to help you discover the God you already know

The One God Whom we already know, part 2

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?

1 Comment

  1. Mike Catling

    Hi Henry:
    I have just your latest and feel that it somehow engages with what I have written for this week’s parish website. There is a movement taking place, strongly resisted in some religious quarters, leading us to a meeting of inter-spirituality. Words often cannot describe it, but the pandemic is shedding light on what some of us have felt to be present in the shadows for a long while now. We may not find many friends from the centre of the mainstream churches, but there certainly a growing number of people who are awaking up to their own desire for spiritual well-being.

    A reflection on Luke 24:13-35
    A little over 20 years ago our son, Simon, and I travelled from our Northumberland village to Twickenham to support the Newcastle Falcons in their first appearance in a rugby union cup final against Wasps. We travelled the 300-odd miles with high hopes and great expectations that our team, which enjoyed playing open and attacking rugby, would relish playing in such an arena.
    By the end of the afternoon our hopes and expectations lay in tatters as the Falcons seemed to be overwhelmed by the occasion and were sorely beaten by a well organised and astute Wasps side. So the journey back to Northumberland was a sad and largely silent one as we rued the mistakes and missed opportunities of the Falcons’ game plan.
    Thus, I have a great deal of empathy with Cleopas and the unnamed disciple walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. All their hopes and expectations had been dashed ending with the shameful torture and death of crucifixion experienced by their teacher Jesus. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a stranger joins them on the road, who apparently knew nothing about the events that had taken place in Jerusalem.
    Imagine that you’ve just lost a loved one in a tragic accident and a stranger approaches you and wants to know why you and the person with you are looking so miserable. It is unlikely that you would feel like reiterating the circumstances of you loved one’s death to this person who you’ve never met before.
    The next irritating thing that happens is that this stranger begins to tell the two disciples that they have totally missed the point of Jesus’ death and sets out in great detail the reasons why Jesus had to die. It would be like, although to a lesser extent, having a stranger join Simon and I in the railway carriage on our way home and firstly asking us why we’re looking so mournful and then spend the rest of the journey explaining the whole rugby season to us in detail, including all the cup matches, and ending with the conclusion that implied that the Falcons were destined to lose the day’s match right from the beginning!
    However, in the case of Cleopas and his fellow disciple, there was clearly something in the way their stranger told his story that gained their interest and curiosity to the extent that they urged him to stay and eat with them at the inn. What might have been the outcome if they had not done so and the stranger had continued on his way? Well, for one thing the disciples would not have walked through the night to return to Jerusalem and their fellow disciples. They walked in total 14 miles, half of it in the dark, which, apart from being tiring, was a somewhat dangerous undertaking. The culmination of this extraordinary post-resurrection story, of course, is the moment that the two disciples recognise the stranger as Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
    Briefly, let me highlight two things from this passage that speak to me. Firstly, whilst I value the service of Holy Communion and understand its intent, it has become divisive in saying who can and who can’t share in it. The necessity of Confirmation has to a degree created a barrier that leaves too many people thinking they are not worthy to partake of this ‘meal’. When there is a genuine ‘breaking of bread’ among those gathered round the table, wherever it may take place, then the God-self/the resurrected presence of Jesus/ the Holy Spirit/the Living Presence of Love (delete as required) is in the midst of that gathering. At least, that is my experience and therefore my belief.
    Secondly, ‘the stranger’ among us should always be received as a gift and not as an irritant. This ‘stranger’ maybe someone we know well, but maybe they think differently to us and see things in a different way to us, and maybe their life experience has led them to understand ‘God’ in a different way to us. Like Cleopas and his friend, in inviting the stranger to break bread with them the stranger in their company was revealed as the Gift from God. RS Thomas sums this up for me in one of his later poems when he writes:
    When we are weak, we are
    strong. When our eyes close
    on the world, then somewhere
    within us the bush
    burns. When we are poor
    and aware of the inadequacy
    of our table, it is to that
    uninvited the guest comes.

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