I suppose I'm a bit alienated from all institutions - and more than a bit! Organizations, parties, movements - they all leave me cold, - when I see anything like that I want to run the other way. But the church is the oldest organization of all! I don't know how there's anyone still in it! At the same time I believe in the spiritual side of life - it means a lot to me in a way I can't spell out very well. It's the deepest part of a person. But why does that have to be tied up then in an institution?!! What have institutions got to do with it! They're only interested in their pecking order and in promoting themselves. I can't see Jesus in any of that. What do you say?
Years ago, Alan Watts wrote (I'm quoting from memory, but quite accurately I believe) that the Church has in her possession, as in a trunk, the purest mystical wisdom, but she isn't opening it up for the world - because of the sheer weight of so many clerical gentlemen sitting on the lid! Most, I would add, don't know that they are sitting on anything; they are just not evoking a level of experience that they ought to be evoking, not mediating the mystery: not mediating it even to themselves. Nothing is so much out of a man's sight as what he is sitting on! You have every right to complain and to walk away wherever you see that.
What do I say? The institution and the spirit are always in tension. But there's good and bad tension.
There's the kind of tension that diminishes people: that frays their nerves and wears them down, that dulls their idealism and prevents miracles. Even Jesus couldn't work in that atmosphere. "He could not do any miracles there," Mark said (6:5).
(It was his home village, and the people wanted to keep him in his place: a village is often the worst kind of institution.) Yes, we all know many institutions that are interested only in controlling people. The control-freak rises to the top, setting up and reinforcing patterns of dependency that reduce rather than enlarge people. Some of the greatest crimes of the 20th century were committed by people who claimed they were just doing what they had been told to do by their superiors.
But there's another kind of tension: the kind that is part of all life and without which we would just be organic blobs on the floor.
The spirit needs opposition! It needs constraints and it dissipates itself if it doesn't find any.
Imagine a wide lazy river with no banks: it just spreads out wherever it wants; it's going nowhere in particular, it has no depth nor power; it just evaporates in the sun. Imagine also the depth and the power it would have if it were flowing between banks (the narrower the banks, in fact, the more depth and power). This is how I interpret Jesus's saying that the gate to life is narrow. "Enter through the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it" (Matthew 7:13).
Every Church community is meant to be part of the Body of Christ, but often it is no more than a power-structure that robs and diminishes you instead of enriching and enlarging you.
Or it becomes something that is neither one nor the other. What a tragedy it is, and how far from the original intention! Writing in the 5th century about the Eucharist, St Augustine said, "All of that is about you! The mystery being celebrated on the altar is the mystery of you! You became Christ's body and his members [at baptism], when you said, 'Amen!' to that mystery of what you are. Now also in the Eucharist you receive his Body and you say, 'Amen!'"
To look back even closer to the origin: an ancient book called the Didachè, written in the first century (earlier than much of the New Testament) was discovered in 1883.
It contains an account of the Eucharist and the words that were used then. Here is one sentence of it. "As this broken bread, once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf, so may your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom." It is a beautiful image. The grains of wheat were gathered from the fields and hillsides and made into this one loaf; likewise the people, whose homes are scattered all over the hills, have come together to form one community - one Bread, one Body of Christ. And may that gathering be endlessly wider and deeper, till Kingdom come!
Christian community grows out of the Eucharist, not out of canon law, and never out of power politics. It would be hard, I think, to extract 'spirituality' from canon law! Maybe canon lawyers can! But the Eucharist is endless. Even a simple part of it like the Sign of Peace is full of meaning. On the surface it may be just a winter handshake with a stranger in a badly heated church. But its deepest meaning says: I don't know your name or anything about you, but in the broken body of Christ I would lay down my life for you.
May I leave you with a single phrase from the Scriptures? "In Christ we, who are many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Romans 12:5).
Take care! - Donagh