If the women and men of prayer across all the world faiths experience the same Ultimate Reality when they pray, then they all encounter what Christians call God. When a mixed group of Christians, for whom working together would seem like a miracle, instead share their experience of God they find themselves deeply united. How do I reflect on these truths?
In 2001 I wrote a Report for The Spiritual Counsel Trust on the state of spiritual direction in the UK. I wrote that. “In the course of my work, I listen to many people and try to help them discern the promptings of the Spirit of the risen Lord in their lives. Each person’s story is different, and yet I find that some themes occur frequently. When I talk with others engaged in this ministry I find that they are hearing the same themes. It seems to me to be incumbent upon me to say “I feel that the Spirit is saying these things to the churches and perhaps to society: spiritual direction leads into prophecy.” All of the themes I named then remain current. They were:
A] The institutional churches are in decline, perhaps are dying.
B] There is a growing need to place authority within oneself rather than outside oneself.
C] There is a significant growth in the numbers feeling called to explore the solitary life, not necessarily a full-time solitary life.
D] There is a blooming of what I call ‘domestic spirituality’
E] There are numbers of people visiting historic ‘holy places’ such as Iona. Holy Island, Glastonbury, cathedrals etc, either by going on pilgrimage to them or by simply spending time in them. It is as if they are seeking the ether of spirituality, often Christian spirituality, rather than the religious dogma of the Church.
F] Sometimes linked with some of the above, people are linking spirituality and ‘green’ issues.
G] The body is no longer seen as something to be controlled and subdued, but rather is increasingly seen as a way to God.
H] Ecumenical issues are no longer perceived as ‘live’, rather the energy has shifted both to inter-faith issues and also to an intuitive exploration of native spiritualities which are seen as pre-dating Christianity.
So now when I ask myself, as I do “What is God up to in all this?” How do I answer? I sense that God is bringing about the decline of the institutional churches in Western Europe, and that we should embrace that reality as gift and not see it as something to be resisted. At the heart of our faith is the truth that death leads to new life, its time to trust that that is so.
Research in this country, backed by similar research elsewhere, suggests that most people claim to have had a spiritual experience at some time in their lives. They don’t need to be told about a God they don’t know, they need to be encouraged to trust a God that they do already know. [See the book ‘The God you already know’] My little experiment bears this out on a local scale. As does The Snowmass Agreement on an inter-faith scale.
Moreover, it is no coincidence that this is happening now. Rather I see it as a sign that God is leading humanity forward towards a necessary evolving spirituality that embraces the whole of creation. For which there is an increasing hunger among many, both inside, on the edge of, and outside the church, exemplified by my list above from 2001. God is stirring up a hunger as well as providing the food.
Moreover, the Covid 19 Virus clearly needs a co-ordinated worldwide response, as do most of the major issues confronting the planet at the moment. It’s no good expecting that politicians take a world-view of issues, if religious leaders don’t start doing the same. Indeed it’s difficult to see how the former will succeed without the latter.
So when I ask myself ‘What is God up to here?’ I sense that God is calling us to a much bigger vision, of a spirituality that embraces all of God’s creation. One centred for me, on the Cosmic Christ Who sits at God’s right hand and Who is the light of every human being albeit through a variety of different Names and cultural traditions. This is not a call to abandon the faith traditions in which we stand, but rather to see that they are each a ‘different path up the same mountain’, which is the One Ultimate Reality behind all of them, and that we are therefore not competitors but brothers and sisters, members each of the same body with differing gifts and insights to bring and share. Take Paul’s analogy and write it bigger.
There is nothing much new in this. I am reminded of two pieces of c19th writing, one by a Christian and the other maybe not.
‘Progress’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox [1850-1919]
Let there be many windows to your soul,
That all the glory of the universe
May beautify it. Not the narrow pane
Of one poor creed can catch the radiant rays
That shine from countless sources. Tear away
The blinds of superstition: let the light
Pour through fair windows broad as truth itself
And high as God.
Why should the spirit peer
Through some priest-curtained orifice, and grope
Along dim corridors of doubt, when all
The splendour from unfathomed seas of space
Might bathe it with the golden waves of Love?
Sweep up the debris of decaying faiths:
Sweep down the cobwebs of worn-out beliefs,
And throw your soul wide open to the light
Of Reason and of Knowledge. Turn your ear
To all the wordless music of the stars
And to the voice of Nature, and your heart
Shall turn to truth and goodness, as the plant
Turns to the sun. A thousand unseen hands
Reach down to help you to their peace-crowned heights
And all the forces of the firmament
Shall fortify your strength. Be not afraid
To thrust aside half-truths and grasp the whole.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy by FW Faber [1814-63]
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Saviour;
There is healing in His blood.
There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more simple,
We should take Him at His word;
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord.
Souls of men! why will ye scatter
Like a crowd of frightened sheep?
Foolish hearts! why will ye wander
From a love so true and deep?
It is God: His love looks mighty,
But is mightier than it seems;
’Tis our Father: and His fondness
Goes far out beyond our dreams.
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Saviour who would have us
Come and gather at His feet?