With churches closed ‘Lockdown’ provides us with an opportunity to explore new spiritual resources. Church services online are a resource for some, but apart from that we’re on our own, left to our own devices. Some may choose to do nothing, others reach out for a pre-packaged pattern from the internet. My instinct is that we already possess the God-given resources we need and that deepening our trust in them is an excellent place to start.
I’ve personally learnt to relish the chance to trust a rhythm that comes naturally from within rather than one imposed from outside. Mostly its not a matter of learning new tricks, but rather of recognising the value of things that I already do, and nourishing and deepening them.
I sense that we are at a kairos moment in human history. The Snowmass Agreement and our own religious experience is showing us that ‘there is One God Whom we all already know’. The institutional Churches in Western Europe are all in decline. I am asking ‘where is God in all this?’ Part of the answer I sense is that we are being called to explore our faith in a new and deeper way, a faith that unites one people across the world with the One God. The world desperately needs that sense of unity because the issues that it now faces are common to everybody, and require a common response. Covid19 is forcing the world to ask basic questions about who we are, what we want and how we are going to live together. These are spiritual questions and they require spiritual answers, and it’s the job of some of us to explore what they might be.
While some people in our country are struggling to care for the vulnerable, the sick and the dying, the task for others of us is to explore what this new understanding of our faith might look like. The fact that the usual models are mostly not available to us at this time, offers us a golden opportunity to experiment. This experimentation is as important for humankind’s future as the experimentation into a vaccine for Covid19.
I’d like to share some insights that God has taught me, some wisdom I’ve discovered, and some resources that I’ve personally found helpful, in the hope that there might be something here that will help you too. But you’ll likely have insights & resources other than these, in which case do share them by writing a comment when you’ve finished reading.
Insights that God has taught me
A while ago I wrote on this site about ‘The Spirituality of Jesus’ in which I suggested five factors that seem to me to underpin his relationship with God and which we might wisely choose to underpin ours:
1 He stood in a spiritual tradition that he both embraced and challenged, while some who stood within that tradition welcomed his challenges, its leaders did not and connived at His death. We all stand within a tradition, even if its one which on the face of it we reject. Atheism stands within a spiritual tradition, in as much as it needs a vision of God to deny.
What tradition do you stand in? How has it shaped you for good and for ill? What of it could you benefit by affirming? What do you need to challenge, and are you prepared for the difficulties that challenge might bring?.
2 He had a number of formative religious experiences in which he felt that God spoke to him. His spirituality arises directly from them. For Jesus it seems at least to have been in his baptism by John, on the Mount of Transfiguration, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and perhaps on the Cross, when he was aware of God’s presence and absence of presence.
Most of us have some spiritual experience. I was talking with a friend recently who said that she didn’t until I asked if she hadn’t had a moment when she was aware of something greater than herself? She had, of course. A moment when a sense of joy overwhelmed her, and others of a great sense of inner peace, and so on. ‘But I wouldn’t call that God’ she said. I don’t think it matters too much what you call it’ I replied, ‘what counts is that you take it seriously, honour it as a foundational life experience and not a fanciful one to be forgotten, and try to live your life from it, with it as your guiding star. Use your imagination to revisit it often in order to keep the experience alive in you.
3 He took prayer seriously. He taught his followers to pray, gave them some guidance on how to pray, and took prayer seriously himself, often going away to deserted places to be with God.
We are all much better at prayer than we think that we are: the problem is that we define it too narrowly. Religion often makes it sound difficult, whereas in reality its as simple & natural as breathing. Prayer is whatever nourishes your relationship with God. Ask yourself ‘If I wanted to pray and couldn’t use words or go into a religious building, what would I do and where would I go?’ It will almost certainly be something you enjoy doing, and in a place that you like. We all have things that we like doing that take us naturally into an awareness of silence, stillness, inner joy & peace: thats prayer.
4 God spoke to him through everyday events. Jesus rarely spoke to people by beginning with a Biblical quote, invariably he began by either telling a story, or noticing an ordinary event & drawing a deeper meaning from it, or offering wisdom that he had presumably learnt the value of by experience.
Assume as He appears to have done, that whatever He needed to know over & above his spiritual experience, life would teach Him. So ‘open your eyes’ to what God is trying to teach you through your life. Always approach life with the question ‘Where is the gift in this?’ Look back on each day and try to spot the unexpected gifts that you received: there will be more of them than you expect. Notice the moments that touched you deeply, whether pleasurable or sad, and especially the tiny fleeting ones, and wonder what God might be saying to you through them. Write them down each day and reflect back on them once a week: themes will probably emerge.
5 God provided angels to support Jesus. An angel is a messenger from God, and they come in all sorts and sizes. Jesus was gifted with fishermen & others who were willing to follow Him. There were women who provided for them. There were people who offered them meals, shelter, donkeys to ride on, a place where they could eat together etc. He seems to have learnt much from people who challenged & argued with Him: think of the Syro-Phoenician woman, the foreigners who enlarged His vision.
So it is with us. Notice who offers us, often unawares, support, encouragement, affirmation, and challenge: they’re angels. Give thanks for them.
Wisdom that I’ve discovered
1 We need to be willing to think creatively, outside the box. We need to be open to taking risks, trying things that are strange and new to us. Good parents encourage their children to take appropriate risks, for how else will they learn, how else will they acquire self confidence? So is is with God. There are no failures, just learning opportunities. If something doesn’t seem to work after a while, then try something else: experiment. You’ll only find doors that open if you’re willing to try some that stay shut. God is a creative God, Who calls us to be creative too.
2 Recent years have seen a blossoming of ‘Domestic Spirituality’, by which I mean that for large numbers of people their homes have become the focal point of their spiritual life rather than a church building. It remains good to meet with others, but the daily focus is in the home, and usually more particularly in a ‘holy place’ either within the home or maybe outside.
3 I have my shed, which is where I pray, am silent, read, think and mull as well as meet with others for spiritual conversations. My shed is my holy place and visitors often say that they would like one themselves. I suspect that in future more & more people will feel a need for their own holy place. It doesn’t have to be a shed. It could be a spare room in your home if you’re lucky enough to have one. It could equally be a corner of a room, or a favourite chair, maybe with a view? It may not be at home. I know a place that feels holy to me and where I go regularly, its by a river, and I have another that’s in a wood. In towns art galleries often feel like holy places to me, and bookshops too, as can parks and open spaces.
Wherever it is it needs to feel like a safe space. Safe enough for you to be yourself and do whatever you need to do, whatever that might be. You might light a candle, listen to music, look at a work of art, read or just be silent. Many people find it helpful to keep a journal, a simple record of any thoughts or insights that come to them. I tried many times in the past & never kept it going, until a few years ago, and now its a treasured possession in which I write everyday. Some like to look back over the day wondering where God might have touched them, noticing what nourished them, what caused them to fear or feel anxious.
4 People who have spent long periods of time in a solitary state all seem to name the importance of a regular daily rhythm,and of the benefit of marking the weekends as different in some way.
We all have a basic daily rhythm: at a minimum, regular times of waking & sleeping, of eating and drinking. Its probably helpful to have a regular time that you spend in your holy space.
Be aware of the ‘wallpaper’ that you choose to surround you. For example, I make a point at reading the news online once a day and not to pay it attention at any other time. To be surrounded by it all day just depresses me and makes me less creative in all that I am and do. Better to listen to more music!
Listen to your body. Being free of many of the constraints that life usually places upon me I can live my day in a way that suits me. I know that my body gets sleepy & unproductive in the late afternoon, unless I have a brief siesta after lunch, so that’s what I do.
The Celtic spiritual tradition is full of short prayers said at particular moments through the day. You could write one yourself for when you wash your hands, get dressed, go to bed, eat a meal etc…..whatever are regular activities in your day.
The Benedictine tradition stresses a pattern of Work / Prayer /Reading /and Relaxation.
My friend Mary Dawson has written movingly on this site about her pattern of ‘Keeping Sabbath’ every week.
There’s much to be said for purposefully spending time doing nothing. I love the motto ‘How good it is to do nothing, and then rest awhile afterwards.” Time simply to be. Another priest friend told me that one of the delights of this time for her has been to do just that and be surprised by the ideas that sometimes pop into head: she had never realised what wisdom there was inside of her just waiting the space to offer itself to her.
There’s a venerable tradition of praying when walking and allowing your walking rhythm to ground you in prayer. I remember reading of the pattern of walking in a town, on a regular route, and having ‘stations’ on the walk, like a school, a park, a shop, a letterbox, etc where you pray for those associated with that place.
The habit of standing outside on a Thursday evening & clapping as a sign of support for the NHS has become a key part of many peoples weekly rhythm and a national ritual binding us together..
1 One of the gifts of getting older, for me, is that I have quite a collection of poems, images, music, words of wisdom from a variety of sources which I can draw on for nourishment and encouragement. I know that some other people have a similar resource, and if you haven’t than this might be the time to begin one. If you’re looking for a starting point allow me to point you to a couple of great sources.
2 ‘The Splash of Words’ by Mark Oakley contains many poems with an introduction to each of them. Mark’s introduction is worth buying the book. He writes: “There is, though, a sense that when we start talking about poems we are talking about a soul-language, a way of crafting words that distils our experience into what feels like a purer truth. This sense of distillation, even cleansing, that poems have about them also pushes on our contours. They bring epiphany or surprise moments of recognition which then ask us to re-imagine the world in some fresh way, our comprehension deepened. Creativity is Contagious.”
3 ‘Year of Wonder’ by Clemency Burton-Hill suggests a piece of classical music for very day of the year with a short introduction to each. And again, her introduction is great, she writes: “a daily dose of music can be a form of sonic soul maintenance.” And again: “Our own interpretations of music, which often seems to throw open a window to the divine, are valid.”
4 There’s a plentiful supply of art resources. I spent Lent and Easter with Andrew Graham Dixon’s ‘Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel’, and Sister Wendy Beckett’s “the Art of Faith”. Both writers are wonderful in book and tv programme format. There’s a web-site “The Visual Commentary on Scripture” and apps like “Daily Art” and Art Database.”
5 Last year I read my way through ‘A World Religions Bible’ by Robert van de Weyer’ which takes a different faith tradition each month and offers a daily reading. Its difficult not to read it and see that ‘The Snowmass Agreement’ is on the button.
There is a prayer for these times, and it’s a familiar one:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change’
The Courage to change the things that I can
And the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.”
Its the task of each of us in these unusual times to recognise the place where we can use our gifts for the common good. Some in practical caring, others in exploring what will be needed for the future. And not only exploring, but digging them in so that they remain as good habits when life returns to a more normal state.