St. John of the Cross–December 14

St. John of the Cross was a Spanish mystic most known in the contemporary world for coining the phrase “dark night of the soul.” His biography is available on wikipedia.

Here is the beginning poem of the work that bears the title Dark Night of the Soul:

1. One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
– ah, the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
– ah, the sheer grace! –
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
– him I knew so well –
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

The full text is here.

From: THE COLLECTED WORKS OF ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, revised edition (1991).

Copyright 1991 ICS Publications. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, if this copyright notice is included.

The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

I linked a couple of days ago to an article highlighting a study about the importance of spirituality to college students. Now comes an article from the venerable Christianity Today that examines the growing exodus of young adults from Christianity. The author, Drew Dyck, cites from a number of studies that young people are leaving church 5-6 times faster today than in previous generations; that up to 3/4 of those who grow up in church leave. It’s a dire prognosis, and Dyck places much of the blame on the response doubters get when they raise questions about their faith. He also suggests “moral compromise” contributes to the problem.

If you read my blog, you know by now that I’m not terribly concerned about such statistics; in fact, I think they offer the Episcopal Church an opportunity. Anglicanism used to be a tradition that encouraged intellectual reflection and fostered serious questions about the faith. We are also openly and publicly struggling with issues with which people struggle everyday.

The full article is here: The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

But there’s an irony here. How is it that a study can find college students engaging spiritual questions more deeply, while at the same time they are leaving institutional churches? Perhaps because those churches are not safe places for engaging spiritual questions. I hope Grace Church and the Episcopal Church are safe and welcoming environments for such spiritual questions.

The spiritual lives of college students

An interesting study reported on in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The study, Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives, is a longitudinal study of the religious and spiritual views of college students.

The key findings:

The authors use the term spirituality broadly, to mean people’s inner, subjective lives. They found that students’ level of spiritual quest, or seeking meaning and purpose in life, rose during college. By the second survey, eight in 10 students were at least “moderately” engaged in a spiritual quest. Students were more likely as juniors than as freshmen to say they wanted to develop a meaningful philosophy of life, seek beauty, become a more loving person, and attain inner harmony. …

And the authors found that students’ level of religious struggle, or questioning their beliefs, increased in college. However, their level of religious skepticism or religious commitment stayed about the same, even though their engagement in religion declined. Students also became less religiously conservative, measured by their responses to questions on issues like abortion and casual sex.

The full article is here

The New Metaphysicals

I recently complete reading Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Bender’s new work is widely acclaimed. Telling the stories of a spiritual practitioners who call Cambridge, MA their home, Bender uses their lives to rethink how scholars understand contemporary spirituality and the study of Religion. She begins by trying to locate some historical connection that binds the array of new age religious practices found in Cambridge to the city’s history as the locus of 19th century metaphysical speculation. And connection she does find, at least insofar as William James The Varieties of Religious Experience continues to shape, often implicitly, the way new age practitioners approach their own experience and attempt to enter into dialogue with social scientific analysis. The stories she tells are gripping, often of “lost souls” who through some experience have found a connection to something that seems much deeper than themselves, much deeper than the reality they experience in day-to-day life. We see them trying to make sense of their experience, and make connection to others whose journeys seem to converge with theirs.

For scholars of religious studies, Bender offers some provocative suggestions about how to understand and interpret contemporary spirituality, and by extension, religion in general. For example, she begins by noting

“that spirituality, whatever it is and however it is defined, is entangled in social life, in history, and in our academic and nonacademic imaginations.” She continues by observing that most recent definitions of spirituality attempt to define it as “a distinct category of action or activity (or mental state); and that they attempt to “extract something essential from it.” (p.5)

In her conclusion, she argues that she has demonstrated in her study that neat and tidy distinctions between the spiritual (or religious) and the secular are inadequate to explain the reality of religious life in America and the production of spirituality. Perhaps most interesting is that she sees the development of American spirituality and the scholarly analysis of religion and spirituality in the early 20th century as impacting one another.

While there is considerable material here for scholarly reflection, Bender also raises questions for those involved in congregations and religious institutions. Her argument that what is important is not so much the direct experience itself but how it is interpreted, explained, and how individuals incorporate that in their lives and in their social environments. One gets the sense that the “new metaphysicals” with whom Bender speaks are actively attempting to make sense of their experience and draw on a wide variety of resources in doing so.

She distinguishes between experience in “congregations” and spiritual networks. While such distinctions may be useful for her analysis, one wonders about the relevance of that contrast. It is likely that there are people who have had similar experiences but remain embedded in congregations, even as they try to integrate those experiences into their lives. It is also likely that some congregations may push people with such experiences to the margins. I’m also reminded of those studies that say among the most important roles that clergy can take on is that of spiritual guide.

All in all, there is much food for thought here.

Lord, Teach us to Pray: A Sermon for Proper 12, Year C

July 25, 2010

Clergy have a complex relationship with clerical collars. We can all tell stories of times when we harassed or harangued by people who had a grudge against the church. Some priests resist wearing a collar except on the most liturgical of occasions. One reason I wear one as often as I do is because wearing the collar opens up all kinds of possibilities and leads to encounters that might otherwise not happen. Continue reading

The ABC on Religion and Secularism

There’s an interview with Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in The New Statesman. It shows him at his best: thinking hard about Christianity and contemporary culture and about the overall role of religion in society. He seems a bit to ready to me to argue for the importance of religion in shaping moral arguments but I do think there is something in his statement that religious language and imagery deepens our human reflection. He is also asked about the declining importance of religion in England, and the declining role played by the Church of England. Money quote:

There are bits of human experience and ­suffering that have to go somewhere, and ­secular society simply doesn’t have the
spaces, the words or the rituals. This does not translate into conventional church attendance and orthodox belief – and perhaps it seldom has in history, if the truth be told; but it still takes for granted a body/community/place where a person can feel related to something more than the sum of their own anxieties and their society’s normal patterns of talk and behaviour.

He’s on to something there but of course he’s not the first to say it. One could argue he is echoing Mircea Eliade’s notion of the sacred. He is also describing something I’ve detected when talking and observing people who come into Grace Church on Saturday mornings.

St. Columba, June 9

Columba’s Affirmation

Alone with none but Thee, my God,
I journey on my way;
What need I fear, when Thou art near,
O king of night and day?
More safe I am within Thy hand,
than if a host did round me stand.

My destined time is fixed by Thee,
and death doth know his hour.
Did warriors strong around me throng,
they could not stay his power;
no walls of stone can man defend
when Thou Thy messenger dost send

My life I yield to Thy decree,
and bow to Thy control
in peaceful calm, for from Thine arm
no power can wrest my soul.
Could earthly omens e’er appal
A man that heeds the heavenly call!

The child of God can fear no ill,
His chosen dread no foe;
we leave our fate with Thee and wait
Thy bidding when we go.
Tis not from chance our comfort springs,
Thou art our trust, O king of kings.

St Columba (trans. unknown)

(From Brendan O’Malley, A Celtic Primer)

Fingerprints of God

I just completed Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s The Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality (Riverhead Books, 2009). Hagerty is NPR’s Religion Correspondent and offers a chatty introduction to current scientific research into religious experience—everything from peyote to near-death experiences. I learned some things about new directions in neurological research, but in the end, I found the book rather slight.

There are several problems with it. For one, she says that she is writing about the existence of God, but that’s not accurate. She is writing about religious (or spiritual) experience, and whether there is a physical basis for that. Both are interesting questions, but you can’t answer the first one by means of the second. When she does attempt to link the two, she raises some interesting speculations about the universal nature of religious experience, but then seems immediately to jump to the question whether all religions are true. If the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks and Roman Catholic nuns do the same thing when meditating, that must lead to the question of the truth claims of religions. But it needn’t. It only shows that human brains are similar and certain types of religious experiences share certain physical characteristics.

The thing that bothered me the most was that while she interviewed all of the leading researchers in the field, the scientific data and analysis were sophisticated, but the religious scholarship was almost non-existent. For example, she referred more than once to St. Teresa of Avila’s “spiritual orgasms.” That’s a prurient and sophomoric description of Teresa’s experiences. More problematically, she begins with a discussion of “brokenness” as an important precondition for many people’s experiences and says more about stages, but her analysis would have been much more effective had she drawn on the research of scholars of mysticism.

The question of the relationship between religious experience and the body/brain is a fascinating one. I find it not at all surprising that people experience similar things and that the brain does similar things in certain circumstances. What I do find interesting is that people process these experiences in different ways, and indeed religions process and interpret them differently, too. Of course, those things are interesting to scientists. They should fascinate scholars of Religious Studies.

One comment of hers stands out:

Every person I interviewed who had traveled to the brink of death returned with a new definition of God. I had first noticed this when I talked with people who had enjoyed spontaneous mystical experiences, and I saw the pattern repeat with those who experienced other transcendent moments as well. I realized that after encountering the ‘Other,’ people no longer clung to religious distinctions.

She continues

Now I am not saying I agree with the view that all of the world’s great religious traditions hold, at their root, the same view of the nature of reality I am simply reporting what spiritual adepts told me.

Here’s one of those places that a little depth in the study of mysticism would be illuminating.

In the Year the King Uzziah died

Grace Church

Epiphany 5, 2010

February 7, 2010

The liturgical calendar moves on. We are nearing the end of Epiphany and already the staff is looking ahead to Lent—we are busily putting the final preparations to the Shrove Tuesday pancake supper, working on bulletins for Ash Wednesday and nailing down the final pieces of our Lenten programming. Tomorrow, I will be heading off for a two-day clergy retreat. I don’t know what they are like in this diocese, but in Upper South Carolina, our January or February retreat was clearly a pre-lenten retreat; it was designed for us to prepare spiritually for the season, so that in turn we might nurture the spiritual lives of those in our care.

I’m looking ahead to Lent, but we’ve still got two Sundays in Epiphany to get through and both of them have as their scriptural focus peak spiritual experiences. You have already heard me criticize the editors of the lectionary for various decisions they make, and no doubt I will make similar comments from time to time. They were more than occasionally ham-handed in the way they dealt with scriptural texts and injudicious in their editing. Still, on this fifth Sunday after Epiphany in Year C, they got it exactly right.

The season of Epiphany offers us the opportunity to reflect on God’s presence among us; God’s presence in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but also the ways in which God manifests Godself in the world and in our lives. The Psalms are full of reminders of God’s glory—“The heavens declare the glory of God” our hymns of praise repeatedly have us singing about the glory of God. We read about that glory in the story of the wedding at Cana and in the coming of the magi.

In today’s lesson from Isaiah, we hear one of the most familiar, and most transcendent experiences of God’s glory in all of the biblical tradition. The prophet Isaiah has a vision, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lofty.” It is so important to the biblical tradition that the song the seraphim sing has become our song in the Eucharistic liturgy. For many scholars of religion, the vision described by Isaiah and his response to that vision, have become something of a paradigm for understanding religious experience in general, not just Jewish or Christian.

Isaiah describes a vision in such vivid detail that it may seem to us as if we are with him in the temple. He claims to see God, but the vision itself is of God’s throne and a being so vast that the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. Seraphim were in attendance, flying and singing. As Isaiah looked on, he felt the temple shake as if it were in an earthquake and the temple itself filled with smoke.

Isaiah’s response to that awesome vision was to recognize the vast gulf that divided him from God. He described himself as lost, a man of unclean lips, unable to perform the tasks to which God might be calling him. It is an experience similar to the one we heard the prophet Jeremiah describe in last week’s reading from Hebrew Scripture: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah’s response to God’s words is to protest, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But God insists and reassures Jeremiah, just as God reassured Isaiah, that God would put words in the prophets’ mouths.

Paul described a very different sort of experience in I Corinthians 15, the experience of the risen Christ. It is one of the key passages in all of Paul’s writings, a key passage for understanding Paul and a key passage for understanding New Testament Christianity. Paul cites for his readers a long list of all those who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He seems to be saying, if you can’t take my word for it, here’s a list of everyone to whom the risen Lord appeared, go talk to them. The accounts of the encounters with the Risen Christ in the gospels as here in Paul seem unable to explain the radical transformation that took place; changing a rag-tag bunch of disciples into a group of men and women who took the gospel to the ends of the earth. That’s the important point.

As with Isaiah and Jeremiah, what matters is not so much the experience itself, it is the response. Isaiah and Jeremiah became spokesmen for God, prophets of Yahweh, and Paul’s experience of the Risen Christ was also a call, as he says in Galatians. In fact, the language of Jeremiah echoes in Paul’s understanding of his own call: “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me.” For Paul the appearance of the Risen Christ to him was less significant for affecting his conversion than it was in establishing his authority as one of the apostles.

Speaking of which, the gospel story of Jesus calling the disciples is easily the least dramatic of all of the call narratives we have before us today. Jesus is by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The crowds pressing in upon him, he seeks refuge from them in Simon Peter’s boat and teaches from that place. When he concludes, he tells Peter to put his nets back in the water, and there is a miraculous catch of fish. Jesus uses this to invite Peter, and the others, to follow him, and thus they become Jesus’ disciples and, to use the words of our gospel, “fishers of people.”

So Peter, Paul, and Isaiah each had pretty spectacular things happen to them, and their response in the end was to set about on the tasks that God had given them, to respond to God’s call.

I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday that one of the challenges facing Grace today, indeed one of the challenges facing Christianity as a whole, is the lessening importance of religion as a factor in people’s lives. A series of surveys has shown the growing number of people who identify themselves as belonging to no religion. Often, when this answer is probed, respondents mention that they are “spiritual, not religious” that they have spiritual lives, even nurture them, but they do that outside of traditional religion. My guess is that for at least some of you, something similar is true. You may come to church, but if asked to describe spiritual experiences, you might mention something that had no connection with traditional worship or life in community.

I have no doubt that those of you who fall into that category have authentic spiritual lives. In some respects we have been culturally programmed over the last two centuries to seek spiritual experiences outside of traditional religious institutions. Many of us might find ourselves as likely to pursue meditation practices that have more in common with Buddhist techniques than with traditional Christian forms of prayer.

Even more important than the “spiritual not religious” idea is the notion that we are seekers, each of us in some way on some sort of spiritual journey or quest. From time to time, we may find ourselves in pursuit of deeper and more fulfilling spiritual experiences, trying to quench a thirst that never seems to end. We might desire ever greater highs without taking the time to understand them or their effects on us. For most of us such quests are deeply individualistic, often occurring entirely in solitude.

As we come to the end of the season of Epiphany and begin to look toward Lent, making a connection between the experiences of the sort we read about in today’s scriptures and the hard work of deepening our faith, may be what binds Epiphany and Lent together. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Paul did not satisfy themselves with the religious high of their experience. For it was not just a high, it was also a low. Each of them responded to the glory of God with an awareness of their own finitude and inadequacy and each of them came out of their experience on fire to do God’s work in the world.

The quest for spiritual experience is not enough. Our communal worship, the Eucharist, and our individual experiences may be ways of encountering God, but we should never allow them to become ends in themselves. Our lessons make the case that spiritual experience should lead to a sense of call and mission, a new awareness not just of our finitude or even a deeper sense of our relationship with God. As we end Epiphany and look ahead to Lent and Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem and the cross, may our experience of the glory of Christ become strength and nourishment for the journey ahead.

Aelred of Rievaulx

Today, January 12, is the commemoration of Aelred of Rievaulx in the liturgical calendar. Aelred was abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, England and part of that twelfth-century flowering of Cistercian spirituality. Bernard of Clairvaux overshadows all of the other Cistercian authors of the period and indeed many of their writings seem derivative or pale imitations of his. But one might think of it another way. Bernard was the genius of course, but others like Aelred were so imbued with the same spiritual perspective that when they wrote about it their experience and about the spiritual, they were bound to use language and imagery that echoes Bernard.

In fact Bernard urged Aelred to write his most popular work (at least in his own day), The Mirror of Charity.

I read the following from another of his works Spiritual Friendship this morning:

How right and proper it then becomes to grieve for one another, to toil for one another, to bear each other’s burdens, when each finds his pleasure in neglecting himself in favour of his friend, in preferring the other’s will to his own, in putting his friend’s needs first, in setting himself in the way of whatever threatens. How delightful it is meanwhile to talk together, to confide one’s aspirations, to try and ponder and weigh, and arrive at the same conclusions! And on top of all this, reciprocal prayer, which gains in efficacy with the depth of the affection that inspires it, accompanied by the tears precipitated by anxiety, released by emotion or called forth by grief. And while one is entreating Christ in one’s friend’s favour and seeking to be heard, one is stretching out towards Cjhrist himself in love and longing, and comes the moment when suddenly one’s affection passes from one object to another without one’s being aware; and as though one were experiencing at close quarters the sweetness of Christ in person, one begins to taste for oneself the delights of his presence. So it is that we ascend from that love, already holy, with which we embrace our friend, to the love with which we embrace Christ, thus savouring joyfully and freely the fruit of spiritual friendship; whose plenitude we look for in the future, when the mutual anxieties that beset us will have been wiped out, and the difficulties that we now must bear for one another’s sake have been dispelled, when death’s sting is no more and death itself destroyed–that sting whose wearisome pricks compel us so frequently to weep for one another–when security at last is ours. Then shall we enjoy that sovereign good for all eternity, then will the friendship to which here we can admit but few be poured out upon all, and thence back into God who shall be all in all.

While there is a great deal of Bernard in this text–I think especially of the use of very physical imagery like “taste” and “embrace” to describe spiritual experience, this passage at least is also highly evocative of Augustine. He may be describing his own experience of spiritual friendship, but I also could read this as a commentary on Confessions Book IX in which Augustine describes his relationship with his mother, and especially their shared experience at Ostia and her subsequent death.