To the Very Source of Light

Joan Chittister
Joan ChittesterReligion is meant to be light, sign, watermark, path. Religion becomes a map to a place no one has ever been. But the going on is up to me. And the way I go on is my spirituality.

For some, spirituality lies in the awareness of God in nature. For some, the cosmic God emerges through a life of service. For others, spirituality involves the development of meditative states that open the door to the nothingness that our complex and complicated lives otherwise obstruct. But for everyone, spirituality is not what we do to satisfy the requirements of a religion; it is the way we come into contact with the holy.  However we do it, whatever form or shape it takes—the mantra of devotions, the rhythms of nature, the faces of the other, the mysterious nothingness of deep meditation—spirituality makes real what religion talks about.

Religion is meant to bring us to spirituality. But spirituality brings people to religion, as well. Some people who haven’t gone to church for years are still very tied to it in psychological ways and never go beyond it. Others go to church or services every week and know that though their bodies are one place, their souls are another. Many go to church, but go other places, too, in order to satisfy the spiritual needs in them that their churches do not. In every audience I meet, someone comes up to tell me that they “were a Catholic once.” And I know as I hear the words, that down deep, more than likely, in some ways, they still are, despite themselves. What forms us lives in us forever. The important thing is that it not be allowed to stunt our growth.

Ironically, we often forget the very attitude most essential to the spiritual search: God is greater than religion. God is the spirit within us that calls us to the deep, conscious living of a spiritual life. God is the question that drives us beyond facile answers. God is the invisible vision that drives us to the immersion of the self in God.

Religion is the mooring of the soul. Spirituality is its lodestone. Religion is, at best, external. Spirituality is the internal distillation of this externalized witness to the divine. Spirituality is what galvanizes us to do more than go through the motions. It spurs us to fill up the lack we feel within us. It is the desire for wholeness that evades us. It is the burning need to find the more.

Called to QuestionThe very purpose of religion is to enable us to step off into the uncharted emptiness that is the spiritual life, freely but not untethered. We have under our feet the promise of the tradition that formed us and the disciplines that shaped our souls. We can then wander through the pantheon of spiritual traditions freely, going deeper and deeper into every question from every direction. in the end, then, we become more, not less, of what we ourselves know to be our own religious identity.

It isn’t so much that people leave religion, I think, as it is that, like Olympic runners on a mission, they come to a moment in life when they go on beyond the system to the very source of the light. It is the plight of the mystic to enter the universe of God alone where no charts or maps or signs exist to guide us and assure us of the way. It is a serious and disturbing moment, one after which we are never quite the same.

      — from Called to Question by Joan Chittister (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc)

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