I never chose to be a theologian, psychotherapist and humanities enthusiast. I was born into it. My father was a plumber, but he was also a born teacher and counselor. For years one of the most distinguished psychiatrists in our city visited my father every two weeks, huddling with him over a long evening. This was my father the plumber, who never finished high school but somehow found wisdom and a calling.
My mother was a mystic housewife, praying devoutly and seeing her entire life through the prism of her Catholicism. When she died, the priest kept repeating, “She was such a simple woman, such a simple woman.” I think he meant uncomplicated and not at all given to possessions or ambitions.
It was just part of the flow of our spiritual family for me to leave home and enter monastic life at thirteen to study for the priesthood. When I left the religious order thirteen years later, I found my way to doctoral studies in religion, where I put together my interest in spirituality, depth psychology and the arts.
From the beginning of this fated journey, I never liked religious behavior that was too pious or moralistic. I seem to have been born with an appreciation of secular life interweaving with a spiritual vision so that neither dominate. In this regard, I think of the interlinking chains and spirals I see all over Ireland, my adopted second home,or the familiar Taoist symbol of yin and yang melting into each other.
Just as Care of the Soul sprang out of me at the particular point where my ideas and my experience as a therapist matured, now I feel that my worldly way of being religious is emerging at just the right time in our cultural evolution to go public with it. Thus, my new book A Religion of One’s Own. We are now at a point where it’s time to let go of a narrow view of religion. I suggest that we don’t abandon it, even if many sophisticated modern people think it’s superfluous or prefer “spirituality”. Worldly life without a deep form of religion would be secularism, and that is a dangerous, soulless option. Just listen to the way many scientists are talking these days, reducing the richness of human experience to brain studies, for example, and you get a taste of what secularism would be like. As human beings we’d shrivel up.
The new book puts together an array of ideas I’ve been working on for years that together form a personal spiritual practice that I call a religion of one’s own. At the top of my list are the beauty and wisdom of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. I don’t want to get rid of the established religions but use them now as resources for a personal religious vision. They are priceless for what they have to offer, but the emphasis on belief, authority, empty ritual and moralism has weakened them to the point that they must re-imagine themselves radically. You can be a member of a religion and still have a religion of your own, or you can go off on your own, becoming a seeker or even an atheist, and use the traditions as resources.
Other elements of your own religion might include natural mystical experiences in nature and art, a broader and less literal notion of community, more reliance on deep intuition understood as a kind of natural revelation, a serious dream practice and the use of images and art for contemplation and insight. Having loved the life of a monk, I can recommend borrowing elements from monastic life and adapting them to your own everyday way of life. You might understand that your work is a form of prayer and that study and deep meditative reading are central to your spirituality.
One of the richest elements in formal religion, and could be in yours, is a deep experience of the arts. In a secularistic society the arts are entertainment, but in a religious ssetting they mediate between ordinary life and the eternal, profound and sublime realities. What could be more important? In a fully secular situation we may think that the goal in life is success and happiness. In a religious setting, fired by the arts, the aim is the much more profound pleasure in acquiring insight into the nature of things and sensing how beautiful life and the world can be. This blend of beauty and meaning, available in all the different art forms, serves as a tool for the spiritual quest.
In this book I advocate a maturing of the religious impulse by being more personally engaged. I’m certainly not suggesting an emphasis on oneself to the exclusion of others. Each of us has a unique situation that calls for special directions. We can each decide against both secularism and hollow religion, creating a deep spiritual way of life that is unique to us. Some will want to remain devoutly connected to a tradition, like my friends who are actual monks living out the ideals I present in my book within the strict and concrete setting of a monastery. Others may call themselves atheists and fight against formal religion with fervor, and yet they, too, may be shaping a religion of their own, intuitively understanding that the way formal religion speaks of God is too literal and the resulting lifestyle moralistic and dogmatic.
Emerson once wrote: “Every church has a membership of one.” That is, every experience of religion is singular, uniquely fashioned to the needs and imagination of the individual. These individuals can come together to form community that is more meaningful and intense than any gathering of people who think and act alike. The world needs religion, but not the kind that has generated wars and has polarized populations. It needs a deep spiritual imagination of life and a corresponding lifestyle and practice. To literal-minded people the deeper, person-centered religion I propose may seem less than what they are used to, but others will join me in welcoming a significant evolution in the human spirit.