There are some conversations that are best entered upon sideways. Discreetly might be a better way of putting it. Perhaps, on thinking about it, this is true of just about all conversations. Think how different the world would be if political preferences, in regard to party politics rather than to the burning issues of the day, were entered upon discreetly. The burning issues of the day often call for something more forceful than party politics in any case, even leading, as they do from time to time, to revolution.
I had two such conversations yesterday, both of them discreet but both of them revolutionary. Each in their different way turned on the subject of God but barely touched on religion itself. In the first, we learned from each other, not so much about God as about certain attributes of God. We learned about Wisdom and about purity of heart, two rather abstract concepts which are easy to dismiss as too difficult to get one’s head around, but if seen as part of a bigger picture they start to acquire a value of their own.
Wisdom is more than intelligence. It is intuited understanding about the difference between right and wrong and about God. Purity of heart comes with Wisdom. It amounts to uncluttered intelligence, to the ability to think from the heart, but to think clearly, to yearn for the transparent, for the ability to see through things and people to the divine that lies hidden within them.
When it comes to talking about God, and about his Christ, as opposed to only about religion, these two concepts act as a kind of bridge between the way we think and the way we feel. They free us from the limited confines of the rational, so that all of a sudden anything is possible, anything is believable.
Some Christians will be shocked to read this. They will see it as a dangerous form of syncretism or boundary-breaking, as if I am questioning everything that Christ says about who he is in relation to God and to the whole created order, as if I am trying to reduce him to a single element in the order of things when, as the conversation I’ve just referred to demonstrated, he remains integral to every microcosm, to the smallest molecule or atom in the universe and beyond. ‘All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being’ (John 1:3). I think we both understood this but discretion required us not to state it in so many words. Instead, we tried to make connections with the way each of us arrived at a relationship with God. Again, without saying so in so many words.
My first conversation partner is intimately connected with the Wisdom of God through her experience of the natural world. She sees the beauty and intrinsic worth of the tiniest blade of grass, the most ordinary wild flower, as well as of the rare and extraordinary. She is able to wonder at these things. She knows God in them. I understood the wondering as something I experience myself, though coming at it from a different direction. I tend to make a conscious decision to allow the mystery to take hold of me wherever I am and whatever I’m doing at any given moment. Sometimes this happens without my allowing anything in particular. It is a great privilege although I don’t think such an experience is restricted to people who go in for ‘spirituality’, whatever you take that word to mean.
Thinking back on this conversation, I realised that Jesus never once mentions spirituality, although he does talk a lot about the Spirit and the idea of worshipping ‘in spirit and in truth’. But these words, if I’m honest about it, can also take us into the realm of religion and, as my conversation partner remarked, the minute you mention religion, or faith, you move into dangerous areas of conflict, so she prefers to avoid these words altogether. This returns me to what Jesus might have been saying to us, had he been party to that conversation. I think he might have responded with that rather enigmatic turn of phrase he uses, ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matt.5:8). But “What does ‘seeing God’ entail?” you might well ask. I don’t think he’s talking about visions of God descending from clouds on high as something we are to expect right now, although he does foretell it for later (Matt. 25:31).
And this brings me to my second conversation, which took place in a hospital setting with someone who spends her days caring for people but who is deeply wounded by a Church which doesn’t appear to care for her very much. It doesn’t seem to appreciate what Jesus would have called her purity of heart, her ability to see God in all the people around her and in the work she does, the Wisdom that she gains from that seeing, and which the Church could benefit from if it would allow itself to do so.
The difficulty for the Church, in regard to this particular person, is that people who are pure in heart and, as a result, see God in a pretty much uninterrupted way can be fairly unpredictable. They can even be dangerous. They don’t do ‘spirituality’ in a way that feels safe. The institutional Church likes things to be safe and predictable. It does not like interruptions. In its defence I would say that interruptions, even those that are of the Holy Spirit, can wreak havoc with well ordered services and finely crafted liturgy and music and, as a result, be a source of embarrassment and a stumbling block to some. This is not helpful. But it is a mistake to outlaw those who are gifted with the Holy Spirit, whatever form that gift may take. A person who is gifted in this way is not necessarily asking for any particular status, or even a job, in the Church, but they do ask to be taken seriously and, as a result, to be made to feel that they belong. My friend in the hospital has been consistently made to feel that she does not belong.
For most of his ministry, Jesus concerned himself with people who for one reason or another were made to feel that they did not belong in the religious establishment of his day. Some were outlawed from society altogether. Many of these misfits were the ‘pure in heart’ and the ‘poor’. One or two of them were part of the establishment, but tended to keep their heads down as far as possible, visiting Jesus by night and making discreet enquiries of the authorities when it came to insuring that he had a decent burial. We come across such people in the Church today and when we do, we are reminded that the Church carries within itself something of God. These people need to be made more visible and their voices heard. They are perhaps the Church’s only hope, embarrassing and difficult as they may sometimes be.