There is a paradox at the heart of the practice of religion. Religion is designed to produce rich experiences of spirituality both individually and in communities—experiences that are often characterized by their renewing power—but it relies on repetition, ritual, and habit in order to produce such results. My LDS religion provides a variety of stratagems and exercises to assist me in cultivating the discipline and practice of such spirituality. For example, I am encouraged to pray and read the scriptures daily, to attend church every Sunday for three hours, and to serve in a calling in my church community in order to help the community cohere and grow together. I am encouraged to attend the temple regularly, to do my home teaching, to do my family history work, and to keep my body pure, and so on. It’s a long list and even though I have come to depend on this structure of my church to assist me in my spiritual growth, like many members of the church I suppose, there are times when it feels that the very structure of these practices is what is getting in the way of my growth. Recently I dreamt of a quest for deeper conversion and found myself pushing myself along a series of unending, unconnected, and half-broken railroad tracks with no end in sight. Was I trapped in a maze of bureaucracy? Was I engaged in a labor that took me to no place in particular? I awoke deeply disturbed. So many meetings, so many responsibilities, so many reasons to feel guilty and enervated. It raised the question for me: where can I turn for renewal when even the religion I have chosen and have faith in stops providing me with the feelings of joy it once gave me? Would one would be better off without so many rituals, so many practices?
Maybe that is the wrong question. Jesus said it isn’t what goes in but what comes out of us that defiles us. It isn’t the outward practice that defines the meaning of our religion but what happens on the inside. And no one, not my religious leaders, not my parents or role models, not even God, is responsible for my own heart. Besides, the problem is that at least in my experience, every time I have drifted in my habits and discipline of church life, I generally have found poor results. Maybe at first there is a feeling of release, a kind of lightening of the burden on the shoulders and the illusion of freedom. But generally the go-it-all-alone approach starts to promote a greater selfishness, and distraction and greed and arrogance take place of focus, modesty, and humility, and I place myself in harm’s way. I guess in that sense I am grateful for my weaknesses. They keep me close to the community of Christ. They teach me that I need to be answerable to others. I need to feel that I am truly my brother’s keeper and to maintain a commitment to do whatever service is asked of me. I need to rub shoulders with my fellow saints who can teach me by example and remind me of what I myself have come to believe and have decided to follow.
This paradox is a little like the challenge of keeping the fire and passion of romantic love alive in a marriage as it moves into its second, third, fourth decade. How can something feel new when, precisely because of our love for what it makes us feel, it has become so familiar that we almost lose feeling altogether? Somehow we need to find a way to mix it up a little. I am by disposition impatient with repetition and I often find myself tired from habit, even good habits. There are, of course, unhealthy ways of mixing things up, which more or less consist of acts of rebellion against what one knows to be right. They happen. We aren’t built to hold the course with the same passion, commitment, and exactness day in and day out. Some of us might be better at this than others, but the bottom line is sooner or later we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask why the words of truth are not yet truly and deeply sown within our hearts. Why is it that we are content with going through the proverbial motions? When will we truly wake up? I don’t mean to berate us as human beings. The fact of our inadequacy should not cause undue panic. It is presumably why we need to gather together once a week and why we needed an Atonement on our behalf in the first place. Indeed, regular repentance does wonders to keep things fresh, but it is worth asking, must we always have to resort to sin, just to keep things interesting?
What has kept things interesting for me in a much more healthy way is to find new language to describe the richness of the religious life. We often fail to honor the mystery and depth of what we experience in life by resorting to familiar clichés, tired metaphors, and formulaic expressions. We do this, I suppose, almost unconsciously. Because religious communities practice together, it is so easy to adopt a language that works for everyone. We pass on phrases to one another, like the favorite dinner-time prayer phrase “to nourish and strengthen” which in my family line is at least four generations old. We talk of “feeling the spirit” or “losing the spirit” and we talk of gaining an “eternal perspective.” We speak of “eternal family,” we call each other “brother” and “sister” and we eat “bread” and “water” in remembrance of Christ’s body. We speak of being “impressed” to do something, and so on. These are not bad phrases. There is nothing inherently wrong with them. But when we take in the whole of our lives and our experiences as a religious people, words begin to look so much more inadequate to us, and we may find ourselves almost incapable of describing what it is we experience and feel. I am more and more amazed at how little I understand what we sometimes call “the workings of the spirit” by which I suppose we mean the ways in which we imagine God trying to communicate to us. And if that is what we mean, we must confess that such a phrase seeks to capture almost the entirety of life. This is especially true if we imagine that life itself is a long dialogue with God, albeit interrupted, I suppose, by our distractions, blurred by our confusions, and stifled by our arrogance, but life can be marked as a series of returns to that deep place within our soul where things are still, at peace, where love feels to be the most natural thing in the world that we could feel for ourselves, for others, and for this world, and when we find ourselves in that place within us, when we arrive there by hook or crook or by serendipity or grace, we wonder why we have ever departed, why this conversation with God isn’t enough to once and for all drown out the noise of superficial concerns.
I have found that reading poetry helps. I especially enjoy poets like Rilke, Neruda, Yeats, but there are many, many others who help give me a different vocabulary for experience. And it little matters that they are not writing from the same perspective as my own. I guess it would be better to say that it matters a great deal that they believe differently, lived differently in different times and places because the truthfulness and universality of experience is what stands out to me and I can catch from their pens words and phrases that drop into my hands as gifts to aid me in my own quest for self-understanding. I have found that reading and listening to people of other faith talk about their experiences is similarly rich. I have enjoyed Marilynne Robinson, Rowan Williams, and Thomas Merton. I only recently listened to an interview Krista Tippett did with John O’Donohue and I found myself stunned at every turn by his capacity to give expression to things I had experienced but for which I had up to that point only found (and maybe thoughtlessly borrowed) words from the ever-available storehouse of clichés. I have been reading the Oxford Study Bible, my first thorough venture through the Bible in another translation, and again at every turn, I see things I hadn’t seen before and feel insights I hadn’t felt before. This is not to say that the King James Bible isn’t beautiful in its own right. It is regal, sumptuous, and close to my heart, but precisely because it is so well known to me, it is valuable to experience a little defamiliarization. Nothing provides this kind of defamiliarization quite like how the arts re-perform the Biblical stories, in my mind. To revisit an old story that has been reframed entirely, as one does for example after revisiting the story of Cain and Abel in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden or after watching Darren Aronofsky’s film, Noah, or after listening to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or viewing Rembrandt’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, you feel as if you have never really paid close enough attention to the original story. And you make an earnest commitment to never treat the familiar quite so shallowly again. You will return to read the old story with a renewed hope to hear the strains of what is yet to be, what is missing between the words, and what we can do as faithful readers to hear language say more than it does. That is, after all, how you read when you first fell in love with scripture and what you need to feel from time to time lest the endless repetition of scripture study and the repetitions of religious life become an utterly meaningless exercise. Avoid vain repetitions, Christ said, but pray always. That’s enough of a challenge right there to keep us busy for the rest of our lives. We must be artists who generate new thoughts, new words, new questions, new pleas.
I confess that I am sloppy with language, I am careless at prayer, and I so easily neglect the stewardship that every single one of us bears as a language user to use this great gift with more care. And it is especially a shame when we are so careless in relation to what is most sacred and most meaningful in our lives. There are so many beautiful words, so many marvelous ways to dialogue with God. Silence can still speak, of course, and it often speaks more than words, so it isn’t always a matter of finding better words to honor experience. Honoring holiness might also involve the wisdom to know when to say nothing and allow the truth of experience its proper place at the forefront of our lives.
When Krista Tippett asks John O’Donohue what he meant when he wrote that “It’s strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you,” he answered in this way:
“OK. I mean, when you think about language and you think about consciousness, it’s just incredible to think that we can make any sounds that can reach over across to each other at all. Because I mean, I think we’re — I think the beauty of being human is that we’re incredibly, intimately near each other. We know about each other, but yet we do not know or never can know what it’s like inside another person. And it’s amazing, you know, here am I sitting in front of you now, looking at your face, you’re looking at mine and yet neither of us have ever seen our own faces. And that in some way, thought is the face that we put on the meaning that we feel and that we struggle with and that the world is always larger and more intense and stranger than our best thought will ever reach.”
That is an answer that bears repeating.