For all the well deserved criticism leveled at the hypocrisy in religious leadership, the new “spiritual but not religious,” “religionless religion,” and tutti fruity new age spirituality is such hackneyed tripe, that I am, at times, apt to prefer the insecurities of ancient religion.
Sometimes we get educated in things we do not want to know. Such was the case when recently stumbling on the site: “Lightworkers.” In addition to the cornball name, the website itself is something akin to a summation of the banality found in the “spiritual, but not religious” fad (and a fad is what it is). It is yet another trivialization of something primordial, raw, confounding, and unreachable (thankfully so).
That the “light workers” use gnosticism as a kind of sticker logo is even more nauseating, which inspires me to ask: “what the hell is wrong with “spirituality?” I used to ask that solely of religion. It is akin to what the Merton industry did to poor Tom: posthumously transforming him into a kind of Trappist Stuart Smalley. Naturally, the Lighworkers throw in pagan deities (merely because it falls into that oxymoron category of trendy provocation), reincarnation, and putrid pastels. It reminded me of that kitsch Jesus postcard from a years back; the impossibly beautiful caucasian model from Nazareth, adorned in blinding white robe, emitting a spectrum of colors from his being. That image is only slightly preferable to the gun-toting apocalyptic Jesus, who would gladly fry you for passing gas in church. Jesus as a smiley faced, John Boy Walton type along with primitive rabbinic narratives transformed into rosy-cheeked vegetable cartoons are just as offensive as that sadistic “Left Behind,” fundamentalist image.
Going through the Lightworkers site, I recall two incidents: The first was a Thomas Merton Advent retreat being held at a center. This was during the writing of my thesis on Merton’s Marian art. By that time, I think I had read all of Merton’s writings and most of the writings about him. I distinctly noticed where the carefully chosen excerpts from his writings were cut off. In several instances, I knew exactly what came after. Anything slightly provocative was shrewdly and deceptively excised. To a point, I suppose I can understand the reasoning behind the center’s emasculation of Merton, while vehemently disagreeing with that reasoning. Few of the visitors had read Merton. A couple had read Seven Storey Mountain and one made the point that he had tried to read Merton’s later writings, only to find them deeply disturbing. God forbid Advent have anything disturbing about it, even though, if we are honest and take the narrative it celebrates, straight from the sourced text, we find plenty that is provocative. A fourteen-year-old girl, after having consummated with a celestial being, delivers her Magnificat in Luke; a proclamation, which does not short shift bringing down the elite. In that spirit, we desperately need to mantle Christ’s “unless you become like a child, you may not enter into the kingdom.” We need Linus, sucking his thumb, holding his blanket, and being the straight shooter he is, amidst all that safe vulgarization. We are absolutely capable of being the elite that young virgin spoke of bringing down: Benedict XVI silencing his anti-status quo theologians, the CTS trustees’ blasphemy of the golden rule, the radical right-wing Jesus of the world’s Brother Cobwebs, and yes, that New Age, cloying leftist savior are all subject to a Marian shredding. I doubt it occurred to the sister presiding over the Advent retreat that, perhaps, the visitors actually needed something more than a comfortable Mertonian sliver one day out of the year.
The second incident was also at a retreat center. Shortly before mass began, a few of us were struggling with the news of a local, brutal murder. One patron asked us to please not discuss this as she came to have happy thoughts. We were cordial enough to oblige her desired blanket, but, perhaps not so ironically, the mass reading was the narrative of Christ and the money changers. After the homily, the same offended patron offered that this was a side of Jesus, which she could not reconcile with, as he just seemed so negative in the reading. The “Happy, happy, Joy, joy” song from Ren and Stempy kept playing over in my head. If the historical Jesus ( or Jesus of the text) was anything like this new age, sanctimonious claptrap vision (and, clearly, he wasn’t), then we should indeed find ourselves sympathizing with those who crucified him. When John of the Cross used phrases like “light” and spiritual” he did so in complex, artistic depth. Yet, the New Age pale imitation has rendered incendiary language into something embarrassingly bourgeoisie.
I respond to the Christ of the ikon and should add that I don’t give a damn about the historicity behind it all. Yet, approaching the Christ of the gospel text itself, minus all that imbedded theology, or contemporary New Age sheen, I find the same Christ, that I find in Beethoven’s late string quartets, the writings of William Blake, or the Christ buried in Michelangelo’s late, intentionally unfinished sculptures. I find the artists’ and Christ himself, in the gospel of bones; raw, bleeding, God obsessed, confounding, difficult to look upon. This is the Christ whose flesh is sustaining meat indeed.