- At the Desert Retreat House -
I recently had a fascinating conversation with someone who labeled himself as "spiritual but not religious." As I probed a bit deeper about what he meant by this, the man described his spiritual journey as a soul-searching quest for truth and wisdom that was filled with ambiguity. It wasn't that he had "no faith," but that his faith was constantly challenged. He was often unsure of who or what God was all about.
My "spiritual but not religious" friend disclosed that, in his mind, church people don't have the kind of existential doubts about "God" that he does. Church people have strong, unwavering faith. Furthermore, religious people live morally upright lives - always expected to "do the right thing," whereas this man saw his life as flawed with lots of failures and plenty of mistakes.
So, as he saw it, he just didn't have what it takes to be part of a church. He was "spiritual but not religious."
As I pondered this conversation I realized that there are probably many religious people who might agree with what this man had to say. They may well imagine that since they are religious they should have a "strong" faith, asking few questions, harboring little doubt. They might also imagine that they are indeed called to "high standards"- obey the laws of the church, carefully follow the rituals, be an upstanding citizen with no secret sins.
But as I see it, unquestioning faith is often weak and tepid faith. Faith necessarily demands doubt because God is essentially unknowable. Furthermore, no human being is ever perfect, we are all flawed - a sacred mixture of the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. Religious people who expect perfection often see themselves as hypocrites "when" they are unable to live up to the impossible standards that they have set for themselves.
I am reminded of a phrase from the Christian baptismal ceremony. Before the actual baptism, the potential Christian is asked to make vows promising that he or she will live a life devoted to working for peace and justice, promoting the dignity of every human being - high standards indeed. And yet, there is also one additional vow that acknowledges that no one can ever perfectly honor these lofty ideals, and so the candidate for baptism is asked:
Will you persevere in resisting evil
and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
The question does not ask "if" you sin, "if" you fail, "if" you make a mistake, but rather the question asked here is "when" you fail what will you do? Will you get up and try again?
In Jesus' time, the religious Jews of the day held themselves to some pretty high standards. In fact there were over 600 laws religious people were expected to follow in order to be considered upstanding Jewish citizens of the day. Many people were unable to properly follow all the laws and most everyone felt burdened by them. When Jesus came along, he set down some new standards for those who would be his disciples - he pointed to a gentle way:
Come to me all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give your rest.
The only standard Jesus set for his followers was the "standard of love." He invited them to treat one another with compassion and kindness, and said, "when you fall, help each other up and begin again."
As I see it, this "gentle way" is the direction in which any spiritual path should point. A spiritual path is a gentle way.
I am reminded of a little story from the Sayings of the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers:
When the Abbot was asked how he dealt with any brother in the monastery
who fell asleep during public prayer, he replied,
'I put his head upon my knees and help him to rest.'