Category Archives: Ground of Being

Mark’s Gospel chapter 2 verses 21 & 22

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh skins.

Scholars agree that Jesus said something like this. A lot of them also think that these sayings have been edited by the gospel writers to reflect the growing gap between Christians and Jews at that time. The question for us might be, are we approaching a similar crisis? ‘Millenials’ is what some younger Americans who came of age at the turn of the century call themselves. They are also more likely to be ‘nones’ because they answer questions about religious affiliation  with the word ‘None’. Yet they also regard themselves as spiritual.  The future of institutional Christianity looks more uncertain now than perhaps it has ever done. Books about it abound. What is called ’emergent Christianity’ flourishes. The “sea of faith” has been receding ever since Matthew Arnold used the phrase in his poem Dover Beach in the late 19th century, referring to its “long melancholy, withdrawing roar”.

For most of my thirty five years of priestly ministry I struggled to keep my ordination vows; struggled to keep alive the church I served. The mental acrobatics I performed as I tried to reconcile my experience with the church’s teaching would have impressed an Olympic selection committee! The current euphemism for making someone redundant is ‘letting them go’. Only after nine years of retirement during which I ‘let go’ of God (at least as I had understood the word) did I discover the hidden Christian tradition of contemplative prayer.  Nobody had told me about it at my theological college back in the 1950s. Can the old wineskins of our traditional churches hold this ‘new’ wine: wine that is actually a rich and very old vintage?

John Robinson was a Church of England Bishop in the Diocese of Southwark, here in London. Exactly fifty years ago he created a national sensation by publishing a book called Honest To God. “Our image of God must go”, he wrote; somewhat shocking for a Bishop to say that, even today. He thought it might take a hundred years before a different way of thinking about God really took hold and became part of mainstream church life and practice. God as the Ground of Being was what he proposed instead of the prevailing idea of God as a separate entity, a being ‘out there’ somewhere. Well it begins to look as if his fifty years was a conservative estimate.

Thinking of God as the Ground of Being, the philosopher and theologian Raimon Panikkar says, “contemplative life is neither pure meditation nor pure action; instead it is the action upon which one reflects and the meditation upon which one acts, the undivided life. Its name is wisdom.” Everywhere one looks people are finding new ways of expressing the fundamental truths of Jesus’ message: new/old wine that threatens to burst the old wineskins of western Christian practice.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 2 verses 13 – 17

Tax gatherers were the hated stooges of the occupying Roman administration in Palestine when Jesus was alive. Now here’s Jesus calling Matthew, one of those stooges, to follow him. Matthew invites Jesus home to dinner and religious folk are not best pleased. They corner some of Jesus’ disciples and mutter:

“Why does he eat with tax gatherers and sinners?”

Jesus replies,

“Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

The basic stance of prayer is confession (see my previous post) but not as it has been widely understood in Christian circles for centuries. By confession I mean first a deep sense of longing, unease, dissatisfaction with the way I am. Later, once I have found the Compassionate  Presence that gives some fulfillment of my longing, some ease, some satisfaction, confession means a lack of pretence, a willingness always to say, ‘this is how I am at this moment’. But ‘this is how I am at this moment’ is not a blanket of weary resignation thrown over the whole of the rest of my life. It is simply a surrender to the way things are with me, in me, around me, at this moment. Put like this, it is madness to pretend that things are not as they are now, at this moment. But I am not telling myself that things are going to stay this way. In true confession I am not labeling the ‘things’ that are the facts about my situation at this moment. For example if I have a headache, I have a headache. That’s a fact. If I tell myself, ‘Oh my God, it must be a brain tumour!’  That, to put it mildly, is an opinion. If I am feeling angry with someone that’s a fact to be acknowledged (confessed) without pretence, without running a commentary about it in my head, especially without going over the event which caused my anger, or feeling guilty about being angry, or imagining what I might do about it in the next few seconds, or minutes, or days, or weeks. Given the speed with which my mind can gallop away with any of these thoughts when I am angry, it is best if my ‘confession’ focuses on the actual physical sensations that are happening – pounding heart, flushed cheeks, sensations in the pit of my stomach. Why is it OK to practice confession in this way? Because nothing separates me from the Compassionate Presence which we often call God, which is actually the deepest truth about us. Does this mean that there’s nothing else for me to do about it? Not necessarily by any means. It does mean that confession enables me to see clearly what, if anything, needs to be done and how to do it.