Spiritual practice for uncertain times

2016 has given me much to be thankful for: the birth of my nephew, a year of continuing job satisfaction and being part of a vibrant faith community are at the top of my list. 2016 has also been a disturbing and troubling year. The continuing escalation of the refugee crisis, climate disruption and global terrorism; the rise of figures like Farage and Trump and their fear-mongering rhetoric; continuing cuts to public services and divisions revealed by the EU referendum… Of course all times are uncertain, but for someone like me, who has only known comfort and security, who once believed that humanity was progressing towards ever higher moral standards, 2016 is a wake-up call.

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There are two obvious responses to this sobering list of events. One is to escape into despair. The other is to escape into denial. Though apparently polar opposites, both seek a kind of numbness. If everything is terrible and nothing can be fixed, then why bother? If everything is fine (or will work out alright in the end), then what fixing is there to do? Both responses result in ‘business as usual’.

How can we walk the tightrope between them, neither giving into despair (which is nothing less than functional atheism) nor escaping into denial (which is nothing more than cheap religion)?

I find a useful starting place in the words of those who also knew they were living in uncertain times. This post is basically about finding hope, and although we think of hope as being about the future, our grounds for hope are rooted in the past. Reading the words of people like C S Lewis and Thomas Kelly, who wrote in the shadow of World War II, shows me how my spiritual ancestors remained hopeful in the face of troubles far greater than mine. In 1939, in a lecture entitled ‘Holy Obedience’, Kelly said that:

An awful solemnity is upon the earth, for the last vestige of earthly security is gone. It has always been gone, and religion has always said so, but we haven’t believed it. And some of us Quakers are not yet undeceived, and childishly expect our little cushions for our little bodies, in a world inflamed with untold ulcers. Be not fooled by the pleasantness of the Main Line life, and the niceness of Germantown existence, and the quiet coolness of your well-furnished homes. For the plagues of Egypt are upon the world, entering hovel and palace, and there is no escape for you or for me…

…In my deepest heart I know that some of us have to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God’s sorrow is too great, man’s night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience. It may or it may not mean change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will have to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the “Eternal Internal” which is as complete and as irrevocable as was the vow of the monk of the Middle Ages.[1]

At the end of the year, I am asking myself: How do I respond to the challenges of 2016 as a person of faith? How can I equip myself to live a hopeful response to ‘a world inflamed with untold ulcers’?

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Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos

What do I mean by spiritual practice?

I think another way of interpreting Thomas Kelly’s call to ‘holy obedience’ is as a call to spiritual practice. But what does that mean?

In a previous post I wrote how everything is spiritual:

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word translated as spirit is ר֫וּחַ (ruarc), meaning spirit, wind or breath… In the New Testament, the Koine Greek word for the same concept is πνεῦμα (pneuma)…

Just being alive makes you a spiritual being! You can’t have a distinct ‘spiritual life’, your whole life is spiritual, whether you like it or not. Everything we do impacts on our spirituality, for good or ill. Just as we all have ethnicity or mental health, we are all spiritual.

I’d like to add an important detail. The word ‘spiritual’ does not refer solely to something good. Although we may associate it with scented candles and ‘inner peace’, the ‘spiritual’ encompasses much more. Scripture speaks of all manner of spiritual forces at work in the world, some incredibly malevolent and harmful:

Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. [Eph 6:11-12]

In his book ‘The Powers That Be’[2], theologian Walter Wink has done good work in making the language of the angelic and demonic palatable to modern ears. He writes of every group of people having a corporate spirituality, an ‘angel’ [Rev 2:1], that as well as being good can also be fallen. The spiritual is not confined to the interior life of an individual. If everything is spiritual, then we can speak of the spirituality of private prayer, a sexual relationship, a yoga class, a political rally or an armed insurgence.

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A vigil after the Orlando Pulse shooting in June 2016

Apocalyptic spirituality

So within this wide definition of the spiritual, how do we engage in spiritual practice that navigates between despair and denial? How do we make sure that we aren’t using spiritual practice to blind us to our own oppression, or our own complicity with ‘the cosmic powers of this present darkness’? What are we to make of the use of mindfulness by the armed forces, or by schools?

I believe we need spiritual practices that are apocalyptic. I use apocalyptic not as its commonly misconstrued – as the cataclysmic destruction of the world, four horsemen and all – but in its original meaning of ‘revealing’. It means to draw back the curtain, to unveil. An apocalyptic spirituality is about dispelling illusions and deception. We need spiritual practices that reveal the truth – about God, about ourselves, about the world we live in. Truth telling is often an uncomfortable experience, so only engaging in practices that make us feel warm and fuzzy is an act of denial and self-deception.

We need to see things clearly in order to be Kingdom-seeking, which according to Jesus should be our first concern [Matt 6:33]. The Kingdom of God should be the goal of all our spiritual practice. This means we must abandon all other ultimate ends: our individual ‘salvation’, gaining secret spiritual/esoteric knowledge etc. I really like feeling happy and feeling good in myself, but my own happiness can never be the ultimate goal. Happiness can only be an aim of spiritual practice in as much as it helps us in our Kingdom-seeking.

Of course, all of this must be undergirded by love, for without love we are nothing [1 Cor. 13:1-3].

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Are we living in apocalyptic times? Sort of…

Good, fallen and redeemable

Borrowing from Wink again, I believe we need personal and corporate spiritual practices that do the following three things:

  • Affirm the goodness of creation

As a ‘this-worldly’ tradition, Quakers are very good at this. We strongly affirm ‘that of God in everyone’, and acknowledge not just the goodness of the natural world and of ourselves, but of our enemies and the ‘other’. This comes through strongly in our peace work and work with sex-offenders. The Quaker practice of non-violence is often posited on the inherent goodness of all.

Quakers are right to do these things. However, to focus only on the goodness is to indulge in cheap, false hope. Saying ‘everything will be alright’ without taking sin and evil seriously is an empty statement. It is an escape into denial.

  • Affirm the fallen-ness of creation

As a community with a very positive view of the human condition, Quakers are less good at this. With our vocabulary of Light, we can talk about darkness, but I don’t hear ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ spoken of often. Neither are we comfortable talking about boundaries, about what is and is not good or evil.

We need to acknowledge that everything is broken, not intrinsically evil but perverted, fallen. Sin is to ‘fall short’, and we’re all caught up in it.

To focus solely on the world’s fallen-ness is to escape into despair. We can only say that creation is fallen because it is also good. The goodness and the fallen-ness must be held in tension in order for us to walk the tightrope between despair and denial.

  • Affirm the redemption of creation

Because creation is both good and fallen, it is also redeemable. When we hold all of these together, we can say with Julian of Norwich ‘all will be well’. Terrible things may happen, sacrifices will have to be made, there will be suffering and loss and hard work, but ‘all manner of things will be well’. This is real, costly hope.

What can we learn from those who, through their hard work and risk taking, reveal the Light that the darkness cannot extinguish? Where do we see people working for reconciliation between divided peoples? Where do we see people risking arrest to testify against the use of weapons of mass destruction? Where do we see God making all things new?

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St Michael’s Church in the recently dismantled refugee camp (the ‘Jungle)’ in Calais

The time that is called Christmas…

If everything is spiritual, then Christmas is a spiritual practice. Is our Christmas apocalyptic, or an act of self-deception? Are we making the connection between the refugee family at the heart of the Christmas story, and the refugees and displaced people of today? Are we seeking the Kingdom in our celebrations? Are we able to hear and live out the whole Christmas story – the good, the fallen and the reconciled? In a world full of jealous, murderous Herods, God is tearing back the sky – heaven and earth colliding in an intimate embrace of shalom. Let’s train ourselves to see it.

[1] Thomas Raymond Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Reprint edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1941).

[2] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, New edition edition (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2000).

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4 thoughts on “Spiritual practice for uncertain times

  1. Hi Mark, I refer to the following quoted from above: “The Kingdom of God should be the goal of all our spiritual practice.” I was reading one of John Cassian’s Conferences recently, one of those with Abba Moses. When asked by Abba Moses what his spiritual goal was, Cassian replied (as the quote above) the Kingdom of God. The Venerable Abba corrected him on this and said the Kingdom of God is the end. The goal that gets you to the end is purity of heart. This makes sense to me as the chasm separating me from where I am now to the Kingdom of God is much too wide to span in one leap. I need that bridge which is the daily work on purity of heart. Thank you for your timely post. David

  2. A very useful article, thank you. My first reaction on hearing that Trump had won was to reach for my copy of The Powers That Be.

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