A friend of mine succeeded in making a metal gate once, and for about six months after that success he had an eye for nothing in the world but metal gates! That's what interest means. If you develop an interest in meditation you will want to learn from everyone about meditation; you will get to know people who lived centuries ago as if they were your next-door neighbours. Here is a passage from Johann Tauler, a disciple of Meister Eckhart. It is a passage I never tire of quoting!
“It is certain that if God is to be born in the soul
it must turn back to eternity….
It must turn in towards itself with all its might,
must recall itself,
and concentrate all its faculties within itself,
the lowest as well as the highest.
All its dissipated powers must be gathered up into one,
because unity is strength.
Next the soul must go out.
It must travel away from itself, above itself….
There must be nothing left in us
but a pure intention towards God;
no will to be or become
or obtain anything for ourselves.
We must exist only to make place for God,
the highest inmost place….
There, when we are no longer putting ourselves in the way,
God can be born in us.”
These are words of extraordinary depth and simplicity. Breathing is the first and last thing we do. It is the movement of our life taking place, moment by moment, from birth until death. Our different moods and states are characterised by different kinds of breathing. When we are asleep, for instance, our breathing has a distinctive pattern; when we are concentrating, the pattern is a different one; and when we are amused and we laugh, our breathing goes a little crazy for a few moments. It’s not surprising that many other movements of our being should also be described in terms of breathing. Even the deepest movement of our spirit is a kind of breathing. The word ‘spirit’ comes from Latin ‘spirare’, which means ‘to breathe’. Spirituality, then, is a kind of breathing – a movement inwards and a movement outwards.
The first part of the passage from Tauler describes the movement inwards; all the verbs there describe that movement: ‘to turn back’, ‘to turn in’, ‘to recall’, ‘to concentrate’, ‘to gather up’. It’s clear that there is no spiritual life without interiority, a movement inwards. This is very strongly stressed today, perhaps in reaction to the breathless speed of life around us and the superficiality of many products of modern culture. We must go in, yes. But we should not go in for the wrong reasons. A wrong reason would be to escape from realities and responsibilities, or to escape from challenges and problems, to run for cover. Tauler says we must go in to find the unity of our being, “because unity is strength.”
But no matter how good our motives for going into ourselves we can't go in to stay; we can't breathe in forever. We must also breathe out. “Next the soul must go out; it must travel away from itself, above itself.” Our life is for giving away, not for keeping. It’s the paradox of the Gospel: “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Luke 17:33). The simple act of breathing tells us the same story. We must go out of ourselves completely, Tauler said; “we must exist only to make place for God…. We must have no will to be or become or obtain anything for ourselves.” This is a hard saying, and it’s important to understand it in the right way. He’s not suggesting that we should become listless and lifeless, not knowing what we want. He is talking, rather, about the tragedy of deciding in advance what we are going to be and what we are not going to be, what we are willing to accept from God and what we are not willing to accept. This would be to force our own shape on our life rather than allow it to be shaped by God. It would be to subscribe fully to the ego’s agenda. Give yourself away! Tauler tells us; go out of yourself completely. This is the only way that your spirit will be saved from rotting inside you. He teaches us a spirituality of emptiness, not one of accumulation. It’s a joyful emptiness, with none of the anxiety that accumulation brings with it.
As you sit in meditation let your breathing itself be a kind of prayer, a prayer without words. When you exhale give yourself away, to God and to the world; don’t feel that you have to protect some little patch of ground called ‘me’; give yourself away with joy, like someone diving into a river, holding nothing back. Then as you inhale, receive everything as God’s gift.
Like the text from Tauler, Roublev’s icon of the Trinity is from the 14th century. These two – the text and the icon – are well met. As you contemplate the Trinity you may wonder: What are the Divine Persons doing? The only answer we can give is: They are giving and receiving. The Father is poured out eternally in the Son, given completely; and the Son receives everything from the Father. Their giving and receiving is so total that we have to speak of it as another Divine Person: the Holy Spirit. ‘Spirit’, as we saw, means breathing. You could say they are breathing!
Our own breathing too is a kind of giving and receiving. As you sit in silent meditation your breathing is in harmony with the divine breathing, the inner life of the Trinity. The Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov has a sublime reflection on this icon (this month’s Wisdom Line has one part of it), ending with the words: “Your secret is the secret that God is in you. Become aware of that in the land of silence....”