On Being Religious

Many people begin a conversation with the words, ‘I’m spiritual, not religious.’ Sometimes they go on to articulate a philosophy of being that is fundamentally religious with their acknowledgement of a Supreme Being and their sense of personal obligation, duty and relationship. More often they lose themselves, and me, in a series of well-meaning but inchoate propositions that suggest something between pantheism and humanitarianism. The idea of a personal God who is to be known and loved, reverenced and obeyed, does not fit easily into such a scheme of things. Indeed, I have sometimes wondered, perhaps unfairly, whether to be spiritual as some people explain it is to worship a God made in one’s own image and likeness — a God with all the difficult and demanding bits left out. To be religious, as Christians understand that term, is quite the opposite. The ‘difficult and demanding bits’, with their language of love, sacrifice and obedience, are essential, because they are what conform us to Christ. They are only possible because of the immense otherness of God, his existence above and beyond our understanding, coupled with his immense humility, his willingness to be close to us and dwell within us; but we cannot side-step them. They constitute the Way we must follow.

It is no accident, I think, that the words ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ were, for many years, synonymous with living under monastic vows. The conventional etymology, identifying the words with the Latin religare, meaning to bind, oblige, revere, seems to fit. The monk or nun is someone who has vowed their love and obedience to the Lord in an unbreakable covenant. The emphasis is not so much on our response (living monastically) as on God’s invitation (to become one with him). Paradoxically, that invitation, which binds us to the Lord, leaves us supremely free in a way that ‘being spiritual’ never could. It is as if choosing to follow the guidance of the gospel, the rule and one’s superior cut away all the unnecessary complicatons that being spiritual imposes. The path is Christ, and Christ alone, not a multitude of choices, all apparently equally good, all apparently leading somewhere. That doesn’t mean that following the path of Christ will be easy, but of one thing we can be certain. If we follow it to the end, we shall reach our destination; and I’m not sure that being spiritual will do that for us.

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School of the Lord’s Service

We reach the end of the prologue to St Benedict’s Rule today (RB Prol. 45 to 50: you can listen to the daily portion of RB read in English on our main web site, here). The words are so familiar they sometimes lose their edge, yet this dominici scola servitii is constantly presenting us with new challenges because its favourite teaching methods are suffering and patience. No one ‘likes’ suffering; no one ‘likes’ being patient; but if we are to lay ourselves open to the mystery of God, there is no alternative.

Suffering can make us bitter and self-absorbed. Benedict, however, is much more sanguine about human nature. He expects that  instead of our closing in on ourselves, we shall open out, become big-hearted (quite literally — dilatato corde) and ‘run on the way of God’s commandments with a sweetness of love beyond all telling’ (inennarrabili dilectionis dulcedine curritur via mandatorum Dei). However familiar the words may become, the lesson must always be learned anew, for our hope is not for this world only. We have our hearts set on Christ and his Kingdom.

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