We can choose to do good. We can choose to do wrong. In Jewish thought, which is followed by many if not most Christians, we find the idea of the yetzer. The word means inclination. We have a penchant for good and for evil.
We are called at all times to choose the good as we understand it. Suffice it to say, however, that good deeds are not the preserve of religions. Moreover, they are not the object of religion. You often hear the argument that one can be good without religion. Sure. So what? No arguments. Yet this argument is advanced to dismiss religion, as if religion were equated with morality. It’s not. Religion is not fundamentally about doing good, but about experiencing holiness.
Archbishop Anthony Bloom (of blessed memory) was the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain. A reporter once asked him what religion he would be if he weren’t Orthodox. Without hesitation, he replied that he would be a Quaker. The reporter found this unusual, given the huge amount of rituals and liturgy in our church, and asked why that would be his choice. Archbishop Anthony said it was because the Quaker movement had emphasized the sacramentality of all life.
George Fox, credited as the founder of the Quaker movement, believed that if you recognized this truth about life, if you really saw with this kind of vision, you would not need the sacraments – baptism, Lord’s Supper, etc. . Archbishop Anthony saw in Fox’s insight a truth at the heart of Orthodoxy and other manifestations of the Christian faith. In other words, everything breathes the presence of the sacred. Our task is to see it with an inner eye.
This vision is “mysticism”, a word with many meanings, some quite fanciful, but essentially referring to an experience of the sacred. Much is said in religious circles about the meaning and character of the sacred, but often people miss the point, which is the immediate experience of the sacred. This is at the heart of religion.
WH Auden, the poet, wrote an essay on mysticism in which he identified the primary experience of the sacred as an overwhelming sense that we are connected to the wholeness of the universe, that we are part of the whole. We feel part of all that is, not outside of it. We are immersed in holiness as a fish is immersed in water. And like fish, we don’t normally contemplate the environment in which we find ourselves. But that is precisely what mysticism does.
There is an ineffability in these experiences; you cannot fully describe them in words. There will always be an incommunicable depth in words, a meaning that we cannot explain to another person. We can share the experience intuitively but we cannot fully express it.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet, called it an experience of “the inscape of things”. The exteriors of creation are visible to all: sun, moon, stars, animals, earth. The inscape, however, is only seen with a single vision type. This view is not limited to people who are attached to a particular form of religion; it is accessible to all. Religious traditions are the repositories of experience, the custodians and custodians of it for those who are transmitted from generation to generation. This is the reason to embrace a tradition with all heart and mind.
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Prof. Gabriel Rochelle is a retired priest from St. Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Church, Las Cruces. Contact him at [email protected].