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As most of you know, there are a growing number of people who have begun to identify as “spiritual but not religious.” I have always suspected that this phrase really covers a diverse group of people, some who are closer to agnosticism but don’t want to admit it, and others who practice a faith periodically but don’t want to identify with it too closely.
I have also anecdotally believed that the phrase “spiritual but not religious” is rarely used by people who actually implement many spiritual practices in their lives. But I think that the people who use the phrase genuinely want to be more spiritual, which is why they use it. The phrase simultaneously communicates an alienation from God (exhibited in a detachment from most spiritual practices) and a genuine desire to be in relationship with him.
I recently read an interesting study conducted a few years ago by a sociologist of religion, Nancy Ammerman, which confirmed this. Her study found that most of the people who are “spiritual” depend very much on religious traditions and practices. In fact, she found that the people who were “most active in organized religion were also the most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world.” She also discovered that “the people with the most robust sense of sacred presence are those who participate in religious activities that allow for conversation and relationship.”
In other words, it would seem that the “spiritual” in “spiritual but not religious” is actually quite dependent on participation in a religious tradition.
Our individualistic, relativistic culture naturally leads to a Gnostic desire to separate religious practices (body), associated with dogma and rules, from spirituality (soul), which is associated with relationship with God. But our human reality simply does not allow that to happen. We are both body and soul. If we don’t use our body in the spiritual life, our souls suffer.
A simple way to explain this lies with our secular understanding of forming a habit. If we want to be healthy, it is not enough to wish to be healthy, or even to just develop psychological mindsets that are healthy. Health involves both our body and our mind. And they are interrelated.
Why would we think spirituality is any different?
A “spiritual but not religious” person is much like a very emotionally mature person who watches Netflix all day, eats junk food, doesn’t have a job, and spends most of his time on the couch. Not many people like that exist, because health in mind and body are interrelated, just as spirituality and religion are inseparable.
And let’s face it, established religious traditions have thousands of years of experience and accumulated knowledge in the area of spiritual growth. It just doesn’t make sense to reject that wisdom if relationship with God is actually important to a person.
Since this is true, I believe that there are a lot of “spiritual but not religious” people out there who are thirsting for more “spirituality” but are really not sure how to attain it. And the easy answer is: religion.
Were you raised Catholic but identify as “spiritual but not religious”?
Do you know someone who is “spiritual but not religious”?
Are you a semi-regular to regular Mass-goer but are searching for more?
Here are three religious practices you can develop that may help in your spiritual life:
- Practice a Daily Examen: This practice has ancient roots and has been practiced for centuries by people who are serious about developing spiritually. It typically involves five steps in which we place ourselves in God’s presence and review our day. This prayer is not a time to “beat ourselves up” but to review the day in thanksgiving and ask God for the grace to do better in the areas where we are not spiritually mature. This prayer helps us to grow in virtue and develop an attitude of gratitude. If you want to do it effectively, set a time for the prayer and make sure you stick to it every day.
- Take a Rosary Walk: Many “spiritual but not religious” people find God in nature and this is totally understandable. I converted from atheism shortly after working on a farm every day for several months; it wasn’t a coincidence. So, a way to combine religious practices with nature is to pray, not just to feel a surge of gratitude and awe in the moment, but to meditatively pray while walking or hiking. The Rosary is a great review of some of the basic events in the Gospels and I have found that walking outside while praying the Rosary is one of my favorite ways to pray this age-old prayer.
- Eucharistic Adoration: Look up a chapel in your area. If you can’t find a chapel, find out when your local church is open. You may not believe in the Eucharist. You may not even know what it is, beyond a vague memory of First Communion. But try it out. Going to a Eucharistic Adoration chapel is a great way to structure a prayer time. Commit to go once a week for an hour. Sit in God’s presence. Don’t stress too much about what you should be doing or thinking. Just talk to God like you would a friend. Then just sit in silence and let the presence of God envelop you. Don’t fight the doubts that might bubble up in your mind. Just let them float away while you are wrapped in the silence.
Of course, let’s face it; I’m a nun so if you are a Catholic who has not been to Mass in a while, I hope that you consider coming back. But if you are wary of that but thirsty to actually integrate some spiritual practices into your life, this is a good beginning and not quite as intimidating as coming back to Mass on Sunday and sitting in the back pew.
Although, maybe that’s not such a bad idea.
If you are Catholic and have friends you want to invite back to the Church but are not sure how, you might want to check out my book The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church.