Maybe we can do better than “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

“I’m spiritual but not religious.” These words are spoken by many as though anything other would be to acknowledge some kind of narrow, constricted, conservative stance.

But what if “religious,” in and of itself, was hardly something to avoid or resist; nothing for which to apologize or be ashamed?

For the sake of argument, try to understand it objectively, anew, and purely for what it is:

re·li·gious; adjective
1. of, pertaining to, or concerned with religion: a religious holiday. 2. imbued with or exhibiting religion; pious; devout; godly: a religious [wo]man. 3. scrupulously faithful; conscientious: religious care. 4. pertaining to or connected with a monastic or religious order. 5. appropriate to religion or to sacred rites or observances.

This way of being – life permeated by religious practice is what I hunger for; frankly, what I think most of us ravenously, endlessly pursue. We want liturgy and ritual that transform. We want routine and rhythm that fill our days with meaning. We want our relationships, jobs, conversations, activities, choices, emotions, and sense of self to be sacred. We want our life to have significance – not just when looked back on in eulogy, but our day-in-day-out experience of it. This is religious.

Granted, it is not reasonable (or perhaps even preferable) that we be monks – devoting our every waking moment to the knowledge and pursuit of God. Or is it? Maybe this is exactly what we should aspire to; what would most fulfill our heart’s unquenchable desire. Maybe, dare I say it (?!?)  being religious, and even religion, isn’t so bad, after all.

re-li-gion; noun
1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

The problem is, of course, that religion has become confusing along the way – often because of the religious. So many perspectives, so many hard stories, so much harm, and so many ways-forms-shapes-practices. It is hard to find our way, a way, not to mention the way. Sadly, for many of us, we’ve come to associate religion with rigidity and law and duty instead of  richness and grace and gift. And it’s made even worse in that we don’t know how to embrace the parts of it we love without feeling like we’re being pulled backward or being sucked into some vortex from which we’ll never be escape.

What if we surrendered rather than fought? What if we trusted instead of critiqued? What if we could find and experience grace while allowing for humanness? What if we stopped arguing (mostly with ourselves) and just.let.go?

Given such musings, you will understand why my highlighter immediately came out when I (re)read these words:

Let go of everything when you write, and try at a simple beginning with simple words to express what you have inside. It won’t begin smoothly. Allow yourself to be awkward. You are stripping yourself. You are exposing your life, not how your ego would like to see you represented, but how you are as a human being. And it is because of this that I think writing is religious. It splits you open and softens your heart…  ~ Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

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Admittedly, there is a gap between writing and religion; but I wonder…What might come of seeing their similarities rather than their differences?

Letting go. Simple beginnings. Simple words. Not smooth. Awkward. A self-stripping. Being exposed. All of this makes for the most profound of writing AND the most meaning-full of religion(s), not to mention the life of the religious. 

I’m not suggesting, at least in any dogmatic way, that you head back to church (or stay seated in that pew if already there) – though that might be the most surrendering, trusting, grace-filled, unargumentative, and freeing thing you could do. I’m not suggesting that you vocalize creeds or chant mantras or revisit your Vacation Bible School days – though these might not be the worst choice ever, either.

I am suggesting that you consider any means by which something/Someone “splits you open and softens your heart…”

  • I had lunch with a friend last week who is becoming an Episcopal priest. As I listened to him speak of the discernment process, of the church itself, of the community, of the embrace of kind and seeing souls, something in me felt a deeper, more palpable longing than I’ve known in months, if not years. It split me open and softened my heart.
  • I was served a delicious breakfast in bed on Sunday morning, Mother’s Day. I looked into the eyes of my two daughters and could not put into words the emotion summoned. It split me open and softened my heart.
  • I downloaded and listened to the most gorgeous and soul-shifting choral music; beautiful, haunting melodies that brought me to tears. They split me open and softened my heart.
  • I’ve been writing in ways that make me tremble in fear – albeit my inner editor working overtime; God revealed, speaking, showing up. It splits me open and softens my heart.

Admittedly, these examples, if descriptive of both “religious” and “religion” make it an easy sell. I know: it’s far more complex, far more messy, far more…

Religious, then religion. Ritual, then faith. Words, then creeds. Writing, then Writ. Beauty, then belief. Maybe this is the way home, the way over, the way through.

And I am suggesting that it’s possible all this and then some can and may be more likely found in the place(s) we work the hardest to avoid and evade.

I don’t have answers to these questions yet they feel resonant and important; leading me down a pathway of truth…and hope. So, I press on and lean in and let go. I keep writing. And I follow another piece of Natalie Goldberg’s advice:

Go further than you think you can.

Deep breaths.

And in the meantime, all the time, pursue anything/anyone that splits you open and softens your heart. I’m pretty sure that’s where God dwells, anyway – religious and/or spiritual, or not.

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