The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
August 30, 2015
One of the great things about being a priest is that I get to meet many different people from many different walks of life. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals all bring the friends and relatives of our parishioners to church when they otherwise wouldn’t come, and it’s often the case that I’m afforded an opportunity to speak briefly to them about where they’re from, what they do, and all sorts of other things. And it’s often the case, without my ever having to ask, that they’ll tell me something about their faith background, like: “I’m a Methodist” or “I’m Jewish” or “I don’t go to church very often, even though I should.” But, by far, the most common thing I hear is, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” I hear this so often that it’s become cliché…and I’m sure you’ve heard it yourselves before. Now while, in some sense, I get what people are trying to say with this phrase, I can’t help but think that it’s completely off-base. It proposes as a given that spirituality and religion are separate realities that may coincide, but not necessarily or even usually. Spirituality is seen as freeing and open, whereas religion is seen as restricting and oppressive. Spirituality is seen as one’s private journey to God, whereas religion is seen as institutional. Spirituality is seen other-worldly and transcendent and mysterious, whereas religion is seen as cultic and immanent. These ideas have been so engrained in our culture and in society, and yet they have very little truth in them. And because the modern world itself espouses the values typically associated with spirituality rather than religion, it’s easy for the unthinking and unreflective person to simply go along with the crowd and cast aside the notion of religion altogether. But when we instead cast aside the rhetoric and semantics and the clichés that we so easily take for granted, when we get right down to it, as human beings we have to admit that we need both spirituality and religion. This is what St. James shows us in our second reading today and this is what our Lord shows us in the Gospel: spirituality without religion is formless and useless, and religion without spirituality is corrupt and dead. Let’s unfold this a bit.
St. James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The word that St. James uses here that we translate as ‘religion’ is “threskeia” – which means worship that is outwardly evident. In the ancient world, and certainly at the time of Christ, the worship of God required both an inward intention and an outward action: in other words, one had to ritualize his or her love of God. This was done through audible prayer, the singing of songs, and the offering of sacrifices. Now if we think about it, this is extremely intuitive to us…we know that the love we offer each other cannot simply be an inner disposition – it must be displayed in various and diverse ways. We don’t just think or feel love inwardly for our husbands or wives or children or friends…we show it to them. We give them gifts, we write them poems, we do good things for them, we tell them “I love you,” and we also engage in external rituals that continually communicate our love: a hug, a kiss, a smile. Love must be displayed and enfleshed…if it’s not, if it’s formless, then there’s a huge disconnect and objectively speaking no real love. This is essentially what St. James is getting at with the word “religion” – it means the inward love we have for God externalized and made visible. And because God has revealed Himself not just to individuals, but to “a people,” these outward acts of love, of worship, had to be communal. It wasn’t enough for someone to escape into the woods and worship God on his or her own…they had to do so with the community, with the people of God. This is what it means to be religious – to regularly and continuously offer to God an external and enfleshed sign of our adoration and love of Him, both individually and with others.
But we know that when people come together to do anything, chaos can easily develop. Different ideas, different values, and different ways of looking at things require that some kind of structure be utilized to bring order and harmony to the activity. Road construction, a restaurant kitchen, a courtroom, the family dinner table…anything that involves more than two people is going to require some kind of standardization. And when it comes to the public worship of God, there is no exception. God gave the Law to Moses to help bring structure to the inward worship and external worship of the people of Israel…and Christ gives us the Church to do the same in our day. Religion, in a secondary sense, can be used to refer to the way this structure is brought about: rules, regulations, liturgical calendars, hierarchy, etc. When people say, “I’m spiritual, not religious” they are usually reacting emotionally to something gone wrong – perceived or actual – with religion in this secondary sense. They rightly recognize that sometimes it seems like more emphasis can be placed on the structure and regulations of the right worship of God rather than on the deeper, spiritual significance of our love for Him. This is precisely what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel today. The Pharisees, who in a sense had become obsessed with the blind observance of external worship, had forgotten that external worship must be an expression of inward love of God. When our practice of religion is not infused with a true love of God, then it will soon become corrupt and lifeless. Jesus beckons them, and He beckons us, to guard against this.
Spirituality without religion is unhuman and dishonest, and religion without spirituality is hypocritical and dead. When the two are in tandem, however, they give rise to great holiness in a person. Because the body expresses what the spirit believes, a person can offer his or her whole self to God as an offering of love. This is exactly what St. James is getting at when he talks about religion that is pure and undefiled, and that is precisely what our Lord is getting at when he calls out the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. We must fight the temptation, however, to regard our love for God as merely an internal or personal reality. It must be this, but it must also be external and communal.
Many times people have come up to me and said, “Father, why do I have to come to church…I can worship God in the forest or the golf course.” This is true…we can and we must worship God always and everywhere – but if we do not externalize this worship frequently and regularly, if we do not come together and put everything else aside to intentionally and deliberately offer our bodies and souls to God at Mass, then there is something essentially missing in our love for God. Likewise, if we come to every Mass and devotion and activity at church, but never inwardly and interiorly give ourselves over to God, then we’re lifeless puppets.
A friend of mine once put it this way. Being spiritual without being religious is like loving to eat without bothering to cook…you benefit from the hard work of others, loving the pleasure that food brings but never really learning to love food itself. Being religious without being spiritual is like loving to cook without bothering to eat…you understand food and how ingredients work together, loving the balance and the harmony of flavor but also never really learning to love food itself. The good Catholic is spiritual because he is religious and religious because he is spiritual…the good Catholic never shortchanges himself, he has his cakes and eats it to, loving every minute of it, and shows others how to the do the same.