Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Silent Melody

It began, in so far as beginnings have any meaning here, with a teenager walking to music practice, passing a beech tree, probably passed many times before. Only this time, now, the moment was different, she encountered the beech tree, meeting it and it meeting her, and she knowing that she and it were one. Each was their own particular being - the looker and the beholder - and yet they were the dance of an overarching, underpinning One that is all in all. It was an indelible experience the recovery of which, in new modes, is the girl's life long quest. It is a journey of an exploration into 'God' and of being found by that 'God' who is better known as simply Being, the origin and fulfilment of all that is.

The girl was Shirley du Boulay and her "A Silent Melody" is this exemplary religious biographer's own spiritual autobiography. Its outer trajectory takes the author from a familiar Anglican upbringing (in the middle of the last century), through a successful career as a television producer at the religious department of the BBC, into a good, whole marriage to the former Jesuit priest and writer, John Harriott and to becoming a writer herself of five excellent biographies of key Christian figures from St Teresa of Avila to Dom Bede Griffiths.

This quest has taken the author through a patterning of contemporary spirituality and religion that is both uniquely personal and an example of where we find ourselves in the contemporary West. She learnt to meditate through Transcendental Meditation in the 1960s (indeed orchestrated the Maharishi's famous interview with Malcolm Muggeridge). Deeply thankful as she was for this introduction to the way of interior silence, she had a hunger to belong to a wider, deeper community. She entered the Catholic Church, was deeply nourished by it, but ultimately left it for its failure to embrace its own mysticism seriously and for its failure to live out its own proclamation of love in sheltering those who would abuse that love and breach its trust. She explored contemporary Shamanism and beautifully describes some of her experience not least an encounter with a violin and a bow playing without a player: symbol of an ego that must disappear from view if the music is to be heard.

'Ultimately' (though can one ever use that word here), she finds herself unable to describe herself as a Christian yet utterly devoted to its core values and its pointing, as all authentic traditions do, towards Being in which we live and move and which creates the now in which we all truly live. Her practice has become Zen, learnt from a Roman Catholic Sister and Zen roshi, the remarkable Sr Elaine MacInnes. Here I can claim a walk on part as it was I who was jointly instrumental in bringing Sr Elaine to England and Oxford where she formed the zendo in which Shirley practices.

The value of the book is the way in which it honestly and candidly scrutinises the choices that she makes and relates them to contemporary questioning. What, for example, does it mean to 'doubly belong', inhabiting, apparently faithfully, as many do, more than one tradition. Is this a deepening of our progress towards embodying the one truth that sustains us all or simply a wallowing in the supermarket aisle of faith, picking and choosing as we go, without discipline or true faithfulness? In her exploration of such figures as Bede Griffiths and Swami Abhishiktananda, she has admirably demonstrated both the theological and spiritual legitimacy of such belonging.
 
What do we make of the oft drawn distinction between 'religion' and 'spirituality' (as if the two could be cleaved, as Shirley writes, as simply as a knife slipping through butter)? Spirituality does imply a certain freedom, the Spirit blows where it listeh, but is that a freedom simply to focus on the self? One of the merits of religion, at its best, is that it binds one to a community that draws you towards service. How is the balance to be struck and if one finds oneself more deeply drawn towards the former, as Shirley does, let it not be as a result of a simple reject of the merits of the latter? Those of community, shared, faithfully performed ritual and a tradition against which to test, correct and deepen one's own experience.

One of the finest chapters is an exploration of the biographer's art both as craft and as spiritual practice. It is seen as an object lesson in how to faithfully and honestly show forth the life of another and whilst always remaining in charge of the text, sound in your own judgement, remaining in the background, standing to one side. It reminds one of Shirley's shamanic experience - a bow plays a violin without the musician being apparently present.

This is a courageous, open and honest book, aware of both its virtues and its author's flaws. It deserves to be widely read as both a compelling account of one's person's  spiritual journey, an account of our present dilemmas and how we might explore them and of an inspiring hope that we can diligently fashion paths of our own, shared with others.

It ends with a paean to the values of stillness, solitude and silence found now in the practice of Zen, flowing into daily living, awakening opportunities to taste the Being that we are.

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