by Fr. Jack McArdle
Religion comes from the Latin word religare, and it literally means to be bound to a set of rules or obligations. It is basically external, in that it has to do with external practice. It is very important that I explain exactly what I mean here. If I could draw a line down the middle of a page, with the word Religion at the top of one column, and Spirituality at the top of the other, and drew a contrast between them, comparing one side with the other, it would be clearer what I am trying to say. What I am doing now, however, is speaking about religion on its own, and then, in the next chapter, speaking about spirituality.
Because the word religion is generally used in the context of Catholic religion, Protestant religion, etc., and I come across as being anti-religion, you may be confused. I am not thinking Catholic, Protestant or denomination of any type, when I use the word. What I mean are the things we do, and the practices we perform, as religious people, and where those external practices are given an importance that they do not merit or deserve. I will be stressing that it is the spirit which inspires the practice that gives it any value, and never the practice by itself.
To understand religion, we must go back to the time of Moses, and the Ten Commandments. Moses wrote that if a person could be perfectly good all his life, never yield to temptation, and never sin once, that such a person could be saved. That sort of statement frightens me, because there is no one good, but God, as Jesus told the young man in the gospel. Such a standard of behaviour produced an all-out emphasis on law, and on strict observance of law. The Jews had rules, laws, and regulations for every single thing they did, even to the exact number of yards they were allowed walk on a Sabbath day. They had laws about dress, about food, and even about washing their hands.
The law was so important to them, that they had an elite group, called the Scribes, whose whole purpose was to interpret the law in its minutest details. They also had a group, called Pharisees, whose task it was to impose the law, and to punish those who failed in any of its observances. They were totally taken up with law, and they saw their whole relationship with God as depending totally on their strict observance. Their God was very much into a love of law, just as Jesus would later stress the law of love.
St. Paul inherited this, and he tells us that he was one of the most religious persons of his time, and he did everything within his power to keep every minute detail of his religion. When he was converted to Christianity, he would contrast his attitude then, to the new-found freedom he now had, and would see the law for the slavery that it was.
Jesus' strongest condemnations were reserved for religious people. He called them hypocrites, and he said they were like white marble tomb-stones, beautiful on the outside, but full of rottenness underneath. He condemned them for being more interested in a cup being clean on the outside, while, inside it could be dirty, and badly stained. He really drew the anger of religious people, and he knew that they sought every opportunity to oppose him, and trip him up. He frightened them, because if they lost their great emphasis on laws and religious practices, they had no further reason for living.
Religious people are totally opposed to change, because, to do so is to admit that what they have been doing up till now was not perfect. There is a degree of insecurity about religious people, because of this fear of change. "To live is to change, and to become perfect is to have changed often," said Cardinal Newman. We are a pilgrim people, and, just as the scenery and surroundings change, as I travel along on a pilgrimage, so does life, and the way of looking at things. We are in process, in a state of constant change.
God is infinite, and at no one point can we say that we know God, or understand him. I am like a tiny fish in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, which is God, and each day I swim around getting new experiences of the same sea. I would be a very foolish little fish, and a very dead little fish, if I attempted to rise above the sea, and get an over-view, from shore to shore. I look out to sea, but I cannot claim to see the water, because all I can see is the top of the water, and not the millions of gallons underneath. Life is a continual path of discovery, and God is constantly revealing himself; and to rise above merely existing, and begin to live, I must always be open to those new revelations of this God of surprises.
Original sin was us humans trying to be as good as God, trying to declare our independence from God. That sin, in a thousand forms, persists to this day. There is some sort of deep-rooted pride within the human psyche, and it is dangerous and destructive. I remember a phrase of my father's, when I was a lad, and when I stepped out of line. "You don't seem to know your place. Some day I'm going to put you in your place." I never knew exactly what he meant, but I knew I had over-stepped my limits, and was out of bounds, as far as he was concerned.
I have often thought of that since, when I reflect on how we can attempt to run the show for God, and to step into areas which are away beyond our limits. Evil is most evil when it is disguised as good, and surely the self-righteous parading of religion as virtue is a travesty. If I really knew my place before God, and how wide the gap is, I would surely fall on my face, and wouldn't dare raise my eyes. That God should condescend to join me on the journey of life, and that he should call me friend, is extraordinary ; but that I should expect God to take a back seat, while I show him how perfect I am; that I should expect him to shut up and listen while I tell him all I am doing for him; that I should expect him to pin a medal on me, and thank me for being so good - that is religion at its most obnoxious level.
The Pharisees disgusted Jesus, because there is no way they were prepared to listen. Jesus tells a story of a Pharisee who went up to the temple to pray. In fact, in another context, Jesus said that they made sure they prayed in very public places, so that people would see them. They laid great importance on parading their virtue. Anyhow, back to the Pharisee in the temple. Jesus said that "he stood up, and prayed thus to himself". Notice, he was not praying to God, because God, and everyone else around, was supposed to be silent, and listen to what he had to say. Instead of "Praise the Lord," he was more into "Praise me Lord." Religion, without the inner spirit, is an empty shell, and, as St. Paul would put it, sounding brass and clanging cymbals.
Let me try to be more specific in what I am saying. Depending on the observance of laws, rules, and regulations, to make me right with God, and to earn my salvation, is wrong, wrong, wrong. I cannot earn or merit anything from God, or anything that is of God. It is total gift. Laws can be good, they can be helpful. Speed limits for cars travelling through a town is a wise safeguard, but, as with an ambulance, with flashing light, and screeching siren, there are times when such laws must be put aside, for a greater good.
Pure religion, as practised and promoted by the Pharisees, allowed for no exceptions. At that point, it becomes enslavement, and ridiculous. Jesus was strongly reprimanded for healing someone, because it was the Sabbath, and he should do nothing on that day of rest! This would be funny, if it wasn't really sad. The unfortunate thing about all of this is that a lot of it has survived over the years even though Jesus had died to bring us across a bridge from a love of law into a law of love.
The church I grew up in, had, to a large extent, gone back over that bridge again into a love of law. My catechism was chock-full of rules and regulations. I had commandments coming out of my ears. By then, we had added the commandments of and precepts of the church to the Ten Commandments. The conditions for proper reception of sacraments, for obtaining indulgences, for obtaining forgiveness of sin, were down to such detail, that the strictest Pharisee would have felt totally at home in the church, and, indeed, Jesus could well have felt that he didn't belong there.
I remember hearing a story about a black man, and a whites-only church, in one of the southern states of the United States. It was a Sunday morning, and the service was in full swing, and the black man was standing outside, listening to the music, because, of course, he was not allowed go in. After a while Jesus came along, and began to talk to him. He asked him why he had not gone inside to the service, and the man said that he had tried, but was unable to gain admission. Jesus smiled, and said "Don't worry. I know how you feel. I myself have been trying to get into that church for years!"
I often think of Pope John XXIII falling on his knees, and asking for another Pentecost, because we had blown that last one. I believe we then got another Pentecost, and we are now in the process of bringing the church back over the bridge into the law of love. It's a tough haul, because, like Jesus in his day, religious people find it very hard to change. If some people had their way, we would still have the Latin Mass, and there certainly would not be guitars in church! In a world of hungry people, that anyone in the church should make an issue out of guitars in church, or girl Mass servers, is obscene and pathetic.
As I said in an earlier chapter, religion can be frightening, because it can put rules and regulations in front of the welfare of people. The ideals that Hitler held, were more important to him than the welfare of millions. OK, the church doesn't burn people at the stake anymore, but there's more than one way to skin a cat.
On a regular basis, we read in our papers where baptism is refused because the parents are not married, or are not regular church goers. I respectfully suggest we leave all judgements to God, and try to extend Christ's love and acceptance to those we meet. Who am I to say that this child will not grow into the fullness of the gospel message, or that my non-judgmental acceptance of the parents might not be a moment of grace for them, to motivate them to look again at what they may have rejected.
I have known some priests who have been so legalistic and bureaucratic about preparation for marriage, that I would not at all blame the couple, if they went to the nearest registry office. I am not suggesting that we should ignore all rules. Far from it. I am saying, however, that the church should be seen to be more on the side of the welfare of people than strict adherence to law. The compassion of Jesus must always be put before and above all rules.
I heard of a man at a prayer meeting, who confessed that he had been a wife-beater, a child molester, and that he had been involved in robbery with violence. "However," he said, "I want to thank the Lord here to-night that, throughout all that time, I never lost my religion." Whenever I watch movies like The Godfather, I am always upset to see how the most callous mobster, with blood on his hands, is seen to be in church on all the significant occasions. This is not as far-fetched as it seems. I could well have more to answer for, on the day of judgement, for my attendance at church, than for the times I did not attend. I believe that religious practices, not based on sincerity, and inspired by God's Spirit, must be an abomination in the sight of the Lord.
Ecumenism, or the coming together of the Christian churches, can be greatly hindered by religion, where the emphasis is on uniformity, rather than unity. Religion is, essentially, about conformity, and it does not allow for such things as personal revelation, or divine inspiration, on a personal level. Many of our greatest saints were badly treated by the institutional church, because they dared be different. St. Francis was considered a nuisance, and a dreamer, while Joan of Arc was a dangerous revolutionary.
The divisions among the Christian churches is a scandal, and a sad example to the world of the religious subversion of a message of love, toleration, and forgiveness that was preached by the one whom each church would claim as founder. All of this is the outcome of religion holding sway over spirituality, and rigid adherence to rule and tradition holding sway over the all-embracing love and compassion of Jesus Christ. There must be a place within the church for a very wide spectrum, indeed, but, unfortunately, the use of anathemas, and excommunications, issued by self-righteous bigots, who were so sure of their own monopoly on truth, led to a level of intolerance that totally betrayed the mind of Jesus. Thankfully, to a large extent, we are growing into a humbler church. We are channels of the Lord's healing love, not generators of his power.
The story is told of a secondary teacher who died, and appeared at the gate of heaven. As he tried to enter, St. Peter stopped him, and explained that they were operating a points system, and, at present it was one thousand points for entry. Peter asked him what he had done during his life-time, to which the teacher replied, with appropriate emphasis, that he had been to Mass every morning, for fifty years. Peter was duly impressed, and announced, "OK, that's one point." The poor teacher was badly taken aback, because he had spent much time and energy preparing just for this moment. Peter asked him what else he had done, and he replied that he had been involved in fund-raising for charitable organisations. When he was asked how much money was involved, he shoved out his chest, as he announced that he had raised over thirty thousand pounds. Peter said that was very good, and that was another point! The poor man was shattered, and he muttered to himself "It's only by the grace of God that I'm going to get in there." Peter heard him, turned to him, and said, "If you really believe that it is only by the grace of God you are going to get in there, go on in, because that, my friend, is the thousand points."
There is no place for members of the white-knuckle club, or for muscular Christianity among the followers of Jesus Christ. Remember what I said, at the beginning, about Moses, and the perfect observance of rules and regulations that he advocated for salvation. Well, Jesus has changed all that completely, and for ever. It is total gift, and cannot be merited or earned. If I prayed and fasted for the rest of my life, I wouldn't earn one iota of salvation.
In a later chapter I will speak of prayer, and the place it has in our journey with the Lord. Notice I did not say towards the Lord, because, as a result of Incarnation, the Lord is travelling with us. When I speak of prayer, I will speak more about listening than speaking, because prayer is really what Goes does, when I stop talking, and start listening. I will speak about a spirituality of subtraction, rather than one of addition, when, like John the Baptist, I begin to decrease in my own importance, so that the Lord can increase. St. Paul said that, if he boasted, he boasted in the Lord, because, he himself had nothing of which he could boast.
A frog, living in a forest in New Jersey, persuaded two geese to fly him to Florida for the winter. He tied the ends of a long cord to each goose, he held the centre of the cord in his mouth, and off they went to Florida. The journey was going well until someone on the ground noticed the strange sight passing by overhead. "Hey, look at that!", he shouted, "that's fantastic. Whose idea was that, I wonder?" In his anxiety to get the credit for being so clever, the proud frog opened his mouth, and shouted "Mine!"
Humility, and profound gratitude is the only fitting response to the love that is offered. To try to run the show, to reverse the roles, and have God under an obligation to us for being so good, is a pathetic distortion of his plan of salvation for us.
In the following chapter I will speak about Spirituality, which is what God effects in us, and through us, when we let him. Religion has had more to do with maintenance than with mission, with controlling than with confirming, and, through its involvement with earthly powers over the centuries, with conquering and capturing than with captivating. Religion is about control, while Spirituality is about surrender. Religion is what we do, while Spirituality is about what God does.
Pure religion can be nothing more than original sin, dressed up as virtue, where we are trying to be as good as God. I believe that Christianity is, essentially, about attracting, rather than promoting. God becomes God in my life, the very moment I stop playing God. God is love, and Christianity is based on the law of love, and it is by this witness alone that Jesus said we are to be recognised as his disciples.
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Come 'Ere Till I Tell You copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.