Early in the morning, as the thick Amazonian night was being redeemed by the light of day, I would go down to the small jetty to meditate beside the river. In Sao Paulo or Los Angeles, Sydney or London the working day also begins at this time as people begin their commute, read their newspapers, grab a cappuccino, gearing up for the business of survival.
Here too, in the wilderness, there was a perceptible rise in levels of activity. The animal kingdom was waking for work.
But here it felt more like a transition from natural deep rest. It was a ritual of nature, a new beginning of a primal celebration, an expansion of action in peace, rather than a battle. The conflicts of the species, the survival of the fittest and the killing and devouring that drives their life-cycle were sinless. There were predators but no oppressors, those whose time had come to finish their term of life but no victims. The freshness and purity of the morning reflected this natural order as the river reflected the intensifying sun.
From the other side of the river came a noise that drew my attention away from the constant symphony of life - the river and the jungle it flowed through, the hum of the insects and birds, the splash of leaping fish rippling the smooth water and the endless, unidentifiable rustlings that populate night and day. The Amazon jungle is silent. But silence, as any meditator knows, is not the absence of noise; it is the essential innocence of being, existence in harmony with one’s nature, a union between self and all that is other.
I found it hard to locate this new, oddly aggressive yet disturbingly sad noise. It came from somewhere - over there, or behind me, or downstream. For a moment it seemed almost human and in a flash of imagination I pictured a cargo of slaves being taken down river to their hopeless future. In a contrapuntal way individual voices occasionally dominated over the chorus of this pre-linguistic speech – the alpha males, I was later told, asserting their rights over their fellow howling monkeys. It was reassuring to have the noise named and located. The literalists wonder how Adam could have named all the species of animals in a single day. But, as steward of creation, he needed to give them names in order to understand them and to see how wonderfully they formed a unified whole.
Those who read the biblical account of creation in the light of meditation know that there are many ways of measuring time and that the work of understanding life reinforces its sense of wonder. My associating the monkeys’ howls with human melancholy became less anthropocentric. The noise took its place within the orchestra of the world’s miraculous bio-diversity in which Man belongs in order to serve rather than to exploit. So many species, so many parallel universes around me. The more we see and understand, the vaster the world becomes, the more it reflects the effulgent glory and boundlessness of its origin. “In all natural things,” St Augustine said, “there is something wonderful.”
The crescendo of silent energy in the Amazon jungle builds up in the predawn light and settles down again at sunset. At both times it is intensely peaceful. You feel that peace is an energy, a power that vitalizes and renews everything it touches. It enfolds the world, but without possessiveness. Our capacity for this peace is boundless yet it has to be gradually expanded. To receive too much too soon would feel threatening and even, paradoxically, frightening. As energy it can, however, be transmitted (Peace is my parting gift to you). To be close to a person whose heart is filled with peace is to have our own heart opened beyond all the restrictions imposed by anxiety, fear and anger. But even in the strongest presence of peace and of the mystery of love from which it flows – everything real derives from love - we are free and peace can also be refused.
To feel this natural peace by the glass-smooth river, as the birds sweep and dance above it, as the sky brightens like an irresistible human smile that you know won’t let you down, is to find oneself anew. It is to be restored to the harmony of nature - the shalom in which we resonate with all creation, with all beings in the beautiful order of the cosmos. So, to understand peace in these conditions merely as an absence of conflict or as an escape from risk – as do urbanized human beings in their security compounds walking below the cold gaze of security cameras – is to not be there at all. It is to miss the gift of peace and to be far away in an illusory world.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)