“What’s it all about, Alfie?”
So sang Dionne Warwick in a famous song, which became a major hit for Cilla Black way back in 1966. It was written for the film of the same name – Alfie – and she went on to ruminate about life: what was all about? A moment’s pleasure? Making more than you give? And then asked if it’s it foolish to be kind, wise to be cruel? Does life only belong to the strong? The turning point came when she admitted that she believed there was a heaven above, that there’s much more to life and that even non-believers can believe in love. In one poignant line she sang:
‘Without true love we just exist, Alfie. Until you find the love you've missed you're nothing, Alfie.’
The song may have been written over fifty years ago but the question remains: what’s it all about? It’s the kind of question that we’re suddenly faced with at times of crisis. Teenagers, when they hit upon that existential phase, often stumble upon it. Lovers wonder at it. As we gaze on nature we find it can ask us – what meaning does life have …? Is it really all summed up as ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die’?
This book isn’t meant to be a deeply philosophical tome or intellectual or theological critique of modern Britain but a reflection – a meditation, an exploration – into some of the fundamental questions about life and death each of us can find ourselves facing. Many of the fundamental questions about the nature of our being touch on the religious dimension of life and yet many have no time for religion and many of the questions which we have always asked – ‘Who am I?’, ‘Is there any purpose to life?’, ‘Why does there have to be pain and suffering?’, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ ‘Who is God?’ – all these and more were and are matters with which Christianity has struggled. But the wisdom gained by that struggle is no longer accessible to a generation cut off from its ancient roots as it loses interest in religion, a generation which has little sense of having a soul in need of nurturing and nourishing, a soul which bears the image of divine beauty. That is what we are – women and men who bear such beauty within us that needs to be revealed. So that is what this book concerns.
Perhaps your memory of being taken to church as a child and the words or actions of those who call themselves ‘Christians’ has left you cold or scarred you for life. I remember, when I was a child and had been taken to church, thinking that I never wanted to go there again. Or you or someone close to you has been deeply hurt – physically, emotionally or spiritually – by the church. This is tragic and anyone who has been abused in this way will rightly feel anger, bitterness even hatred. And when, so often, what is reported is the way Christians have exercised power for their own ends, denied people their sexual or gender rights or refused to accept minority’s people rightly become disillusioned. Whilst many faiths can be narrow-minded, bigoted or homophobic it is Christianity that is seen to be offering simplistic answers to life’s deep and complicated questions. And the kind of worship offered in many churches doesn’t really appeal to the soul, doesn’t nourish it. Rather some churches seem to offer ‘candy-floss’ worship – appealing to the senses but having no substance – and even prayer has too often been taught as a means to achieve what you want; it’s about asking for things, celebrating success and God’s apparent ‘power’ rather than offering a means to encounter the deep mysteries of God or provide us with anything more than a five-minute after-glow.
Christianity, like any religion, isn’t exempt from corruption, misuse or a fundamentalist interpretation. Something which offers a way of life that can unite us with that which is most noble and creative in our humanity can be, and has been, abused and used as a means of control over others. Of course, we are all ‘fallen’, broken people but it would not be wrong to say that Christ weeps at the inhumanity some in the church exercise and which can prevent people from encountering His compassion. Thankfully God is not limited to the churches and the knowledge that a person is held in the mystical love of a higher power can still be realised. Those who practice the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, will know the importance it places on a deity – ‘God’, ‘Him’, or ‘a Power greater than ourselves’ — or to religious practices such as prayer. And the ultimate goal of sobriety, as the final step states, is to achieve a “spiritual awakening”, a goal that is set before all of us but discovered by few.
Spiritual, not religious
Because there are some who will say “I’m spiritual, not religious” this book will try to re-connect us with some of those spiritual roots of that faith which nurtured and nourished our society for two thousand years yet now seems irrelevant (what an over-used word!). We’re detached from faith – or semi-detached at best. But the house we inhabit has forgotten cellars containing vast hordes of wisdom for us to explore. We’ve hidden springs for refreshment, caves containing treasures, yet the doorway to these can have become ignored and covered in cobwebs – “we don’t want to go there, what’s the point?” But if we lose touch with our roots – with our soul – we’re in danger of becoming destabilised, a shallow generation satisfied by superficialities. And always, when we descend sufficiently, is a still, small voice which says:
LORD, you search me and you know me.
You know my resting and my rising;
You know my resting and my rising;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
Behind and before, you besiege me,
your hand ever laid upon me.
O where can I go from your spirit,
or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there.
If I lie in the grave, you are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn
or dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
even there your hand would lead me;
your right hand would hold me fast.
If I say, “Let the darkness hide me
and the light around me be night,”
even darkness is not dark to you,
the night shall be as bright as day,
and darkness the same as the light.
For it was you who formed my inmost being,
knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you who wonderfully made me;
how wonderful are your works,
which my soul knows well!
(Ps.139 – extracts)
In depth living
Much of my life these days involves sitting and listening to people who are trying to make sense of God in their lives and explore all the movements that happen within them as they try to give attention to God – it’s called ‘spiritual direction’ and if you want to know more then there’s some notes at the back. Many of the issues that people want to explore and which seem to be around in society, both sacred but mainly secular, concern matters that the great Traditions of Christianity, for want of a better term, have always addressed: ‘Am I simply re-acting to life?’ ‘Life’s so full I don’t have a chance to slow down.’ ‘Why is X having to suffer?’ ‘What will happen when I die?’ ‘I’m doing so much but life seems empty.’ Just because someone may have jettisoned religion, faith, God etc. these questions don't go away. Getting rid of God just means we’ve blocked off a source of wisdom and insight; ignoring Christianity might mean we don’t have to bother with deeper questions but it also means that we’ve lost the ability to access that ‘wisdom of the ages’ which has helped people to live and not just survive. As someone wrote to me:
‘As you know I am one of your acquaintances who does not have a faith, is not a believer. Neither am I an intellectual in anyway shape or form. However, I do question where our humanity has gone, I love the wisdom of the ages from those spiritual leaders, be it religious or pagan. I think the past has so much to teach us; so much in this modern age is being forgotten. Everything is so shallow and meaningless.’
So this book sets out to look at matters such as what it means to be human and why we’re here; why the God questions don’t go away; what gives meaning and purpose to life; why we resonate with ‘spiritual’ things; why people suffer; how we can become more beautiful and, perhaps most poignant of all, aging and death. And throughout I’ll try to look at what that ‘wisdom of the ages’ might have to offer us for religion, down the ages, has looked at all these matters, and more, and tried to make sense of them. At its best religion doesn’t attempt to provide answers but to shine a light on the path that leads into the heart of our being, into the heart of that which we call God, where we can discover the truth of who we are and how we connect – and realise ourselves, with our unique wonder, as part of a vast whole which finds itself embraced in a mystery. The mystery of God.
Has religious faith any appeal?
The transcendental appeal of religion remains and still tugs at the hearts of many, in-spite of a chorus of cynical disapproval. It’s certainly not cool to be a Christian, or even to talk about Jesus, God, the Saints, prayer (spirituality is OK), worship and so on.
But Christianity has rarely been popular; as G. K. Chesterton wrote: ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.’1 (1‘What’s Wrong with the World’, Part I, Chapter 5). Yet the heroic lives of saintly men and women continue to have an appeal; they are like beacons shining in the dark. Of course, sportsman and women and ‘celebrities’ can have an instant and greater glow about them, but have you noticed that their appeal is often passing? And many of our ‘gods’ also turn out to have feet of clay. But true holiness, that which takes us out of ourselves so that we are living in the light of the Other, lasts and we can continue to savour it long after a holy one has disappeared from this earth.
What I find so fascinating is the way that so much of our religious past hasn’t actually disappeared but has been taken over – Advent calendars now offer us chocolates rather than insights into waiting for the birth of the Man who can lead us to life in all its fullness; All Saints now offers fashionable clothes rather than being men and women clothed in holiness; Halloween isn’t a way of lovingly remembering the dead but a chance to go a bit mad. Incense is now a costly perfume to enhance our bodies rather than a mystical aroma which announces the presence of holiness, of God; and the ability to make your Confession is now rewarded with an invitation to appear on some ‘reality’ TV programme rather than the ability to find real absolution. And we’ve drained the great mysteries of the Faith – the birth of Christ and his death and resurrection – into times of excess governed by the gods of commerce, holding out nothing more than a plastic Santa or chocolate bunny. Can these satisfy our real needs, our deepest needs? Or are they part of a culture which has to make us feel we need ever more and more to make us happy and find … contentment … but is basically about making a profit for shareholders and never satisfying our needs for fear we won’t spend our money? Yet all the while, dimly maybe, behind it all and almost masked by the deafening clamour of commerce and entertainment can you hear that quiet voice asking: ‘What do you seek? What do I seek?’
What do we seek – what’s it all about?
Have you ever thought of that? Isn’t it such an important question and doesn’t it often get ignored – what do I seek in life? It’s another way of wondering ‘what’s it all about’? Does my life have any meaning or purpose or am I just a creature of evolution waiting to disappear off the face of the earth, to be forgotten in a generation or so (if that)? Those aren’t the sort of questions that often get aired on TV or discussed in the pages of the tabloids (or, come to that, the broadsheets) but aren’t they important questions to ponder? But where do I go to explore them? And do I want to?
It has been the task of religion to help us do that, to open us to those questions and explore the meaning and purpose of life. For some, that purpose is to be happy; no one, normally, wants to be un-happy. For others it might be to live in a close and loving family or find a satisfying career (which is OK until that comes to an end. Then what?) But, and here is the question again, is that all I seek? There's a famous affirmation by someone called St Augustine, who was born in what is now Algeria, north Africa in the 4th century AD which somehow seems to get at the nub of all this: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Now if the real task of religion is to help each of us grow into this fullness of life something’s got in the way and managed to palm us off with thinking all we need is a better car, bigger house or a win on the Lottery. That a make-over will, somehow, answer our needs. Surely, unless we’re re-making the heart of who we are anything else is like playing with the deckchairs on the Titanic.
Do I realise that I am made for love and to be love for others? As one of Jesus’ closest friends said: ‘let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ (I John 4.7) So, might love be the way whereby sacred and secular find common ground? Might it be that it is as we learn more about love that we are drawn out of ourselves to encounter the mystery of the other – and of the Other (the greatest Other)? Well, there’s nothing new in that reflection: "We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become” declared St Clare of Assisi way back in the 13th century, “If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God´s compassionate love for others." And St Thomas à Kempis, who lived just over a hundred years later, wrote in his famous book ‘The Imitation of Christ’: ‘Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger or higher or wider; nothing is more pleasant, nothing fuller, and nothing better in heaven or on earth, for love is born of God and cannot rest except in God, Who is above all created things.’ So we come to the point, I hope, where believer and unbeliever can discover a language which communicates a divine narrative and agree with what that remarkable woman Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), the first of her gender to write in the English language, said in her book, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’: ‘Understand (this) well: love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold yourself in this truth and you shall understand and know more in the same vein.’ (Ch.86)
So let’s begin by turning to the vexed question – just what do we understand by that three-letter word: God?