As we come closer to Holy Week, I need to get something off my chest. It is my problem with religion, religious words, ritual, symbolism, belief. From childhood these things have been quite precious to me and frequently a source of deep enrichment. They have been, and still are, bridges from the surface of things to the deeper levels of reality. For me, they have been a way of avoiding the mundane horror of living on the surface, as if one were a stone skimming across the waves, before sinking like – well, like a stone. I feel a natural affinity with the language of religion. A life or world-view that ridicules or excludes it seems to me very incomplete. Attempts by twentieth-century totalitarian regimes to eradicate religion failed, as would attempts to ban music, art, or (as Plato wanted to do in his ideal world) poetry. Nevertheless, we should expose and avoid bad religion which is just as much a possibility as bad music or bad art. We won’t get here into how to decide what good and bad mean. Most people would agree that American TV evangelism that exploits the poor and promises favours from God in return for donations to the evangelist’s luxurious lifestyle is an example of bad religion. Or a religion that disrespects other religions.
Yet, Lent for me feels in some way a refreshing break from religiosity, a reduction in the dosage. The emphasis is on the desert rather than the church, silence rather than words, stillness rather than ritual. The monk’s life, as I quoted from St Benedict some weeks ago, is a perpetual Lent. I take it in this sense, not only walking the tightrope of moderation but not allowing religion to get out of proportion. For example, Benedict (who was not a priest) said that the work-tools of the monastery should be treated with the same reverence as the vessels of the altar. Religion should not be sequestrated, isolated from ordinary life. The sacred and the profane must merge in a religion centred on the Incarnation and the humanity of God.
This does not mean the desert monks or St Benedict were Quakers. A life without the Eucharist, for me, would feel like walking in the desert of life without manna. But it is a sacrament not magic, a sign of a reality whose source lies within us, not a way of manipulating things, or a compulsive activity. This is why the contemplative experience, as awakened by daily meditation, although threatening to some pious people, actually helps those who are put off by the church’s religiosity to reconnect to its symbolic life and language in a new way. You don’t need to be religious for meditation to lead you into the experience of contemplation. One can’t say that meditation will make you religious, in the conventional sense of becoming a regular church-goer; but it will reveal the true nature and meaning of religion.
Aquinas said that ‘creation is the primary and most perfect revelation of the divine’. To be in communion with nature is therefore a form of worship. Creation, the beautiful world, is the essential church. I came across this quotation from Aquinas in a book I would like to tell you about tomorrow. Not a book of Lenten readings, I hasten to add, but still a good book for Lent.