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Encountering spirituality

2 December 2012

Spirituality is a word I dislike, and my aversion to it has grown over the years, though its popularity with other people seems to have grown in proportion.

I was moved to check this out after reading a post in Macrina Walker’s blog, On silence and silence:

A few years ago, while I was still in the Netherlands, I became aware of a certain media interest in monasticism. Despite their declining numbers and the secularization of society, monasteries continued to fascinate people and had even become rather fashionable destinations for those in search of some sort of inner peace.

What struck me then about this phenomenon was that it was fundamentally redefining monasticism. I read an article that managed to explain the meaning of monasticism for a broad public without once mentioning God or Christ. Instead, it told us that monastics withdraw from society in order to search for silence, for the heart of their life is concerned with what happens in this silence.

I did a search for “spirituality” in my diary, and the first occurence was this, which I wrote when I had just arrived at St Chad’s College, Durham, to study for a postgraduate diploma in theology.

Friday 14 October 1966

Then went to the Junior Common Room, where there was a meeting of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius — an introduction to the Eastern Church by Benedikz and Father Bates. Father Bates, it appears, spends his holidays in Greek monasteries. The thing lasted three hours, and was incredibly dull. However, their theme this year was “God and Caesar”, and they are having a conference on that theme in about six months time — so perhaps things might improve, or at least something fruitful may be learned at the cost of boredom. Father Bates, and the English generally, seem to find the Eastern Orthodox Church quaint, foreign, and rather amusing. They roared with laughter at the description of the way a priest baptised a child in St Oswald’s, and washed the olive oil off his hands in the font afterwards, and then got all deadly earnest and serious over obscure points of spirituality.

My interest in the theme of “God and Caesar” was particularly strong at the time because I had just received a pile of South African newspapers from my cousin in Pietermaritzburg, detailing the first publishing of the “Improper Interference Bill”, which prohibited the discussion of politics between people of different race groups, and, when it became law, led to the demise of the Liberal Party.

I had also read about the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, which was for Anglicans and Orthodox to meet and get to know each other better. I had looked forward to be able to attend a meeting, and found the first one I attended very disappointing. But that was the first time I mentioned “spirituality” in my diary.

The next mention came almost a year later, in a sermon preparation class:

Tuesday 5 September 1967

After breakfast, meditation and more sermon reading. This time it is Stu Prax, a very competent and well-constructed sermon on Sunday observance, and Hugh’s one on Jeremiah telling lies to save his own skin. It was also very good, and he threw out a vast number of ideas to be grabbed by the congregation. Piglet, in criticising, said something was a “false herring”, which caused much snorting from Brang, who himself said the sermon was more eastern than western, and that it reflected Eastern Orthodox thinking and
theology and spirituality.

Piglet was the Revd Eric Franklin, one of the college tutos, and Brang was the Vice-Principal, the Revd Herbert Langford, who had come to the UK as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and converted to Anglicanism. They later had classes in “spirituality”, a concept that I found quite difficult to grasp, but it seemed to be the quality that English people found most interesting about the Orthodox Church. And it later appeared to me that some Orthodox people in England, aware of this interest on the part of the English, played up to it, and focused on it when speaking to English audiences, to string them along, as it were. The English seemed to find their idea of Orthodoxy more interesting than Orthodoxy itself.

When, however, I went to a seminar on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students in Switzerland and France in April 1968, led by Orthodox teachers, there was little or no mention of “spirituality”. It seemed that “spirituality” was something that Westerners expected to find in Orthodoxy, and not something that Orthodox Christians themselves were particularly interested in.

When I returned to South Africa some Anglican dioceses appointed “directors of spirituality”. One of them went to see an Orthodox priest I knew, and since I had been an Anglican, he asked me about it, because he was not sure what she was getting at. He said she seemed to regard the Orthodox Church as something from the “mystical east”, and “spirituality” as something rather spooky. And all I could say was that that had been my experience in England, where Anglicans who were interested Orthodoxy seemed to be obsessed with “spirituality”, and seemed to read their ideas of spirituality into Orthodoxy.

I read somewhere (though I now can’t recall where, and wish I could find it again) that “spirituality” in this sense is quite recent, dating from the 17th or 18th century, where it began to be used in the Roman Catholic Church. It had earlier referred to the spirtual authority of Western bishops, who were, on being appointed, invested with the “temporalities” and “spiritualitis” of their office — back in the days of prince bishops who were secular as well a spiritual rulers. Since I had been at university in Durham, that may serve as an example. The Bishop of Durham was a Lord Bishop of the County Palatine of Durham, and when the 1832 Reform Act threatened to strip him of most of his temporalities, he anticipated it by giving his residence, Durham Castle, for the establishment of a new university, the University of Durham, of which Castle is the oldest college. The bishop then went to live in Bishop Auckland. The “spiritualities” of his office would include his responsibilites as a pastor in the church.

In the Orthodox Church the Russian term “dushevnost” is sometimes translated into English as “spirituality”, but though the denotation coincides, the connotations are different. It might be better to translate it as “life in the Spirit”, a term sometimes used by Western Pentecostals and charismatics, and, as I have mentioned in another post, it is sometimes easier to discuss this with Pentecostals than with Western Christians who are interested in “spirituality”, because dushevnost refers to the life that Christians live under the guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than the spookiness of the “mystical East”.

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