Being wrong

By Mark Argent

WrongTalking with the participants on a weekend of cooking and spirituality, I found myself saying that one of the consequences of being a member of a small denomination is that I can’t suggest that my Church is right, or the only Church. This is a real blessing, because it’s a constant reminder that God, as approached through my URC heritage, for all its riches, can’t possibly be the whole story. It’s a gentle nudge that God is always more than we think.

My sense is that a similar sentiment lies beneath the commitment of most Churches in the UK when it comes to ecumenism. From time to time, usually when things are particularly pressured, we lapse into denominational bunkers, but for the most part we all recognise that no one Church in isolation has a monopoly on God. It’s as though the good Spirit gently nudges us to be aware that there are insights outside as well as inside our own Churches, and bad forces seek to use moments of crisis to try to cut us off from that.

In the one-to-one context of spiritual direction, there is a convention that the director shouldn’t seek to impose their own doctrinal or spiritual perspectives on the disciple. This opens up both director and directee to discover new things by making mistakes. If the desire is to enter deeply into an experience of God, then that desire alone is enough to make it likely to happen, provided there is the willingness to realise that the experience of God a person receives might not look like what they are expecting, hence the need for an open mind, willing to get it wrong an try another route.

If the director can allow them self the freedom to be wrong, and put in the extra effort of opening up new space and inviting the directee to explore it rather than trying to give the ‘right’ answers, then the dynamic of the relationship will open both to change and being changed. From the directee’s perspective, the greatest gift is often not what is explicitly learned from the director, but what is picked up from the director modelling the willingness to go deeper and an openness to change.

That has interesting implications for how we teach methods of prayer. If it’s done by implying that there is a ‘right’ way to use a particular method, then the implication is that there is also a ‘wrong’ way. In the fear of getting things wrong, people risk losing the very freedom in which they are most likely to find God. This needn’t stop people talking about ways, models and strategies of prayer which they find useful, but is rather an encouragement for such sharing to be an invitation to explore and discover.

There’s another layer beneath all of this. Genuine religious experience usually engages the unconscious at least as much as the conscious mind. It’s usually the conscious mind that gets hung up on the need to be right and the fear of being wrong. Allowing the space to be wrong is a very effective way of engaging what is beyond a person’s conscious control and vice-versa.

Considering the three vows made by many people entering a religious order, poverty, chastity and obedience, my sense is that these are not automatically positive, but can be lived in a way which becomes life-giving. The vow of obedience, at its best, is about contradicting the ego’s desire to be in control, so that these deeper places of religious experience may have precedence. It’s interesting to see a deeply-rooted tradition at the heart of Christianity where people put themselves into the position of non-dominance, of not being able to be ‘right’, in order to enter more deeply into God.

In art, it’s one thing for a person to paint what they set out to paint, but rather more interesting things happen when the painting goes wrong or takes in an unexpected direction. If someone has the freedom to go where the painting is taking them, the results can be really fascinating. It’s surprising how often the painting that ‘accidentally’ goes ‘wrong’, is in touch with the space a person will be in a few days later. It’s as though allowing things to go ‘wrong’ allows the conscious thinking process to be side-lined so that deeper things can emerge. The freedom for things to go ‘wrong’ becomes, then, the freedom to explore new and life-giving territory.

Whatever else happens, there is a delicious excitement in discovering that the freedom to be ‘wrong’ can open up whole new experiences of God.