One could easily say that what makes something “spiritual” is precisely that it is paradoxical. “Spiritual things,” as we call them, always have a character of mystery, seeming contradiction, awesomeness, invisibility, or a kind of impossibility to them. That is exactly why we call them spiritual! Isn’t that true for you?
Organized religion has tended to recognize this, but then tries to “organize” what is always Mystery so that it does not seem so impossible, invisible, or contradictory. This was probably good and inevitable, and is much of the function of Scripture and Sacred Story. They take away some of the shock and impossibility of what we are actually saying. This made for a much more beautiful and engaging story than mere literal telling of bare theological “facts.” (Read the book or see the movie, Life of Pi, where this very point is made brilliantly. Both the literal and the symbolic story are in their own way true, and you can choose the one you prefer to believe at the end.) I really doubt if God cares, as long as you get inside of the Great Mystery of Life and Love.
Organized religion makes for a highly communicable message, one that is much more accessible and often more attractive, that allows us to take great things in necessarily small doses, and creates a sharable and sacred language that we can all agree upon and talk about in a hushed or authoritative voice. It also creates a lot of backlash from those who hate or fear symbolism, because it all seems so fanciful to them. This has largely been the case since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the countries that were influenced by what was called the Enlightenment, and now the rest of the world which they in great part colonized.
But organized religion also created fast-food religion that did not make actual God experience needed or even available to most people. They just believed things or belonged to so-called special and superior groups. Transformation of self or transformation of consciousness was not deemed necessary, except at a few artificial behavioral levels. (“We fast on this day,” “We don’t drink alcohol or caffeine,” “We attend this kind of service.”) Such agreed-upon practices were very good for creating a kind of social order in a country, but of themselves they did not lead people to any deep experience of union with God—or themselves. This, of course, is much of the point that St. Paul goes to great length to demonstrate in two of his most important letters: Romans and Galatians.
As many have said in varying ways, you can (1) Do the old thing with the old mind (“conservatives”), (2) Do a new thing with the old mind (“liberals”), or (3) Do a new thing with a new mind. Only the third way deserves to be called authentic religion. The other two stances often avoid the necessary dying to self which is called transformation. The new mind could be called the contemplative mind. The new thing is always love—at ever-deeper levels.
What was originally just thought of as “prayer” was an attempt to “change your thinking cap” and look out at reality from a different pair of eyes. Because the word became cheapened by ego usage, many of us now use the word contemplation to describe this new mind or alternative consciousness. The single most precise way to describe this mind is that it sees things in a non-dual way, which is precisely why holy people can love enemies, overlook offenses, see things as paradoxical without giving up their reason, and believe in Jesus as both fully human and fully divine at the same time. Frankly, without the contemplative mind almost all major religious doctrines and dogmas are just silly nonsense, and worse, they are not even helpful to humanity—or God!
With the contemplative mind, things like forgiveness, love, embrace of the outsider, surrender to Mystery, the integration of contradictory ego and shadow, all become possible and even attractive. Now the goal of all religion is in sight—actual union with what is. And “what is” is called God.
The Daily Meditations for 2013 are now available in Fr. Richard’s new book Yes, And . . . .