Many of our institutions are struggling to seem relevant these days, that includes the church in its various forms. There are many reasons for this.
One reason is that for a long time religious institutions, such as the church, have tried to maintain a monopoly on access to the spiritual. ‘Come here’ they say, ‘do this’ or ‘read that’ and you can access the divine; the spiritual realm. Institutions as gatekeepers.
One of the great shifts in recent years has been the growing realisation that spirituality is not confined by a set of walls or dogmas, increasing proportions of society have come to see that they can perceive or experience the spiritual beyond the confines that the institutions have appeared to present. Beyond the fences that they were told were unclimbable. This loss of monopoly has added to the difficulties experienced by other institutions, making some of the religious institutions that rely upon it appear as if they have no relevance beyond that of cultural belonging. Gatekeepers are pointless if fences are illusions.Simon J Cross – Weekday meditation 2/7/2021
For far too long I have tended to believe in the gatekeepers and their narratives of the borderlines. For far too long I felt, albeit unconsciously, that access to the spiritual, or at least to meaningful spiritual practice, depended upon making the right choice of gateway; at least on finding the gateway that was right for me, a gate for whose lock I had the key
Sufficient introspection would have told me I was wrong, but there never seemed to be a gap for sufficient introspection. Being part of a religious institution put constraints on that kind of introspection, kept me thinking in the well-worn tracks of the (in my case Christian) doctrine and praxis I knew so well, effectively limiting my conclusions to those that would fit within the fences they defined.
The past 18 months or so, with churches and the places where people meet so often closed, or reduced to meeting online, have proved those fences to be illusory. The barriers between the selves I have seemed to be have proved illusory also: there is no longer any unavoidable incompatibility between thought and experience, between hope and grace.
In an article on the Secular Buddhist Network Robert M Ellis writes, “I do not describe myself as a Buddhist, because that process of practical examination of what works is far more important to me than loyalty to any tradition. Instead, I describe myself as a ‘Middle Way practitioner’ – where the Middle Way is understood as a universal principle that can be found both in Buddhism and in many other places.”
I am not sure that I would even describe myself as a middle way practitioner (with or without capitals), or a Quaker – still less a Buddhist – these days. (I rather like the way Sam Harris, in Waking Up, avoids handing his key to that gatekeeper.) There must be many of us Einzelgänger und Einzelgängerinnen out here now, beyond the fences, and I’m coming to suspect that we don’t need to form communities, adopt labels, and things like that. We will find each other if we need each other, and just as the current pandemic that has given so many of us space to breathe is a fact of our time, so too is the technology that enables the publication of things like this at the click of a button.
It seems to me that the dark and anxious times in which we live can so easily draw us into taking sides, feeling we must “join the fight” against this or that injustice, or “struggle” against forces beyond our control or understanding which threaten the very existence of humanity. These military metaphors contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety and guilt, where nothing we can do is ever enough, and any rest or stillness is a betrayal of our comrades-in-arms. But grace is not mediated by aggression, and peace may not be found by way of war.
It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting my self out of the way of that channel of wordless gift. The hiddenness to which I am increasingly drawn is a way of getting out of the way – of standing still enough perhaps to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of stillness.
[An earlier version of this post was published elsewhere earlier this year.]