What is religion? How do we use it? Do we need religion? And, what if there was no such thing as religion?
If we’re serious about our relationship with You I don’t think we begin to ask these questions until we’ve traveled a good distance on our spiritual journeys. That proposition in itself may be a partial answer to some of these questions, for without the teachings of some religion as a starting point we do not end up where we later may be.
In a sense religion is like a book. It gives us knowledge, instruction, and insight in order to grow and move on. It leads us to “next steps.” The next steps are usually reading more (with books), or more fervency (with religion). But it must be admitted that no matter how many books one reads, it always leads to another book because the ultimate insight is not there. Just so, no matter how much knowledge of religion we have; no matter how fervent, loyal, and devoted we are to it; the ultimate insight is not in the religion, but comes through the religion.
The monks and saints whom we might regard as most “religious” are those who are often least concerned with religion. If properly cultivated, religion can lead us to that point where we can say with the prophet Isaiah, “Morning after morning He opens my ear that I might hear,”(50:4) – and what I hear may transcend religion per se.
So, how do we answer these questions? What is religion? Religion is a man-managed organization of beliefs and teachings meant to be a vehicle by which we come to know and pursue our destiny. Because it falls to the maintenance of man it is complex, finite, and xenophobic.
How do we use it? Ideally it is a stepping-stone the utility of which must be transcended to actually accomplish its goals. In reality, the way it is often used is as an end (a god) in itself – a possession the ownership of which grants membership in an exclusive club with inclinations to denigrate the efficacy of other “clubs.”
Do we need religion? My answer would be “yes” because within the multifarious manifestations of mankind a common denominator from which to start our journey is needed. It would be invented if it did not otherwise exist since man instinctively grasps for the answer to his existence. There is an inevitable but unnecessary need to show outward membership in common belief. What filters down inwardly as a result of this, and the inner desire to go beyond it, reveals the underlying efficacy of religion in our lives.
The “spiritual urge” in man is inherent and natural. There is an elemental spiritual flow that is not only the underpinning of the human condition but actually drives it. This proclivity is a leaning toward the transcendent and may be the singular most common and most powerful of all spiritual drives. People have risen and fallen, wars have been fought (and continue to be fought) over one nation’s beliefs in and perceptions of the transcendent as opposed to those of another nation. It is an issue with man which is that serious and it goes to the heart of wanting others to believe as we do. This spiritual urge turns men in many different directions while seeking some conduit by which to explain and dissect itself; for it is not always understood but it is always there.
Man’s most common solution is an affiliation with an institutional spiritual organization – a religion. Such institutions are helpful to a point – a point at which people often choose to settle. It’s important to consider that the spiritual urge is with us always – with or without such affiliation. Thus, while somewhat more difficult, I believe it is still possible to pursue this urge above and beyond institutional religion. I feel we diminish this urge, we dull it, and we become apathetic toward it when we settle at a particular point. There is no end-point to this urge as long as we are breathing. To ignore it is stunting. Sometimes it is weak, but it is always there trying to propel us on. We do well when we give in to it. It is as inevitable as the proverbial death and taxes.
This urge comes to be in us when we come to be. It can be called Your voice, the yearning of the soul, the divine side of our being, or any one of many other appellations; but it is indisputably there – even when we deny it. Hence it would seem proof positive of ultimate destiny: the goal of the urge. Some might even term it “conscience,” for it does compel us to the good however dim that has become in our lives.
That which most colors the spiritual urge within us and makes it unique is the condition of our own personal life. Our condition of life disposes us to listen to or to ignore this urge. Since the condition of our lives is governed by our choices, the spiritual urge in us can only be nurtured and supported by choices that dispose us toward recognizing and pursuing it, namely the spiritual. The spiritual urge compels us to the spiritual life and the spiritual life enhances the urge.
One of the most positive and upbeat approaches to the spiritual life was that of Julian of Norwich. Her philosophy of rejoicing in God’s love more than sorrowing over one’s faults is a path full of light and hope. When I asked a priest friend years ago who his favorite spiritual writer was, he named Julian of Norwich. Knowing of his own upbeat approach to spirituality that, by itself, should have been a clue. But It took a second reading of Julian’s writings for me to really get what I should have picked up on earlier.
Fixating on our faults and failings can become an endless exercise in inward self-indulgence, and indulging the self is what most efficiently distances us from You. It makes much more sense to focus upon and revel in Your great love for us. Isn’t the spiritual life about focusing on You rather than ourselves? In the dynamics of love is it not quintessential that all is focused on the other? And from such focus can be derived great joy. Thus, at the core of contemplation what must be recognized is that it is not just the consideration but the embracing of the reality that You are with us, You love us, You forgive us our faults and failings, and You beckon us to Yourself.
I think Julian of Norwich got it right: recognizing and accepting my sinfulness, my faults, my failings, my weaknesses, and my mistakes is one thing, but dwelling on them is an obstacle. It is better to admit with all honesty that I manifest the flaws of my nature, yes, but Your love for me covers them over. If I live every moment in this realization, what could possibly make me happier? The greatest joy of life is to love and be loved.
All we must do is love. But we permit so much to get in the way of doing this. We permit things that differentiate between those who are easy to love and those who aren’t.
For me it is helpful to look closely at what it is I most admire in other human beings. When I cull out the individuals of my acquaintance certain qualities pop out that endear themselves to me. The most salient is a loving attitude that reflects Yours. Another is the quality of humility, often construed as shyness or meekness. Another is a lack of concern for worldly goods and possessions. Still another is consistent effort in doing little things for others. Self-effacement and joyfulness are also in there.
So, the people I admire most are loving, humble, unworldly, giving, selfless, and joyful. How could anyone help but love such people? And that’s the point. You can’t! The reason is because such people are very loveable. But love is not made perfect toward such as these.
Then there are those who nurture, in varying degrees, aggressive or hostile attitudes, or are braggadocios and self-promoting, or who are know-it-alls, or who revel in their possessions, or who are simply misanthropic grumps. These folks are not so easy to love. The reason is because they are not loveable. It is toward these that we perfect love.
Yet, because I can see bits of this latter group in myself, I know that they too desire to be loved. It is toward them, as difficult as it may be, that the exercise of love confronts the conditions we force upon it. If I am loveable it is because I possess those qualities I most admire in others. If I am difficult to love it is because I act in opposition to them.Under both circumstances, however, I desire to be loved.
My hope is that those who really understand that true love is unconditional, love me not just because or in spite of the loveable or unlovable qualities I may possess but simply because I am, which is how You love us all and how I should love others.
There is a meditation by St. Ignatius called “Three Degrees of Humility” which actually deals with how we love You.
The first degree is what he calls the essential level where we hold no person or thing so attractive that for that person or thing we offend God seriously.
The second level he calls the logicallevel where logic dictates that we do more than not offend God, we desire to please Him in all we do.
The third level is that of folly where we are not happy to simply please God but wish to do things others would probably consider foolish.
It’s the level of logic and the level of folly I’d like to reflect upon here because I see myself walking a thin line between them.
For me, I need no convincing that there should be more to our relationship than not offending You. Love demands more than liking the idea of not offending or being “nice” to others. If we accept the notion that at the apex of love there is a lack of conditions – a pure support, care, and compassion based on nothing else that would profit us in any way, then we see the ostensible folly of love in the eyes of the world. To commit ourselves to that from which we reap no benefit is generally regarded as some degree of foolishness, and it’s humbling.
But if we look to Your example and to that of the saints, the “folly” of giving up and leaving behind things that others hold valuable and important is key to a loving relationship with God. To go deeper into a loving relationship with You one must be prepared to embrace the full folly of love – the folly of being ostracized, criticized and written off by others. If one seeks to amplify one’s love for you through others, this becomes most humbling, especially when the others though whom we seek to amplify our love for You are the very ones who most ostracize, criticize, and write us off.
I spend a lot of time thinking about life - especially the spiritual life - so I have a lot of theories about it.One of my theories is that life has a lot to do with two types of loving attention: attention to charity, and attention to truth.
With charity it’s about giving and receiving: giving what we can of ourselves to others and You, and opening ourselves to receive what others and You give to us. Charity is a giving and receiving proposition embracing both active and passive modes of being. There is a line from the Prayer of St. Francis that says,"... it is in giving that we receive...” When we give unconditionally we lose a little bit of ourselves. This has a lot to do with the spiritual life.In losing that little bit of self we gain insight into our life and into our relationship with You. We gain some truth; and truth is what we seek and what we need to lock onto.
As a race we are usually much more in tune with the spirit of loving others by giving than we are by receiving. We do love to receive but we are often at a loss to recognize the truth of loving attention in receiving. We, especially in America, are doers. We extol the active role. Giving is, therefore, active and more tangible to us. Giving of our time, money, and self in various ways is all about the spirit of loving attention. But there is much truth to be learned and gained in the spiritual life by cultivating the passive loving attention of opening our minds, hearts, and spirits to receive that which others offer us. It might also be said that in receiving we give. There is much truth here. In the active mode of loving attention to charity we lose self. Losing self makes us better receptors in the passive mode, thus in the passive mode we receive by loving attention to taking in the truth of the other.
Your love for us in not based on our love for You. This is difficult for us to grasp since our love for You is based on Your love for us. Would we still love You if You didn’t love us? Do we love anybody who does not love us? And that’s the point! You love us even when we don’t love You. This is genuine pure love. It is the love with which we should love.
You said, “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.” But You never added – OR ELSE!You never said that if we didn’t love this way You would withdraw Your love from us. Actually, we are the one’s who block love. No matter what we will, Your love is there to be accepted or rejected – so should it be for us with others. We’re the ones who set limits and draw boundaries. We are the ones who manufacture the conditions for our love.
I have pondered before the frustration implicit in our inability to ever fully know and understand God no matter how hard or how persistently we try. We grow toward it but we never fully get there. It’s the same with love. We are frustrated by never being able to fully grasp it but we are able to grow toward it. In this sense God and love are one.
The human condition is imbued with a sense of incompleteness. We have a cosmic longing to be filled, to be completed. The fulfillment of our desire to love and be loved is the core of this longing and we know it will never be reached in this life. But that is what love is capable of: filling us up and completing us; and such love has no OR ELSE! This isGod’s love. It does not say or think, ‘Love me and I will love you.’
Loving like God is at once the most difficult and most beautiful thing a human being can do. And yet the best of us never do it perfectly. We must accept that deficiency, but accepting it we must not leave it lie. What we must do is summon what we are able of our whole heart, mind, strength, and soul to grow forward in love.
If a person is intent upon his/her actions showing love, then it might be the showing thathe/she is most in love with.
Love, it would seem, like the “self,” has a true and a false side. False love is, indeed, more love of self than anyone else. True love thinks of nothing but the good of the other – a good that might otherwise be sought for some other selfish reason but is not. What I see in myself is a mighty struggle between the two with the false side always holding the edge.
For me it is nigh unto impossible to eradicate every shred of self in my love. Annoyingly, there is always some little tweak of self-benefit or display. Even at those times when my love seems the purest and most selfless I, afterward, reflect upon my success, thus stroking my self.
The self, it seems, is never purely true and, because of this, love is never purely true. But the realization and awareness that this is so has the ongoing potential of moving us in various ways to grow in and perfect our love in less selfish, less showy, though still tainted, ways.
I am painfully aware that my own comfort and security often draw the boundaries of my love. To be moved thusly is a deficiency in me that is synchronous with my deficiencies in love for others and for You. This is a horrible thing to realize. Yet, once again I am kept from despair by the expression of those with a better grasp of this defect than me who, if not in action, at least in desire, acclaim Your pleasure.
One of the factors that enfeebles our ability to love is our worrying about the results of our love. Such worry is a corruption of love and works against it. It is a self-imposed condition. To worry about the effects or results of one’s love reflects a corrupting sense of self that detracts from the act of love by imposing a concern for more than the object: Where is my love going? or, What is it doing? These should not be interior reservations. Even worse is: What will it get me? or, What will result from it? The perfection of love eliminates all such questions.
The love with which I seek to love You is the same as the love with which I should be seeking to love others. But purifying how we love is not easy and takes constant effort. It’s not easy because we are prone to somehow inserting our “self” into the act of love – not the “giving-self” but the “receiving-self” – the self that asks the above questions.
For example, many times I have used the analogy of my love for You being like my love for my wife. If I look closely at my love for my wife, it is far from perfect. There are many times when I do “loving things” for selfish motives. Case in point: I might do something for her because she would be displeased if I didn’t, and that would make my life uncomfortable. Or, without being asked I might do her work for her in hopes that she’ll love me more – like a child buttering up his parents. I become more concerned with the results than with simply loving. This is the way I treat You sometimes too – doing things in certain ways for You because I think it will put me in an advantageous position with You. But You love me with the love with which I should love You: no conditions, no expectations, no worries about results – just pure, simple, love.
When I think about it, I do not really want to be loved for what I can do for others but rather because I am a being that exists as a reflection of Your love. That’s why all of us are loveable!
You know well that I have concerns about being loved. I am concerned that You love me; that my wife loves me; my children, my grandchildren, my friends and associates. I suppose it’s quite human, quite natural to be concerned about being loved. But it seems very clear that being concerned about being loved gets in the way of loving.
There are lots of other things that get in the way of loving: ambition, busy-ness, money, pleasure, passion; but maybe nothing so much as being concerned about being loved. Of course there are elements of this in all the selfish detriments mentioned above. Once again it all boils down to the “self” which is more inclined to receive than to give. This inclination smothers love.
Love is not about, nor does it worry about, being loved. We must trust in giving love and let go of concerns about being loved. To love we must concentrate on giving out from ourselves with no thought of what we might get in return. Our anxieties about whether or not we are loved should be redirected to center on whether or not the other is loved. To practice this daily is to be like You and that is the seal of being a Christian.