Once I had a home in Ireland, a hermitage on a cliff facing the ocean. Our local Catholic priest used regularly to invite me, as an Anglican priest, to preach at his Masses. But when he gave me the latest edition of the Catholic Church’s Catechism – a thick volume, analysing every mortal and venial sin – I had to throw it away.
I cast it off because to me it represented what the Church has become not what it is meant to be. It does not truly relate to the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus was critical of the rigid, legalistic moral code of his Jewish faith. He stated that there are only two commandments: to love God wholly, and to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. Under the Roman Emperor Constantine, however, his teachings were hammered into a theological and binding set of rules, which gave power to the Imperial Church as an institution.
Each of the major religions has been hijacked at one point or another in its history by such power structures. It has then fallen to the mystical element to preserve the core of their founder’s teachings. Thus in Islam we have the mystical tradition of the Sufi, in Judaism that of the Kabballah, in Christianity that of the Quakers, and of individual mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Dame Julian of Norwich.
Today, I find the writings of Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, who is head of the Golden Sufi Centre in San Francisco, constantly inspiring. The inner journey can sometimes seem a lonely one, for, as he writes, ‘Every effort is required to walk along a path that is as narrow as the edge of a sword. Two cannot walk together, for it is the journey of the soul back to the Source.’ But he then adds, ‘From a spiritual perspective we are never alone; we are looked after more than we could ever know. The moment we turn towards Him, He takes us in His arms and provides us with everything we need.’ These words bring to mind Psalm 23: ‘Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff comfort me.’
All the great mystics throughout history have conveyed the same essential message. We don’t need books of catechism or centralised power structures. What we need is silence. Unless we learn to stand still in the darkness, and listen, we shall not sense these presences which surround us. The ancient words resonate, reminding us of what we have to do: Be still and know!