A Letter To a Young Person Drifting Away From the Church: Whitterings, June 2009

A Letter To a Young Person Drifting Away From the Church

I have known you since you were a child and have watched you to grow up. I have seen you grow from a baby comfortable and safe within our church community; to a toddler taking their first steps down the centre aisle; to an enthusiastic member of the Sunday School, First Communion Class, Youth Group and Confirmation Class; to a young person ready to set out and begin their own life on their own.

I know that you are beginning to leave us. I have seen how you have explored new ideas and new ways of living. I know you no longer find the services or sermons vibrant or especially relevant. I also know that you have grown tired of being surrounded by surrogate grandmothers and grandfathers whose lives seem to you more and more old fashioned. You have begun to explore another world inhabited by your peers which is much more interesting to you than ours and which makes you feel alive and free. These worlds seem to you disconnected and it is clear which one is more attractive. I know this is natural and I am not surprised.

Sometimes at your age the love of adults can seem burdensome and unwelcome. You want to connect with your peers and be respected and loved by them. Of what use to you is the love of a community like ours? Yet we do love you. We have known you since before you were even born and have helped care for you these many years. We feel you are part of us and that we know you. So, yes, we do discuss what you are doing, how you are doing at college, and whether you are ok at coffee hour on Sundays. You would be surprised how much we wish the best for you and pray for you. You would also be surprised at how much we miss your presence. We always feel the loss when someone leaves us. Yet it is more poignant when we lose a young person whom we have known their whole lives.

You know all that I have to teach you. I have prepared you for First Communion and Confirmation and trained you as a server. You were with me week by week for years during Youth Group. Much of what I have taught you takes years to integrate and your generation is most attracted by what is most immediately accessible. I know this. We have been through all of the arguments and discussions about the Gospel and the Christian Faith and I do not repeat them again here. We have spoken at length these many years about the modern world and what we believe are its dangers. I know you no longer find these views as compelling as you once did.

Remember what I shared with you from Father Zosima about the modern state of man.
“Look at the worldly and all who set themselves up above the people of God; has not God's image and His truth been distorted in them? They have science; but in science there is nothing but what is the object of sense. The spiritual world, the higher part of man's being is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says: ‘You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.’ That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants.

How can such a one fight? What is he fit for? He is capable perhaps of some action quickly over, but he cannot hold out long. And it's no wonder that instead of gaining freedom they have sunk into slavery, and instead of serving, the cause of brotherly love and the union of humanity have fallen, on the contrary, into dissension and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher said to me in my youth. And therefore the idea of the service of humanity, of brotherly love and the solidarity of mankind, is more and more dying out in the world, and indeed this idea is sometimes treated with derision. For how can a man shake off his habits? What can become of him if he is in such bondage to the habit of satisfying the innumerable desires he has created for himself? He is isolated, and what concern has he with the rest of humanity? They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.

The monastic way is very different. Obedience, fasting, and prayer are laughed at, yet only through them lies the way to real, true freedom. I cut off my superfluous and unnecessary desires, I subdue my proud and wanton will and chastise it with obedience, and with God's help I attain freedom of spirit and with it spiritual joy. Which is most capable of conceiving a great idea and serving it -- the rich in his isolation or the man who has freed himself from the tyranny of material things and habits? The monk is reproached for his solitude, "You have secluded yourself within the walls of the monastery for your own salvation, and have forgotten the brotherly service of humanity!" But we shall see which will be most zealous in the cause of brotherly love. For it is not we, but they, who are in isolation, though they don't see that.”

The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Part Two: Book VI, Chapter Three.

I also ask that you remember what I taught you about Socrates and the core message of the Gospel:

“The unexamined life is not worth leading.”
“Any man who would save his life with lose it but any man who would lose his life for my sake shall gain it.”

The adventure to discover who we are underneath our individuality is the great adventure. As Christians we believe that this is only revealed when we move out of ourselves towards others and the world, which we call love. It is through love that truth is revealed. The path to becoming open to reality is first taken through discipline. We set a goal and then begin the journey through duty, trust in those who we believe to be good, and most of all with hope that the path will eventually take us to our goal. Along the path we are transformed and what we once set out to do by an act of will becomes natural as our hearts open more and more to others and the world. Saints have no need for morality for all their actions are acts of love. In the end the goal we thought we were heading for mysteriously changes and we find that the goal was with us the whole time. We, as T.S. Eliot says, “Return home and know it for the first time.”

“What you thought mattered-what you thought was truest to the real you-often turns out to be empty and dishonest. You have to keep asking and keep looking; no wonder we hate it and find every excuse for not getting on with it. There is a faint echo of T.S. Eliot’s ‘What you thought you came for / is only a shell, a husk of meaning’ or Rilke’s ‘archaic statue’ in his poem of that name, telling you that there are no places to hide and instead ‘you must change your life’. Your surface ideas have to go, and so does the notion that you can produce something by an act of the will. In fact, as a famous sculptor once said to his students, will has no part in the creative process. The use of the will is simply to keep you at it-but it doesn’t deliver the product, because you don’t yet know what you moist truthfully want.”
Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, p. 45-46

Most of us are still on the path to transformation and as such need the goal, the discipline and the hope. What I do know is that without the goal we often head in the wrong direction and who knows where we will end up. If we do not have a goal we will not cross rivers and mountains to get to it but will rather follow the contours of the landscape taking the path of least resistance. We may be lucky to escape the shadows but many do not. At the end it does not really matter what sort of career we choose as the Saints have come from all walks of life. What they have in common was the goal, the commitment. It is not so much about ‘What You Do” but about ‘Why You Do It”. You already know all of this and you once, and I believe, still believe it deep down. I remind you that this goal is not just grounded upon the Gospel of Christ but also upon modern psychology. In this religion and science agree. Thus I think it would be hard to find a better starting point.

Most importantly take your time. Do not rush things. This letter is NOT meant to be pressuring you to hurry up and make decisions or figure everything out or make you return to the church. We have already been through all of that. Simply to point you in the way I believe is the right direction to start walking if you have not already started to do so.

“It is alright to take time. Only in taking time can you realise how much more you are than the individual. By taking time you are built by the character of the world you are in and the people around you...God alone will tell me who I ‘really’ am, and he will do so only in the lifelong process of bringing my thoughts and longings into his presence without fear and deception.”

Rowan Williams, Where God Happens, p. 53 & 50

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s has a short guide to making decisions found on page 61-62 of Where God Happens. He is wiser and holier than I will ever be. I trust him and so I offer you his words as you continue to make important life decisions.
“...God leaves the question about his will to a process of discernment of our free will. The discernment goes like this: We have to choose between a number of courses of action. What course of action more fully resonates with the kind of life Christ lived and lives? What sort of action opens up more possibilities for God to work? Now, these are not questions that immediately yield an answer. But they are the stuff, the raw material of reflection. What course of action might be (even a little) more in tune with the life of Christ? And what opens, rather than closes, doors for God’s healing, reconciling, forgiving, and creating work to go on? It may well be that in any given situation there simply is not a clear answer to those questions. But if they are the questions we are asking, then the very process of reflecting and discerning makes space in ourselves for the life of Christ and the creative movement of God. To the extent to which we truthfully and sincerely make that space, we are already in tune with the will of God. Even if we go on to make a mistake, we have not done it by shutting the door on God. We have done our best to leave room for God in the decisions we made. To the degree we manage that, we really do (in some measure) God’s will. We must simply leave God room and freedom to salvage our life from whatever mess our decision may bring with it.”

I trust that you are capable of being an open and loving person. I trust you already have all of the tools you need to make decisions for yourself. I believe, if you give yourself the time for reflection and discernment, you will make the right ones. I also do not believe there is anything ‘wrong’ with you except for the fact that you are a human being and alive and that in itself (obviously) is the reason we always have problems with ourselves and with the world. We are all lost in a way and are also all found in a way. Life is complicated and you are in the same boat as the rest of us. The fact that you have particular weaknesses and desires and fears does not make you a bad person. It just makes you human. Do not fall into the illusion that everyone else is alright and except you. “Go and pray for me a sinner also”.

I am aware that you do not see a future for yourself as a regular churchgoer. I will ask you to not give up entirely. Keep the door open. Remember your childhood and youth with us and return to us when you can even if only to see us and not for the religious side of things. As you get older keep an open mind to what we have taught you about goodness, forgiveness, meaning, and love. Please do not forget us. If you are ever ready to come back please know that we will be waiting and will rejoice to have you with us again. They say that ‘home’ is where they have to take you in. We consider ourselves your home and you have the right to be here. Even if we are long dead, we will still be a part of the church and we will still rejoice. If you ever find yourself afraid or confused, sad or lonely, or in danger or need please come to us. We will do everything we can for you. You may come to feel that you are no longer part of us but we will always consider you one of us no matter how much you change. We care what happens to you and we will love and pray for you all of our days and beyond.

I write this to you as an act of love not as an act of manipulation or guilt or judgement. Thus it is here for you to reread, read again, or in a month or in many years - whenever you are ready. I want you to be happy, healthy, and free. I want you to have an adventurous life free from fear and anxiety with someone you love and with a life you will find real. I want you to be able to love yourself, trust yourself and respect yourself. I offer you my reflections, the fruit of much prayer and thought, with this in mind.

"Furthermore, we have not only to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination; we shall find a god; and where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the centre of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."

Joseph Campbell

This Letter is not to a Real Person but an imaginary one who is a combination of the many young people I have ministered to and have subsequently left the Church.