Reverence for Life

Jo Buchanan shares moments when her life has expanded beyond the physical into the spiritual

Jo Buchanan shares moments when her life has expanded beyond the physical into the spiritual

"By having a reverence for life, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the entire world. By practising reverence for life, we become good, deep and alive." - Albert Schweitzer

I believe that the more alert we are to the world around us, the more opportunities we have to experience reverence. From examining the intricate designs on a butterfly's wing, to witnessing the setting of the sun at the end of each day, staining the sky crimson.

One of my most memorable experiences of being reduced to a state of absolute awe occurred 21 years ago in Arizona when invited to attend a Hopi Indian Kachina ceremony.

The narrow mesa, known as "First Mesa", rose so high above ground level that peering over the side was like viewing the red desert below from an aeroplane. Intoxicated by drums and chanting, I ventured a short distance away from the group to sit by myself. Sections of the ceremony were taboo for us. These were conducted underground in large, dugout caves called Kivas where the Hopi women and children sat huddled in the subterranean rooms to watch the men perform ancient legends, their heads hidden inside grotesque masks.

As I shivered in the darkness of the night, absorbing the pulse from the dance below, three teenage boys approached and attempted conversation. It was difficult to understand each other so we contented ourselves with smiles and head nodding. One offered me his blanket, insisting on placing it around my shoulders.

Eventually, after managing to communicate a little via charades, my young friend invited me to accompany him underground to join his tribal family. He ushered me to a wooden ladder poking from a gaping hole in the ground.

Throwing caution to the wind, I scrambled down the crude ladder into the Kiva. Here, the atmosphere was like pea soup, thick with burning sage and the sound of pounding feet. Women and children squatted on the floor. I felt uncomfortable, very much the intruder as I squashed in among them. Gradually, reassured by my friend's smiles and head nodding, I began to relax, allowing the tide of time to flow through me, absorbing the magic of an ancient civilisation, back to a time of living interdependently with Nature and feeling complete affinity with the Great Spirit. I felt as if I was journeying back to a former incarnation.........

Remembering a time when we knew we were not separate from the trees, plants, rocks and waterways, living in harmony with each other, keeping the sacred circle alive. We drew strength from the earth and in using only dead wood for fire we avoided terminating a tree's life force. In laughing often and easily, we re-energised our souls…
When the chanting and dance finished, it was time to return to the 20th century and I ascended the rickety ladder stricken with the realisation of just how much respect humankind has lost for the natural world we live in.

Anywhere in Egypt evokes an indescribable feeling of reverence within me; the River Nile, the pyramids, sphinx and ancient temples, especially Karnak Temple in Luxor. I like to meditate beside the Sacred Lake early in the morning before the busloads of tourists arrive. Karnak Temple is considered to be the noblest architectural work ever designed and executed by human hands, anywhere in the world.

Entering through the western gate, I walk between the rows of ram headed sphinxes, each with a tiny statue of Ramses 11 between their paws. From here, I walk through the Temple of Amun built by Ramses 111 (1194 – 1163 BC) where the stone walls are covered with murals of the King slaughtering his enemies, conquering the forces of chaos and darkness. Pausing to absorb the atmosphere of the Hypostyle Hall, with its forest of pillars representing stems of the revered papyri, I recall it was this gigantic temple that the gentle, peace-loving Akhenaten renounced and walked away from to build his Temple of the Sun in Amarna.

Although most temples include a sacred lake, the one at Karnak is believed to be the largest. In ancient times, every morning at sunrise, a goose was set free by the priests in a ceremony dedicated to Amun, the God of Creation. I walk towards the lake along a track fringed with date palms bowing under the weight of their amber fruit.

Sitting on the ground, leaning against the trunk of a sycamore tree, I close my eyes, imagining the temple in its original splendour……

The sounds of laughter echoing from the papyrus pools, courtiers throwing boomerangs at ducks and pheasants, ibises darting at plump fish cruising in the shade of lotus blossoms and the morning rituals of purification by the priests at the Sacred Lake. Originally this temple was connected to the Nile by a canal. I visualise the boats travelling all the way up to the compound and the jubilation when wars were won and the King and his priests were rewarded by their gods…….

….until the soulful sounds of call to prayer from a nearby mosque bring me back to the present moment.

It is easy to evoke feelings of veneration while exploring the sacred sites of Egypt and other ancient civilisations. But we don't always need a grand temple or the magnificence of Mother Nature to experience reverence. It can manifest in the most humbling of situations. For me, one example of this took place inside a tiny, musty-smelling room in a Melbourne nursing home in 2003. It was a Friday and I was sitting with my mother, her shrivelled body curled between white sheets, cuddling a doll. She had become barely recognisable. How could this tiny fallen sparrow be my Mum? Only two months earlier she'd been playing Hide and Seek in the garden with her great grandchild. Every Sunday I took them both for a drive and they'd argue about what flavour ice cream to buy. Two precious children, one, three years of age, the other 99.

On this Friday I absorbed the atmosphere of Mum's room like osmosis; the lingering sweetness of roses and lavender, a teddy bear resplendent in a pink net ballerina gown and Doris the Dinosaur swinging from a cane bookshelf bulging with books about Scotland and cats. Background noises I normally never noticed were deafening and intrusive - nurses on a coffee break, laughing and chatting, a televised cricket match in a nearby room drowning out the haunting musical score from Picnic At Hanging Rock in another and the high, tremulous voice of an elderly resident pushing her walking frame up and down the passage singing "Jesus Bids Us Shine With a Pure Clear Light".

The song took me back to a time when I knew those words backwards. It was the 1940s. I was about four years of age, my sister Christine, three. Dad was superintendent at the South Melbourne Presbyterian Mission in Dorcas Street and Mum was a Sunday School teacher. In those days South Melbourne was a slum area. Every Christmas, Mum and Dad canvassed local businesses for donations and every year they were presented with tin airplanes for the boys, and dolls for the girls. Mum would sit up until midnight for weeks, sewing clothes for the dolls on her Singer treadle sewing machine. She'd even make tiny shoes from scraps of soft leather donated by Goodchild's Shoe Factory. She sewed floral dresses for every little girl who attended kindergarten. When the day of the Christmas party arrived, dresses, airplanes and dolls were distributed by a chuckling Father Christmas (Dad) and Mum would lead the singing as we stood in a circle, clutching flickering candles and singing "Jesus Bids Us Shine with a Pure Clear Light".

The following day, Saturday, the rest of the family joined my bedside vigil. We played the music of Mozart although we knew Mum could no longer hear. As the hours passed, we worried about her pain and lack of sleep. Every time a nurse tried crushing painkillers in jam, Mum would spit them out like a naughty child. Eventually it was suggested a doctor be called to give her an injection of morphine to ease Mum's pain. But it would take five hours for the doctor to arrive. 'Sorry, it's the weekend, everyone's busy.' Gathering closer round the bed, we huddled in silence, lost in individual reminiscing.

At last the doctor arrived and permission was granted for the injection of morphine. Almost immediately, the tension in her body eased.

The atmosphere in the room was vibrant with memories and love for the spirit of this woman who had touched so many people's lives during the course of her own, all of us humbled at being in the presence of a beautiful soul in a state of transition.

When my mother stopped breathing, the thoughts that had been spinning round inside my head were replaced by words to a song made famous a long time ago by Vera Lynne.

'We'll meet again,
Don't know where, don't know when.
But I know we'll meet again one sunny day.'

The room seemed to expand way beyond the boundaries of the physical. We all felt elevated in spirit, vibrating at some higher frequency. It was as if by experiencing reverence for the life of my mother, we had entered a spiritual relationship with the whole world - and for a moment, the one beyond.