What is the purpose of religion and spirituality? Ask a dozen people and you may get a dozen different answers, but three major themes come up again and again: 1. To cultivate a right relationship with the Divine, 2. To become a better person on a deep level, 3. To become better able to serve in the world.
When I was growing up as a devout girl in a non-denominational Protestant church, these three aspects of spirituality were presented as interlocking parts of a complete system. Through cultivating a right relationship with God, I became a better person, and a result of that I was inspired to behave ethically in the world. But when I got older and found myself outside the church, I seldom found those three aspects presented in such a neat package. In fact, it was rare to find all three elements in one place, which confused and sometimes frustrated me. It has only been during the past few months that I have come to understand that they are in fact distinct areas of focus.
Each of these elements and the practices which support them are complex and rich enough to take a whole book to discuss them. I don’t want this post to be too long, so I’m going to provide some introductory thoughts for now and address each in more detail in future entries.
Right Relationship with the Divine
At its most basic level, religion is a description of what people believe to be the nature of the Holy Powers and the best ways to interact with Them. As with human relationships, attention, good communication, and respect lay the groundwork for a stronger and richer connection.
How do we know what our gods want from us? By paying attention. For me, the first step is always the combination of prayer – directing my mind, heart, and soul to the Divine – and expressing a desire for deeper relationship, for clearer understanding, and then listening for a response. No, it doesn’t always come as quickly or distinctly as I would like, but it comes more often than many people would expect. Inner journeying or pathworking can also be used to seek out the Powers and engage with Them. With any internal work, good discernment – the testing of what you perceive – is critically important.
I think most of us believe that humanity as a whole could be more loving, more wise, more just, and more generous. As individuals we aspire to be kind, honest, patient, and brave, and while we do enjoy some success, we also fall short far more than we would like. After all, we comfort ourselves. We’re only human. The second element of spirituality is the quest for the regeneration or purification of the spirit, a process called The Great Work by the alchemists and occultists: to become the highest and best person it is possible to be, through association with the Divine.
Contemplative prayer is the quintessential practice in this area. By seeking out the presence of the Divine and then opening one’s deepest self to spiritual communion, the human soul is gradually and gently brought into closer alignment with the Holy. Theurgy or High Magic is the use of ritual to produce the same effect through focused, intentional, symbolic action, in a group or alone.
Service to the World
To me, this is the test of how authentic our work in first two areas has been. The final stage of the hero’s journey is to return to his community and share the treasures he gained during his quest. The culmination of the Grail Quest is the healing of the Wasteland. The password for admittance to the ancient Mysteries was “I seek to learn in order to serve.” If all I gain from my spiritual practices are fuzzy good feelings – or even ecstatic visions – and I do not take the next step to somehow use what I have gained to benefit others, then I have failed. Self-centeredness, complacency, and indifference to the suffering of others are indications of spiritual failing.
To practice service, find a need you can fill, a pain you can ease, an injustice you can address, and then take action. Sometimes one acts from a sense of duty rather than a warm-hearted impulse, and that’s okay. This isn’t about making ourselves feel good (although of course that often happens), it’s about meeting the needs of those beyond ourselves. Praying for others is also a form of service, but I don’t think it should be an excuse for not also being active in the world, insofar as one’s circumstances allow.
I use the term “threads” because these three elements are distinct but interwoven aspects of the spiritual life. They are universal, applicable to any path that recognizes the existence and importance of the Divine. Some people will have a greater affinity for one thread than the others, but all three are essential components of a vibrant and balanced spiritual life.
Thanks for reading!
Do you agree? Disagree? Have questions? Want to share your own perspective and experience? Please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you!
Would you like help learning new spiritual practices or cultivating depth and balance in your own spiritual life? As a Spiritual Director, I can help.