Jun 29

Religion, Spirituality and Mystery – a schism?

Tag: Human Condition,Persephone's Updates,SpiritualityPersephone Arbour @ 9:46 am

First written in 1995 Edited in 1998, 2002 & 2005! The edits have grown as my self discovery deepens. Today, in 2013, I find my past argument interesting and am glad that I wrote it – when I wrote it!. If someone were to ask me what my belief system was, right now – my answer would be “I don’t actually know, but I don’t think I have one”!

So, read on dear reader and ask yourself the same questions . . . .

“Traditional religious life takes place within the confines of the Garden (of Eden), within the world view of the official myth. The spiritual quest begins when we resolve to taste the forbidden fruit and draw our own life-map based on what we have discovered in our explorations” Sam Keen, Hymns to an Unknown God

This quotation defines very clearly my own quest. At first reading, it made perfect sense to me. Then on further enquiry, it seemed to suggest an either/or situation – a schism. My question: is this true in my experience? I’ll attempt to explore this schism, to find out first if there is one and hopefully to arrive at some deeper understanding of the mystery that faces us all, whether there is or can be a melding of the ancient traditions of religion, the firm beliefs of humanism and atheism and the freedom of undefined spirituality and agnosticism. This isn’t an article of criticism or condemnation – it comes from a genuine space of enquiry.

I was born to a Church of England protestant mother and an agnostic father. From these two all-important figures two different messages were received.
• From my mother: “Follow the rules of the church, go to Sunday School and you will live a good, useful fulfilled life. There is great comfort to be received from religion and it will make you a good person. ”
• From my father: “I don’t believe that, if there is a God, he requires us to worship in a special building in preference to sitting under a tree. I don’t know if there is a God, you’ll have to find that out for yourself”.

My parents loved each other deeply. Their love transcended any differences in religious belief, each learned something from the other to the extent that, during the last ten or so years of their lives, they both joined the Quaker Society of Friends where my mother found the spiritual solace that she needed and my father the peace, lack of structure and freedom from dogma that he required.

When very young I did what I was told, believed implicitly what both my parents told me and didn’t even think to question the paradox of the two messages. However, subconsciously a schism was already implanted. It wasn’t until winning a scholarship to a boarding school, of strict Anglican persuasion, that I was touched by the ritual, music and collective consciousness of chapel each day and twice on Sundays. I prayed fervently, sang hymns with passion and regularly fell hopelessly in love with one or other of the visiting clergy who possessed various levels of charisma! I also studied for and received my Confirmation. At the ceremony, beneath my best school suit and the new gold chain and cross round my neck – I felt something, something indefinable and certainly not talked about – some joy, some love, some hope that I’d never felt before; a falling-in-love with the form, with the religion, with the ritual – it fed my teenage heart.

This innocent belief did not survive the heady life-style of a music student and got completely lost in marriage, child-rearing and subsequent divorce. Yet it was from that position of hopelessness, engendered by the pain of divorce – my first taste of the “forbidden fruit”- that my true quest began.

Andrew Harvey in his book Dialogues of a Modern Mystic states: “the path to holiness questions everything “.

This I did, discovering Personal Growth in a big way, turning that into my religion for a while. Like most organised religions it had its own rules, collective behaviour, devotees, dogma and ritual. Like other organised religions it sometimes touched the divine, sometimes made the mystery visible, sometimes opened up a new path to travel. These glorious moments were interspersed with conflicts, politics, organisational hierarchy, power mongering – all elements to be seen in organised religion. This time was fruitful and empowering – but not fulfilling enough, it just added fuel to the search, heightened the longing for ‘something more’.

After a journey that included some years in the guru/disciple relationship, separation and individuation, searching both within and without – even in Humanism I didn’t find the freedom that I required, even there a ‘religion’ had grown up.

One of the aspects of being human is the ability to constantly reassess and widen our understanding to include new knowledge of the larger world, enlarging our frames of reference, changing paradigms.

Conversely we often choose to cling to out dated belief systems learned as children and take them with us throughout adulthood, long after they have relevance. Most organised religions encourage this continuance, pay lip service to enquiry, never opening the doors completely to allow individual crises of conscience to be there without the threat of punishment – as in the practice of excommunication from the Catholic church and the extremes of fundamentalism seen in the fanatic element of Islam, or the shunning of family members within orthodox Judaism.

Because, in our humanness, we constantly look for safety, for reassurance and security, it’s safer to operate from a narrower frame of reference than that of which we’re capable. There’s a need for certainty. To develop broader wisdom we have to be prepared to forsake our narrower one. This can also create schisms, denying the individual the comfort of ancient ritual, community and sacredness in the name of freedom and the unknown.

“By killing God, in the Nietzschean sense, we have come close to killing ourselves” says Andrew Harvey. By deriding mystical truth, we have nearly severed ourselves from any source of divine wisdom. We no longer know who we really are and who we can be.”

Into this vacuum comes the sometimes superficial New Age religion of ‘anything goes’, ’we create our own reality’, ethereal realms, visiting entities, past lives etc. – many paths that I’ve trodden and discarded along the way. This vacuum also creates a climate for disaffection and rebellion.

“Killing God” did not work for me. Blindly following the crowd of seekers of the truth didn’t either. Holding fast to my ideas of ‘freedom’ could be arrid and lonely. When I sat and allowed my own still small voice to be heard, my humanness, with all its frailties and strengths called out for compassion, for understanding and acceptance. That gentle voice also awakened in me the longing for enlightenment, for self-realization, for oneness with everything. Was there some divine grace that could, with love and compassion, persevere with this somewhat wayward, albeit sincere woman? I thought there was, but couldn’t name it. It didn’t seem separate from me in my confusion, other religions, atheism or agnosticism.

In our humanity it seems that faith, belief or religion of loosely any sort acts as a support system for the soul. I use the word soul as a generic term to describe those intangibles without which our lives feel unfulfilled and lacking in meaning.

We all have the opportunity to find the systems that support our soul’s need. Sometimes we decide to adopt our parents’ direction and hopefully find our individual way within that tradition. Sometimes we need to use the energy of rebellion, like any teenager.

If I’m against religion (tradition), and for spirituality ( unorthodoxy and freedom) – or vice versa – then I add to the schism, to the separateness and isolation that is at the root of the human dilemma, contributing to the journey away from the source. As a sentient human being I do have a choice of attitude, the ability to question and enquire, and do possess the qualities of tolerance and compassion.

My chosen, conscious path has been that of enquiry, exploration and experiment – the characteristics often applied to spirituality. These can’t exist in a rigid and exclusive religion, where humility can be false and a willingness to honour others’ belief systems is absent. This rigidity can also apply to humanists and atheists – those belief systems can also become “religions” in the sense of unbending opinion and belief.

When living in Australia, I had a friend who was a devout Roman Catholic. The lively discussions we enjoyed about our differing views on these subjects added juice, depth and dimension to our relationship. There were times when I envied his surety while at the same time feeling wary of it. We were both finding ourselves willing to consider and explore the other’s point of view. This brought richness and colour to our lives. In reading a book on prayer by a Catholic Priest, I realised that he was writing about what I would call meditation – no difference. He saw his God within the tradition of his church, his religion, I do not see god at all. However, I’m aware of a mystery. Maybe all wer’e talking about – is form, a different form. My friend had a definite form, a definite story – mine has no-form, but of course there’s also a story of some sort in my head. Although I sense that my god is way beyond any story.

I see that my own attempt to find some path, some vehicle through which to know the mystery – is self-created. However you attempt to harness the un-harnessable, it’s everywhere, within and without. Schism is created by us, by our possessiveness, our territorialism. To try and define the indefinable, and put it in a box called – “religion” “spirituality” “atheisem” “humanism” is simply not intelligent.

During my life, the search for spirituality has led me to recognise that separation from anything is not only unnecessary, but is ultimately non-existent.

I quote from a letter Jung wrote to Freud, “What infinite rapture and wantonness lie dormant in our religion. We must bring to fruition its hymn of love.“

I am lucky – there is again, unbidden, a feeling of innocence, of ‘not knowing’, of vulnerability. For this I’m grateful. I seem to have slowed down the search, and have developed a greater willingness to listen to others with a respect that I didn’t allow when younger, when the need was to be “right”.

Jung’s hymn of love can be sung in my mother’s church or under my father’s tree. The boughs of the tree can be cut to build the church. I can sit in either place – or no particular place at all. For me, the constant is the mystery, each individual’s own interpretation of the un-interpretable mystery, neither right nor wrong. For me, there is no schism.

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One Response to “Religion, Spirituality and Mystery – a schism?”

  1. Richard Johnson says:

    Dear Persephone,
    Being of the same vintage I can relate to so much of what you say, although my journey has been somewhat shallower and less exploratory. Whilst our physical paths have covered different territory, the inner journey, as you express it, towards a sense of “not knowing” and an acceptance to some degree of “what is”, is something in which I find comfort. For me the final two paragraphs of your article sum this up so well.