— by Rob Oulton —
In my first (and only) long summer holiday as a student; and at a loss what to do, I decided to go on a T.S Eliot hitch-hiking tour round Southern England, arriving in due course at ‘Little Gidding’. As Eliot’s poem of the same name suggests, it really was ‘England and no-where’; and, though Summer and not Winter as for Eliot, it seemed still a very out of the way place. There was no one there, and so I, as the poem suggests, knelt in the little church, feeling a bit self-conscious.
But there I had, what I could say was my only religious experience – no visions or voices, or stuff like that. I simply had an indescribable sense of ‘being known’ by something much greater than myself, something that seemed not to be ‘my’ mind; and with a quality of gentle laughing humour which is difficult to convey.
I guess I thought it was Jesus or God – I was what you might call a ‘Follower of the Way’ – the term the early followers of Jesus gave themselves (and I guess I still am). But the important point is that this was a direct experience – vivid and in the present; not filtered by any ideas I might have about theology or religion.
Shunryu Suzuki, who was a Japanese Zen Buddhist, who brought Zen to the hippies of San Francisco in the 60’s, says this in one of the records of his teaching. (He was talking about Buddhism but I think he could be talking about any religion) :
‘Most of us study Buddhism as though it were something that was already given to us. We think that what we should do is preserve the Buddha’s teaching, like putting food in the refrigerator. Then to study Buddhism we take the food out of the refrigerator. Whenever you want it, it is already there. Instead, Zen students should be interested in how to produce food from the field, from the garden. We put emphasis on the ground.’
So he says the ‘doing’ and what flows from that, rather than what knowledge you can acquire, is what is important, in matters of religion – and I think I agree.
Over the years, I’ve been an Anglican; an atheist (briefly), an attender at Quaker meetings; a follower of ‘Amma’ (a teacher from the Hindu tradition); a convinced believer in the transformative power of Jungian psychotherapy; a hankerer for the ecstatic vision of the Sufi mystic, Rumi; and actually I am still all these. And now a Unitarian also!
But I think I now am happy to acknowledge that all these only point the way; give a partial form only to the literally unimaginable but fundamental under-pinning of reality that is God. These forms are there to help you in the only task that matters: to produce something good from your own field. And that little bit of land, big or small, is the bit that has been entrusted to you and which is for you alone to find out what will grow there.
But there is something else – we CAN help each other. I can’t give you my ground; you can’t give me yours, but perhaps we can help each other in the work.
And it is this bit of impossible madness, that nevertheless has always dogged my heart’s imagination: where is the tolerant, forbearing spiritual community where the task of realising the kingdom of heaven can go forward, not always alone; not always divided by too much attachment to our own ideas – A community where a collective endeavour does nor require uniformity of belief? Where diversity ceases to be the problem, but becomes celebrated as part of the solution? And perhaps Meadrow Chapel is a community where this becomes possible.
I’ll finish with another word from Suzuki :
‘Religion is not any particular teaching. Religion is everywhere. We have to understand our teaching this way. We should forget all about some particular teaching; we should not ask what is good or bad. There should not be any particular teaching. Teaching is in each moment, in every existence. That is the true teaching.’
I think I would like to make that my teaching: ‘Teaching is in each moment, in every existence.’