I have written before about my growing sense not only of a increasing personal call to some kind of hiddenness, but also of the way in which the (at least in the UK) repeated lockdowns and “tiered” partial easings of lockdowns have contributed to the growth of what Steve Aisthorpe calls The Invisible Church:
There is a growing realisation that church is what occurs when people are touched by the living Christ and share the journey of faith with others. Whether that occurs in an historic building or online or . . . wherever, is unimportant.
The history of religion is littered with examples of the way that the luminous insights of prophets and poets and contemplatives (in my usage, Jesus would be all three) become clouded and encoded by institutions, and by their uneasy relationships with power and wealth. Obvious examples would be the Roman church in the years following the Emperor Constantine’s conversion, and the chaos of the English Reformation and the ensuing Civil Wars, but within other religions there are many parallels such as the troubled history of the Islamic Caliphates and the role of Buddhism during the politically volatile late Heian to early Kamakura period in Japan.
Time and again contemplatives have broken away from the apparent corruption of state churches on the one hand and religion-inspired revolutionaries on the other, sometimes forming loose communities, and retreated from formal organisation almost altogether. Examples are as diverse as the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt and Syria around the 4th century AD, the Pure Land (Shin) schools of Buddhism founded by Honen and Shinran in 12th and 13th century Japan, and the Quakers in 17th century England.
These contemplative movements, often based around simplicity of practice and openness to the Spirit, seem to arise when not only are the religious establishment in a compromised and sometimes corrupt condition, but the state is in flux, sometimes violent flux. Trump’s America and Brexit Britain, scoured by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, would seem to provide fertile ground for contemplative change in this way.
Needless to say I have no answers, but the question underlies, it seems to me, much of the interest in “Churchless Christianity” that has flared up even more strongly during the present crisis. There will be voices raised, of course, both on the side of secular humanism and on the side of organised religion, accusing “hermits” of retreating from their responsibilities to the world, just as parallel voices have been raised at the hinges of faith and practice throughout history. To them I would offer these words from Caryll Houselander (quoted in Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ)
Christ is everywhere; in Him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life. It is not the foolish sinner like myself, running about the world with reprobates and feeling magnanimous, who comes closest to them and brings them healing; it is the contemplative in her cell who has never set eyes on them, but in whom Christ fasts and prays for them—or it may be a charwoman in whom Christ makes Himself a servant again, or a king whose crown of gold hides a crown of thorns. Realization of our oneness in Christ is the only cure for human loneliness. For me, too, it is the only ultimate meaning of life, the only thing that gives meaning and purpose to every life.