A few days ago, stepping outside for a walk to the river, a movement caught my eye. I looked up to see a long, low cloud traveling by. The sight of the sky surprised me. It reminded me that there is more to this life than what I know.
In a book about Meister Eckhart, “The Way of Paradox,” Cyprian Smith writes that our church experience should be like looking through a window into heaven.
“What ought to be a window, opening up onto the light of Heaven, can become a coloured pane, giving it a certain hue, or even a curtain, shutting it out altogether,” Smith writes. “Perhaps what is wrong with our modern religion is not so much the forms themselves in which it finds expression, but rather the kind of value which we have come to give those forms, a value which is too absolute.”
The value we assign to our forms ends up becoming the object of our attention rather than a way to nudge our attention to God. And then “our” form has to be the right way to do it.
All of our forms, rituals and spiritual disciplines are just “fingers pointing to the moon,” as Richard Rohr puts it. But the moon is the important thing.
In this moon-as-metaphor, we look to the sky and adore the moon. We sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” We lose ourselves in worship.
It takes knowing that we are loved to forget ourselves in this way, to not worry whether we are doing it right.
Perhaps this is why so many have left the church, which seems consumed with crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s.
This has caused many to differentiate between religion and seeking God. People say, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual,” which means they don’t hold to any religious form but seek God in their own way.
That is, unless they’ve been so turned off that they’ve chosen atheism.
When I was growing up in New York, my Catholic friends focused on the material aspects of their faith: church attendance, weekly Confession and abstaining from meat on Fridays. They were afraid of sinning.
They did not speak of faith in a loving God.
When I moved to the Shenandoah Valley, I noticed the names of the churches were different — less Catholics, Episcopalians and Jews, more Pentecostals, Methodists and Mennonites — but the adherence to the forms was the same.
“Dead religion,” as some call it, can be found in any church or person where the form has become the focus. It manifests in many ways, such as fundamentalism, hypocrisy and flaunting of charitable works.
I was never comfortable in these settings, feeling like an outsider. And outside is where I often wanted to be on a beautiful Sunday morning, perhaps with this liturgy by Wordworth:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
“Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20).
Whether it’s a beautifully written prayer, prophesying in tongues or stopping by a woods on a snowy evening, what we see now is through a glass darkly.
Someday we shall see face to face.