Religious or Spiritual…That is the Question

I recently read a wonderful post at Father Stephen’s blog that addressed a subject that I  love to explore.  I commented on his post, and that prompted me to post it here with a few additions.  Fr. Stephen’s blog is a wonderful read and worth a visit.

My comment: 

The challenge is to examine and go deep within ourselves and question what being “spiritual” really means. Modern day spirituality rejects religion, but nowhere can I find that religion rejects spirituality. Religion is primarily an acceptance of “forms”. To be religious is to be bound to a state of life, a set of forms and conduct that indicate a belief in God. And isn’t belief in God and the unseen the epitome of spirituality?

So I asked myself this question, what conduct indicates faith in God, what form, what practice? I was hard pressed to find anything that better expressed belief than prayer. Prayer is actually talking to God within my heart. Prayer connects me to God, who is Spirit.   Regular, rote, and repetitious is what spiritual people really abhor.  But, I ask?  What is so non spiritual about regular prayer?  What is wrong with using rote prayer to ensure regularity in dry times?  And repetition…what is better for ease than a heart that has memorized prayer.  Repetition programs the heart to pray and pray without ceasing.  How can a spiritual man accuse a man of regular, rote, and repetitious prayer of not being spiritual without great presumption?     

Fasting is a natural spiritual expression even for spiritualists…have you noticed all the health and natural food ideology present in modern day spiritualism? Even new age religions acknowledge the need for the human to cleanse and purify.  Fasting is a part of religion, but I find it to be a difficult spiritual struggle in that it requires my flesh to submit to my spirit.  It brings these two realities into better harmony, and in essence it makes me more like Christ who was the perfect harmonious man.

Almsgiving is not exclusively about money…in its deepest since it is about mercy, a kind of pity that breaks the heart of the giver. It just so happens that money is a readily available resource. But one is reminded of the apostle’s words, “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee.” Even those who have no currency are still expected to give what we have been given and give with a broken heart full of mercy and joy, and that is not a religious mandate or a sterile practice. It is life giving and extremely spiritual.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; these are the three religious practices that Christ himself observed.

 He also participated in the Jewish rituals, but when he is questioned about how he observed those rituals he responded, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” True religion always acknowledges and maintains that its practices, rituals, and forms are for man and meeting the needs of the spiritual man. Incense is for man, not man for incense. Candles are for man, repetition is for man, vestments are for man, cathedrals are for man, icons are for man. If it were not so then we would be no better off than those who offered these things to a dead god in fear of His /Her wrath or seeking favors or protection. We would be pagans.

So what do we need as spiritual creatures that religion provides? Why do we need external forms and repetition? I think it is because I am dying, and the process of dying includes the awful loss of memory. I easily forget that there is a God, and I have to have forms to tether me to God. Religion and ritual is first and foremost an exercise of memory. In etymological terms one of the meanings of religion is re-”again” + legere- “read”. Without the rereading men forget. And I think the modern world has cut off its nose to spite its face…in its presumption, thinking that spirituality absent of religion was the way to become spiritual, it has lost its mind, its memory, its remembrance of God. Therefore it has lost also its spiritual health.

The Eucharist as the Savior instituted it is a ritual “in remembrance.” All the rituals that spiritual people claim make up dead religion are not tolls, or payments, or requirements for membership. They are needful and in the purest since spiritual because they meet the needs of man as he is, both body and soul. True religion is always spiritual because it proclaims the incarnation, the seen and unseen, and it tethers these two worlds together, these two realities. To be spiritual without religion is to put these two worlds or realities at odds, to elevate the unseen over the seen. And this to me is to deny the Gospel and to not be Christian. The Gospel is the good news. That good news is best revealed by the incarnation, God loves man. God came in the flesh observing all the laws of nature, and physics, and anatomy, and physiology, and chemistry, and even gynecology. His ascendancy over the laws of nature were miracles, the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. And the sacraments, rituals, and religious practices are miraculous also, in that they confer on this dead flesh the life giving energy, or grace of God. How awesome is that!

 I have a “guilty secret”, I forget, I start off good, but I end up treating holy things with contempt; most tragically my neighbor, my brother. I do not have spiritual eyes to see that I am standing in the midst (in my neighborhood) of the holy and that everything bears the weight of God’s glory. Thank God for religion, and the very little I have. Possibly the most meaningful and needful thing I have found in Orthodoxy is the repetitious reminder, “Wisdom, Let us Attend.”


2 thoughts on “Religious or Spiritual…That is the Question

  1. Your last line is very appropriate for this post, too, because there is a lot of wisdom here, very well put. Just the line, “…I am dying, and the process of dying includes the awful loss of memory” — well, you get to the point quickly, and that is one powerful aspect of your good writing.


  2. I have at times grieved memory loss as if someone I love has died. I am coming to realize that nothing is lost in time, in the infinity of the moment, as long as I am in Christ. He alone is the Resurrection and Life. I love to study time and timelessness. Although I rarely agree with Stephen Hawking on a philosophical level, I love to read his books and discover the mind blowing aspects of time and space. Thank you for your comment.


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