Called to Full Humanity

Canon Melvyn Matthews challenges popular assumptions as to what being 'fully human' means in the light of the experiences of the hostages, and reflects on the consequences for prayer and Christian living.

This article was first published in the Summer 1998 issue of Chrism. The author's profile below is from the same date

Canon Melvyn Matthews is Chancellor of Wells Cathedral where he has responsibility for theology and education together with the interpretation of the Cathedral to the many thousands of visitors. He has been a University Chaplain aswell as a Parish Priest and lectured in the Department of Religious Studies in the University of Nairobi. He is the author of a number of books on spirituality and the interpretation of scripture, notably 'The Hidden Word' and 'Rediscovering Holiness'. He is married with three grown up children.

Guild of St Raphael

More Pieces Than We Began With

A year or so ago there was a television programme which documented the effect being held hostage had on a number of people. Those involved were not the well known personalities who had been held hostage such as Terry Waite or Brian Keenan, but people who had been caught up in some of the terrorist incidents of the 1980's, and had been held in captivity for longer or shorter periods of time but with the prospect of being killed never very far away. One might have expected that such people had come out of captivity full of anger or resentment, feeling very negative towards the religious or political group that had held them, determined perhaps to seek redress or even revenge for what had happened to them; but in none of the cases shown in the programme was this so. As a direct consequence of his incarceration one man decided to mend his marriage, another decided to put his business on a more ethical footing, another, a rather hedonistic journalist, returned to the church and went regularly on retreat, much to the puzzlement of his wife and family, and so on. The producer of the programme said that he could have repeated these stories many times over.

Reflection on these incidents - and on the effect that much longer periods of isolation had on Brian Keenan and to some extent John McCarthy - leads one to believe that whereas these periods of imprisonment were totally horrific, should never have happened and were not only an offence to humanity but also served nothing politically - they nonetheless had a very profound and long lasting effect on those who were subject to them. It was almost as if they discovered themselves more, or were forced to abandon certain things about their lives that they knew they did not need or want.

In religious terms these people went through a stripping. It was not just that they were deprived of food or human contact or any of the normal things that one expects to have in western society, but that somehow they experienced a stripping of who they were. They had to reckon on being reduced, in personal terms, to the basic essentials of their being as well as having to cope with living with the barest essentials of human comfort. They had to spend some time alone with themselves so the question of who they really were became a central question - perhaps a question which they would not have had to face at all in normal western living. This 'stripping' is what the spiritual tradition has called an 'ascesis'. It meant that they had to lead the ascetical life without really wishing it upon themselves and so discover - perhaps even without realising it - what those who deliberately seek the ascetical life wish to discover, that is, something about the essential nature of their humanity. In the stories of the Desert Fathers, those renegades from the unholy alliance between church and state at the time of Constantine, the monks were told, "Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything". Perhaps these people, who had been forced to 'stay in their cells' had learned, if not everything, then at least something, but in an involuntary manner.

It is very interesting that at the end of his period of incarceration Brian Keenan is recorded as saying that he felt as if he was a combination of Rip van Winkle and Humpty Dumpty - someone who had awoken after a long sleep to find all of his parts in pieces before him, but that there were more pieces than he began with! In other words the loss of his liberty meant that he discovered things about himself that he was not previously aware of and so knew himself more fully and perhaps, in some ways, for the first time.

Reflection on these events will, I believe, help all of us to realise what being 'Called to Full Humanity' really means. What is happening here is that some people have been forced to re-assess what full humanity' really means. In the first place they had assumed, perhaps, that what western society gave them was what they as human beings had a right to expect as part of the fullness of life. They had assumed, perhaps unwittingly, that deprivation or limitation of the self was in direct contrast to what constituted a fulfilled human being or what a human being could properly expect if he or she was to be fulfilled. They emerged from their period of incarceration with this assumption directly challenged and with the seed planted in their consciousness that having everything does not necessarily make one a fulfilled person, and so they began to envisage the strange possibility that self denial or voluntary restriction might be part of what a human being could choose or even needed to choose in order to discover, or rediscover, some hidden goals or aims in life. There is a danger, given the climate of the age with its emphasis on self fulfilment, that the Church, if it talks about 'full humanity' without due care and attention, could give the impression that what salvation really means is that we should lead a fulfilled life in the sense of being fulfilled by having everything that western society can give us, fulfilled in our chosen career patterns, full of life and complete health. Loss, or even the possibility of self denial is not accounted for. Such things are necessarily negative factors. Although this is something of a caricature there is, I believe a grave danger that we could fall, at least to some degree, into this set of assumptions and so lose something of the vital essential characteristics of what the Christian tradition has meant by being 'Called to Full Humanity'.

I think this needs some further reflection, because although it is true that modem society has apparently ruled out the question of loss or self restriction or self denial as part of what being a complete human being means, it is not simply a question which is settled by the re-instatement of self-denial as a means to full humanity although that is surely part of what is needed. There is also the question of delusion. This is a more profound issue, I believe, than the question of self denial, important though that is, particularly in a political dimension where the relationships between the rich and the poor worlds are concerned. And this is so because what full humanity came to mean to those who had been taken captive was not simply a capacity for self denial but a capacity to relinquish what they felt was false about themselves or about the lives they had found themselves leading. Forced ascesis led to a voluntary awareness of the need for ascesis in order to be who they really were. This means that at least part of what it means to be 'Called to Full Humanity' is, I believe, the realisation that human beings can be and in modem society often are, in a state of delusion about who they really are and what they are for as people. Modem life appears straightforward, indeed looks very good, but it contains the most profound capacity for falsehood, for enabling people to generate identities, ways of being which they are best without. So if we are to be fully human I believe we have to embark on a journey where we accept the possibility, indeed perhaps the necessity, of being stripped of the unnecessary, of being stripped of the self generated images of the self with which we feed our ego-selves. There is the possibility, indeed, the necessity, of embarking on a process of redemption, a journey which involves the stripping away of self generated identities so that we may be released into the glorious liberty of the children of God. In other words there is a need to discern whether or not what humanity is offered as fulfilling is actually so and to leave behind what is not needed in order to live with God.

It is actually this which has been the object of the spiritual life for so long. Let me describe it in terms of the life of prayer and so come at the question from a different angle. There has been a great deal of interesting work done recently on whether prayer is, ultimately, an 'experience' in the sense that modem people understand the word. And the most recent thinking, which comes from a number of people, but most notably from Grace Jantzen, whose study of Julian of Norwich remains a pioneering work. Jantzen says that whereas prayer may carry experiences with it, it is not ultimately an experience in the popular meaning of that word. Rather, prayer should be described as a focusing, or re-focusing, of our attention. She makes the point1 that to say that prayer is an experience seriously risks allowing spirituality to be a form of anaesthetising of the life of faith against the ills of our time, a form a spiritual distraction which prevents us from seeing what is really happening. She says, commenting on the phenomenal increase of interest in matters spiritual in the late twentieth century, "...with some notable exceptions ... books of popular spirituality treat prayer and spiritual exercises as strictly private, having to do with the relationship between the individual and the transcendent. ... By this privatisation of spirituality, the relationship between it and social justice cannot be addressed. The net result, whatever the intention of the authors and compilers, is the reinforcement of the societal status quo,...".2 Her thesis, which is put in feminist terms, is supported by others, such as Professor Denys Turner, whose academic study of mysticism3 shows that to classify mysticism as a form of private experience is not what the mystics of the church prior to the reformation meant when they talked about prayer. What they were talking about would be much better described as a form of encounter with reality.

These developments in the sphere of spirituality should enable us to realise that what happens in prayer is something much more profound than we had perhaps realised. What is going on is something which is not immediately open to our senses. I think that we should now say that what is going on in the life of prayer is an encounter with the ultimate, hidden reality of God. The slow results of this encounter, if it is properly sustained by the common life of the church, will be a re integration of our consciousness, a uniting into a new way of being of that which had been broken or dispersed. It will, amongst other things, enable us to see what is going on within ourselves, but also reveal to us the true state of our society and prompt us to act to redeem injustice and free us to side with the poor and dispossessed. Or, to put it in another way, what is happening in prayer is a process by which that which has been lost or has 'fallen' under the influence of contemporary living is re-united with the original created nature of being. So what prayer does, slowly but surely, is redeem our consciousness. We are, by prayer, brought back into order and consciousness of God. We know that we live in disordered times, but we are not always aware that we live with disordered psyches, and prayer is the means by which we can begin to reverse the effects of this personal disorder and begin to see God, who in all things is hidden.

I believe we have to come to terms with the fact that the many graphic accounts of religious or mystical experience which litter our devotional literature are, in a real sense not descriptions of 'experiences'. This is true not only of the classic accounts of prayer to be found in the spiritual writers of the Christians tradition but also in the accounts of so-called mysticism to be found in the investigations conducted by the Alastair Hardy Research Unit in to the nature of religious experience in this country. This research - which has also fuelled a great debate about how religion should be taught in schools - found that many more people had what they called 'experiences' of God than had been previously assumed. But a careful look at the accounts of these 'experiences' show them to be not so much private as life changing, encounters with the true reality of the self or of the world, certainly of God, realities from which they had been removed, perhaps by ambition, materialism or some other overriding factor. The people who talk about these 'experiences' say that they are not so much taken out of themselves as placed back into their real selves. They know that is how they are intended to be, however fleeting their glimpse of it may have been. Bishop Rowan Williams talks about mysticism in these terms when he says, "Mysticism is a jumble of attempts to perceive how consciousness is drastically reconditioned by the living out in depth of a particular religious commitment".4 Williams has also made a profound study of the work of St. Teresa of Avila and commenting upon her he says, "Teresa makes it very clear that the criteria of authenticity do not lie in the character of the experience itself but in how it is related to a pattern of concrete behaviour, to development of dispositions and decisions. There is no one kind of experience that declares itself to be at once an experience of God..."5

So all of the current thinking about the nature of prayer and mysticism leads us to conclude that real prayer is that which enables us to see things as they really are. The very word mysticism should have given us a clue about this at the beginning. 'Mystic' comes from the Greek word 'muo' which means to hide. Thus mystic refers to the mystery of God's love for us in Christ, how this remains in one sense hidden but hidden only because it is inexhaustible. So 'a mystic', properly speaking, is one who participates in the reality of God through the sacramental life and the hearing of the word. He is not somebody who has private elevating experiences which bring him closer to God but somebody who is aware of the real truth of things, the reality of God's love in Christ and who is open to that truth so that it may be brought to fruition in his life. Thus the mystical life is the true life, 'hid with Christ in God', implanted in us in baptism and brought to fruition in the life which is fed by word and sacrament within the community of the mystical body of Christ, the Church.

So the realisation of full humanity first of all involves stepping into a process by which our consciousness is stripped of its falseness and released, or redeemed, into the truth about itself and the world. But this process is a very difficult one on which to embark. It involves courage and faith and can only really only really take place within a community of faith when it is supported by the sacramental life of that community. That community itself is held together by the telling and retelling of its foundation narrative and it is in the owning and enacting of that narrative that the community lives and transmits itself to others. It is this which is really the crux issue for any assessment of what 'Called to Full Humanity' really means. Because human beings in the western world at the end of the second millennium make the brave attempt to live easily with a myriad of conflicting interests. We know that there are a lot of interesting and different ways of living our lives and in one sense modem men and women attempt to live by affirming them all. The philosophy of post-modernism is a means of affirming this condition, saying that there is no single story or identity which can, or even should give cohesion or unity to the way we live now.

In this situation the role of the faith communities, and the Christian community is certainly no exception, is to affirm an alternative possibility. This alternative is based upon the belief that humanity does have the potential to possess and transmit meaning, that there is a basic story, what the theologians nowadays call a meta-narrative, which will give us all coherence and that the babble of conflicting narratives need not be, in fact is not the final truth about ourselves. In other words the Christian faith community affirms that it possesses a story which once owned and enacted and re-enacted by each individual within the community of faith will overcome anomie and chaos and enable the process of redemption to take place. This capacity for meaning is one which has been given to the community and is sustained within it by God. It is a capacity which is transmitted by means of the common story or narrative and is held in our corporate memory by the constant telling and retelling of the sacred scriptures within a liturgical framework. Once that story is accepted and owned then the redemptive process can begin, a process which the story itself tells. The narrative of the scriptures, retold each year, is the narrative of the process which each individual in the community is undergoing within their own psyche. However true, however historical the scriptural narrative, it is also the archetypal story of what is happening to each person who tells it and so acts as the measure and arbiter for all the ways in which the story is retold over the centuries.

So if we would, at the end of this century recover our full humanity we must allow ourselves to be earned through a process of redemption - a process which is mirrored and enacted in the life of prayer and carried by the narrative of the community of faith. This process is one which takes us from the self-generated falsities of the ego-self, into what Henry Vaughan calls 'the dazzling darkness of God'.6 Thus we will find that we have 'more pieces than we began with'.

  1. Grace Jantzen 'Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism' Cambridge 1995
  2. Grace Jantzen, Ibid. page 21
  3. Denys Turner The Darkness of God' Cambridge 1995
  4. Rowan Williams Butler's Western Mysticism' The Downside Review 1994
  5. Rowan Williams Teresa of Avila' p 147
  6. Henry Vaughan 'Night'

Guild of St Raphael