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Insights from the anti-structure crowd

28 February 2012

A welcome breath of fresh air here, says Jonathan Ewer

First Sight: The experience of faith
Laurence Freeman

Continuum £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90

Following the Spirit: Seeing Christian faith through community eyes
Philip Bradshaw

O Books £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

Let Your Faith Grow
David Bick

O Books £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

FR FREEMAN’s book is a joy to read. Here is autobiography, with enough detail to make it real, but without getting bogged down in personal stuff. It is the story of his journey into meditation under the guidance of Fr John Main, and the development of what became the World Community for Christian Meditation. But, in between the bits of autobiography, Fr Freeman offers reflections prompted by those “milestones on the way”.

The first three chapters are on Understanding Faith, Process and Lifestyle, and the Power of Faith. They discuss what faith is, and what it isn’t, and how it transforms lives by the transcendence of the self.

Then there are three chapters on the Stages of Faith, the inner jour­ney: Purgation, Illumination, and Union. Traditional thinking is over­hauled and enlightened with mod­ern insights. The “dark night”, for example, is likened to the sickening feeling you get when you realise you have irretrievably deleted an im­port­ant file on your computer. Oh yes! We’ve been there!

Chapter 7 is about Christian Faith, as distinct from a set of be­liefs. Faith is relationship; beliefs attempt to express it. The final chap­ter speaks of the unity at the heart of reality. Pure prayer makes us real and simplifies us.

The book is aimed at the young person who is finding faith, perhaps through non-Christian connections, perhaps through discovering Christian ritual and symbols, and there are short pieces in an after­word about starting to meditate.

But there is distilled wisdom here, treas­ure old and new. Every meditator will benefit from reading this book, no matter how long or short a time he or she has been at it. (It is a pity that half a dozen distracting mis­takes between pages 68 and 93 es­caped the proof-reader’s eye.)

Philip Bradshaw’s is also a remarkable book. The first part is a history of the Community of Cele­bration from its coming to birth under Graham Pulkingham in Hous­ton, Texas. It tells of the world­wide music ministry of Fisherfolk, and of developments of the com­mun­ity’s ministry in the UK and the United States. There are two chap­ters on the author’s own story, but most of this part has to do with development of the community’s self-understanding from the exciting chaos of its Charismatic foundation to a smaller but still exciting new form of religious life.

The second part is a clear and use­ful reflection on the commun­ity’s life as it developed over time and in different situations, the multi-faceted and multi-layered way in which the members deepened their relationship with God, with each other, and with others “out­side”. Every chapter is full of good sense; ups and downs are duly regis­tered and evaluated.

The third part comprises chapters on God (who is “in” us, not “over” us), Jesus (whose words and works matter more than what has been said about him since), and Spirit (the “defender”, the Spirit of the man Jesus). It is theology rediscovered through living in com­mun­ity. It is profound and challeng­ing — and nicely written with that authority that comes from lived ex­perience.

The book gets your interest at the start. Each chapter brings new insights, with Part 3 as the crowning glory. It is even more absorbing at a second reading.

The essays in David Bick’s book suffer somewhat from being edited by a friend and admirer. The author is obviously a devout and well-read pastor, but this reader felt that he was one step removed from the authentic source of this wisdom.

All three writers raise the ques­tion why Christians seem to stop at a certain level of commitment. They don’t let go and fall into the mystery of God (Freeman), they don’t let go and get radical in the way they live out the gospel (Bradshaw), or they don’t get past the “individuative-reflective adult” stage of faith, if they get that far at all (Bick).

Perhaps we need a social anthro­pologist like Mary Douglas to ex­plain why we feel we need a “grid” to tell us who we are, and who is in and who is not in. Or one like Victor Turner to explain why struc­ture is necessary but has to be con­fronted now and again by anti-structure to keep it honest — groups such as the Franciscans or the Community of Celebration, and individuals such as the Old Testa­ment prophets or priests like John Main, Graham Pulkingham, and David Bick.

Fr Jonathan Ewer is a member of the Society of the Sacred Mission.

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