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Spiritual Wisdom in A Light-Hearted, Entertaining Fable: Thaddeus Squirrel #BookReview and #AuthorInterview

Thanks to Becca Chopra who reviewed my book for her “Inspirational Book Blog”. She also interviewed me and had some great questions that tell the story behind the story. The review and interview are posted below:

Becca's Inspirational Book Blog

thaddeus_squirrel_frontHow does passion lead to purpose? In Tom Rapsas’ new book, Thaddeus Squirrel: A Spiritual Fable, the main character realizes that working day and night foraging for acorns, more than he would ever need, is meaningless to him. He ends up running away from his tribe of squirrels as he’s not accepted for his difference of opinion. On his journey, he is gravely injured by a dog, then cared for by a group of chipmunks who have wisdom to share.

The chipmunk who saved his life, Sol, is a sage old guy who starts offering Thaddeus new questions to peruse and new ideas to consider… ultimately, that his life has meaning, and it’s up to him to find that meaning within himself.

Sol says, “I’m going to do more than tell you about the meaning of life. I’ll show you how to find it, first-hand… the meaning for you may…

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My new book for young adults, the spiritual fable Thaddeus Squirrel.

thaddeus_squirrel_frontI recently published a new book, the spiritual fable Thaddeus Squirrel. It’s a book that was over 10 years in the making which requires a short explanation.

When my daughter was a little girl, I used to tell her fairy tales at night, some from books, but many that came from my own imagination. About that time, I started traveling a lot for work, which made it tough to tell her these stories–though I did the best I could, sometimes telling them over the phone, other times mailing her the stories to read on her own.

It struck me that I should publish one of these tales as a book. Only work, and life, continued to get in the way. Every few months, I would go back to work on the book, only to be sidetracked yet again. At one point, a year went by without me even looking at it.

The funny thing about the book though is that as I was writing it, my target group of one, my daughter, was growing older. So the story began to grow a little more elaborate with deeper thoughts on spirituality and the role of God in our lives. And by the time I completed it, the final product was no longer for children, but for teens and young adults.

You can find the book at Amazon in both paperback and Kindle versions–which brings me to an important announcement: In my haste to publish the book before my self-imposed deadline of 12/31/16, the first release contained several typos. The typos have now been fixed, but as of 2/20/17 I have 2 remaining copies that contain a few small errors. I’m giving them away. Be one of the first two people to contact me at tomrapsas@gmail.com with your address, and I’ll ship you a free copy.

“Dear God, I’m doing the best I can.” (Remembering Huston Smith)

To readers of The Inner Way: First, a sincere thank you for reading. Second, as some of you know I write a regular weekly column at Patheos called Wake Up Call. My duties there have kept me from updating this site as often as I would like. In the future, I’ll be posting a story-of-the-month here once monthly. For more regular updates, you can sign-up for the Wake Up Call newsletter in the right hand column of this page.

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Huston Smith, 2005, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the great religious scholar of our time died recently in Berkeley, California. His name was Huston Smith and he lived until the age of 97.

I know Smith primarily through the book The World’s Religions. Originally titled The Religions of Man, it has sold over 3 million copies since it was first published in 1958. There is a well-worn copy sitting on my bookshelf and I refer to it when I need a quick lesson or refresher on the beliefs of other faiths, whether it be Taoism, Sufism or the primal religions of Australia.

Smith wrote over a dozen books and what made him such a good writer was his ability to take complex belief systems and explain them in simple terms. But he did more than just write about religion—Smith himself practiced within many faiths and religions, in what some call “interspirituality”, believing that all the world’s religions were compatible.

I’m sure he would have agreed with the contemporary scholar Mirabai Starr who believes in “the oneness at the heart of all religious traditions.” Starr does not differentiate between the faiths. She seeks “…the source of Love itself. I catch whiffs of this great beauty in every one of the world’s spiritual traditions.”

Huston Smith led an adventurous spiritual life, experiencing first-hand the many ways in which we connect with the Divine. While he was a church-going Methodist, he celebrated the Sabbath with a daughter who had converted to Judaism. He prayed in Arabic to Mecca five times a day. His spiritual resume, as reported in the NY Times, also included the following:

  • As a college student, he became a missionary and was later ordained a Methodist minister. He soon realized that he had no desire to “Christianize the world,” he would rather teach than preach.
  • As a philosophy teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he ate psilocybin mushrooms with Timothy Leary more than once, reporting that “he had a personal experience with God.”
  • He meditated with Tibetan Buddhist monks, practiced yoga with Hindu holy men and whirled with ecstatic Sufi Islamic dervishes. He helped introduce the Dalai Lama to Americans.

But maybe the most thought-provoking thing I read in the obituary of Huston Smith was this: His favorite prayer was written by a 9-year-old boy whose mother had found it scribbled on a piece of paper beside his bed. It read:

Dear God, I’m doing the best I can.

At first glance, I wondered how this child’s prayer could be the favorite of a man so versed in the world’s religious traditions. After all, Smith’s entire life was dedicated to connecting with God and helping others do the same. But it dawned on me that for all his accomplishments, Smith maintained a modest view of his relationship with the Creator.

This prayer was Smith’s humble way of telling God, and perhaps reminding himself, that he was not perfect or knew for certain if he had achieved his life-long quest to learn and teach us all he could about the many ways we access the Divine. The prayer also reminds me of the words of John Templeton, as I believe they apply to Smith:

As we become more willing to release the personal ego, we open the door to greater communication with God. One who is humble and grateful for all God-given blessings opens the door to heaven and earth now.

We too might take Huston Smith’s prayer to heart during our own moments of meditation and contemplation. Dear God, I’m doing the best I can. It is a reminder that while there is much that we do in our attempt to live a full and rich spiritual life, there is much that can still be done.

I recently published the spiritual fable Thaddeus Squirrel. You can learn about it here.

Wise words from Canada—and the smartest guy you never heard of.

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By Provincial Archives of Alberta, via Wikimedia Commons

This story first appeared July 27, 2016, at Patheos where I write a regular weekly column called Wake Up Call.

I’ve honored the deceased recently, including my buddy Terry, a good man who passed away at 55 from a sudden heart attack, and my wise expat friend from France, John, who passed away in April. Now it’s time to honor the living—a guy who I feared might have joined Terry and John.

There’s a blogger from Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada by the name of Ivon Prefontaine. He gave me a jolt a few days ago when I suddenly realized I had not received a blog update from him in several weeks. For a few years now, I’ve looked forward to his regular e-mail missives and when I went to his Web site, Teacher as Transformer, there were no signs of activity since late-May.

It didn’t seem right, someone who blogged frequently to suddenly go silent, so I reached out to Ivon—and discovered he is alive and well. He informed me he is busy finishing a book, which has taken up a lot of his time, so had put his blog on hold.

Ivon is a writer and fan of poetry, neither of which I can say about myself, and he regularly shares poems he admires. But what pulls me into his blog posts aren’t the poems themselves, but his writings about them, which are full of great depth and insight. For me, they put a context around the words, and are often are more illuminating than the poetry itself.

Without further adieu, here are four examples of Ivon Prefontaine’s writings from his Web site:

Freedom to Choose

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space there is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom. ~Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and neurologist who developed a school of psychiatry called logotherapy, which is the search for meaning in life. He used his experiences as a Holocaust survivor to help inform his findings.

Humans choose their responses and seek life’s meaning. When we lose our meaning in life, we drift, feeling rudderless and without mooring. What keeps us grounded are the choices we make in life and the meaning we find in life. For example, becoming a teacher, a farmer, a parent, etc. gives life purpose and calls us to take action.

We express who we are through responding to the continuous calling, the vocation, that we find through various meaningful roles. When and if we find our life’s meaning, it allows us to make a difference in the world, for other sentient beings, and for the non-sentient elements of the world. We care for all aspects of the world and feel connected to it.

Thomas Merton suggested some humans find their calling and others search throughout life, unable to find it. Perhaps, it is they do not hear what calls them and are unable to respond. Mindfulness and silence open spaces to hear the calls that give our lives meaning and make living meaningful.

Lost

 I sometimes feel lost in the world, without bearings. David Wagoner counseled that when we feel lost, to stop and listen to the world, as if it were the forest and a powerful stranger able to speak to us.

When I stop and pray, I ask someone for help, but, if I rush on, without listening, the prayer cannot be answered. I pose a question that I cannot answer. Prayer is not just speaking. My heart opens and receives what is returned to me.

Is it in the form of words? Or, is it the gentle breath that is hardly perceptible? When I am mindful and listen to listen, I intuitively sense differences. Mindfulness becomes an attentive and sensitive way of life, as opposed to just happening.

Still Point

Max Reif describes the rush of life and the calling of nature somehow overriding that rush. The poem reminded me of biblical passage from Matthew 6:28 describing lilies as just being.

What is my hurry? What roots me in this place and time? I overlook the depth of those questions. I enjoy reading Wendell Berry’s essays about farming. He reminds me that farming is a love of place and time. The small farm is home for people and nature. There is no separation.

My mother said farmers do not need Daily Savings Time. Depending on the time of the year, they understand their work based on the time and space they are in at that moment. When I think of the world as unpatterned, I sense its majestic wholeness and not compartments, rendering them virtual.

 Leaving home

for work

each day

I hear the trees

say “What’s your hurry?”

Rooted, they

don’t understand

how in my world

we have to rush

to keep in step.

I haven’t even time

to stop and tell them

how on weekends, too,

schedules wait

like nets.

It’s only on a sick day

when I have to venture out

to pick up medicine

that I understand the trees,

there in all their fullness

in a world unpatterned

full of moments,

full of spaces,

every space

a choice.

This day

has not

been turned yet

on the lathe

this day

lies open, light

and shadow. Breath

fills the body easily.

I step

into a world

waiting like

a quiet lover.

Prayer of St. Francis

Kathy and I celebrate our 40th anniversary this weekend and we are on our way to Alaska. We used The Prayer of St. Francis (Peace Prayer) as a reading for our wedding mass. As well, we have an inexpensive plaque that sits on a dresser in our bedroom. My mother gave it to us many years ago. When we celebrated my mother’s funeral mass a year ago, we read the prayer, as well.

When I was in Spokane for extended periods, I posted a copy of the prayer on my bedroom wall. It serves as a daily reminder of what we are capable of as humans in relationship with one another, the world, and God in our moment-to-moment living.

The prayer is about the travails and their rewards that we undertake. When I think about love, I recall Thomas Merton‘s saying we call it falling in love for a reason. We open ourselves, risk being hurt, and the rewards are worthwhile. We mind, care, and attend to people and things.

 Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is error, the truth;

Where there is doubt, the faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

Grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled, as to console;

To be understood, as to understand;

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

 To see more of Ivon Prefontaine’s writings, you can visit his Web site here.

60-Second Inspiration: The Value of Praying for Nothing.

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Arron Burden vis unsplash.com

Each morning, I say the prayer of gratitude. Along with my early morning run, it’s one of the most important things I do all day. I give thanks for all the good things in my life—my family, my health, my home, the new day, and whatever new person or event that has come into my life.

But there’s another prayer I’ve recently added to the mix and I think it’s equally important. In the title I’ve referred to it as the Prayer for Nothing but it’s really The Prayer for the Best Possible Outcome. Here’s the thinking behind it:

We do not have crystal balls and cannot see the future. Yet, we often pray for things. We pray that we’ll get that new job or promotion, we pray that we’ll get that new home or maybe that a new relationship will blossom. But what we don’t know is if that thing we pray for will really make our lives better.

Will the new job end up requiring late nights and weekends that costs us precious family time? Will the new home come with issues that we didn’t notice at first glance? Will the new significant other keep us from connecting with the person we really should be with?

What I’m proposing is that we instead pray for the best possible outcome. That means not praying for anything specific to happen, only for what is best for us and our lives. This takes the decision making out of our hands and puts it in the hands of a higher power.

This follows the lead of the great American spiritual philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. He believed there was a subtle order of divinity that lay behind our everyday world and that it served us a source of knowledge and power. Through prayer, we tap into this source and can receive the guidance we need in life. According to Emerson:

A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher power than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong.

The early 20th Century “New Thought” philosopher Ralph Waldo Trine, writing about 50 years after Emerson, has similar advice. That if we allow the “Divine Power” to work through us, we will be directed to the best possible outcomes. In his words:

Know that the ever-conscious realization of the essential oneness of each life with the Divine Life is the highest of all knowledge, and that to open ourselves as opportune channels for the Divine Power to work in and through us is the open door to the highest attainment, and to the best there is in life.

For more on prayer, please see my story “Three prayers that can help you daily, starting today.” Or to read about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s take on how we can receive answers to our prayers, see: “You already know how to talk to God. Here’s how to listen.

This story previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos.

Why Spirituality is a Better Escape Than Drinking, Sex or Drugs.

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Joanie Cahill via freeimages.com

What’s your favorite form of “escape”? Personally, I’m a big fan of craft beers. In fact, I’m sipping a Flying Dog Mango Habanero IPA as I write this and it tastes pretty darn delicious. But I fully realize that drinking has a funny, often detrimental effect on some people.

I recall once having a conversation with an EST-trained co-worker sipping a diet soda at a party. I was aware she was a recovering alcoholic and asked her what would happen if she had a beer or glass of wine. She told me it would lead to another and another—and later that night I would find her on a corner uptown trying to buy crack. I thought she was kidding, she wasn’t, and I abruptly changed the subject.

There’s a spirituality writer by the name of Chris Grosso who has had his own share of “overindulgence” problems, which he has chronicled in a couple of books including Everything Mind. He writes about the man he once was—a guy constantly looking for the next drink, the next high, ruining family and personal relationships along the way.

After he hits an especially craggy rock bottom, Grosso comes to the realization that a deeper engagement with his spiritual practice is the only way out. When it comes to drugs or drinking or sex, or even less discussed addictions like online gaming or porn, he concludes:

No activity will ever provide a lasting source of peace, happiness or contentment like spirituality will.

For me, the key part of this statement is “a lasting source”. And as much as I personally like the buzz provided by a few high-octane craft beers, it’s something I primarily reserve for the weekend, and not an activity I can turn to each moment of each day for solace. (Instead, I use these quick stress releases.)

You might also wonder what Grosso means by “spirituality”. The author favors Meister Eckhardt’s definition that “to be spiritual is to be awake and alive”. For him, this includes any activities that “wake me up” like running, meditation and spiritual reading, from the heady writings of Ken Wilber to the dark poetry of Charles Bukowski.

Grosso stresses again and again the need for us to find our own truth and explore what spiritual activities resonate for us. He writes that “there are a number of different ways, paths, beliefs that are available” and that the alternative is “a life lived grasping at external objects for fleeting happiness”.

So how does one avoid the “grasping”? If you want to stay grounded, and live life alert and aware, the key is to develop a regular spiritual practice. Personally, I have a morning ritual that covers some of the same bases as Grosso, as well as acts as simple as spending a few moments alone in quiet contemplation in the early morning hours with a cup of freshly-brewed coffee.

The bottom line is you’ve got to take action. Drinking and drugging and having sex are activities—and if you feel like you’re overly dependent on any one of them, you need to curtail the activity and fill the void with an alternate diversion. Toward that end, Grosso cites this call-to-arms by Ken Wilber:

Nobody will save you but you. You have to engage your own contemplative development. Spiritual development is not a matter of mere belief. It is a matter of actual, prolonged difficult growth, and merely professing belief is meaningless and without impact. Reality is not interested in your beliefs; it’s interested in your actions.

If you don’t have a spiritual practice, that means starting your own today. You may want to follow the lead of my colleague Thomas Moore who has put together an inspiring 10-point guide to starting your own practice. Use it as guidance, but remember, as Grosso reminds us, we must always create our own unique path, our own individual way of finding the God within us.

In parting, here are three smart rules to live by each day that I culled from Grosso’s writings:

  1. Learn to live mindfully with the acceptance of whatever life hands you.
  2. Stop to see the beauty, wonder and interconnectedness of all things.
  3. Cultivate a greater sense of loving-kindness for yourself as well as others.

“Jesus is just like you and me”: the radical message of R. W. Emerson.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagine graduating from one of the top religious schools in the country, entering the ministry, and after a few years deciding the job isn’t right for you. You find yourself troubled by public prayer, the act of communion, and most of all by the formality and stiffness of the church service itself.

Well, if you’re 29-year old Ralph Waldo Emerson, you quit your job as a minister at a Unitarian church and chart a new course. You start writing essays and lecturing, you publish your first book, and little by little, you begin attracting attention—and for good reason. It’s the 183os and your message is unlike anything most Americans have ever heard.

You see, Emerson believes that God does not dwell up in the heavens, but is within each of us:

“The highest revelation is that God is in every man.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

On top of that that Emerson also believes that “while Jesus was a great man, he was not God”. In fact, Jesus is just like you and me. He says that:

  • We possess the same divine spark as Jesus.
  • We share the same connection to God as Jesus.
  • We can communicate with God just like Jesus did.

And for good measure, Emerson discounts any biblical miracles involving Jesus as pure fiction.

So given his thinking, which was contrary to the beliefs of every other religious or spiritual leader of his time, it’s surprising that six years after leaving the church, Emerson is invited to deliver a commencement speech to his alma mater. It’s known as the “Harvard Divinity School Address” and in it he talks about faith—and how the church extinguishes it.

The test of the true faith should be its power to charm and command the soul…faith should blend with the light of rising and setting suns, the singing bird and the breath of flowers. But now the priest’s Sabbath has lost the splendor of nature; it is unlovely, we are glad when it is done…we shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us.

Emerson’s solution is not to improve the church service, but to rely on our inner selves and the grandeur of nature as conduits to the divine. He instructs his audience of graduating religious students to establish their own relationship with God.

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone…dare to love God without mediator or veil…trust thyself…that which shows God in me, fortifies me. O my friends, there are resources in us on which we have not drawn.

As you might expect, the speech was not well received, at least not by those in power. Emerson was denounced as an “atheist” and “a poisoner of young men’s minds”. But what he had done bears some resemblance to Jesus’s act of turning over the moneychangers tables in the temple—Emerson saw what he believed was a spiritually bankrupt status quo, and fearlessly tried to disrupt it.

Closing Note: How Emerson communicated with God.

Emerson believed in something he referred to as “lowly listening”, a way to access God within us and get the guidance and comfort we need, through solitude, stillness and reflection. Emerson’s favorite place to do this was out in nature, but it can really be done anywhere you can reach a quiet and peaceful state. In Emerson’s words:

Belief and love—a believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe.

The whole course of things goes to teach us faith. We need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

For some past stories I wrote on the life and philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, see here or here.

My wise 86-year old friend just passed away. Here are his final words.

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John on the Pacific Palisades circa 1968, about the time he packed up and moved from California to France.

I first met John Gray in early-2014. He was a reader of this column and we began a regular exchange of ideas via e-mail. I soon found myself collecting some of his choicest sayings and, to his great enjoyment, wrote a story about him titled Musings on God and Life from an 85-Year Old Expat Living in France.

Over the past several months, his once lengthy e-mails grew shorter, his responses more clipped. He had been in the hospital, was receiving some sort of treatment–and then the messages stopped altogether. I recently received a note from his daughter that John had passed away.

I had saved a few of John’s more recent e-mails—and when I cut-and-pasted the best parts into a single document, I realized they read like a complete letter. With a little editing, I pieced together the parting message that John would have surely liked to share with others, had we been able to discuss it.

One of the more interesting parts of John’s backstory is that he left Los Angeles in the 1960s and moved to a small village in France, never to return to the US. But rather than escape from the world, it turns out that John ended up embracing it. I’ll let his words speak for himself, as I bid my friend a fond farewell.

For some context, the letter begins with John encouraging me to enjoy an upcoming vacation after a tough stretch at work. We had previous conversations on the nature of God, and he continues that dialog here.

Hello my dear friend,

Take some time off, you’re not missing anything. Or have you forgotten what that was? Do you have time like Thoreau or Burroughs to know all the different bird calls, to listen to the silence? Are those days gone forever?

As for me, I live my life as best I can, helping my neighbors and friends in my simple way. I believe that God resides in my own being and manifests itself in my acts of kindness, my simple sincerity, trying to respect each person I meet just as they are—prying smiles, tenderness and love out of them; softening their hatreds, their prejudices, their frustrations of the moment.

How I do this is simple. I smile, shake their hands and cheer them up! It is my contribution to humanity and it costs nothing. I try to live each day, in spite of the ugliness I see in our world, with friendship and kindness to all I encounter. I love showing affection to all and my being kind to the hobo on the bench, my complimenting a friend, my feeding the animals and birds, all of these things are the beauty in me that I am sharing.

I do not know where this love and tenderness, compassion and caring, and these other wonderful instincts that perhaps all of us have comes from. Perhaps we accumulate it throughout our lives, each and every one of us; and with time it penetrates and reaches our souls.

So many times joy and happiness swell up inside me, especially when I see a gentle gesture from one toward another. I feel it when I am looking at beautiful paintings, scenes in Nature, a happy couple holding hands walking in the park. I wonder about even the trees who must dread the tornados and dry spells. This idea is not absurd, for even plants seem to react to the love and care of the human hand.

But if God is within us, why is it just in some of us? It is not religion that instills this in Man, it comes from within and why some have it and not others, we do not know. Were the great painters and writers and romantics like us given something special or is it just a quirk of Nature? Is it God or an omniscient power?

This, I cannot answer. But it is an instinct within me that has prevailed my whole life. Whatever its origin, it exists in me. My Dad also had it within him, so this sense of a divine presence may well be part of our genes. And along with all the other positive and beautiful human instincts, it needs to be encouraged and fed.

The spirit is indeed within us. How it flowered in me or you and the millions of others that radiate with this light will remain our mystery. I have accumulated my beliefs from Lao Tzu and our great writers throughout history whose wisdom was wise and positive. What more do we need to guide us in being good to our fellow Man?

Relax now and enjoy your freedom! Enjoy your family in depth and quiet!

Love, happiness and a big hug for all,
John

A 10-step guide to being “spiritual but not religious”.

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Contemplation by Ghassan Salman Faidi, via Wikimedia Commons

I will soon be writing about the brand new book from Thomas Moore, a modern-day translation of one of the New Testament gospels, The Book of Matthew. But as I did a little research on that book, I was reminded of Moore’s previous release, the groundbreaking A Religion of One’s Own.

If you are one of the many who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”, this book is a must-read as it lays out a blueprint by which you can develop your own spiritual practice. This is important because if you are truly serious about your spirituality, a regular routine can enrich your spiritual awareness and strengthen your faith. This practice doesn’t just replace religion, it becomes your religion and an integral part of your life.

Moore has written that he sees the world “heading for a completely secular approach to life, which is to say soulless, which is to say disaster. We need a new way to be religious, a really new way. A way that honors the traditions of the past but moves on.” And A Religion of One’s Own shows us the way, offering us guidance in building our own spiritual practice while sparking our imagination as to what being spiritual really means.

What follows is a summary of the main tenets found in A Religion of One’s Own, a 10-point list written by Thomas Moore himself. It lays out the keys to developing your own spiritual practice and offers a glimpse of what a “spiritual but not religious” life can be.

  1. Meditate. Learn a formal way of meditating, or be contemplative in nature, alone, at work, or at home.
  2. Live ethically. Do no harm and make your life a positive contribution to humanity. Work ethically for ethical companies or organizations. Change work if necessary. At least, stay on track toward a highly moral life work.
  3. Live responsively. Read the signs for who you are to be and what you are to do.
  4. Have a dream practice. Dreams give you strong hints about what’s going on and how you can adjust. Without them you have no guidance but your own consciousness, which is too limited.
  5. Be a mystic. Expand your sense of self through art and wonder. Achieve special states of awareness. Have a greater sense of self through losing yourself.
  6. Be intimate with nature. Especially take daily note of the sky: sun and moon, clouds, weather, planets, stars. Learn from animals. Be astonished by geology and plant life.
  7. Be a monk or monkess. Adapt monasticism of any variety to your daily life and to the world in which you live. Spend time carefully. Read deeply. Study. Honor the book, good food and community.
  8. Aim for bliss. Not superficial happiness or possessions or wealth. Not entertainment. But bliss: knowing you are in the right place and doing what you are meant to do.
  9. Develop a philosophy and theology of life. Think about your life. Work out some principles for yourself. Don’t follow the crowd. Take the road less taken, the narrow gate, the path you see behind you.
  10. Learn from the world’s religions and spiritual traditions. You don’t have to join or believe. Find insights and methods and beautiful expressions and images. Don’t separate secular from sacred. Make your own collection of truths and art works.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, May 11, 2016.

 

Norman Vincent Peale’s 7 life-changing words—and why some call them blasphemous.

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Norman Vincent Peale, via Wikimedia Commons

Norman Vincent Peale may be best known as the author of The Power of Positive Thinking. First published in 1952, the book went on to sell 5 million copies and is still a Top-10 “religion & spirituality” book at Amazon today. It was one of 41 books Peale wrote during a distinguished life that included receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the US, in 1984.

More than a writer, Peale was also an ordained minister. He served as head of the Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for over 50 years and preached there well into his 80s. During his tenure, the church grew from a few hundred to over 5,000 congregants and is still active today.

Now if you have ever read the work of Norman Vincent Peale, his positive aphorisms seem innocent enough. After all, who can disagree with sayings like this:

Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.

Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.

If you have zest and enthusiasm you attract zest and enthusiasm. Life does give back in kind.

Yet, despite his success as both an author and preacher, there were many in the Christian community who saw his “power of positive thinking” as downright dangerous, even cultish. For instance, consider these harsh opinions of Peale that came from three fellow religious leaders in the 1950s.

“This new cult is dangerous. Anything which corrupts the gospel hurts Christianity. And it hurts people too. It helps them to feel good while they are evading the real issues of life.” ~ Reinhold Neibuhr, Professor of Applied Christianity, Union Theological Seminary

“It has sort of a drug effect on people to be told they need not worry. They keep coming back for more. It is an escape from reality.” A. Powell Davies, pastor of All Souls’ Unitarian Church, Washington D.C.

“There is nothing humble or pious in the view this cult takes of God. God becomes sort of a master psychiatrist who will help you get out of your difficulties. The formulas and the constant reiteration of such themes as “You and God can do anything” are very nearly blasphemous.” ~Liston Pope, Dean of Yale Divinity School

To Pope’s point, Peale believed there was a simple 7-word combination that had the power to cause a dramatic and positive impact on your life. He claimed that it helped many people he knew and all you had to do was silently repeat these words throughout the day. As retold by John Templeton, this “formula for success” had the power to “erase failure, increase strength, eliminate fear and overcome self-doubt.” The words are:

I can do all things through God.

These seven words sum up Peale’s belief that all things were possible if we went about out lives with a positive attitude and recognized there was a higher power that could help us along the way. Yet, it was statements like this that ran (and still run) contrary to the beliefs of many in the religious community.

While Peale was a Christian, he believed that Jesus Christ wasn’t the only pathway to God and that no religion had a monopoly on our ability to connect with God. Take this statement from Peale that was first published in his Plus: The Magazine of Positive Thinking:

Who is God? Some theological being? He is so much greater than theology. God is vitality. God is life. God is energy. As you breathe God in, as you visualize His energy, you will be reenergized!

Or this thought he shared with the talk show host Phil Donahue:

It’s not necessary to be born again. You have your way to God. I have mine. I found eternal peace in a Shinto shrine…I’ve been to Shinto shrines and God is everywhere…Christ is one of the ways! God is everywhere.

God is a source of energy! God can be found in a non-Christian religion! God is everywhere! Blasphemy say the critics! Yet, I find it all very refreshing. It takes the concept of God beyond the rigid dogma of religion and positions this higher power as a powerful force in our everyday lives–one that’s available not to a select few, but to everyone. And what’s wrong with that?

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, May 24, 2016.