Rowan Williams on Spirituality

In an interview that included comments about some Christians’ persecution complex and his response to the question whether gays and lesbians might feel “let down” by him, Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury had some interesting things to say about “spirituality:”

Sharing a platform at the Edinburgh international book festival with Julia Neuberger, president of the Liberal Judaism movement, Williams launched a withering critique of popular ideas about spirituality. “The last thing it is about is the placid hum of a well-conducted meditation,” he said.

He said the word “spiritual” in today’s society was frequently misused in two ways: either to mean “unworldly and useless, which is probably the sense in which it has been used about me”, or “meaning ‘I’m serious about my inner life, I want to cultivate my sensibility'”.

He added: “Speaking from the Christian tradition, the idea that being spiritual is just about having nice experiences is rather laughable. Most people who have written seriously about the life of the spirit in Christianity and Judaism spend a lot of their time telling you how absolutely bloody awful it is.” Neuberger said she found some uses of the word self-indulgent and offensive. Williams argued that true spirituality was not simply about fostering the inner life but was about the individual’s interaction with others.

“I’d like to think, at the very least, that spiritual care meant tending to every possible dimension of sense of the self and each other, that it was about filling out as fully as possible human experience,” he said.

Asked by Neuberger whether he felt organised religion encouraged the life of the spirit, he replied: “The answer is of course a good Anglican yes and no”. While it can pass on the shared values of tradition, it can also operate as simply “the most satisfying leisure activity possible. It can also be something that you use to bolster your individual corporate ego.”

The entire report is here.

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Thomas a Kempis, 1471

Today is the commemoration of Thomas a Kempis, likely author of one of the “bestsellers” of Medieval devotion, The Imitation of Christ. A brief excerpt:

To You I come for help, to You I pray for comfort and relief. I speak to Him Who knows all things, to Whom my whole inner life is manifest, and Who alone can perfectly comfort and help me.

You know what good things I am most in need of and how poor I am in virtue. Behold I stand before You, poor and naked, asking Your grace and imploring Your mercy.

Feed Your hungry beggar. Inflame my coldness with the fire of Your love. Enlighten my blindness with the brightness of Your presence. Turn all earthly things to bitterness for me, all grievance and adversity to patience, all lowly creation to contempt and oblivion. Raise my heart to You in heaven and suffer me not to wander on earth. From this moment to all eternity do You alone grow sweet to me, for You alone are my food and drink, my 252 love and my joy, my sweetness and my total good.

Let Your presence wholly inflame me, consume and transform me into Yourself, that I may become one spirit with You by the grace of inward union and by the melting power of Your ardent love.

Suffer me not to go from You fasting and thirsty, but deal with me mercifully as You have so often and so wonderfully dealt with Your saints.

What wonder if I were completely inflamed by You to die to myself, since You are the fire ever burning and never dying, a love purifying the heart and enlightening the understanding.

(Imitation of Christ, Book IV, chapter xvi)

The entire text is available here.

Advent Resources 2012

The Presiding Bishop’s message for Advent.

A good word for the world in Advent:

Too often I’m left feeling shamed and abandoned by the church in this season, because I’m a human being like the ones I hear derided from the pulpit. I may not line up at 12 midnight on Black Friday, but I do get all caught up in commercialism and I am needy and I do want things and I do feel pressure to spend and I am certainly no Virgin Mary in Advent, rapt in pregnant contemplation in the quiet candlelight of my room during these four weeks. And if I, being a committed religious professional and all, feel shamed and condemned by anti-consumerist, world-deriding sermons, I can only imagine how it feels to a secular person who wanders into the pews to be told with divine authority that their secularity has rendered them unfit for Christmas.

Daily Meditations for and by college students and young adults

The Advent Conspiracy

is an effort to refocus our attention on the season, not to ignore the commercialism but to seek in it the deeper meaning of Christ’s coming. How to plot your own Advent Conspiracy has more:

Advent Conspiracy is about giving presence, which is often more costly and more meaningful than material presents. The movement is generating hundreds of powerful stories and creative gift ideas, many of which can be found at AdventConspiracy.org. Holder mentions just a few examples: The son who gave his father a pound of coffee beans with the stipulation that the father can only enjoy the beans when he’s with his son, who wants to hear his voice and get reacquainted. The dad who gave his daughter two blank journals—one for him to fill, and the other for her as she headed off to college; they would exchange the journals the next Christmas. And the 84-year-old woman on a fixed income who made donations to a charity in the names of her family.

Sharon Ely Pearson has compiled a list of online Advent Calendars and some background info.

Her list includes:

  • The Institute for Christian Formation (Cincinnati, OH) has devised a calendar for 2013: Year of Grace (December 2, 2012 – January 13, 2013) that includes activities and resources for each day.
  • Trinity Wall Street‘s offers a new calendar every year – What are you waiting for?
  • A variety of calendars in English and Spanish from Living Simply.
  • An Advent Devotional Calendar for downloading from Thomas Mousin of Massachusetts.
  • Paperless Christmas from the UK in 2011 is still lots of fun!
  • Busted Halo has a more off-tradition calendar.
  • Loyola Press offers an online calendar or downloadable version for children and families.
  • Praying in Color offers templates in which to create your own Advent calendar.
  • The Society of St. John the Evangelist (Cambridge, MA) has offered a daily mediation via Pinterest.

Living Compass, offers a free daily meditation booklet for Advent. You can download it here. Its goal is:

The goal of these days of Advent are not just to get our homes decorated and the shopping done, it is to help us prepare our whole selves, our hearts, souls, strength and mind for the gift God so freely gives us: God’s Love as revealed in Jesus. It is a gift that might get overlooked if we aren’t prepared to receive Christ.

St. Francis of Assisi–October 4, 2012

St. Francis of Assisi is among the most beloved, perhaps the most beloved of the saints. We are drawn to his simple, child-like love of Jesus Christ, his preaching to the birds, his impulsive actions in trying to make the gospel concrete for himself and those around him, his attempt to bring peace between Crusaders and Saracens. In the twenty-first century, he is revered as a proto-environmentalist.

But there are aspects of his biography and his piety that elude our grasp to comprehend and occasionally alienate modern sensibilities. His visceral hatred of money, for example. Also, perhaps, his devotion to the passion and suffering of Jesus Christ. His identification was so complete that he received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ on his own body, during a mystical vision. Here’s the classic rendering of that event, from a fresco, attributed to Giotto, in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi:

St. Francis is a model saint not only for who he was and what he did, not only because of the deep devotion he had for Jesus Christ, and for the deep devotion he has inspired in millions of Christians over the centuries. St. Francis is a model saint because he continues to challenge us to reflect on our faith, to deepen it, and to be bolder and more complete in our imitation of Jesus. His continuing “otherness” challenges us to confront our compromising attitude to the world, to our selfish desires, and our comfort.

St. Francis died on this day in 1226.

Some links on Spirituality: Silence, Mysticism, and “Spiritual but not Religious”

An email exchange with four Trappist monks. One of them writes:

After communion, we sit there a few minutes and the quiet is intense. Coughing stops, nose-blowing stops, throat clearing—it all stops. The silence is palpable and is, I believe a real communion. A recent retreat master told us it seemed that we were out of time and in the eternity of the sacrament we had just received. The same thing happens when we have Eucharistic Adoration on Sunday afternoons. No group of human beings can agree when it comes to ideas or words; we may arrive at consensus on isolated issues through a lot of work and compromise. But in the silence of adoration, we can arrive at a deep communion when we share the same faith. Sometimes I think silence is one way of not letting our differences define who we are for one another.

And later:

This says on one level that silence is in our lives to create an ambience of recollection so I’ll remember and honor God’s presence. On another level, silence reminds me that the misuse of words, the abuse of language can also be the sinful abuse of people; silence for us means not talking, more than not making noise… On yet another level, silence means listening. We follow the Rule of St. Benedict and the first word of that Rule is “Listen.” That’s the great ethical element of silence: to check my words and listen to another point of view. I’ll never have any real peace should my sense of well-being depend on soundless peace. When I can learn the patience of receiving, in an unthreatened way, what I’d rather not hear, then I can have a real measure of peace in any situation.

Another writes this:

I would say the cultivation of silence is indispensable to being human. People sometimes talk as if they were “looking for silence,” as if silence had gone away or they had misplaced it somewhere. But it is hardly something they could have misplaced. Silence is the infinite horizon against which is set every word they have ever spoken, and they can’t find it? Not to worry—it will find them.

Why Mysticism matters:

The path of the mystic is one of transcendence, of going beyond: beyond the mind, beyond time, beyond the whole world. When the mind is transcended, awareness of the passing of time fades away. And when time disappears, awareness of the world also disappears. All the greatest mystics from the world’s religious traditions have made the same unexpected and liberating discovery: when awareness of the world and everything in it, including ones own bodily shape and form, disappears, the most intimately felt sense of “I” still remains. Except now, “I” is all there is—beginningless, endless. When the historical Buddha awakened to this depth dimension, he called it “the Unborn,” “the Deathless,” or “the Uncreated.”

An Interview with David Webster, author of Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish, and Unhappy:

Finally, I argue that the dissembling regarding death in most contemporary spirituality—the refusal to face it as the total absolute annihilation of the person and all about them—leaves it ill-equipped to help us truly engage with the existential reality of our own mortality and finitude. In much contemporary spirituality there is an insistence of survival (and a matching vagueness about its form) whenever death is discussed. I argue that any denial of death (and I look at the longevity movements briefly too) is an obstacle to a full, rich life, with emotional integrity. Death is the thing to be faced if we are to really live. Spirituality seems to me to be a consolation that refuses this challenge, rather seeking to hide in the only-half-believed reassurances of ‘spirit’, ‘energy’, previous lives, and ‘soul’.

The Spirituality of Reading

Gary Shteyngart recently gave a talk in which he likened reading to religious or spiritual experience. An agnostic himself, he sees the writing (and reading) of books as close to spiritual experience as anything. Responses here and here.

But technology also is something of a religion:

technology possesses a similar strain of divinity as literature: it enables us to overcome our physical existence and to connect. It offers the possibility of transcendence.

In response, Julia Jackson pondered the different experiences of reading physical books and an ipad:

When I read a real book, on the other hand, I leave my cell phone and laptop in the other room and sit on the couch, and suddenly it’s just me and the book and the characters in it. I am truly alone yet truly connected. When I read a real book, I am forcing myself to follow one stream of thought—that which the author committed to paper. In today’s world, this simple act is meditative, even transcendent. I am able to do something that feels very futuristic—cross space and time and peer right into the author’s mind—with a technology that has been around for thousands of years.

In the New York Times, John Schwartz muses on the difference between reading “real” books and “reading” audiobooks, or one supposes, an ipad or kindle:

The truth, it seems, is that the way we read, and our reasons for loving or disliking audiobooks, are deeply personal. They are expressions of self, so tied to who we are. If you belittle the way I read, you’re belittling me.

A couple of things interest me here. First of all, what does this mean for religions of the book like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam? If one’s religious life is no longer centered on the physical reading of a text (and I rarely pick up a Bible to read it–I do almost all of mine on line), what is the impact on one’s faith and experience? Second, scholars have argued that it wasn’t only the relationship of individuals with the text that mattered, but rather that, in Christianity communities were shaped by texts, that Christian communities were reading communities (even when the reading was done aloud).

In the midst of this technological revolution, with all of its implications for religious faith and religious community, we may also need to rethink how we approach the sacred text.