Religions comprise a set of beliefs, practices, worship in a community setting often based upon a holy text(s), while spirituality is the presence of God and his actions, through the Holy Spirit, in the world. Surely the two are related through the worship of and focus on the same divine figure, but sometimes people are wholly aligned with one or the other without a thought to the opposite, or maybe because of fear of the other aspect of divine worship.
In Christianity religion without spirituality is dry as toast, a set of beliefs, rules and proscriptions that, if followed faithfully, will buy one a place in heaven in the afterlife to come. Spirituality, on the other hand, without religion, is airy-fairy, ungrounded and a license to do whatever “feels” good. When practiced together, religion contributes the grounding in sacred texts, beliefs, and community; spirituality, through the auspices of the Holy Spirit who inspires actions and a quality of being in us, provides aliveness and power. As we cycle through the church calendar every year, we are brought face to face with the events in Jesus’ life, we have to find ways to look anew at the same old story to apply it anew in our lives. The story is religion, finding newness and application to our lives today is spirituality.
In the Christian religion there are “experts” who have studied the Bible, the languages in which it was written, who interpret for us what Jesus’ or God’s intent was. In spirituality it is a level playing field. Even those with years of experience of working hand in hand with the Lord have gained only two things: what they’ve been given to understand and their experience of the Holy Spirit. A beginner has the same two things. Of course there are those with years of experience who point the way like Teresa of Avila. In her autobiography she uses a metaphor* for the spiritual life: when one wants to begin a life of prayer, a garden in which God would take delight, there is a garden full of weeds that needs watering and care. The first stage of prayer is hauling up water from deep within a well, then carrying it to the plants. During the second stage one has fashioned a series of pulleys that help haul up the water from a higher level in the well, but it is still a lot of work. For the third stage a river or stream runs through the garden and waters the plants. And in the fourth stage heavy rains do all the work.
Our job in the garden is to haul the water(hard work to nurture the plants) in the first two stages. In all the stages God has provided the water, but in the last two we no longer work to deliver it to the plants. God pulls the weeds(transforms our resistance)leaving just the healthy plants. The work in the first two stages speaks of the difficulty we have with turning our lives over to the Lord, settling into a new routine. We encounter the dryness of being in an unfamiliar landscape, often feeling quite alone. The irony is that once we enter into this process with the Lord, there is very little aside from hauling water that we can do. So some of the hard work is to accept not being in control, to put God’s will first, and most of all, to pay attention. Our minds hop from subject to subject distracting us from the quiet of the Holy Spirit or breath. Or they spiral around in endless negativity about ourselves and everything that is happening to us. Gradually, with huge help from the Lord, we begin to pay attention to the whisperings of the Spirit.
If you’ve ever tried to pray quietly or meditate, you’ll know how often the mind pull’s one’s attention away from the prayer or the quiet. Any harshness in our approach to our own inattention only makes the problem worse. It is quite simply a matter of going back to the prayer or meditation when we realize that we have wandered. That’s why it is called a practice, it takes time to establish a routine, to do it daily, to keep our attention from wandering. You can count on the HS to transform you from the inside out; in the meantime you “practice” every day.
The spiritual life requires a certain “active passivity.” The Holy Spirit is the transformer, there is not one thing we can do to transform ourselves, but, and it’s a big but, we must maintain a state of openness to his ministrations, to surrender whatever is getting in his way, to keep the practice going and to act on his inspirations. With this “active passivity” and the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives, there comes a certain relief and release of energy at not having to make things happen our way. In addition what the Holy Spirit proposes in your life will lead you on an incredible adventure, inner or outer, which is designed for you alone, not a cookie cutter stamp on a life like every other believer’s. We are each called to use our unique gifts given by God in the world.
Religion needs spirituality for aliveness and power, spirituality needs religion for grounding in the texts and beliefs. We can describe this on a continuum of opposites with religion at one end and spirituality at the other. At any moment in your day you might place yourself closer to the religion or maybe midway or definitely on the spiritual side. We are constantly changing as is our position on the continuum–this is natural. It is important to include both in your spiritual life, though the proportions of religion to spirituality might change all the time. At times we might prefer the safety of the beliefs to the action that the Holy Spirit is quietly whispering to us. Or the might grow tired of the bonds of unchanging beliefs and look more to the Holy Spirit. What is important is to embrace both the unchanging and the dynamic.
*”The Life of Teresa of Jesus,” Image Books, Garden City, New York, 1960, pp.124-209