Weekend interlude – a morning meditation from my hospital bed

I sit on the edge of the bed looking out of the large picture windows of my hospital room onto a beautiful sunny Bristol spring morning.

From my shower room comes the soft drone of monastic chant, timeless echoes of the Byzantine Orthodox Church. Contemplative music from across different religious traditions pervades my days like the incense my students always remember from our times together in my university rooms. As I am always reminding visitors, I am ‘left over from the 60s’ (ah, the 60s – dear Lord and our children, forgive us for most of the time we did not know what we were doing!).

The largest in the south west of England, Bristol is a historic yet zany, joyous, wonderful city. From here in the old part of the city I can see in the distance already the countryside, the hilly green ridge of Dundry Hill, with its medieval church tower. Lying lower and little closer I can just about see the shining waters of the restored and endlessly interesting area of Bristol harbour.

Climbing up the hill towards me are rows of houses and other buildings dating from the eighteenth century or in some cases perhaps even medieval times. They have been largely restored nowadays as offices, buildings associated with the hospital, or the University of Bristol, which between them dominate this area, or they are now rather nice restaurants. It is not always appreciated even by British folk, that Bristol is a city of hills, as well as green spaces and watery history.

Then climbing further up St Michael’s Hill in front and massively filling much of the picture window before me are bulk blocks, great buildings, massive masses dating largely from (I think) the 1930s, 40s and 50s. They form an artificial mountain of secular scholarship, science, University of Bristol science. And over a little bit to the right I can see a strangely discordant yet oddly fitting very late neo-Gothic tower building with its turrets and pointed windows.

Oh, the dear secular Holy Mountain of Bristol Science. Where would I be without you and your colleagues! Looking out on the lovely blue spring sky, the hills in the distance, the water, occasional medieval structures and a great mountain of buildings in the foreground and above me, I am taken right back to my time walking some years ago on the Greek orthodox holy mountain of Athos. That too was at Easter time. Mount Athos has been for well over a thousand years the centre and essence of Greek orthodox monasticism, dominated by a series of great and ancient monasteries that rival those associated nowadays with pre-Communist Tibet. I and three friends went walking there one Easter time – not that long ago – staying as Christian (albeit non-Orthodox) pilgrims in the monasteries.

I should perhaps add that the monasteries and indeed the whole region of Mount Athos is to the present day, so traditional in its monasticism that the whole area – which is actually a peninsula in northern Greece – is out of bounds to any female creature. No ladies are given permission to enter the area of the holy mountain. Even us chaps received permits for only three nights. That said, we were welcomed with devout hospitality and able to sit in on and as far as appropriate observe the Greek Orthodox liturgy at this blessed time of year – although I should add that as mostly Roman Catholics the four of us were often treated with an indulgent and sometimes vaguely pitying smile combined with a certain formal distancing!

Old offenses, old misunderstandings, uncertainties, fears and historical mistakes, often great mistakes, leading to an unwillingness to let go and change (there is something strangely comforting about holding on to ancient and inherited hatreds) – they take such a long time to die down, even under the very changed circumstances of the modern world. Dear Orthodox friends, dear Jewish friends, dear, dear Muslim friends at this holy time of year for each and all of us – I am sorry, so sorry. But I trust, I know, that under our Lord all will pass, and all will be reconciled. To quote from the wonderful medieval English female mystic Julian of Norwich, it was revealed to her that finally for us all, ‘all will be well, and all manner of things will be well’. One of my favorite of favorite quotes.

Remember – these blogs are currently my hospital reflections on how to live a happy life! This interlude is prelude to Part 2. When I have mulled it!

From the shower room the Byzantine Orthodox monastic chant softly and peacefully drones its morning love and implores the ‘peace that passes all understanding’.

Tomorrow, all being well, I shall ‘go forth’ from the Bristol Royal Infirmary – my Lenten retreat, my oh-so-hospitable hospital – and leave the refuge of my room with its contemplative monastic view and Byzantine musical showers, to return home, to deepen in reflection my enriching retreat experiences and to bear witness to the many, many wonderful blessings I have received here.

And marvel at being genetically modified without so far the drawback of two heads or glowing green in the dark. And I can still string together a coherent sentence, at least as well as I ever could.

We are coming towards the end of our Catholic and frequently Protestant period of Lenten reflection and, if nowadays generally mild, austerity leading up to the celebration of Easter. Orthodox brothers and sisters are in a much more demanding period of austerity, and our dear Muslim friends have just entered the period of joyous denial that is Ramadan. Jewish friends have Purim next weekend and are moving towards Passover.

Behind it all, the environmental context for each of us at least in the northern hemisphere is spring. Winter coldness and lack gives way to spring warmth, sunshine and flowers. What a wonderful time spring is! What a wonderful time and how united we are in our religious differences. We all want to be happy at this time of year. I see Christian friends buying spring flowers and smiling. I see Muslim friends and Jewish friends doing the same thing, walking in the sunshine, sitting out of doors, enjoying the warmth and shared meals with their families and friends. Even the birds and the beasts sense in their own ways that this is a time for joy and for love.

I know previously I bemoaned the 60s and offered my apologies. Friends – I confess that for a time I was a hippy! We celebrated flowers and their mystical power and sang that love was all we needed. Yes, we were naive! But, dear friends – it is spring. We all know, each and every one of us, that now we need to buy flowers. We need to make contacts with friends and family. We need to sort out those festive meals. Each and every one of us – Christian of whatever denomination, Jews, Muslims.

For goodness sake, folks! Flowers and love. Let us get our acts together. We are each passing through our late winter austerities. We are all wonderfully united in our celebrations marked by the coming of the flowers, in our joy at the springtime, the sunshine of the summer.

We are all so united in our springtime joy. Let us cease to be so separated in our cold winter darkness.

About the Author
Paul Williams is Emeritus Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy and the former Head of Religion and Theology at the University of Bristol, UK. He is the author of many books and articles mainly on Buddhist philosophy, particularly in Tibet and a professed lay member of the Dominican Order (Order of Preachers) of the Roman Catholic Church. Since retirement he has been particularly involved in support for Syrian and Ukrainian refugees in the UK, and since October 7th 2023 in outreach and support where appreciated for Jewish friends and contacts.
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