Dear Donagh, I work part-time in…retreat centre…and recently I'm coming across something I haven't met before, or very seldom. People ring to suss out the content of the courses and clearly state that they don’t wish to attend a retreat with "a Jesus content." They are interested, they insist, in the development of their own body/mind/spirit, but it seems to end there. I was shaken by this when two such enquiries were made recently in relation to courses over the same weekend. Have you any comment to make on this? Thank you and Simon for your site. A.H.
Dear A.H. I worked for twelve years in a retreat centre myself, but it was some years ago, and much has changed in Ireland since then. But even then New Age awareness was well established, and the bookshops were full of New Age titles. The movement, as you know, just took in anything that seemed different: I've seen books on astral travel right beside books on zen! This is even more marked now, because of effortless and almost cost-free access through the internet to every opinion in the world. There is no going back on this: we can 'uninstall' a computer programme, but we cannot 'unknow' something we have come to know, nor 'unexperience' something we have experienced. That's putting it in almost negative terms. Still in negative terms: it's impossible now to make large claims for a narrow spirituality. In the positive terms of St Paul's phrase, "All things are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's."
I have to admit I'm at a loss when people talk to me about cleansing their chakras. It's far from chakras we were reared! At the same time I prefer to listen to such people than to fundamentalists who would like to condemn all this profusion and go back to Catholic life as it used to be. Time doesn’t run in that direction. These would like to separate Christ from the crowds, but the most characteristic thing about him in the gospels is his mingling with people of every description. He may seem at times to be lost, but he is about his Father's business. In the gospels he never sits in lofty separation from people; he is the Good Shepherd, seeking out the lost sheep. It is not those who say the right things, "Lord! Lord!" who will enter the Kingdom of God, he said, but those who do the will of the Father. Many sign up to the faith, like the son who said "Yes I'll go," and didn’t go. But Jesus praised the son who said No and then went. "Tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you," he said to the pious. Perhaps the most subversive thing he said was, "Nowhere in Israel have I found such faith." It was subversive because he said it of a Roman centurion - a pagan! What does faith mean if Jesus can praise the faith of a pagan? That pagan could not have recited a Creed; but then, neither could any of the Apostles!
If someone specifically wants the "Jesus content" excluded from a retreat, it must be that they have had a dire experience of it, and it's not hard to see how this could be. Many older people - and some not old - have suffered dreadfully in early life from a mean-spirited introduction to the faith. To every single one of them I can say, "Me too." But I take it for granted now that there has never anywhere been a perfect way. Every experience is partial; every image of the faith and of Christ is inadequate. But for that very reason we have to remain open even to expressions that baffle and challenge us. "It is not those who say, 'Lord, Lord.…'!
It was common some years ago to hear about "the anonymous Christ." It's a phrase that has gone out of currency; it began to seem a bit underhand. But perhaps it still has a place at the back of the mind if not at the front. There is a shyness about recognition. I wonder about people who "find Jesus" in front of television cameras. But I don’t wonder at all at people who find him in a moment when some person with a positive and beautiful vision has really cared about them and their innermost feelings, and has shown them respect and love. Sadly, they sometimes fail to find this in Christian circles, and so they seek it elsewhere. But the poet's phrase, "Christ plays in ten thousand places…."