Being told that Jenny may not last a year takes some adjusting to. I had looked forward to adventures over perhaps two decades of active retirement with my wife. We might have less than twelve months of failing health. On the road to work I see a hearse and my eyes fill with tears.
We men are not good on mortality. Unlike womenfolk we don't have the monthly cycle reminding us with blood of life and death. We don't have the possibility of giving birth, to jolt our egos into the necessary perspective that growth is painful and brings with it withering and certain death.
If I lived in a more "primitive" society as a young man I would have been taken through an initiation ritual by my elders. Shown the terrors of some little death I might learn better respect for the natural order and my humble place in it. The old men would have taught us young bucks that we none of us are in control. Death is the only certainty.
In western culture we are not good at aging, frailty and death. We tend to marginalise and mask it to concentrate on immediate and sustained gratification in the prevailing 'me' culture.
Just now I am making a picture to remind me of my own Men's Rite of Passage a few weeks back, aged 55 years. The sheep's skull in the bottom left corner is there for a reason. The retreat was four days, sleeping under canvas, close to nature, in the rain swept Lake District. Late in the programme we fasted 24 hours spending most of that in solitary contemplation out on the fell sides. My picture captures something of that silent waiting on the Divine.
I sat by a cascading beck, underneath a little willow tree on a crag. I could see right down the valley the length of Windermere. I watched the rain circling, choosing its direction to run in at me. In one brighter spell two farmers herded sheep up the valley, just as generations have done the world round.
As the mists of rain cleared I could see how the valleys had been scored in the land eons ago by the last ice age. I was a speck on the landscape in a flicker of time.
Huddled in my cleft in the rock out of the wind I imagined a conversation with my dead dad. It would have been better when he was alive, but better late than never. I concentrated on the words given for contemplation. 'Life is hard'. 'I am not important'. 'My life is not for me'. 'I am not in control'. 'I will die'. Inspiration came for an initiation name – the full appropriateness of which I only realised later. In the damp and the cold I maundered about death but was surrounded by the lush green growth of the bracken cloaked fells.
Walking back to camp I passed the remains of the dead sheep, then the sun came out. I looked up and spouting off a crag was a fall of water. Stripping naked I washed myself clean in this natural shower. They were healing living waters. All around green. The warm sun glinting on the lake below.
"The water I give them will turn into a spring of water deep inside them and give life to the full". John 4:14
My retreat helped me look forward. In the months ahead the picture I am making will help call on those living waters, to refresh me in the emotional roller-coaster that is the unavoidable cycle of life and death.
(First published in The Friend on 19 September 2008 and reprinted with permission)
A reflection by Donald Griffin, originally published in the Penman Review
I can see them, the dancers, over there in the distance. Men and women whirl around the fire their silhouettes mimicking every movement upon the lighted canyon wall behind them. Drum beats reverberate through the cool crisp night air, like a thousand hearts beating and pumping life out into the cosmos. A primal and ageless ritual. The fire’s long fingers stretch out into the night sky. Embers flutter about like glowing moths. Like a frightened animal, lurking in the deep shadows, I keep my distance.
I have traveled the span of the universe to be here. Yet—I hesitate—for all the fear that is in me causes my long hard journey to seem but a worthless venture.
Human bodies sway with the rhythms of life. With ecstatic force many hands fall upon the drum skins. The ancient spirit awakens within all who dance. Their spirit, much like the fire, is set ablaze with wild abandon.
Yet, I stand in these cold shadows. The silent specter beside me. Always beside me. To join this circle is why I have come here tonight, but I am frozen in place with feet made of stone. The specter’s cold lifeless hand rests upon my shoulder. I tremble not knowing how to let go. To open my heart when it is clasped firmly shut. Will they wound me like so many others have done before? I yearn to join them.
These insecurities inside of me, they grip me, I cannot free myself of them. I desire to join this dance of life, to feel that fire burn within me, to feel the beat of the drum within my own heart, to join and to be threaded together with all my brothers and sisters in this ancient dance. If they see who I really am though? All my sins laid bare… I cannot.
Some dancers have taken notice of me. I see heads turn my way, shadows dance and play upon their faces. Some gesture and invite me in. The drumming continues and the beat runs through me. A thought darts across my mind, I am not worthy to join them. If they knew this horrible darkness inside of me, this sickness, would they still be so inviting?
Like a cancer, my wounds fester inside of me. How I long to cast all this darkness off like an old heavy cloak that has worn out its usefulness. My silent companion stands beside me and whispers in my ear, “You’re no good, you’re not like them, you don’t belong here, go back to where you came from.” Yes, I think to myself, you are right, I don’t belong here. My specter is pleased at this.
In the quiet stillness, another voice whispers to me. From the groundless depths of my being the voice comes to light upon my consciousness, “You do belong here, you are called to this freedom, there is healing inside that circle, you must step forward and join the dance.” This voice is calm, quiet and reassuring, so much quieter than this specter who stands beside me hissing in my ear.
Have I traveled so far only to stop here, just a few steps away from the dance? The battle within me rages and the armies of mind and heart fight a bloody war that none can see.
This is a war that has been fought since the day I first awoke. The last battle is being waged. Mind and heart, duality of the battlefield. All the thoughts that tell me how worthless, insecure, and unwanted I am. This army of my mind seems to have all the strength, and often overwhelms the warrior within my heart. There are days when the heart rises up, declaring its worth and value, letting me know that I am a beloved son, granting me precious moments that feed me hope.
The battle rages on. I feel so alone. There seems to be no one out there who can see this in me, no one who can help me. Silently, I cry out for help, but no one seems to care. The battle is lost and hope turns and flees from me. Desperation, panic, fright, nowhere to run, I am but a shell of myself. Who am I?
The dance continues, and the fire in the circle burns hotter, the drumming is intensifying, the people shout with a primal voice, a shout from their very depths. For me however, I am drowning in my fear, the specter beside me has me firmly in its grip. So cold. Darkness swallows me. Even as I slide down into death, time seems to stand still, breathless, I notice the myriads of stars above me. They look down on me, they seem to empathize with me and with my plight. Their light is strangely comforting; they have been with me for so long. Little rays of light that pierce this darkness of mine.
It is then that one from the circle turns around and looks straight at me. He looks me in the eyes. Even from such a great distance it seems as if he is staring straight into the furthest reaches of my soul. There is love, tenderness, and compassion in his gaze. There is an invitation there. He takes a step towards me. He leaves the circle of dancing light and comes into the shadows towards me.
As this man approaches me I can see a multitude of scars covering his body. He wears the garb of the natives. His chest is bear, his body is bronze, his beard is long, dark as night with grey streaks running through it. His hair is white as snow and falls to his shoulders like silk. He is aged and I can see he is worn with travel himself. His scars are numerous, but they are healed and smooth and glisten in the light of the fire. They make him look all the more beautiful. His eyes are like dark pearls, ageless, eternal, absolute compassion staring back at me. I can see that he understands me, he can see my fears, he knows my journey, for he too has stood where I now stand. I seem to know this intuitively.
This elder approaches me and joins me in my darkness. He has not said a word; he does not need to. His presence alone envelopes me in this darkness and comforts me. Who would leave that circle of celestial light to join me in the outer darkness? As he stands he wraps his strong arms around me discarding the strong grip of my specter’s skinless hands as if brushing off some dust, and love floods into my soul. It feels so good to be loved when I deserve nothing but contempt, or so my mind tells me. This man knows, he understands. We stand in this embrace and the love of a father envelops me and invites me in. With tears in my eyes, I accept.
After a moment, this wise man beckons me to follow him into the dance. With my bleeding wounds, and my tattered soul dragging behind me like old garments, I follow. My companion, the specter, stays behind melting into the shadows. As I get closer to the circle joy filled faces turn to welcome me. They part like graceful waters to make a space for me. The fire dances towards me, I can feel its warmth against my skin. The wounds of my soul invite the flames into it. I step into the circle.
The drum beats pierce my being with a force like I have never felt before. The fire leaps into my chest and races inside of me. Body arched straight, my wounds on fire, and I see each one of them with such depth and precision. I feel every single one of them as pain explodes within every fiber of my awareness. The pain starts to slowly fade. There is love and forgiveness, there is healing, and I am welcomed home. The wounds start mending, the bleeding stops, the infection that has plagued my soul for so long is gone, scabs form and then peel away. Where there was once festering wounds there is now beautiful scars. The drums beat, my heart flutters, my feet move, my primordial scream comes forth. I am threaded into the circle and I begin to whirl. My journey has come to an end. I am home. I am the fire, I am the drums, I am the heart beat that pours out life into the universe, I am in the dance, I am the dance.
I dance for eternity and time is no more. I look back out into the darkness and realize there are others standing out there in that cold darkness where I once stood. Their own specters standing beside them. With my heart full of love, I know that I too am called to leave the circle to set the captives free.