The often silent cry
During February, Australian theologian David Ranson gave a two day seminar to the bishops and congregational leaders of Aotearoa New Zealand.
In this digest of his talks David explores the connection between the spiritual hunger of our age and the church’s mission to share its experience of Jesus Christ
The new spirituality
One of the ‘signs of the times’ today is a renewed sense of the need for prayer in the lives of ordinary people. This desire for a spiritual component in life seems to be growing all over the Western world. A recent Roman document speaks of “the often silent cry in people’s hearts”: it is clearly something the church needs to respond to. Practising Christians, therefore, should be happy to share their experience of Christ with others. Our personal prayer life should have a constant eye on the needs of people and not just be self-centred.
At the same time David Ranson warns us to be on our guard to the counterfeit forms of spirituality which are also rife:
Spiritualism – a fascination with the occult which especially flourishes where there is a climate of powerlessness.
Pietism – an amplification of religious practice which is really a form of defence mechanism. The people involved avoid engaging with the real world. Again, this may be a symptom of powerlessness.
New Age Commercialism or ‘super-market spirituality’. In place of a church wedding, for instance, people ‘go shopping for a life-enhancing experience’. None of these ‘-isms’ will lead us closer to God.
The criterion of an authentic spirituality is: does it take us away from the needs of the world – or does it lead us back into the world. The Australian writer David Tacey has an image of a river in flood. In the Alice Springs area a dry riverbed can be transformed overnight into a turbulent torrent. This provides a beautiful image of the new spirituality which contains within it great potentiality.
But the flood bears with it a lot of dirt, froth and rubbish. The new spirituality may contain much which is infantile and needs to be filtered out. Nevertheless, formal religion needs to hold dialogue with these new movements. We should respond by being alert to this “silent cry”, at the same time remaining firmly rooted in the basics of our own faith.
What is spirituality?
The Greeks held a dualistic view of the universe. Spirit is immaterial and is quite distinct from matter. To be ‘spiritual’, therefore, means to become unworldly. This is a Platonic notion, and it has been very influential in the Christian prayer tradition.
The Hebrews, on the other hand, saw ‘spirit’ as that which is living, energetic, vitalising. It is simply that active principle which enlivens matter. If we follow the Hebrew insight we can define spirituality as that which keep us awake and alive and more aware of our relationships – with people and with God. Paul uses a different metaphor but is saying the same thing basically when he writes that we should be “children of the light”. On this view, spirituality is a normal part of living in the world.
Events which awaken us and stir us into action are what Peter Berger calls “triggers of transcendence”. Bernard Lonergan notes a cyclic rhythm in our lives. The first stage is attending ie. becoming alert to the signs of the times and to events which arouse us spiritually. The second is to inquire, using one’s intellect and asking questions; thirdly, to interpret what is going on; finally to act on the information and impulse we have received.
The religious elements of this cycle are the second and third stages, when they happen in a framework of faith.
Lonergan calls this the transcendental imperative: he suggests that if any stage is absent we will ‘fall asleep’ spiritually.
Bringing spirituality and politics together
David Ranson is insistent that the spiritually alert person needs to become involved in public life. Society as a whole requires external triggers to render it spiritually alert and awake. It is not difficult to fit the Cardijn methodology of see/judge/act into the above frame. First we must listen, which means being alert to the signs of the times. If Christian action is to be a spiritual experience, then we must be motivated to act – to act with love. The true Christian listens with love. It is that which triggers social action.
Often, however, humans cannot cope with too much reality. They prefer to hide behind their prejudices and be dulled into inaction. They become spiritually ‘asleep’, ceasing to be spiritually alive and active. Their love becomes stunted.
Johannes Metz suggests that what stirs us to action more than anything else are so-called “dangerous memories”. These are memories of suffering which remind us where things have gone wrong in the past. In this way we do not close our eyes to the injustices of the world; indeed, we become more alert and see and hear more.
He calls it a “mysticism of open eyes”. The questions we need to ask are how we feel about the sufferings of others. Do we acknowledge the plight of marginalised people? Are we awake to their sufferings? Will we be moved to act on their behalf? Then it is no longer merely a memory. It becomes present and drives us to action. It becomes an imperative of God. We receive a mission.
Leonardo Boff takes this one step further still and places the whole process in the context of the Blessed Trinity. The Trinity itself becomes our ‘social strategy’. The Trinity is the eternal image of how we are created to live together, to depend on each other and relate to others. We are destined to live together simply because we exist. God is the God of eternal hospitality. Evils such as dominance, cruelty and exclusion cannot coexist with that divine value. Human life is made by God to be collaborative and relational.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Unless we understand the Trinity we cannot understand what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom is the incarnation of the Blessed Trinity in our earthly society. Yet the Kingdom is elusive: it doesn’t enter through the front door; it comes in through the cracks. The Kingdom does not overwhelm us; it infiltrates into our lives.
Healing miracles are a good example in the Gospels. When Jesus heals someone, the Kingdom infiltrates. It transforms death into life, shame into dignity, fear into love, deafness into receptivity. In a word, Jesus is transforming the whole of society by his message and actions. He changes isolation into community and domination into mutual service. The Kingdom touches the predicaments of ordinary living. Even in the economic sphere, when sheer profit gives way to co-operation, the Kingdom is happening.
The most spectacular examples of this transformation happen with marginalised people. Their exclusion ceases when they are touched by the Kingdom, and once again they are brought to belong. They are acclaimed as “first” by Jesus. They are first in the Kingdom of Heaven.
To summarise the lesson we learn from this:
• it is in the world especially that I meet God;
• ascent to God happens through descent into the world;
• prayer simply becomes for a Christian a new way of listening;
• all this transformation leads us to a sense of HOPE.
Our religious tradition in relation to spirituality
Bernard Lonergan showed above how the spiritual and religious aspects of our belief system form a single cycle. It is important, he asserts, that the religious moments of inquiring and interpreting do not happen too soon in the process, otherwise spiritual awareness becomes blocked. There can be a schism, so that the religious aspect becomes rigid and dogmatic, and the spiritual withdraws and becomes disdainful of the religious.
The two aspects need to remain distinct but not divided. They are like a tree. The canopy interacting with the environment represents the spiritual side. The religious side, the roots, provide spirituality with a solid anchor.
Religion exists to be a service to spirituality, not a dictator. Therefore religion should be in continuous conversation with spiritual experience. In that way the religious truth emerges. The encounter of Christ and the disciples on the road to Emmaus is a good illustration. The spiritual experience of the two disciples, their loss and their pain, is put into religious context by the Risen Christ. The conversation they have on the road helps the disciples to recognise the truth and their hope is restored. And they act at once to share their experience with the Apostles.
Those seeking religious meaning need to be aware of certain disciplines. Thus it is important for the critical mind to distinguish clearly what are the central questions and what is the baggage inherited from the past needing to be discarded. The imagination sometimes needs to be allowed a free rein, so that the spirit can search below the surface of things. The spirit is like a midwife, seeing the divine within the human and bringing it to birth.
Poetic language and imagination is important in the expression of faith. Paul Ricoeur said that ethics need to be served by poetry. The poem doesn’t dictate what has to be done, but suggests how something may happen. A religion which lacks poetry can become dead. Poetry allows for subtlety of meaning and for a sense of transformation.
Poetry is valuable not just because it is expressed in beautiful language. Beauty, as a value, can be dangerous if it does not allow for the paschal reality of suffering. There is no beauty in simply having to endure evil. An example of truly Christian ‘beauty’ is the fidelity of a spouse caring for a dementia patient.
Spiritual leadership: the ‘shepherd’ image
Jesus Christ proposed the shepherd to us as a model. In a First Century context that would be truly shocking. Shepherds were poor, often dirty and were treated with contempt. They spent their summers out in the pastures. They came back to the village in the winter living in the meanest dwellings. When they returned, petty theft in the village went up.
Yet this is who Jesus chose – a marginal character without power or prestige in society. This model is clearly countercultural. It is not a charism of power, but of care and concern. The ‘shepherd’ is to be with us in our hurts and problems.
All spiritual leadership starts in a climate of grief. The religious leader comes to the people in their need. He/she resists the illusory images (like those in our media) which seduce us. The shepherd gives the people back their truth and invites them to a new form of humanity by articulating for them their grief.
The shepherd lives by hope. The whole gospel message that Jesus brings is that love will triumph in the end, that fear will be driven out and that we are commissioned to celebrate the Divine presence among people.
This leadership model demonstrates the sympathetic nature of God. Mercy, in Hebrew, means ‘the womb’. It is more than pity; it is creative love of giving birth. Mercy is the pain endured to bring the dead back to life. Mercy rejoices in the light, but understands darkness.
There is nothing especially new in all this. It is founded on Jesus’ own words in the Gospels. It was spelt out in detail hundreds of year ago by Meister Eckhart in his theology of the Trinity. And it is a vitally relevant answer to the spiritual hunger of our own age.
Fr David Ranson teaches theology at Catholic Theological Union, Sydney
There’s an air of excitement and purpose about the much-photographed Dunedin Railway Station on Saturday mornings.
Hundreds of people armed with boxes and carry bags converge on the platform and station yard to fossick and browse and compare prices – and carry away the freshest produce a foodie could wish for. The old hands arrive early – but not as early as the stallholders who have been setting up since six a.m.
The Dunedin Farmers’ Market has become a social occasion which makes good economic sense, a place to take visitors, to meet the growers, to have the first coffee of the day with a freshly-baked goodie, to revel in the bounty on offer.
"It all started,” says manager Lesley Cox, “with a group of people who wanted to do something to rejuvenate the southern end of town and thought a market would be a good idea. The original plan was to hold it in the Exchange area and develop but that wasn’t possible. Then someone suggested the Railway station – it was the right idea at the right time. Farmers markets around the world are gathering momentum. We are under the auspices of The Otago Farmers’ Market Trust, a charitable trust with the assistance of staff and volunteers.
“I started here four years ago selling. I had a small nursery, but in winter my plants went underground and you can’t sell what you can’t see! When the previous manager resigned I thought I could do that job, so I applied for the position – and here I am.
“On an average Saturday we have between 60 and 65 stalls. There are 110 sellers registered but a lot are seasonal. A good core of them are here every week right throughout the year. What the sellers appreciate is getting a very large public in a short time.
“The first benefit to growers and sellers is financial. Orchardists would sell their fruit to a wholesaler or a supermarket and receive a pittance. One seller told me he was getting 30 to 40 cents a kg for his apples. The supermarket might sell them for $3 to $4 kg. He sells them here for $1.50 – and he gets the lot.
“One of our vendors was told if he ‘went to this market thing’, he would be blacklisted. He came here and has done well. We are not so big, and we open only one morning a week. I think the supermarkets have learned to live with us. But every time there is a new product here at the Market I think: that’s something else I don’t have to buy at the supermarket!
“Whoever is selling a product here has grown it, or raised it, pickled, preserved, baked, smoked or caught it themselves. It is not permitted to buy in someone else’s product and sell it. So the public can talk to the seller and learn how a particular produce is grown; what sprays have been used; what the animals have been fed on. People like to know that.
“You shop according to what’s in season and plan your menu once you’re here. Appearances can be deceiving: that strange shaped cucumber might just be the result of fewer sprays.
“The market fosters a sense of curiosity in the buyer: so what is celeriac and how do you cook it? You get to taste something you’ve never tried before. You might even discover how to tell the gender of an aubergine!”
Pat Harrison has been a regular at the market since the very first day. “Three things particularly appeal to me,” Pat says. “First, the busy atmosphere of people who come regularly and who relate so well to the sellers. It’s an atmosphere of happy relationship between buyer and seller.
“Secondly, the produce is so colourful. And there are some quite colourful personalities too among the stall holders! Thirdly, it provides the opportunity to buy fresh fish, vegetables, meat and fruit. The food has been grown and nurtured by the seller.
“I also enjoy seeing young people shopping there – the students arriving on their bikes to shop. I like the fact that it has not allowed itself to grow and lose its intimacy. You find arts and crafts shops in adjoining streets. It’s a true farmers’ market.
“Modern society has tended to concentrate too much on the individual. Whereas at the market you see a true community in operation and you feel its spirit. It takes you back to the days when shopping was largely a person to person encounter.
“The supermarkets have largely destroyed that atmosphere: they negate any sense of intimacy. They’re totally impersonal. Sometimes they are built close to each other to encourage people to ‘graze’ for the specials – as if we were nothing better than sheep! The Farmer’s Market helps to restore a sense of humanness.
“The entertainers, the musicians and the jugglers all have a place especially when the weather is good. I just like it. That’s why I go”
Another market regular, Mary Young, agrees: “It’s the fresh produce which attracts me. If I buy courgettes at the market I know where they come from. But in the supermarket – God knows where they come from. They may be flown in from Australia. They’re fresh here – and they are grown by the seller. “I can get organic produce here – meat, vegetables and eggs. “I buy different cuts of meat from the organic meat producer, and he will sometimes give me hints how best to cook it. He also has smaller cuts for people who live on their own. At first I fully expected to pay more. But in fact you pay less. Apples, for instance – all varieties, are much cheaper.
“I enjoy shopping here – it’s a people place. In the supermarket you never stop and talk – you spend your time dodging other people’s trolleys. But at the market you stop and chat with complete strangers. One day I met someone from Tauranga, who had visited lots of markets. But he liked the Dunedin one because it wasn’t just boutique type stalls. It was selling genuine local produce.
“Some stalls are quite different, like the man who sells English porkpies. And you find special chocolate, tea, wine, olive oil – specialist goods. Once again, the person selling to you is the producer. I enjoy chatting to Olivier who grinds and blends his own coffee: he always has a joke. I like to shop around and support the small growers.
“Another interesting thing – the market attracts as many men as women. They seem to know what they’re buying and they obviously can cook. And children wander around without being a nuisance. I like hearing the buskers and the instrumentalists.”
Stan Randle is an organic orchardist. He comes down every Saturday morning from Alexandra to sell his fruit and other produce. “We just about break even,” he says. “What we are largely selling is our export ‘overrun’. Organics is a niche market. We don’t make a fortune coming here.
“But I come because I enjoy coming. I don’t come for the money. It’s a real social event. And I’ve met some amazing people. The girls who help me sell just came along one day and volunteered. Then there was a German couple living in Dunedin who offered me a bed, so now I can come down on Friday evening.
“I think the market is an outstanding concept. It’s run by an incorporated society, so any money they make is reinvested in the community.
“After Christmas when the fruit is at its peak we are flat out all morning. Price is a big driver for what people buy. Where we are in Central Otago many of the conventional growers have pulled out because they can no longer compete on the export market with Chile and China for pip fruits. They now concentrate solely on apricots, cherries and nectarines.
“Organics, however, are controlled by very strict international protocols. Every time there is an outbreak of mad cow disease or bird flu our exports shoot up! And these local markets are growing all the time.
“Organics is a philosophical thing. When I first started on a small block the Apple and Pear Board provided me with a fixed regime for spraying by the calendar. My budget for sprays was over $10,000 a year. I said to myself: there’s got to be a better way of doing it than this. You spray and spray. You are killing everything off with chemicals. Of course, there’s a cost. We’ve lost our crop to fungal infection twice. It’s so easy to control fungal infections with sprays.
“In organics we use a strategy of ‘competitive exclusion’. If you populate the orchard enough with benign species, you exclude the nasties. Of course, they’re always there. One morning I saw a forest of spider webs covered with dew glistening in the sun, tens of thousands of spiders eating all the nasties! I wish I’d had a camera. It rejoiced my heart”.