All through our repeated pandemic precautions and lockdowns, when physically attending corporate worship of any kind has been difficult, not to say inadvisable, and Zoom meetings have remained their distracting and inadequate selves, there has been plenty of time to be quiet, and to allow the assumptions and traditions by which our spiritual lives are usually conditioned to settle out, as it were, like the cloudiness in a newly-established aquarium.
Wikipedia defines religion as “a social-cultural system of designated behaviours and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements.”
Contemplation, however differently it may be defined in different traditions, is at root a kind of inner seeing, an experiential encounter with the ground of being that gives rise to, and sustains, all that is. The many techniques of contemplative practice may in the end give rise to contemplation, but their intention is generally more modest: to train attention and consciousness sufficiently to still the field of awareness, and to recognise the incessant activity of the mind as a process, or bundle of processes, that runs on beneath awareness all by itself, rather than assuming it to be a discrete and permanent self or soul, set over against its perceptions. Of course the outer forms of mediation or contemplative practice are very different, and conditioned by the religious tradition within which they arise, but very broadly something like this seems to be intended by them all.
In this period of quiet settling, separated from the religious atmosphere and bustle of corporate worship, I, as I suspect many of us, have begun to sense that the “social-cultural system” of religion is something quite separate from the “experimental faith” (cf. Quaker faith & practice 19.02) of contemplative practice, and that, crucially, the one does not depend upon the other.
Churches and religious groups seem mostly to be operating on the assumption that once the pandemic is under control, and something approaching normal life is restored, their worshippers will flood back, Catholics to Mass, Quakers to their meetings, everyone to their accustomed place. It may not happen, at least not in the way, or to the extent, that most people appear to expect. The sea change of the pandemic, and the enforced crash course in information and communications technology it has brought, have accelerated a process of secularisation that has been gathering momentum for a long time.
Now, secularisation is a term loaded with assumptions and prejudices on the part of both those espouse it, and those who oppose any such idea. Stephen Batchelor points out (After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, p.15, Yale University Press, Kindle Edition) that both the word “religious” and the word “secular” are difficult terms in our present time. He writes,
Secular critics commonly dismiss religious institutions and beliefs as outdated, dogmatic, repressive, and so on, forgetting about the deep human concerns that they were originally created to address… “Secular” is a term that presents as many problems as “religious.”… there seems to be no reason why avowedly “secular” people cannot be deeply “religious” in their ultimate concern to come to terms with their brief and poignant life here and now.
I have written elsewhere of my growing sense that the contemplative life is once again moving out from the monasteries and ashrams into a new desert, that of the world, or at least of places set apart within the world. I wrote then:
Time and again contemplatives have broken away from the apparent corruption of state churches on the one hand and religion-inspired revolutionaries on the other, sometimes forming loose communities, and retreated from formal organisation almost altogether. Examples are as diverse as the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt and Syria around the 4th century AD, the Pure Land (Shin) schools of Buddhism founded by Honen and Shinran in 12th and 13th century Japan, and the Quakers in 17th century England.
These contemplative movements, often based around simplicity of practice and openness to the Spirit, seem to arise when not only are the religious establishments in a compromised and sometimes corrupt condition, but the state is in flux, sometimes violent flux. [Our present political uncertainties], scoured by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, would seem to provide fertile ground for contemplative change in this way.
I have no idea where this is leading, but there is a clarity developing that I had not expected, nor intentionally “worked towards”. The inward solitude of these unusual times is proving strangely fruitful. This is what Martin Laird once called a “pathless path”: as Dave Tomlinson wrote, “Human language is unable to describe the external realities of God with any precision. As we have seen, this does not make language useless; it simply means that we have to accept its limitations… Religious language or talk about God and the spiritual realm is therefore inherently provisional and approximate in nature.”
There is no obvious name for what is happening. It seems not to be “secular” in the way religious people might fear, but it isn’t “religious” either, in the way that secularists might assume. It is not eremitical exactly, certainly not in the traditional sense of hermits as ones living in geographical isolation.
Perhaps it is time that silence and practice are allowed to stand untitled: the ground still, and open. It seems to be so for me.
[Parts of this post were published earlier on The Mercy Blog, but have since been adapted and expanded.]