When I was in college I was involved in an Evangelical campus ministry. I attended a weekly Bible study (most of the time) and went to occasional social functions designed to help Christian students connect and enjoy an alternative to wild sorority and fraternity parties. Once in a while, I even dragged myself out of bed on Sunday morning and went to church.
When the subject of my faith or Christianity would come up with friends, I was always quick to point out that I was “spiritual but not religious.”
I didn’t want people to think I was religious for two reasons. One, I didn’t want to seem weird. I was still trying very hard to keep my faith from interfering with my social life. The other reason that I insisted I was not religious, was that I sincerely believed, as did almost everyone else I knew, that religion was the opposite of true faith. I thought that religion was outdated, mindless, and that it suffocated true spirituality.
Then I became Catholic.
I have been Catholic now for 16 years. I am religious, and I am convinced that my religion helps me to know, love, and serve God better than I ever could apart from the practice of my faith. That is, after all, the point of true religion.
Throughout history the major monotheistic faiths, the faiths that worship the God of Abraham – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – have sought union with God through the practice of religion, not merely through an individual spirituality based on one’s own preferences, tastes, and personal convictions. The idea that one can know and worship the God of Abraham apart for religious practice seems to be a fairly modern idea.
I cannot speak to the trends in other faith traditions, but many modern Christian denominations pride themselves on freedom from the confines of religion, as if they have discovered some new path to God that the founders of Christianity and nearly two millennia of followers failed to discover.
Yet for Catholics, and I imagine for observant Jews and Muslims as well, our religion isn’t merely a set of rules to be followed or boxes to be checked. Our religion is the house in which our faith is born and the place where it is nurtured.
Here are some of the reasons that that I am religious and not just spiritual.
Religion is physical. Like all ancient faiths, Catholic worship includes specific, tangible physical element. Catholics kneel. We bow. We make the sign of the cross. We hold rosary beads, and we light candles. God made us body and soul. It makes sense that we would use our bodies when we pray and worship Him. Nearly every other activity we do as humans includes some sort of accompanying posture or gesture. We tell our children to sit up at the table. We rise when a judge walks into his court room or a bride steps through the doors of the church. We shake hands, hug, and wave. We hold our hands over our hearts when we hear the Nation Anthem. Soldiers salute. Actors bow. Couples kiss goodnight. All of these things are meant to communicate something – respect, greeting, affection, gratitude. Why would we think that what we do with our bodies should have no effect on how we pray and worship? Bowing, kneeling, the sign of the cross, and other physical expressions of our faith are the accompanying gestures to what we are thinking and feeling. They keep us in the right frame of mind, and they are a signal to ourselves and to others that what we are doing is sacred.
Religion is habitual. As an Evangelical Protestant, I would have equated the word habit with “vain repetition.” It is true that when we say or do anything repeatedly, we run the risk of diluting its meaning and value. A nightly “I love you” between spouses becomes empty words when void of true sentiment or action. So, of course, we must guard against mindless recitation of prayers or thoughtless reception of the sacraments. But habits, when they develop in us a desired effect or quality, are a good thing. We teach our children the habit of saying, “please and thank you” long before they know what the words mean because we want to develop in them a sense of gratitude and respect.
Developing a good habit disciplines us to what we ought to so that when we don’t want to or when we are distracted, forgetful, or distressed, we are still able to do, fairly easily, what was once a struggle. When we do something habitually, it becomes ingrained into the fabric of our being. I want to teach my children to practice their faith, to worship, to pray, and do good habitually and religiously. Their feelings might come and go, but the habit of being a faithful Catholic will sustain them through times of doubt or spiritual dryness.
Religion is unifying. One of the things I love most about being Catholic is the universalness of our faith. The oneness. There is something beautiful and powerful about the unity of religion. I love knowing that the prayers my family prays, the customs we observe, the feast days we celebrate, and the truths we believe are shared by countless other Catholics all over the world. When we profess our faith in the words of the creed at mass, we are making the same profession that billions, of others have made for centuries. When I confess my sins and ask The Blessed Mary Ever Virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God, I do so knowing that I am aided by the prayers of billions – both on earth and in Heaven.
Being a part of a religion is about so much more than just fellowship, so much more than a great youth group or an inviting ladies’ Bible study. Being religious is about being united with other believers all over the world – those living and those who have gone before us. When you belong to a religion, you belong to a family – a family that spans generations and transcends cultures.
Religion is comforting. Like my favorite sweatshirt, a cozy blanket, or my grandmother’s kitchen, my religion is comforting. Even with all the help the Church gives us to practice our faith – the sacraments, worship, traditions, stories of the saints, and so much more – sometimes the world is just too much. I run out of words. I feel too tired or too discouraged to pray. At times like these I can fall back, not just on my personal faith, even faith can be tough in times like these. I fall back on my religion – familiar prayers, beautiful hymns, the smell of incense, the beauty of the mass, the words of the creed. My religion provides vehicle for times when my faith just need to be pulled along.
Religion is designed by God. When I was an Evangelical, we often cited verses in which Jesus seems to be criticizing the Pharisees for their religious practices. True. Jesus was quick to point out the ways in which the Pharisees used their religion to set themselves above others or the ways in which they were hypocrites. He condemned the religious leaders of His day for burdening people with unnecessary rules and regulations. But true religion, seeks to draw people nearer to God in and through the practice of the faith. True religion is not just set of rules and laws. That sort of religion, the sort of religion that Jesus condemned, drives people to either rebel or to live lives burdened by anxiety and crushing guilt. But Jesus never tells us not to be religious at all -to just do our own thing. Jesus himself was an observant Jew, keeping the feasts and customs of His people. Not only that, but God never tells the Children of Israel to just worship any way they please or to do whatever makes them feel good and draws in more people. Instead He always has very specific instructions for how they are to conduct sacrifices and worship.
Back in college, when I claimed to be spiritual but not religious, what I was really saying was that I was free to pick what, if any, Christian customs and traditions I followed. I could decide for myself which doctrines were binding and which were not. Being free from religion meant that I could choose a church, if I went at all, that fit my preferences and taught what I believed to be the correct interpretation of scripture. Being spiritual but not religious actually meant a religion of my own creating.
Webster’s defines religion, in part, as an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules…
I like that definition. My religion organizes my beliefs. My religion gives me a framework and a system both for expressing my love for God and for helping me to grow in that love. My faithfulness to God does not depend entirely on my feelings. Through the various practices of my religion, I often do feel more love and awe for God, but I am also sustained when those feelings sometimes wane. My religion does not replace a real relationship with Jesus any more than living within a marriage replaces a couple’s real relationship with each other. Rather, my religion is the home in which my relationship with God is nurtured and grows.