Personal Spirituality v. Community Religion, or How I stopped worrying about religion and got a life

Alison Cotes

A paper delivered to the Sea of Faith Network (NZ) Conference "You Make Community Makes You: Identity and Belonging" Auckland, 22 September 2001
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of his so-called dark sonnets, and I haven't been able to get it out of my head since the horrific events of last week.
I didn't want to use the New York and Washington devastation as the basis of this talk, fearing to trivialise them, but it's impossible to ignore them. These events have changed the shape of the world as we have known it, and the thought of their ramifications fill me, as they do countless others, with mortal grief and mortal fear.
That day last week marked a turning point in human history, and it's not that I've been wondering since then how I could use it in this talk. Rather, because it's at both the forefront of my consciousness and lurking on the edges of my subconscious, and has to be a reference point for almost anything that we do and say from now on.
And nowhere more obviously than in the conference theme “You Make Society Makes You — Identity and Belonging”.
As people in New York huddle together in their chief woe, and as their leaders turn their anger and outrage against the Middle East, we have to ask what it is that binds people together in a society, what comfort it gives them, what rights, and what responsibilities.
In times of major group trauma, where do individuals go for comfort, and how much to they have to conform to the prevailing societal ideology to be allowed to avail themselves of that comfort? And, to extend our theme further, how far is their self- identity defined by what their society is feeling and expressing?
As usual, it's the visual images that have been most revealing, rather than the words — as we in Sea of Faith know, words are totally inadequate when it comes to expressing the deepest things.
Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
(Where would we be, without the ironic words of poets like Saint Tom Eliot to show us in words the inadequacy of words?)
Those visual images are the ones that stay with me, and they're not the obvious ones. Not the unbelievable special-effect shots of planes crashing into buildings, not even people jumping out of the 102nd storey of the building, not the tall towers buckling at the knees and falling with a strange kind of dignity, and not even the dust-covered survivors.
No, the pictures that stay with me are the people huddled together for comfort, for pure, physical wordless comfort; people gathering for massed religious services that can give a collective voice to their inexpressible grief; and, most tellingly for me, individual people in churches, kneeling alone, slumped on their knees, their face buried in their hands.
“These are the hard ribs of a body that our prayers have failed to animate,” said R S Thomas in a poem called In Church. “There is no other sound in the darkness but the sound of a man breathing, testing his faith on emptiness, nailing his questions one by one to an untenanted cross.”'
Old habits die hard. Even unbelievers go to church in desperate times. They stood there in the National Cathedral in Washington, singing “Amazing Grace” and “God Bless America” (the English and New Zealanders and probably even Australians would have gone for “Abide With Me”' and “The Lord's my Shepherd”, I suspect.) But how quickly the mood and the hymns changed — “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; he is trampling out the harvest where the grapes of wrath are stored,” and watch out when America, in the name of God, who cares more about them than any other nation, who have taken over Israel's role as the Chosen People, is on the warpath.
Religion. God. Faith in whatever. The ultimate security blanket. “What am I?,”' asked Tennyson in In Memoriam. (Sorry about all the poetry, but it's what I retreat to in times of crisis — I don't trust my own words.) “An infant crying in the night, an infant crying for the light, and with no language but a cry.”
William James said that the ultimate expression of religious faith was a single word. Not the childhood words that sum up most prayer — Please, thank you, and I'm sorry, but just a single word. HELP!
Oh God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come? Perhaps the first part of Kipling's line might have been true in the past, but not the second, not now.
We create our own mechanisms for coping, or hang on to those that have been created for us. We create the images that we need to sustain us and, in times of national crisis, often retreat to the group images that are part of our cultural heritage. Perhaps God is trampling out the grapes of wrath to avenge America. Perhaps, for Christians, it is as Hopkins said in “That Nature is a Heraclitean fire, and of the comfort of the resurrection”. “O pity and indignation,” says Hopkins, “manshape, that shone sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark of any of him at all so stark but vastness blurs and time beats level.”
But “Enough!” says Hopkins, devout Jesuit even in the midst of his blackest despair. “The resurrection, a heart's clarion! Away grief's gasping, joyless days, dejection.”
If only it were as easy as that! I wonder if it was for Hopkins, really. Can the Christian story of a man overcoming death really compensate for our chief woe, world sorrow?
Not for me. Not for me. No church, no untenanted cross, no solidarity of suffering, can help me come to grips with this grief.
And I use myself as an example of millions of modern people, not as an individual whose reaction has any more importance than anyone else's.
For those who have taken the existential leap into the void, as Jim Carrey did at the end of The Truman Show, there can never be certainty, and the only comfort the comfort that serves in a whirlwind, that “all life death doth end, and each day dies with sleep.”
But let me use myself as an example — you will all have your own personal experiences, I know, and that's something you might like to talk about in the Core Groups — and tell you where I was on the day I heard about the terrorist attacks.
I was away doing a travel story, in an eco-lodge in the Queensland rainforest. No telephone coverage, no radio, no newspapers, no television — “get away from the worries of the city, and experience life as it used to be, close to nature.” I had come down at 6.30 for the early morning bird walk, and found all the other early risers huddled around the manager, who was telling us what he had heard. We had no visual images, no real details, just the news that thousands of people had been killed. There were the usual shock/horror responses, and then some people went off on the walk, and some went in for an early breakfast.
But a few of us peeled off individually and found spots in the rainforest where we could be alone with our thoughts, which were intensely personal and individual. I didn't want to talk to anybody else about it just then — I needed time to absorb the enormity of it all. It was only later, when the manager brought in his personal television and rigged it up in the guest lounge, did the reaction become a group experience, people turning to each other in horror, for comfort, in solidarity, asking those questions that were being asked all over the world — Did you hear that …? Did you see … What about …? We needed each other as a group to reinforce the validity of our individual reactions, to make sure that our initial responses were those of the group.
So was that a spiritual experience? For any of us? And if so, in what form? Did we, that disparate group of fifty or so strangers, form a community united in awe and terror?
For me, the answer is no, as it always is in any situation of group emotion, which I don't see as spiritual experience. When the Prime Minister I idolised was dismissed by a Governor-General singularly lacking in integrity; when Lady Diana was killed (I was reminded of that in a television program about her just last week); when my football team was beaten yet again in an important match; when I was filled with shame at my government's actions in turning away asylum seekers — at these seminal moments in international, national and personal history, I need the solidarity of the group for comfort and support, to feel that I am not alone in my distress.
That's true for all of us, I suggest, and it's equally true in times of rejoicing — when New Zealand wins the America's Cup (see how unparochial I can be when I try!); when many of us Australians (but not all, I'm ashamed to say) swelled with pride when Cathy Freeman draped herself with the aboriginal as well as the Australian flag after her win at the Olympic Games last year; when our son or daughter presents us with a perfect and long-awaited grandchild — during these seminal moments of joy we need to feel surrounded and supported by others who can share our rejoicing. That makes us part of community, that is when we are at once ourselves and beyond ourselves.
But are these spiritual occasions?
Sometimes these can occur during specifically conventional religious situations, though. I haven't been a believer for many years, but I still go to church on certain occasions. Every couple of years, for example, I go to the Haut Var in Provence in France, to stay at a little pilgrim house at the bottom of a great massif, or bluff. The bottom half of the massif is covered in thick ancient forest, some of the most ancient forest in France, with many of the yew trees over a thousand years old, and the top part is bare rock which contains a number of caves. One of these caves has been venerated for 1500 years as the place where Mary Magdalene lived in solitude for thirty years after Jesus' crucifixion, neither eating nor drinking, but being transported to the top of the mountain seven times a day (at the canonical hours of course) by a flight of holy angels, where she received heavenly communion from the hands of Jesus himself, and heard the sound of the angelic choirs.
Well may you scoff, as on one level I do, but 1500 years of almost uninterrupted pilgrimage have given the place its own kind of truth and, as Pere Didier (with whom I have been hopelessly, passionately and unrequitedly in lust for ten years — unrequited because he doesn't speak any English, and my French isn't subtle enough to conduct a conversation of the necessary delicacy — as Didier, a highly educated and very canny Dominican said in his sermon, the first time I climbed the mountain to the cave for the mass of Mary Mag's feast day, ``We don't know if the Magdalene was ever here or not, but if she wasn't, we've brought her with us today''; or, as a 16th century Spanish pilgrim said, ``The church neither endorses nor denies it, and as for me, it pleases me much in my heart to think that it might have been so.''
What has all this got to do with community religion and personal spirituality? I hear you cry. As an example, quite a lot. I don't believe the legend as objective truth at all, but to trudge up through that ancient forest every year or so, in the company of a couple of hundred local people, most of whom are true believers, because Mary Mag is the patron saint of this part of France, is to experience a kind of solidarity of faith that I can identify with.
This forest (not the cave so much, as the forest) is my personal sacred site, and whenever I walk there, I feel as if I have come home. It's partly the Mary Mag connexion, because I've been studying this set of legends, and the documents in the pilgrim house, for more than fifteen years, and it is my true heartland, more so than anywhere else in the world, even Uluru, which is the other most spiritual place I know.
But that forest is something very special, and especially since I found out, in the course of my research, that for hundreds of years before Christianity this place was the centre of the worship of the Magna Mater, the Great Mother. It's an intensely female place, which suits my personal sense of spirituality, and one of the pre-Christian stories is that, on the night of the full moon, the handmaids of the Magna Mater used to roam through the forest in packs and, if they found a man trespassing there, tore him to pieces. Orpheus, eat your heart out! These girls beat the Thracian women any day.
Occasionally, when I'm there in the summer, as I usually am, 22 July being Mary Mag's feast day, I spend the night alone in the forest, and I feel completely safe.
So that place works for me on two levels — on the absolutely individual personal level, as a place of deep spirituality, which nobody can share with me, and on the social or community level, to be at one with people who trudge up the rough rocky path every year to pay homage to this greatest of Christian saints, and to sing one of the folk songs of the area — “Sing and dance, Mary Magdalene, for your friend has come back to you.”
In fact, the only time that mass hasn't worked for me in the cave was the last time I was there, and if you'll pardon the digression, I'll tell you why, because it's a wonderful story. I've got a gammy knee from an old war injury, and it's getting worse and worse, and this last time I was a little late for the beginning of the festal mass, and it was in full swing (bells, smells, 18th century vestments, the whole dang shooting match — those Dominicans know how to party!) right up to the Gloria, when I finally staggered in and sank down on one of the few spare benches at the back of this huge damp cave. (I'm not sure whether Mary Mag is officially the patron saint of those who suffer from rheumatism, but she ought to be.)
But for the first time in the many times I'd been there, something was wrong about the atmosphere. A good proportion of the congregation were raising their hands to heaven and wiggling them around a bit, which I found very strange, as well as being quite off-putting, because worship in this most pious Roman Catholic part of the world has never had any taint of the happy-clappies about it.
Now the custom is that after the festal mass, everyone stays up there to wander around the cave a bit, and buy a few souvenirs (they actually have a tiny gift shop, which is remarkably untacky), and have a picnic lunch with lots of absinthe on the terrace, and then people sing, and tell stories, and we all do a bit of community dancing, and it's great fun — even I get dragged up every year to sing Waltzing Matilda, which amuses them no end, especially when I try to translate it into French afterwards. Not an easy task, let me assure you! And then we all go back into the cave for Benediction with more wondrous gold embroidered frocks (Didier wears mountain boots under his, which makes a very stylish photograph, I promise you) and lots more incense and bowing and scraping, and we all stagger down the mountain to collapse in the pilgrim house with some rough vin rouge de pays (foot-trodden by the peasants, I'm sure, as the bottles don't even have labels on them).
One of the things I like to do when I'm up at the cave (there is a point to this long digression, I promise you) is fill a plastic bottle with water from a spring which trickles down the back wall. I do this not for religious reasons, but because it's about the purest water in the world, and if those monks were a little more worldly, they'd bottle it and make a fortune, because a teaspoonful of it in a glass of superior single malt whisky is enough to make even me believe in God.
Well, on this occasion I was filling my bottle to bring back to Australia when I noticed out of the corner of my eye two of these happy-clappy people who had so disturbed me watching me with some interest. And then one said to the other, in a southern American drawl, “Do you reckon this is miracle water like the stuff at Lourdes?”
I was so cross with them for spoiling the atmosphere that I turned and said in my purtiest Australian accent, “Well, I don't know whether it can bring about a cure, but it's the best water in the world for mixing with whisky,” and they were so taken aback to think that there might be somebody else there who spoke English that they began to chat to me, even though they were horrified at my spiritual shallowness.
It turned out that they were part of a tour group of charismatic Roman Catholics, doing a coach tour of the holy shrines in France, and had been trucked up here for Mary Mag's feast day. They had no idea of the legends about the cave, weren't even sure who she was — “wasn't she some kind of whore?” they asked me, and you would have been amazed at my self-restraint — and really didn't know why they were there — “this ain't nearly as exciting as Lourdes,” they said. Wot, no apparitions?
Anyway, I filled them in on a few of the legends, and they wandered off, totally disgusted with my lack of reverence, and later I saw them talking to Didier, who understands more English than he lets on, and was looking quite disturbed.
As you can imagine, I can't bear to see the great lust of my life upset, so when they'd left him frothing ever so slightly at the mouth, I wandered over and asked him what that had all been about.
“They wanted to buy Mary Magdalene's thigh bone!” he spluttered, not sure whether to laugh or cry. (There is a piece of human bone in the cave, all done up in a golden reliquary and tied with a big pink bow, which purports to be her thigh bone, although it's not nearly as impressive as her skull (I believe, I believe, O ye of little faith!) which resides in an even more splendid golden reliquary in the vault of the great basilica erected in her honour in the 12th century in the little market town of St Maximin de la Sainte Baume, a town where I intend to spend my declining years. I have seen this skull being prepared for the annual procession, and it's certainly somebody's skull, and there's at least a billion-to-one chance that it might be Mary Mag's so who am I to argue?
Anyway, it transpired that these charismatic tourists wanted to take the holy sainted lady's thigh-bone home as a souvenir, and were quite surprised when Didier wouldn't let them have it.
“How much did they offer you?” I asked.
“Only fifty American dollars,” he spluttered indignantly, and then we both fell about laughing (all this was taking place in the cave), and I told him that I was the one with the gammy leg, and that if anyone was going to get the holy sacred thigh-bone, it ought to be me, and I'd be willing to pay at least $100.
Personal spirituality, community religion — they're all tied up for me in Mary Magdalene territory, but what really works is when I strike off the path and wander deep into the forest and sit under ancient beech trees and watch the full moon rising, and feel in touch with something — I don't know what it is, but something deep and gut-wrenchingly satisfying. And that's very different from anything I feel in the cave during the festal mass, no matter how moved I am by Didier's hiking boots peeping our from under his 18th century cope, or by seeing all these simple people joined in joy and wonder at the homage being paid to their favourite saint.
Why did I tell you that long and possibly quite irrelevant story? Partly to keep you from falling asleep, of course — in these days of sound bites, we're not used to sitting still and listening for 45 minutes — but partly because it says something about the context of our deepest spiritual experiences, and whether we experience things more or less fully when we are alone than when we are in a group..
Context is so important. That's why we tend to remember where we were when we heard about JFK's assassination, for example, or Lady Diana's death, and now, of course, the suicide attack on the World Trade Towers.
In times of major crisis like this, people need to be together. All over the western world this week, people have been flocking to church services. I didn't do that, because I didn't want to hear facile explanations about it's all part of God's Great Plan for the universe, and that God was weeping with us, and that there could be comfort if we only turned to him/her/it.
Instead, last Sunday afternoon, I went to a huge peace rally in the city square, not because I thought it would do any good, but because I felt at least it would be a change from the constant barrage of emails and phone calls that had occupied me for the previous four days, and because I felt that if I was going to fall about crying, at least there would be a friendly shoulder somewhere to lean on. (I actually hadn't cried until Saturday last week, when I heard that the Israelis had started beating the tripe out of the Palestinians, and that nobody in the whole wide world seemed to give a damn, or raise any kind of protest, but that's another story.)
It was a heartening experience, but not, I think, a spiritual one. There was a real sense of community, and I hugged a lot of people I'd never seen before and wouldn't know again if I saw them on the bus, and there was certainly a sharing of moral strength, but it wasn't spiritual. It was emotional, and psychological, but I don't think that's the same as spiritual.
I don't think I even know what a spiritual experience is. Is it the goose-bumps on the back of your neck when hear the alto aria at the end of Bach's John passion? Is it that frozen moment when you see the person you love best in the world after a long absence, and throw yourself into their arms and neither move nor speak? Is it in that gasp of wonder when you suddenly notice the full moon in such overwhelming beauty that your heart stops for a moment as you look at it? Is it the rush of love that you feel when a baby smiles at your for the first time? Or the painful joy of rereading a letter from a friend or lover long dead?
I don't know if these are spiritual moments. They're certainly the moments when I wish I could believe in some kind of higher power, some creative intelligence behind the universe, because at such moments, all I want to do is say Thank you, thank you, thank you — and as Meister Eckhart said, if that's the only prayer you ever utter, that's enough.
Can you be a spiritual person without something to focus on, somebody or thing to talk to, communicate with?
I just don't know. What I do know is that at these times when, however briefly, you reach what T S Eliot calls the still centre of the turning world, it's precisely at these times that you are completely and utterly alone, and that you cannot share the fullness of that experience with anyone.
“We live, as we dream, alone.” (Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, and he got that, as so many other things, dead right.) But that's the existential dilemma, isn't it — and all you children of the fifties and sixties, like me, we know about the existential dilemma! — the tension between two great and irreconcilable truths, that to the world we matter not at all, but to ourselves we are the only thing that matters.
In the great just flowing tide of history we are nothing, we are lost in the flood, but as individual drops of water, we reflect the universe and are therefore ultimately important. On the ski slopes, it's the mass of the snow that makes up the beauty, and if one snowflake melts, it doesn't matter at all, but at the same time, each snowflake is unique and utterly beautiful.
Lately I've been having one of those pointless email conversations with my most intelligent friend, about the death of a passionate and influential woman whom we both loved dearly. I was lamenting her loss of the world as well as to the world, that her symbolically important funeral (she was the leader of the movement for the ordination of Catholic women in Australia, and at her very formal RC requiem mass, an Anglican woman priest was allowed to conduct part of the service, and give communion to the non-Catholics present with wafers she had pre-consecrated the day Marie-Louise died) could be no comfort to her, because she wasn't there to know about it, and that's why I'm going to have my funeral the day before I die.
I quoted Philip Larkin's Aubade at him — if you don't know the poem, it has the poet waking every morning at 4 o'clock and thinking about the inevitability of death, which is one day nearer now. The middle part of it goes like this:
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says “No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel”, not seeing
That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none comes round.
This is what he wrote back: On Saturday, just after Marie-Louise died, I thought, “What a beautiful day it is”. And then I reflected on the fact that the day still WAS: i.e. it hadn't disappeared for the rest of us as it had for Marie-Louise. I found it a comforting thought that after I am gone the world that I love will still continue to exist. We too often think of our egos as little movie projectors which create (project) all the things that we see, and we fear that when our egos are turned off at death the magic lantern show will cease and the theatre go dark for ever. But it ain't like that. Pace the postmodernists, the world is not just a construct of the ego. So I comfort myself that the show will go on after I am gone. This relieves me of the anxiety of being solely responsible for the existence of the universe. It's not the existence of my ego/projector that matters but the world itself. It's the object that counts, not the subject; the end, not the means. Does that make you feel any better? Or is it just more moth-eaten brocade?
And then (because we have the kind of relationship where we out-quote each other, which can make it very tiresome for other people) I emailed back a little Housman poem, which I hoped would shut him up —
Good fellows, do you love your lives,
And have you ears for sense?
Here is a knife like other knives,
It cost me eighteen pence.
I need but plunge it in my heart,
And down will come the sky,
And earth's foundations will depart,
And all you folk will die.
A knife like other knives. Like those knives that brought the foundations of the world as we know it crashing down last week in the United States.
Comforter, where is your comforting? Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
All we can do, in our solitary cosmic despair, is huddle together like sheep, in whatever context makes us feel most at home, and find comfort in our mutual distress.
Whether that kind of huddling together, that kind of community religion, is any ultimate solution, I don't know. It may provide some relief, even some kind of context in which great individual spiritual moments can occur.
But it isn't necessarily necessary, and sometimes it can get in the way. We can be so swamped by community that we never get to experience the ultimate private revelatory moments that make us feel that there might be some point to everything, after all.
For good or ill, when you reach the still centre of the turning world, there is no room for anyone to stand beside you.

Appendix: Poems and Questions for Discussion

From In Memoriam A.H.H.
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Oh yet we trust that somehow good
      Will be the final goal of ill,
      To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
      That not one life will be destroyed,
      Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
      That not a moth with vain desire
      Is shrivelled in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
      I can but trust that good shall fall
      At last - far off - at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
      An infant crying in the night:
      An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a sigh.
The wish, that of the living whole
      No life may fail beyond the grave,
      Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?
Are God and Nature then at strife,
      That Nature lends such evil dreams?
      So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
That I, considering everywhere
      Her secret meaning in her deeds,
      And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,
I falter where I firmly trod,
      And falling with my weight of cares
      Upon the great world's altar-stairs,
That slope through darkness up to God.
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
      And gather dust and chaff, and call
      To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
  by Gerard Manley Hopkins
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked `No ling-
ering! Let me be fell; force I must be brief.'
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! Creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death doth end and each day ends with sleep.
  In Church
by R S Thomas
Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silence. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.

These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

Questions for Discussion

  • What have been your deepest spiritual moments?
  • Have they necessarily been connected with any group activity?
  • With any conventional religious activity?
  • Does it matter?
  • What does matter, then?



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