We believe that God is everywhere, and the Lord sees both good and evil in all places.
Why go to church?
As we come into land on the specific matters of prayer in a monastic community, like that of the previous section on ‘matters of authority’ (chapter 1 – 7), St. Benedict ends on an idealistic vision; a goal to aim for. He begins this picture by affirming
God is everywhere.
He does this to acknowledge that, yes, we don’t have to go to a particular place with a particular group of people to pray. You, as an individual, can pray in any place at any time but there is a time and place to specifically go to where his presence is particularly felt. This reminds me of words from Common Worship’s Eucharistic Prayer A which says,
It is indeed right, it is our duty and our joy, at all times and in all places to give you thanks and praise, holy Father, heavenly King, almighty and eternal God, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.
It does not take long for St. Benedict to highlight an often forgotten aspect of this argument; that, just as you can be in contact with God at any time and in any place you wish, so can he be with you seeing
…both good and evil in all places.
It is surprisingly frequent that I hear people proclaim their belief that you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. Although I agree with that statement the assumption is not correct. What the person often means (you discover after some further questions) is that to be Christian is a matter of belief alone, ascribing to some statements as true or false or ‘hedging your bets’. To go to Church is seen as an unnecessary waste of time when you’ve already signed to say you are willing to be identified and ‘protected’ as a Christian (until it gets tough). The people I hear this from often cite the truth that God is everywhere and they can pray (if they want to) wherever they are. Indeed many people admit they pray, i.e. they say some words and, as much as they can tell, if God does exist, they think he hears and will act on their behalf.
What these people don’t always care to realise is that those moments when they are not aware of God, when they don’t consider God’s presence with them, God is still everywhere and he ‘sees both good and evil in all places.’ God can become an agent who is commanded to turn up when we ring our prayer bell and depart when we do not require his services. What this means is, that if you want to take seriously the belief that God is everywhere and this means you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian then you must also admit that God is part of every aspect of your life. Being a Christian is not about going to a particular location at a set time but it is about a genuine relationship; a relationship that is two way.
What makes someone a Christian is an active desire to be continually shaped into the likeness of Christ. We do this by reading Scripture and seeing the character of God, perfectly revealed in the person of Jesus in the Gospels. We do this by gathering with other people who are desiring the same change into their lives and discerning together what it means and looks like to be like Jesus. Church then becomes not a place you have to go to but a place where Christians gather to share, to be encouraged, to see Christ in other people and to re-commit themselves to the task of transformation. It is a hospital where the continual healing of our lives can be done in a safe space. We also get shaped into the likeness of Jesus by prayer. Prayer, in this instance, is about inviting God to enter into your life and begin the work of transformation and change. Prayer is the way we open up the wounds of our life to God who can heal us and set us free.
Change is always painful because there is some loss involved. Change can be exciting as well as new things begin to emerge but, as St. Paul says in Romans,
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)
Prayer is a two-way relationship one where we are invited to speak and share, to cry out for change, but it is where God is invited, by us, to speak and share, to cry out for change, often starting in our own lives. When prayer is only seen as a formal request to an unknown agent who delivers what we order then it falls and rarely satisfies. Prayer is about relationship and that is why it is harder than most people think because prayer asks something of us; it invites us to change and to lose something, an addiction to something that distracts or comforts us apart from God. We don’t care to admit it but we love the chains that holds us and imprison us (see ‘Lovers of Chains‘ post). We are all addicts to something and need healing and liberation. We rarely ask for it because the process is tough and the thought of letting that thing we deify, we hold up as our God, to go is inconceivable.
Blind to Addiction
It is in R Kelly’s questionable song that he says,
My mind is telling me no but my body my body’s telling me yes
We are torn, as human beings, between that which we might consider noble and that which is more ‘instinctive’. Our conscience is trained to know what is right but our issue, increasingly, in our culture is that there is less shared ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. We do, however, continue to talk as if there is but everything is up for questions as authority is moved and changes. The difference between that which is ‘noble’ and that which is ‘instinctive’ is about that which raises us out of purely materialistic desires, the tangible and the animalistic into a realm of rationality and consciousness. These should be united but they are not always so.
We are creatures that can justify action. There is a wealth of opinion and countless beliefs we can articulate and ascribe to and any action can be explained. We are also in a culture of precedent so if someone else has done it then it is possible for someone else to do it too. This means when barriers are pushed and moved, they are irrevocably pushed and moved. We hope that our beliefs will inform our action but I think the other way is more true; our need to justify, to ourselves as well as to others, our actions shape our beliefs (if I did x I must believe y).
You will see this insight when you live with an addict. Their dependency on a particular substance is rationally justified. It is the extreme cases of alcohol and drugs that we are more aware of it but this justification that comes out of the mouth of those addicts comes out of all our mouths at some point. We may phrase it differently but it is the same,
I can’t help myself.
I need that person to feel secure.
Surely if this makes me happy it’s not wrong.
We justify to ourselves why we need the props and crutches in our lives and religion can be one of them. Having crutches is not necessarily a problem; if you have a broken leg it is helpful for a time of healing but the aim is to let go of the crutch and be free. Religion is a crutch while we heal, the aim is to be free.
My brother in law gave an image, which I find helpful. He was talking about the Law of Moses as St. Paul talks about in Romans. He sees the Law of Moses as a cast which you place over a broken part of our body; the cast does not heal the break but it protects it while it heals. The healing comes from the Spirit. The same is true, I think, of crutches. What is important is not the crutch but the healing.
The problem is we have an odd relationship with crutches. The analogy breaks down after a while so maybe it would be easier to talk about pain-killers. These are helpful and help us live with illness and pain but they can also become something we rely on and therefore blind us from our awareness of the need to heal. The initial problem may disappear but we don’t know and we become addicted to the pain-killers and we justify it to ourselves that we believe we still need them.
St. Benedict ends this chapter with an interesting sentence,
Let us rise in chanting that our hearts and voices harmonise.
The aim in prayer is that our hearts and voices harmonise; so what we say is what’s in our heart but also what’s in our hearts is what we say. This extends, I think, to our actions too.
To be Christian is not about going to Church, about saying the right things, but is it is about allowing and inviting God into your lives to transform you into the likeness of Jesus. To be like Jesus is to have your voice and heart harmonised and that your heart is instinctively noble; that which you do without thinking is pure and Godly. We don’t perform Jesus but we become Jesus. We know what Jesus is really like by Scripture, by other Christians and saints and by prayer and the work of Holy Spirit through that relationship. Our authority then must be on three things: Scripture, Tradition and Reason.
Heavenly Father, you are indeed everywhere, you are with us at all times and in all places and you stand at the door to our lives and knock. You never force yourself in but you are wanting to be in our lives to make all things new. I’m sorry for the times that I have sent you back out of the door to hide parts of my life from you. I lie to myself and train myself to believe that you are in it all and you bless all my thoughts and actions but I know that that isn’t true because I’m not yet like your Son, Jesus.
Come, Lord Jesus