Michael Harding: The beloved woke up and I pretended I was doing yoga exercises
She was curious why I was doing yoga in bed at that hour. I had no plausible answer
‘Stretching the belly, knees, and nose to the floorboards in an act of obeisance to any god is like high-wire gymnastics for someone burdened with as much pride as me.’ Photograph: Getty Images
I have no problem standing on a stage and talking about personal feelings but there’s a part of me that never comes out from behind the mask; a corner of my mind that requires constant shelter. Which is why I love trees. They are a refuge. They provide me with a place to hide, and I’m lucky because years ago I planted dozens of them around the house and now they have become a woodland.
In the shelter of trees I experience the universe as mother. I love the rustling leaves in summertime and I sense their roots beneath my feet in winter. My only worry is that the trees are so big that they might fall on the house in a storm some night, especially since we live on an exposed mountain slope.
The slopes of the mountain are where I love to walk, up the hills, across bogland and between the windmills, just to gaze at the ocean in the distance. On a clear day I can see as far as Sligo bay.
Years ago I knew a monk who came from Sligo. He inherited a farm of land when he was young and kept sheep for years. But one day he just closed the door of his cottage and went off to a monastery and hid himself away for the rest of his life.
I went to visit him once. I like watching monks, especially when they assemble in the middle of the night, shuffling so reverently that they remind me of sleeping fish. And sometimes they prostrate in the shadows, as if only God and not me were watching.
Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t spend my life sheltering in a monastery prostrating my way towards enlightenment
One night I witnessed a monk stretched on the cloister before a statue of a saint, as if he were a log of wood, the cowl covering his head, and his hands extending towards the plinth.
Such medieval prostrations are long out of fashion in Christian churches, although the gesture of reverence persists in other traditions. But the word “prostration” conjures up such notions of self-abasement that I find it an uncomfortable act of devotion to execute; even though it’s considered common practice in many Buddhist meditation centres.
Stretching the belly, knees, and nose to the floorboards in an act of obeisance to any god is like high-wire gymnastics for someone burdened with as much pride as me.
Unless of course the prostration is done with a certain flamboyance, which inverts the gesture into a kind of show. I have tried this occasionally on the carpets of various shrine rooms; flinging myself to the floor with abandon, in the hope that anyone watching might conclude from such a firmly executed prostration that I was a person of enormous faith. After one such flourish I remember a nun warning me against what she described as “over-enthusiasm”.
One night a few years ago I was lying in bed watching a monk on YouTube explaining how his conversion to the Coptic faith was brought about by a single prostration. He was an agnostic academic for years, but one day was drawn to an icon of the Mother of God in an Orthodox Church and almost without knowing why, he flung himself to the ground.
Stretched on the floor before the icon, he then tucked his body into the foetal position and according to himself experienced a deeply mystical union with the Cosmos. “It was like being a child in her womb,” he declared.
I envied his dramatic spiritual awakening so much that I closed the laptop and rotated my body beneath the duvet, thus manipulating myself into a foetal position to see if I too could experience anything of this cosmic womb.
But it wasn’t my night. Nothing happened apart from the fact that the beloved woke up and I had to pretend I was doing yoga exercises. She was curious as to why I would be doing yoga in bed at that hour of the night but I had no plausible answer.
Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t spend my life sheltering in a monastery prostrating my way towards enlightenment. I’m happy enough in the shelter of the trees. And forests may be the cloisters of the future; reaching into the heavens, and drawing their strength from Mother Earth.
And if I do ever find some shy creature prostrating in the woodland before a noble oak, I will not consider them any different from a monk on the flagstones of a monastery, surrendering to the same exquisite mystery of just being alive.