I used to fix clocks: that is, when they were just the simple mechanical instruments they always were until recent times. Now, apart from changing the battery, I don't know what to do about a clock that doesn't work. I think we’re expected to throw it away.
But there’s a 90-year-old lady who still remembers me as the one who fixed clocks, and when I visited her one day she said to me, “I have a present for you!” I protested mildly, and she went off to the kitchen to get it for me. She returned with the pendulum of a clock. No clock; just the pendulum. “There,” she said, “that's for you.” Her gift was in keeping with the quaintness and the charm of the whole family. When I brought it home I put it in the garage, in a box with lots of other useless items.
Some weeks later, as I sat in distracted meditation one morning I remembered the pendulum. Having thought that it had no future, I knew at once what its future would be. I went and got it immediately and hung it in my prayer-corner. It became a holy icon! All of its working-life had been devoted to time-keeping; but now it would show me timelessness, stillness, silence.
How many miles had it travelled, back and forth, over the years, day and night? Quite a few thousand, I imagine, in a long lifetime. But now it was perfectly still. The mind is like a pendulum, swinging from side to side, never at rest, never satisfied to be where it is. Why is it so restless? It has been compared to a pool of water, quite still in the deeper regions, restless on the surface. But why is a pool of water restless? Left to itself, water settles, and its surface becomes like a mirror. It is restless because it is not left to itself. It is agitated by the wind, and by currents flowing into it. The mind too, left to itself, would become clear and still and mirror-like. What is agitating it? In a word, the restless heart is agitating it.
The heart is restless; it swings between desire and fear. Desire is a pull in one direction; fear is a pull in the opposite direction. Tick-tock. Fear and desire. Or fear and greed, if you want to make sure you are harbouring no illusions about it. It can be almost as mechanical as a clock. Swinging between fear and greed, we seldom give ourselves time to see either of them. If we could really see our fear and our greed (without judging or condemning them), they would begin to be transformed. But to see them we have to stop that pendulum from swinging, even if only for a moment. When we look at our fear and our greed with some kind of compassion, they soften; they become less mechanical, less automatic. Over time they begin to ease their grip a little, and we are no longer driven along blindly by them.
The effect of this on the mind is a greater capacity for stillness. The source of agitation is weakening, and the mind is able to be almost mirror-like for brief periods. This is a very restful state. But beware! It is not to be desired – because that very desire, like any desire, would set the pendulum swinging again. If such moments come they come; if they don't they don't.
Still, it has to be said: that stillness is a privileged place for becoming aware of the presence of God. No doubt we can become aware of God's presence anywhere and in any circumstances, because God is present everywhere. Our stillness doesn't make God present – God is always present – but it makes us present. God is not lost; we are! When we become present, we are present to God.
In this context it would be hard to forget Elijah’s experience in 1 Kings. At the end of this passage some translations have “the sound of a gentle breeze.” But see how the NRSV (renowned for accuracy) translates it. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:11-12).