Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Living in the dark

Monday, November 12th, 2012

I did not go to Mass today. I am so angry at the Church, angry at myself too that I did not see through the self-serving hype – but then neither did anyone else. A Fr. McVerry put it well the other day. He said how can you expect people

“to commit themselves to a male-dominated, authoritarian institution which suppresses dissent and attempts to control what its members may even discuss?”

I am reading Christian Beginnings by Geza Vermes and also Jesus: An Historical Approximation by José Pagola. It is so refreshing to get back to the historical Christ (in so far as one can) before all the accretions, the glosses, the aggrandisment imposed by the Church from the second century on. It is the simplicity of the relationship between self and God, the directness of it, no intermediaries, that is so compelling, and this is what he preached. It is what he lived.

But people love the smells and the bells, the dressing up and the elaborate ceremonies. They like their talismans and their little rituals, their holy pictures, their statues and candles, all the things which diminish the impact of cold, hard reality. They need reassurance. They need something which insulates from the void, that sheer fall just there out of sight where one dare not look. Something tangible, something which comes with assurance that if you do this and that and avoid sin, all will be well. For many this is enough. They accept what is handed to them. And there is a simple beauty in this placid acceptance. Questions can be unsettling and raise doubts. Best not go there.

But, for all of us, darkness lurks just there at the edges of vision and many are afraid of the dark, though God is there in the darkness. And they are afraid of silence, even more than they are afraid of darkness, though one can only really listen when there is silence. I sometimes think we are like sparks thrown up by a bonfire. We flash briefly in the dark and are gone. Life is so ephemeral and as one approaches the end there is a tendency to ask, ‘Is that it?’ And yet, looking back, I felt there were times when I touched something so enduring, so fundamental, so reassuring that the passage of time had no meaning. Those times are only a memory now. Darkness pervades but, strangely, it is not the aweful black of the void with its terrifying vertigo. The darkness is close, comforting and, somehow, even luminous at times.

Why Religion

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

(Notes for a talk given to the Kilkee Civic Trust 19/08/2009)

For someone born and brought up here in the forties and fifties the question ‘Why religion?’ was a nonsense question. One no more questioned the why of religion than one questioned the sea, or the sky, or the fact that there were people. It was there, a fact of life, and belief was absorbed in much the same way as language, or manners. Nevertheless, there was an explanation for religion, just as there were answers for all the those impenetrable questions that young children ask – like, ‘Where was I before I was born?’. The answer is a story Christians know as ‘salvation history’.

The View from Inside

This story begins, appropriately enough, in the beginning with the creation of the world by God, then the creation of the first man and woman, followed by the story of their descendants and their long, often problematic, relationship with God. It is a story we all know well.
The story culminates, for Christians anyway, in the birth of God’s son, Jesus. He is the final revelation of God, God himself in human form. Interestingly enough, Jesus never says that he is divine. Nor does anybody, neither his followers nor his enemies, suspect for a minute, that he is anything other than a man. An extraordinary man, but a man nonetheless. It was only later, after his  resurrection, that it began to dawn on his followers that ‘God was in Christ’.
After his death his followers, the Apostles, spread his teaching which caught on with people to such an extent that in less than three hundred years the Church had become accepted throughout the Roman Empire and for the next twelve hundred years was to dominate European life, culture, politics and history. Today it has spread throughout the world and over the course of that time has produced many remarkable men and women.
That’s the Catholic story. I was quite proud to be a member of this privileged institution and happy with its answer to the question, ‘Why religion?’ Until, that is, shortly after I left school. I was in New York. I came to know a Jewish girl called Stephanie who was studying comparative religion at Columbia University. She was delighted to come across a cradle Catholic who, she hoped, might be able to explain some of the anomalies of Catholicism. It turned out that Stephanie knew more about my religion and religion in general than I did and that my answers to her questions were inadequate, to say the least. Wherever I went, America, the Far East, the UK, I found that I was a member of a small group of Catholics, sometimes the only member. I had become one of those slightly odd religious people. I did come across other religious people but I found their religion strange, just as they did mine.
I eventually ended up teaching in England. I often think you learn more from your pupils than they do from you. In one of my classes there was a girl from India, a Hindu.  She was very bright and unlike many of the other girls she was not vapid, or shallow, or bitchy. She had a deep faith and fasted one day a week. She sat at the back of the class and I often caught her shaking her head sadly at me as I explained some Catholic teaching or other. So one day I held her back after class and asked her why she shook her head. ‘Mr. Glynn’, she said, ‘you Catholics think you know it all.’ And I suddenly saw myself as she must have seen me – caught up in a very narrow mindset. And I caught a glimpse of another religion, Hinduism, a religion I then knew very little about, which had produced this remarkable person with such a deep spirituality. So what was the origin of Hinduism? God, we Catholics had been taught, had only revealed himself to the Jews and to Christians. Yet here was an undoubtedly holy person with a deeper and more profound faith than any of her Christian contemporaries – a Hindu. Educated in a Catholic convent school she knew as much about Catholicism as any of the other girls, yet it held no attractions for her. The level at which she lived her faith put pretty well everyone else in the school, myself included, to shame. I suddenly saw that thinking along the lines – true religion – false religion – (and the Catholic religion is the only true religion, we were taught – all the others are false) was to go about things the wrong way. There is no such thing as religion – true or false. Religion is an abstract concept. It exists only as an idea in the mind. What there is is religious people, people who are religious.
My encounters with these two girls, although there were years between them, were a reality check. They made me realise that mentally I was living in quite a small bubble and very ignorant of the mindsets, the thoughts, feelings, hopes and aspirations of my fellow human beings. (more…)

Jesus after Jesus

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

Reading Frederic Lenoir’s Le Christ philosophe, one of the books I picked up on our recent holiday. The other is Jesus apres Jesus by Mordillat and Prieur. What attracted me to both of these books is that they promised to say something about a Jesus detached from all the trappings loaded on him by subsequent people, by the Church itself, by theologians and exegetes, fundamentalists and liberal Christians. I particularly like the insights of Lenoir. He begins with Dostoyevsky’s story of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. It illustrates very graphically and directly how far the Church has drifted from the teaching and example of its founder – assuming that Jesus did in fact found the Church – so much so that were he to return he would be in danger of being accused of being a heretic. He concludes with a long discussion of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in Chapter 4 of John’s Gospel. His thesis is that, beginning with Paul, the ecclesia became an institution and an end in itself. Jesus’ very simple message that religion, based on faith and love and stemming from an interior encounter with God, was not about institutions, or cultic activities, or elaborate moral codes and  subtle distinctions. Religion is love – simply that. Loving God, loving one’s fellows, acting always with the knowledge that the Spirit is the unifying force within each of us. The elaborate rules, hierarchic distinctions, procedures and ceremonies of the Church get in the way of religion as Jesus understood it. These were the very things he criticised and condemned the Jewish establishment of the time for.

Reading Jean Sulivan – Le scandale n’est pas la dégradation des mœurs, il est dans l’annexion de Jésus par un système de pensée. The striking thing about Sulivan is that he looks beneath the surface. The clerical scandals have shocked everyone and set everyone talking. Blame is attached to the institution – the way it is organised, its preoccupation with power and control, to the insistence on celibacy, etc. And yet, institutions and their preservation would seem to be the dominant motive force throughout the world today. This applies not just to the Church but to politics and economics as well. You only have to look at the American elections – it matters little which candidate wins, the establishment will still be in charge. Similarly with the mess the financial institutions have caused – yet no one is suggesting that the greed of the relatively few should lead to their being censured. The attitude of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor applies not just to some of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church but to many administrators of major institutions. ‘We, the elite know better. We can handle freedom and the empowerment that goes with it. We will provide you with an economic system, with heroes and role models, with material security and, in return for your obedience, relieve you of the need for decision making. You will be happy… well, relatively content.’ And so in return for acceding to the three temptations of the ‘wise and dread spirit’, material security, celebrity heroes to worship and the miracles of technology*, we choose not to consider that there might be a better way of living, a more sustainable and ecologically beneficial economic system, a value system based on love rather than greed and want.

For a short time, before Jesus was ‘annexed by the system’, Christians, liberated by belief in Christ and the Resurrection, lived an alternative life style which so impressed their contemporaries that over the space of a couple of hundred years they transformed society. They accepted the freedom that comes with belief in the Resurrection of Christ. They dared to live that freedom, freedom from fear of suffering and death, from fear of opprobrium and being ostracised, from fear of poverty and insecurity, from fear itself. No, that is putting it a bit too strongly – no doubt they felt fear at the prospect of all these, but it was a fear they could deal with. It did not paralyse them, or inhibit them. They could deal with it and face the prospect of suffering because of their faith in the Resurrection. Their values were based not on the immediate material, physical and emotional here and now, but on human relationships – with each other, with the beautiful world in which they lived and, above all, with God. This love transcends the immediate here and now. It transcends the awkwardness and difficulties of personal relationships, the intransigence of others, the ennui of dark, grey days and the bitterness of sickness. It transcends even death itself. 

And so, for a few tens of years the courage of comparatively few Christians shone like a beacon in a world dark with superstition and dread fate. The world of the late Roman Empire was decadent and effete. It  had lost its way and was too tired to cope with crumbing structures and the barbarian invasions from the north and east. The contrast with the vigour and enthusiasm of the local Christian churches, with their concern for the poor, the old and the sick was marked. It made sense for the Emperor Constantine to reverse the restrictions against them and hand over to them many of the administrative functions of the Empire. Overnight being a Christian no longer meant a person was in danger of arrest, torture and death by execution. Overnight being a Christian carried with it political, economic and social advantages and people began to seek baptism for these reasons. Overnight the Church began to change. Bishops acquired power and wealth and as this increased their freedom to live according to the values of Jesus diminished. The Good News became commonplace and clichéd. Too many compromises – no longer were bystanders shocked and challenged by the absolute commitment of ordinary people taking the Gospel seriously. Oh, there were still ‘authentic’ Christians, those prepared to make any sacrifice for Christ crucified, the Christ who continued to be the stumbling bloc, not only for the Jews and Gentiles, but now for these social Christians as well. These men and women in seeking to live the Gospel became the latest voices crying in the wilderness, in the Western Desert, from the Isle of Lerins, and from the caves of Cappadocia.

* cf Matthew 4:1-10 

Religion today

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

A recent survey in France has shown that most people now do not go to Church, or accept Church teaching.  They do not believe in Catholic dogma though there is belief and there is searching.  Unfortunately it tends to be a sort of religious consumerism, selecting a bit of this and a bit of that from among the varieties of religion on offer.  Eclecticism is anathema, of course, to the Church but we all practice it to some extent, within or without the Church.  I have been trying to think – how could one formulate a belief system, a religion, that would be inspiring and attractive and at the same time avoid the failures and mistakes of the established Churches.

The more I think about it the more it seems to me that what you are is more important than what you believe.  Buddhism is so right not to be dogmatic, not to define precisely or to construct an elaborate theology.  Its emphasis on practice is exactly right.  Do this; live in this manner and you will eventually arrive at enlightenment.  What is that psychological technique, Rogers I think, where the client is encouraged to act as if.. and behave in a particular way.  Behaviour eventually begins to affect thought and perceptions.  There is nothing new here.  Thomas Aquinas talked about the importance of good habits and I can see why the Church feels that actions and life-style flow from belief but it doesn’t work.  What we need is a religious Marx to stand the Holy Office and the New Catechism on its head.  No one respects dogmatism and fixed opinions but everyone respects and admires integrity and loving concern for all.  The Church’s love and concern is lost behind its narrow-minded dogmatism.

Our consciousness is shaped by our environment and any religion must take this into account.  It is no good spelling out what must be believed in great detail, especially if this is at variance with the prevailing weltenschaung.  Nor will the right idea, no matter how right or well expressed, prevail over social and cultural certainties except perhaps for a small number of exceptional people.  Religion must start in and with the social environment.  If it cannot change the environment, and it probably will not be able to, than it must reinterpret it.  It must expose the prevailing ideologies and be ready with alternatives.  The material structures uphold the ideologies.  It is no good exposing the ideologies and leaving the material structures in place.  It will not be long before everyone has reverted to the status prior.  The really hard part is how to build from the ground up alternative structures which will gradually take over.  We are so dependent on existing structures which affect every aspect of our lives that we cannot envisage any alternative which would not be more difficult and less comfortable.

It is interesting that I began talking about religion and ended up talking about politics, or sociology.  Religion and society are so intertwined that it is not possible to separate them.  One of the reasons why religion has declined is because it has, to a great extent, been privatised.  It is not for nothing that the cults find it necessary to create their own closed societies.  This is a vast subject.  

Buddhism begins with the question of suffering, how to overcome it.  Christianity begins with the good news that God is with us – opposite sides of the same coin.  Buddhism says, ‘Live the Eightfold Path and you will discover for yourself.’  Christianity says, ‘Put your trust (believe) in the Spirit within and you will discover him for yourself.’  This, at least, is the message of the Gospels.  It is not the message of the later Church.  Both Buddha and Jesus said, ‘Do what I say and you will discover for yourself.’  However while Buddhism has remained largely true to its original detached benevolence Christianity has been afflicted with the belief that it alone has the truth and that therefore it has the mission to convince everyone of this truth.  Not the simple original truth that God is with you but an elaborate and subtly articulated series of dogmas which say more about hierarchy than about love.  Christianity has shied away from and discouraged its followers from the inner search for the hidden God.  Where it could not do so it incarcerated its would be mystics in enclosed monasteries and convents and persecuted all those who would not conform.  Now, when as never before, there is a hunger for the Spirit within all the Church can offer are old rituals or happy-clappy froth.

The Sacred

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Just came across a very interesting book by Ervin Laszlo, The Creative Universe.  He seems to take Rupert Sheldrake’s ideas one step further.  It is ironic that just when so many scientific theories seem to be pointing in the direction of the unity of all, as religion has always done, and when action at a distance is no longer a dubious phenomenon investigated by would-be psychics, this is the time when non-locality has become a real problem.

We now live in a world where there is no escape from the all-pervasive West-Atlantic media culture.  Films, videos, music, magazines etc are all grabbing for attention wherever one turns; purveying images, moods, emotions, heroes, anti-heroes and their fashions.  Local customs, laws and ideals are seen to be parochial and not worthy of serious consideration.  Our children are lost before they can learn to discriminate.  

On worship – there seems no longer to be an awareness of the sacred.  Churches are no longer sacred places but meeting places.  There are no longer sacred movements, actions and liturgies but showy posturings and blatant entertainment.  The sacred only exists in the context of faith and in the encounter with the Wholly Other, the numinous.  It was real when I was young and growing up.  Ireland in those days had many faults and the Church was not what it should have been – has it ever? – but the numinous presence was real and not confined to the awesome whisper of consecration.  All that now has gone.  No doubt I have changed but it is not just that.  I don’t think young people generally feel the tingling shiver down the spine of being in the presence of the mysterium tremendum.


Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

I had a long talk with C last night about gnosticism and religious experience. He is very much into the Gospel of Mary Magdalen. He had a religious experience when he was about eight and in retrospect thinks it was of her. It is hard to get a word in edgeways when C starts talking but I tried to define the difference between the gnosticism of these apocryphal gospels and the message of the Gospels – salvation through the acquisition of secret knowledge, on the one hand, and through faith and love on the other. Of course it is not as black and white as that sounds. To love is to know, at least in the biblical sense, and one believes in order to understand as St. Anselm would have it. In fact he captures the subtle blending of the two attitudes when he says, Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. (Indeed I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand.) 

C is convinced that Jesus married Mary Magdalen – amazing how a popular novel can influence. Why is the idea of marrying off Jesus so popular these days? It is as if the contradictions and paradoxes of the Jesus of the Gospels are too much and people want him to be someone they can understand. And what is wrong with a bit of romance, someone might say. It humanises him and, perhaps, makes him more accessible, but in doing so the mystery of who he is evaporates. Instead of being confronted by this extraordinarily compelling and mysterious man and being drawn through him towards the unfathomable depths of God we are faced merely with a good man, a brave and heroic teacher. It is as though the cognitive dissonance generated by the contradictory and paradoxical Jesus is too much to bear and the mind settles for a prophet with a romantic streak.

All of this distracts attention from the most significant fact about Jesus, namely the Resurrection.

The Church

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

Heated discussion with — yesterday over the evening meal about religion. He is very critical, especially of the Catholic Church. The only religion he has any time for is Buddhism. He respects its non-dogmatic, pragmatic and inclusive approach. He cannot see how an ancient historical person can have any relevance for us today. This is a very interesting point. If the church is going to make any sort of impression on today’s young people it will not be by appealing to Jesus. (Declarations of faith in Jesus are more likely to produce a snigger than induce respect.) It will have to be because of the quality of the people who belong to it. The Church cannot rely on a general predisposition in people to accept the Gospels as revelation, nor acceptance  of its own self-declared authority, irrespective of the calibre of the people doing the declaring. When I suggested that if he were to read the Gospels with an open mind he would be profoundly impressed by the person of Christ. ‘No doubt,’ he said ‘but why bother.’ Which seems to indicate that the hunger for religious experience among the young is either a myth, or that no one believes that Christianity has anything to contribute in this respect, or both. The Church as an institution is now so discredited that a radical reformation is necessary. Fortunately the steady decline in numbers of an increasingly aging clergy is helping matters.

Self and religion

Friday, January 4th, 2008

It strikes me that much of what I read about the self treats it as something static. Alan Combs in The Radiance of Being describes the self depicted in the Vedanta. This is atman, the eternal, unchanging source of the multi-layered structure which is the human being. This self is surrounded and eclipsed by a series of sheaths. These seem to be levels of awareness, ranging from the lowest, physical awareness, to the highest, rapture or bliss. All these exist together and progress is a progress in awareness not in being. He then goes on to compare the Vedanta model with those of Ken Wilbur and Jean Gebser. These follow the same pattern, though the names and the number of the stages may differ. They seem to me to be an attempt to join two contradictory ideas – becoming, growth and development with that of an eternal, unchanging substance. How these might be combined seems as intractable a problem as that of the mind/brain.

I see the self as a process of becoming in a much larger, a cosmic, process of becoming. I don’t know whether each individual self is necessarily eternal. I believe it has the capacity to become so. The soul is not an eternal, unchanging substance but a person who emerges from the dynamic process of relationships which is the cosmic process. The essence of being a person is being in relationship. It is a new complex of relationships which calls the person into being. The relationship of the mother and the father leads to the union of the sperm and ovum. This new entity grows and develops until a consciousness emerges and it becomes a person. A little later the person becomes self-conscious, caught up in a network of interactive relationships. Some of these relationships are positive and fulfilling, drawing out its potential. Others are neutral, while still others are harmful, damaging its ability to relate to others in an open and loving way. They turn it in on itself, creating a sense of isolation from and incompatibility with others. It is easy to see how important it is that the positive relationships should far outweigh the negative.

Nevertheless, however many the positive relationships and however few the negative, there is one problematic relationship which sooner or later impinges on a person’s awareness, and that is the relationship with existence itself. Eventually each person encounters the cold and impersonal reality of the brute facts of existence – contingency, powerlessness and scarcity. These immediately put all personal relationships into perspective. They are ephemeral; transient episodes in an all too brief life. Against the backdrop of history most lives are like shooting stars, flashing briefly into view and vanishing without a trace. It is no wonder that so much modern philosophy is negative and pessimistic. What can it offer except the encouragement to shout defiance at the blind meaninglessness of such a fate. It was in answer to this that religion was invented, or was it discovered? I think religion is an attempt to make sense of, to rationalise the awareness of the transcendent which has always been part of the human dimension. This is not something we can deal with as we deal with the other factors in our lives, like food, shelter and society. So we try to bring it down to a level we can cope with using myth, ritual and story. But never quite successfully. In the end all our human coping strategies fail and we find ourselves facing a dreadful (literally) void. This is the horizon of being, of existence itself. Beyond lies the greatest journey of all but, in spite of the glimpses we have had in the past, it takes a mad, blind courage to believe in the beyond. The myths and the rituals and the stories can help a little but there is no escaping the emptiness, the empty darkness and the absence. This too is part of the process.


Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

I came across a sentence in Nishitani the other day which stopped me cold. It was something, glaringly obvious, which I should have seen ages ago. And to see it all that was necessary was to turn the question round. Nishitani asked, ‘We need to ask – at what point has Christianity became so problematic for the modern man as to make him advance in the direction of estrangement from it?’ From the Christian point of view it has always been those who rejected it, or those who failed to see that it was the one true religion, who were at fault. No fault, or blame, could possibly lie with the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit. True, there have been in the past, and still are, Christians and churchmen who fail to live up to the demands of the Gospel. But these are personal failings by individuals and they do not touch the essence of the church. Whatever the failings of individuals, however unworthy they be, the Good News of the Gospel is proclaimed daily for those who would hear; forgiveness and saving grace is dispensed through the Sacraments for those with the right dispositions. If people fail to respond the fault does not lie with the Church which proclaims the Gospel and celebrates the Liturgy. The fault lies in the blindness and the hardness of heart of those who refuse to hear.

Such has been the traditional attitude of Christians, secure in the knowledge that they are right. The searchlight of blame and accusation has been directed into the darkness of the outer world of unbelief and atheism. Rarely has it been turned within. When it has, when reformers have criticised attitudes, beliefs and practices they have always had a hard time of it. History is littered with reform movements. Some were brutally put down, others were forced to break away and form separate churches. Religious orders, when the original vision of the founder dimmed, found it almost impossible to reform themselves. Reformers had to break away and start again, hence the many varieties of monks, of friars, of nuns. It is as though the mould, once it has been formed, becomes so rigid and inflexible that it cannot change. New moulds have to be created. Even the so-called Counter Reformation was not a reform of thoughts, beliefs and attitudes but more a tightening of discipline.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of applying the original vision, as it is outlined in the New Testament, to the present. Approaches vary between two extremes. On the one hand the New Testament is seen as the literal word of God to be applied now as it was then, or rather, as people believe it was applied then. On the other, it is seen as an inspired and inspiring document to be read, to be contemplated, but which cannot be applied literally because society and culture are now so different. Rarely is it set into the context of this present society as a norm by which both society and our response to God are to be measured. When this does happen, as with Liberation Theology, it is not welcomed by the established Church – always ready to take on adversaries from without but hyper-sensitive to any criticism, implied or real, from within.

Reform is difficult, if not impossible, because the social climate we live in is seen as the norm. How could it be otherwise? We may dream of a different kind of society, one that is fair and just and where people live in harmony, but we do not believe, because we cannot see how, such a society can be brought about. The society we have now, it is felt, is the natural way of things, they cannot be otherwise, and so it is a question of trying to fit the Gospel into such a climate. But the Gospel is not directed towards social issues, towards questions of justice, law and order, or human rights. Injustice, exploitation and oppression were as much part of the social scene then as now. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, addressed them directly. They accepted them as the way things are. So they have always been; so they will always be. So how can we adapt the gospel for our society today?

It cannot be done. Our society and the Gospel are mutually incompatible and any attempt to make them compatible must be a fudge. It was this realisation that drove the first monks out into the desert. They felt that only in solitude could one truly and unambiguously live the Gospel. Unfortunately the hermitages became monasteries, the monasteries acquired land and property and those who started by possessing nothing were soon possessed by their possessions. Economics and politics entered the cloister to contend with the Gospel.

Not that the Gospel was ever intended to be just for those who live in the desert, but applying it to today is as difficult now as it has always been. Even those who profess to live by the literal Gospel do not do so. They are selective, choosing those parts which will fit into today and ignoring those which will not. No Christians today are prepared to tolerate slavery as was Paul. How many, I wonder, believe the government, any government, is an authority instituted by God? How many believe in turning the other cheek, in loving enemies, in not asking back from those who steal from them? How many really are prepared to die to self, or even know what that means? For Paul, as for Jesus before him, the socio-economic order is the way things are. It is not anything to do with religion, although religion may over time profoundly affect it. Religion transcends the mundane. The paradoxes of the gospel are not aimed at social improvement. They are, as the Buddhist phrase puts it, a finger pointing at the moon.

This is why Nishitani’s question is so apt. It turns the searchlight within. It reveals hidden assumptions and opens them to question. How can someone receive the Eucharist everyday and remain selfish and judgmental? Why does preaching so often alienate, or confirm those already alienated in their attitude? Why is sodomy (to give it its biblical term) seen by many as permissible now when previously it was a crime crying to Heaven for vengeance? How has the institution come to be more important than the message it enshrines; the celibacy of the priesthood more important than the availability of the Eucharist to all?

Jesus did not come to establish a Church, an institution. The gospel is as incompatible with the working of institutions as it is with society itself, although, paradoxically, the Gospel requires the continuity and stability they provide if it is to be passed from generation to generation. Jesus came to challenge our hidden assumptions; to point out something about our present existence of which we are unaware – that the Kingdom of heaven, God himself, is among us/within us. The Greek word entos is ambiguous and can mean either. The ambiguity is intentional. The flat plane of our mundane two-dimensional existence is pierced through, from above and below, by the presence of God, but we live, eyes fixed firmly on the importance of our daily activities, unaware of the heights above and the depths beneath. We know about God, and we know about this spiritual dimension, just as we know about utopias and promised lands but each is as unreal as the other when confronted by the unyielding demands of the present.

Unfortunately many people confuse church-going and church activity with religion. But is this really religion? To paraphrase Nisitani –

Religion is the real self-awareness of God, i.e. becoming aware of God and, at the same time, God realising himself in our awareness. Our ability to perceive God means that God realises (actualises) himself in us; that this in turn is the only way that we can realise (appropriate through understanding) the fact that God is so realising himself in us; and that in so doing the self-realisation of God takes himself place.

Prayer, worship, the liturgy, the Sacraments are all means to an end. They are not themselves the end. The Church is too often guilty of false-realisation. It gives the impression that once a person has been baptised, receives the sacraments with the proper dispositions and keeps the commandments, formal sanctity has been realised, nothing more needs to be done for salvation. That person is now a member of the Body of Christ, united with Christ in Holy Communion, filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The person is not usually aware of being any different. He has not noticed any great change within and, apart from occasional moments of fervour, his religion is a formal and external framework and not a transforming inner reality. This is the norm and it is accepted as such because it is propagated by clerics for whom it is the norm.

There are some few for whom this is not enough and who hunger for the reality of God. In the early days of the Church it drove people out into the desert. These days, more often than not, they become contemplative religious, considered an extraordinary vocation and lived apart from the normal hierarchical structures of the Church. However, more and more lay people, partly influenced by the writings and example of people like Thomas Merton and John Main and partly as a reaction to the dry formalism of the liturgy, are turning to meditation. They are searching for a way of being contemplatives in the day to day world. They are searching for a way of realising God in their lives.


Monday, September 3rd, 2007

Concerning commitment. There is a profound mystery here and I would like to clarify it as much as I can. One of the things that has always intrigued me is how a priest, monk, or nun can go through years and years of religious life, praying the office daily, receiving the Sacraments daily and not be transformed. Their lives, outwardly at least, are centred on God and they are daily recipients of Sanctifying Grace, oned with Christ in the Eucharist. Yet they can remain indifferent to the needs of others, be petty and selfish, worldly and materialistic. Many have been involved in gross child abuse. I have a feeling that this apparent hiatus is due to a faulty Sacramental theology which places too much emphasis on ex opere operato and not enough on the dispositions of the administrator and recipient of the sacraments. According to traditional sacramental theology it is simply necessary to receive the Sacraments, only minimal dispositions are required. Sanctifying Grace will work its magic, unfelt and unseen in the soul, gradually transforming the individual so that at the moment of death he, or she, will be able to respond to the face to face encounter with God. This is all very comfortable and it lets everybody off the hook of total commitment. It places all the emphasis on the next life. There the fruits will ripen and be harvested. In this life nothing may be visible but the tiniest of buds.

The Gospels are quite clear on the need for total commitment. They also require the purity and single-mindedness of a child. This one-pointedness, as the Buddhists put it, demands that everything one does should be an aspect of this focused commitment. There should be no holidays from it, no pampered relaxations, no little indulgences ‘because on has deserved them’, no time out. All this sounds very daunting and austere and it certainly puts most people off. No doubt that is why the church has relaxed the requirements of the Gospel. But I am coming more and more to the conclusion that total commitment is, not the only way – God is infinite mercy and the variety of callings is vast – but essential for those who would presume to teach others about God.

I don’t believe either that this is an ‘either – or’ matter. There has to be a way of integrating this focus on God with all the day to day activities of ordinary life. This, again, is nothing new. de Caussade wrote about the ‘sacrament of the present moment’. But arriving at the state where one is able constantly to be aware of God does not come easily. The world intrudes, the body intrudes; so do feelings and other people. It is not easy to be both involved and detached. When one has a tenuous hold on existence the difference between trivial and frivolous matters and those which are fundamental and important becomes glaringly obvious. The knack is to hang on to this glaring obviousness all the time.