Where does Faith begin? St Augustine and other early Christian thinkers speculated that it began before conception. It certainly does. It begins within the Heart of God and the link between your heart and His can never be broken because He created you and you are always held safely within that Eternal Heart of Love. His Heart is your home; your true place of belonging.
The earliest monks-the desert fathers and mothers of the C4th and C5th centuries fled collapsing man-made empire to seek quietude, to seek God, and to live a new way based on solitude, simplicity and community. They followed their hearts. They certainly were not following their heads. Many nowadays also know what it is to be overwhelmed with the state of the nation, the state of the world, seemingly never-ending global and personal debt crises and they yearn for peace and freedom of living in an alternative way to the old accepted norms. There are many amongst us who experience the external triggers of redundancy, financial hardship, oppression, overbearing state intervention, uncertainty of work that can also trigger internal states of family separation, distance, anger, addiction, poverty, frustration, helplessness, hopelessness and loneliness; to name just a few. Life is pretty tough for many at the moment. It hurts our hearts.
In their solitude and searching the desert fathers and mothers began to define their experiences, still common to many of us, that act as obstacles when trying to reach the place of sitting with God. In the course of our spiritual journey we all experience these things. Theirs was a new way, a radical way. Nowadays it seems it has been cast into stone in the mists of history, but back then these people were doing something different, outrageous, and radical and turning their back on notions of acceptability. They were rebels after Gods own thinking. Moses broke all rational thinking as he raised his staff, following his hearts knowing of God talking to him, and the Red Sea parted to allow the Israelites safely away from their enemies. The Bible is littered with examples of people daring to follow God, daring to follow their heart and not their head. The first disciples answered Jesus’ call from their heart, not their head. To walk away from the occupations that earned them their livelihoods and food, to give up their families and incomes was not the head thinking. It was the heart compelling. And what of Noah? Bright sunny skies, heat everyday, miles from the sea and he starts building a boat in his backyard. That takes some explaining to the family and neighbours. His head and everyone else’s would have told him he was insane. Noah followed his heart because God had spoken to it telling him what he must do. And the rains came…Mother Theresa heard God with her heart and followed the call. For her remaining years she says she never heard Him again, and nor did she gain any confirmation or guidance through her prayer life; but the once was enough and she applied her will to carry out his commands to her.
With traditional forms of institutionalized religion mutating, it appears as if people’s experiences of personal spirituality are expanding and lines are merging and becoming indistinct even blurred to create their own language and descriptions of their personal experience, hopes and joys. People are travelling different paths to explore their faith, paths with no glass ceilings, and paths with no shut doors. Elements of many religions are finding a new place within others and perhaps at times it can be seen that the man-made structures of traditional institutions creak and sway as they find they cannot quite keep up with it all and respond as quickly as it may like to. The undercurrents of change sweep through as the sea, finding first the small cracks and then washing away the walls that divide. The more rigid the structure, the more problems it inevitably encounters. The more barriers it sets up, the more boxed in it becomes. So many religious institutions are being pushed from members within the structure who are pushing for their freedom to express their experiences of God in a more personal and meaningful way whilst at the same time members of God’s family outside are pushing to have their experiences included in a bigger whole and asking for valid acceptance. God can never be boxed in or contained in any way by anything; He constantly unfurls more of Creation to us, constantly surprises and catches us unawares. Change and progress has always been His thing. In my experiences God is always to be found on the fringes of our own ‘normal’; always leading us forwards into challenges of ourselves; in order that we may realise our deepest potentials and know ourselves and Him better than the moment before. He is the sun that our flower follows if we allow ourselves to dare and it is a never-ending journey, without beginning or end.
I recently found it interesting that amongst groups of younger people in the United Kingdom who do not attend church services, faith and belief in a power greater than themselves was still very much present. Most of them accepted the idea of a Creator. Most of them pray privately. Most of them had experienced what they would call spiritual experiences. There is not a lack of faith or spiritual experience; it is merely transforming into something that has its place of being in the heart, more personal, more contemplative again. When asked who they would most like to meet in this modern world, all of them said the Dali Lama. They say this is because he knows how to speak to them in a way that profoundly affects them; they feel he talks to them about things relevant to their daily lives in a way that gives them comfort and hope, he does not belittle them, he shines through the sometimes unyielding doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and engages with their hearts. I think this is also exactly the way Jesus Christ talked with people; he engaged their hearts and minds and offered them a new way of thinking that freed them from the burdensome constraints of an old religious structure, enabling them to feel and become their full exciting spiritual potential. In speaking to their hearts they felt this truth in his words. It must have been like an electric shock running through their system when they felt this new way for the first time. Could they finally really dare to believe and hope in this bright new future? There would have been the exhilaration of being at odds with the old ways and that zingy thrill of the adventure and potential of the new that many of us feel when offered a new opportunity. He was radical, he was different, and he was filled with compassion for the miseries of life that most of us experience. He shared their pain; he didn’t belittle it or wrap its relevance in complex theology although he knew the scriptures as well as any. He spoke to the hearts of the common man and woman, like you and me. He acknowledged that life is rubbish sometimes and that sometimes we feel it just isn’t fair, that things go wrong, that we doubt and fear and worry and feel cut off and adrift from God too at times. He could be angry like when he threw the traders out of the temple; he was all things that we can be. Through living as we live and dying as we die, he walked alongside us and then took us all by surprise. He carried on through death and showed us that there is more. He showed us that life does not end at death; that beyond those veils lies something else, another part of our journey and in doing this he destroyed much of the fear of death for us if we will allow it to register in our hearts instead of trying to think our way through things.
The early apostles believed that Jesus’ message was for the Jews. Limiting that; and not the way Jesus wanted it all. His message was for all, his apostles were listening to their heads not their hearts so much so, that he even chose an arch-enemy of those early band, someone who had set out to persecute them and put them to death. Enter stage Paul, whose task was to spread this message to all, Gentiles and Jews alike. This is what makes Jesus’s mission so inclusive, so all encompassing and as he is the Son of the Father, we can have full confidence that God includes all of us in His plan, no man-made barriers and divisions can stand against what God wills. No barriers, no exclusions, and not even death can stop us in the glorious promise of life eternal.
A man for whom I have great admiration for John O Donohue; wrote this beautiful piece on death which holds within it the embrace of the Celtic view of life, death and the journey in between as a circle, a journey whose ending is its own new beginning, depicted by the artwork of the intertwining patterns and animals who emerge from their own ending.
‘May there be some beautiful surprise
Waiting for you inside death
Something you never knew or felt,
Which with one simple touch
Absolves you of all loneliness and loss,
As you quicken within the embrace
For which your soul was eternally made.
‘May your heart be speechless
At the sight of the truth
Of all your belief had hoped,
Your heart breathless
In the light and lightness
Where each and every thing
Is at last its true self
Within that serene belonging
That dwells beside us
On the other side
Of what we see.’