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Zen Bishop

The new Bishop-elect for the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan is in hot water with conservatives in the US because he practices zen. See articles on The Times website here and here if you want to read more.

There are a couple of things I want to say about this:

1. Firstly, as Ruth Gledhill points out in her article,  it’s sad that once again when truly unbelievable things are going on in the church (the Nazi bishop who wasn’t excommunicated etc.)  that this is the kind of story that makes the headlines.

2. It seems quite clear to me that Zen is not a religion but a philosophy or set of practices. There is no God in Zen. As such I don’t think there is any reason to think that a Christian can’t also find Zen helpful. I do. Bishop Kevin says that Zen practices deepen his relationship with Christ. I think I would say the same. As the Irish Jesuit William Johnston points out in his book ‘Christian Zen’, there is a difference between Zen  and Zen Buddhism. A Zen approach can be taken to any of the religions – so we could have Zen Judaism, Zen Islam, Zen Christianity as well as Zen Buddhism. I think Zen helps us to see but doesn’t tell us what we should see (a helpful phrase I have taken from Richard Rohr’s analysis of Eckhart Tolle) – i.e. Zen is about process not content.

I am resolutely Christian – for me it’s all about Christ who is the ‘really real’ (to borrow a phrase from Gregory of Nyssa). But there is stuff in Zen that can help me receive Christ and follow Christ and which I can learn from. Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr have been saying this for a long time!

So let’s lay off Bishop Kevin!

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UPDATE : I have changed the language of my original post to ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ (rather than ‘inner’ and ‘outer’)

I was on a bus earlier today and couldn’t help but notice a woman who was looking at a leaflet about the Quakers. In many ways she looked exactly like you would expect someone who is interested in the Quakers to look like. Of course that’s a horrible generalisation and I don’t really want to stereotype people – in fact I know Quakers who don’t at all fit the mould, if there is a mould.

But it did make me wonder, generalisations apart, whether there is a certain type of person who is drawn to the contemplative, interior path. The woman on the bus looked like the kind of person who didn’t want to push out into life too much, wasn’t looking to take from life, push the boundaries, achieve etc. – I think I would call this the ‘outward movement’ i.e. pushing out and taking.

Instead (and I realise how awfully judgemental this is of me but I found it helpful in thinking it through) she looked like the kind of person who was quite happy with her lot in life, wasn’t looking to expand and take new territory, but instead felt the pull inwards – I think I would call this the ‘inward movement’.

There does seem to be this inward and outward movement in the development of our spirituality. Richard Rohr talks about it in terms of the two halves of life – the first half is about pushing out and achieving, the second is about letting go. Ronald Rolheiser talks about leaving and returning home. Eckhart Tolle sees this sort of pattern in the universe itself – expansion (the big bang) and contraction (the universe contracting).

Is mystical spirituality only for people who are tired or disillusioned with the outward movement (or have just done it and finished with it)? I hesitate for a couple of reasons which are quite personal….

1. I was told a number of years ago that prayer was all about personality and that I shouldn’t bother with silence because I’m not an extrovert and contemplative prayer is just for introverts. I foolishly believed this at the time and it held me up for ages.

2. Following on from that I feel that I am experiencing both the inward and outward movements concurrently. I am tired with the expansionist, ego-driven, outer movement and feel drawn deeper inwards but at the same time I am still pushing out in different ways (for example I am setting up the StillPoint Centre in Oxford this year).

So…is it unfairly generalising to suggest that contemplative prayer is only for people who are on the inward movement? Do you know many contemplatives who are ‘pushing out’ in life? Or is this all a load of nonsense!

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Following on from my previous post about God’s absence/presence I have been thinking about how this relates to Charismatic expressions of Christianity.

One might think that Charismatic spirituality is very much in tune with the presence of God – after all it has quite an immanent view of the Holy Spirit who is seen as being very present to people, to the extent that they will physically respond (shaking, falling over etc.).

BUT – in my opinion, Charismatic spirituality is still guilty of conceiving of God as being  predominantly somewhere else. Yes, God might come close (and this is seen as God presencing himself where he was not present previously)  – but these are fleeting moments, normally only possible in highly-charged corporate gatherings, and then God is gone again, leaving us wanting and waiting for more.

The challenge remains to remove the blockages to our awareness of God’s continual presence.

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