“Spiritual, Not Religious”–Some Second Thoughts

I have only recently even begun to think about a spiritual life.  I’m not sure why I’m spending time on it now.  I’m not near death (as far as I know) and I don’t intend to join a monastery any time soon.  My interest has just sprung from my recent retirement and about the struggles people face when their lives are no longer defined by work.  Since I have, for many years, struggled to find happiness and freedom from anxiety, I began to think that the subjects of spirituality and a search for meaning might be intertwined.

I realized even as I was writing my first post, Finding Meaning, that I had bitten off more that I could chew.  I knew I was glossing over my own thoughts and experiences with religion and perhaps sounding dismissive of the beliefs of others. So, I felt that maybe I had better take a second shot at some of the concepts I mentioned and see if I could clarify them, for myself if for no one else.

I made the comment that “I find it amusing to hear people say that they are “spiritual” but not “religious.”’  The kind of person who I was thinking of was one who had pretty much given up on religion, but still thought of themselves as a believer in God and afterlife, in a sort of casual, uncommitted way.  I have been around, or listened to, or read about multitudes of people who claim to be devoutly religious but whose lives seem to be completely devoid of any kind of spirituality. Much more troubling are those who seem to use religion as a club for intolerance, exclusion, and the promulgation of hatred.

I began to work on a personal definition of spirituality and certain elements kept feeling right.  I feel that a spiritual person is one who leads an ethical life, characterized by compassion, kindness, and tolerance.  I believe, now, that a spiritual person must also be dedicated to the practice and study of something–to cultivate a passion that may be entirely secular–and must find communion with others.

When I practice yoga, I feel a part of something bigger than myself.  I like going to yoga class, but when I recently began concentrating on daily exercises at home, I started to feel what it meant to devote myself to the practice of yoga, seeking a kind of mindful elevation in concert with physical movement.  I think that to be truly spiritual, I have to pursue and study that mindful elevation and try to gain a greater constancy so that this mindfulness begins to permeate my thought and existence. Others undoubtedly find the same mindfulness through meditation, prayer, chanting and other religious exercises.  However, I believe there is an element of spirituality in anyone who pursues a practice with passion, be it rock climbing, quilting, writing, running, fishing, hiking.  If the practice elevates, and in a way purifies our minds, allows us to let the dross of trivial life fall away, then I think we have begun to approach that sense of spirituality that is thought to be reserved for those who practice a specific doctrine.

I also believe that spirituality involves community.  People with a passion, those who study and practice and dedicate themselves to mindfulness, are bound to seek out others who are likewise inclined.  As a gardener, I love meeting and swapping stories with other gardeners–experts and beginners alike.  My guitar class brings me together with other practitioners and lovers of music.  Sure there are a few who like to show off, but most are humble and eager to engage with others.  Hiking class reunites me with people who love the outdoors and who almost universally are veteran travelers.  During our walks, we spin tales of our adventures and it brings me back to a time when I could hike the Sierras with a 50-pound pack on my back every summer with my buddies.

I suppose that a person could find happiness and a sense of spirituality without the communion with others, but for me it provides a way to listen to the stories of others and learn.  As I become more expert, I find that others seek me out and I begin to make new connections.  I am inspired by others to continue my practice and strive to be more that I am right now.  I am not a “joiner”.  It is hard for me.  But I am coming to recognize that I must continue to become a part of new and changing communities if I am going to find meaning and happiness.

So, this is the path that I am on right now.  The religious one is closed for the time being.  I cannot be comforted by the idea that horrible things happen “for a reason” or that tragedies can be explained away as “part of God’s plan.”  Sometimes I wish that I could.  There was a time when that would have been easy.  Now, I have to find my own way.

Finding Meaning

“Atheist” is a word that I have a hard time wrapping my head around.  I don’t know any other way to honestly describe myself, however.

Poor Sister Mario, would be rolling over in her grave to hear it.  She was my seventh and eight grade teacher at a local Catholic school, part of my long and damaging progression through Catholic education.  Abandoning Catholicism was really the beginning.  It started with soccer.

My wife and I were frazzled with juggling work along with two active children and their activities.  Monday through Friday it was work.  Saturday was soccer all day.  Somehow giving up Sunday to dragging the kids to church seemed too much.  We just stopped. It had lost its meaning for us and never had been meaningful to the kids.

But I still FELT Catholic.  We still went on Christmas and Easter.  Then came the abuse scandals and most especially the evidence of the cover-ups. That made me feel alienated, but was not unlike anything else I had seen from any large bureaucracy.  That was followed by their increasing political involvement in politics that, because of abortion, lead them to embrace the Republican party and most especially George W. Bush.  The fact that some bishops encourage priests to deny communion to any supporter of John Kerry in the 2004 election, when evidence was piling up that President Bush had begun a war on false pretenses, had sanctioned torture, rendition, and other acts considered as war crimes by the United Nations and most of the civilized world suddenly made it easy to detach myself from the church.

The final straw was their strident condemnation of the LGBT community.  With so many friends, family members, colleagues, and former students who are gay, I could no longer reconcile myself in any way with their teachings.

I quit.

So what to do about God and religion.  I find it amusing to hear people say that they are “spiritual” but not “religious”.  I hear bits and pieces of spiritual thought that appeals to me, but feel no need or impulse to study them or commit to a doctrine.  I believe that when I die, I will die, cease to exist, eventually be forgotten. It’s OK.  I’ve 60+ years of a good life.  I’ll probably get another 10 or 15 more with any luck.

What gives meaning to me is the stories and the lives of my family and my students.  Their courage through incredible neglect, their resilience, and the love that they share is more than enough.  And then I do what retirees do to fill up the long days.  I read the paper.  I do yoga and walk. I garden and play guitar. Sometimes, I just sit in the sun to read. I enjoy a good beer as often as I can (and more than I should).

I know that I will live on in the memories of my children and that makes me happy.  I know that I have touched the lives of hundreds of students, some of them profoundly, or so they tell me.  I will live on in them. I think, or I hope, they will remember me as someone who loved them unconditionally, who strove to give them a joyful experience in the classroom, who listened when they needed to talk or to cry, who welcomed them growing into adulthood.  I keep hoping one of them will name a child after me, but no one gets named “Tom” anymore.  That is maybe a reach.

But it gives me more than Catholicism ever did. It is enough.