There are different understandings of the word god.
To some, ‘he’ is a white bearded old man sitting on a cloud. For others the image is of the supreme masculine physique, broad chested, muscular.
Still others see god as the spirit of nature, inhabiting trees, plants and all living things.
For many god is a sense of otherness, something always just beyond our reach and understanding.
And there are those who say there is no god, for whom god is a myth or fable which helped our ancestors understand the world but which we no longer need because science has or has the potential to explain it all.
I believe in God.
I believe in God who created all that there is.
I believe in God who loves all that He has created.
I believe in God who so loves His creation that He came to earth in human form, in the person of Jesus, to show us the right way to live in relationship with Him.
And, yes, there is a sense of otherness about Him, He is a mystery. The writer Richard Rohr says:
‘Remember, mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand – it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, “I’ve got it”. Always and forever, mystery gets you!’
Every day, there is something new to learn about God, something new to reflect upon, something new that may challenge and modify our understanding of God.
Understanding God is like learning the choreography of a dance. Just as you get one bit right, so there are new steps to be learned, new nuances to be made through a single movement.
And God invites each one of us to join in the Dance of Life, a dance centred on the love revealed in Jesus, a dance sustained by the creative Spirit.
‘Dance then wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance’, said He.
‘And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance’, said He.
“You’re going to think me mad, but...”
As a parish priest I used to be delighted if, occasionally, someone confided in me a spiritual experience they’d had, a word of inspiration received at some critical moment, or an unexpected answer to prayer, or even some apparent communication with an angel or a deceased relative. Or maybe they might open up about how they struggled with something or other in the Bible, or with the whole concept of faith. Such conversations were enthralling. I used to feel amazed that someone trying to make sense of his or her life was willing to risk telling me about it.
Collectively, however, we have a problem with inner life, spirituality, faith or whatever you want to call it. A person about to share something fragile nearly always began by saying “You’ll probably think this a bit weird, but....” Spirituality is the last taboo. You can go on till the cows home about sex. Even money is a reasonably OK topic sometimes, among some friends. But not your inner life, not soul, not how you make sense of it all, not the beliefs you live by, or question, or the experiences that have made you who you are....”Whoa! stop right there! We don’t do God!.”
There are good, understandable reasons for this. But other cultures are nowhere near as embarrassed about inner life as ours is. Something described as Spiritual Accompaniment, or Spiritual Direction, or Soul Conversation, or Soul Space, or Soul Friendship, goes on, and has gone on, all around the world, forever. It happens here, too, but furtively. Absolute trust is, of course, essential (“Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.”)
Today someone might seek such tender trust during a visit, say, to a reflexologist or a reiki practitioner. Then again, spiritual conversations can and do occur entirely spontaneously. Your “accompanier”, your giver of the word of inspiration that sets you free, may be some friend you meet for coffee or a stranger on a bus.
Curiously, churches, who you’d think might be in the business of encouraging “soul space”, have often seemed to share the general Western wariness around this topic. Every Church of England diocese, for instance, has a list of approved/recommended providers of Spiritual Accompaniment, but you’ll really have to search quite hard to find it. For your information, our Suffolk diocesan list is held by Caroline Redman, email@example.com, and the corresponding Norfolk diocesan list by Canon Andy Bryant, firstname.lastname@example.org. It is, or course, perfectly feasible, and recommended, to approach your parish priest. As above, I used to love it when people tackled me with “soul” matters.
So much so, that on retiring in 2015 I immediately began a two-year Diploma course in Spiritual Accompaniment run by the Norwich Centre. I deliberately chose something “interspiritual”, i.e. not presuming any particular religious framework; and the participants in my cohort included Christians of various feathers but also therapists and practitioners with roots in paganism, Buddhism, holistic spirituality, shamanism and so on. There was a vibrancy and truthfulness about this group of people. We all learnt much from one another, as well as from our tutors.
I now spend a little time most weeks practising this ministry of listening to people, probably not very well...but there’s a bright shiny diploma hanging on my study wall which gives me confidence and may perhaps reassure visitors! Listening to another human being as we both seek to make sense of this strange, perplexing, beautiful, tragic, amazing, mystifying life remains the most wonderful privilege. A good thing indeed... not in any way a crazy thing.
In case you think the above some kind of sales pitch: there are providers of spiritual accompaniment who are obliged to charge a fee or ask for a donation, but others, such as many retired clergy (myself included), offer their ministry, such as it is, without charge.