SMC – Pentecost 2019
You may have heard it yourself, when someone says they’re spiritual but not religious or that they believe in God but don’t go to church. I even had someone say to me once that they believed in God but they didn’t really ‘do’ prayer.
These are gauntlets indeed thrown down to us individually and as a Church. We need to ensure that our life together here at St Mary’s is one where the link between what we do and how we are when we’re here shows we are absolutely about God, the source of all life and all grace. There’s a great spiritual appetite out there and we know this because all human beings are created with a thirst for eternal life having been made in God’s image, and so they long - whether they know it or not - they long to be united with Him and we need to be clearer that what we do here is about that, removing all bitterness or irreverence or self-obsession, so that even more people will be worshipping God in this place.
Spiritualism or Spiritism for the purposes of what I’m saying today are basically the same thing in that they demonstrate this thirsting for God but will ultimately prove fruitless for who dabble with them. Spiritualism is sometimes related to a set of beliefs about communicating with dead spirits and spiritism is sometimes taken to refer to a more specific belief in reincarnation. I think the terms also cover a greater sense of ‘being spiritual, but not religious’ by which I refer to folk recognising there is a spiritual element to life: hoping there is life beyond the grave, knowing God created the world and that He’s in Heaven watching over us: a sort of benevolent security guard watching the TV screen in his office who’ll come and fix something that’s broken if we ask him nicely.
I want to try and equip us to counter some of these false beliefs in people that I’m pretty sure we all encounter.
So, can the dead speak to us? Well, possibly, is the answer. Most famously you might remember the Medium of Endor whom King Saul consults in his distress so as to speak to the dead Samuel (I Samuel 28). Saul was sinning by consulting this person because fortune-telling, attempting to speak to the dead through mediums and other such practices are condemned as sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:9-12). We too would be sinning if we did such things, hence St Paul condemns them in Galatians 5:20. The reason being that it is an attempt to bypass God, to claim a control over another, to set ourselves up as able to cross a gulf which is too great. Have a read of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and you’ll see the basis of the Parable Jesus tells is that the gulf between the living and the dead is too big. We ask the dead to pray for us and we for them because prayer is an action in Christ who alone can bridge this great void.
And after all, what would we ask the dead other than self-indulgent reassurance or for some sort of knowledge of something? Can not and ought not God give us this, and ought not we rather go to Him, the fount of all wisdom, the means of all hope?
Another false premise I’m surprised to have found is reincarnation, which is the wrong belief that our personalities reside in our soul and when we die we find another body on earth to inhabit. People sometimes joke, “Oh, I must have been wicked in a former life.” Reincarnation is based on a huge misunderstanding of who human beings are. We are not just spirits trapped in a body which we can dump so as to discover another one to continue life on earth, no. Rather, when we die our souls need to be cleansed so as to be fit for Heaven by God’s grace and what is sown as an earthly body needs to be raised a spiritual body, (I Corinthians 15:44) also fit for Heaven. It’s important our mortal remains are laid to rest with dignity for this reason.
There is a unity to our body and our soul. That is an underlying assumption in our second reading when St Paul writes that the human body is a single unit. The creation narrative of Genesis 1 and 2 is all about how body and soul are an entire whole of a person. And this works in lots of ways. So, praying can be physically tiring as well as emotionally restful and bringing immense peace as we unite ourselves to Christ. I remember going on retreat once and the Mother Abbess of the convent appeared with a basket with a gin bottle and chocolate bars on the first day of retreat saying praying is tiring and I’d need some energy food. Equally our physical health may well suffer if our spirit is not being nourished by the Lord at the Mass. There’s a connection between.
The sacramental reality of the life of the Church demonstrates most wonderfully this truth of the unity of the body and the soul of human beings. Jesus in our Gospel gives a spiritual power to the apostles, an authority handed down through the centuries, and He does this through a physical act. We are confirmed, priests are ordained, by the laying on of a bishop’s hands. We are made members of Christ’s body by water being poured on our heads in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Man and woman are joined together, becoming one flesh, revealing the love Christ has for His Church, by the giving and receiving of a ring. The seriously sick have their foreheads and their hands anointed with oil to bind and to heal. The liberation of sins forgiven is unlocked by the spoken word of the penitent in the confessional. Yes, the sacraments are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual graces:” there is a unity of body and soul.
Having said all that, we mustn’t think that when we’re running 15k on the exercise bike at Easy Gym that we are somehow communing with God or making ourselves closer to Him. Nor must we become dissatisfied with our bodies when they start creaking or paining us or being not quite the shape they once were: the body can still function as the physical means through which we worship God even when society and the thinking of the world writes it off. When you see the severely physically disabled being transported in wheelchairs in Lourdes, you see people who according to the standards of the world have bodies which are useless, yet still they use them for our primary purpose, to worship God. And so we see the Risen Lord appears to the disciples in our Gospel and shows them His pierced hands and side. The scars are still there on the most perfect of human bodies, scars that speak of sacrifice and being poured out for others. When we offer Mass, the priest has to break the large host he holds so that Christ might be shared.
I think related to the generic use of the word “spirituality” is use of the language of energy or vibes. People talk about needing positive energy from a place or a person. Some folk even take a syncretist approach to the religions of the world and take bits of this or that, be it the meditational practices of Buddhism or the concept of karma also in Hinduism whereby there are consequences to our actions. A lot of this and other approaches to a spiritual life can result in us thinking that all our problems can be solved by ourselves without reference to God’s grace and power: “we just need to look after ourselves and buckle down and try harder finding the inner strength, the inner energy within ourselves that just needs releasing” or we make ourselves an arbiter of which bits from different religions work. The great danger in this, of course, is that we become our own Saviour. Idolatry.
Contrast that with what we celebrate today, as described in our first reading from Acts 2. The Spirit of God is not about our isolated and individual effort, a summoning of positive energy out of ourselves so as to connect with others in our own strength, no. The Spirit of God is God and comes from God so as to equip and empower us with graces and virtues that we might bear fruit in our lives. The seven virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith hope and love. The body is needed to express the love that resides in our hearts. After all, faith without works is dead. (James 2:17) May we then be clear in this place and in our lives that we strive for nothing other than eternal salvation, worked out patiently here on earth. May we be filled with the Spirit of God, whom the risen Christ gives to the Church today. Alleluia!