The bus was so crowded that inching towards the exit door was like being squeezed through a mangle. "Permesso?" ("May I pass?") seemed such a ridiculous request - until you realised it was not a question at all but a final warning. Yes, this was a Roman bus, and you counted yourself lucky if you were extruded from it at the right stop.

               Above the noise a shrill voice rose in anger, creating some silence all around. One woman was brow-beating another with unrestrained fury, charging her with things unspeakable; it was humiliation on a grand scale, almost like a public execution. The other would reply in a voice so downcast that the anonymity of the crowd seemed to change to a shared pity and horror... And again the second voice, only barely articulate, more like a howl of sorrow. After a while, the most striking thing was the repetitiveness on both sides; somehow this made it worse. The Italian vocabulary of abuse is very rich; why this clinical repetitiveness? It was like slowly cutting someone's throat.

               As I edged towards the exit I came in view of them - or rather her. To my astonishment I saw that the two voices were coming from one and the same person! Still she continued, not only her voice but her whole appearance changing as she switched from one role to the other; she was both people. She was all alone on the bus, as if we were not there; but inside her she was two people in terrible conflict with each other. Just imagine: they could never be separated day or night, and their conflict would go on forever.

               I thought I was being very large-minded when I thought, "There but for the grace of God go I!" But in a while I had to shorten it. "There go I!" I talk to myself too, and I often berate myself without mercy. So do you, probably. It's always a revelation to see the extreme. The extremist is just further along the line than we are. Run your eye back a bit and see yourself! The extremist is yourself written large. Schizophrenics are not the only persons who are divided within themselves. We all are. In that poor woman you can see exposed what you have managed to keep hidden. The divided self.

               To meditate is to touch that spot. We switch off all our life-support systems, such as radio and television; then we switch off that sub-vocal dialogue that we keep going day and night (this is not as easy as switching off a radio). We find that we don't disappear, we are still alive. In fact we are more alive, more awake. We may think we are cutting our contacts with the human race. On the contrary, we are going deeper than entertainment and gossip to the level where we are truly one with other human beings. We begin to get used to the paradox that solitude can put us in touch with others, that without solitude our contact with others is superficial. This is the level of meditation. If we enter it every day, even for a short time, we discover a greater depth in our lives; and this depth, far from cutting us off from others, will deepen our solidarity with them. We will be one with those we meet and with every sufferer; we will also be able "to rejoice with those who rejoice" instead of being jealous of them.

               Meditation is about sitting quietly at a certain time every day in a place where you will not be disturbed by phones ringing, or especially by human voices or music (other noises are no problem). Sit upright and relax the body (we often think that relaxation means flop-down). As you exhale, let all your tensions and nervousness leave you with the breath. As you inhale, breathe in peace. When you begin to fret about something, notice how this is expressed by muscular tension somewhere in the body. Relax that tension, and continue to breathe quietly. If you persevere you will find that your heart opens to include other people in all their pain and joy (without thinking about them). You are one with them in the Body of Christ. Your own humanity is theirs - and his. Their pain and joy is somehow yours - and his. This, not the 'I' that talks to itself, is our true nature.

Donagh O'Shea OP

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.