We sat in a spacious office with carefully positioned furniture and walls adorned with fragments of color and simple but powerful phrases like “Be still and know that I am God.” The conversation opens with a softball question about spiritual life in a secular world and in a secular institution. And so it all begins: two persons unraveling the mysteries of the decades and journeys they’ve lived. Resting there in the conversation is the most intangible of realities: a respect for the presence of God. Life-giving. Sacred. Quietly sought and gently pursued. Acknowledged.
For both, there is the sense that God, postulated or even mentioned as a word, is far from welcome here. There are rattling conversations among colleagues about the attendant challenges of publicly identifying with a church or a tradition. The complexity of a label or a statement about that is lost in the widespread sense that a term like “Christian” or “Catholic” is an alternative for “bigot”, “ignorant”, “intolerant” or “prejudiced”. Ironically, that is far from the truth; perhaps it is a backlash to shifting cultural norms or a consequence of limited education in a tsunami of information. Nevertheless, so few are the safe spaces for the practice of faith and an attentiveness to something greater than self.
In that office, conversation unfolded the juxtaposition of personal faith and institutional membership, the way the two sustain one another yet still rub against one another in distress. Humanity’s many failings stain the idealized images: institutions have drowned in the cries of “hypocrisy”. It is the personal tie, the relationship with God, that matters. Faith that is alive in the subtleties of living actually challenges the institutional structure to become stronger, better, than it was before. All of that is the process of living, the processes of evolution and change that characterize human life. Wholesale rejection of churches or religious communities is a choice that negates the chance to stumble upon, to seek, to discover, that maybe there is something beyond the rhythms of intellect and something to the concept of soul.
And so it is that the practice of belief becomes deeply personal and hardly public. There are the quiet pauses before eating, a silent grace before a meal offered. There is the daily lighting of a single tea light to remind one of the presence of God, of the holy ground. There is the early morning reading of Scripture, its poetry piercing the hours to come. There is the glance that embraces ordinary scenes as extraordinary gifts. Most of all, there is humility in the realization that in a time celebrating the expanse of scientific and technological understandings, there is so much of life and being that is not known. There is the sense that we are always still learning, still only beginning to see, only starting to really understand. Daring to live out faith in those personal ways, within or outside a broader tradition, takes openness and courage just as surely as it demands humility and attentiveness. It is a recognition that none of us are quite whole.
Still, there is continuity with generations of humans in the readings of the day. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who walked in gloom a light has shone.” Isaiah’s words slip across the centuries and shape a framework for the ways faith, religious communities and lives are still alive.