I read about two brothers in the US who made a living, as did previous generations of their family, by capturing semi-feral horses, taming them and selling them. A story came down in the family about their grandfather and granduncle who once came across such a horse sinking in quicksand. They hauled him out, fully expecting him to be frantic as soon as he was free. Instead they were amazed to find him completely tame. The present generation of brothers decided to reconstruct the conditions and see what would happen. Instead of quicksand they used grain. When they had driven a wild horse into the capture corral they opened an overhead sluice and grain slowly filled the space, immobilising the horse. They were careful to do everything slowly and gently, keeping their distance at first, giving the horse time to get used to their presence. The process of taming that used to take three weeks now took fifteen minutes.
Someone who heard that story began to wonder if it could have an application to human beings in some circumstances. She found that tightly hugging and immobilising an autistic child for a few minutes had a strangely positive effect. We can well wonder if it might have further applications.
We are all semi-feral in some ways. We need to be tamed. The rearing of any child, I suppose, is a kind of taming. But children generally are content to co-operate with it: they accept boundaries, and it is often noted that they even look for boundaries. If they are not handled wisely at that stage something feral remains in them into adulthood. I know a prison warden who is impressed, in a puzzled way, by the good effect that prison has on some prisoners. Total freedom is an unbearable burden, and like children some of those prisoners welcome the security of limitations, even while chafing at them.
But even if we haven't yet had the distinction of being prisoners, we can still think about prisons, their great variety, how some are good and some bad, and whether our sentence is a life tariff or something shorter…. The ego, we now know, is the worst prison imaginable. It doesn’t improve its inmates, who are called egoists; and even when they are given every opportunity to escape they cling to its walls; in fact they are so attached that they bring it around with them wherever they go. You know who I am talking about: all of us. But that's a long story.
Think instead about good prisons, or rather about the good that sometimes can come from being limited and trapped. To be trapped in the present, to have no escape into the past or the future: that can bring us to a deep experience. I'm struck by the way this appears in the Gospel. When Jesus was put to death, his disciples returned to their former way of life: they tried to go back to fishing. But ‘they caught nothing that night’ (Jn 21:3). The past had ceased to work for them. Neither did they seem to have a future, because Jesus was dead. There was nowhere they could go. They were prisoners. Tragedy and failure drove them into the present. It was in that cataclysmic Now that they saw Jesus. ‘It is the Lord’, Peter cried out.
The experience of those first disciples is a paradigm for disciples of all time. The Good News reveals itself in the Now – but not by easy means. I would gladly float along the surface, surveying the sea of belief, commenting on its length and breadth. But I have to be blocked in every direction before I go into depth. I am quite comfortable with two dimensions; I have to be driven into the third.
It is no trouble to see Jesus and myself in 2D: Jesus and myself as historical figures. I can survey us both, compare notes, and hope that by the time I get to meet him (when I die) things will be better with me. In the meantime he won't mind if I postpone a few things – St Augustine’s ‘not yet’. He knows I have good intentions. From here the life of Jesus is so long ago that he is at the edge of my visual field, almost out of view. In 2D he is far away in place and time. But the third dimension knows nothing about distant places or times; it knows nothing but here and now.
But what if my placid nature enables me to coast along without getting into deep water? Well then I need to become desperate, because my life is on the line. I could, for example, grapple with a koan – one of those paradoxical questions that Zen teachers use to drive a meditator beyond logical thinking and into intuition. The word ‘koan’ may sound exotic, but the reality couldn’t be closer to home. “The koan arises naturally in the course of everyday life.” Everyday life is riddled with koans (let’s call our struggles that, for the sake of brevity). Bring one of them into intense focus, and then sit in meditation. Meditation is a prison where good things can happen if I have a right attitude. If it is just a hobby I am not yet desperate enough (those disciples did not go back to fishing as a hobby).
Sooner or later life ensures that I am desperate. My koan may be a serious illness, or bereavement, or addiction, or physical incapacity, or emotional fragility, or worry about the people I love, or the state of the world…. “People who have not suffered, what do they know?” said Henry Suso in the 14th century. In every age and in every place people of faith have known this imprisonment, and they have found God in that third dimension. Remembering her dead children Peig Sayers prayed: "Well I know your holy help, because I was often held by sorrow with no escape."
Until the time of desperation imposes itself, the mind is a flighty horse: strong, nervous, given to sudden moments of panic, but happiest when it is doing nothing in particular, just prancing around with its mane flying. It leaps into the future because of some shadow of danger in the present; it gallops into the past for safety. It needs taming, it needs to be immobilised. That is what meditation does. When the feral horse was immobilised and brought to the end of its resources it discovered that there was nothing to fear. The mind is that horse, timid and dangerous by turns, wanting to be anywhere but here. When through meditation it can no longer shy away from the present it is trapped, and then quite soon (though it is a slower learner than the horse) it finds its peace. And with that peace it finds the Prince of Peace. ‘It is the Lord!’ (Jn 21:7).