Peter Lyon muses on the differences between cultures and the religious practices that emerge from them and wonders what we might mean by ‘spirituality’

The word ‘spirituality’ reminds me of two epic journeys in the past. Across Greece, I sat on a bus next to a black-clad old lady who seemed asleep. Every time we passed a village church, however, she stirred and crossed herself.

The other was in India. My daughter and I were in the Delhi area, which had descended into strikes, riots, murders, and general mayhem. We needed to reach Dehra Dun, 300 miles to the north, that day, and no driver would take the risk. Eventually, our agent unearthed the worlds worst driver, a man unaware of any rule of the road, who at a breathtaking speed launched his Austin Ambassador into the chaos of an Indian main thoroughfare, overtaking on the wrong side against lorries coming the other way, swerving round recumbent cows, racing tri-taxis, driving buses off the road, all despite our expressed terror.

On the outskirts of Dehra Dun, miraculously alive, he parked, left us, and disappeared into a Hindu temple to give thanks, returning to offer us pan, the hard little sweets that are distributed to worshippers.

The Indian driver

If spirituality is the awareness of God, the Greek lady and the Indian driver were spiritual. Both lived in societies that held the presence of God as the norm. Yet we do not call spiritual the murderous Indian Thugs of yesterday and the Islamic extremists of today.

We should perhaps speak of Christian spirituality, and make distinctions even there. It is one of the traps set for those who regard Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity as if they were competing clubs in the Premier League. Hinduism, a very Indian religion, is not even a religion in the same sense, of being for the whole world.

Christianity, on the other hand, is not tied to any place, even to the Holy Land. It does not easily transfer to India or an Islamic country; but that is because, even governmental hostility apart, it is up against powerful religious cultures. Culture and religion are of course not necessarily synonymous.

I was particularly conscious of this on another occasion, in Rajasthan, when an Indian friend took us to see a little village with a holy spring. You gave a coin to the temple guardian, received the inevitable pan, and had to resist giving some to the charming langurs who seemed to own the site.

Our host was an educated man, and his attitude was that of an ordinary British pagan showing guests round a church. He said, ‘I know one can find something here, and I’m only sorry I cannot myself It gave an insight, perhaps, into an Indian future in which religion and culture would coexist in a loose and reluctant sort of way, as they do in Israel and Britain.

Culture is a strong influence. If you leave a blanket out on an English September night, you will find it wet with dew when you wake up in the morning. If you preach Christ in India, you will find it becomes gently soaked in local customs, just as Indians who come here soak up Christian culture, whether they realise it or not.

English pagans also become similarly soaked, so that they want their children baptised and married and buried in church, and the Vicar to say Grace before the Social Club dinner. We who believe Christianity involves more than social occasions see this as a main problem.

Alpha courses

We try to solve it by Alpha or other courses, by trying to persuade children to come to Sunday School, and by forming cohesive groups called congregations. On pilgrimage to Walsingham, or in the service of a flourishing church, we may be conscious of Christian conformity, but for most of our time we find ourselves among people who regard crossings and hallelujahs as merely hilarious.

Yet prayer – conversation with God -means so many different things to different people. The meditations and offices of the enclosed orders are not for the many, and the cries for help, intercessions, and crossings of the simple are easily misunderstood. Books of advice on the subject only seem to be helpful to the few who are on the wavelength of the author.

The normally reliable CS. Lewis’s late work, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, inadvertently made this point well. Here was a scholar of European quality so apparently uneasy about the subject that one could only deduce, I think rightly, that there are more ways of prayer than any one person can comprehend.

Books on prayer

There are plenty of books on prayer by holy bishops, cenobites, impressive Greeks, and Orientals, from which we may acquire a confused determination to repeat the Jesus Prayer, hail the jewel in the lotus, and set aside half an hour every morning for meditation, but in the end we may well feel, wrongly, that spirituality is only for specialists.

One advantage of well-known prayers is that we have had time to make them our own, so that we are reminded and taken further, and can be more patient with the leader for not turning his thoughts away from the no doubt important topics of firemen, the Church in Timbuktu, and populations subject to earthquakes, towards the particular topics we have in mind. There is a nice balance between God being for Them and for Us. He is of course for both.

There is abundant room for writings and talks on prayer and spirituality; but it does seem to me that there can barely be any such thing as an expert on the subject. Our efforts to draw people into Christ should not be subject to the dogmatism that in credal and other matters is appropriate and desirable.

It is like the marriage relationship: we should not dictate and seldom presume to advise how couples may address each other. The important thing is that they should do so.

T am not a spiritual bishop,’ said the hyper-active Geoffrey Fisher. Wrong, I think. Rather, he was one sort of spiritual bishop. There are others.