The ancient wisdom of Benedictine spirituality is engaging with 21st century Australia in a series of three lectures being presented by Sydney’s Rosebank College. The inaugural Benedictine Spirituality Lectures was launched last night by one of the country’s foremost thinkers in spirituality and contemporary life, lecturer and author, David Tacey, of Melbourne. In a lecture on What is Religion for in destitute times?, he said I am convinced that this is the way forward for religion: a movement from creed and proposition to receptivity and listening. It is a move away from moralism to mysticism, away from religious instruction to the encouragement of spirituality… Recognising the potential sacredness of the modern experience of emptiness is perhaps the first step toward the genuine religious revival of our civilisation. The responder was Fr Frank Brennan, sj.
An edited version of Dr Tacey’s lecture follows ….
Mysticism: cornerstone of the future Church
… Ours is a destitute time… The Indian poet Tagore wrote:
Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings while the dawn is still dark.
The destitute time is holy because we are led to expect something, to anticipate a change.
Religion in a destitute time moves from a spirituality of dwelling to a spirituality of seeking. Religion’s task is not to point to or explain itself, but to reach beyond itself to the world. It does this by reaching into and drawing out the sacred depths in people’s lives. In a secular time the majority of people no longer come to religion, and do not participate in religion’s rituals, so religion has to go out to the people. The locus of engagement is no longer primarily the sacred building, where people are not gathering, but the wider secular community in which a great deal of human activity and restlessness is taking place…
The task of ministry is different in a destitute time, because ministry must shift from preaching the word to listening for the word. Its general direction shifts from evangelism to prophetic listening. The Word, however, may be distorted and unable to express itself. We need to listen, as St. Benedict proclaims in his Rule, with the ear of the heart to the thoughts that arise from the hearts of others… The task of religion in a dark time is … to help them find the courage to enter the world of their feelings and to find there, at their vulnerable core, the cry for God, the cry for the fellowship of the Spirit…
The turning point takes place when human beings ‘are touched by presence’ . It is the contact with the sacred that allows us to discover our true nature, that frees us from our obsessions and enables us to walk toward the light… This art of spiritual liberation has to be rediscovered…
… The task of religion is to take some of the fear out of the God encounter, and to show us that the soul is liberated – and not oppressed – by the acceptance of the sacred into our lives…
The challenge is to do this teaching in a new way. The religious method has to shift from active preaching to receptive listening. In secular times, people are suspicious of religious truth, and highly suspicious of religious authority. Therefore, to survive these conditions, religion must become prophetic and use its prophetic resources and imagination. It must play down its authority, its desire to impose, preach, or import and instead it must listen to people’s stories, to their pain, their hopes and dreams, their failures and despair. A destitute time is a time for listening and being attentive (even) listening to what has not been said. Let religion educate (from the Latin educare, ‘to lead out’) the heart’s sacred potentials by allowing the deep longings to be expressed... I am convinced that this is the way forward for religion: a movement from creed and proposition to receptivity and listening. It is a move away from moralism to mysticism, away from religious instruction to the encouragement of spirituality.
I agree with the theologian Karl Rahner, who said religious tradition should stop trying to pump religion into people, and start drawing it out of people. This requires prophetic imagination, the recognition that there are traces of the divine in the person, and we need to listen with the ear of the heart for those traces. In a dark time, when propositional preaching no longer convinces, people can only be convinced by what they see emerging from their core, the spiritual life that emerges like a miracle from their true self. Religion has to encourage that true self and help to draw it out.
At all times and places, when religion has grown weak due to rationality or science, the way to make religion strong again is to re-experience the mystical potentials of the tradition. This can be observed throughout the history of Western religion, and it is in many ways a paradoxical way to engage in the strengthening of tradition.
The obvious way to become stronger is to invite what psychoanalyst Alfred Adler called the ‘masculine protest’. That is, the tradition decides to get tough, to shore up its territory and domain, to return to fundamentals and basic principles, to teach and preach with more insistence than before. This typical strategy is referred to by the media and social commentators as restorationist positioning, reactionary developments and fundamentalism. This response is understandable, and predictable, but historically speaking it never works, and is never effective in the long term.
Ironically, many attempts to strengthen religion serve to weaken it. But if tradition can show people that religion is already within them, that it is their true nature, and that their wellbeing and security is enhanced by its recognition, this is a great liberational achievement… When, in the 16th century, religion was weakening due to the advances of the sciences and rational enquiry… the way to renewal was not through defensive tactics, but rather through the revival of mystical interiority found in such figures as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. True strengthening takes place through the feminine arts of interiority, reflection, introspection, and careful consideration (religare) of the God within. It is only by an interior strengthening that religious tradition survives the onslaught of reason and science.
By interior strengthening, people are shown that religion matters, that it matters to their souls, that it has real and abiding affect upon their lives, that it makes a difference. No external threats or conditioning can influence people in the same way, especially not today, when the external authority of tradition has weakened considerably, so that its threats ring hollow throughout the secular, modernised and educated world.
Rather than coming to people with fixed answers and dogmatic solutions, which alienates them further, let religion, instead, come to them with a listening heart, with an attitude of receptivity. This is slow and tedious work, to be sure, but it is a way that yields results that have lasting power. True power comes from within, and any ‘show of power’ from without will have an alienating effect. I am not sure what this means at the institutional level, but what I have in mind is something akin to spiritual direction and counselling. I don’t think secular psychology or therapy is profound enough to give people want they need, because it does not have the resources to educate the spiritual life within the person.
Secular psychology and psychiatry are in a difficult position. They are beginning to realise that there is something more in the personality that they cannot conceptually access. All around the world, suffering people from every walk of life are offering the view to their doctors or counsellors that spirituality, or rather a lack of spirit, may have something to do with their malady or disease, their addiction or obsession, their neurosis or mental disorder. They recognise that there is a missing dimension in their lives, there is a recognition of something more, and this more is sensed first in its absence.
… In response to this, numerous conferences around the world in the healing professions are trying to listen, trying to add spirituality to the agenda, trying to include mystery and depth to the understanding of human character. In other words, human science is trying to move closer to religion, to bridge the gulf that separates these areas that have been warring for centuries. This has not come about from above, but from below, inspired by the suffering of ordinary people. Now religion must respond, and like science it will have to bend a bit, and give a little to respond to the new spirit of the time…
Religion becoming psychological won’t happen immediately. Nor will it occur without huge resistance. But it must happen, because there has to be a point of intersection where theology and experience meet. That point is the soul, the depths of the self. A religion based on belief has been dislodged by a new quest for experience, and to have experience means having a religious psychology able to understand it. To engage in this, religion will have to overcome its traditional belief that interiority is synonymous with selfishness….
A new sense of the holiness of creation has been inspired by the ecological emergency, and so too the holiness of the inner self is triggered by a crisis of the self. The modern self is turbulent, and a site of anguish and pain. In a sense, the self is giving birth to a second self, the soul, and this birth is painful. It is made more painful if religion is unable to see what is happening, and if it dismisses this by the name of ‘narcissism’. Like a new star on the horizon of possibility, the second self, the soul, is emerging from obscurity and demanding new attention.
The tradition that speaks directly to this need is of course mysticism, a tradition that has often been viewed with suspicion. In the recent past, religion has often taught that the best way to serve God is to forget about the self and focus on the other. Mysticism was an indulgence or a waste of time. Serving the other, and in particular the other who is hungry, poor, unloved, under-supported, has been the royal road to salvation in ethical religion. But now the other reveals itself in a totally unexpected light, as a deeper dimension within the self. This other within the self, this indwelling soul, which is indeed ‘poor in spirit’, under-nourished and impoverished: this is the new level of poverty that religion needs to address. It has to stop seeing poverty in purely literal or material terms and start focusing of the spiritual poverty of our time. If religion fails to take up this challenge it will be missing the greatest spiritual opportunity of the age…
Spirituality has a rhythm that is similar to breathing. It has an out-breath and in-breath. We in the West come from an external or exoteric tradition that has been practicing the out-breath for a very long time. The emphasis has been external: ‘religion’ is performed by good works, helping others in the world, rescuing those in need, shared rituals often practiced by rote, and community service. This is all very good, but it is only one side of religion. The other side is esoteric, and has largely been suppressed by mainstream tradition and forced to the margins. This exiled esoteric tradition, namely, the mystical tradition of finding the God within, is now the ‘stone rejected by the builders’, which is to become the cornerstone of the future church.
External faith has been emphasised in the past, and it has been hammered into many of us who were subjected to the ‘masculine protest’ of patriarchal tradition. A sheer lack of psychological knowledge has forced religion into this strategy, since it has not known what else to do, and has been afraid to experiment with mysticism, in case things go wrong when the Pandora’s Box is opened. Too often, religion has been an outward ritual, and not an act of consciousness. Religious education has been about ‘finding out’ about the tradition, and we have hoped, quite sincerely, that some of this will ‘rub off’, or that some people will ‘catch on’. But the ‘rubbing off’ and the ‘catching on’ have stopped, it seems, in the rising generations. They cannot live their spiritual lives by lights that have been lit in other places. They ask for and demand new lights to be lit in personal and intimate places, in the secret places of the heart.
After centuries of breathing out, we are now being asked by the spirit of the time to breath in, to expand our interiority, to enter the chambers of the heart that have been kept from us by an extraverted legacy in society or by taboos against inward discovery.
The Western tradition has been practising the art of breathing out for a long time, and as such, we have something to teach the introverted East about the relationship between spirit and society. But we have become exhausted by all this breathing out, and we are in desperate need of an in-breath. The tradition is denuded and devoid of in-spiration. The West is caught and stymied by this; it does not know how to take such a deep breath. Many feel they can only catch their breath by turning to the East, to yoga, which is based on the art of breathing, on prana and spirit. The New Age offers many techniques to develop pneuma, or spirit as breath.
There are Western resources for our in-breath, but we have forgotten them. They are buried, lost, or out of sight. We have the resources of Ignatian spirituality, Carmelite, and Benedictine, and Cistercian spiritualities, but these are like underground streams in society. Where can we go to be replenished by these waters? We are sitting on enormous riches, but most of this passes us by, as we sit in a dry wasteland at the surface. We are suffering from a collective amnesia of some kind, and we have to remember how to live on the inside, how to draw from mystical depths, and how to replenish our lives by turning toward the sacred echoes at the core of the human heart. The church is like Cinderella with amnesia, it sees the magical slipper in front of it, and it wonders if it dare put that wondrous slipper on and begin to dance.
It is essential today that religious life originates within the self, as a personal response to an inner call, rather than being derived from inherited habits or from social pressure. It seems that a religious faith which is not grounded on personal conviction is simply unable to deal with the conflicts of our time, and is all too easily lost or abandoned… Ironically, the way for the church to modernise is not to become more secular and more like society, but to present the monastic truths that bring about a transformation of personality. That is what people are hungry for; not an exoteric church that asks for conformity, but a mystical church that offers a transformation of our suffering.
The contemporary person is forced to start the spiritual journey from within, even though he or she may first encounter there a dull absence, a nothingness, a void. But it is not an ordinary or banal nothingness. It is ‘the Nothing out of which All may grow’ (Jung). Recognising the potential sacredness of the modern experience of emptiness is perhaps the first step toward the genuine religious revival of our civilisation.
Dr David Tacey is Associate Professor in the School of Critical Enquiry, La Trobe University, Melbourne. He teaches courses on spirituality and rites of passage, analytical psychology and literary studies. He is the author of eight books, including ‘The Spirituality Revolution: The Emergence of Contemporary Spirituality’ (Sydney, 2003); and 'ReEnchantment: The New Australian Spirituality' (Sydney, 2000).
His most recent books are 'How to Read Jung' (2006), and 'The Idea of the Numinous' (2006). His main research topic is the recovery of meaning in the contemporary world, an interest which takes him into several fields of knowledge, including philosophy, sociology, literary studies, religious studies and theology.
The Benedictine Spirituality Lectures continues next week, on Tuesday, March 14, when eminent academic and senior lecturer from the Catholic Institute of Sydney, Fr David Ranson, explores our understanding of Hospitality: The journey from fear to love. The final lecture will be delivered on Tuesday, March 21, by Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner, a highly regarded commentator on how the Catholic Christian tradition informs our social and political landscape. The lectures are being delivered at Rosebank College, Five Dock, from 7.45-9pm.