I saw a church sign today, offering the week’s Sunday sermon: The Tragic Fall from Faith to Religion. The preaching was long past, so I don’t know what the gist of the message was, but the topic stayed with me. It reminded me of the verse from the Tao te Ching (translation by A.S. Kline):
When the great Way is lost
There is ‘benevolence and rectitude’.
When cleverness appears
There is ‘great ritual’.
When the family is not harmonious,
There is ‘filial piety’.
When the state is in chaos
There are ‘loyal’ ministers.
The message appears to be that when the essence is (apparently) lost, we turn to the empty forms to maintain appearances…but what happens when the empty forms – being empty – no longer satisfy?
But I have a further question: If the essence is so easily lost, was it really there in the first place – or was it just a childlike belief in a wish-fulfilling god like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy?
Many people say that this is the question that led them away from any spiritual practice: because the magical wish-fulfilling god faded, and the forms failed to satisfy, there’s nothing left to believe in. It’s easy to give up on the whole deal and turn to distractions: workaholism, TV, gaming, “retail therapy,” various addictions to stay busy (or sedated) and keep attention focused outward.
But every so often the Essential breaks through on the heels of illness, death, broken relationships, loss of a job or a pet – and the questions begin to surface from underneath the piles of distractions: what does it all mean, anyway? Why am I here?
With popular wisdom holding that legitimate answers come from outside – i.e., that authorized ministers or psychologists are the proper ones to provide answers to such questions – we may seek Essence in predigested religious studies or self-help programs. We may zero in on a favorite preacher or motivational speaker and follow his or her every seminar, book, and CD, finally referencing our chosen guru in every conversation. We may take process workshop after process workshop, structured retreat after structured retreat…struggling to hold onto our hard-won learnings and insights in the cold light of the workaday world…
And if we’re lucky — and aren’t distracted from our goal by the vehicles we’ve chosen to get there – we might begin to connect with Essence, step by slow step.
So what’s the answer? If even religious and motivational inspirations are not solutions but means to an end – where can we turn? Who has the Answer?
I believe the answer isn’t a secret, it’s not trademarked, and it’s nobody’s intellectual property…in fact, it’s so obvious it appears banal. And in the end, I don’t believe that the answer we personally recognize as Essential is necessarily accessible by anyone else’s process. In the end, when all the outside answers prove insufficient, it’s time to set sail upon the unknown to find the Truth within.
My experience: there’s all the difference in the world between attaching blindly, forcefully, to predigested concepts, memorizing approved doctrines and translations, rejecting all but imprimatured verbiage, hoping that somehow, someday, the sanctioned truth will trickle down from head to heart, versus connecting to Spirit experientially in oneness with the earth, the stars, the whole of creation… sitting still, touching and sensing, questioning insights and beliefs, and allowing Essential understanding to arise from within.
My experience: there’s an enormous difference between laboring under guilt for real or imagined sins, versus witnessing cherished certitudes, wounds, fears, habits as they show up in my life, and compassionately choosing how to deal with them. Allowing chasm-like experiences of emptiness, nothingness, grief, to discover that Essence is as close as my own heartbeat. Discovering that when I finally get my yammering mind to turn off its protests, complaints, excuses, and be quiet, Essential knowing can finally show up.
I believe that it’s ultimately up to each of us to move beyond chapter-and-verse literalism or osmotic absorption and find the thread that ties belief to Essence for us alone. Daring to step outside the catechetical box to seek and recognize who, or what, the reality of God, Goddess, Spirit, Higher Power, Source, Essence, is in our authentic experience…and to build a real faith on that recognition. Growing beyond childish wish-fulfillment and rote religion to own our mature spirituality.
As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning:
Ultimately (we) should not ask what the meaning of Life is, but rather must recognize that it is (we) who are asked. In a word, each is questioned by Life, and we can only answer to Life by answering for our own life: to Life we can only respond by being responsible.
Is it frightening? Of course! Does it get easier? I would tend to doubt it….
But the question is – do we choose a life of empty forms and empty distractions, or a voyage of discovery, however challenging?