities above, but more than anything he embodies peace and equanimity. He sits in the garden, eyes half-closed, a half-smile, and no matter what happens in life, this composure of his never changes.
Obviously he is a statue, but I am sure the real Buddha was as peaceful and equanimous as this. When I’m stormy or unsettled by events in life, his peace gets me back in touch with mine. He sits there and says, don’t worry, this will pass, like everything else does. Mountains sit in much the same way, with that same timeless knowledge.
Finally, I received an email recently from a group in Seville that practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Master whose teachings have made such a huge difference to my life. It included this image, below, of Thich Nhat Hanh, and for weeks I was unable to delete the email from my inbox, because every time I looked at the image it reminded me of the qualities embodied by this man, above all an enormous energy of compassion, and a reminder to return again and again to the most important things in life – love, listening, inner peace, and the wonders of the present moment that cost us nothing and are available to us 24 hours a day. I leave you with that image, and a link to a short audio (or video if you prefer) of his that reminded me too of all this, the title of which says it all: Our appointment with life.