"The wind blows where it wishes . . . and so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Some in our time continue to feel drawn to join visible, organized religious communities. They appreciate the structure, the rituals, the sense of being part of a community that is visibly growing and readily identifiable. However, there are also many others of us who become impatient with these visible expressions of faith. This is definitely the case with those of us drawn to a Wilderness Mysticism, or who consider ourselves "Spiritual, Not Religious."
For us, religious institutions are often an attempt to fossilize the living, moving Spirit, the same Spirit who also animated the experience of many historical religious founders. Rather than stagnate, we want to keep moving with the Spirit. As Jesus once said, “The wind blows where it wishes. You may hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
For these folks, myself included, spiritual community – or “church,” in a Christian context - is not recognizable in an outward sort of way. This church is not gathered in one place. It does not ascribe to a single set of doctrines. It has no priesthood. It is composed of true spiritual seekers scattered throughout the world, people who may be members of many different religious traditions. Indeed, it is possible to be a member of an institutional church AND of this invisible church, both at the same time. But for many of its members, church is a function more of TIME than of PLACE.
For example, I may have an enlightening spiritual conversation with someone over coffee early this morning; later I may commune with the beauty of Nature on a trail near my home; this afternoon I may exchange a few words with a kindred spirit in a store; tonight I may attend a lecture given by someone from a Christian, Buddhist or Native American spiritual tradition; finally, I might go home and almost certainly have a meaningful conversation with my wife. All five of these instances comprise a single “church,” spread out over time rather than gathered in any one place. Each day’s "church" may in fact be different than that present on any other day, and I wake up each morning excited to see what "church" will look like that day.
We might think of this kind of spiritual community – this "church" - as more like a symphony or play, with each encounter functioning as a different segment of the music or theatrical act spread out across time. We don’t know the full meaning of any of the musical measures or acts until the end of the piece; which, in the case of spirituality, lies in the endlessly distant future. To make matters even more interesting, we might also imagine that, mysteriously, there is no composer, conductor, playwright or director - nor is there any musician or actor - yet the symphony or play comes off perfectly the very first time. For the creator of it all – the Ultimate Mystery, the Divine, The Beloved - is EMPTIED OUT forever in eternal bliss into the beauty and grandeur of the performance.
Sebastian Franck was a Protestant Mystic, a reformer who lived in sixteenth century Germany. Historians call him a member of the "Contemplative Spiritual" wing of the Radical Reformation. A product of the Anabaptist movement – the one that gave us Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites and the Moravian Brethren – Franck was convinced that the churches of his time had all been corrupted by power and entrenched dogma. In fact, he believed that this corruption began shortly after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension and continued right up until the present day. Because of this sad situation, he was convinced that the true church had been taken up to heaven right after the time of the apostles. Since then, he believed, no visible spiritual community can rightfully claim to be an embodiment of the true church. I believe Franck's insistence on the invisible nature of the church can speak to the hearts of many in our time – especially the young – who cannot any longer relate to an institutional Christianity.
“The true Church,” Franck wrote, “is not a separate mass of people, not a particular sect to be pointed out with the finger, not confined to one time or one place; it is rather a spiritual and invisible body of all the members of Christ, born of God, of one mind, spirit, and faith, but not gathered in any one external city or place. It is a Fellowship, seen with the spiritual eye and by the inner person. It is the assembly and communion of all truly God-fearing, good-hearted, new-born persons in all the world, bound together by the Holy Spirit in the peace of God and the bonds of love . . . I belong to this Fellowship. I believe in the Communion of saints, and I am in this Church, let me be where I may; and therefore I no longer look for Christ in ‘lo heres or lo theres.’” In this last sentence, Franck is referring to Jesus’ statement in Luke 17:21. There, he says that “The kingdom of God does not come visibly – with observation - nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within (and among) you.”
Lest we worry that even this invisible church might lapse into exclusivity, we need only note which groups of people Franck saw as comprising it. Radical for his era, he included “Turks,” who by his time would have been mostly Muslim in faith, and “heathen,” those who don’t profess Christian beliefs. Thus he could advise a friend, “Consider as thy brothers all Turks and heathen, wherever they be, who fear God and work righteousness, instructed by God and inwardly drawn by him, even though they have never heard of baptism, indeed, of Christ himself, neither of his story or scripture, but only of his power through the INNER Word perceived within and made fruitful.”
Accordingly, Franck established no visible church, but emphasized Jesus’ statement that “where TWO OR THREE are gathered together in my name [that is, in Christ's state of consciousness], there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Thus, for Franck, “church” is by-and-large invisible, at least insofar as we are looking for an identifiable group with a specific name. In the context of our current era, the “two or three” might also include cyber-conversations – such as those carried out here on Facebook – whose composition may change daily or even hourly. It is for this reason that Quaker historian Rufus Jones calls Franck “a kind of sixteenth-century Heraclitus,” the Greek philosopher who once said: “You NEVER step into the same river TWICE.” Thus, the outward expression of this kind of invisible church is always changing, depending on who the Spirit is bringing together in any given moment.
For me, as a long-time member of this "Contemplative Spiritual, Mystical Protestant, Invisible Church," this is an exciting way to live, for it enables me to remain sensitive to the moving of the Spirit at any moment, which consistently "blows wherever it wishes." In fact, I'll bet that many of YOU can relate to and resonate with this spiritual path as well :)
Photo: Dream Lake on a windy day, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO, February 6, 2016
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Stephen Hatch, M.A. is a spiritual teacher and photographer from Fort Collins, Colorado. His approach is contemplative, inter-spiritual, and Earth-based.