For those of us who have wandered away from conventional religion, some shutting the door behind us on our way out, we are haunted by what we've left behind--beautiful music, thoughtful prayers, meaningful rituals, sacred texts. The world on the other side of "church land" can seem a dry and desperate place by contrast, devoid of the deep wellsprings from which we drank.
The truth is, when we left the religious world, we didn't leave behind our spirituality, our souls, or our longing for God. We left the heartbreaking conceits of an institution that has failed to hear and to heed its own message: you have to die to yourself in order to live anew. Its cloying need to control its message and its cruel presumption to choose its members--some who are worthy of its rites, some who are not--quench the Spirit and choke the life out of its words and rituals. We left because of our spiritual hunger, not because we'd lost it.
But, finding ourselves a long way from home, and from the habits and traditions that fed our souls, we are not without hope. Never before, from our days in the religious world, have we had a more sumptuous spread of options and opportunities. Freed now from the church's grasp--telling us that it, and it alone, possesses the bread of life--we can explore a world of spiritual practice and soulful attentiveness that will open for us new vistas and therefore new possibilities for growth.
Thomas Moore was not the first writer to celebrate this new "secular spirituality" (I think, for example, of Harvey Cox's "The Secular City" back in 1965). But in his book, "A Religion of One's Own," Moore is perhaps the most incisive in suggesting what such a spirituality might look like in practice. And he knows first-hand the world so many of us have left behind. Having lived for thirteen years as a member of a religious order, Moore cherishes, as we do, religion that is still capable of evoking the sacred. He simply believes it's up to us to create it.
Moore would direct our gaze, for instance, away from the far-off God, the divine presence that is always at a remove from us, either above, looking down, or ahead, looking back. Instead, he would have us examine the inner dynamics of our own souls, of the God within. Dreams become important, from such a view, as do the psychological dynamics that present as symptoms, calling us into a more soulful relationship with our inner life.
Moore encourages a healthy connection with our own bodies, free of the suspicion and shame with which so many religions have demonized it. Our bodies, including their troublesome appetites and impulses, are a sign of eros, the life force coursing through us, to be welcomed, celebrated, and explored for the revelatory mysteries it contains.
Art in all its forms--painting, sculpture, poetry, music, dance--is, for the secular seeker, a portal to the divine, awakening us and inviting us to join in the continual act of creation, not simply as creatures, but as co-creators. Filling our lives with art is a way of saturating our senses with the power of the One who makes us.
Moore's vision of a secular spirituality is an individualistic one. He has little to say about community or compassion or social justice-making. But if we are about the business of creating a religion of our own, we can supplement his practices with the ones we ourselves know must be included. The point is, the religious life, with or without a formal hook to hang it on, must be ours to create, and ours alone. There is no higher authority to determine our spiritual path other than the one we seek from within.
Thomas Moore is not a guest on the first episode of the new season of my podcast, The Mystic Cave. (I did try!) But his book is, along with some reflections to stimulate our thinking about what we might include in a religion of our own. For the rest of the fall season we will be exploring religious practices for the secular seeker. Because, when we left church land, we didn't leave behind our souls.
To listen to this week's episode of The Mystic Cave simply press the Play button below: