I have been reading about Padre Pio. It struck me that he was a throwback to a fathers-of-the-desert type of spirituality. He had a fuga mundi attitude and a preoccupation with extreme forms of ascesis (vigils, the discipline etc.). He wrestled with demons who used to smash up his cell and throw things at him. He had many preternatural gifts, stigmata, perfume, bilocation. He was not at all what you could call a psychologically well-balanced person. Now it is interesting thing that in the middle of the twentieth century he could become an icon of holiness alongside Mother Teresa. She had a universal appeal. Padre Pio attracted the more conservative Catholic signs-and-wonders brigade.

The interesting thing in all this is the perception by many that the supernatural dimension is filled with good and bad spirits, that there is constant warfare between them and that we mortal humans are caught up in this war. It is easy to stereotype good and evil, both people and our own internal feelings, and paint them large on a cosmic canvas. People are hungry for signs and wonders. It is all too easy to exaggerate internal struggles and project them outwards. It is also only too easy to blame forces beyond one’s control for one’s own failings and it is comforting and reassuring to have the protection of spiritual amulets and talismans.

All this assumes a worldview which is two-dimensional, the natural and the supernatural. Between the two is an, almost, unbridgeable gulf. From time to time messengers, angels, are sent to communicate important information. These are received by a few select people. There are also special people who are granted visions and mystical knowledge. Again these are few and select. For the vast majority the natural world is the domain of our experience and the only knowledge we have of the supernatural is second hand. Hence the importance of the Church. It is the guardian and guarantor of what has been revealed. It is the administrator of the Sacraments. These are natural things, oil, water, bread and wine, which, when used with the proper rituals, communicate supernatural grace to individuals; essential if, after death, one is to achieve eternal bliss in Heaven. This supernatural grace is not usually experienced, only by mystics and other spiritual giants. But, if it is to be received, it has to be believed in. Faith is essential for salvation. Hence the importance of people like Padre Pio, and the children of Fatima, and all the other people whose experiences and visions bolster this worldview and reinforce faith.

This is not, however, the only worldview and the more one examines it the more this becomes clear. According to the Religious Experience Research Unit, formerly at Oxford, now at University of Wales, Lampeter, perhaps as many as 60% of people have religious experiences of one kind or another at some time in their lives. These are not limited to believers or church-goers. This should not be a surprising statistic if we accept what the Bible says, that we are made ‘in the image and likeness of God’. There must, therefore, be something of God in us, naturally. These experiences are varied but there is a common theme running through the majority and that is of unity, what David Hay calls relational awareness. For most ‘primitive’ people – American Indians, Australian aborigines – the natural world is shot through with the supernatural. These are not two separate dimensions but rather two aspects of the same. Both Hinduism and Buddhism hold that there is only one reality. For most people the view of this reality is distorted by ignorance, or by maya, the illusion that the ephemeral and transitory are real and permanent. For both these religions the purpose of religion is to help people become aware of and pierce the hidden assumptions which blind them to reality as it really is. Not easy.

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