Here in England, we are enduring storm after Atlantic storm bringing unprecedented rainfall causing extensive, destructive flooding of communities in the north. I live in the south, in Wiltshire, and we have escaped the torrent this time, but not far from me are the Somerset levels which spent much of the winter of 2013/14 under water.
The changing patterns of weather in many parts of the world, floods, hurricanes, drought, intense heat, the effect of changes in global climate which may well be the result of human activity leading to dramatic climate change. World leaders have finally responded at a global level to the environmental degradation which is predicted. We are living into as acute crisis for our planet for the future of humankind.
I believe we are also living at a time of acute spiritual crisis and I observe that the world’s major faith communities, and the Church of England in which I am ordained, are largely ignoring this crisis, seemingly unaware that for decades, people have been abandoning the church because it is failing to engage with their innate spiritual awareness and deepest spiritual longing.
Spiritual movements are evolving in a multitude of contexts beyond the boundaries of the Church. My current reading is Contemplation Nation: How ancient practices are changing the way we live, edited by Mirabai Bush. This is a collection of papers from The State of Contemplative Practice in America, a meeting of 27 contemplative leaders who gathered at the Fetzer Institute in 2010.
The Beloved Other
Douglas Burton-Christie, Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, says in his paper that it is gradually beginning to dawn on us that we are living through a time when our very sense of the integrity of the living world is being shaken to the core. The frayed fabric of our world is real and the growing ecological degradation now pervades nearly every aspect of our lives, permeating both conscious and unconscious dimensions of our being. The fabric of life has been torn deeply, perhaps irrevocably. This utterly overwhelming prospect is immensely difficult to absorb into our consciousness. It has become for many an acute spiritual crisis. We are losing, he says, our relationship with the Beloved Other.
It is precisely this growing awareness of the immensity and preciousness of what we are losing that makes a retrieval of contemplative thought and practice so urgent.
To engage with the Beloved Other, to immerse oneself in the larger whole, is to open oneself completely to what Thomas Merton called the hidden ground of love, that encompassing mystery within which we live and move and have our being. Burton-Christie warns that openness to this ground involves risk, an acceptance of the kind of vulnerability and the merging of identities that contemplatives often speak of in relation to God.
He says we stand at a critical threshold, in which nothing less than the whole of our being will need to be poured into the task of tending to the broken world.
The simple act of gazing, of paying attention – one of the most ancient and enduring ways of understanding contemplative practice – can open up a space in the soul, a space where the world may live and move in us. Burton-Christie is clearly writing within the Christian apophatic tradition.
My soul is convinced that the Church of England should be paying constant attention in at least equal measure to the spiritual evolution taking place globally, as much as it attends to the sexuality conflicts within and the structural reorganisations of the Church. The spiritual evolution movement should receive constant attention from the two Archbishops, the Archbishops’ Council, the House and College of Bishops, Church House, and The General Synod. This is the time, the chairos moment, when contemplation of the holy in the most inclusive sense is becoming a spontaneous, evolutionary movement in people’s lives. God is calling people, urgently, to contemplative awareness, a movement which involves taking risks, being vulnerable, letting go of preconceptions, defences, dogmas and ego. There will be and already is a radical transgression of tradition and teaching when it is seen to obstruct God’s call to infinite, unconditional love and radical truth and justice.
The systems and structures of the Church of England are by and large out of touch with the Beloved Other who we name God. I am one of the legion of deeply frustrated, righteously angry, sometimes despairing members of the Church who is filled with a profound, energising, creative faith and a lived experience of the mysterious Other which infuses my whole life. There is, it seems, very little room for us in the stable of the Church.
I’m a perverse being, a being apparently called by God to engage with what is a deeply frustrating dynamic. How do we who have both an authentic commitment at parish level to the C of E and are also being called deeply into radical, contemplative presence, how do we give ourselves to this evolving movement with integrity and contribute to the spiritual evolution taking place across our planet and relate it to our involvement with the Church, a Church which is putting 95% of its time and energy elsewhere?
I might end the blog here, but instead, I want to quote a paragraph from Burton-Smith’s paper that places the global, secular contemplative movement within the ancient Christian apophatic tradition:
“This contemplative vision arising from the ancient Christian monastic world expresses a hunger still present and familiar to us at the dawn of the twenty-first century: the longing to live with an awareness of the whole. And it speaks to a promise inherent in all great spiritual traditions of the world, that the human mind (or heart or soul) is capable of expanding and deepening to such an extent that it becomes possible to incorporate everything and to be incorporated in everything: to exist and know oneself as existing within the whole. To dwell in the place of God, as Evagrius puts it, is to live with a particular intense awareness of this reality, to know oneself not as a solitary, autonomous being but as one whose identity can only be conceived of as existing within an encompassing web of intricate relationships. The primary work of contemplative practice is to become more aware of this web of relationships, to learn to live within it fully and responsibly and to give expression to it in one’s life. That such awareness is understood to be the fruit of long practice, an expression of a gradual transformation of consciousness that can only come about through a sustained process of self-reflection and a gradual relinquishment of the ego’s tenacious attachments is one of the most valuable insights arising from the contemplative traditions of spiritual practice.”
From: Contemplation Nation: How ancient practices are changing the way we live, edited by Mirabai Bush, 2011, Fetzer Institute, Kalamazoo MI.