It is very tempting to write that our age is one where streams of people seek to isolate themselves from others in terms of God, and in doing so, create a self-made spirituality. But it doesn’t take much of a look at Christian history to see that our religion has been strongly shaped by people who have done just this.
We have the men and women who sought out the desert in order to eschew participation in corporate worship and acts of charity in the towns.
We have famous mystics, people like Marjery Kempe, who left her husband and children behind in order to go on extended pilgrimages on which she wept and wept and wept.
We know of the famous anchorite, Julian of Norwich, who walled herself away from the world and was declared dead in order to find her true spiritual life.
Even my favorite saint, Rita of Cassia, prayed to be freed from her family responsibilities, and thanked God when her two sons were struck down by illness so she could be free to enter a convent.
It’s all there behind us: the conviction that God is best experienced in solitude and quiet. Other people around us are just distractions, annoyances, temptations.
That said, though, it strikes me that a lot of people today pride themselves with the thought that they have discovered this “way.”
Thinking spiritually outside the box. A do-it-yourself course in God-room design.
The soul as something that belongs to the individual and so can be controlled and ruled by its person.
A pet, perhaps. Or a belonging.
Churches are seen as buildings full of hypocrites and very difficult people
And charity is seen as, well, something other people should be doing.
What’s it got to do with me?
I’m good with God.
With my meditation cushion, and my candles and incense, and my books.
That’s all I need.
God in Heaven becomes our sole focus. Our obsession. Our partner.
And there we are, complete.
And what happens to the world around us? We seem to care only so far as it affects our lives: taxes, careers, ideology.
Then we become willing to raise our fists and shout.
We might even find our way to be willing to pray for some of this.
If we feel the matter is worthy enough.
And yet, today, pediatricians have added a question to their list of concerns for their patients. They ask, Are you hungry?
Hunger in America is now a medical concern.
In spite of the fact that President Obama thinks this country is in the pink.
More and more children are hungry. And live in homeless shelters. And watch their parents being arrested.
So, is it really better to think outside the God box and find your own path in life, away from the concerns of the world?
Does church offer us anything tangible other than socialization with donuts?
This has everything to do with the concept of union.
Finding union with God in our prayer corner, or on walks, or at the seashore keeps our feet clean of the mud of everyday life. It can lead to spiritual anorexia, an obsession with keeping our souls “clean” to the detriment of their growth. Souls grow as a result of our experiences – our dirt. In that dirt we plant our findings, our understandings, our beliefs.
Our spiritual lives are created from the intercrossing of our scraped knees and what we do to heal them.
Protecting ourselves from falling by keeping ourselves cozy is not the way.
Being cozy – being on our own with God and God alone – is a good place to be for healing. For letting things settle. For composing.
When we assume a belief that that is the only way to live, then we are taking God out of the people around us. Man becomes our “other,” but not in a spiritual way. They become the “other” in the way that evil handles the “other”: as those whose needs do not concern us. Or, even worse, as those whose wounds we indifferently cause by our self-obsessions.
In this manner, we divide God’s household from the world’s household. It’s like caste divisions, with God at the top, and deescalating spiritual importance coming all the way down to whoever it is that we think doesn’t deserve our respect.
In fact, our major fights these days is around who doesn’t deserve respect. Is it Republicans? Is it Muslims? Is it gun owners or abortion doctors?
Which is not to say that everyone deserves respect.
Evil does not deserve respect, and those people who commit their lives to evil deserve as much respect as we can summon. In fact perhaps the best way of showing evil respect is to do what it takes to keep it from harming the world and others.
I wonder at times how difficult it is to remind ourselves that the people around us, even the situations that we are in, are there for us. They are there to teach us how to create union with them. The people with souls so different from our own. Black and white. Young and old. Gay and straight. Male and female. Rich and poor.
They are not there for us to become blind in seeing who they are. But they are there for us to understand how best to build our own spirituality by learning, listening, and caring.
If it weren’t for certain people in my life, I would not know about parts of me.
To be sure, aspects of me – sometimes what feels like most of me – comes from those time that I am with God. But then the new day comes and I must leave my coziness, go out into the sun, and tend the garden that I find there.
It is in the union of myself with the other – be it God or the person in front of me – that I discover my true self.
Without others in human form, we are left to define ourselves.