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Glint and glimmer of the beyond

by
30 September 2016

Seek God in the moment, but don’t jettison theology, says Lavinia Byrne

Something More: Encountering the beyond in the everyday
John Pritchard
SPCK £9.99
(978-0-281-07352-8)
Church Times Bookshop £9

 

 

THIS is an ambitious book. John Pritchard, who has just retired as Bishop of Oxford, believes that church language has “hit the buffers”; so he has written a book that pointedly leaves out the language of theology. No reference here to salvation, redemption, atonement, or sacrament.

Instead, we get a conscious attempt, as the subtitle says, to “encounter the beyond in the everyday”. The desire to practise awareness has an ineluctable logic in place: if you stay in the moment — in the glint or glimmer of the beyond — that moment will reveal something to you, and that something will be of God. Pritchard explores human longing, suffering, silence, music, the arts, and a raft of experiences and emotions. The chapters all include a presentation of his theme, a “key question”, a story or poem, something to think about. “Taking it further’” is a series of how-to exercises. The book concludes with a collection of questions for use by groups.

So far, so good. But I am left with a question. For whom is the book intended? Maybe it is the “we” or “us” to whom it appears to be addressed, essentially insiders who already share the author’s values and belief systems. Or perhaps it is a bright young undergraduate? After all, the author is accustomed to addressing an elite: maybe this explains why his loss of confidence in the language of theology is not matched by a similar distrust of liberal erudition. He turns to sources as varied as Lord Hailsham, Philip Larkin, Sinead O’Connor, and Bel Mooney for his quotations — as well as the more predictable R. S. Thomas, Etty Hillesum, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This last choice is interesting: after all, St Ignatius of Loyola placed his “Contemplation to Attain to Divine Love” at the very end of his Spiritual Exercises, the most formative text in the Jesuit (Manley Hopkins’s own) canon. Here we discover what it means to “seek and find God in all things”. The practice is a summit to which a finely tuned soul may aspire after years of rigorous training in theology, philosophy, and spirituality.

Where the “everyday” is treated in isolation, and not given an interpretative framework, it risks delivering more of the same: banality upon banality. It is time to redeem theology, I believe, and restore it to its true place in any manual of spirituality.

 

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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