Spiritual Not Religious

There is a distinction between spirituality and religion; spirituality is private while religion comes with a history and a set of beliefs and behaviors which has arisen from the gradual distillation of the experiences of many generations of believers in different cultures which are gathered into a shared memory that provides a map and language of the transcendent spiritual world that guides and channels spirituality. There is a tendency to present them in opposition to each other; spirituality is pure and clean while religion has been misused to justify bad behavior and thus is contaminated and even dirty. This opposition loosens the important and even necessary connection between the community of believers and a relationship with God.

Religion presents a package of beliefs and behaviors that need to be taken as a piece, the hard with the easy, the convenient with the inconvenient. Claiming to be spiritual but not religious has the effect of breaking that package apart, pushing aside the parts that are inconvenient or unpleasant. It becomes easier to ignore values and behaviors that are important to the community and to me as well. Religion imposes a discipline which resists the constant erosion of important values by pride or greed or laziness or bad habits or anything that drags me away from my most authentic self.

Religion’s map of the spiritual world leads us forward to our destiny, which in the Christian tradition is to “participate in the life of God”. This map shows us the dead-ends and impassible swamps that need to be avoided. The shared language of this collective memory forms the community that we all depend on for aid. There are many who sense and are seeking the transcendent reality that surrounds us but without a spiritual map, the newcomer’s spiritual travels will be meandering and circuitous. Without a common language, it will be lonely. Following the late, great philosopher Frank Sinatra’s ethos of, “I Did It My Way” works for a few, but for most the likelihood of becoming lost and lonely is high.

Be not mistaken; religions have issues, but the most authentic spirituality embraces the community of believers, putting down deep roots in a tradition which constantly nudges us back when we stray and prods us on to our fullest human flourishing.

Stern as Death is Love

I found this recently from the Song of Solomon written around 300-500 BC;

Set me as a seal on your heart,
  as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love,
  relentless as the nether world is devotion;
  its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
  nor floods sweep it away.
Were one to offer all he owns to purchase love,
  he would be roundly mocked. (Song of Songs 8:6-7)

“Stern as death is love”. This takes direct aim at a common misconception; love is likable. Yes, sometimes it is but this passage shows us a different face of love. There are 23 synonyms of “stern”, defined as “unrelenting in assertion of authority and exercise of discipline” which includes serious, unsmiling, severe, forbidding, grim, grave, sober, dour, stony and flinty. There are another 18 synonyms defined as “strict and severe, using extreme measures or terms”. And remember, the passage says not just “stern is love”, but “stern as death is love”. That’s pretty stern!

It gets worse. The next line is “Relentless as the nether world is devotion”. Relentless as “oppressively constant or incessant” gets 50 synonyms like “unremitting, stubborn, nonstop, tenacious” and 34 more under “harsh or inflexible”. Again, the passage says not just “relentless is devotion” but “relentless as the netherworld is devotion”. We’re talking about a sort of hell here.

This is a paradox. Love is dangerous; it could lead anywhere. Love is necessary; we are commanded to love each other. We must love knowing that it could land us in a hellish situation. Love, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “willing the good of the other as other”. Love is likeable when what is truly good for the someone else happens to be pleasant for me. Love is less likeable when what is truly good for someone else is painful to me. What is evil is to burden another by appealing to love in order to simply satisfy my pleasures.

The love that God commands here is the up-side-down love that Jesus shows us on his cross, where the unloved will be loved, the first shall be last, the weak shall be strong and the dead shall rise. We call it “upside-down”, but really, it is making “right-side-up” what went wrong long ago when sin entered the world.

This reading speaks directly to Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ love was “stern as death”; his love for us caused his death on Good Friday. Jesus’ devotion to us was “relentless as the underworld”; he descended into Hell on Holy Saturday. His love righted a wrong by following his Father’s will: “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 5:30). This was more than a vague obedience to an order, it was an active embrace of his mission: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.” (Jn 10:18). So, there we have it. Jesus set a high bar for me; not just to endure, but to embrace and even own the stern and relentless consequences of love in obedience to our Father in order to right an upside-down world.

Transformation Delayed

Throughout the Bible, we are called to be transformed. I have been reading the Gospel of Mark and was struck by the repeated refusals of transformation found there. The obvious examples are the Pharisees who wished only to uphold the law in its entirety and were used by Jesus as a foil as he taught his disciples. The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees starts immediately in 2:8 with the scribes “questioning (dialogizomai)” Jesus’ claim that he forgives sin as he is healing the paralytic man. This word is translated in the RSV as “discussed” in 8:16 as the disciples are trying to understand why Jesus told them to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and again in 9:34 when they were “discussing” who would be greatest. and finally, in 11:31, as the chief priests “argued” with one another after Jesus challenged them about the source of John’s authority. Strong’s dictionary defines dialogizomai as “to deliberate, reason.” Attempting to approach Jesus with human rationality alone is simply inadequate. Until we want to see, until we approach Jesus with humility and faith, we will not see.

Jesus’ rebukes were delivered, however, not just to the Pharisees, but to the apostles themselves. He grieved the “hardness of heart” (pōrōsis kardia) of the Pharisees before healing a man (3:5) but then rebuked the disciples with those exact same words twice (6:52 and 8:17). They followed Jesus when they were called, but their apparent obtuseness as they were being taught presented a challenge. After calming the storm (4:40), he asks “Have you no faith?”. Upon being questioned about ritual handwashing, he asks his disciples “Are you so lacking in understanding?” (7:18). Jesus exclaims “Oh, faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” after his disciples fail to heal the boy with the spirit (9:19). What does it take, we want to ask, to pound this into their thick skulls? Jesus has to interrupt an argument about who would be the greatest (9:35), only to promptly rebuke James and John for doing exactly the same thing (10:43). The disciples were puzzled at the anointing of Jesus (14:4) and even Peter, after confessing the Jesus as the Messiah was rebuked moments later (8:31-33) for wanting the Messiah without the suffering and he went on to deny Jesus 3 times (14:66-72). The disciples sleep at Gethsemane (14:32-42) and after he had risen, he appeared to them and upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart (sklerokardia) (10:5).

We see from this a pattern of repetition that it takes time for us to fully absorb the meaning of God’s acts. The blind man of Bethsaida was healed, but not all at once, requiring a second effort (8:22-25). He gained his sight in stages, as we gain full understanding of the Gospel message a bit at a time. God acts in history. He reveals himself over time, repeatedly enjoins secrecy (1:34, 1:44, 3:12, 5:43, 7:36, 8:30; 9:9,30), understanding that his message would take time to fully develop. Only in the Resurrection would the full meaning of his words and acts be revealed. We, with the apostles, suffer from “hardened heart”. We, like the apostles, don’t get quite it and until we do, Jesus displays patient forbearance as we, along with the apostles, slowly plod along towards him. So, confess your sins, pray for the gift of humble obedience and don’t give up!