John Macquarrie’s Paths in Spirituality, Pt. 1

John Macquarrie Anglican Theologian

If the Church finds itself in narrow straits these days it is, in part, because it has not listened deeply to its past masters.  John Macquarrie, sometime Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, must rank as one of the foremost Anglican theologians of the twentieth century.  His Paths in Spirituality (1972) still offers departure points for a Church which is, in earthly terms, rather besieged.

Religion is about the development of selfhood

Many young people left the churches in the 1960s, he says, because they identified it with the bourgeois and also because “worship and liturgy [had] become so trivialized in most American churches that those in search of a spirituality … thought it necessary to look elsewhere” (2)

We hear much these days of spirituality; but actually the thirst for spiritually has been with us for a long time.  According to Macquarrie, spirituality is about becoming a person in the fullest sense; and religion, too, should be about growth and transformation.  Religion can still be indispensible to life: he cites Harvey Cox, “Man is more essentially religious than many of us have assumed.  He thirsts for mystery, meaning, community and even for some sort of ritual.” (3)  In Macquarrie’s view “the practice of religion, when purged of egoism, brought to maturity, related to real life, encompassing intellect as well as emotion and will, makes an indispensable contribution toward the development of a fully human person.” (4)

In adoration we are drawn out of ourselves, not losing ourselves but finding ourselves in a self-expansion or, we might say, in God.  We are drawn into the Other—into a “creative centre” which forms us, he says (14).    Worship is creative: “it is creating persons of spiritual depth, and through them the creative Spirit will reach other further still.” (18) As we grow in self-giving love and in likeness to Christ, we become agents of transformation in the world.

There is no suggestion that worship is mere therapy: rather it is communing with God.  God comes to meet us in prayer and worship.  These

are the very ways in which God, the creative mystery from whom we and all things derive their being, comes to us and make himself present with us….worship is a communing, the opening of human life to God, the response to grace, the growing up into union with God, who has made us for himself. (22)

When we open ourselves to God, we become open to other people: “could there even be communion with other people at any depth without both sides being encompassed in a still deeper communion with God?” (22)  So I wonder: is our current crisis of community life not ultimately because we have lost the capacity for God and, therefore, for one another?  If we cannot find a metaphysical unity in the Word and Spirit of God who gives life to us all, won’t we become too, too anxious about our differences—about our foreign neighbour, our unemployed neighbour, our Muslim neighbour?

Religion is about self-actualisation; and the best advertisement for Christianity, says Macquarrie, is a person fully alive. That is just what Irenaeus said in the second century: the glory of God is a living person, and a person’s life consists in beholding God.  Macquarrie bids us consider the saints, who have “an inner strength or an inner depth, at once stable and dynamic.”  Their holiness has “a creative character—the saint is not only good, he enables others to be good, just by the kind of person he is.” (5)  Such a person feels “’more at home’ in the universe” than others (6).

So how can our churches be renewed? Macquarrie suggests an emphasis on:

  • the fulfilling nature of religion
  • the future society which is taking shape around the altar
  • a new sociality; and
  • a religious practice which combines contemplation with action.

A Problem with Prayer

Macquarrie strikes another polemical note: “Prayer is at the heart of all religion, but for many Christians prayer has become something of an embarrassment.” (25)

He suggests that prayer is better thought of as a meditative kind of thinking—not mere thinking, apart from God, but a thinking which draws near to God.  This thinking, non-linear, non-technical, and often stream-of-consciousness, is essential for our wholeness as human beings. 

It is:

  • passionate thinkingTo think of the world with longing for its perfecting is a step toward praying for the coming of the kingdom; to think of the world with rejoicing for all that is good is inarticulately to hallow the name; to think of the world with shame for our failures is implicitly to ask forgiveness of our sins and trespasses.” (26)
  • compassionate thinking Intercessory prayer, he says, provides “openings into the dense texture of the human situation through which can come the creative and healing power of the reality we call God; and because within that human situation our lives are all bound together in a mysterious solidarity, then God’s power is able to operate far beyond the particular person who offers the prayer, though through him.” (28) Moreover in prayer God reaches into the depths of the unconscious (and collective unconscious?)
  • responsible thinking In prayer we know God as the “unconditioned demand” made upon us—though that demand is mediated through some finite situation.   (29)
  • And,finally, thankful thinking.

Yet there comes a point where we leave off thinking for “the silence of fulfilled speech” (37). We “contemplate” when

All that has been said and all that has been absorbed in the successive moments of meditation is now present together in an ineffable fullness to which words are inadequate. This is contemplation—a moment we may not know very often, but one in which the mind, so far from being blank, overflows with the fullness of divine truth.  We are given a foretaste here and now of the vision of God, the vision that gathers up everything in itself. (37)

The Truth is always greater than any words; we take off from language, becoming accustomed to the sun through squinting eyes. We simply allow our will and intellect to be formed in the Word and Spirit of God.  In this connection Macquarrie relates a vision of the great Buddha of Kamakura, Japan:

He knew no anger, no despair.
He taught just one thing—how we should sink,
How we should direct our individual wills
Into the great will. (39)

Worship teaches us habitually to behold the Other; that is, God and our neighbour in the light of God. This is of a piece with St Thomas’ own understanding.   As the Angelic Doctor held, adoration is the radical basis of sharing, of friendship, and of the body politic itself: when we worship we become ever more receptive to caritas.  We open our eyes to see the Good, who shines like the sun.

Contemplation undoubtedly meant much to Macquarrie, who tells of his own religious experiences at Benediction.  He relates Iris Murdoch’s opinion that:

I think there is a place both inside and outside religion for a sort of contemplation of the Good, not just by dedicated experts but by ordinary people; an attraction which is not just the planning of particular good action but an attempt to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt of virtue. (29-30)

In the next part I discuss personal growth and transformation more fully–“spirituality as ekstasis,” as well as Eucharist, Benediction, and the Daily Offices.