by Rev Ian Bonner-Evans
A few weeks ago I did something that I said I would never do. I bought a satnav for our car. I have always resisted having one. I prefer peace and quiet when driving, so the prospect of having some mechanical voice telling me, ‘in two hundred yards at the next roundabout take the third exit’ filled me with horror. I’ve also been driving for over forty years and have been quite happy using a map or road-signs to direct me, so why change now? And lurking somewhere in the background was a fear that if I started to use a computer to direct me somewhere then I would become deskilled; a similar fear to the one I had when I started using calculators instead of mental arithmetic. So, the odds were heavily, heavily stacked against TomTom or Garmin satnavs in our household!
So what changed? Two reasons come to mind. First of all, earlier in the year I had to make a number of journeys to places I hadn’t visited before. I planned my route as I normally would do, took my maps with me, and used all the road signs that I could, and proceeded to get lost, not once but on three different occasions! This was a painful lesson, and whilst I still trust my navigational abilities, I began to see that there might be a place for some additional support (i.e. a satnav!). That in itself however, wasn’t sufficient to make me want to buy one immediately. More recently, I found myself as a passenger sharing a journey with a friend who was using a satnav. My friend didn’t seem to find the satnav in the least bit intrusive or distracting and we reached our destination without a hiccup! So that positive experience, together with the earlier painful lesson, brought a change of heart. Hence the new acquisition on our dashboard.
Some spiritual commentators do not approve of comparing the spiritual life to a journey. They argue that this can focus attention, unhelpfully in their view, on the destination rather than on the experience of travelling. I think that the image can be a helpful one, particularly if we see it in its fullest sense, keeping in sight not just the journey itself, but the purpose of the journey, the fuel used on the way, and of course, the destination.
So, to go back to my satnav story, I’d like to highlight three particular themes for some further consideration. Firstly, I’d like to suggest that the familiar, or the well-worn ways of being or doing might not serve us all the time. This certainly proved to be the case with my reliance on maps and road signs, but what about our spiritual direction-pointers? Might the same apply? Secondly, experience can be a wonderful, and uncomfortable, teacher. Having been exposed to an encounter with a satnav through my friend, I learnt that it was possible to use one despite my reservations. I suggest that some spiritual benefit can also be gained if we remain open to new spiritual experiences and ideas - but how often to we do this? And thirdly, by buying a satnav I have acknowledged the importance and inevitability of change, but this didn’t happen for me without some embarrassing and frustrating lessons. Resistance to change can be a very, very powerful factor in life, and this seems particularly true when it comes to the spiritual life, both at a personal level and at a communal level. Just think for a moment of the powerful forces at work within many religious communities today for example, consider those voices that advocate continuity, tradition and orthodoxy at all costs, and give dire warnings about the temptations of modernity, exploration and change.
I have always had an interest in the religion and spirituality, and for most of my life I have been influenced by the beliefs and practices of mainstream Christianity. Yet my relationship with Christianity has also been a painful and difficult one. I tried for decades to remain within the church, but eventually I had to leave. I had to do so because my view of ‘God’ had changed, radically changed. I had come to see something that I had failed to appreciate for years, that for me, Eternal Truth, God, the Divine, Spirit, Universal Love - whatever language you use to describe your ultimate reality - cannot be contained within one religious tradition no matter how much value, wisdom and beauty can be found within that tradition. Eventually I found myself drawn to an amazing community of people known as the OneSpirit Interfaith Foundation and after a two-year intensive period of training, education and personal growth, I was ordained in July this year as a OneSpirit Interfaith Minister. My religious journey to date has been ‘eventful’. It’s been one of confusing road signs; unfamiliar roundabouts with multiple exits; u-turns; trips along lonely roads; even going up a one way street the wrong way! But there has also been times of wonderful adventures; opportunities to explore and stay in some amazing locations; heart-warming assistance from others during occasional breakdowns, and a deep desire to carry on travelling, of wanting to find my way home.
As I have just said, one of the main lessons that I have learnt – and it has been a painful one – is that my original spiritual home, Christianity, no longer worked for me. But let me be absolutely clear here, I am not rejecting this religious tradition out of hand, it has been, and still is, of immense value and significance to millions of people. But what I perceive to be the exclusivist teachings within branches of the church; and much of the theology of the various denominations, doesn’t speak to me now. And it has taken me decades to accept that reality. So to go back to the first lesson from my satnav experience, the familiar or well-worn ways of being or doing - in this case my attachment to a particular religious tradition - had stopped serving me. I needed to embrace new possibilities.
But why the struggle? Many people seem perfectly able to move from a religious or spiritual tradition that no longer nourishes them with little or no difficulty, but for others this can be a very hard, even traumatic decision. The exclusivist teachings of many religions; the dire warnings of eternal damnation, and the threat of family and social ostracisation, can prove huge obstacles to many. With hindsight, my biggest barrier was a theological one and related to my image of God. And this is where I get embarrassed! I grew up with an image of an ‘external’ omnipotent God – an all powerful Being ‘out there’ – not quite the ‘old man in the sky image’ – but some form of Father Christmas figure wearing a Judge’s wig – a gracious, other-worldly parent who would look after you and provide for all your needs, BUT you had to behave yourself. The consequences of disobedience would be eternal. At some point in my teens, I ditched that obviously outdated caricature of God, but it was only in my early fifties that I realised that there was still a huge residual emotional and psychological hangover within me; a deep fear that however I now understood God, this ‘Being’ was still to be feared. Having studied as a psychotherapist, I am all too aware of the power of early messages, and when some of these messages are reinforced by figures of authority or communities of individuals in our adult life, the residual effect can be damaging and ongoing. So, to return to my satnav reference, fear can be a powerful factor in resisting change, and this was especially true when it came to my spiritual life. I was still attached to an outdated but powerful image of some omnipotent being that no longer made any intellectual sense to me, but the emotional and psychological associations with that image was still stopping me from being free enough to explore further.
Thankfully, I no longer feel stuck in that place. Just like my experience of being in the passenger seat when my friend was using a satnav, so I have been blessed to encounter other fellow spiritual travellers over the years who have shown me that change is possible, and that change can be wonderful, desirable, exciting and healing! Many of these individuals – and communities of people – began to show me where I might have taken unhelpful turns on my journey, and offered me alternative routes. I don’t have time to expand with specific examples here, but there are two key points that are important to mention.
The first is to do with our understanding of God. My teachers, mentors and guides helped to correct my imbalanced view of the Source of all Life, of ‘God’. Unlike my earlier perception, their view of the Divine, was essentially of an Immanent One, of God within us, deep down at a soul level. This God is both within, beyond, around, through and between us. They pointed me towards the possibility that the essence of this Ultimate, Mysterious Reality is love, not judgement. They pointed to a Source that encompasses all that is Life, all that is Light, and all that is Love, and does not operate in our limited, human ways, but can work through our limited human ways.
And that leads me to the second important point. Those who have helped and inspired me on my journey in recent years have done so because of the way in which they have sought to live, and give witness to their understanding of God and love.
The Persian Sufi Mystic, Rumi, wrote,
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all those barriers within yourself that have been built against love.
The spiritual journey for them has been an inward one to find the Source of Love within them. To do so, they have opened themselves up to an inner encounter that has brought challenge, revelation, transformation and healing. The journey through their own interior landscape has allowed them to connect with their inner loving nature that, in turn, has enabled them to engage lovingly with the world around them. This is no easy task. It requires a huge effort of will to let go of our ego or ‘little self’ identity and our egoic need to control and feel that we are the centre of life. Such a fundamental change of heart and mind can be deeply unsettling and painful. Richard Rohr, the American Franciscan friar recently wrote that suffering comes whenever we feel that we are not in control. He argues that we need to confront the illusion of control, and to let go of that need to control. These tough, difficult words are echoed in the heart of all traditions – take a look at the life and teachings of the Buddha as just one example of this.
All of this can seem like a huge and impossible task, but do not despair. Let me quote from Rumi again,
Beyond our ideas of right doing and wrong doing there is a field.
I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense anymore.
Rumi points us to a wonderful opportunity, and to an invitation. To the possibility that we do not travel this journey called life on our own. Yes, of course, we are solo travellers in one sense, but we have our fellow travellers – each other – to help us on our way. And we also have something else, perhaps dare I say it, the Ultimate Life giving, Life Loving, Life affirming Spiritual Satnav. But we need to lose ourselves first, in some ways, before we can truly find it, and we have to be prepared to trust this spiritual satnav will lead us safely home.
Copyright Rev Ian Bonner-Evans
used by permission
given in St Mark’s on 11 September 2016
Rev Ian Bonner-Evans is an Interfaith minister
by Rev Ian Bonner-Evans