Welcome, Namaste, Peace, Shalom

Welcome, Namaste, Peace, Shalom, Benedicite. May the peace of the Lord always be with you.

Annapurna (Goddess of the Harvests) range, Nepal. Machapuchare, Fishtail Mountain, sacred to Shiva and never climbed.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

A Tale of Two Films

The film  Into Great Silence was released in 2005/06. It doesn’t feel that long since I saw it!  It was a wonderful experience.  It is a silent (apart from natural sounds) film about the lives of the Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse  monastery in the French Alps.

It is not so much a documentary as an attempt to capture the lived spiritual experience of the monks allowing us to enter into their experience of silence.

It was an unexpected hit, winning awards and the cinemas were packed.  The one I saw it in was full for every showing over three days.

Now another film on a similar theme has been released. 'No Greater Love' .  This is a documentary about the lives of a community of enclosed contemplative nuns at the Carmelite Monastery of The Most Holy Trinity, Notting Hill, London.  I was fortunate enough to see it yesterday.

The Carmelites gave us St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, and St Therese of Lisieux.  Three of the greatest. Also, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, St Edith Stein, St Teresa de los Andes.  So it’s well worth while meeting some 21st Century Carmelites even if only through the medium of film.

Trailer video

At first sight the film looks like a poor copycat of ‘Into Great Silence’.  The cinema was nearly empty!  But I think this is a little misleading.  The two films seem to be doing different things and have different insights to offer.

‘Into Great Silence’ was very successful at providing an experience of contemplative prayer and worship. The atmosphere in the cinema was deep and profound.  People were still and silent for nearly three hours.

‘No Greater Love’ was more an attempt to understand the motives and lives of the nuns, and had more spoken interviews with the nuns.  Not so much an attempt to draw us into the experience of contemplative prayer as an attempt to explain their lives and the reasons why they live this way.  To let us meet them as people.  The experience wasn't one of prayer and transcendence.

The nuns spoke very openly and movingly about their spiritual lives.  In particular they spoke about the phenomenon whereby on entry into, or at some point in the religious life, all experience of God in prayer, all feeling for and about God disappears, He seems absent, almost non-existent.  The religious life itself seems pointless.  It is the ‘dark night of the soul’ described by John of the Cross and by Therese of Lisieux.  For the Prioress this lasted for about 18 years.

How did she get through it? By keeping very busy she said.

Her reason for wanting to enter the religious life, especially an enclosed order, was in order to give everything to God. It seemed to her to be the ultimate challenge.  Seeing the roll call of Carmelite saints they certainly would be a hard act to follow!

Jesus said “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:12-13

We saw the nuns doing a lot of mundane ordinary daily tasks, the sorts of things we all do, cleaning, cooking, working, shopping, gardening, caring for their frail elderly sisters.

The impact of ‘Into Great Silence’ was immediate. ‘No Greater Love’ has taken more time for me.

I think that ‘No Greater Love’ has given me more ideas to apply in my daily life. We tend to think that we want what these monks and nuns have got, and then decide that of course, it is all right for them in their monasteries and convents, but we can’t live that sort of life. 

‘Into Great Silence’ rather encouraged this feeling. Their physical lives seemed hardly to have changed since their foundation in the 11th Century. They live in a remote, ancient building. It was another world. We saw the monks doing ordinary things, cooking, gardening, sewing, having haircuts, but somehow it all seemed rather exotic and remote. The Grand Chartreuse invented and manufactures the famous liqueur, but we didn’t see any of this work.

The convent in London was founded in the late 19th Century. It is in the middle of a major world capital. They shop online at Sainsbury’s.   We saw them doing the work that earns them their living, making altar breads. Somehow, it seemed more relevant to our ordinary lives.  It seemed possible to acquire something of what they had.

Perhaps we are not all called to lay down our lives for our Lord in quite that way. But surely we can all, if we are honest, find more time for prayer, silence, solitude and simplicity in our lives, if that is what we want.

No one forces us to watch television, listen to the radio, have our ipods, iphones etc permanently switched on, surf the net…… No-one forces us (mostly!) to be permanently too busy.  Or to try to do several things at the same time.  As the Prioress pointed out, busyness is a wonderful means of distraction from the demands of prayer and the spiritual life.

But perhaps the key to this is that what they have is to be found most especially in prayerful attention to manual tasks and our relationships.  The friend I was with was especially struck by the tender care given to the elderly sisters.

The thought that has been occurring to me since is that the spiritual life  is not something apart from our daily tasks and lives. It is part of them and to be found in them. Through these are made visible the fruits of our prayer.  Heaven in Ordinary   Not original, but something perhaps I needed to be reminded of.

John Keble had it right in his hymn, New Every Morning is the Love .  One day at a time.

And perhaps Therese of Lisieux, she of the Little Way should have the last word.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Sinners Anonymous

by Don Stott on Reel Worship
My idea of applying the 12 step ideas to church is not original. A friend sent me these links;

beenthinking

telling-secrets

Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn look at a version of the 12 steps in their book ‘Belonging :Bonds of Healing and Recovery’ (ISBN 9780809133659)

Someone in the comments section of the second blog suggested a 12 step church could call itself ‘sinners anonymous’. Hence the title of this post.

The other interesting thing about the telling secrets blog post is that it focuses more on the 12 traditions than the 12 steps. The steps are a personal route to wholeness and healing. The traditions are a way of organising the affairs of the group and the wider organisation.

I have come to believe that the problems of the institutional churches are rooted deep in their organisational structures. Church people complain that "they", the 'unchurched',  just want baptisms, weddings, funerals, Christmas and Nativity Plays, Harvest Festivals etc, believing without belonging. 

Someone very involved in Alpha courses once said to me that despite all the numbers attending Alpha over the years, regular church congregations had not increased. 

I don't think it is  Jesus or God or belonging that people are rejecting, it is our church structures and the behaviours which these produce which do not model the ideals preached.  These only seem to appeal to a small section of the population.   Perhaps people are quietly adopting the 12 step advice of 'take what you like and leave the rest'. 

There's lots of stuff going on in churches about new ways of doing/being church, attracting the 'unchurched' and 'spiritual questers'.  But at the heart of all these is a firm set of boundaries and authority structures set by the established church.  I keep getting this sense that Christians are talking to each other in their churches, but no-one outside is listening or cares about what they are talking about. The language is often impenetrable and incomprehensible. I realised recently that I couldn’t be bothered trying to understand it anymore. There are better ways to spend my time. God doesn’t seem that bothered.

In the rooms of the 12 step fellowships people talk about their knowledge and love of God or their ‘Higher Power’ and how he/she/it saves, guides, strengthens and comforts them, all in the ordinary language of everyday life. They talk about how they live their daily lives under the guidance of their Higher Power. They talk intimately and movingly about their spiritual lives, their character defects and how they are overcoming these. God doesn’t seem to mind being called HP. It is gritty, authentic, powerful and humbling.

Why don’t we just do it? Cut through all these Gordian knots of church structures, finances, rules and regulations, prohibitions, and get on with meeting and praying together. Worshipping and encouraging each other. As the 12 steppers put it:

“Sharing our experience, strength and hope”.


姒儿喵喵 on flickr

Why don’t all those people who want to love God and follow Jesus just start their own groups and meet together? It is not difficult. Jesus said - Matthew 18:20 - "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

Enough for now. Next post 12 traditions for a church.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

12 Steps to Heaven

2010 is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the fellowship of AA – Alcoholics Anonymous. It started with two men, Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio, USA and is now a worldwide fellowship.

Following from the success of AA, the sister organisations - Al-Anon, for people affected by the alcoholism of another person, and Alateen, for teenage relatives and friends of alcoholics - were also established and adopted the same 12 steps and 12 traditions.

Here is a photo of the AA international convention being held right now in San Antonio. 50,000 sober, recovering alcoholics who said the Lord’s Prayer and sang ‘Amazing Grace’ Note that in accordance with the AA tradition of anonymity no one in the photo can be identified.

San Antonio 2010 by Mary Christine on Being Sober

If you look on the sidebar of my blog you will see that a number of AA related links have appeared.

Why? And why am I writing about this?

Because until recently I knew nothing about AA or Al-Anon and then, I believe through the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, I discovered them. I was amazed. I had no idea it was all about the spiritual life. The story of its founding and development is a wonderful account of the work of God.

It is a perfect fit with my interest in rules of life and prayer. While remaining a Christian I had become somewhat distanced from any church affiliation, being disenchanted with the organisational and authority structures of the mainstream denominational churches, and their lack of inclusiveness in matters of gender and sexuality.

I was fascinated by the fact that although AA had its origins in Christianity, the founders soon discovered that in order to reach out to the maximum number of alcoholics they had to find a way of retaining the spiritual without being aligned with any particular religious code. Hence steps 2 & 3:

2 Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3 Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him

Then, they found out that to best achieve their purpose and preserve their unity they needed certain codes of conduct. Hence the 12 Traditions.

Since 1935 many other groups have adopted and adapted the 12 steps of AA. This is in keeping with the wishes of the founders. In the foreword to the book 12 Steps and 12 Traditions it says that the author hopes they might ‘arouse interest and application outside AA itself’. That the steps can help with other difficulties of life and provide a way for happy and effective living, ‘alcoholic or not’. I believe this to be true. I have found it to be so in my own life.

I believe it is a perfect fit with the current interest in spirituality, monastic lifestyles and rules of life generally.

There is already a Christian version: Celebrate Recovery  This though is still focused on overcoming specific disorders, while my focus is on a way of life and a way of organising church for all.

The 12 traditions of AA are the principles by which AA organises its affairs. Here again I believe they can offer a model for church organisation and mission. Looking at the problems faced by the mainstream denominations they seem rooted in issues of authority, control, power, prestige, money and inappropriate professionalism, aka 'clericalism'. The 12 traditions are designed explicitly with the purpose of avoiding these traps.

Few of us are free from the effects of the diseases of pride, greed, arrogance, lust, selfishness, anger, sloth, envy, despair, to name but a few. Many of us are addicted to self destructive, repetitive thought and behaviour patterns if not to substances. The 12 steps and 12 traditions offer us individually and collectively a path to healing and liberation.

It is a way of living. The early Christians were called followers of The Way. Christianity was a distinctive way of life, not just a set of religious beliefs and practices.

The Promises, that are read in many A.A. Meetings can be found on page 83-84, of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous.

THE A.A. PROMISES

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and selfpity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

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I believe these promises have universal application and are the promises of God to all of us.

I commend the principles and literature of AA, Al-Anon and Alateen to you if you are looking to improve your life, spiritually and emotionally.

I commend AA, Al-Anon and Alateen to you if your life is or has been affected by the disease of alcoholism. Do not be frightened or ashamed. You will meet people just like you who will understand you, befriend you and share with you the tools of recovery.

Many AA and Al-Anon meetings are open to anyone interested. So if you want to find out what happens at a meeting, how they are conducted, just visit. I can guarantee that it will be an immensely moving, enriching and humbling experience.

I am going to continue exploring the application of the steps and traditions to the Christian life on this blog.

The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and are not affiliated to, approved by or endorsed by AA, Al-Anon, or Alateen.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Religious Soup



Freefoto Vegetable Soup

The Nepalis are very proud of their tradition of religious tolerance.   This was not always the case but has been a particular feature of Nepali culture since at least 1990. Everyone we met was keen to explain this. Yes, there have been some exceptions in its history, including recently, but overall they practice what they preach, or at least aspire to, and perhaps for all of us the struggle to achieve our aspirations is as much as we can manage sometimes. A matter of progress not perfection.  Their society comprises Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jains, Christians, Kirantis, Sikh, Bahais and 'others'.

Originally Nepal was a Hindu kingdom but since May 2006 has been a secular state.  Religious tolerance is enshrined in the constitution.

“No discrimination shall be made against any citizen in the application of general laws on the grounds of religion, race, sex, caste, tribe or ideology or any of them.”

But change of religion was not permitted until after 1990.

“Any person shall have the freedom to profess and practice his own religion as coming down to him from time immemorial with regard to the traditional customs, but no person shall be entitled to convert the religion of any other person.”

According to the authors of the book ‘Religions in Nepal’, (T C Majupuria and Rohit Kumar ISBN 99933-30-56-6)

If a person wanted to convert to Christianity they could cross the border into India, be baptised there, and return as a Christian. Likewise with conversion to other religions.

Since 1990 these restrictions have been lifted. “Enticement or coercion to change someone’s religion is banned.” But; “To change one’s religion at one’s own free will is now legal.”

There was a Gideon’s Bible in our hotel room in Kathmandu.  Supplied by the Kathmandu branch of the Gideon organisation.

In the Hindu scripture ‘Bhagavad Gita,’ the Lord Krishna says ‘whosoever follows any faith and worships me under whatsoever denomination in whatsoever form with steadfastness, his faith shall I indeed reinforce’.

Hinduism has been described as” not a religion but a complex medley of faiths” (Slusser 1982). Majupuria and Kumar say “Some call this religion a fellowship of religions because it literally absorbs the faith of others."


flickr nc_hiker

Although Hinduism is perhaps the most inclusive and syncretistic of all religions non Hindus are not allowed in certain temples and areas.

During the visit to the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple our Buddhist guide talked about Hindu and Buddhist festivals and holy days of which there are a great number. It seems that both Hindus and Buddhists are happy to celebrate each other’s festivals and holidays. The book ‘Religions in Nepal’ suggest that in some areas there is in practice very little distinction between the two religions which have almost become blended.

Comments from our group were approving of this and the consensus seemed to be that it was something to emulate. I felt they would agree with  Sri Ramakrishna  "God can be realized through all paths. All religions are true. The important thing is to reach the roof. You can reach it by stone stairs or by wooden stairs or by bamboo steps or by a rope. You can also climb up by a bamboo pole."

The general consensus seemed to be that the provision of opportunities for celebrations, parties and holidays was the main function of religion and the more the merrier. I thought of my daughter's Indian friends at school who celebrated Christmas, although not for its religious reasons.

I also felt slightly uncomfortable because as a Christian I felt that I ought to think this was somehow wrong, that surely the Christian belief is in salvation through Christ alone.  That it was somehow almost a form of betrayal to even appear to agree with the idea that all religions are equally valid.  I was suprised because I have always been very interested in other religions and have found my own faith much enriched by them and by some of their scriptures.

I thought of the command of the Lord Jesus Christ that we should all be one. And how us Christians have managed not to be one.

I also remembered that Christianity itself has also been very good at blending with and absorbing other faiths as it got established. Taking over and Christianising existing sacred sites and symbols. In fact, I am sure I have read somewhere that this was a policy and process recommended by early church leaders to missionaries.

In her book ‘The Making of the Creeds’ Frances Young suggests that the emerging Christian religion was in danger of being absorbed into the religious soup of the time, especially, Gnosticism. The tremendous battles that took place determining exactly what correct Christian belief was and who could claim to be a Christian were in part the product of resistance to this process of enculturation.  Also in reinforcing the monotheistic yet trinitarian beliefs distinctive to Christianity, so that it did not get absorbed into polytheism.


freefoto tomato soup
I sometimes wonder if clinging to the forms of religion, especially the more authoritarian structures, has now outlasted its usefulness and has become more of a straitjacket for Christians and a barrier to those seeking faith. Perhaps we should take it a bit easier, let go and let God.


My personal experience and observation is that God does not seem nearly as picky about the religious company we keep or the finer points of liturgy, doctrine and dogma and organisational strucures and authority as we are.

Recently I have been listening to testimonies by people who have or had little or no formal religious belief or theology but asked for help from a God they were not necessarily even sure they believed in, and how God responded.

I am a big fan of Rabbi Lionel Blue who wrote a book called 'My affair with Christianity' and reconciled this attraction to Christianity with his Jewish faith and identity.

The Dalai Lama takes a very flexible approach, and he sees this flexibility and openness to change and adaptation as one of the benefits of exile and key to the dissemination of Buddhist ideas in the West. In ‘A Policy of Kindness’ in a talk to Western Buddhists, he makes a distinction between cultural heritage and religion itself, between the essence of a religion and the superficial ceremonial or ritual level. Buddhism has in the past incorporated the culture of the societies, Indian and Tibetan, in which it found itself.

“From this viewpoint, the incorporation of Western culture into Buddhism may also be possible. The essence of Buddhist teachings does not change; wherever it goes it is suitable; however, the superficial aspects – certain rituals and ceremonies – are not necessarily suitable for a new environment; those things will change. How they will change in a particular place we cannot say”.

“When under new circumstances the social system and way of social thinking change, certain aspects of a culture may no longer be useful. If…there are some aspects of the old culture which are not useful in modern daily life, they should be modified, and other aspects which are still meaningful and useful should be retained. You should try to combine that culture and Buddhism.”

“As Buddhist, while we practice our own teaching, we must respect other faiths, ….We must recognise and appreciate their contribution to human society…The adopting of a right attitude toward other faiths is particularly important for new Buddhists to keep in mind.”

Meister Eckhart : Christian mystic, condemned as a heretic in his day, but remained influential,  and has since enjoyed some measure of rehabilitation, although not formally recognised.

"Those who seek God through settled forms risk finding the forms and losing God".

“We find people who like the taste of God in one way and not in another, and they want to have God only in one way of contemplation, not in another.I raise no objection, but they are quite wrong.”[German sermon 13a, trans M.O’C. Walshe]

More from Sri Ramakrishna  Hindu mystic, saint and philosopher:

“It is not good to feel that my religion alone is true and other religions are false. The correct attitude is this: My religion is right, but I do not know whether other religions are right or wrong, true or false. I say this because one cannot know the true nature of God unless one realises Him.”

“If there are errors in other religions, that is none of our business. God, to whom the world belongs, takes care of that.”

flickr ruthieki

The Dalai Lama: “The most important thing is practice in daily life; then you can know gradually the true value of religion. Doctrine is not meant for mere knowledge but for the improvement of our minds. In order to do that it must be part of our life. If you put religious doctrine in a building and when you leave the building depart from the practices, you cannot gain its value.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ  must have the last word Matthew 5 

The Gospel of Matthew Chapter 5 through to 7 gives comprehensive instructions on how to live the religious life. Including:

1"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

7"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

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17Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

21"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'

Matthew 15

1Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2"Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!"

3Jesus replied, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, 'Honor your father and mother' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.'5But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,' 6he is not to 'honor his father' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

8" 'These people honor me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me.

9They worship me in vain;

their teachings are but rules taught by men.'"

10Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand. 11What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.' "

Food for thought

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bricolage on flicker