Tues 21st Nov – Religious or Spiritual?
Photo Credit: Oisín Brennan
This is one of the most often heard statements of our age that, ‘I’m not religious, I don’t go to church, but I am spiritual’. The latter part about being spiritual is quite nebulous and can range from having a deep awareness of God in my life and being committed to a spiritual discipline, to having given up on church but still holding on to vestiges of former beliefs. Any claim to being spiritual that is isolationist and doesn’t carry a good degree of interconnectedness and belonging has to be considered suspect. Spirituality and relatedness are like the two sides of the one coin and so to believe that one can maintain a spiritual life while living in splendid isolation is simply not possible. To paraphrase the Book of Genesis, ‘It is not good for man/woman to be alone’; we need helpmates for our journey. It is worth noting how in that account of Creation God saw all that He had made and saw that ‘it was good’. The only thing He declared that was not good, was ‘for man to be alone’.
Wed 22nd Nov – Religion and Isolation
Our traditional religious practice, while it revolved around church attendance, was also quite isolationist. Churches were designed in a manner where the minimum of social interaction was possible, with seats in rows and everyone looking towards the Altar. Christ was far more recognised in the tabernacle on the altar than in the tabernacle of the heart. Talking was frowned on, and no one could turn sideways for too long without straining their necks. The church spire was seen to point to God up there rather than to the transcendent God both within and without. Religious vocabulary used expressions like ‘Him up there’, ‘saving my soul’ and ‘fulfilling my obligations’. In many homes religion was seen to be so divisive that, like politics, it was not to be talked about. In effect, religion was understood to be a private matter where the essential link between communion, coming together and community was scarcely understood.
Thurs 23rd Nov – Religion V Spirituality
Christ warned his followers about the danger of ‘honouring him with their lips while their hearts were far from him’. Here he was obviously defining religion as a matter of the heart, and not just of external observance. It is an unfortunate fact that so much of our Catholicism in the past was defined much more in terms of external observance than interior disposition. Like the religion of the Scribes and Pharisees in New Testament times our religion became identified with adherence to rules and regulations and, at its most basic level, a Catholic was classed as someone who went to Mass on Sundays. Within that context there was an abundance of sincerity, piety and devotion, but coinciding with an absence of spiritual awareness. The God of fear had superseded the God of unconditional love, and so many good people lived and died with guilt, and a deep sense of unworthiness where no matter what they did, it was never good enough.
Fri 24th Nov – Catholic Guilt
Talking to an elderly parishioner one day he told me of how he was preparing for his final journey. He was a kind loving man who had lived a good life and had never caused hurt nor harm to anyone. He spoke of how he was looking forward to meeting his parents and all his old friends on the other side and anticipated a joyful reunion. Then he paused and with sadness said, ‘I guess that could still be a long way off, I will first have to get through the ‘bit’ in between. Obviously, he was thinking of Purgatory, after a lifetime of being indoctrinated with the belief that while God is merciful and does forgive our sins, there is a remnant of guilt that still exists that only a time in Purgatory can resolve. In effect, it was a belief that God forgives but He still remembers. His eyes lit up with the news that when we remember and confess our sins, God forgets. It was this bit of good news that allowed him to find peace, to walk with a pep in his step and only a few months later to die with a smile on his face.
Sat 25th Nov – When we remember God forgets
Here is a truth that is worth reflecting on – ‘When we forget God remembers but when we remember God forgets.’ From the Bible we have the divine reassurance that God is All Merciful and when we confess our sins he casts them to the bottom of the sea. In effect, He forgets. This is the eternal nature of God that doesn’t change, yet our experience shows us that we suffer as a consequence of our actions and bad choices. This feels as if God is punishing us for our wrongdoing. However, could the deeper truth be that we are punished by our sins rather than for them? Drawing on many texts from the Scriptures especially the Gospel of St John, we can glean that only that which is held in darkness is subject to judgement, while that which is exposed to the light is beyond judgement. In other words, to live in a state of denial, where we fail to acknowledge our dark side, and instead project it onto others, is in effect to experience the dark side of the God who paradoxically remains all light.
Sun 26th Nov – Last Judgement
The American writer Mark Twain said one time that it wasn’t the passages of the Bible that he couldn’t understand that he found most difficult but the ones that he could clearly understand. I can think of hardly any passage in the Scriptures that is more challenging than that one today concerning the Last Judgement. It could be phrased as a simple question: Who will stand firm at the Last Judgement? The answer it spells out so clearly is the one who lovingly stands by those in need.
From the early Kingdom of Spain comes a story that is very similar to that of the Gospel message. One day King Richard was out hunting. When deep in the forest he was overtaken by a violent thunderstorm and found himself soaked to the bone, alone and hopelessly lost. It was evening and as he tried to find his way back to the royal palace, he wasn’t able. As the night came on it became cold and he was out in the open. Tormented with hunger he wandered endlessly around the forest. Wet and exhausted he came at last in the early morning to a lonely farmhouse. He knocked on the door and knocked several times but no one answered. In despair, he tried the door that was not fastened and creaked open. The peasant farmer leapt from his kitchen table and shouted ‘You scoundrel, you’re trying to steal something here. See that you get out immediately or I will set the dogs on you’.
The King begged and pleaded but the peasant only got more angry. Finally, he struck the king in the face and slammed the door after him. Some people were passing by and with their help the king managed to get back home. Days later the king invited the peasant to visit the Palace. The peasant thought, why am I being called to see the king, I have done nothing to him and I don’t even know him.
He had to enter the great hall all by himself and stand before the assembled princes of the kingdom. The king was on his throne with his royal robes with sceptre in hand and crown on his head. For a long time he gazed at the trembling peasant in silence and then asked; ‘Do you know me’? Suddenly, the penny dropped for the peasant and he was so struck by those words that he just collapsed and died.
All the great religions of the world have a similar version of the last judgement and they all say that we will each hear those words… I was hungry… I was sick… I was a stranger… I was naked.
Our challenge is to so live that Christ will not have to say to any of us, ‘You failed to recognise me in the least of your brothers and sisters, away with you into everlasting fire. What you failed to do to your brothers and sisters you failed to do to me.’
Mon 27th Nov – Ideology or Humanness
In general, humanity divides into two categories: Those who place ideology above humanness and those who place humanness above ideology. Unfortunately, traditional Catholicism could be classed as an ideology since it quite disrespected the reality of our humanness. As a religion that was based on the Incarnation, God becoming human, this was a total contradiction where one would have expected to be taught that to become more human was to become more like God. Yet the reality was that our bodies were to be beaten into submission, our sexuality was to be feared, our emotions were suspect, our personal or ancestral story was given little importance and relationships were viewed with suspicion. No wonder Patrick Kavanagh, the Monaghan poet, called the Catholicism of his time, and to a fair extent what has been ours, ‘an insult to the Incarnation’. At the root of the widespread rejection of Catholicism of our time must surely lie this anti-human bias. This is such an unfortunate accretion that it distorts the Good News of God embracing us in the fullness of our humanity and being comfortable to live in the messiness of being human.