The concept of taking refuge can be seen in all spiritual paths, but we are indebted to the Buddhist tradition for the specific phrase. In their practice they take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha — which can be otherwise expressed as taking refuge in personal holiness, in the wisdom body of teaching within one’s tradition, and in the supportive company of fellow travellers.
Human being is inherently vulnerable, and it’s universally true that we do take refuge in something — unconsciously if not deliberately.
It’s important for our wellbeing and spiritual stability that we clearly understand this — whatever we take refuge in will also take refuge in us.
In Buddhist practice it might work like this. You take refuge in the Buddha — immersing yourself in the enlightenment you see in his wise teaching and example; and in due course you find the Buddha has taken refuge in you, you too attain the enlightenment of your inherent buddha-nature. You take refuge in the dharma (your tradition’s wisdom body) and as a result the wisdom takes refuge in you; trained and disciplined by it, you in turn become wise. You take refuge in the sangha (the faith community) and you in your turn become part of its goodness in the world, strengthening its witness and offering support to your fellow pilgrims. That’s how taking refuge works at its best.
But even if we’ve never heard of the concept of taking refuge and have never intentionally practiced it, the principle is still operative in our lives. The habit of taking refuge is natural to us; and it is always true that anything in which we habitually take refuge will also take refuge in us. Let’s take a moment to unpack what that might mean.
The instinct to take refuge often appears in relation to adversity.
When we are tired or stressed or upset. When we are afraid. When someone has been thoughtless or hurt us. How do we reflexively respond? Where do we turn? What do we do?
If, when I am stressed or wounded, I take refuge in grumbling and complaining, grumbling and complaining will take refuge in me — it’ll become a habit. A very tedious and unattractive one actually, a bit like a bad smell.
A great many people who are stressed and exhausted, take refuge in snacks and cookies. Gradually, over time, sure enough, we see that snacks and cookies have taken refuge in them.
Some people, living with the fear and insecurity of our uncertain times, take refuge in conspiracy theories. And these settle in and take root; conspiracy theories take refuge in them. Trust evaporates.
Many people, under the experience of marginalisation and disappointment, betrayal perhaps, take refuge in anger. We see them on the news — the ugly masks of faces shouting with rage in the faces of those they oppose: anger has taken refuge in them.
As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
But if, when we are stressed and exhausted, so far as we have opportunity, we take refuge in rest, then rest will take refuge in us.
If, in this busy and frantic world, we take refuge in deliberately slowing down, then slowness will take refuge in us. We will become signs of contradiction in a world of rush and tear.
If, when we are perplexed and feel threatened, we take refuge in solitude, reading a good book with a positive outlook, taking up our knitting and listening to some uplifting music, then the calm of these hours alone will take refuge in us.
If, in the challenge of this bumpy ride through uncertain times, we take refuge in order and simplicity, tidying and cleaning our homes, reducing our possessions, then order and simplicity will take refuge in us, restoring us to peace.
And as the British Royal Family has ably demonstrated in the restraint and dignity of their responses to recent scandal and gossip, if over the course of your life you take refuge in the dignity of discipline, then the dignity of discipline will take refuge in you.
The humble and vulnerable priest Brennan Manning well knew what it was to take wrong turnings in forming habits of taking refuge. He took refuge in alcohol and became deeply addicted to it. He never shook off his alcoholism and died of it in the end. But along the way, with much struggle, determination and surrender to grace, he also learned some splendid refuge habits. In particular, he gave us two prayers — one just his own and one from the psalms of King David who had plenty to seek refuge from in the course of his life.
One of Brennan Manning’s prayers, very simple, is: “Abba, I belong to you.”
When we are disappointed in ourselves. When life is too much for us. When we are tempted to snap and snarl. When we want to say something cruel. When we feel like complaining. When we have been let down or rejected. Remember that prayer. It is a refuge. Write it on a scrap of paper and keep it to hand. “Abba, I belong to you.” The God in whom you take refuge also takes refuge in you. His presence brings peace.
The other prayer, from the psalms, is:
“When I am most afraid, I put my trust in you.”
Instead of the conspiracy theory that corrodes trust. Instead of the defensiveness that divides us from each other. Instead of going on the attack when we feel threatened. “When I am most afraid, I put my trust in you.”
As we take refuge in trust, so trust will take refuge in us, and we will become like Jesus, who trusted even Judas — not because of what Judas was (which Jesus knew perfectly well) but because of what Jesus was.
The Hawaiian Ho’oponopono prayer that we’ve looked at before in the Campfire Church, also makes a very good refuge prayer:
I love you
Please forgive me
If we whisper it quietly inside whenever we are confronted with human sin in others or in ourselves, we make it a refuge into which we can creep; and over time its wisdom and compassion takes refuge in us. There’s a cumulative force to repeated practice — what Thich Nhat Hanh calls Habit Energy, that establishes into something very solid and dependable.
And of course, we have the great blessing in the Christian church of that curious tradition arising from the imagination of our mystics, of taking refuge in the heart and wounded side of Jesus. When we are wounded and spent, we creep into his wounds and make them our refuge. If we take refuge in Jesus, then Jesus will take refuge in us.
That is why the statues of the sacred heart of Jesus are so beloved to the Catholic Church; it is a refuge that will never fail.
Abba, I belong to you.
When I am most afraid, I put my trust in you.
I love you
Please forgive me
Let me evermore abide in Thy heart and wounded side.