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Living Water
to Light the Journey


Chapter Nine

A Listening Heart



Yet there is nothing utopian…in the charter of that kingdom - in the sunshiny Sermon on the Mount. It is no fanciful conception of an intangible order of things, but a practical, workable code of daily life, adapted to any stage of civilisation, and delivered to men and women who…were in all respects like ourselves - delivered, moreover, by one who knew exactly the potentialities and aspirations of man.

Such is Life

Joseph Furphy

 

In her American best seller Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, the poet Kathleen Norris compared growing in religious faith to writing a poem. “It takes time, patience, discipline, a listening heart. There is precious little certainty, and often great struggling, but also joy in our discoveries.”

 

The discovery that brought me the greatest joy was the Bible. It was like finding some long-lost family treasure that had lain untouched in the attic for generations.

 

There was always a Bible in our home when I was growing up—on the shelves somewhere amongst the Lenin and the Marx and the Rosa Luxemburg—even though we were an atheist family. But I doubt that it got opened. My own Bible now is opened frequently, as I avidly pursue stories of great divine acts that formed and transformed our world. For me there is an intense spiritual element to reading the Bible.

 

I have experienced more joys: of worship and prayer. And with a listening heart I have experienced the presence in me of God’s holy spirit, usually when I did not expect it.

 

I recall my baptism, one wintry Sunday morning in 1994, some months after my commitment to become a Christian. I was to read a testimony to our church congregation, explaining my religious journey. Then I was to be fully immersed underwater in the church baptistery, in recognition of my “rebirth”. I had seldom been more nervous.

 

Don’t worry, everyone told me. The holy spirit will take over. You’ll feel like you’re flying.

 

It didn’t happen, of course. I read my testimony in a strained voice. I stepped into the water, dressed in white, my pastor next to me. He recited a verse from the Bible, a verse that he “presented” to me, to serve me for the rest of my life in my Christian journey.

 

Next, in a judo-like move we had rehearsed in his office, he supported me as I plunged backwards into the water, then back up again. I stepped from the tub, my wife handed me some towels and I went to the men’s toilets to dry myself and get changed. I put my listening heart into overdrive, trying to discern some new feelings, new sensations, a change in me, anything that indicated that the holy spirit had arrived, that I was a different person. I just felt wet and shivery.

 

When the service ended members of the congregation came up and shook my hand and slapped me on the back. I felt like a child having a birthday party at which all the guests are adults. I smiled weakly and tried to be polite.

 

We had lunch with friends—still no feelings—and then went home. I had promised my children I would buy them an ice-cream each, and we started walking together to the local milk bar.

 

And suddenly I realised I was flying.

 

What an extraordinary sensation. I seemed to be floating along the roadway. Floating past all the houses and trees—no; floating through the trees—no; I was the trees—and wanting to laugh and scream. I was bursting with love. I couldn’t contain it. I loved the world. I wanted to hug and kiss my children. Every passer-by. Every dog and cat. I wanted to embrace the sour old Chinese refugee who ran the milk bar and shouted at customers. I wanted to buy my children everything in the store.

 

The feeling lasted about five minutes, and now, like so many Christians, I have a listening heart that is also a pining heart, yearning for the spirit to lift me and caress me like that again.

 

 

I find myself drawn to those worship services that seek to impart a feeling of God’s presence. Until it disbanded, I often attended a weekly Taize worship service at a Carmelite monastery near my home. For 30 minutes worshippers sat in prayerful silence around a candle-lit cross. Then for an hour we sang melodic, contemplative hymns from the famous monastery in the French village of Taize, repeating the simple lyrics again and again, often experiencing a deep feeling of God’s presence in our hearts.

 

As I was writing this book I attended a two-week seminar on the role of the church in a post-modern age. Our lecturers were two New Zealanders, Mike Riddell and Mark Pierson.

 

Mike, who has billed himself as an “unemployed theologian”, is a talented and provocative novelist and non-fiction writer. Formerly a Baptist pastor, he once led a housing protest to the Auckland City Council and interrupted the meeting by stripping to his underpants. He then told the councillors that this was what they were doing to the poor of the city: stripping them of their dignity and leaving them naked.

 

Mark is pastor of an inner-city Auckland church, and is constantly devising innovative, ritualistic styles of worship that attract artists, musicians and many young people.

 

During the seminar they taught us a little about the depth of spirituality that is part of the Christian heritage, such as Celtic worship, with its emphasis on creation and the environment, its mystic traditions and its stress on the feminine. They also showed how art, music and poetry can be integrated into worship, playing tracks that ranged from Pink Floyd to Sinead O’Connor to the Dances with Wolves soundtrack.

 

Music has, of course, traditionally been one of the means for worshippers to gain a sense of the divine, and it is little wonder that, in a world that is searching for God, sacred music is seeing such a revival. After the Three Tenors and The Four Seasons, some of the best-selling classical CDs of today are recordings of Christian music.

 

I used to listen mainly to ‘60s and ‘70s pop, and I also had a passion for world music. Now, I find myself drawn to Gregorian chant and to the divine vocal music of groups like the best-selling American female quartet Anonymous 4. (One magazine described them as “the fab four of medieval music”, and another as “the sound of heaven”.)

 

I listen to the compositions of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German Christian ecstatic mystic whose music and poetry is sometimes quite startling in its passionate sensuality. One recording of her music, A Feather on the Breath of God, has sold over a quarter of a million copies.

 

It is surely no coincidence that three of the most talented and respected classical-music composers in the world today are deeply spiritual Christians: John Tavener (British, but a member of the Eastern Orthodox church), the Estonian Arvo Part (also Eastern Orthodox) and the Polish Catholic Henryk Gorecki. Their sparse, haunting style has become known as “holy minimalism”.

 

Tavener has no doubts about the nature of his calling: art is inseparable from religion, he declares; music is a form of prayer. His Song for Athene was played at the funeral of Princess Diana. Meanwhile, Part says he spends far more time in monasteries than in concert halls.

 

Gorecki’s Third Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, is based on a 15th-century Polish prayer known as the Holy Cross Lament, and on a prayer to the Virgin Mary, inscribed on a death-camp wall by an 18-year-old Polish girl imprisoned by the Nazis in World War II. A 1992 recording of the symphony has sold more than one million copies

 

It is music that is simple and uncluttered and unmistakably modern; there is little that is ornate or decorative. In the third movement the same quiet melody is repeated again and again, like waves gently lapping around your body. And as you listen you are at first just hearing the waves, but then you feel them and then you are in them, floating softly up and down with the rhythm. It is music that inspires hope and faith; music you might have thought was no longer being composed in a cynical age like ours.

 

 

So, the spiritual and mystical traditions of Christianity have become an important part of my life. Yet I also see dangers in veering too far towards this side of religion—in putting all the emphasis on the experiential.

 

That is what worries me about idealistic young Australians who seek out an adviser for instruction in Eastern and New Age spiritualities. Too often, these people operate in “pick ‘n’ mix” fashion, moving from one fashionable, articulate guru to the next, absorbing a bit of Oriental philosophy and timeless wisdom and achieving some transcendental-like experiences. They feel they are on a voyage, journeying closer to the divine. Often it is little more than a pilgrimage deeper into their own egos.

 

In Japan, the country of the East that I know best, a person engaged in a spiritual journey will normally become attached to a teacher, and that teacher will be attached to a hierarchy of other teachers, some of whom will have many decades of experience. These teachers will be revered and respected, and they will put enormous stress on hard work and discipline, some of it intensely unpleasant. Dedicated study of traditional scripture will be required, and the teachers will also be likely to emphasise continuing humility, duty and service. There will probably be a strong ethical overlay.

 

Unfortunately, too often the Australian Oriental experience is designed to give people a quick fix, to make them feel better about themselves. And though there is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with feeling better about yourself, especially if you have problems, the point is that it is a short-term fix only. When big difficulties crop up in your life, you may find that you have nothing solid supporting you. For me, it is the support of God that has proven to be one of the major differences between my past Buddhist experiences and my present life as a Christian.

 

I find that I am continually drawn back to the Bible, and to the figure of Jesus. Perhaps because of my political upbringing I see him not only as God incarnate on earth, but also as a political figure.

 

For Jesus fought against the political and religious culture of his day. In his Sermon on the Mount he preached a powerful revolutionary message. He demanded that his followers not resist evil people; that they give their property to anyone who asks; that if someone slaps them on one cheek, they should offer the other cheek to that person, that if someone takes away their shirts, they should give their coats as well. “You are to be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” he told them. He continually took the side of the underprivileged.

 

The Sermon on the Mount has proven an inspiration to many great people. The Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi was drawn to its message of non-violence. The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was so influenced by it that he called for the abolition of the Russian army and police, and he tried to give away all his property to his servants, to the great distress of his wife and children. In our society, where so many are seeking values, and where so many feel such a spiritual desolation in their lives, I suspect that the answer is a genuinely listening heart, open to the message of Jesus.

 

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