Why is it so difficult to discuss spiritual matters at church? Being social, I have to admit I love to attend coffee hour at church on Sundays, but I can’t help but notice that we talk about everything BUT god. In fact, I find that all the really interesting conversations about spiritual stuff take place outside the church: for instance, with friends at our favorite coffeehouse sharing the poetry we’ve written or discussing the latest movies we’ve seen. In my search for relevant and interesting conversations about God and spiritual things, I’ve even gone so far as to join a Facebook group Coffee Mystics [more info]. Not to mention the discussions I’ve had with folks from other traditions. For instance, I have a friend who was raised Hindu and who practices Eastern forms of meditation: we can talk at length about our spiritual stuff.
But why can’t I have that same experience in the church? I’m sure that the folks in the pews have personal beliefs about god and spirituality. They just keep it to themselves. Could it be that within the mainline churches, individual faith life has become so privatized, we no longer have permission to discuss it? Is it any wonder then that the church is often perceived as lifeless or just plain irrelevant? If going to church means keeping my spiritual life to myself, I might as well spend my Sunday mornings communing with nature, or sleeping in.
I have a friend, in her early twenties, I met during an open house at the downtown cathedral, which I attend. She and a group of friends entered the church foyer for the first time, where she announced “I don’t think I can go along with all your dogma, is that a problem?” While most of the greeters were flabbergasted, I stood up from my seat near the door and said, “No, I don’t have a problem with that.” I felt totally energized and thought “Finally, a chance to discuss the stuff that really matters!”
She sat down and told me about her experiences in Latin America. She asked me why I thought there were so many crucifixes in Mexico which depict so graphically Jesus’ suffering on the cross. I was impressed with the question and told her I thought it provides the people, whose lives are full of hardship, with a sense of compassion, because they believe Jesus identifies with their suffering. She seemed to like that. Then she asked why we place a stain glass window behind the altar, “was it designed to lead people towards the light?” I answered, “That must have been part of the intended effect.” And thinking to myself, if only we could see it that way.
What impressed me most was that she was so uninhibited in her conversation. And in those questions, I sensed that she had already undergone some sort of transformative, spiritual experience. At the same time she showed a disregard for stale doctrines which can’t possibly communicate that experience.
Recently, at Pub(lic) Spirituality [more info], a pub gathering attended by mostly twenty-somethings, the majority of which don’t attend any sort of church, someone just threw out the question, “Does god punish us for our sins, or just let us suffer the consequences of our own behaviors?” This led to an hour long discussion! At an Emergent Matrix meeting [more info] which gathers monthly at another downtown pub, the group, a mix of people from different backgrounds, discussed whether or not the Bible has any relevance in today’s world. The conversation was so animated, you couldn’t get a word in edge-wise. Why can’t we do THAT in the church?
Recently a fellow parishioner, a life long Episcopalian, told me she’s thinking of converting to Buddhism, because she longs for that sort of contemplative life. I immediately responded that Christianity has its own contemplative tradition which is very ancient and profoundly rich. But as soon as I said it, I realized I sounded like a whole lot of hot air: unless that spiritual practice and the transformative experience it provides is visibly alive in our church, it might as well be nonexistent.
Indeed, slowly but surely the privatization of spirituality has had a corrosive effect on the life of church communities. Without a shared spiritual life we find ourselves at the mercy of the social forces which isolate and separate people. With the result that no matter how many people surround us in the pews, we end up facing the greatest challenges of life on our own. The reasons I go in search of conversations with others and why self-help books just won’t cut it has less do with my extroverted nature than with the simple fact that I need hope and inspiration to cope with all the anxiety and uncertainty that plagues contemporary existence. I just can’t access it on my own, and believe me I’ve tried.
I need to hear it articulated by those who have shared the same pains and trials that I’ve had to face in this crazy mixed-up world we live in. And whatever the source of that hope might be, I need to experience its transformative power in my relationships: which leaves me asking, “why not at church? As long as we continue to keep our faith lives private, we lose a common life centered around those very things: we lose touch with the central experience of what it is to be a Christian.
As John Zizioulas, one of my favorite theologians says, “Individualism is incompatible with Christian spirituality. None can possess the Spirit as an individual, but only as a member of the community.” (”The Early Christian Community,” Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, 27) Contrary to the trend to treat one’s spiritual life as a private matter, Zizioulas says that the Early Christians understood that “it was through personal relationships that the human person’s union with God was realized.” (”The Early Christian Community,” 23.)
How are we to regain that shared experience of spiritual transformation? It may be as simple as returning to some of those ancient practices of the Early Church. So for instance, in my parish we’ve started to practice Lectio Divina in a group. [link to Contemplative Outreach for explanation of Lectio Divina] Fr. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and leading exponent of Lectio Divina claims that “Praying the scriptures in common,” on a weekly basis, “has proved to be a valuable experience and an occasion of bonding the members together in faith and love.” As we listen to scripture in the group and wait for the Spirit to create a response in us, some of the most profound spiritual insights have come not necessarily from those who have a seminary education, like me, but from everyday people who have suffered and in that suffering have experienced the power of compassion to lift them from that place. This is precisely the ray of hope that draws me out of the isolation and toward the light. - Sue Wright