By Ed McKeown
In the company of a sage, I found a deeper meaning in the simple act of giving thanks before a meal.
For most of the twentieth century, the British philosopher Paul Brunton (1898–1981) researched and wrote about the ways in which people might open themselves to what he called the miracle of grace. His books about the spiritual journey—most notably The Quest of the Overself, The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga, and The Wisdom of the Overself—offer hope, insight, and practical instruction to seekers who “ardently long for a divine enlargement of experience.”
Toward the end of his life, PB (as he was familiarly known) lived in semi-seclusion, privately pursuing his spiritual practices, corresponding with acquaintances around the world, traveling occasionally, granting interviews from time to time, and writing—always writing.
In 1979, PB was 81 and living alone near Vevey, Switzerland. I had served as his appointment secretary for a short time a few years earlier during what would turn out to be his last visit to the United States. Having learned of his current circumstances and hoping that he might accept a bit of help, I wrote to him to ask whether I might be of assistance to him. Two weeks later I found myself settling into a well-worn pension in Vevey with Lake Geneva just beyond my window, the French Alps rising pristinely in the distance, and PB’s apartment a short trolley ride away.
For the next six months I spent most of each day with PB, assisting him with his correspondence, shopping for groceries, running errands, and sometimes accompanying him to a nearby storage facility, where he spent several hours each week sorting through his literary archives and the sizable collection of books, artifacts, and other items he had acquired during his long career.
PB’s most recent book, The Spiritual Crisis of Man, had appeared in 1953. He had continued to write, of course, and when I was with him he was in the early stages of organizing his voluminous unpublished work for what he called his final book, his “summing up.” He would continue to edit and add to this body of writing until his death, two years later. Although his “summing up” book was not to be, Larson Publications would later expand the project and publish much of this material—adhering closely to the plan PB had established—as the sixteen-volume series entitled The Notebooks of Paul Brunton.
PB maintained a highly functional home office and a disciplined workday. Dressed in jacket and tie, he worked tirelessly and efficiently, usually pausing only for scheduled meal breaks and, of course, afternoon tea. At mealtimes I prepared simple vegan fare for the two of us, and as we ate and talked I often jotted notes in a notebook that I kept close at hand. Many of my notes concerned mundane tasks: reminders to purchase needed items or directions to a particular vegetable market or hardware store. Others, scribbled discreetly between bites, were more sublime.
PB began every lunch and dinner by bowing his head and saying grace. He spoke softly and slowly, sometimes pausing for a few moments between words. He usually repeated the same prayer, varying only one phrase: “For this food to nourish the physical body and sustain its strength, and for __________, we are thankful [or grateful], O mind of the world.” After finishing this brief grace, PB always allowed the silence to deepen for a short time, and then we began the meal.
I was struck by the enormity as well as the simplicity of these gentle prayers of thanksgiving. I soon began the mealtime practice of recording the varied phrase, the particular blessing of the day, in my notebook. As my stay in Vevey grew longer, I became aware that I was amassing a veritable litany of the ways in which grace might flower in one’s life.
These many years later, as I revisit this gift that PB gave to me, I can still recall the deepening silence in that room, can still see the sunlight spilling warmly across the carpet. I’ve come to understand that being aware of grace, and remembering to be grateful for it, is perhaps the greatest grace of all.
Copyright © 2002 Ed McKeown