The poet Alice Oswald once described her medium as ‘beautifully limited’ and, in this, she was likening it to music. In the same interview, she talked about her sense of what it was to be a poet and used phrases like; ‘it’s a question of paying attention’ and ‘you get drawn into the big human questions: how to live’. I respond very strongly to these descriptions and they strike me as deeply spiritual. In the spiritual life, the ‘methods’ at our disposal are also beautifully limited. Our practices, our historic texts, our liturgies are all abundantly rich in meaning and offer the most profound encounters, and yet we know them to be limited. They are beautiful forms, but they are just that. They should not regarded as of ultimate value, only of proximate value.
The spiritual life is, like poetry, a matter of paying attention. It is nothing more and nothing less than our response to the invitation to see clearly and a simple discipline of attentive, concentrated silence, of radical openness to what is in front of us, of seeing the connections. And it is, above all, concerned with the question of how to live. The spiritual life can never be reduced to theory (though I wish more theologians took seriously the task of considering spirituality in an analytical, conceptual and contextual way…) and is always a matter of vital seriousness (though one of its hallmarks is self-forgetting humour).
So if poetry and the spiritual life have so much in common, I wonder if we might not gain rather a lot by applying Alice Oswald’s thoughts to our primary spiritual texts – what we call sacred scripture. If we read these texts as ‘beautifully limited’ expressions of faith, then we might see their succinct and incomplete character as strengths rather than weaknesses. The Bible is not all we have to say about faith, but a way to open us up to encounter with the Absolute. Not definitions but invitations. And if reading the Bible is a matter of paying attention, then our encounter with it is a school for contemplative consciousness. And if we come to it with the question of how to live, seeking not instructions but a mirror to be held up to our most challenging experiences, then we will find hope, honesty, love, betrayal, fear, wisdom reflected back at us in new clarity.
Maybe that’s a good way for us to read the accounts of Christ’s Passion this week. I’ll give it a try!
“Intense, one-sided, humorless, propagandist, morally indignant” – not a promising description of someone you will later describe as a ‘firm friend’, yet these are the words written by the English Benedictine monk Dom Aelred Graham in Atlantic Monthly about Thomas Merton and his earliest religious writings, most notably his famous autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Graham found Merton to be narrow-minded and ascetical and his critique of such a notable religious figure caught the attention of Time magazine in 1953. The criticisms stung Merton, but if we fast-forward a decade, we find Merton writing in the warmest terms about Graham’s book, Zen Catholicism, in the journal America. What happened in between to change the atmosphere between the two monks?
Aelred Graham wrote a fascinating set of autobiographical reflections a couple of years after Merton’s death in 1968. In The End of Religion, he recalls that earlier spat with Merton and is regretful of the language he used in his critique, though not of his view of the sometimes harsh narrowness of the early Merton. He recalls how he invited himself to Merton’s abbey after the publication of his essay in order to engage face to face with the man he had so publicly criticised. He remembers long conversations and a gradual warming of their relationship into a friendship that would last until Merton’s death. As an example of how far they travelled, in his journal for March 10 1964, Merton writes: “Good talks with Dom Aelred on Sunday. He is very open and sympathetic and one of the most pleasant, understanding people I have ever run into. A lot has gone under the bridge since the Atlantic article (which in any case was not so far wrong!). This is something to be grateful for and a real manifestation of the life of the Church in us.’
This friendship was to bear fruit in one most significant way. It was Graham who made the introductions and provided the contacts for Merton’s Asian journey in 1968. Graham was an early pioneer of Christian inter-faith exploration and had travelled in India and Thailand. He was able to supply Merton with a range of contacts who would introduce him to the living Buddhism he longed to encounter. In his Asian Journal, Merton also notes that he was, at that time, reading Graham’s new book, Conversations: Christian and Buddhist, a collection of transcripts of conversations Graham had had with Buddhists in Japan. This book is significant in the development of Merton’s awareness of Japanese Buddhism as it represented a widening of his sources which had, for a long time, been dominated by the rather partial views of D.T. Suzuki. It is a great pity that Merton never made it as far as Japan on his journey. His intended visit there would have brought him face to face with Japanese Zen practitioners in their own context as well as the three Jesuits of Sophia University – Dumoulin, Lassalle and Johnston – whose writings have done so much to further understanding between Christians and Zen Buddhists.
Aelred Graham’s own contribution, however, should not be forgotten. He was a true pioneer and a man of gentle yet probing spiritual insight. He may not have the lasting fame of his friend Thomas Merton, but I think he deserves a place in our growing appreciation of the spiritual revolution that took place in the Christian church in the second half of the 20th century, a revolution whose work is not yet complete and whose fruit continues to ripen.
It is a truism that human beings are meaning-making mammals, which I take to mean that we have a propensity to see patterns in things and, more than that, to see such patterns as having significance or value. But I was made to think again about how Christianity talks about meaning by two unconnected thoughts from yesterday. One was a highly amusing and thought-provoking speech given to graduands at the University of Western Australia by one its alumni, the comedian and singer-songwriter, Tim Minchin. The two things that stood out for me were his statements that life has no meaning (and that we should just get on and live it) and that it was foolish to make grand plans (it’s better to be fully focussed on what we are doing now). I find myself largely agreeing with him, though knowing his antipathy towards religion, he might be surprised to hear me say this.
Indeed, I think his insights speak of a deep spirituality. To take the second point first, the kind of focus Minchin was describing is powerfully represented in religious traditions as ‘watchfulness’ or ‘mindfulness’. Just think of the desert Fathers and Mothers with their clear focus on the simple spiritual disciplines of each day, or the prologue to St Benedict’s Rule for Monks which speaks of the urgency of ‘today’ as being the time in which we are called to live lives that are full of divine light and wisdom. The practices of meditation in many religious traditions also speak of this kind of full presence in the present.
The first piece of advice regarding meaning may seem more problematic for Christians. Surely it is without question that our faith presents a view of life that shows it to have meaning. Well, I think it rather depends what we mean by ‘meaning’. If we mean that our lives fit into some larger scheme or that every thing that happens to us happens in order to bring about some pre-planned outcome, I am not sure that this fits into my notion of ‘meaning’ in the Christian sense. Indeed, I think it is highly problematic to see every event in life as having a ‘meaning’ that is just waiting to be discovered: it is not always possible to make sense of senseless acts or events and it can give us serious problems if we try to do so. ‘Meaning’ in this sense can be seen as the notion that every thing that happens refers to something else – this means that – whereas the focus on present things I mentioned above is more about this means this. In other words, the insight that comes from wisdom allows us to see more clearly what is there. This is entirely consistent with Christian theology and practice.
I think I would rather speak in terms of ‘value’ or ‘worth’ that ‘meaning or ‘sense’. I think it is a profoundly Christian insight to say that life has value, that lives have value. Those humanists who do not come from a religious perspective are content to let that statement stand on its own self-evident merits. Christian humanists are more likely to offer theological or spiritual weight to this statement by talking of the giftedness of life and its fundamental orientation towards joy, praise, wonder and love. So life has meaning or purpose in the sense that it has direction – outward, towards fullness, towards goodness, towards compassion, towards creativity.
The second thought reinforced much of what Tim Minchin had to say. It was an article the Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality by the priest and academic, David Perrin OMI in his article on mysticism. He rejects a focus on a totalising system (‘meaning’) and urges instead a gathering of life-giving fragments ‘that do not necessarily need to be connected to a common ontological foundation’ ‘such that our love relationship with God and our world is constantly renewed.’ I think this all offers us some interesting common ground for religious and non-religious people to start talking!
I have just attended an excellent seminar by Dr Chloe Reddaway from the National Gallery in London where she presented a stunning overview of the representations in art of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. Her main aim was to focus on a significant aspect of the theology portrayed in images of that encounter – the New Creation that is brought to birth in Christ and the active part played by these two women in that act of (re)creation. A survey of some couple of dozen pictures brought more theological insight than most exegeses of that biblical text I have ever heard or read. From explorations of liminal spaces depicting thresholds of new life to depictions of the primal void of creation, she showed how art can draw the viewer into an expanding community of those who embrace the already-and-not-yet new creation through their recognition of the creating presence of God within, between and among us.
But I was also fascinated by a side-comment about the carelessness with which most theologians treat our visual expressions of theology. We would never, she said, consign our biblical texts to ‘cultural history’, so why do we do so with our visual canon? She suggested that we should take seriously the challenge to read these works as carefully and as creatively as we read our scriptures. There is, indeed, a growing number of theologians and spiritual writers who draw on our visual canon but it is still not seen as a mainstream activity. This is a great pity, given the potent role of visual art in human expression and in the spiritual quest. Indeed, humanity’s first religious expressions were in cave art, which predates writing.
When I was training to be a priest, I was taught how to read biblical texts in their original languages, how to interpret theologians who wrote about these texts, I was even taught how to sing them! But I was never taught the value of looking at a painting or given the conceptual and analytical tools to interpret it. I have tried to pick some of these up along the way because I like to look at great art – it moves me and draws me into contemplative modes of seeing – but it would be wonderful if we gave more people more confidence in looking at a work of art and seeing it as a primary piece of theological expression and exploration.
I hope the kind of vibrant and creative theological work done by people like Chloe Reddaway is the beginning of a new and mainstream focus on the visual means at our disposal to encounter the Word made flesh.
I have been puzzling about the church’s struggles to express the equality of all when we know that the equality of persons in the Trinity looks something like this:
The call of the Christian in today’s world is the call to contemplation. The call to contemplation is not a call to passivity or withdrawal, quite the opposite. The call to contemplation is a call to attend.
When Thomas Merton was approaching the beginning of his permanent move to the hermitage in the grounds of Gethsemani Abbey where he would spend the last short years of his life, he wrote the following words:
The ‘work of the cell’ is attention. What this means is not only attention to inner grace but to external reality and to one’s self as a completely integrated part of that reality. Hence, this implies also a forgetfulness of oneself as totally apart from outer objects, standing back from outer objects; it demands an integration of one’s own life in the stream of natural and human and cultural life of the moment. [A Vow of Conversation, June 8 1965]
The call of the Christian in today’s world, then, is a call to integrate all of life in the life of faith. Indeed, I would go further: it is to see that there is no kind of separation at all between the life of faith and the life of the world. Merton’s words here show something of his debt to Zen Buddhism in his insistence that there is no distance between self and what, illusorily, we imagine to be ‘outer’. I think he took the rest of his life (and beyond) to work out the full implications of his own words and I am not convinced that most Christians today have yet fully joined in sharing his insight.
If we had, we would not persist with our exceptionalist views of our own religion; we would not continue in the folly of seeing questions of justice as an add-on to questions of faith; we would not continue to justify our refusal to see the equality of all people; we would not continue to talk about ‘the world’ as if it were something other. And if we did begin to live in tune with this insight that there is a complete integration of all things in Christ, we would cherish every work of art as a sacrament, every living creature as a sister, every human person an incarnation of divine life, every breath from every mouth as an act of praise to Life.
We don’t gain this insight from the intellectual work of theology but from the ascetical practice of giving attention. It is as if we should see on every street corner a deacon proclaiming the invitation of Orthodox Liturgy – ‘Wisdom! Let us attend!’