WHEN RELIGION GETS SICK

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 When is it that religion gets sick?  One possible answer is to say that your religion is becoming a little unhinged when you absolutize your beliefs.  Your religion is getting a little grisly when you begin to think and say 'this is it' - 'I have it here,' contained, as it were, in my own understanding. 

 You're beginning to go off the rails when you think you've got a stranglehold on the truth, leaving no room, or very little room, for mystery, doubt and questioning and leaving, furthermore, not much wiggle room for others to 'work out their own salvation in fear and in trembling.' 

 It is when you are full of 'certainty' and a sense of superiority that you are telling the world around you that you just may be a little unwell. Thus oriented, your religion is beginning to make you sick.  Religiously disordered, you may be on the road to becoming an overly zealous and militant fanatic.         

 The great sages and seers have never sounded 'certain' in this way. They do not absolutize their words, beliefs or understanding. They understand that even their greatest understanding is at best only partial and incomplete.  They demonstrate a humility before That which by its nature is unknowable, as St. Thomas Aquinas realized more deeply than ever, upon a mind-arresting mystical illumination in the latter part of his life. 

 In the light of his awe-creating experience, Aquinas announced that everything he'd written in his 'Summa Theologica' was as 'straw,' as 'dung', in comparison.  At that point, St Thomas put down his quill, though we must say that that quill had served him well, for it took him beyond the words he'd written into the presence of God.   

 Aquinas knew, as the greatest sages and seers have always known that, one's greatest understanding is at best but a finger pointing to the moon and not definitive knowledge concerning the moon itself.  

 As the old saying goes:  'If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.'  In like manner, if you meet Jesus on the road, kill him.'  In other words, your idea of the 'Buddha' or of 'Jesus', may be an idolatry that must be slain.  As it's been put, you must go past your limited conceptions of God to God.           

 Hence what 'we think we know' can be a barrier to a vital and healthy spiritual experience. One’s very certitudes can limit a dynamic  process of learning, growing and understanding. You can be ‘stuck’ in restricting beliefs that are enslaving rather than freeing.

 In contrast to that kind of growth impairment, Christ talked about a level of spiritual freedom characterized by 'streams of living water that flow from within.'  Surely the picture here is of a human being filled to overflowing with joy.     

 Sometimes it appears that a certain kind of 'believing,' with more of an external than an internal focus, can be restricting rather than freeing.  I remember once, for example, when, as a candidate for priesthood, I was trying to 'learn the ropes' of a certain church liturgy. I asked for help from a priest who was known for how carefully he performed the various rituals.   

 Now, this priest did not seem a kind man and appeared to be something of a stickler, overly caught up in the 'how-tos' of ritual.  His was a grim and sour spirit.  Nevertheless, I had the idea that in receiving help from him it might serve to build a bridge between us.  How wrong and foolish I was! 

 That vinegary man was someone who appeared always to be ‘angry about something.’  On the day he gave me liturgical instruction, the grump was especially 'in a mood.'  I felt that he intensely disliked me.  He didn't even try to hide it!  Well, maybe he loved somebody somewhere!  Surely he did!  I hope so!  But, alas, he did not care for me.

 Nervous, as the priest’s censorious eyes damned me to hell, I fumbled terribly.  I was unable to learn very much because all I felt were his angry 'vibes.' 

 My sense of this man was that the rituals and forms of religion mattered more to him than what they pointed to.  He was the sort who was always 'watching' to see if you fouled up in some way.  And I fear that I gave him a lot to worry about.

 Here again I say that one’s religion is in a sick state when its externals are set over against its life-giving inner dimensions.   

 A striking example of how restricting beliefs can stand in the way of a healthy spiritual freedom is the case of a dear Muslim man who had begun a meditation practice that was beginning to bear tremendous fruit.  A great energy had begun to stir at the depths of his being.  He was experiencing what Yoga calls ‘the fire of Yoga,‘ the penetrating and purging experience of Divine grace.   

 This man had gone so deeply in meditation that he had had a vision of 'the blue pearl,' an experience of his own soul or essence as a form of light.  This exhilarating glimpse of his own deepest essence was a terrifying breakthrough for it contradicted everything he had been taught.  The joy was too intense.  It scared the bejebees out of him!

 The Muslim had not been taught that God could be experienced so profoundly within one’s own very depths.  His understanding had been that God was distant.  His image of God was that of a God who was to be feared and obeyed.  The idea of a possible intimacy or friendship with God had been for him beyond the realm of the possible.   

 Thus he was trying frantically to hold on to the conceptions he'd been taught, even as God’s grace swept through him.  The idea of a God who is ‘nearer to us than we are to ourselves,’ was deeply threatening to him.  Thus conflicted, in a state of panic, he broke into a sweat, screamed and ran out of the meditation room! (Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, Kindle My Heart p. 15)  

 Upon hearing about the man's quick exit from the meditation hall, the Meditation Master responded by saying:  “How could a person waste such a realization in the name of religion?  How could he let religion get in the way?” 

 Addressing the fellow’s secretary, the meditation master exclaimed: “Tell him not to stop his experience.  He should meditate again, and he will have the realization.” (p. 15)  The Meditation Master wanted this good man to have his own spiritual experience and not to censor that blessed eruption of God’s grace in his life. 

 In the name of one’s tradition and even 'for the sake of your tradition,' as Jesus once said to the religious absolutists of his time: "You make void the word of God! (Math 15:6) That is, you make void the word of God by clinging to your religion, your life constricting rules and rituals, instead of opening your heart to experience the streams of living water that could bubble up from your awakened depths.

 An approach I value greatly is that of the Eastern Orthodox Hesychasts who emphasis the value of vital inner experience.  Even though it is understood that God in His essence cannot be grasped by the senses or by the intellect, it is said that every human being inherently has the ‘energy’ or ‘potency’ to be brought into communication with the Divine. 

 Finite human nature can be purified through God’s mercy.  In the words of St. Gregory Palamas: God can “deify” the created spirit.  In His mercy, God allows for the possibility of a human participation in His “Divine energies."  (Natalia Isayea, The Concept of Energies, Neoplatonist and Hesychast Parallels in From Early Vedanta to Kashmir Shaivism, p. 151)  

 Because of this high view of human nature as being inherently capable of transformation, the monks of Mount Athos have become well known for practicing ‘silence,’ or, ‘deep concentration,’ as a way of experiencing God. 

 What the Hesychasts recommend is the practice of chanting the ‘Jesus prayer’ unceasingly until the words of the prayer are brought into resonance with the inner rhythms of the body, “especially with the rhythm of our breathing."  (p. 149)  This is a therapy for the soul at its highest level.

 The goal is to find eventually that one is no longer consciously praying, but in an illumined state such that one is being prayed. ‘You’ that is, your ‘ego,’ has gotten out of the way and God’s energy is now flowing through you in an unhindered way.  An emptied vessel, you are becoming a channel of the grace and power of God. 

 The fruit of unceasing prayer is the humbling experience that it is no longer 'you' who is living and asserting himself, but that 'you' are 'being lived.'  It is no longer ‘you’ who is acting, but God who is acting in and through you.  It is no longer ‘you’ who is breathing, but you are being breathed. 

 In such a state or prayer, you are not so much focused on knowing 'about' this or that, but instead are living in, or participating in, God’s knowing.  In this blessed state of full realization, or union with God, it is no longer even that 'you are thinking,' but that you are 'being thought.'  

Imagine living with a sense continually that God is living, acting, breathing and knowing through you.  That’s a little different, don’t you think, from the self assertion:  'Here I am with what I think I know?' 

Our task, says Abraham Heschel, is "not to know the unknown, but to be penetrated by it.” (quoted in Christopher Pramuk's, Sophia, The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, p. 96) 

 We are on our way to healing and wholeness, on the road to 'Theosis', (God-likeness) when our restless minds are more and more deeply relaxing into His heart.  We are finding true health when our lives are resting in His everlasting arms.  We are being cured when the love of God is flowing through us.  We are getting well when there is the humble sense that 'it is not I who live any longer but Christ in me.'  Thanks be to God. Amen.