On Wednesday morning I came to work and opened the church for our public service of Centering Prayer. It was still early, so I went to my office for a time, and when I returned at 9:25 I was surprised to find some people in the church I didn’t know. They were two women and a man, I would guess in their mid-twenties, standing uncertainly back by the baptismal font, and I asked them if they had come for Centering Prayer. They said that they had, and they’d never done it before, but wanted to try. So I invited them to follow me up here to the chancel and said “Let me put out a couple more chairs, and then I tell you what we’re going to do.”
Just then, Jeannette Myers’ cousin Lani arrived, as she usually does, and she engaged them in conversation while I arranged the furniture and lit a candle. The man said his name was Martin, and he lived in Texas, but was out here doing some work. On the plane to California, he’d read a book, The Wisdom Jesus, by an Episcopal priest named Cynthia Bourgeault. And although he is Jewish, this book had moved him deeply, and he was inspired to want to try for himself some of the contemplative practices it describes. So that is how he did an internet search for “centering prayer,” that turned up our website, and drove down that morning from Healdsburg, and brought his sister-in-law and her friend along. When he finished telling his story, everything was ready, so we took our seats, and I gave a brief instruction to guide us into meditation, and we sat together for a half-hour in silence and stillness, bringing our awareness again and again to our desire to know the intimacy of God.
When we think of how it is that people come to the Christian faith, and pass it along to others, we don’t always imagine a kind of simple truth that becomes evident when people put it into practice, and verify it in their experience. It is more common to see it as a set of beliefs that come down from above. We accept its testimonies and articles of faith because we trust the authorities who hand them down to us. But people nowadays are inclined to be suspicious of authority, and prefer to rely on their own judgement. If they place any stock in religion at all, it is because they have had, or hope to have, personal experience of the reality of which religion speaks.
And this has led to a great enthusiasm for what is commonly called “spirituality,” which has come to mean the psychological and mystical dimension of religious practice, and the search for illumination of the self with the experience of God. With this there comes a renewed interest in Jesus, not as a cosmic redeemer, but as a historical teacher of practical wisdom for the transformation of personal consciousness. Such is the figure we find in The Wisdom Jesus, who led Martin and his friends to St. John’s in search of Centering Prayer.
And some find corroboration for this image of Jesus in the so-called Gnostic Gospels, recently-unearthed texts from the early centuries that didn’t make it into the official New Testament. These documents, such as the one known as the Gospel of Thomas, are collections of Jesus’ sayings without the elements of his life story that we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Many of these sayings are not found in the canonical Gospels, or differ significantly from their more familiar form, and this adds to their allure. Reading them can give us the thrilling experience of catching snatches of lost conversation, and listening with fresh ears to the living voice of Jesus. We can imagine that this is his teaching, not as it has been mediated to us by religious institutions, but as direct communication from mind to mind of religious truth.
But there is something missing from the Gnostic texts that is at the very heart the canonical Gospels’ portrayal of the historical Jesus. If all we have are words that he said, we amputate the limbs of his teaching. Because Jesus didn’t simply give private instruction in inner development—he acted. He welcomed sinners and ate with them, and healed the untouchable. He took his teaching abroad in the world, out onto roads, and into the villages and the city squares.
And when crowds gathered to hear him because he spoke with the authority of personal experience, he gave them practical instruction. Not only about prayer, and the love and generosity of God, but also about the world they lived in—about social and economic relations, about wealth and poverty, conflict and forgiveness, solidarity, perseverance, and hope. He spoke of the arrogance, and violence, and hypocrisy of those who styled themselves as rulers and lords, and he taught the crowds to look close at hand for the signs of God’s kingdom.
Jesus bore witness to God’s truth about us, and the political powers killed him for it. But God raised him up, the first-born from the dead, to vindicate the truth of what he said. And his disciples experienced this event as a decisive shift in the balance of power in the world. They went on, bearing their own witness, not only in words, but in the life of a new community in which God’s truth of wholeness and unity overcame divisions of social class, and gender, and ethnic and religious identity. They began to call Jesus “Lord” and “King” and “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords” because they refused to acknowledge any greater power, any higher authority, than the truth that Jesus knew, that Jesus spoke, and Jesus enacted on the stage of human history.
This makes the Christian religion more than a search for timeless truth—it is also a practice of historical remembrance. The central ritual of Christian worship is a not only a celebration of the spiritual power of God’s transforming love—it is also a commemoration of the decisive event that manifested that love to us. Likewise, the ancient practice of pilgrimage, of going to the places where the martyrs lived and died, of walking in their footsteps and venerating their relics, springs from the desire to know, from one’s own experience, that those people really lived in those places in the world, where those things truly happened. Which helps us remember what they proved with their witness—that the powers of the present darkness are not the real rulers of the world.
And no less than the indwelling presence of God, this is a truth we can experience for ourselves, if we do our religious practice. When Mohandas Gandhi set out to liberate India from British colonial rule, he did so trusting in what he called Satyagraha, or “truth-force.” His political strategy was nonviolent resistance, taking confrontational actions in order to make what was invisible and unconscious plain for everyone to see. By breaking unjust laws, his campaigns of civil disobedience aimed to tear away the façade of morality from a social order based on relationships of exploitation and oppression. The more the British resorted to violence and terror to maintain their control, the more it revealed about the underlying logic of their rule, and undermined their legitimacy. But this strategy was not complete without the spiritual philosophy of Satyagraha, which holds that if the oppressed can maintain their faith in the humanity of the oppressor, and continually meet his hatred with love, sooner or later the truth will out.
The truth is that we are all brothers and sisters in the family of God. The truth is that when we violate and oppress one another, even if only by our complacency, we obscure the image of God in ourselves. But when for love a faithful witness bears the truth, unwavering in her heart, through fires of hate and storms of dread and even down into the grave, the true human image rises out of the darkness. In its light, no ideology of racial or cultural or religious superiority, no rationalization for oppression and violence, no denial of the spiritual cost to both sides of an injustice, can stand for ever. The transcendent worth and promise of being human comes into view, the truth of which doesn’t derive from any human institution, but only from the purpose for which God created us in love. Only God knows the fullness that purpose, but we can abide in it, in practices of prayer. We can celebrate it, as we practice communal festivals of joy. And we can bear witness to it, in practices of resistance, solidarity, and reconciliation.