Monday, 25 January 2016

Noisy Silence

Recently I attended, for the second time, the Sunday service of a Sheffield Apostolic Church that has emerged from within the Slovakian Roma community. It has been brought from Slovakia and holds services on Sunday afternoons in Sheffield. It takes place entirely in Romany. The service lasts over 2 1/2 hours and is made up of quite a long period of singing followed by a long and impassioned sermon and then some more songs and ending with a prayer. I was the only non-Roma person in attendance and I stayed towards the back of the congregation (about a hundred adults and twenty or thirty children).

What struck me was the facility we have for finding silence and space for contemplation amongst noise. I sat there at the back and I suppose for a time the service became a sort of white noise within which I bore witness briefly and silently to the Quaker tradition.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Spiritual Journey

'Spiritual Journey' is, it seems, used by everyone of a religious or spiritual persuasion. But what does it mean? There is no actual physical journey, so it must be a metaphor. Unfortunately, like all metaphors, it can be misunderstood or misused. For me, the most problematic misuse of the metaphor 'journey' is to think of it like an actual journey to a different place or possible 'state', that is, as some sort of progress or growth.

The problem with thinking of one's 'spiritual journey' like a real journey is that in fact spiritually we do not 'progress' or 'grow' in the normal sense of these words. This is dangerous because the whole mindset or paradigm of western civilisation in which we find  ourselves is about progress and growth, so it is rather too easy to slip into the same understanding with spirituality. Thinking in terms of progress and growth is of course disastrous in the context of 'economic growth'  since we live on a finite planet, bit also in terms of technological progress because we come to put faith in a future where technology will fix – or at least ameliorate – our problems.

Spirituality does not 'progress' and 'grow' – the best perhaps we can say is that it deepens. However, a mere child can have a deeper spiritual awareness than the oldest person with a lifetime of spiritual practice, such that the child knows that the emperor has no clothes and so bursts the bubble of our hubris. Spiritual insight or depth comes by grace, and all we can do is make ourselves more receptive.

It does not help that in the Christian tradition there is the concept that that the world and our body in it are 'bad' and that we will one day be in heaven, which is 'good'. This just encourages the idea of being on a journey to another place. Jesus himself talks about the 'kingdom of heaven' being  amongst us, so this idea of denying the world is surely false. If the 'kingdom of heaven' is amongst us, where then do we journey to?

However, traditional mythology is replete with the metaphor of the journey or quest, usually undertaken by the young man [is it invariably a man because of patriarchy, or because women see the world differently?] in order to find themselves.  But in stories, the hero's journey always takes them back to where they started. Odysseus returns to Ithaca and Bilbo goes 'There and Back Again' and Dorothy goes back to Kansas.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Little Gidding, V)

The purpose of the spiritual 'journey' then is to come to know ourselves in the time and place and community in which we find ourselves – to come to know time and place and community 'for the first time' and so become situated persons. It is not by 'progress' and 'growth' that we become situated, but by 'care' and 'attention' – care for one another and the environment around us, and attention to the time and place and culture we are in.
Like Dorothy we have to realise that 'there’s no place like home'.