Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Emily Dickinson : The Infinite Power of Home ANN ROCHFORD

On Tuesday the 20th of February, Ann Rochford led a Spiritual Reading Group at the Carmelite Library on the poet Emily Dickinson. Here is Ann’s introductory paper.

Emily Dickinson is one of America’s greatest literary figures.  In her lifetime she was considered a recluse and was better know as a botanist.  Her Herbarium collection of pressed plants, which runs to 66 pages, has long been owned as part of the Harvard University collection.  In her lifetime only ten of her poems were published.  Her brilliance was not recognized.  (She has left us a chest of 1775 poems)

Emily Dickinson was born on the 10th of December 1830 in Amherst Massachusetts.  Her family home was built by her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson.  He was a founder of the Amherst Academy and Amherst College.  Like his male descendents, he was an attorney with an interest in politics and public issues.  Emily’s father,
Edward, was a member of the Senate. The Dickinsons were well known, middle class and very respectable. 

Emily was the second of three children.  She had a loving and close relationship with her older brother, Austin and her younger sister Lavinia (Vinnie). She was also very close to Austin’s first wife,
Susan Gilbert, who had been her best friend from childhood.

Emily was considered an exceptional student and an original thinker.
She attended Amherst Academy, and then spent an unhappy year at Mt Holyoke Female Seminary, a college for girls. Here for the first time she came into conflict with contemporary society, because she would not formally or publicly express her religious beliefs.  She did believe in God---she just did not see the need to formally worship in church.  (After the age of 30 she never attended church although she befriended a number of ministers.)

After 1848, at the age of 18, Emily returned to the family home from Mt Holyoke, and rarely left it.  She said she preferred solitude to society and spoke about  “The Infinite Power of Home.”  She nursed her ailing mother (who managed to be an invalid for 25 years!), tended the house and her wonderful garden; kept up an enormous correspondence with friends, and wrote her poetry.

She scribbled poetry all through the day, as ideas came to her.  She used the back of envelopes, old receipts, anything that came to hand, then it would go into her apron pocket and be reworked later in the evening.  She would work into the small hours getting her poetry just right, for the thoughts she wished to express.

Her reclusiveness was balanced by the wide correspondence she kept up throughout her life.  She was a very demanding pen friend, chastising her friends if they did not reply promptly to her letters. Most of her dearest friends were people she wrote to, but had never met.  As she was dying, she asked her sister to burn her letters, so we have no trace of the incoming correspondence she received, only that which her friends received and kept.

By 1860, Emily had withdrawn from social life.  By 1867 she would not open the door to visitors, but spoke to them behind it.  She began to only wear white.  She would exchange messages with locals but never speak to them in person.   In 1874 her father died and was buried from the foyer of the family home.  She did not go down to the service but listened to it from the open door of her bedroom.  Her family accepted, and was protective, of her desire to be reclusive.

Dickinson loved poetry and writing, and was very familiar with the works of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Wordsworth, and the Bronte’s.  She was well versed in Shakespeare.  She understood the conventions of writing poetry in the literary style of her day.  However, she never sought to emulate it.  She had her own style, which is impossible to categorize.  Her poems have no titles.  Every word is measured, no excess word is used.  Every comma, dash (of which there are many) and strange capitalization is integral to her sense of her work.  

Her imagery ranges widely from domestic and garden metaphors, to scientific references and literary illusions.  It is thought that reflections on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ were an inspiration for some of her writings on death and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ clearly influences her sharp observations about the role of women in her society. Her poetry has many voices: the child, the nobleman, the mad woman, and possibly most famously, the corpse.  Death and immortality are recurring themes that seem to fascinate her.  She wrote to her friends about “the deepening menace of death” and speaks about going through periods of long depression over the death of a family member or friend.  She often writes in the common meter (4 beats followed by 3.)  If you take “Because I could not wait for death” it is possible to sing it to the tune of the theme song of  ‘Gilligan’s Island’, which is also written in common meter.

Dickinson’s writing was at its most active in the early 1860’s.  This is the time of the great slavery debates and the carnage of the American Civil War.  Not a word of this is mentioned in her poetry.  Dickinson is an inward poet, focusing only on those things that inhabited the small world she had created for herself and her own inner observations.

Those of her poems that were published in her lifetime, were “fixed up” by editors.  They changed her punctuation, they put in commas, they fixed her capitalizations.  In Dickinson’s view this destroyed the meaning of her work.  She was dismayed and reluctant to publish others. She was also not encouraged to publish her work.  She had a long time mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was a well-known literary critic.  She initially sent work to him and asked him to tell her “if it breathed”.   They corresponded over many years and she shared a great deal of her writing with him.  He eventually came to meet her for the first and only time, a few years before her death.  He did edit the first little volume of her work that was published after her death, but is forever known as the man who overlooked a genius.

Some of her friends did recognize her literary gifts.  Her former school friend, Helen Hunt Jackson, who was a publisher, volunteered to be her literary executor “because you are a great poet and it is wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud.”

Emily Dickinson died of Brights disease, on the 15th of May 1886, aged 55.  She was not buried in the manner described in her most famous poem, but at her request was carried to her grave, in a white coffin, through fields of buttercups.

Upon her death a trove of 1775 poems were discovered.  Very soon after her death, both her sister and her brother’s second wife began to put out pieces of her work – she was quickly recognized as a significant poet and her fame grew and grew.  By 1891 critics said her work had a strange mixture of individuality and originality.  By the early 1920s she was considered essentially modern.  She was hailed as a great female poet.  By the 1930s she was a post modernist.   It was not until 1955, that a complete volume of all of her poetry was published.  (It was unedited) She is now a thriving industry in her hometown of Amherst .  Her family home is a museum.  Her work has never been out of print.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The EarthSong Library comes to the Carmelite Library

A Report written by Philip Harvey

At the end of last year the EarthSong Project closed after a journey of nearly fifteen years. One outcome of this decision was the donation of the EarthSong Library to the Carmelite Library. This means that the Library, in one week, became the best ecospirituality library in Melbourne. This is a great gift, it’s also a great responsibility, a great potential learning experience.

As its website explains, “EarthSong Educational Project emerged in 2003 from a conversation amongst members of several Religious Congregations wanting to explore the nature and power of the new universe story and its implications for an integral spirituality. The project was launched at Pipemakers Park on the banks of the Maribyrnong River on 27th July 2003.  In 2008 EarthSong: Earth Literacy and Earth Ethics Association became an incorporated body, governed by the EarthSong Council. In keeping with EarthSong’s vision seminars, workshops, retreats and programs for adults and senior students […] comprised the main focus of its activity. Since 2004, the EarthSong Journal offered Australian reflections on issues of ecology, spirituality and education.” 

EarthSong’s sponsors were Brigidine Sisters Victoria, Christian Brothers Oceania Province, Faithful Companions of Jesus, Institute of Sisters of Mercy Australia and Papua New Guinea, Presentation Sisters Victoria, and the Passionist Congregation. Later Anne Boyd csb, one of EarthSong’s Project Co-ordinators, established an Ecospirituality Reading Group at the Carmelite Centre in Middle Park, a group that continues to meet and share knowledge, a group to which all are welcome.
The library of EarthSong expresses the many interweaving interests of its original mission. If our concern is for the future of the planet and our place in that future, then these are not minority matters. We are each called to think differently about our living environment, to learn about the changing knowledge we have of the big picture of the Universe, right through to the most local and intimate networks of interrelated being.

So there are many books on that most ancient of disciplines, Cosmology, its history and theology, brought up to the present in which we analyse and synthesise the discoveries and theories of science. Science and religion are no longer contending opposites in some unholy battle for a correct view, but elements of the same human desire to know and understand. Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Ferris rub elbows with Bill Plotkin, Steven Chase, and John Haught.

Hence also the broad ranging literature on Darwinism and all that followed. Most Christians today accept the theory of evolution. The question for some time has been how to appreciate the changing positions on evolution in the light of Scripture and Tradition; how to conduct a constructive dialogue about its reality. EarthSong library contains dozens of authors and thinkers working in the field. Historically significant amongst these is the French Jesuit mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose observable recent rehabilitation within the Catholic Church comes at this time of cosmological and environmental dialogue. The realted events are apparent every day in the papers, how to think and address the presenting issue for our world of ecological crisis, a crisis regarded by many as a First Order issue, given that it threatens what we know of the created world.

Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, with its emphatic Franciscan title, is one of the major world documents in response to the “inconvenient truth” of climate change and ecological degradation. The EarthSong Project predates this encyclical but its library helps explain where the Pope is coming from and how to read and respond to his words.

Attendant upon this teaching is the general and worldwide activism, as distinct from do-nothingness, that serves to protect and restore the Earth and the sanctity of Creation. This understandably takes political and social forms, as well as theological and philosophical forms. The collection also contains important works on ecology from all the major faith traditions.

The Carmelite Centre’s 2016 Symposium on these questions introduced many attendees to the rich and varied thinking at the heart of  ecotheology and ecospirituality. The EarthSong library is well represented, its holdings augmenting what was already a strong author presence in this Library: Thomas Mary Berry, Wendell Berry, Denis Edwards, Charles Eisenstein, Andy Fisher, Matthew Fox, John Grim, Joanna Macy, Sean McDonagh, Bron Miller, Diarmuid O’Murchu, H. Paul Santmire,  and the list grows.

The slogan ‘think globally, act locally’ is a rule of thumb for ecospirituality. We are going to begin where we find ourselves, which is frequently in our own backyard. The library contains many books on Australian environment, whether fauna, flora, geology, or climate. The Carmelite Library collects materials on local history and geography, so there have been many adds on the life (in every sense of the word) of Melbourne and that large expanse of water just down the street, Port Phillip Bay. Any books on local Indigenous culture, history, and religion are added as a matter of course. Aboriginal spirituality is a constant commitment in the Library’s collection development.

Related to this is Australian nature writing, much of which speaks of the intimate connections we have with our own environment.  EarthSong collected widely in this genre, for example Geoff Lacey, Patrice Newell, Mark Tredinnick, Geoff Lacey, and Tim Winton. Some people regard the American Henry David Thoreau as a formative spiritual writer on nature and we have a very good Thoreau section, now further improved courtesy of EarthSong. But Thoreau is only one style of nature writer. Today the landscape is populated with writers putting down their words on the effect and condition of their natural world s. The spiritual life is enriched by the beauty and experience, but also the brutal honesty at times, of this genre.

Another philosophy that turned into a slogan is E.F. Schumacher’s ‘small is beautiful’.  Schumacher is one of several thinkers whose ideas have inspired movements and even schools of followers; such thinkers, not all of them instantly identifiable as religious thinkers, have had a major influence on ecospirituality. Writers in the widespread Sustainable movement are another example, including the Tasmanian Bill Mollison, one of the conceptual founders of permaculture.

The EarthSong library is a prized windfall for the Carmelite Library. It is a grand acquisition. The materials are being steadily catalogued and added to the collection, but it is you the reader of this report who is the future reader of these works and for whom they are being made available. The windfall is also a developing research resource for the University of Divinity, which this Library serves.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection : an accidental spiritual guide DAMIEN PEILE

On Wednesday  March 7th Damien Peile will conduct the second  'Carmelite Conversations' session on Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Here are Damien’s presentation notes.

This conversation will explore:
·         A brief overview of his life – some background.
·         His writings - The Practice of the Presence of God. This will include some time for personal reflection  to read his letters.
·         His appeal and relevance today (400 years later)

Seventeenth-century France
He lived in tumultuous seventeenth-century France, with its power struggles, debts, and perpetual unrest. Lawrence lived most of his life under Louis XIV, after the religious wars that had devastated the country in the 1500s. Louis was constantly at war.

There lived in his time several spiritual luminaries whose wisdom still guides people today. Francis de Sales’ ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’  is a book written by Saint Francis de Sales.  Blaise Pascal, Madame Guyon, and Francois Fénelon. Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675 – 1751), French Jesuit priest and writer known for the work ascribed to him, ‘Abandonment to Divine Providence’,  his ideas on the spiritual life and  guidance for daily living in communion with God.

Biography (1614 -1691), Carmelite lay brother
Little is known about him.
Born in the region of Lorraine, Eastern France.
Humble parents, did not have enough money for sponsoring an education.
Some form of “home-schooling” by a parish priest (Lawrence) .
A connection to the Discalced Carmelites through his Uncle Jean Majeur.

Seeking Direction
·         1629  aged 15 entered the French military.
·         1632  aged 18 he received a revelation of the providence and power of God:  considered it a supernatural clarity into a common sight, more so than as a supernatural vision.
·         1635 Thirty Years War (1618-48), a near fatal injury to his sciatic nerve resulted in chronic pain (1635). 
·         Tried the hermit life, but thought himself a failure.
·         Later worked as a valet, saying he was a “footman who was clumsy and broke everything.”

Monastic Lifestyle
·         Took the religious name “ Lawrence of the Resurrection”  lived there some 50 years
·         1642,  solemn profession of vows.
·         Primary assignments – kitchen (cook and dishwasher).
·         In later years, repairing sandals(200 pairs). www.stlouiscarmel.com/resources/brother_lawrence_in_the_kitchen/
·         wine buyer for the community.

Brother Lawrence – the Person
·         A quiet and unobtrusive person.
·         Deeply aware God’s gracious love for him.
·         Had a sense of God at a young age.
·         Had insight into his nature and acutely aware of his sins.
·         A gentle man of joyful spirit, Brother Lawrence shunned attention and the limelight.

The Practice of the Presence of God
Brother Lawrence's letters are the very heart and soul of what is titled 'The Practice of the Presence of God'. All of these letters were written during the last ten years of his life. Many of them were to long-time friends, a Carmelite sister and a sister at a nearby convent. One or both of these friends were from his native village, perhaps relatives.

Father Joseph de Beaufort gathered as many of the monk’s letters of spiritual direction that he could find, along with four conversations that people recalled from their meetings with him, and these were published as ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’ - including four recorded conversations and spiritual maxims

·         The basic theme of the book is the development of an awareness of the presence of God.
·         All was published after his death, as he insisted on total privacy during his lifetime.
·         Structure:
·         Part 1: four conversations - Brother Lawrence and Abbé Joseph de Beaufort. Part 2:  fifteen letters from Brother Lawrence's personal correspondence.
·         Tone-formal and detached. Sense of gravity.

This book promotes no spiritual method or technique, except that of ongoing prayer. There is little patience for methods, devotions and mortifications .
The book is more like a conversation between two friends over coffee .
It has an immediacy and intimacy that is both blunt and refreshing. It is a spirituality that is best practised in the small rooms of our ordinary lives.

Theological Criticisms - Quietism
Quetism is set of Christian beliefs that had popularity in France, Italy and Spain during the late 1670s and 1680s.
Quietists had something of the Stoic about them, a passivity and silence in the face of outward events: to suppress, rather than submit to a loving Father.
Strove to crush their own will, and any desire—even the desire for salvation—so that God could bring about whatever he desired without impedance from the human.

·         Irreconcilable with our relationship to God in the Scriptures  which teach us to seek, request,  wrestle, e.g. Doubting Thomas,  Garden of Gethsemane (ultimate anguish), death of Lazarus.
·         The doctrine of the Incarnation (God revealing Himself in Christ)  appears as a ‘blind spot’.
·         Quietism was condemned as heresy by Pope Innocent XI in the papal bull ‘Coelestis Pastor’ of 1687.

Reflecting on the Letters of Brother Lawrence (handouts)

1.       What strikes you about this in terms of the spiritual journey for today?
2.       What characteristic  strikes you about Brother Lawrence – i.e. living with pain, searching for God, difficulty with self-acceptance.
3.       What questions would you have for Brother Lawrence and how do you think he might respond?

Simple Spiritual Wisdom - Principles
Have a conversation with God. "If we only realized how much we need God's help and how much He wants to bless us, none of us would lose sight of Him, not for a second."
Develop a conscious life. Become aware of noticing where you are, what you are doing.
When facing pain, disappointments and the mundaneness of life – surrender to  God’s presence!

·         To keep God in mind at all times and to trust God as much as possible,  no matter how mundane or routine, was the medium of God's love. The issue was not the sacredness or worldly status of the task but the motivation behind it

·         We must fully recognize our spiritual poverty, our incapacity, and accept this condition.

·         Brother Lawrence developed an ability to live each moment in the Presence of God.

We must have confidence in God, in order that He may accomplish in us what we cannot do by our own powers. This path to this perfect union was not easy. He spent years disciplining his heart and mind to yield to God's presence. "As often as I could, I placed myself as a worshiper before him, fixing my mind upon his holy presence, recalling it when I found it wandering from him. This proved to be an exercise frequently painful, yet I persisted through all difficulties."

Christian spirituality : an introduction to the heritage, by Charles J. Healey  (ch. 9)
French spirituality in Christian spirituality : post-Reformation and modern, edited by Louis Dupré and Don E. Saliers.
Methodist spirituality, by Gordon S. Wakefield.

i) Works: The most useful resource is the edition of his works: ‘Writings and Conversations on the Practice of the Presence of God’, ed. Conrad De Meester, trans. Salvatore Sciurba, Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1994.
    ii) Studies: Robin Maas, “Practicing the Presence of God: Recollection in the Carmelite Tradition", Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, ed. Robin Maas and Gabriel O'Donnell, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990, 259-268; Dwayne Huebner, “Practicing the Presence of God", Religious Education 82 (1987): 569-577.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Ways of Reading the Bible (1): Sarah Ruden and the translator’s impossible task

‘The Face of Water : a Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible’, by Sarah Ruden (New York, Pantheon Books, 2017) ISBN 978-0-307-90856-8

This review by Philip Harvey first appeared in the March 2018 issue of The Melbourne Anglican.

In a world where literalism is allowed the final say, where religion’s foundational words are used for nationalist and divisive ends, we are moved to ask, as Sarah Ruden does, “Okay, the Bible – what about it?” How we read Scripture, our attitude to it, always remain significant issues, even if we say we’re ‘No Religion’. For Christians and Jews it can never be a matter of indifference.

Roaming in from the wilds of classical studies, Ruden was floored by a rediscovery: “The Bible, I recognised, was a book that profoundly mattered, more even than ancient pagan literature (in which I do have qualifications).” Some classicists would deem this a provocative admission, especially coming from an acclaimed translator of Homer, Aeschylus, and Virgil. (She’s the first woman ever to translate the entire Aeneid.) 

Her objective is to introduce us to the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek, and how they work, through the eyes of someone who was born to translate. A combination of lightly handled erudition, poetic sensibility, and spectacular left-field humour turns this exercise into a reading pleasure. I never thought I could get mesmerised by explanations of vav consecutives or hapax legomenon. Her ear for metre is fabulous.

What to do with a literature where “form and content are inseparable, and equally important”? How to deal with language where “if we can’t dance to it, we don’t understand it’? How do you make that happen in English? Ruden describes the process with the Bible whereby she is “trying to make the book less a thing of paper and glue and ink and petrochemicals, and more a living thing.”

Ruden’s concern is how English, for all its vast vocabulary and intricate varieties of nuance, still cannot say everything being said with brevity and wit in the original. The King James Version (KJV) is her default “because of its beauty and familiarity”, but it too is oft wanting. Then there’s the whole dimension known as context, contexts at times “invisible”.

The book proceeds by exposition. Ruden chooses Old and New Testament passages that illustrate her own challenges and theories as a translator. She stands her versions against the King James, showing up shifts in meaning, accent, and pitch. We have space for two examples.

Ecclesiastes famously calls life ‘vanity’, the KJV repeating the Latin tag. Eugene Peterson, almost as famously, translates this word (‘hevleh-ka’) as ‘smoke’. Ruden’s word is ‘evanescence’, the thing at issue being insubstantiality, “a wisp of vapor or a puff of wind … blended back into the air, before you can even focus on it.” But she goes further. ‘Hevleh-ka’ matches in sound ‘helkeh-ka’ in the same verse, a word the KJV has as ‘thy portion’. In other words, whoever you are and whatever you own, it’s all evanescence, saith the Preacher.

‘Rei-a’ is a Hebrew word Ruden calls “helpfully, dynamically untranslatable”. It can mean fellow, friend, equal, companion, member, depending on (you’ve heard it before) context. Indeed, it’s the context that provides the meaning, every time. In the Ten Commandments the KJV translates the word ‘neighbour’. And who is my neighbour? When a certain lawyer puts Jesus on the spot about who shall inherit eternal life, he finds himself in a context where the discussion turns on a definition of ‘rei-a’. But that’s nothing. Jesus tells a shocker of a story where the most reviled claimants to the lawyer’s own tradition are, by the lawyer’s own admission, neighbour to the man who was beaten up.  It’s the Samaritan who shows mercy. Ruden goes on to explain how the Greek equivalent (‘pleision’) adds further surprise and depth to the parable.
Last year, Sarah Ruden published her version of Saint Augustine’s Confessions. It’s good news for all of us that, according to her website, she now plans to translate the Four Gospels. Given the respectful and creative relationship to scriptural language on display in ‘The face of water’, both translation and any attendant critical commentary are sure to keep us on our mettle, and offer something new.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Spiritual but not religious CLARE McARDLE

Spiritual but not religious : independent? interdependent? identical?

John Olsen, 'Delta'

On Thursday the 1st of March, the Carmelite Spiritual Learning Circle met in the Library to discuss questions about how we distinguish between religion and spirituality. Here are Clare McArdle’s notes for conversation starters. Quotes throughout are sourced in the closing bibliography.

Have you heard people say that they are spiritual but not religious and wondered what they mean by it?

Does it reflect the decline in traditional church membership and a rejection of authority and dogma while at the same time acknowledging that there is something else, something non-material that requires our attention?

·         How do we distinguish between religion and spirituality?
o   Do they refer to a body of knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, orientation towards life, practices, a human capacity?
o   The way we source our beliefs? From some external authority such as a church, scripture, through the exercise of our own reason, from our individual experiences, feelings and emotions?
o   The purpose or function of such beliefs or attitudes? Are they about finding the god/spirit within or without; creating meaning or hope in our lives; providing a moral and ethical framework?
o   What is the type of practice required to develop and maintain one’s religion or spirituality? Communal, social, personal, individualistic?

Some descriptions of the ideas of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’


William James summed up the characteristics of religious life as having the following beliefs:
1.      That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;
2.      That harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;
3.      That inner communion (prayer) with the spirit is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world. ( James p. 528)

The High Court of Australia proposed the following test for religious groups in 1983 as:
1.      a belief in something supernatural, some reality beyond that which can be conceived by the senses;
2.      that the belief in question relates to man’s nature and place in the universe and his relationship to things supernatural;
3.      as a result of this belief adherents are required or encouraged to observe particular codes of conduct or engage in particular practices that have supernatural significance; and
4.      the adherents comprise one or more identifiable groups. (Bouma p. 8)
“These High Court criteria reflect Australian community understandings: that religions focus on things beyond the material, beliefs locating the human in the cosmos, practices related to these beliefs and the formation of a group of adherents.” (Bouma p. 8)
John Caputo On religion argues that “there is a fundamentally religious quality to human experience itself” regardless of whether you identify yourself within a particular religious tradition or see yourself as an atheist.  Caputo believes that there is a deeply religious element within us all with or without religion. (p. 109)

Bouma continues,  – “one of the most basic functions of religion and spirituality at all times is to provide hope.  While in the past religions may have also been called on to promote allegiance to the state or duty to society, today in Australia the focus is on hope. …Religious meaning addresses the issue ‘what is the point in anything, life, work, love or getting up in the morning?’  At the very least spiritualities work by saying that effort, even if that is the cessation of striving, is worthwhile and that the universe is in some way, regardless of the vast evidence to the contrary, essentially friendly.  Spiritualities say that by attending to the more-than-physical in your life you will become attuned with the universe and as a result will be happier, healthier and wealthier – at least spiritually if not monetarily.  Through encounters with otherness, self is affirmed, connected and made to feel part of a larger whole”. (Bouma p. 18)

“The religious and spiritual is not primarily about meaning but is a set of activities that promotes hope, if only by getting the person moving.” (Bouma p. 25)


 ‘For many people, ‘spirituality’ is in the private realm: ‘my’ way of seeking meaning, connection and a certain centeredness in life.”  (Ranson p. 10)

“As it is used in Australia today, the ‘spiritual’ refers to an experiential journey of encounter and relationship with otherness, with powers, forces and beings beyond the scope of everyday life.  To be spiritual is to be open to this ‘more than’ in life, to expect to encounter it and to expect to relate to it.” (Bouma p. 12)

Bouma states, “Thus, while some see spirituality as essentially an individual activity and reflective of cultures of individualism, spirituality always involves the self in relation with some other and indeed is more profoundly relational than it is individual.  Like religions, spiritualities can be transforming and may raise ethical issues.” (Bouma p. 12-13)

Ranson - our sense of ‘spirituality’ arises from whether we have a Hebrew or Greek orientation.  If our orientation is towards the Greek we will conceive the ‘spiritual’ as immaterial, beyond matter, supersensory, ethereal – connection with a ‘spiritual’ world.  If we lean towards the Hebrew then we associate  ‘spirituality’ with force and energy, a vitality in life, a ‘coming awake’, an increased awareness about life and a deepened sensitivity to its murmurs and rhythms. (Ranson p. 17)

Ranson adopts the Hebrew approach.

Spirituality is a certain awakening to life that relates us more deeply to life.  The imagination is opened to new possibility.  Life can be seen and heard in a new way.  There is the recognition that there are deeper currents operating in life.  There are dimensions of life yet to be explored, all of which offer greater depth, connection, centredness and wholeness.” (p. 17)

Spirituality and secularism

According to van Ness this has two standpoints:  the first a sociological one where persons describe themselves as spiritual but holding no truck with religion or religious beliefs and the second is philosophical which allows that being religious is not a necessary condition for being spiritual and a secular spirituality is neither validated nor invalidated by religious varieties of spirituality.  It assumes that spirituality can be at least theoretically distinguishable from both a religious spirituality and a conception of secular life that is not spiritual. (van Ness p. 68)

A spiritual life is hypothesized to have an outer and an inner complexion.  Outwards – we assume human existence is spiritual insofar “as it engages reality as a maximally inclusive whole and makes the cosmos an intentional object of thought and feeling.” (68)  Inwards – “life has a spiritual dimension to the extent that it is apprehended as a project of one’s most enduring and vital self, and is structured by experiences of sudden self-transformation and subsequent gradual development”. (68)  In this sense the spiritual dimension of life “becomes equitable with the lived task of realizing  one’s truest self in the context of reality apprehended as a cosmic totality.  It is the quest for attaining an optimal relationship between what one truly is and everything that is; it is a quest that can be promoted by apt regimens of disciplined behavior.” (van Ness p. 69)

Van Ness sees the core of spirituality as understanding the world as a cosmic whole and the self as an enduring agent and these are not directly indebted to religion. (van Ness p. 71)

Others may speak of seeing the world clearly as though a veil has been pulled away, for example in Amanda Lohrey’s novel The short history of Richard Kline (2015)  in which a character  refers to ‘a cosmic consciousness, a form of intelligence that pervades everything…you swim in the ocean of that consciousness like a fish in the sea’. (Mackay p. 158)

Spirituality “cannot exist in a vacuum.” (Ranson p. 59)  The history of spirituality shows its connection to various religious traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity and even within those traditions there are different spiritualities.  In Christianity we can see two traditions of kataphatic (those discovering the presence of God through senses and imagery) and apophatic (those focusing on negation, silence and darkness). “ Ranson (p 59)  “Spirituality cannot exist apart from context: …it emerges from the heart of particular contexts.” Ranson (p. 59) This is so because 1) context provides the trigger points of transcendence ; they provide “different moments of awakening” and
2) spirituality is essentially a cultural experience. (Ranson p. 62)

Finding religious or spiritual truth via faith

Religious truth is a different sort of truth to scientific truth.  The faithful do not cognitively know what they believe by faith in any epistemologically rigorous way.  In that sense while “faith gives the faithful a way to view things, they are not lifted by the hook of faith above the fray of conflicting points of view.  They do not enjoy certain cognitive privileges and epistemic advantages of which others have been deprived, and their beliefs are not entitled to special treatment outside their own communities” (Caputo p. 111).

St Paul: “Knowledge puffs up but loves builds up.  Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by Him” (1 Cor.8:1-2) ( Caputo p. 111)

“Religious truth is not the truth of propositions” it belongs to a different order (Caputo p. 114). As St Augustine called it the “facere veritatem the making or doing the truth and particularly if it requires the impossible of us.  To say God is love means that we must get up and make that happen, we must do the word.  Religious truth is a deed not a thought, it is something that demands our response.  It is a truth without cognitive knowledge. “ (Caputo p. 115)

Faith is also unnervingly fragile. Partly because of the many formulations of the several faiths, the multiplicity of religious traditions and history but also by “the tragic sense of life” – summed up by asking is there anyone out there who cares? (Caputo p. 118)

Faith is tested against this tragic sense of life.  But for some (fundamentalists) faith is not sufficient, it is too fragile and hence needs to repress any questioning of that faith.  Faith is always haunted by the cosmic forces  - natural disasters, murderous hearts and murderous regimes.  Faith is faith when we can say some things are evil, are wrong and we have hope that we can change and transform the future.  (Caputo p. 125)

God is love or is it love is God?  We cannot know which comes first, which is a translation of which. We are left in a state of passion and non-knowing.  “Undecidability is the reason that faith is faith and not Knowledge and the way that faith can be true without Knowledge”.  It is because we do not know what is really going on, that faith, hope and love are called for and demand to be done (Caputo p. 128).

“Beliefs are ideas, concepts, or propositions concerning a religious tradition, which are formalized from the experience of ‘faith’ and adopted by the individual or group.  ‘belief ‘ may be a response to ‘faith’, but ‘faith’ is more than a set of beliefs.  ‘Faith’ is the experience of the individual, not a system of dogmas to be accepted.  It is a way of seeing, a consciousness of another dimension. ‘Belief’ centres on humanly developed propositions, but ‘faith’ is a relationship of trust in or loyalty to some experience, about which ‘beliefs’ are fashioned”.  (Webb p. 3)

How can we know whether such ‘beliefs’ or ‘faiths’ are not misguided? 

In Christian terms, spirituality “cannot be entirely private.  It exists within systems of religious discourse or behavior – even if these, in some cases, are implicit rather than expressed in membership of some faith community”. (Sheldrake p. 61)

Ranson - important to recognize that not all contexts in which spirituality emerges is good or healthy.  “We have seen …how fascination with the occult emerges out of a very defined background of powerlessness. Or how a misguided national spirituality can turn demonic.” [Nazism] (Ranson p. 70)   To avoid this Ranson suggests  asking whether any  given spirituality:
·         “increases our participation in life and affirms the material as the doorway of the spiritual?
·         Resists anything that would….’truncate our humanity, mutilate our sensitivities or stifle our imagination’?
·         frees consciousness from the superficial, the absurd, the tragically alienated, into a sense of the dynamic, interrelated whole?
·         Confronts us with reality, especially the reality of our own selves?
·         Does not superimpose an ‘ideal’ situation and, therefore, appeal to guilt, but works to extend ‘what is’, little by little?
·         A process of transfiguration of the heart and invites a deeper connection with ourselves, the world and with others?
·         Is accessible to all? (unlike a cult with the ‘chosen’) (Ranson p 71-73)

 Relationship between religion and spirituality?

Ranson adopts Canadian philosopher, Bernard Lonergan’s four core activities of consciousness to develop a cycle of spirituality that connects with religion.  The four core activities are attending, inquiring, interpreting and acting.  Very broadly the first two can be seen as core to spirituality and the last two to religions. ( See Ranson’s diagram on p. 19 for an explanation.)

Carmelite Library call numbers in bold

Bouma, Gary 2006)   Australian soul; religion and spirituality in the twenty-first century. Cambridge University Press.  (279.4B752A)

Caputo, John D. (2001)          On religion. London & New York; Routledge.  (Thinking in action series)  (200 C255)

James, William (2002) The varieties of religious experience; a study in human nature.  Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902.  New York: The Modern Library. 

Mackay, Hugh (2016)             Beyond belief. Sydney: Macmillan. (247.285 M153)

Ranson, David (2002)             Across the great divide; bridging spirituality and religion today. Strathfield, NSW; St Pauls publications.  (248.98 R212)

Sheldrake, Philip (1998)         Spirituality and theology; Christian living and the doctrine of God.  London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.  (Trinity and truth series ed Stephen Sykes) (247.04 S544Sa)

Van Ness, Peter H.     “Spirituality and secularity” in The Way Supplement no 73. Spring 1992, pp68-79. (‘held’ in the Carmelite library stack)

Webb, Val (1995)       In defense of doubt; an invitation to adventure. St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press.