John Main thought that the besetting sin of Christians was to underestimate the full wonder of their faith and potential. It is incredible. This is a faith that presents such mind-expanding perspectives about the infinite capacity of human nature and about the relationship between God, nature and the whole human spectrum of tenderness, joy and suffering. Yet in the old Christendom of the West it is now largely seen as dull, socially conservative, moralistic and over-concerned, if not obsessed, with genital sexuality. In other areas, it is distastefully fundamentalist, impolite to other faiths, exclusive and as intellectually restricted as the White House. What went wrong? And, can it be turned around to bring its measure of hope and creative energy to our modern crisis?
If I had to say yes or no I’d say yes. But, of course, I don’t know and the question in this form is probably too grand and abstract. Perhaps at this stage we need a contemplative rather than an ecclesiastical approach. I like the distinction, for example, between ‘ecclesial’ and ecclesiastical’. Both refer to the ‘church’ but with quite different meanings. Ecclesial suggests an emergent awareness of depth and meaning within a welcoming community opening access to something greater than the sum of its parts. It is a living, symbolic world in which we are freed from legalism by the discipline of worship. Ecclesiastical means, well, churchy, which the best religious people would agree is at least unattractive if not actually repellent. Nevertheless, there is such a thing as religious love and it is a wonderful form of love to discover. But it is not churchy.
What we can say is less about ‘how to make the church relevant’ or ‘how to get young people more involved’. We can act from and on the truth that an extraordinary yet universal experience remains latent in every human being. Even without words to explain it, this experience can be awakened to show each of us the wonder and depth of what Christian faith is all about. For example, peace. This peace that the scriptures speak about all the time is there. Or joy. Joy is an inner spring waiting to be untapped, way beyond the temples of consumerism. If we focused more on awakening this experience the future shape and meaning of the church would unfold and we wouldn’t just be counting the numbers of bums on pews.
In fact, though, we can’t awaken this experience for others. That is the mistake of putting all the emphasis on ‘going to church’. Going to most churches makes sense as a response to this experience rather than as a way of finding it. Although, if you’re lucky, you may find a church with a good and loving community that helps a wide range of people to find this experience for themselves and together.
I’m not sure what this has got to do specifically with Lent. I’ll think of a connection for tomorrow. Except that one of the least churchy expressions of Christianity was that of the early desert monks. They lived and breathed Lent daily with joy, compassion and spiritual intelligence. And, after the words of Jesus, that’s where the wisdom of meditation most powerfully to flow into the Christian way of faithful living.