Yuletide Reflections

Kevin Commons writes:

Yule Tide Reflections

On 21 December the Turning Wheel Buddhist Temple was packed for the annual celebration of the winter solstice. We reflected on the regular pattern of movement through the seasons of the year, which reminded us of the omnipresent and perpetual nature of change. I was, however, aware of the beginnings of a sore throat which turned out to be quite a bad a cold. By Saturday 24th I had decided that I needed to rest and allow the cold to run its course. I was pretty washed out by 25th and so not able to go on the bike ride I had planned, although I was able to visit my elder daughter and her family for Christmas lunch.

I used the morning to listen, on the BBC I Player, to Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets from the previous Thursday’s “In our time”. I was astounded by the mystical content of Eliot’s writing though I have to confess to being pretty ignorant about poetry. However, I was disappointed that the discussion only went into the mystical aspect of the poems at the end and then only referred to Dame Julian of Norwich, who is quoted in one of the poems discussed. The literary experts seemed to miss many opportunities of making the obvious connections with eastern religion though, when they were talking about war, there was a reference to Arjuna1. There were no links made with either Taoism or Buddhism. It seems to me that Eliot through his Anglo-Catholicism had had experience of the ‘beyond words’ nature of reality (or Just Being) that is central to Zen.

This reminded me of my own background in Anglo-Catholicism and one of my favourite hymns (Corde Natus Ex Parentis) that was regularly used for the procession at the Christmas midnight Mass. Although I have been a Zen Buddhist for over twenty five years the opening two verses still have particular resonance for me:

Of the Father’s Heart begotten

Ere the world from chaos rose

He is Alpha from that Fountain

All that is and hath been flows

He is Omega of all things

Yet to come the mystic close

Evermore and evermore

By his word was all created

He commanded and ‘twas done

Earth and sky and boundless ocean

Universe of three in one

All that sees the moon’s soft radiance

All that breathes beneath the sun

Evermore and evermore

They point to the Oneness of All things or as we might say “All is One and All is different”. This point is underpinned by the notion of “End and Beginning” being essentially connected, which is apparently a major theme in much of Eliot’s work.

These ideas of the continuous flow of life reminded me of the Sandokai2, as is illustrated by the following extracts. First, the opening line:

From west to east, unseen, flowed out the Mind of India's greatest Sage

And to the source kept true as an unsullied stream is clear.

And later on:

And yet, in each related thing, - as leaves grow from the roots,

End and beginning here return to the source - and "high" and "low" are used respectively.

The scripture then points out that Zen practice is not about the victory of light over darkness, but rather states:

Within all light is darkness

But explained it cannot be by darkness that one-sided is alone.

In darkness there is light

But, here again, by light one-sided it is not explained.

Light goes with darkness

As the sequence does of steps in walking;

All things herein have inherent, great potentiality,

Both function, rest, reside within.

The next five verses of Corde Natus Ex Parentis are essentially a description of Christian theology but the final two verses revert to a more Universal theme:

Now let old and young uniting

Chant to thee harmonious lays

Maid and matron hymn thy glory,

Infant lips their anthem raise,

Boys and girls together singing

With pure heart their song of praise,

Evermore and evermore

Let the storm and summer sunshine

Gliding stream and sounding shore

Sea and forest, frost and zephyr

Day and night their lord adore

Let creation join to laud thee

Through the ages evermore

Evermore and evermore

It seems to me that this kind of reflection has the potential for a deeper form of inter-faith dialogue than often occurs. There are many different ways, or modes, in which people can engage in interfaith activities. Some examples are summarised in the following table:

Modes of Interfaith Engagement

Mode

Mode description

Mode Title

1

Simple friendliness and acceptance of the culture of others

“Tea and samosas”

2

Interest in and finding out more about the beliefs of others

“The pursuit of knowledge”

3

Joint celebrations to commemorate local or national events.

“Shared celebrations”

4

Joint action on individual issues of common concern as they arise that are for the benefit of others

“The joint compassionate response”

5

Systematic joint social and political action with others which promotes Kohlberg’s notion of the “Just Community3

“Universal justice and democracy”

6

Exploration of the deepest Truth by individual practitioners within their own religious tradition and willingness to share personal insights with others

“Faith Beyond Belief”

7

Realisation of the deepest Truth that is hidden behind the doctrines and dogmas of all the main world faiths and willingness to share personal understanding with others.

“Universalising Faith”

Unfortunately much of the formal interfaith activity seems to focus on mode 2 but usually it does not go beyond this, although there are some examples of interfaith activities that fit into mode 3 and 4, often on an informal basis. Quakers and members of the Bahá’í community worldwide are clearly concerned with issues located at mode 5 but there is little evidence of joint activity in this regard. Interfaith activity that focuses on modes 6 and 7, if it exists, does not seem to be very high profile. However, I am certain that there are practitioners in all religious traditions that are already looking more deeply into the meaning of their faith beyond the formal prescriptions of dogma and doctrine. Unfortunately, they do not seem to come together to share their insights, or if they do the fruits of their discussion is not widely published within the individual faith communities.

Maybe writing, like that of T.S. Eliot and other forms of poetry, including a few well chosen hymns, could be a fairly tradition-neutral catalyst for discussion in the ‘Faith Beyond Belief4’ and ‘Universalising Faith5’ modes of interfaith engagement6.

Footnotes

1. Arjuna is the central figure in the Bhagavad Gita.

2. Sandokai is a scripture recited in Zen ceremonies c.f. Kennett P.T.N.H (1990) “The Liturgy of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives for the Laity” Shasta Abbey Press

3. See McDonough G.P. “Moral maturity and autonomy; appreciating the significance of Lawrence Kohlberg’s Just Community”, Journal of Moral Education, Volume 34, Issue 2, (2005)

4. Commons K. (2015) “Faith Beyond Belief; A Theoretical Background”, an e-book from: Leicester University Chaplaincy: www2.le.ac.uk/chaplaincy/world-faiths

5. Fowler, James W. (1981) “Stages of Faith”, Harper & Row

6. Since penning these reflections I visited the World Congress of Faiths’s web-site, which included dipping into the 2012 edition of its journal “Insight”, where I was fascinated to read Alan Race’s obituary for John Hick and John Barnett’s article “Is mystical experience beneficial to interreligious relations?” Their work suggests that dialogue at the deeper end of the spiritual journey between people of different faiths is not only possible but is probably happening, at least in written form, more than I am aware.

Appendix “Interfaith Celebrations”

That people of different religions can observe their own festivals etc is a necessary part of a healthy pluralistic society. However, there is a place for joint celebration as well but this is more difficult. I have long held the opinion that the only spiritual activity that people of any faith (or none) can engage in wholeheartedly, without compromising their beliefs, is silent meditation/contemplation. On the other hand sitting together in silence does not have the feel of celebration. In practice joint celebrations are not really joint activities but rather events managed by one religion with people from other religions invited and joining in as best they can.

Singing together is a good form of celebration, which is regularly done in a variety of contexts both religious and secular. I could not help wondering whether there might be some mileage in developing religious songs that have a universal applicability. Consequently, I have taken the first two and last two verses of Corde Natus Ex Parentis and tweaked the wording in an attempt to produce a faith neutral hymn that might have meaning for people of any religion or none. The following is the result:

Of the Heart of All begotten

Ere the world from chaos rose

It is Alpha from that Fountain

All that is and has been flows

It is Omega of all things

Yet to come as life on-goes

Evermore and evermore

By Its word was all created

It commanded and ‘twas done

Earth and sky and boundless ocean

Universe of three in one

All that sees the moon’s soft radiance

All that breathes beneath the sun

Evermore and evermore

Now let old and young uniting

Chant aloud harmonious lays

Maid and matron hymn Its glory,

Infant lips their anthem raise,

Boys and girls together singing

With pure heart their song of praise,

Evermore and evermore

Let the storm and summer sunshine

Gliding stream and sounding shore

Sea and forest, frost and zephyr

Day and night the Source adore.

Let creation join in contemplation

From the first and yet to come

Evermore and evermore


The World Congress of Faiths
Collaboration House, 77-79 Charlotte Street, London, W1T 4PW UK.
Charity  No. 244096

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

IMPORTANT! To be able to proceed, you need to solve the following simple sum (so we know that you are a human) :-)

What is 2 + 14 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is: