Friday, January 2, 2009

Chapter __: True Religion

“Religion is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress,
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

--James 1:27



Was Jesus religious? Yes. Jesus was a good Jew. Was he critical of religion? Very much so. I don’t know if Jesus intended Christianity to be an established religion, at least in the traditional sense. We have St. Paul to thank for that. Jesus seemed to be more concerned with the heart of things, including religion. This should be our attitude as well: religion should only have a place in our lives if it has a burning heart of mystery and acceptance.

If we think of life as a body, religion is the skeleton, as well as the skin, the organs and body parts. It provides structure and sets boundaries. Spirit is the heart, the mind, the blood, the life force. A body without spirit is a cadaver, a corpse. Conversely, a spirit without a body is not human.

Religion is the alpha spirit: heady, ritualistic, concerned with rules and what should or shouldn’t be. It is slow to change, conservative by nature. Spirituality is the beta spirit, the feminine: it is not confined to shoulds and shouldn’ts, but only what is. It is all heart, and pure mind. It is not exclusive but universal. It is spontaneous, like a child.

Yahweh said, “it is not good for man to be alone.” A man who is pure alpha is unbalanced. He is too rigid, all bone, needs feminine spirit to be whole. Likewise, a woman who is pure beta is not whole. Spirit needs flesh and bones in order to be integrated into material existence, to be actualized in the world. This is why it is said, in the story of Genesis, that woman was fashioned from the bone of man. They were once one, but have been rendered into two distinct parts. We are sexual beings because we are always yearning to be return to the state of oneness.

In this way, religion and spirituality are like husband and wife. It is no mistake that Jesus called the Church his spouse. The spirit of Christ needs a body on earth, and this is the church with a little ‘c.’ To keep things ordered, the big ‘C’ has been established…for better or for worse.
On a larger scale, the body of humanity is made up of many different and unique parts. The major religions of the world—Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity—make up the large bones, the large organs. Other religions—Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Animism—are like the smaller parts, and no less important. It is difficult for me to say to these smaller, more esoteric religions: “I have no need of you,” just as St. Paul writes: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” Though people be of different religions, we are all brothers and sisters.

Fr. John McNamee, author of Diary of a City Priest, was an admirer of the French intellectual and political activist Simone Weil, and quotes her frequently throughout his book. Weil, who was attracted to Roman Catholicism but was never baptized, drew inspiration from many different religious traditions. She was, however, an opponent of syncretism—the attempt to analogise and create a unification of disparaged beliefs— which she felt did not do justice to the unique character of different religions. She explains her philosophy concisely and unapologetically:
“Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else...A "synthesis" of religion implies a lower quality of attention.”

When speaking of mystical ecstasies, I tend to use the terms “religious experience” and “spiritual experience,” interchangeably. I take the same approach towards my diagnosis, using the terms “manic depression” and “bi polar” without distinction. I am not a linguist, so the intricacies of differentiation in language is not a sticking point for me. I do not like to be referred to in terms of being a “religious person” or a “spiritual person.” While I recognize the variance in terminology, I consider my religion and my spirituality to be intertwined, so that it is not enough to be classified as one of the other.

It is fashionable in my generation to eschew religion in favor of spirituality. This is hard for me to come to terms with, though I know for some people it does work. While I was visiting a Trappist monastery I found a book in the guesthouse titled, Peace Pilgrim about a woman who spent her life walking back and forth across the United States to promote world peace, carrying only a comb and a few possessions in a tunic she wore with the words on the back: “25,000 miles for peace.”

Many people regarded her as a holy person and in many ways she was. Though she claimed no formal religion, she spoke of God transcendentally as love and peace, and she lived and breathed this spirituality, encouraging people to trust blindly in Love, and not fall prey to the anxieties of life. I think if Peace Pilgrim (the name she went by) confined herself to an exclusive religious tradition, she would not have drawn in as many people as she had. In this sense I would call her a spiritual person for sure, while at the same time she embodying the true heart of religion, and all that is good.

I feel religion is important, but it is unequivocally a means to an end. The true heart of religion is not always synonymous with its practice. One need not look very far to expose the dysfunctions and hypocrisy of religion (or rather, the followers of religion) throughout history. I do not try to pedal my Catholicism to others, but rather try to live out the words of St. Vincent de Paul: “Preach the Gospel always; use words, if necessary.” That being said, I never shy away from talking about all the ways in which religion has helped me live a good life. Manic-depression is an explosive disease; it resists attempts to be reigned in. But sometimes we need to be reigned in in order to live a sane life.

When I spent a month-long retreat at a Benedictine monastery for men discerning religious life, the Abbot told us a story about living under a rule (in this case, the Rule of St. Benedict). He painted the scenario of children playing on a mountain top in the fog (while failing to elucidate on why children would be playing on top of a mountain in the first place). The children huddled together for fear of not seeing the edge and falling off the mountain. But when a fence was built around them, the played freely, unafraid of falling off.

Freedom is the purpose of the monastic or religious rules. It is one of those great Christian paradoxes: the way to freedom is to make yourself a slave. Christian monastics profess a vow of obedience to their Abbot or Abbess, and they take this vow very seriously. In America, the “land of the free,” we equate freedom with being able to do what ever we want. In reality, though, “freedom is the ability to become who we are meant to be.” Sometimes freedom requires boundaries to be set in this big bad world.

As I said earlier, I am not one to pedal religion. But I personally cannot imagine my life without it. I try to take the goods and leave the bads. Religion may not work for everyone, but I don’t think people really give it enough of a chance to prove itself. We are impulsive, falling privy to shallow gratification and trembling at the idea of commitment.

I think manic depressives can benefit from the self-imposed restrictions and ordinances of religion. If anyone asked me, “Does Christianity hold anything for me?” I would answer, “of course.” After all, it is the path I have chosen, and I can speak about it because I have made it my own. I cannot speak with such authority on Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam; that is not my place, nor my desire. But, of course, all religions have deep wisdom for living to share as well. I do not say to myself, “I cannot read the Upanishads or the Dhammapadda because they are not Christian.” That is silly. Wisdom is not exclusive.

St. Augustine said, “Love, and do as you please.” Once the fences are up, we can let the animal within us run wild…something manic-depressives are especially good at.

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