Grace trumps control – Chris Gleeson

During one day in the July school holidays of 1998, I was standing on the 1st tee at the beautiful Bonville International Golf Club just south of Coffs Harbour. I was nervously waiting to hit off with a group of players which included a retired psychiatrist, a pediatrician, and the Manager of the local private hospital.

When my turn to play did come, I managed to hit an all-too-rare splendid drive that screamed up the middle of the fairway, stopping short of the bunker and the creek awaiting errant golf balls. The retired psychiatrist exclaimed: ‘Chris, you have just made a quintessential connection.’ Rarely have I heard such melodious language on the golf course. It was clearly a religious declaration.

Several years later when working in Brisbane, I was returning one day from blessing a new Edmund Rice Education Flexible Learning Centre at Deception Bay. While driving home afterwards and reflecting on the wonderful staff and students I had met at the Opening, I found myself following for quite some time a taxi with the words ‘Bad Religion’ emblazoned on its boot. I am still not sure what it was advertising or previewing, but it did make me think of all the bad religion there is in our world.

The religious fundamentalists and extremists committing atrocities in the name of religion and martyrdom around the globe are giving religion a bad name. Religion, by its very word origins, is about connection. Prayer is a ritual of connecting to God. Religion should bind us together, not set us apart. Those senseless people detonating themselves and others in the name of religion are horribly misguided. True martyrdom is about giving one’s life that others might live more fully. Taking the life of others is the very opposite of martyrdom.

In 2011, the famous Israeli writer, Amos Oz, visited Sydney and declared that ‘fanaticism is the most urgent issue of our times.’ I can remember saying to myself, ‘how true that is.’ Indeed, I added that one of the most virulent forms of such extremism has its source in religion. Every day we are confronted with press reports about conflicts generated by religious animosity of one sort or another. We need to remind ourselves that nothing masks the face of God like bad religion.

Against this bleak background it has been a delight over the years to return to the books of Kathleen Norris; an American Protestant who writes her lyrical prose to cast religion in such a positive and unthreatening light. Throughout her writings, Norris reminds us that religion etymologically ‘is linked to the words ligature and ligament, words having both negative and positive connotations, offering both bondage and freedom of movement.’ (Dakota, p.133)

This is similar to what Richard Holloway, the retired Bishop of Edinburgh, said in a Radio National ‘Encounter’ program some time ago. He related the story of the British playwright, Dennis Potter, who was dying of cancer and was asked in a television interview whether his imminent death had brought a new religious intensity or a recovery of boyhood faith. Potter’s reply was: ‘Religion to me has always been the wound, not the bandage.’ (Inns on Roads, Radio National Encounter, 23.12.2001.)

When religion focuses exclusively on orthodoxy and doctrinal formulation, it can so easily become the bandage, the ligature. ‘Christianity’, Norris affirms, ‘is at its worst when it becomes defensive. Often, enshrining orthodoxy into words has caused more trouble, more pain, more evil in the world than it was worth.’ (Amazing Grace, p.222.)

In our world of many shades of grey, the ‘black and white’ easy answers of religious fundamentalism ‘are about control more than grace’. (Dakota, p.95.) Fundamentalists have no idea that religion is about cherishing the questions of the heart.

It is worth recalling that the word ‘belief’ means simply ‘to give one’s heart to’. In recent times, however, the term has been impoverished by taking on the narrow intellectual meaning of a head-over-heart assent. (Amazing Grace, p.62.)

For Kathleen Norris, however, it is important to view religion as connection. She relates how she begins to appreciate religious belief ‘as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something that I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run’. (Amazing Grace, p.66.) That is why she can see all the events of her life, large or small, leading and connecting her to God.

During the last Christmas holidays, I had the privilege of spending some time with well-known Sydney priest, Monsignor Tony Doherty. He had just co-authored a beautiful book of correspondence with playwright, Ailsa Piper, and it was a joy to read the balance and wisdom of their thoughts about all manner of life themes: friendship, religion, grief, gratitude, vulnerability. Grace is everywhere for these two talented writers.

I could resonate easily with Tony’s ‘urgency to find better words to touch people’s hunger for spirituality. There is a lot of traditional religious language which is tired – a currency that has lost its original value.’ (p.101 in The Attachment.) In describing prayer as ‘a form of loving, a rich juicy language of love,’ he talks about God as ‘the mystery that has given us life and embraces us throughout our journey’. There is no idolatry, no fundamentalist desire to control God here. It reminded me of British Jesuit Gerard W. Hughes’ expression that ‘God is a beckoning word’.

To depart from the idea that God is a mystery is to risk sliding into the errors of a fundamentalism that seeks to control and domesticate God. It is this sort of idolatry that has produced such chaos in our world. Giving the last word to Gerard W. Hughes again: God ‘calls us out of ourselves and beyond ourselves, He is the God of surprises…’

Let us allow God to surprise us on the journey each day.

Fr Chris Gleeson’s new book, ‘A Canopy of Stars: Some reflections for the journey – new and expanded edition’ is available for purchase here.