Last night we had our fifth Spirituality Cafe gathering. The group was predominantly unfamiliar to me. Less than half seemed to have any formal church connection.
Our topic last night was “How do religious institutions inhibit or contribute to my spirituality?”
It quickly became clear that a third option was required. The question had not allowed for the possibility that religious institutions may simply be irrelevant to a person’s spirituality. This seemed to be a fairly attractive conclusion for at least two participants.
As we talked the term “religious institutions” quickly translated into church. Overall, I was surprised at how relatively well churches seemed to fair throughout the discussion. No one came bearing an enormous grudge against church. Could it be that the days of church bashing are beginning to pass?
One woman said she had never really had anything to do with church and had never considered church to be of any particular interest or importance. But she had always wanted to volunteer in a library. One day she saw an advertisement calling for volunteers to work in the Queenswood House of Studies libary. Queenswood is a local Roman Catholic retreat centre (now sadly closed). Two years ago this woman became a volunteer at the Queenswood library and she reported that the experience had caused her to completely re-think her views of the importance of church and to wonder if church might not have a place in her life.
The real division in our discussion seemed to lie between those who view spirituality in purely individualistic terms and those who believe that spirituality includes an important communal dimension.
The case for spirituality as an exclusively individual enterprise was promoted particularly by one person who finds his spiritual needs adequately met by going kyaking. It was also supported by a woman who thinks she might be an atheist. She believes that spirituality is simply the way we respond to life and that everything is sipiritual and that she does not need anyone to tell her what it means to be spiritual.
But for most people who spoke last night there seemed to be general agreement that it is hard to sustain a spiritual life alone. There seemed to be a general feeling that, although most current manifestations of spiritual community do not adequately address our current cultural context, there is value in gathering with people who are intentionally attempting to live together in a more loving, gentle and gracious manner.
In the end last night we returned to the image of the library. A library is made up of individual books. Each book in a library has its own unique character, style and content that must be respected and honoured. A library that contained only one book would be a dull thing, lacking the richness and depth that a collection of books can provide.
A reader who only ever takes one book out of the library will be intellectually and spiritually impoverished. Good reading depends upon exposure to a variety of voices. A library is a powerful tool for growth and depth because it contains a multiplicity of voices. A library, like a church, should be a conversation that encourages us to live more deeply.
In good spiritual institutions we are encouraged to stay in the conversation with a variety of voices. We are encouraged to remain faithful to a group of people even when we may not always agree with or get along comfortably with every in the group. The discipline of continuing to journey together with others has the potential to open us to a deeper awareness of the beauty and the mystery of life. This is the true function of a spiritual institution.
Next month Spirituality Cafe will meet again at Cafe Misto (2865 Foul Bay Rd) at the corner of Foul Bay and Neil Street at 7:30 p.m. The question that was selected by the group last night is: “How might the pursuit of happiness make us miserable?”