These words end each of the sessions of zazen we undertake in the tradition Zen that I follow. The full text of the Evening Gatha is:
Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance –
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed. Do not squander your life.
I wonder if we always take the spiritual life this seriously. I think we are in danger at times of thinking of our spiritual life as a sort of hobby. I remember someone saying to me once that they had a number of projects for their retirement, including learning Norwegian, baking bread and joining a church. It’s one of the things we do among others. Now, I’m perfectly aware that attending worship and being a member of a church is not coterminous with one’s spiritual life, but you would hope that the church is in the business of addressing the Great Matter of life and death, even if many choose to do just that outside the life of the church.
I hesitate to say what I’m about to say next, because I really am not criticising anyone in these very difficult days: we really are all trying our best to make the best of these trying circumstances and I have no doubt whatsoever that I have not handled things as well as I could have over these last 6 months. But I do fear that some of the ways we (the church in its corporate expression, and I include myself!) have tried to navigate these difficult waters have fed a perception that the church is in a similar category to leisure activities of various sorts – a take-it-or-leave it activity for those who are into that sort of thing. I wonder if, at times, we have given the impression that the Liturgy is a needless luxury, pastoral care a merely social interaction (except in extremis), prayer a private matter, faith a personal opinion rather than our fundamental disposition towards life. If we have mistakenly given that impression, then we are storing up for ourselves significant challenges if we want to be taken seriously in the future.
I am deeply impressed by the way churches have taken care in opening their doors and welcoming people in a way that is safe as well as creative and no one wants to put anyone at risk of infection. At the same time, we must seek ways of balancing the imperative of safety with the urgency – indeed, the heightened urgency – of addressing the Great Matter through our prayer and our mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart encounters with one another. This is a monstrously difficult balancing act, and I welcome any ideas that help to create genuine opportunities for spiritual growth and wellbeing in these times (I really mean that – please do share them!!). But I do want us all to be a little more courageous in insisting that we are about a serious business. Faith is not a nice-to-have and we are not being immodest if we claim that we are concerned with that which is of supreme importance. It is also, inextricably and simultaneously, an exercise in care, in compassion and in healing. Our wellbeing is not only a matter of microbiology but also of spirituality, of the heart.