Wonder of miracles is Mother Teresa’s work after death

When Mother Teresa was canonised as St Teresa of Calcutta last month by Pope Francis at the Vatican, there was much discussion of the work she carried out during her lifetime. She is known for establishing the Missionaries of Charity in two rooms in a Calcutta side street, to minister to “the poorest of the poor”, caring for abandoned children and the truly desperate. These were the people among whom she lived until her death in 1997 at the age of 87.

But in Rome, where the ceremony took place – and which I was honoured to attend – more significance was placed on Mother Teresa’s works after her death. Before someone can be considered for sainthood, the Roman Catholic Church demands a thorough assessment of their life and work, and notably any miracles which are reported to have taken place as a result of intercessionary prayers.

In this case there was no shortage of reports. Canadian priest Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, who was charged with acquiring and examining the evidence, received almost 900 reports of “graces and favours” attributed to Mother Teresa. Most were answered prayers – in connection with simple things such as an exam or a new job. Three stood out.

One concerned a sister of the Missionaries of Charity in India paralysed from the waist down after a hernia operation. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, two days after Mother Teresa’s death, a friend of the nun had prayed before her body and touched it with a piece of white cloth. This cloth was pinned to the paralysed body of the nun, and she was cured.

The second miracle concerned an eight-year-old girl in Palestine who was suffering from bone cancer, and who was said to have recovered after Mother Teresa appeared in her dreams and declared, “Child, you are cured.”

The most significant miracle affected a 30-year-old mother of five from west Bengal who had an ovarian tumour. On September 5, 1998, the first anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death, a medallion which had touched the body of Mother Teresa was placed on the woman’s body, and prayers offered for her life. Eight hours later, the tumour had vanished. It was this case which was ratified as a miracle by the Pope last December.

That Mother Teresa’s life conformed to the Church’s standards of “heroic Christian virtue” is in no doubt. But why should we also need to see proof of something beyond human virtue? Why do we need miracles?

Perhaps it is to do with our need for wonder, to experience the joy of the inexplicable and extraordinary, which in turn mean anything is possible. Regardless of faith, humans have always dreamed of and yearned for more than what they see day to day. 

Yet we do not have to be passive recipients of the phenomenal. The lucky ones manage to relish the impossible and unbelievable in every moment. As Albert Einstein said: “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; or you can live as if everything is a miracle.” And that is a wonderful way to exist.

The devotion of St Teresa

When Pope Francis proclaimed Mother Teresa of Calcutta a saint in September, he said she had defended the unborn, sick and abandoned, and had shamed world leaders for the crimes of poverty they themselves created.

It was a powerful message that I was honoured to witness at the ceremony in the Vatican.

This was an extraordinary event, attracting tens of thousands of pilgrims to St Peter’s Square. Hundreds of sisters from the Missionaries of Charity – the order St Teresa founded – attended the event, along with 13 heads of state or government.

And 1,500 homeless people across Italy were also brought to Rome in buses to be given seats of honour at the celebration, and then a pizza lunch served by 250 nuns and priests of the Sisters of Charity order.

After the pope had canonised St Teresa, the community prayed and I took a moment to meditate on this remarkable woman and her work.

Born in 1910 to ethnic Albanian parents, Agnese Gonxha Bojaxhiu had grown up in what is now the Macedonian capital, Skopje, but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Aged 19, she joined the Irish order of Loreto and in 1929 was sent to India, where she taught at a school in Darjeeling under the name of Therese.

In 1946, she moved to the Calcutta slums where she established the community of nuns, whom she worked alongside until she died in 1997 aged 87. She dedicated herself to helping the destitute, including many abandoned children.

The Pope described her as having spent her life bowing down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity. And she rightly won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

But when asked why she helped the poor, St Teresa once said: “There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in that we do it to God, to Christ, and that’s why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.

In my meditation, I focused on this quality of devotion. And as I did, I saw her kneeling before God, basked in light, in complete quietness. I started to pray for the things that I wanted in my life, but that prayer was taken from me.

Instead, I found myself praying for strength to have the resource and capacity to do good for more people. As I focused on this, I felt a sensation of support and of St Teresa’s intervention. I felt uplifted by this new saint and I remain deeply touched by my experience in Rome.

The paths not taken are best left to the storytellers

Venice Film Festival is the oldest film festival in the world and a great chance to see bold, innovative moviemaking from some of the world’s finest and most promising directors. I always enjoy my time there.

The setting is a key part too – who cannot fail to be seduced by the old Italian city’s canals and its otherworldly architecture? To wander the honey-coloured walkways and cross ancient stumbling bridges is to feel as though one is on a film set, and part of a mystical story.

Another, rather different but no less mystical, location is at the heart of La La Land, the opening film of the 73rd Biennale this year.

The film, directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), is a clever, thoughtful musical and has won huge plaudits already both for its story and the performances of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling

It’s a bitter sweet tale – full of joy and tenderness, but also some moments of heart rending sadness. I particularly enjoyed the way the plot was supported with perfectly judged music and old-fashioned dancing. At times, it recalls the classic musical An American in Paris, taking us into another world, turning brash Los Angeles into the City of Light.

This complements one of the central messages in La La Land: what happens when we take the road less travelled, and how often have we more than one potential future? It’s provoking to reflect on how much chance plays a pivotal role in our long-term happiness.  

It’s interesting to note too – as the film does – that these alternate realities are not just fanciful dreaming. When we look back at our past, it is always possible to see “what might have been”. Because it can be fun – perhaps dangerously so – to look into a world of “What Ifs”; it can even be vital to the creative process. The writer John Irving said: “I think there is often a ‘what if’ proposition that gets me thinking about all my novels.

Other films, too, have explored this idea – Sliding Doors (which starred Gwyneth Paltrow as the protagonist leading two lives separated by a chance event) and Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda. The German film Run Lola Run allows its eponymous heroine three attempts to get a life event right, exploring the consequences of failure.

Still I try to remember that stories are not real life. None of us wants to be burdened with regret and the secret to contentment is surely not envy of the other road but making peace with the person we are now and the roads that we did travel. We should stay focused in the moment, and not allow ourselves to wallow in What Ifs? at the risk of sabotaging the exciting and hopeful possibilities of tomorrow.

An infinite light in sacred music that touches us all

“I can’t disconnect the act of writing music from the act of prayer,” said British composer Sir John Tavener. “If anyone tries to stop me working, it feels like someone is trying to stop me from taking communion.”

I understand what he means. Sacred music – whatever faith you follow – can be a way of touching the divine and revealing the spirit.

All religions understand this, with many using chanted words and instrumental rhythms as often as choral works and melodic compositions. In Pure Land Buddhism, the name Amitabha, which means infinite light, is repeated; in Tibetan Buddhism, throat singing is an integral part of worship.

For Roman Catholics, the equivalent sound is Gregorian or plainchant, which developed mainly in western and central Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries. It was substantially revived and renewed in the 19th century at Solesmes Abbey in France, where an official Vatican copy was produced.

But while Gregorian chant may be used in the liturgy, choral music is used to inspire the heart and lift the soul. And there have been choirs based at all the major sites of worship from the moment of their creation. Singing has ranged from the plainsong Offices sung by the monks of the tenth-century monastic foundation to the daily choral services sung by the Choir at Westminster Abbey for more than 1,000 years.

The oldest continuous choir in the world is the Cappella Musicale Pontificia or Papal Choir – in existence since about 600. After the renovation of the Sistine Chapel in 1483, the chapel became its home, and the choir became commonly known as the Sistina. The work of the choir is to be discussed at an event organised by the Pure Land Foundation for China Exchange series in London in October 2016.

The choir itself – which consists of twenty adult singers and thirty unpaid boy choristers – practises three hours a day to produce its sublime sound. One of them is British baritone Mark Spyropoulos, who will be speaking about his experiences as a Papal singer for the Pure Land Foundation.

Spyropoulos has said that he is “fascinated” by working at the very heart of the Church and that it touches his faith. He also speaks of being ambushed by unexpected spirituality: “We were singing one of the Palestrina motifs to the empty chapel at 10 o’clock at night. This music goes incredibly deep. It is spiritual, meditative, reflective, mysterious. I had this feeling of being completely transported, somewhere far away. It was almost like an out-of-body experience. That has never happened to me before.”

Such is the transformative power of sacred music that it touches all of us anew, over and over. And it happens even to those most accustomed to hearing and making its sounds.

In praise of the choir of God

There are few more beautiful and powerful sounds than a church choir in perfect voice. Man has known throughout time that this is a thrilling and sublime way to worship the divine, and perhaps to touch the divine too.

I believe no choir exemplifies this notion as well as the Cappella Musicale Pontificia or Papal Choir – which has been in existence since about 600, when Gregory the Great established a group of singers in connection with the Basilica of St Peter which included monks, secular clergy and boys.

After the renovation of the Sistine Chapel in 1483, the chapel became its home, and the choir became commonly known as the Sistina.

But even before the choir’s formation there have been dedicated Papal singers. History tells us that Sylvester I in 314 brought together a regular group of singers sharing a designated building.

In the Renaissance Leo X gave the choir and its form of music a huge boost by instructing that one of the singers should be designated leader or Maestro di Cappella, whereas previously it was a company of equal singers. This change gave the choir a new organisational leadership, direction and discipline, helping it to rise to the new challenges of the demanding Renaissance composers.

Later Popes largely left the choir to its sacred business until Pope Pius X, who served until 1913, brought in the composer and conductor Don Lorenzo Perosi, the most prolific composer of sacred music of the 20th century.

Perosi was an innovator: he brought together Renaissance polyphony, Gregorian chant, and lush, Verismo melodies and orchestrations. His works for chorus, soloists, and orchestra were based on Latin texts, and he chose his words with great thought to their spiritual significance.

His work as a composer made him famous around the world, but he remained devoted to the Sistine Chapel choir.

And now the present head of the choir Massimo Palombella, a Salesian priest, seems to have ushered in a new golden age for these times, combining the precision of the British and European choral traditions with a warm, fluid, Mediterranean sound.

Moreover, the choir is ready to share their distinctive sound ever more widely since the production last year of a CD recorded in the Sistine Chapel, called Cantate Domino, the very first recording allowed in this breathtaking place. Pope Francis himself insisted the recording was made with Deutsche Grammophon. “It is very important,” the Pope said, “it is the best.” Palombella added: “It is a way of contacting the person who is far away from the Church.”

The choir itself – which consists of twenty adult singers and thirty unpaid boy choristers – practises three hours a day to produce its sublime sound. One of them is British baritone Mark Spyropoulos, who will be speaking about his experiences as a Papal singer at the Pure Land Foundation for China Exchange in October.

Why does Spyropoulos think the Choir is so important? It is about setting as well as people, he says. “The Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the music, all amounts to the most extraordinary aesthetic,” Mark says. “That’s one of the main attractions for me to be here. This is the most beautiful artificial thing that humans have ever created.”

The benefits of mindfulness in the workplace

I am always fascinated when new scientific research seems to support what we know from our own experience, that mindfulness is more than just a state of mind; it changes our brain in physical ways that have a positive effect on health.

Research from Carnegie Mellon University in February this year is a case in point. Published in Biological Psychiatry, a study led by David Creswell, associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, shows that mindfulness meditation training, compared with relaxation training, reduces Interleukin-6, an inflammatory health biomarker.

The study was conducted over just three days and found that mindfulness could alter fundamentally our brain’s connections, improving it in the areas that are vital for attention and executive function. When stressed, the brain becomes better equipped to handle extra demands placed on it rather than succumbing to inflammation and disease. Interestingly, a control group which practised relaxation techniques did not achieve the same benefits.

Prof Creswell has said: “We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience, such that mindfulness meditation training improves your brain’s ability to help you manage stress, and these changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health.”

My own experience supports these findings. I use meditative mindfulness before business meetings, knowing it makes me feel sharp, and will help me make better decisions.

But it’s not just the individual who benefits from mindfulness. Management scientists at Case Western Reserve University have taken that neuroscientific research into the workplace and found a corporate culture of mindfulness improves focus and the ability to manage stress.

The researchers reviewed 4,000 scientific papers on various aspects of mindfulness, and published their results in August in the Journal of Management.

Among their findings was the heartening conclusion that mindfulness appears to impact positively human functioning. Research in such disciplines as psychology, neuroscience and medicine provided a wealth of evidence that mindfulness lifts attention, cognition, emotions, behaviour and physiology.

Specifically, they said, mindfulness has been shown to improve three qualities of attention: stability, control and efficiency. The human mind is estimated to wander roughly half of our waking hours, but mindfulness can stabilise attention in the present. Individuals who completed mindfulness training were shown to remain vigilant longer on both visual and listening tasks.

What perhaps is most exciting for the future is that mindfulness may be seen as something which positively affects interpersonal behaviour and workgroup relationships. How can it do this? Through encouraging greater empathy and compassion, which are both important for leadership and teamwork.

Smart businesses know this already. Google trains 2,000 of its engineers in meditation each year. BlackRock and Goldman Sachs offer mindfulness courses for their employees.

As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said: “To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.”

Mindfulness for Olympians and all our children

I have long practised mindfulness and meditation daily; I believe it to be essential to our inner harmony, silencing the inner chatter which can be damaging to spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing.

So I am not surprised to learn that it is being hailed as a factor in Team GB’s success at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, with many athletes using the Headspace app devised by sports psychologists at the English Institute of Sport.

Cyclist Laura Trott, who became the most decorated British female Olympian of all time, said recently: “The first [part] is all to do with breathing, and really ties into the idea of mindfulness – only thinking about what you’re doing in that very moment and not allowing your mind to run away with worries about past events and those in the future.

“By thinking about your breathing, it stops you thinking about anything else. If you push your belly out when you take a breath in, like doing the opposite to what you think you should do, it really helps.”

Children, too, can benefit from learning these techniques. Academics from the University of Cincinnati, in a study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, looked at a small cohort of children diagnosed with anxiety disorders. The team found that the anxiety level of their patients was significantly reduced after mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and the more mindfulness they practised, the less anxious they felt.

One interesting US education resource is MindUP, developed by the Hawn Foundation and the brain child of actress and philanthropist Goldie Hawn. She was inspired by her concerns over rising levels of anxiety and stress among children in the US after 9/11. The programme suggests that children should have two-minute moments of self-reflection and meditation three times daily, with the idea that it will calm them and allow better focus.

Ms Hawn will explain MindUP at a talk in London this month for the Pure Land Foundation at China Exchange, a programme of events designed to enrich lives through creativity, spirituality and self-expression. A keen proponent of meditation, Ms Hawn will also lead the audience in a “brain break”, explaining: “You go inward for a while. It’s important to do that … it helps relax your brain and strengthen your brain.

“It gives great context into behaviour, emotions, reactivity, stress, how to reduce our stress, how to recognise it.”

Ms Hawn has been studying Eastern philosophy for decades and says: “What I’ve learned through my meditation is a sense of equanimity, a sense of all things being equal.”

In this, I agree with her. Mindfulness is an essential tool for achieving inner peace and working towards a state of true contentment.

Establishing healthy development through studying the mind

How do we establish and encourage healthy social and emotional development in children today? Our young people are under stress as never before, with worries stretching from doing well at school, making friends or pleasing their parents, to serious issues such as cyberbullying and the effects of climate change. Even Brexit is causing anxiety among British children about the opportunities they may not have to work and study abroad when older.

One valuable project focuses on helping young people to understand the way their own minds work – and how they can learn to manage stress, from quite an early age. It comes from the excellent MindUP educational programme developed by The Hawn Foundation and the brainchild of actor and philanthropist Goldie Hawn.

Ms Hawn had become concerned by statistics about the increases in school violence and bullying, youth depression and suicide, and she was worried about what she calls “the persistent failure of the education system to help children cope and flourish”. She wanted to help those children suffering from high levels of stress and who were completely lacking the skills to navigate in a complex world.

She enlisted experts from psychologists to neuroscientists to create an evidence-based resource for schools which could build self-esteem and resilience in youngsters. The result was the MindUP 15-step programme, which will be the subject of a talk by Ms Hawn in London this month for the Pure Land Foundation at China Exchange, a programme of events designed to enrich lives through creativity, spirituality and self-expression.

The MindUP programme is global in its reach, serving nearly one million children in the US, Canada, UK, Serbia, Mexico, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

And most importantly, it works. Scientists from the University of British Columbia reported in 2011 that 82 per cent of students reported feeling more optimistic and positive, and 81 per cent felt the programme taught them how to be happier. A further 58 per cent reported that it had encouraged them to be more altruistic and to help others.

While the programme uses mindfulness and “brain breaks” – moments of meditation – as part of its core stages, brain anatomy is also taught. One US teacher, Mylene Prano, has reported that her pupils are now commenting on fairy tales from a neuroscientific, rather than pantomime perspective.

“When I read them a story,” she says, “they now tell me if the characters are using their prefrontal cortex or their amygdala.” Among the testimonials on the Hawn Foundation website is one from a small boy who draws comfort from the fact that the boy who was bullying him was “not using his prefrontal cortex to make good decisions”.

In this way, MindUp engages all of our childrens’ brains – the anatomical elements as well as the spiritual, making a difference which will last for life.

Goldie Hawn is building healthy self-esteem through education

Goldie Hawn is an actress and comedienne much admired by many of us. Her infectious smile and good humour has delighted the world for decades. So it’s difficult to imagine her unable to experience joy.

Yet in 1972, when she was at the height of early fame, Ms Hawn has talked of how she lost her signature laugh. Stress and anxiety left her on edge, she has said, and sent her on a nine-year journey of exploration into psychology, meditation and neuroscience in an attempt to understand what was happening in her mind.

Even as she regained her sangfroid, however, Ms Hawn stayed fascinated in how human brains are affected by emotional stresses and strains. And after 9/11, alarmed by the rise in US teenagers being medicated out of their fears and depression, she commissioned scientists to create a programme which could be used in schools as an alternative to dispensing prescriptions. Moreover, the educational system had to be prophylactic too, building the sort of healthy self-esteem and cognitive understanding in the young which would last a lifetime. On Goldie’s watch, no one else would lose their laugh in hard times.

The scheme which she helped to developed is called MindUP; it has been validated by academics and is now studied across the US and Canada and in the UK too. Ms Hawn is giving a talk about her work in London this month for the Pure Land Foundation at China Exchange, a programme of events designed to enrich lives through creativity, spirituality and self-expression.

One of the key elements of the 15-stage MindUP programme is “brain breaks” – moments of mindfulness and wordless breathing exercises which Ms Hawn also encourages parents to do with their children at home.

“Sit with your children for 10 minutes a day,” she urges in her book 10 Mindful Minutes. “Focus on your breathing, then ask your children to sit comfortably with their hands in their lap, and close their eyes.”

Ms Hawn also encourages families to engage in “mindful listening”, which requires parents to collect a variety of familiar household items (pencils, papers, coins), put them in a pot, then shake the pot and ask children to focus on the sound that makes.

Interestingly, Ms Hawn has passed on her passion for mindfulness to her own daughter, the actress Kate Hudson, who has written a book, Pretty Happy: Healthy Ways to Love Your Body. “During one particularly difficult time in my life,” Ms Hudson said recently, “when I was feeling overwhelmed, it was meditation that brought me back to me. At the time, a tough decision left me feeling completely upended. I could not stop my mind from racing. I could barely sleep. And I felt trapped by my anxiety.

“My mom told me to just start simply, by calming down and bringing awareness to my breaths,” Hudson added. “She told me to follow my breaths in and out, remembering that the thoughts would come, but to just watch them pass, and to always come back to a simple breath.”
Those techniques – which combine what is best in ancient philosophy and cutting edge neuroscience – have passed through the Hawn family, and are now shared via MindUP around the world. Ms Hawn’s gift is not just to make us laugh, but also truly to be happy.

Groundhog Day: each day is a lifetime

One of the most important Buddhist teachings is reincarnation. It is believed that while the body decays, the spirit never dies. The spirit retains the information and lessons learned in each lifetime and carries them forward to the next life in a different physical body. Reincarnation is an evolving spiritual journey toward enlightenment.

Sometimes when we are confronted with difficult challenges, our programmed natural response is to resist, struggle and fight. But our struggles and fights don’t seem to change the life situations that we have helped to create: it is only when we become aware of the lessons behind all the drama that we can start to make real changes and find the path towards freedom.

This is the message at the heart of Groundhog Day, one of the world’s best-loved films. Groundhog Day has just been turned into a piece of musical theatre at the Old Vic in London by Matthew Warchus, the Olivier-award-winning director, Tim Minchin, the multiple award-winning composer and the Bafta-winning writer Danny Rubin. Rubin was the original film’s screenwriter too.

The very funny, very profound show – for which I am proud to be a production partner with the Old Vic – has been greeted with five-star reviews and critical acclaim for its clever, smart, witty and inventive staging, music and book, and performances.

The audience follows TV weatherman Phil Connors (played by Andy Karl on stage, in the role made famous by Bill Murray) as he finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, when sent to cover the small town’s annual Groundhog Day. Phil starts selfish, condescending and arrogant, and his relationships with women are exploitative and based on instant sexual gratification.

As you no doubt know, Phil is soon caught in a perpetual loop of events, with each day playing out exactly as before. As Phil realises he must relive the same day over and over, his emotions take him through the Kübler-Ross five-stage model of grief. He goes through denial, anger, bargaining and depression before reaching acceptance.

He explores freedom and a life with no consequences at the start – you can kiss a stranger, rob a bank, cause a police car to crash, hold orgies – but he thinks only of himself, not the impact that his actions have on others. This “freedom” unfortunately doesn’t bring a sense of peace and contentment.

Despair then leads Phil to commit suicide in numerous creative ways, but he wakes up the next day doomed to endure the same hopeless boredom and inability to change his future.

Slowly his responses change. Instead of resistance, he begins to accept. Instead of indulging in carnal pleasure, he starts to learn to play piano, save people from accidents or death, and help people to express their love. The experiences that he creates become joy, filled with a sense of purpose.

Phil gives up on a seduction of his colleague Rita, seeing her finally as a person to appreciate rather than as a sex object. But this new attitude leads Rita herself finally to reach out to him. They fall in love authentically and miraculously – and this allows the clock to move forwards again.

The ending is moving and I found tears in my eyes. Groundhog Day shows us, in a joyful and uplifting way, that each day is a lifetime. It is up to us to choose how to live each day to the full. We may be given certain constraints in our lives but we still have the free will to live consciously and to choose our actions with compassion. It is the choices we make that transform the experiences we create, and dissolve the perceived constraints of our lives.