Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 27th August (The Service included the baptism of Isabel)
Theme: Is there such a thing as Christian Spirituality?
Readings: Psalm 62; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; John 8:12-20
This is the last of our sermons with subjects chosen by some of you. Today someone has asked the following. He says, “I see spirituality present in other religions, like Buddhism. But is there such a thing as Christian spirituality?”
That’s a great question, not just because it is rich and honest, but because it’s the sort of thing that it’s great to ask as we baptise Isabel. What sort of spirituality do her parents want to bring her up to experience? Where are the sources of life and living water that she can call on within the Christian tradition which her parents wish her to be brought up in?
At one level the answer to the question is very obvious. Of course Christianity has a spirituality. Indeed it has many. Time does not permit me to do justice to the wealth of spiritual traditions. We could associate them with different ways of living. Spiritualities for those who live lives of solitude or enclosure: spiritualities of the desert or the monastery, associated with the ancient forms of monasticism, with Francis of Assisi, Benedict of Nursia, of Thomas Merton in our own age and the like. Or we could associate them with daily life. Spiritualities for those who live ordinary lives of work, family and local community: spiritualities of the Celts, of the Puritans, of John Wesley and of George Herbert. Spiritualities associated with the various movements of God across church history: in our own Anglican tradition there is the reformed spirituality which informs the Book of Common Prayer, incarnational spirituality that emerged from the Catholic Revival of the 19th century, the cross-centred spirituality of Evangelicalism, and the exuberant immediacy of the Charismatic Movement in the late 20th Century. I could talk about Orthodox spirituality and the Jesus Prayer, creation spirituality, spirituality that inspires people in social justice. And so I could go on. If you don’t think there is such a thing as Christian spirituality, take a few steps beyond simply coming to church on a Sunday and doing what you’ve always done, and begin to explore the life of the Spirit in the Christian tradition.
Let’s take one word associated with spirituality: prayer. One of the reasons why we sometimes fail to understand spirituality as something central to Christian life and how we relate to God is because we’ve seen the exotic spiritualities of the East and compared them to the way we usually pray. It is sometimes easy to see Eastern spirituality as far more exciting and exotic than the ways Christians have traditionally related to God which is rather limited to attending Church services and maybe making a few requests to God during the day. Spirituality is a decidedly modern word, you see. Until recently, Christians have often preferred to use the word ‘prayer’ and, because we have a limited experience of what it means to pray, we have compared ourselves unfavourably to the spiritualities of other living faiths.
But listen to the Anglican Christian poet and priest George Herbert (a particular favourite of mine in terms of my own spirituality), listen to Herbert describe prayer in this famous poem. All this poem is, so that you can get into it in one hearing, is Herbert piling image upon image of prayer on top of one another so that one is dizzied and amazed by the richness of what prayer can be. The poem is called, rather prosaically, Prayer (1), but it is kaleidoscopic:
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversèd thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
Here is an invitation to go on a journey of discovery, to explore what prayer, indeed what Christian spirituality, can be. Part of what I am here to do is to accompany you on your journey of prayer. Part of what a church is there for is to help one another to deepen our relationship with God. There is a life in Christ that we each have that goes far beyond the surface of Sunday worship, vital though that is as an element of Christian spirituality in almost any tradition. Each of us already has ways in which we relate to God and how we sustain that relationship. Why not take time to think about how you come close to God in your life and how, like in any significant relationship, you best relate to God. For some that is a matter for the head, for some a matter of the heart. Perhaps an aspect of Christian spirituality that is fully Christian is that head and heart, body and spirit, work and rest, and so much else, are integrated in God.
But there is another aspect of Christian spirituality that I ought to refer to in responding to this question. A large department store in one of our cities advertises a ‘Spirit zone’. When you get there you find all sorts of things: crystals, aromatherapy goods, CD music for relaxation, New Age trinkets. Jesus, Moses and Harry Potter dolls. You can find the Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments. Just above them are some ‘adult party games’, phallic-shaped pasta and massage oils.
Part of the challenge is that we live in a marketplace of spirituality – you can buy it somewhere between menswear and the food hall. We are bamboozled by choice too: everything is mixed up: sexuality, sensuality, spirituality, therapy, theology and trivia. At one level this is spirituality for the affluent in a leisure age. At another level, it reflects a society that has few roots in any understanding of philosophy of life, prayer or God.
But it does reveal, I think, a hunger for spiritual life that should be taken seriously. Spirituality is of interest. We know that because people can make money out of it. And there is much in our Christian heritage of spirituality that can bring relevance. This has all happened as the church in the West has been going through a period of major decline; we struggle to get a hearing in a culture that has steadily cut itself off from its roots.
But the amazing riches of Christian spirituality seem to me to be the point of connection between us and the culture around us. True enough, we will need to come to terms with being one voice among many, and that is a difficult adjustment. But, while we will naturally continue to worship in a particular tradition, in our case Anglican – liturgical, catholic and reformed – it seems to me that unless people find more than rote religion and unreflective habit in our churches, unless they can discover authentic, life-giving spirituality, we will fail to connect in a world that couldn’t care less about our doctrine, our status and our history.
I think we should say a big ‘yes’ to people who are hungry for spirituality in our culture. There is something authentic about it, in a world that reduces everything to a commodity. Yet within Christian spirituality is a deep wisdom which says that, despite the marketplace of our culture, despite the ‘Spirit zone’ mentality, we need to remember that the things of greatest value are not lying around on the surface of life. Spirituality is not about the latest fad. Jesus talks about ‘treasure lying in a field’. Christian spirituality says that, if we want to discover this treasure, we need to go out and buy a spade. Searing for the treasure isn’t just about looking at the surface, it’s about going deep. And that takes some time and effort. Our marketplace culture wants it all now. Authentic spirituality in the Christian tradition invites a deeper engagement, the hard, steady work of putting down deep roots for living and praying. There are no easy answers to this, but it still remains a priority. Superficiality is the curse of our age. Instant satisfaction is primarily a spiritual problem. The need today is not a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people. The need today is for deep people. Christian spirituality is for real life, not an escape from it (here I think we contrast to the religions of the East). Imagine what politics, society and public religion might look like, imagine what our churches would be like, if we focused on knowing God deeply.
Conclude with Isabel