Shirley du Boulay’s autobiography is called ‘A Silent Melody’ and I suspect the title is influenced to some extent by that of William Johnston’s book, Silent Music. Du Boulay refers to that book in a number of places as having a particular influence on her when she read it in the mid ’70s. Both books talk a lot about meditation and it is the practice of meditation that has remained with du Boulay as she has travelled first deeper into the Christian church and then further away from it until she finds herself saying – not without pain – that she can no longer call herself a Christian.
Shirley du Boulay has been influential in the religious life of these islands for many years, first as a producer of religious programmes for the BBC and then as the biographer of Cicely Saunders, Desmond Tutu, Theresa of Avila, Bede Griffiths and Abhishiktananda. So her autobiography is a fascinating survey of contemporary spiritual life as it is experienced by increasing numbers of people. Drawn first of all by the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, then becoming a Roman Catholic and finally practising Zen Buddhism for over 20 years, she has travelled a long way from her conventional Anglican origins. She writes eloquently and with humility about the complexity of describing a fixed religious identity and talks about how this is true for many people through history. The notion of ‘dual belonging’ or even multiple belonging is not a new one and it is unlikely that the early Jewish-Christians were the first hyphenated believers! Du Boulay makes a strong case for the fluidity of our religious belonging and, in a world where unshakable certainty about religious purity leads to such violence and exclusion, I find it hard to disagree.
But why is it that, given this willingness to embrace plurality of religious identity, she no longer wishes to identify with the Christian church? It is not that she has ‘lost her faith’ or that she does not wish to see the churches flourish, but there are two major factors in her coming to the place where she now finds it impossible to claim that belonging. The first is that the church has failed to meet her spiritual needs. Bill Johnston frequently said that the church must be mystical if it is to make sense to modern people. If the churches do not offer an experience of spiritual depth and a practical approach to exploring such depths, then spiritual seekers will find it cold, doctrinaire and dislocated from their spiritual longings. The second is that the churches have tolerated the abuse perpetrated by members of their own clergy while strongly condemning the loving, committed relationships of their gay members. The commitment of many Christians to justice and peace and to the practice of compassion and inclusion has not been sufficient for people like Shirley du Boulay to find a way past this clear and appalling contradiction. For many people, yes, Christianity has become a toxic brand.
What is the way out? I think that nothing less than a death and resurrection will suffice. A death to the old ways of privilege, exclusion and judgementalism. A death of self-interest and introspection giving way to a new life of humility, service, spiritual depth, openness and joyfully embraced pluralism may be what is needed to present this profound tradition of spiritual truth afresh for our generation.
Yesterday’s gospel text from John 10 talked about Jesus the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. This would appear to be a strange thing for a shepherd to do – surely a sheep is ultimately nothing but a disposable commodity, eventually destined for the dinner table anyway. But I wonder whether this tension is not, in fact, the whole point of the story. Perhaps we are being led to think about our own sense of the ‘disposability’ of lives in our own calculations of what costs we are prepared to absorb in order to reach our intended goal.
Jesus, as good shepherd. is the one who demonstrates the extent to which he is prepared to go in order that ‘they have life, and have it abundantly’. He is prepared to go to the extent of laying down his life. Indeed, there is no way to life other than the way of self-giving: no ‘taking up’ without ‘laying down’. There is no way to life if we take the route of self-preservation. There is no way to life as long as we regard any life as disposable. This self-giving, which is a kind of self-forgetting, is a basic recognition of the unity of all that lives (one flock). Existence is not matter of the sum of individual egos but a fundamental unity, so we only serve life if we let go of a commitment to the primacy of my individual ego. This is something more profound than ‘we’ over ‘me’: it is the recognition of the artificiality of these categories.
John’s meditation on Jesus as good shepherd is also, then, the basis for a spirituality and a theology of nonviolence. Violence is founded on the commodification or utilitarian view of life. Other lives are expendable in the name of preserving my values and ‘liberties’. Nonviolence is founded on the essential unity of life – no life flourishes if any life is denied. But, paradoxically, the way of life that enhances life is a way of laying down one’s life. What can this mean? I think it means precisely the refusal to define life in terms of self-interest. My fate and that of my enemy are bound up together, and this radical position is at the heart of Jesus’ revolutionary teaching.
So the good shepherd is much more than the paternalistic dispenser of benevolence beloved of Victorian stained glass artists. He is the exemplar of nonviolence, a revolutionary who bids us realise what is already true – that we are all of one flock and that none must be lost to the violence and exclusion that we imagine to guarantee our security.
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!
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!