I used to think I would like to be a street cleaner. It still strikes me as, potentially, a very contemplative work, like the mat weaving of the desert monks, a life solitary yet socially useful. Few people notice a man sweeping the streets except for the instant they pass him by (I have never seen a woman street cleaner).
Yet if he is in the presence of God, peaceful in himself – ‘mindful’ in secular language – then he is raising the consciousness of the stressed crowds streaming irritably and competitively around him. He can love them with that mysterious, intimate love, the compassion we have for strangers, whenever we are in touch with our true selves and free from all the roles we act in.
Such a street cleaner would be a form of sannyasa, a true monk who has stepped into an acosmic order of existence, flourishing in unselfish freedom outside all social hierarchies. He is not at the top, middle or bottom of the class system, neither rich nor poor, honoured nor dishonoured by society, discovering the happiness that does not consist in the satisfaction of our desires.
Needless to say this is a little romantic. No doubt there are some street sweepers who live in this state– especially the dwindling few who still use brooms rather than the aggressive mechanised tanks that seem to pollute more than they clean. But the odds are that most of them are unhappily doing a job that is understandably seen as pretty low in the pecking order, infinitely far from those who get invited onto the royal barge, and excluded even from the ranks of the happy families waving flags on the riverbank.
Last month I meditated with a group of homeless people who meet weekly with their passionate street priest, a young woman who has a mild antipathy to church buildings but loves to pray and worship with these marginal people. Some might actually have been street cleaners, others looked as if they could not hold down any job. They are a mixed bunch. Some have fallen from the heights of social respectability, even positions of honour. They have an air of wise sadness, of having discovered something precious at great cost. Others are mentally ill struggling to assert themselves or giving up the attempt after many failures. Some are humble. Others have that desperate pride that reacts against repeated rejection. Ordinary social tones of voice and exchange seem very alien with them.
Our full half-hour meditation was unexpectedly still and silent. Clearly, as individuals and especially finding themselves as part of a trusting group, they were open to a profound level of prayer that the ‘learned and clever’ as Jesus called them only preach or lecture about. They were an answer to the question people often ask- ‘what makes meditation Christian?’
The bishop dropped in and spoke about how this group of street contemplatives were an inspiration and challenge to his whole administration. The canon pastor who had been hired to increase the Sunday congregation used to despair when he came to work and found the homeless sprawled on the cathedral steps. How could he get nice people in to church past people like them? But now he saw that they were the congregation. Their unconventional but sincere hunger to grow spiritually, their faith-filled way of dealing with hardship and their disarming directness uncluttered by the usual pieties of religion made them a model for others to follow. I had never heard the first Beatitude better described.
The poor you will always have with you, Jesus warned. Or was it also, strangely a promise? The marginal are a reminder to everyone that humanity is a family. Even the black sheep, the dropouts, the handicapped, the unemployable, those chronically down on their luck are brothers and sisters to the glitterati and those who may drop a few million but will never feel the pinch of the era of austerity we are entering. The conscious link between these extremes of society – from the most adored monarch to the lowliest subject – is the true test of a civilisation.
To ignore or suspend the human value of the economically disposable is to undermine the foundation of justice on which society rests. To see the beauty that shines in their superficial unloveliness, the intelligence in their social disabilities, the spirit in their earthiness is to see the way out of the crisis under which the order of the world is presently buckling. Any new order has to be built on this insight and then protected from the corruption that would quickly attack it again. The silence of the homeless meditators taught me how central and fundamental the contemplative experience is to sustainable development and human community. Perhaps the whole church in its own rapidly increasing marginality may be learning this too.
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)