The First Church of Common Mysteries Now Open



(Photo: Cassie Boca,

Religion gets its knocks these days as the perpetrator of all things evil, the invention of adults who never outgrew their childish fears, the condemner of all that’s spontaneous and upgrowing. A lot of that is true, and when we who can still remember our conscription into religion somehow find ourselves passing as adults and still floundering gracelessly around in the warm waters of the faith we first were baptized in we may be forgiven for our slack-jawed lack of defense. Some of religion, like manners and clothes, is a matter of habit, and habits can free us up to think about important things, so we may be reluctant to pass off a habit that so far has not resulted in serious injury or loss of footing.

But perhaps, like a man whose waist has outgrown his trousers, our boundaries to religion are too small, too much the skinny jeans rather than the comfort waist regular cut with a smoosh more room in the seat. “Were we to limit our view to it,” says William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “we should have to define religion as an external art, the art of winning the favor of the gods.”

It’s so much more than that, he says. While there is the institution of religion, the churches, the ecclesiastical hierarchies, vestments, holy books, and, of course, the systematic theologies, commentaries, councils, and connections, all of that is external, says James, yet in no way less significant for all its wear and tear through the centuries.

But the internal, the deep inwardness that comes when we fall into a reverie waiting for the light to change—that is not to be trifled with nor ignored. “The relation goes direct from heart to heart,” says James, “from soul to soul, between man and his maker.”

We have these holy moments; they drift up like dandelion seeds before us and we might not even see them, focused as we are on the flotsam of our days. Some people just don’t have the knack for religion, says Karen Armstrong. Others can’t live without it. The ones who can’t seem to hit the keys may not get to jam with the others at first, but they can find a riff if they’re willing to practice.

“Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,” says Rilke. “Every angel is terrifying.” A star is waiting to be noticed, a wave rolls toward us from the past, a violin yields to our hearing as we pass under an open window—all these are intimations of God if we are awake. Will we practice noticing?

“All this was mission,” declares Rilke. “But could you accomplish it?”

This is what grace is about: the courage to notice the common mysteries.

“Truly, we live with mysteries/too marvelous to be understood,” says Mary Oliver.

“. . . Let me keep my distance, always, from those

who think they have the answers.

“Let me keep company, always, with those

who say, “Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.” (Mary Oliver, “Mysteries, Yes”)

(Elaborated Spontaneity #3)

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