Monday, January 27, 2014

Spiritual and Religious

"A Mystic Moment"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday I had an opportunity to engage in a fascinating conversation with a professional photographer who was exhibiting his works at a local art festival. I was very moved by the "spirituality" of his photographs. We talked about how his pictures serve as "thin places,"- thresholds into the "mystical" realm of cosmic connection that lies just beneath the surface of observable reality. 

However, the thing that made my conversation with this photographic artist most significant yesterday wasn't necessarily our conversation about the "spirituality" of his work, but what happened toward the end of our conversation when he discovered that I was a priest.

We were involved in this fairly deep and rather significant conversation about art, but the moment he discovered that I was a priest (and therefore, "religious"), he instantly "shut down" on me. It was as if an iron curtain suddenly came down between us. The sudden silence at the revelation of my status was physically palpable. 

I have been reflecting on what happened yesterday between me and that artist. I think that when I was identified as a member of the clergy, I was basically "lumped" into the category of the "religious;" and as such, I was one of those people who go to church and mindlessly mouth prayers that don't mean anything. Like all religious people, I was someone who prays to a distant God who is little more than a fairy tale. As a member of the clergy, I may even have been perceived to be one of those loud-mouthed preachers who condemn gay people and denounce sinners. 

My sense is that our conversation yesterday stopped "dead in the water" because people who are religious are obviously people who are not spiritual-  so why should we be having a conversation about the "spirituality" of art.

Interestingly enough, my interaction with that artist yesterday has been repeated in one form or another many times and in many different settings with many different people. 

There is an ever growing number of people who today identify themselves as being "spiritual but not religious. I actually think this is perfectly fine and I totally respect people on a spiritual path who do not identify with a religious tradition. 

I am also keenly aware that an unspoken corollary often accompanies the designation "spiritual but not religious," and "if you are religious, you aren't spiritual"- you can't be both.

I strongly disagree. I think that the word "religion" is very narrowly defined nowadays - so narrow as to be myopic. 

Everyone who is connected to a religious tradition does not mindlessly believe in a fairy tale God up in heaven controlling the world.  All religious people do not go to a church and mindlessly mouth prayers that mean nothing (some barely go to any church at all); and all religious people are not consumed with moral judgements and do not condemn those who are different. I am one of those people. 

Although "religion," especially Christian "religion," is popularly identified with doctrine, prayers, rules, and rituals, Christian theology is also firmly rooted and historically grounded in a "mystical" theology which is best described as "no theology."  Often referred to a the "Via Negativa" or the aphophatic way," this traditional Christian understanding of God is perhaps best described by the assertion: "anything you say about God, God is NOT." In other words, God is unnameable  and unable to be categorized.   "God" far transcends human thought. In order to find God, one must simply be open to the mystery of the moment and be present to the Presence. 

This mystical way of understanding God lies at the very core of ancient Christianity. It is very similar to the Buddhist path to enlightenment through mindful awareness; and it has been the core practice of notable Christian mystics like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Evelyn Underhill and the great Thomas Merton whom walked the "Via Negativa" as a pathway to God. 

I live out in the midst of one of the most mystical places on earth - in the heart of a desert. I am a very religious person and at the same time, I am not very religious at all. 

"Church" is not the center of my life as it once used to be, (in fact I rarely go to church nowadays).  I don't say all sorts of prayers every day."  I hold onto few if any doctrines or dogmas about God. And yet I am unashamed to say that that I am deeply rooted in the Christian tradition as I walk with my ancestors along the path of the "Via Negativa." 

My theology is "no theology." My only belief is a belief in a Holy, Abiding, Cosmic, Uncontrolled and Uncontrollable Presence- in it all, flowing through it all and connecting it all. My only prayer is presence- mindfully aware, awake and present to the Presence 

I am spiritual and I am religious.


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