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“Mrs. Lincoln, the theatre is really a fine institution, and I hate seeing you allow that one thing to deprive you of the broad spectrum of culture and entertainment the theatre offers.”
True? Absolutely. Fair? Possibly.
Helpful? No. Unkind? Definitely.
I am afraid I have played a similar role with people who identify as “Spiritual, but Not Religious.” I hear them say that religion is all rules, dogmas, abusiveness and authoritarianism, because that is what their experience has taught them. When I tell them that my experience is of acceptance, support, fellowship, intellectual stimulation, music and the arts, opportunities for service, and a story huge and awesome enough for my while life to fit inside it, I’m not trying to invalidate their experience, emotions or choices—but I’m afraid that’s what they hear.
They see anti-gay bigotry; I saw my parish sponsor the first AIDS hospice in its rural Pennsylvania county. They see judgmentalism toward unwed mothers; I attended a church that ran a free daycare center. They see priests who prey on altar boys; I see nuns who nurse the sick and care for the poorest of the poor. They see the blow-dried peddlers of the “prosperity gospel;” I see faith-based coalitions demonstrating for living wage and gun-control laws.
I want to say to the SBNRs that their experience is not of religion per se, but of religion distorted and perverted. But many of them are so raw, so armored and defended around their choices—choices they made, in many cases, against fierce opposition from family and religious community—that they cannot hear that. If I suggest they aren’t looking at the big picture, they hear me telling them they’re wrong. They carry a soft, painful wound, and they have so hardened around it that the mere utterance of a word can put them on high alert.
So just to be clear, here’s what I mean by “religion.”
1) I mean what the word itself literally means: “that which ties together.” Whatever ties your whole life together is your religion. For Scrooge, it was money; for Capt. Ahab, it was the pursuit of the white whale. For the Dalai Lama, it is kindness.
2) I mean a disciplined practice. Religion is what shows up for work when spirituality calls in sick. It is motions to go through when inspiration fails. It is the “working the Steps” that enables Twelve Steppers to “fake it till they make it.” It is ethical and moral codes of conduct.
Any relationship takes work; if I only behaved like a married person when the spirit moved me, I wouldn’t stay married for long. And as a person who has struggled on and off with depression, I cannot overstate the importance of getting my sorry butt to church on Sunday and to the meditation cushion on the other days, even when those are the last things I feel like doing. That’s what keeps the channels open; when spiritual inspiration comes home, I want it to find the fridge stocked and the lights on.
3) I mean community, whether a Buddhist sangha, a Catholic parish, a Jewish congregation, a Quaker meeting, a Kabbalist circle, a book group or a Twelve Step room—or any other collection of humans who are there to support you on your path: to pray with you, listen to you, or talk you down when you want to use.
4) I mean service. Sponsoring other Friends of Bill, canvassing for internal hiring at the Philly airport, cooking and serving meals for the homeless, listening to people who are hurting.
5) Finally, I mean reverence. Most often, this takes the form of devotion to one’s chosen form of the divine, but it can also mean saluting the Buddhas of one’s lineage, cultivating a relationship with one’s Higher Power, or contemplating the wonders of nature. It also includes prayer, aspirations (such as Buddhism’s “May all beings awaken and be free,”) or “holding someone in the Light,” Quaker style.
If I had to put it into a single sentence, I’d say that religion is a set of tools to support spirituality. If you call yourself “spiritual” and you have these things, you are “religious” to me. If you don’t have them, then I plainly don’t understand what you mean by “spiritual.”
I used to urge my Wiccan friends to quit wasting emotional energy on trying to get people to stop using the word “witch” in ways they don’t like, call themselves “Wiccans” already, save their strength for better things and move on. And though nobody’s asked for it, that’s still my prescription. But I realize that what’s sauce to them as goose is also sauce to me as gander, so here’s what I’m prepared to do: 1) stop telling people that the thing that hurt them isn’t religion but something else; 2) start calling what I mean by religion “Following a Spiritual Path,” or something—whatever it takes to keep that wall from going up between me and my fellow humans; 3) save my strength for better things—like ministering to the hurting from their own point of view rather than trying to get them to understand mine—and 4) move on.
I’m going to agree to let the “R-word” go, even though I believe lots of people are misunderstanding it and using it wrong. Because although I am powerfully drawn to the magnetic north of setting people straight, I know what True North really is: helping the wounded to heal—and if their wounds were dealt by people claiming to profess what I profess, then their claim on my forbearance is even greater.
And to the players, predators and hate-mongers who are poisoning the well of religion, I say, with the prophet Jeremiah, “’Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’” declares the LORD.”