on 26 July 2013
Gerard Hushes came to prominence because of his book `God of Surprises'. Many discovered spirituality, rediscovered the Bible and were won over to the causes of social justice and peace. Not surprisingly, they wanted more. And this is it.
The Communion of Saints can be a bland thing that you say at the end of the Creed but Hughes fleshes it out: I can see the value of having saints who are officially and formally recognised, but I wish we could return to the custom of the early Church when men and women were canonised by popular acclaim, not by lengthy canonisation processes which involve years of work and cost vast sums of money. These processes also give the impress¬ion that it is only the clergy and members of religious congregations who are likely to be numbered among the saints, because the vast majority of canonised saints fall into these categories.
In one of his Spiritual Exercises, Inigo of Loyola advises the retreatant to see themselves as 'standing before God, our Lord, and also before the angels and saints, who are interceding for me'. When I first attempted to do this I found it too artificial and soon grew bored of imagining myself in the presence of haloed saints and harp-playing angels as portrayed in pious pictures. The phrase took on a more real and homely meaning during my walk to Jerusalem in 1987, when I was making my way through German snowstorms one bitterly cold day. My thoughts had turned to members of my own family who had died, and I found myself talking with them. That evening I found a lodging and had a meal with the landlady, who talked about her husband who had died twenty years earlier. She told me that she was aware of her husband's presence, spoke to him frequently and drew great strength and comfort from doing so. She had not dared to tell her family or friends about this, in case they thought her mad. Since then I have met many other people who have had this same experience, which feels perfectly natural, comforting, reassuring and in no way 'spooky'. The dead are like shy guests at a party: they will not intrude and can easily go unnoticed. If, however, we give them attention, we can become increasingly aware of their comforting presence. Those who have died remain alive in the God in whom all creation has its being. It would seem to follow that they must still be in contact with us in some way.
On Becoming Reconciled with Those Who Have Died
In old age we can be haunted by memories of wrongs we have suffered or wrongs we have inflicted on people who are now dead. We feel the need to forgive or to be forgiven. There is a helpful imaginative exercise, which can also be useful in the case of wrongs suffered at the hands of people who are still alive. I imagine myself entering a room in which Jesus is present alongside the person who has offended me. I tell my enemy of my hurt, anger and bitterness at what has been done to me. Then I pause, and allow the enemy to speak. Finally, I allow Jesus to speak to us both. In this exercise, as in all methods of prayer, it is important to be thoroughly honest in all that I say and not to force anything. If I find that I am unable to forgive, then I should say so to the enemy and to Jesus.
If I am finding it impossible to forgive, then I need to become still, and in the stillness to ask myself: 'In the depth of my heart, do I really want to do permanent harm to this person? Is that how I would like to be remembered -- as a person who never forgave an injury? In spite of the anger I feel, can I find a depth in my heart at which I do not want ultimate harm to be done to this person? Can I even pray for their ultimate good?
If I feel the need to be forgiven by people who are now dead and whom I have wronged, I can do a similar imaginative exercise. I imagine myself entering the room in which Jesus is present with the person I have wronged. I ask that person to tell me how I have wronged them and the way that they felt. Then I pause and ask forgiveness. Finally I ask Jesus to speak to both of us. This is, in fact, what we do in a general way at the beginning of the Eucharist in the words, 'I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned. .'. It is a confession to those present and also to the whole people of God whom we have offended by our destructiveness. It is also a request for their forgiveness.
These exercises are not magic: they do not necessarily 'work' at the first attempt and bring us an instant sense of reconciliation and blessed relief from resentful anger and lingering guilt. If we keep doing the exercises we shall, however, find that whenever the anger or guilt threatens to swamp us, we are more able to deal with them; we are becoming more peaceful and are increasingly capable of delighting in the presence of God. We can become grateful for the existence of the person who offended us, or to whom we have given offence.
There are, however, instances in which people have been so badly seared by trauma that they dare not recall it in any shape or form. In such cases we may perhaps be able to pray to God without attempting to recall details, but asking that we may one day be able to want to forgive. In some cases the difficulty lies in forgiving ourselves -- this is perhaps the greatest difficulty. If God gives us this gift of being able to forgive ourselves, we shall no longer have difficulty in forgiving other people.
Our Personal Struggles with Our Fears Have Cosmic Repercussions
We are no longer strangers on this earth: we are surrounded by hosts of supporters. Our minds cannot prove this, but our hearts can come to know it is true. What goes on in our hearts has repercussions throughout creation. The mystics have been saying this for centuries. In the sixteenth century, St John of the Cross said that one act of pure love was more effective than any amount of activity. With the diminishing mental and physical capacities of old age we can still pray for and long for the well-being of all peoples. Nuclear physicists are now asserting that human observation, for example, can affect the behaviour of sub-atomic particles, and that change in one part of the universe effects immediate change in other parts, separated by thousands of miles. Prayer, which is wrung from us in weakness and helplessness, may one day prove to have been the most valuable moment of our lives, preparing us for the next stage of the journey when we can more effectively work for the well-being of all peoples and of all creation.
I have moved from seeing the Bible as a collection of stories with exaggerations to being a collection of meditation material. Hughes exposition of the healing of the gerasene demoniac is a good example: In Christian understanding, desire is the prompting of God to draw us beyond ourselves. The ultimate object of our desire is to be at one with God, who is love, and at one with all creation. That is the literal meaning of the word 'atonement' -- at-one-ment -- which is used to describe the reconciliation between God and humankind.
Desire is a spring of life, but it can also be a searing pain, a destructive power that can tear us apart and cause havoc to those around us. In the Gospel of Mark the man possessed by an evil spirit is a tormented creature who 'lived in the tombs and no one could secure him any more, even with a chain; because he had often been secured with fetters and chains but had snapped the chains and broken the fetters, and no one had the strength to control him. All night and all day, among the tombs and in the mountains, he would howl and gash himself with stones' (Mark 5:3-5). When Jesus asks him his name, the possessed man, the demoniac, shows great insight, for he answers, 'My name is legion . . . for there are many of us' (Mark 5:10).
In an extreme form, the demoniac exemplifies the state of every human being. We desire happiness and peace, but our efforts to attain our own happiness can destroy peace, and our attempts at peacemaking can cause us great unhappiness. In the words of the American writer Henry Thoreau (1817-62), 'Most men live lives of quiet desperation.' How are we to live happily and at peace with this tormenting fire within that we call desire? The Stoic answer to the problem was to try to live without desire. On this ideal Jonathan Swift commented, 'The Stoical scheme of supplying our wants by lopping off our desires, is like cutting off our feet when we want shoes'!
The explosive power of human desire is like the atom. Harnessed, it can become an almost limitless source of energy: released and uncontrolled, it can destroy all life on earth. We do not create desire, but we discover it within ourselves where it can lift us from lethargy, energise us, and draw us beyond. Desire is a yearning to be related to something or someone outside ourselves.
In Plato's dialogue The Symposium the setting is a party at which the guests are discussing the nature of love. Among the guests is the comedy playwright Aristophanes, who argues that human beings were originally perfect and therefore circular, because the circle was the symbol of perfection. Early in human development these perfect circles were cut in half. Since then we have been wandering the earth trying to find our other half! In all human love there is a desire for oneness, for completeness. For this reason, loneliness is deeply painful, with its sense of separation and exclusion from everything for which we long. We can only discover who we are through our relatedness. In Christian understanding, we are created in the image of God, and God is a trinity of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whose being is in their relatedness!
The desires that draw us are multiple and conflicting. If we satisfy one desire we frustrate another. At this moment I am writing. I want to write this book, but I also want not to be writing, because I hate the inner conflict that writing can bring. I feel the urge to write, but once I begin, all ideas seem to drain away and I am left facing an empty page. If I force myself to write, I fill the page with platitudes. At other times, ideas jostle with one another in my head, and what I write is incoherent. Then come the doubts as to whether I should be trying to write at all, especially about spirituality! There are lots of other things I would like to be doing: visiting friends, going for a walk, reading a novel. The conflict is not between my will and God's will: it is a conflict between one desire and another. I shall not persevere with writing unless my desire to write is stronger than my fear of inner conflict, or my desire to engage in some alternative occupation. I do not create the desire to write: the desire draws me to write.
You can explore this conflict in your own experience. Here are a few examples: We want to be truthful and transparently honest -- but we also want to be popular and have lots of friends. These two good desires are rarely compatible. We may want to be slim, healthy and fit -- but we may also hate taking exercise and would welcome death by chocolate. We would love to be open and welcoming to all those we encounter -- but we can't stand people who bore us. Whether we believe in God or not, the conflict is rooted in the nature of desire. It is not God who makes life difficult for us!
There is another example here: When we read of the calming of the storm, our twenty-first century reaction tends to be, `Did it really happen?' Then the doubts set in and we begin to wonder whether we have any faith. When a Hebrew heard such an account, the first question would not be, `Did it really happen?' but ``What does it mean?' This is a much more important question, and one that would remain, even if the literal truth of the event were to be disproved beyond any question. The boat represents the Church, threatened both by external persecution and by internal dissension. For the Hebrew, a stormy sea is a manifestation of the power of evil and destructiveness. The calming of the storm vividly illustrates the central message running through the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament: God alone is our rock, refuge and strength, our only ultimate security. It is only when the disciples call upon Christ that he wakes up and calms the storm. What does this calming of the storm say to us about the nature of faith?
Faith is not primarily about belief in religious formulations, church teachings and liturgies, however important these may be: faith is primarily faith in God. We can only experience God in our experience of life, so faith is faith in the facts in which we find ourselves, and God is in the facts, so the facts must be kind. That is why the phrase `Do not be afraid' is constantly repeated in the Bible. Unless we constantly allow ourselves to listen to the words
Do not be afraid' resonating in our inmost being, we are in danger of finding ourselves becoming the obedient servants of the idol, security', which squeezes the humanity and the life out of us.
For those Christians who support nuclear weapons, Hughes ends one section with a graphic prayer for them to say:...........can be described as 'purely psychological', for God is present and at work in all our states. The distinction between psychological and spiritual does not denote two separate areas of our human psyche. It rather indicates two different ways of approaching the single psyche. As psychologists and as spiritual guides we must not create no-go areas for God -- or for the psychologist. It is, however, necessary and valid to approach those areas in differing ways. It is in this context that there is a valid distinction between the spiritual and the psychological.
The Split Continues
The majority of Christians in the developed world are not opposed to a nuclear defence policy, and an even greater majority still believe in the necessity of war to preserve peace on earth. This support for nuclear defence and for war as a means of bringing peace is an indication of the divided nature of our spirituality. We all want peace, and we reckon that the possession of a nuclear arsenal, as well as conventional arms, is the best way of ensuring that peace. Most nations subscribe to the Roman aphorism 'To preserve peace, I prepare for war', an aphorism that wins the support of the majority in most Western countries. Because of our split spirituality we can both pray for peace and at the same time support a policy of national defence that militates against peace. While our reason may convince us that the possession of nuclear arms is justified, ethical and sensible, we may experience acute discomfort if we allow God to enter into our prayer for peace. When Jesus appeared to his frightened disciples on Easter Sunday evening, he said 'Peace be with you' and showed them his hands and his side (John 20:20). The world's peace is achieved through trying to become invulnerable: Christ's peace comes through vulnerability. This truth brings us to the very uncomfortable heart of the matter.
We have become so used to a split spirituality that we no longer notice the split, which divides our hearts from our heads, our reason from our emotion. Consequently, we can produce well-reasoned arguments in favour of war and of the need for nuclear arms while, at the same time, praying to God earnestly and sincerely for peace. Without realising what we are doing, we take remarkable care not to let God interfere with our practical plans for peace. The point of the peace prayer is not to argue for pacifism, but simply to illustrate the truth that because of the split in our spirituality, we do not allow God to interfere in our practical plans for peace and war, or any other matter.
The following exercise is an imaginative one. You attend a church service on Peace Sunday and listen to this peace prayer. It has been composed by someone whose reason has convinced them of the legitimacy of nuclear defence and of just war as a means of bringing peace to the world. In the prayer, the composer, aware of the split in our spirituality, allows God to enter into the reasoning behind the prayer. The exercise is simply to notice what emotional effect this prayer has on you. Does it leave you strengthened, happy and hopeful in your attitudes, or unhappy, angry and confused? The prayer illustrates what happens when we allow God access to our feelings, when we allow our prayer to become `earthed'. Here is the prayer: Dear Lord, inspire our scientists that they may invent yet more lethal weaponry (so that our deterrent may prove even more effective). Protect us from any unfortunate accident in its testing (lest it destroy us and our own cities rather than our enemies). Bless our economy that we may put these weapons into plentiful production (otherwise we cannot deter). Have a special care of the hungry, the homeless, the sick and the aged of our own land and of other lands until such time as our defence commitments allow us to contribute a little more to these worthy purposes. Strengthen our leaders in a strong defence policy. Drive out from our midst any who by thought, word or deed undermine our national security; and grant us the protection of nuclear weaponry now and forever. Amen.
This prayer is not offered as an argument against nuclear deter¬rence, but simply as an indication of the split nature of our spirituality. How did you feel as you read the prayer, and what did you do with those feelings? Some elements in the masculine culture still regard feelings and emotions as a sign of weakness rather than a source of wisdom. We have developed ways of praying that allow us to discount feelings. We may justify such an attitude to ourselves by claiming that we are trying to free ourselves from
Our society's current obsession with self-affirmation is relativised here: The teacher and scholar Donald Nicholl wrote a remarkable book called Holiness I remember his description of a meeting he had attended: 'It was dreadful. We all had to sit in a circle and introduce ourselves. Most people introduced themselves by stating their jobs, "I'm a professor, a lecturer, an engineer, a doctor, etc." When it came to my turn, I just wanted to say, "My name is Donald. I am a unique manifestation of God" '! The authors of the New Testament and the early Christian theologians would have applauded, for Donald would have been repeating the good news that God is our ultimate identity. We have an astonishing ability to lose sight of this central truth, thus reducing Christianity to a moral code.
God is Our Ultimate Identity
St Paul addresses his first letter to the Corinthians to 'the saints at Corinth', and then reprimands some of them for their acts of incest, fornication and idolatry -- not the kind of behaviour one expects of saints! In St Paul's usage of the word, 'holiness' is not something we have to create for ourselves, nor is it a reward for our virtue. Holiness is a gift, freely given, indestructible and always accessible. We can acknowledge the gift, or we may refuse to acknowledge it. What we cannot do is get rid of it, because the gift is God! 'Spirituality' is the process by which we become more aware of this gift of holiness and increasingly conformed to it. To the extent that we acknowledge the gift, our life will be transformed, as we allow God to be the God of love and compassion both to us and through us. Christians believe that this gift is given to every single human being and that it is a continuous process of giving..... That our ultimate identity is in God is beautifully illustrated in an early Christian homily by an unknown writer who imagines Jesus after his death descending into hell where he has a conversation with Adam. The conversation ends with Jesus saying to Adam, Arise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.' What an astonishing sentence! We have lost sight of this essential truth about our ultimate identity to the extent that we can feel uncomfortable when we read it -- as though we are listening to the ravings of a religious maniac.
Holiness, therefore, concerns our ultimate identity. We are not to be defined by our image, our job, our achievements, our qualities, our defects of character, nor by our ancestry, nationality, ethnic origins or religious beliefs. Our ultimate identity is in God. We can state this truth in words, but mere words cannot convey the meaning. Our Christian faith is not primarily about creeds or doctrines; it is about faith in the living God whom words cannot contain. God is to be experienced, not talked about! We need words, and we need theology, but words must be used to point us in the direction of the living God, who is always beyond words. We need words to reveal the truth, not to obscure it.
Words serve as signposts leading us into a wordless and deeper experience of God. Signposts are important because they point us in the right direction. In much of the bitter controversy that goes on among Christians about the orthodoxy or unorthodoxy of specific Christian positions, it is often the most vigorous upholders of orthodoxy who are, in fact, the most unorthodox because they can mistake the signposts for the destination itself. Vigorous assent to particular Christian propositions does not necessarily constitute an act of faith. A faith that is primarily thought of in terms of an assent to propositions can, in fact, be idolatrous, whereas true faith is an act of surrender to the living God, present in all people, in all circumstances, and in all things.
He is sound on the Pharisees are urges us to look on our own hypocrisies instead of projecting them on to others: claimed that recent famines are not the result of food shortages, but are caused by regulations covering trade and distribution that are to the advantage of richer countries. Investors are grateful for the high rate of interest earned by their shares, and can fail to make the connection between their own financial gain and the plight of starving peasants, driven off their land by multinational agricultural businesses conducted on strictly commercial principles. In the same way, we fail to connect the fate of innocent victims of landmines with the fact that Britain has exported landmines in order to boost its economy.
When Jesus told parables, revealing a God of tenderness and compassion, he infuriated the scribes and Pharisees. Such teaching undermined their authority, so they had to get rid of him. The images of God that Jesus gives us in the Gospels were to be overlaid with fearsome images of a legalistic, fearsome God who damns the majority of the human race to eternal punishment. One reason that the scribes and Pharisees receive such a bad press in the Gospels may well be that the Gospel writers saw signs of pharisaism creeping back in the early Church. Later in this book we shall be looking at our human tendency to project some of our own nastier characteristics on to God: our hatreds, our desire for revenge, and our delight in the disasters that befall our enemies. In this way we create a God of vengeance, a God whose primary interest lies in noting the sins of the people and preparing suitable punishments for them.
Our Split Spirituality Prevents God's Holiness/Compassion from Transforming Our Lives
Our split spirituality encourages us to pursue a private, individual¬istic spirituality. We may appear to ourselves to be models of respectability within the narrow parameters of what we consider to be our individual sphere of responsibility. For this reason, some Christians in public life can advocate inhuman policies such as capital punishment, or a market economy that ignores the plight of the powerless -- compassion appears to be damaging to the national economy! There are many who are praised by their supporters for their advocacy of zero tolerance for particular criminal offences and for their support for a more punitive penal
How do people know if they are called, for example, to ordained ministry?: Discernment is an issue for every human being, regardless of whether or not we admit to any religious belief. It is obvious that government ministers and those responsible for large organisations carry heavy responsibilities, and that their decisions can enrich or impoverish the lives of millions. But my own decisions will also affect the lives of others, whether or not I am aware of this. No one can make a wholly private decision: we are interrelated beings whose every decision affects other people.
`Discernment' comes from two Latin words, dis = apart, and cernere = to separate. Donald Nicholl told me that the words 'shit' and 'discernment' have the same root -- the word 'shit' being related to the Old English sceadan, meaning 'to separate out'! The billions of cells in our body are continuously practising 'discern¬ment' on the food and drink we consume and on the air we breathe. Each cell accepts what it needs for the good of the whole body and rejects or passes on the remainder. Cancer could be described as a failure of discernment on the part of individual cells. They 'forget' the good of the whole body and concentrate only on their own individual good. As a result, the whole body suffers, and in many cases it dies. In human society, individuals, groups, nations and religious bodies are all liable to act within the narrow parameters of their own immediate interests. Such behaviour brings oppression, misery, starvation and death to other human beings, and in many cases to the total global environment. Discernment is as necessary for survival as air, food and water.
Is the dark night of the soul only for those who are very advanced in their spirituality?:....it is, I believe, far more common than we think. When we come across the Dark Night in our¬selves, or in others, we can misdiagnose the symptoms as indicative of wavering faith, or as the manifestation of long-buried guilt. We all have to undergo an experience of purification, or diminishment, as part of the process of ageing. The Dark Night is an intense form of purification, but all of us undergo a process of purification through the experience of ageing, when we experience diminishment of everything that formerly gave us a sense of worth and value, including our religious convictions, so that we can become prey to all manner of doubts about God and an afterlife.
In the experience of the Dark Night, the sufferer can be stripped, like Job, of everything that formerly sustained him or her: possessions, family, reputation, health of body, religious certainties. Job's health of mind is also assailed by the assurances of his friends that his present afflictions must be the punishment of God for the evil for which Job is, obviously, responsible! When we have been stripped of our supports and the mind is plunged into the darkness of doubt, we are faced with the alternatives of despair, or surrender to apparent nothingness. But the heart nevertheless recognises that the 'nothingness' is of God; that it is in a mysterious way the heart's desire.
We hear much, these days, of `heavy shepherding' as opposed to good pastoring. Here is a corrective: I had been watching the television programme One Man and his Dog for the first time. For the benefit of those who haven't seen it, the programme is a competition for shepherds and their sheepdogs. Each shepherd is given a small flock of sheep to guide through fields with the help of the dog, and the object of the exercise is to pen the sheep in an enclosure. The shepherd and dog that perform most effectively and quickly are the winners, and the entire operation depends upon the relationship between shepherd and dog. The shepherd may be a fine upstanding person and the dog may be a champion, but if the two fail to relate well, the operation will fail. This television programme reflects aspects of the inner life of each human being. As in so many biblical passages, the shepherd symbolises God. The sheepdog represents our deepest desire. The classical writers describe this as 'the fine point of the soul'. The sheep represent the many desires within us that are not our deepest desire -- those aspects of ourselves that reveal themselves when more superficial desires take us over: greed, ambition and vanity; the desire to be accepted and promoted; the desire to control, possess and dominate; the desire to save one's skin at all costs! The superficial desires are usually the loudest and most insistent within our consciousness. Our deepest desire seems to lie dormant much of the time, and only breaks through into our consciousness when more superficial desires have taken control and led us into actions that oppose our deepest desire. You may wish to create your own diagram, enlarging and colouring the sheep, giving them names that correspond to your inner flock of superficial desires!
In Chapter 5 we looked at the account of the healing of the man who had been possessed by an evil spirit. The 'sheepdog' part of the demoniac brings him running to Jesus, but his sub-personalities so rage within him that 'he would howl and gash himself with stones'. When Jesus asks his name, the man answers with great insight: 'My name is legion, for there are many of us.'
Pray, and Act Out of the 'Sheepdog' Part of Yourself
The 'shepherd/sheepdog' diagram underlines a most important and fundamental guideline for the spiritual journey, which is that we should always pray out of the 'sheepdog' part of ourselves ¬out of our deepest longing. This principle applies not only to prayer, but to every human decision. Our decisions should flow from the place of our deepest longing and not from the superficial parts of our being.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector who both go up to the Temple to pray, the Pharisee addresses God: "I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of humankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get." The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner". This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not' (Luke 18:11-13).
This is a fascinating and revolutionary parable. The Pharisee is doing all the right things. He has worthwhile virtues: he prays, he fasts, and he pays his temple tax. The tax-collector appears to be a religious and moral failure. He does nothing right -- and yet Jesus tells us that it is the tax-collector who goes home at rights with God. The 'sheepdog' part of the tax-gatherer is focused on the shepherd, on God; the 'sheepdog' part of the Pharisee is focused, not on God, but on his well-behaved sheep!
To God, it is the direction of the heart that matters. It does not, however, follow from this that as long as the heart is directed aright our actions do not matter. If the heart is really directed towards God, the appropriate actions will follow. Jesus reminds us to 'set your hearts on his kingdom, and these other things will be given you as well' (Luke 12:31).
It also follows from the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector that appropriate actions and correct opinions are not of fundamental importance in the eyes of God. This is certainly revolutionary! How would 'good' church people receive Jesus if he was to reappear today and declare that, 'My interest is not primarily in your verbal orthodoxy, in your religious observances, your ritual fidelity, church dues, or political correctness. What matters is the disposition of your heart, your focus on God, so that you allow God to be the God of love and compassion to you and through you in all that you do.'
Christians are not only divided into separate denominations; they are frequently and more bitterly divided within the same denomination. When reading controversial Christian writings, it is often helpful to give greater attention to the tone of the writing than to the content. Books that are presented as 'orthodox' may be written with venom. Statements that are considered to be unorthodox may, nevertheless, be delivered with compassion. Our adherence to orthodoxy and our fidelity to religious ritual can flow from the 'sheepdog' part of ourselves. Such responses may indeed be focused on God, but they may also flow from the fact that I myself have chosen to follow particular observances and to adhere to specific statements of orthodoxy. My ego can become the determinant of my values, decisions and actions rather than....
God's love is contrasted with ours: ....the woman who loses one of