The spiritual life is a journey from here to God knows where. It’s an individual journey, but often done in the company of others. This morning we’ve heard Malcolm make a public commitment to that journey – a journey that began many years ago and has taken him down many paths, many rivers.
Stories have always been important for me. It’s probably why I continue to find the Bible fascinating. The story of a group of fishermen leaving their boats, nets, and a huge catch of fish behind,[i] evokes in me many personal fishing memories. Leaving aside issues of historicity, fishy supernatural invention, and the like… it remains a disturbing tale of pilgrims choosing to leave the known for the unknown.
Some forty-five years ago I heard a fish story with a similar message. I’ve found this story ‘travels well’ - namely has relevance to whatever stage or place one’s faith is at. It goes like this:
This is the story about some fish that lived in a very small puddle of water.
"Give me that waterbug!"
"No, I saw him first!"
"Get your fins off my supper! He's mine I tell you!"
And so, every day, the little fish spent their time competing for waterbugs. Their puddle was cradled between the roots of an ancient oak tree, just beside a flowing river.
But one morning, there was a sudden SPLASH!
An amazing, brightly coloured fish had jumped into the riverside puddle... a fish with golden scales. And - what was most unusual in this particular puddle - she was smiling!
One of the puddle-fishes asked, "Where do you come from?"
The Sparkling Fish smiled brightly, "I come from the sea!"
"The sea! What is the sea?"
The Sparkling Fish was surprised: "No one has ever told you about the sea? Why the sea...the sea is what is all around us. It isn't though like this little puddle; it's endless. A fish needn't swim in circles all day...she or he can dance with the tides! It's sparkling and endless!
Then a pale, grey puddle-fish spoke up: “But, how do we get to the sea?”
The Sparkling Fish answered: “It's a simple matter. You jump from this little puddle into that river and trust that the current will take you to the sea.”
Astonishment clouded the puddle community. At long last a brave little fish swam forward with a hard, experienced look in his eye. He was a realist fish.
He said: “It's pleasant to talk about this 'sea business', but, if you ask me, we have to face reality. And what is reality? Obviously, it's day-to-day life - swimming in circles and hunting for waterbugs. Life is hard, but we have to face facts.”
The Sparkling Fish smiled. “But you don't understand... I've been there. I've seen the sea. It's far more wonderful than you can..." But before she could finish speaking, the realist fish swam away.
Next, a fish came up with a nervous twitch in his tail. He was a scared fish. He stammered, “You mean, we're supposed to j-jump into that big, swift river over there?”
“Yes. For a fish in this puddle who wants to go to the sea, the way lies through that river.”
The scared fish's voice trembled in terror...”Look, I'm just an ordinary fish! That river is deep and strong and wide, and I don't know where it goes. Why I might be swept away by the current. If I jumped out of my puddle, I wouldn't have any control over my life. No! It's too risky for me!”
The Sparkling Fish whispered, “Just trust me. Trust that the river will take you some place good...” But before she could finish, the scared fish hurried away.
Finally there swam out a very dignified figure in a black robe. She was a theologian fish. Calmly, she adjusted her spectacles, saying: "My sisters and brothers, our distinguished visitor has expressed many views which merit our consideration. However, these puddle-fishes have expressed other views. By all means, let us be reasonable. We can work this out... Why not form a discussion group? We could meet every Tuesday at 7.30 o'clock…”
The eyes of the Sparkling Fish grew sad.... “No, this will never do,” she said. “Talking is important, but in the end it is a simple matter. You jump. You jump out of this puddle and trust that the river will take you to the sea. Who will come with me?”
At first no one moved. But then a few puddle-fishes swam to her side. Together they jumped into the river and the current swept then away to the sea.
The remaining puddle-fishes began to swim in circles and hunt for waterbugs just like they always had.
Like the biblical story of the fishermen this story too is about the spiritual journey of leaving the known for the unknown.
For those of us raised in faith communities we often, from an early age, learn one spiritual travelling tradition. At some point, often in our late teenage years, we find it unsatisfactory and leave it, maybe never to journey again. But more often than not I suspect most people do travel again. Some will travel with companions down a well-known road and be satisfied, others a less-known path. A few will leave the known altogether and head out across the fields or over the seas.
On the journey beliefs, and here I’m switching to a hiking metaphor, are like cairns. Beliefs are useful structures marking the path others have followed, bringing travellers to this point. We do need to remember the beliefs, the cairns, of the past and learn from them.
Some people camp around cairns, building houses of worship or theological colleges on the spot. After a while however, especially when the discussions seem to be about who’s got the biggest and best or how to make the spot more comfortable, many move on. Beliefs are not an end point.
Faith is not belief or having beliefs. Faith is that urge to move on. Faith is about taking the risk of leaving the familiar to journey into the unfamiliar. Faith though is not irrational in the sense that it is unreasonable or folly, though to some it will seem so. Rather faith can come after carefully weighing up of the options, the known versus the unknown, and then taking a step, or A jump.
Lastly the spiritual journey has no end point. You don’t necessarily find God at the end, or heaven, or even self-fulfilment or contentment. Some would say that you find these things along the way. I’m not so sure. Sometimes they can be quite elusive. There are few guarantees in the spiritual life.
People who are comfortably camped with a set of beliefs enjoying the security of certainty are not to be derided or pitied. When new events or knowledge shake their world they will try hard to incorporate those things within their camp. I envy them in some ways. That is until they start dogmatically imposing their beliefs on others.
I know for myself and other pilgrims I meet that we have no option but to take leave of the familiar camps and travel on. Not for any reward. Not for any peace of mind. Not for any higher calling. We travel simply because that something within us gives no other choice.
The Bible is a spiritual traveller’s guide. It is not a map as such, but rather a record of individual and communal spiritual experience set in the cultural and temporal context of the ancient Middle East. Some of those experiences are terminally locked within their context and need to be ignored by modern day readers. Some of those experiences however reach out across the centuries and oceans of difference and resonate with our experiences. For Christians much of the life and teaching of Jesus has this resonance.
One notable fellow pilgrim in the biblical traveller’s guide is Abraham. He had the imagination to look beneath the unpromising surface of events and to realize that fulfilment is not always found in the obvious places. The verb ‘to see’ recurs constantly in the Abraham story, for he was a person who had learnt to look with the inner eye of the soul.
Jean-Paul Sartre[ii] once defined the imagination as the ability to think of something that is not present. If so, imagination is the spiritual faculty that gives rise to vision.
Abraham left all that was familiar to him. He left his tribe, his lands, and even his gods. Abraham made a radical break with his past and set out not knowing where he was going. This is how the Bible first defines faith. Faith was not a matter of receiving and believing the old traditions. Rather it was a matter of leaving the old traditions for the terrors and enigmas of the unknown. Faith is intertwined with courage.
Abraham spent most of his biblical life travelling, living in a tent, meeting new and sometimes hostile people and their gods, and searching for an elusive fulfilment. As in the Semitic tradition he and Sarah his wife welcomed visitors into their tent, offering what hospitality they could. The famous 15th century Rublev icon portrays one example of this – the point being that in welcoming strangers they welcomed the Divine. Hospitality to that which is strange or other to our experience is a doorway into spiritual truth.
One of the inspiring attributes of Genesis, the first book in the Hebrew Bible, is that it reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of its central characters. Abraham could be cruel but he could also be compassionate. Indeed one of the most moving examples of compassion in the Bible is when he petitions God to have pity on the inhabitants of Sodom. This was a God who could, in terms of the story, have smote brave Abraham for his insolent questioning. Compassion in all spiritual traditions is a sign of true piety.
As spiritual travellers, like Abraham, we need to develop certain skills. You could think of them as hiking skills. They can be taught by mentors, learnt in the doing, and practised along route. I will list only four:
Firstly, we need to develop ears to listen and eyes to look for that which is life-giving, including the difficult things that need transformation. This is ‘being attentive’, ‘being mindful’, or contemplative. This is essentially what prayer is.
Secondly, we need to develop the ability to take risks without being certain of the outcome. The Bible calls this faith. Like in the puddle-fish story, or the biblical story of the call of the fishermen, it takes courage to dispossess yourself of the familiar.
Thirdly, we need to develop our capacity to entertain strange people and ideas. Nowadays this is called inclusivity. I like the old word hospitality. In the spiritual world such hospitality can be uncomfortable and disturbing for it can confront us with our own prejudices and our own psychological history.
Lastly, we need to use our imagination our ‘inner eye’ to see beyond the failed ideologies, policies, and programmes of the past to envision and then, in concert with a great collection of others – including the wonderful and the whacky - enact a different future where prevails justice and compassion for all.
[i] Luke 5:1-11
[ii] Sartre, J. The Psychology of the Imagination, London, 1972.