Socrates or Buddha?


Sharing our worship, our space and our contemplation

We may or may not go to church and we may lead examined or unexamined lives, but we all have our own beliefs and priorities, doubts and loves, and probably also our own scepticism and agnosticism. When in church we may put such rational processes to one side and attend to the liturgy and the beauty of the building or the music. Church is largely about sharing that space and participating together – however we conceive it – in worship.

On Thursdays we use the repetition of the Jesus Prayer as a less rational approach to familiar, devotional words, and of course the sharing need not always revolve around words at all. Silence and contemplation have always had their place in Christianity and other religions, and the advantage of leaving out the words is that our friends who do not respond to our liturgy or our sacred texts can also be comfortable joining in that sharing.

Being spiritual but not religious

For a year or so now, Ascott Church has offered a short monthly meditation (now on the third Tuesday, 6.15 – 6.50 pm). People, and not just churchy people, are welcome to come and sit quietly and do whatever works best for them in terms of meditative practice – or, in the style of Quaker meetings and as happens occasionally, to share a thought or inspiration. To set off the period of silence a few sentences (eg, a poem, spiritual or otherwise) are read. On January 17th, with a visit to Wychwood Circle by a psychotherapist and writer anticipated in February*, several thought-provoking sentences from one of his books were quoted at the start.

Mark Vernon, former priest in the Church of England which he later left, has written a fascinating book called How To Be An Agnostic (2011). One chapter entitled Socrates or Buddha? On Being Spiritual But Not Religious ranges over psychology, spirituality, sociology, and, inevitably in this decade, mindfulness and meditation. In a section headed ‘Socratic mindfulness’, he writes this paragraph:

[This means that] mindfulness needs to go along with other forms of agnostic questioning, and together they’ll take on the character of waiting. What’s admitted is that you yourself are not up to the task of fixing your own life. That’s let go of. And instead of just giving yourself to yourself, you aim to give yourself to the transcendent. You have no power to determine how it will arise within you. As an agnostic, you have no certainty anything will arise within you. But you are prepared to wait, driven by an intuited conviction that there is more to life. It’s a kind of letting go that is not nihilistic because it is also an attempt at letting in – by a glimpse, by what might be revealed.

In the silence and serenity of Ascott Church we listen to the birds in the churchyard, we hear a train going by, we breathe and still our minds, and each in our own way, we wait…

*[Mark Vernon talks about ‘Why we need Plato and Freud in the 21st century’ on February 5th at Wychwood Library, and Canon Brian Mountford takes as his title ‘Spiritual but not religious’ on March 5th, both at 7pm. Open to all.]

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