Tag Archives: God

“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.

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.

The Mystics Who Discovered God’s Hiding Place.

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St. Julian of Norwich, via Evelyn Simak

At some point in time, how many of us haven’t wondered if God really exists? We may have even echoed the voices of those who have asked God to show us a sign, any sign, that he or she is real—that our prayers aren’t going out into an empty void, that our faith isn’t a sign of some deeply ingrained ignorance.

Yet, history shows that there are those who have made this connection to a greater force, who claim to have not only sensed the presence of God, but who have felt the Divine within themselves, permeating their entire being. They are often labeled mystics and they have been around since the advent of religion.

Mysticism is defined as the knowledge of God that comes from a direct experience of God. So this knowledge is not learned from years of study or by following a specific religious protocol. It is an experience that is felt deeply and convincingly within, sometimes unexpectedly, a vision of something that is far outside the normal experiences of life.

I recently came across a now out-of-print book titled Mysticism, A Study and an Anthology by F.C. Happold, who points out that mystical experiences are common to all religions and that what stands out is not so much the differences in these experiences but their similarities.

In a prologue titled The Timeless Moment, Happold writes of several modern-day mystics he has studied and how through these supernatural experiences the mystic finds “an illumination and certainty which can rarely, if ever, be reached by the rational consciousness.” Two common themes emerge:

  1. A discovery of the unity of all things, or what Happold calls “a consciousness of the oneness of everything, a vision of the One in the All and the All in the One.” It is evidenced by the testimony here: A great peace came over me, I was conscious of a lovely, unexplainable pattern in the whole texture of things, a pattern of which everyone and everything was a part; and weaving the pattern was a Power; and that Power was what we faintly call Love.
  2. The realization that the God we are looking for, and call out to in our times of need, is found within us. Here’s another testimonial via Happold: The room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me, like light or warmth. I was overwhelmingly possessed by someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before…overall was a deep sense of peace and security and certainty.

The great bulk of Happold’s tome is devoted to the Christian mystics. He highlights over a dozen, spanning both several centuries and several countries. And what again stands out are the similarities of these experiences. I have cherry-picked a few of my favorite writers and passages below:

The French abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux: My curiosity took me to my lowest depth to look for Him, nevertheless, He was found still deeper…he had passed into my inmost parts. Only by the movement of my heart did I recognize his presence.

The philosopher Meister Eckhart (referring to the soul as the feminine “she”): She plunges into the bottomless well of the divine nature and becomes so one with God that she herself would say that she is God…where God is, there is the soul and where the soul is, there is God.

The reclusive nun Julian of Norwich: God is nearer to us than our own Soul; for He is (the) Ground in whom our Soul stands…Our Soul is kindly rooted in God in endless love.

The former-parish priest John of Ruysbroeck: Grace flows from within, and not from without; for God is more inward to us than we are to ourselves. God works in us from within outwards…not from without.

All these different mystics, separated by time and place, in the days before religious texts were widely circulated, come to conclusions that sound surprisingly alike: We are made in the image of God and when we go looking for God, we find what we seek within. It is a stirring call to arms for all of us who seek God in our daily lives—the realization that we should pause each day to locate and engage with the Divine within.

I’ll close with one more passage, from the English priest William Law and a book he wrote in the 1700s titled The Spirit of Prayer. Law believed in what he calls an “indwelling presence” and that heaven is “as near to our souls as this world is to our bodies.” What follows are his lightly edited words (replacing Law’s “thys”, “thous” and “wilts” with modern-day language):

You see, hear and feel nothing of God, because you seek Him outside yourself. You look for Him in books, in the church and outward exercises, but you will not find him until you have found him in your heart. God is already within you, living, stirring, calling, knocking at the door. Look for him in your heart and you will never search in vain, for he lives there.

This story originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, August 25, 2015.

A Priest and an Atheist Walk into a Bar. (A Story about Faith.)

Andrew Marx/freeimages.com

Andrew Marx/ freeimages.com

What is the nature of faith? Why do some of us believe that there is a God that watches over us and impacts our lives, while others believe we are alone in the world and left to our own devices?

These are questions I have been pondering since I wrote my last Patheos story on “The Third Man” phenomena. In a nutshell, it was about how certain people in life-threatening situations detect a “presence” around them that they perceive as a guardian angel. I received a few reader comments questioning this assertion, some siding with neuroscientists who believe the effect is not supernatural, but is a function of the brain.

But what does it really come down to? Faith. You either have it or you don’t, and I recently came across an anecdote that cleverly illustrates the issue. It comes the late-author David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech he gave titled This is Water. In it, Foster Wallace tells the tale of two men chatting in a bar, and their different takes on the role God plays in our lives. I’ve paraphrased the story below:

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. While they’re old friends, they have very different ideas on God—one is a priest and the other is an atheist. They begin arguing about the existence of God.

The atheist says, “Look, it’s not like I haven’t given God a chance. I even tried the prayer thing. It didn’t work.”

The priest asks with some incredulity, “Did you really pray? When did this happen?”

“Just last month,” replies the atheist. “I got caught away from the camp in a terrible blizzard. I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing. It was 50 below, and so I prayed. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m going to die if you don’t help me’.”

The priest looks at the atheist with a puzzled expression and exclaims, “Well then you must believe in God now. After all, here you are, alive!”

The atheist rolls his eyes and says, “No way, that’s not how it happened. A couple of Eskimos came wandering by and they showed me the way back to camp.”

The same story. Two different perspectives. The priest sees the man’s rescue as an act of divine intervention, while the atheist sees it as sheer happenstance, his own good fortune. Is one point-of-view correct and the other misguided? Or is it possible they both men are correct and that God’s existence is dependent on our belief—if you’re a non-believer, God ceases to exist?

I turned to my spiritual mentor, the late businessman-turned-philosopher John Templeton, for guidance on this issue and found a passage in one of his books that may provide an answer. Templeton believes that spirituality is a personal issue, based on “the unique divine experiences of the individual believer.” He wonders if there isn’t a reason why some believe in a higher power:

Can a person’s consciousness become activated through spiritual practices such as prayer? And can this activation in a person’s consciousness generate greater expressions of spirituality? Could this be what some people describe as “living the spiritual life,” rather than being “religious”?

Perhaps faith is not something we are born with, but something we activate by engaging in practices like prayer and meditation. And those who do these activities on a regular basis find that they are better able to connect with something greater than themselves, a life force that many identify as God.

The atheist did not believe it, but perhaps prayer was the key to his survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Yet, if Templeton’s adage is true, he would need to continue his practice of prayer to make his sense of faith come to life, to become fully receptive to the idea that his encounter with his rescuers on that night was more than just a stroke of good luck.

This story previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 29, 2015.

Does God have a plan for your life? Ralph Waldo Emerson has a compelling answer.

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

God’s plan for your life isn’t a map you see all at once, but a scroll unrolled a little at a time, requiring faith. ~Rick Warren, pastor and author

In Christian circles, it’s common to believe that God has a plan for your life. It’s an idea called predestination (aka religious determinism) and, as hinted at by the quote above, it basically means that all the events in your life have been predetermined by God. To back up this claim, the following Biblical passage is frequently cited:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declared the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

Now this may be comforting to some, but for a lot us this idea has a couple of issues. Problem one: What about free will? Don’t I get a say in what happens in my life? Problem two: How do I know what my plan is? Do I need to live my life on autopilot waiting for my plan to reveal itself?

Well, there are answers to these questions and they come from the person who I believe is our all-time greatest American spiritual philosopher: Ralph Waldo Emerson. It should be noted here that Emerson is a former Unitarian minister who left his post at age 29, as he could no longer live abide by the church’s rigid dogma. So his ideas are not solely Biblically-based. (See more on Emerson’s spiritual philosophy here.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was convinced we all had a preordained path in life, but also thought that you and I play a vital role in calling the shots. According to noted Emerson scholar Richard Gelhard, RWE believed in a “subtle order of divinity which lay beneath and behind the manifest world.” This meant that “human beings don’t have power…the universe does; it is full of power; flowing, waiting and accessible.

Yet Emerson also believed that “an individual who understands the laws of power can move into its flowing and allow it to wield its instruments.” In other words, by engaging with the flow of life, we can tap into this power source and use it to help guide us down the proper path.

In an essay titled Spiritual Laws, Emerson wrote that there was “guidance for each of us” that could help us “hear the right word”. He believed this higher power was self-evident if we stayed alert to our surroundings:

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, and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine.

In another passage from the same essay, Emerson more passionately states his belief in a higher power that can comfort and guide us:

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…it has so infused its strong attachment into nature that we prosper when we accept its advice.

Like Emerson, another noted American spiritual philosopher, Ram Dass, also has a belief in the power of intuition to guide us. In this passage from his book Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Ram Dass instructs us to use this inner sense of direction to our advantage:

Begin paying more attention to the inner voice of our intuition, because that’s the clue to what we should be doing. We start to listen to the tiny, intuitive whisper that the Quakers call “the still small voice within”.

My take is that Emerson’s ideas ring true: there is a personal plan for each of us to follow. If we listen to our intuition and the divine guidance we can find within, we can steer ourselves in the right direction. To help us, signposts, clues and coincidences appear along the way to verify we are on the correct life path or to help point us to a new one.

Of course, there is still free will, so you can always choose to make decisions that are strictly based on your own brain power and whims. But for me, it’s a little more comforting to know that assistance is available when and if you want it.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, January 14, 2015.

Musings on God and Life from an 85-Year Old Expat Living in France.

ManBenchHis name is Johnny and in his daydreams we meet regularly in Washington Square Park, not far from where I work in New York City. He spent a few months in the city in 1968 and has fond memories of his visit. But, this being 2014, we actually meet online. Johnny commented on one of my Wake Up Call columns several months ago and we took the conversation offline. Since then, we have been communicating almost daily via e-mail.

Johnny is an ex-Angeleno; he lived there for the first three decades of his life. He served in the Army during the Korean War, guarding high-profile prisoners of war. But when the 1960’s came, like many Americans, he became disillusioned with our country and headed for Europe. He got married, had a child, and settled in the French countryside, an expat living in a small village in Isère.

At 85 years old, Johnny is full of piss and vinegar and I mean that in the best possible sense. He is passionate about God and religion and life. He cares deeply about the state of mankind and where we are headed, as evidenced by this passage from a recent e-mail:

God has been taken out of our world of today. The feelings of humility, kindness and brotherhood of the past have also disappeared. Our individual world has collapsed where we no longer know or even care for our neighbor. They have been thrust out and the unknowns have become our obsession.

Johnny has a good heart and much wisdom to share. I’ve been collecting his thoughts via the e-mails he sends me, letting him know I would one day share his ideas with his fellow Patheos readers. And since he is beginning to think he may not have much more time in this life, I thought it an appropriate time to write this post.

I have written in the past how everyone has their own personal spiritual story. This is your story Johnny, my soul brother in France. I have lightly edited and organized your thoughts and hope I have done them justice. May we one day meet on that park bench in Washington Square Park, if not in this lifetime, in the next.

Life Wisdom from Johnny of Isère.

  • I am a peaceful man and love mankind as well as all other creatures that inhabit this planet of ours (except for crocodiles, hyenas, flies and mosquitoes).
  • Being a peaceful man I do not like violence, meanness, arrogance, jingoism, pretentious fools, know-it-alls and all the other ugly traits of our species. I greatly respect those who are humble and caring, people with love and respect for our fellowman.
  • I believe in something beyond us, something metaphysical, something that you and I and those like us believe. I believe in the goodness of Man and that he can be good and can be beautiful.
  • If God does exist, he has nothing to do with organized religions whose sole purpose is for their self-interests. They do not speak for him!
  • This true feeling of God that you search for and commune with is yours alone. You feel it personally. You believe in him and commune alone with him like the Buddhist and all the many others who have this feeling for an omnipotent power.
  • You pin your hopes on the existence of the God of Abraham whereas I place mine elsewhere—perhaps, in the unknown, or as Rod Serling said, in The Twilight Zone. But we both believe in a mystical force.
  • This higher power is like the sun, it feeds us, helping us to grow, making us feel good, causing us to want joy for all. It is this undying hope that feeds our eternal belief in God.
  • The beauty inside you is what will lead you. If God is there, He will smile down on you and your family. It will be your own belief in Him that is of importance. Your beauty is because of Him and your belief in Him.
  • It is a respect for something or someone outside of our little personhood that is important, something above and beyond our egoistical selves. It is a humbling force that keeps us respectful of earth, of nature and of all life living on this planet.
  • Concentrate on your own life and your own family and friends—that is your only world of importance—the rest, we are at the mercy of the fools that lead us, God have mercy on us!
  • We are part of those who believe in a better world without searching for metaphysical reasons to support our natural instinct. God gave us the power to do this on our very own. Let us stop blaming Him, asking Him, crying to Him! Let us, you and I and other sane persons plant our own trees.
  • The song from John Lennon says it beautifully; “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.”

This post originally appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, December 15, 2014.

Finding Meaning in the Silence of God.

James P. Carse

James P. Carse

Some books and authors try to define the nature of God and Lord knows I have tried this futile exercise myself. But in reality I believe God is undefinable, beyond our ability to be adequately explained. Albert Einstein may have described this best when he was asked to provide “the ultimate explanation of the world”. His response to this unanswerable question:

“I can not tell you in words, but I can play it on the violin.”

The words that resonate with me most on the nature of God come from writers who know they cannot define this great mystery. So they don’t give us the answers as much as they get us to ask the right questions, helping us shape our own personal concept of God, a vision of the Divine that is uniquely our own.

One writer of this ilk is James P. Carse, the former Director of Religious Studies at New York University, where he taught for over 30 years. Now retired, he wrote several books on God and religion that have fascinated me as much as they have baffled me. His arguments are often deeply intellectual, just beyond my reach, but he often makes points that get me scrambling for a pencil so I can underline them for future reference.

Toward the beginning of his book The Silence of God, Meditations on Prayer, Carse asks several questions that most people who consider themselves spiritual would love to know the answers to: Are prayers really answered? How is it possible that we could persuade God to give us what we want? Does God not already know what we want anyway?

Carse then proceeds to not really answer these questions, for the answers are truly unknowable. (As the title of his book suggests, God is silent.) But he does point us in the direction of the answers, allowing us to reach our own conclusions. It should be noted here that the silence of God does not sit well with Carse, who for years looked for proof of God, a sign from above that never materialized. In his words:

What I have experienced, and experienced repeatedly, is the silence of God. For many years, this was a distressing matter for me. I did not consider it an experience, but the absence of an experience.

Yet, in time, Carse comes to see the positive spiritual value of God’s silence. He writes that “in an encounter with divine reality we do not hear a voice but acquire a voice, and the voice we acquire is our own”. My personal take on this is that God enters our being and speaks through our own heart, so that our own voice echoes the voice of God.

There are many passages in The Silence of God that resonate with me and below I share a few of these nuggets of wisdom from Carse. I have lightly edited his words and strung them together in a loose narrative:

  • The silence of God is everywhere.
  • It is not a silence into which God has disappeared, but a silence in which God is most remarkably present.
  • God comes to us first as a listener, not a speaker. There is not a conceivable human setting in which God is not present, listening.
  • God does not come when we call. God is there, then we call.
  • We must move toward God from the heart, then God will respond. God will first wait until we do what it is possible for us to do within ourselves even if that action is exceedingly modest in scope.
  • The simplest point is that if you do speak from the heart, God listens.
  • God does not respond to us; we respond to God. God is already silent, and does not become silent when we speak.
  • To speak from the heart is to ask and to receive at the same time. Whomever you speak to from your heart you receive in your heart. You will have God in your heart—in the very act of asking.
  • It is not theology or philosophy, but only your heart that will lead you to God.

In another of his books, a series of true-life stories titled Breakfast at the Viceroy, The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience, Carse tells the story of a seeker of God from the Sufi tradition. It may well sum up his experience, as well as the experience of all of us who seek the presence of the Divine:

After a lifetime of seeking God he looked carefully and saw that he was not the seeker but the sought. In reality he was not a seeker at all; he was in flight from God. Only when he acknowledged this could he see that God was pursuing him.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, December 1, 2014.

Moving away from formal religion—toward a one-to-one relationship with God.

The_Creation_Michelangelo-150x150The problem is that we have lost religion—in the deep meaning of the word. We have formal religions that contain the seeds of genuine religiousness, but they are weakened by…fundamentalism, moralism, empty ritual, misunderstood teachings and general irrelevancy. ~Thomas Moore

Are you one of the millions worldwide who classify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”? I count myself among that group and if you’re like me, at one point in your life you were part of an organized religion. You may have attended church or religious services on a regular basis, but abandoned this practice because you just didn’t get much out of it.

Yet, the spiritual world still calls you. You have a yearning to connect with something greater than yourself. So you fill that need with a hodgepodge of spiritually-related activities. You pray and/or meditate. You read spirituality books. You take yoga, engage in mindful exercise or go outdoors to find a spiritual connection with nature.

You’re creating your own one-to-one relationship with God, a religion of your own.

One person who knows where the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) are coming from is Care of the Soul author Thomas Moore. He has written a groundbreaking new book that gives valuable instruction on how we can create and enrich our own spiritual practice. In A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, he talks about a future where we “move away from being a follower to being a creator of religion.”

Moore reminds us that we can just as easily discover the divine outside the church as inside it. In this new spiritual world, we look to formal religions for insight, but create and follow our own path.

We can, in fact, create a personal religion rooted in the practices and rituals of our own everyday lives. On this path, we treat “the natural world and everyday activities as sacred.” We sense the divine in nature, through the appreciation of art and music, by feeling “our soul stir at family gatherings and visits home, in deep friendships and romantic relationships.”

If you’re one of those of us on the SBNR path, Moore stresses that “the discovery or creation of religion of your own, is not an option. It’s a necessary step in your spiritual unfolding.” It is, in fact, a calling, a part of our essence that we cannot ignore if we want to achieve true spiritual fulfillment.

As members of the SBNR community, the key is to deepen and further enrich our spiritual practice—to move beyond paying lip-service to the “spiritual but not religious” designation and place ourselves squarely on a path of spiritual growth and development. Developing a real one-to-one relationship with God only works with our real intention and commitment to make it work.

The good news is we are not starting with a blank slate. No matter the limitations of your current practice, there is room for growth and we “don’t have to rely entirely on our originality” to enrich our spiritual pursuits. Moore instructs us that:

Language, ideas, techniques, methods and rituals are there to be borrowed. We can learn from many different traditions how to meditate, how to honor special days…how to go on a pilgrimage, how to pray, how to fast and abstain…how to forgive and heal and offer gratitude.

Among the spiritual activities Moore recommends is reading and studying classic spiritual texts, which might include teachings as diverse as the Bible to the wisdom teachings of Native Americans. He also calls out the Lectio Divina practice of the Benedictine monks, which involves four simple acts: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate.

Moore also places great importance on the use of sacraments in your practice, which he defines “as an outward sign signifying inward grace.” He calls out the example of Thoreau at Walden Pond and how he had his own set of “sacraments.” Thoreau saw acts as simple as taking a bath or rising early as connecting him with “the gods.”

The fact is, with the right intention, virtually every daily activity can be seen as a way to connect with the Divine. Moore even mentions one of my favorite soul-enriching activities: sipping a cup of coffee in the early morning hours, in quiet contemplation. The potential activities that can help you experience this connection are as endless as your imagination. Moore writes of the following historical examples:

Emerson lectured, Thoreau built a cabin and wrote a diary, Dickinson wrote poems, Kevin Kelly arranges flowers, Simone Dinnerstein plays Bach, you make gardens, I sturdy and write books. Just as we each may have a religion of our own, we may also have our own rituals and narratives and express our intuitions in ways that are most comfortable to us.

It’s all about staying “in tune with the rhythms of nature and the pulse of your life”. In following your own path, you discover, sometimes through trial and error, what activities work best for you. In time, you create a spiritual practice that is true to you, removing the veil of religion, until nothing separates you from God.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 30, 2014.

You already know how to talk to God. Here’s how to listen.

listeningLet us be silent, and we may hear the whispers of the Gods. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do devotees of the Bhagavad Gita, Evangelical Christians and this humble blogger have in common? We all believe in the power of a direct and personal relationship with God.

For me, this personal relationship means that I start most mornings with a specific ritual. After rolling (or some days, hobbling) out of bed, I flick on the coffeemaker and begin stretching, followed by a cup of coffee, a 5-minute meditation session, more coffee and a three or four-mile run.

It’s at different points during this morning routine that I find and connect with the essence of God within. It literally gives me a feeling of warmth and love inside and gets me ready for the day ahead, hopefully to spread the compassion and good vibes I feel to everyone I encounter. Oh—and to borrow a phrase from a colleague, I have a conversation with God.

Now, this is not a traditional conversation, as it’s usually wordless and involves a lot more listening than talking. I simply ask for guidance in whatever single area of my life most needs it most. And while this may sound kooky to those less spiritually-inclined, I’m practicing a tradition that has been around for some time (see John 10:27) and recommended by some of the leading spiritual lights of our age.

One regular conversationalist with God was Ralph Trine, an early New Thought Movement leader. Trine believed there was a “divine inflow” that we all could tap into for guidance and advice on any life matter. In his great, forgotten classic In Tune with the Infinite, which early last century sold over two million copies, Trine wrote:

It is through your own soul that the voice of God speaks to you. This is the interior guide.

More recently, the modern-day poet and wise man Ivon Prefontaine explained it this way:

Regardless of faith and even when we do not have it, there still exists a source deep within each of us that when we touch it and let it speak to us is able to guide us in wonderful and amazing ways.

Perhaps our greatest American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, also believed there was a source of guidance available to us all called the “divine soul.” Emerson had his own way of communicating with this source, which he referred to as “lowly listening” (more on that later):

There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man…we prosper when we accept its advice…we need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

When it comes to talking and listening to God, I’ve distilled my personal process down to three steps—but by no means do I want to make this sound easy. It probably took me a decade or so to perfect the first step. Step two came much faster, as did step three though I know this can be a tricky one for a lot of people. Here goes:

1. Go to a place where you can quiet the mind and be still.

Unless you walk around in a perpetual state of Zen, this is a necessary first step. And as a Patheos reader, you probably already have a good idea what technique for quieting the mind works best for you. (If not, try this one.)

For me, I’m best able to quiet my mind by focusing on my breathing via meditation or by taking a brisk run along the river that lines my neighborhood. But there are many other ways to get there, as well. As Douglas Block points out in his book Listening to Your Inner Voice:

You can achieve this stillness through any process that relaxes you and slows down your thoughts—meditation, visualization, long walks, exercise, driving on a country road.

2. Engage in what Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to as “lowly listening.”

It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Once in a relaxed state, put your concern out to God. Then, while not trying too hard, “listen” within. Scholar and author Richard Geldard, who has written two books on Emerson’s philosophy, explains what happens during this lowly listening phase:

Solitude, stillness, reflection, judgement and understanding all come together to guide us.

Emerson discussed the process of lowly listening is in one of a series of essays titled Spiritual Laws. He wrote:

Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which flows into you as life, place yourself in the full center of that flood, then you are without effort impelled to truth, to right, and a perfect contentment.

The key is listening. As author Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee points out in his thought-provoking book Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism
:

Learning to pray is learning to listen. Within the heart we learn to wait with patience for God’s words, which may come even when we have not asked.

3. Separate the word of God from the voice of the ego.

A friend once told me that she hears lots of words in her head, the problem is figuring which are the right ones. And maybe that’s the hard part. But once you’re able to tune in to the “soul at the center of nature” as Emerson calls it, you’ll find there’s a single, authentic voice there.

When I say voice, it doesn’t always come through in words (though it can), but usually in the form of a deep-seeded intuition. One moment you’re questioning the correct next step at work, at home, in love or in your life. The next moment (or day) you know the answer with some certainty.

The one important part is learning to separate the false voice of the ego with the true voice of the soul and God. Vaughan-Lee advises that
:

Such listening requires both attentiveness and discrimination, as it is not always easy to discriminate between the voice of the ego and the voice of our Beloved. But there is a distinct difference: the words of the ego and mind belong to duality; the words of the heart carry the imprint of oneness. In the heart there is no argument, no you and me, just an unfolding oneness.

What’s the importance of this morning conversation with God? I believe it’s invaluable and can help ready you for the day ahead or even help you find solace in the middle or end of the day. Again, in the words of Ralph Trine:

The little time spent in the quiet each day, alone with one’s God,that we may make and keep our connection with the Infinite source—our source and our life—will be a boon to any life. It will prove, if we are faithful, to be the most priceless possession that we have.

This story appeared May 1, 2014, on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos.

Kaballah in 60 seconds: what Madonna didn’t tell you.

Madonna-150x150I’m reposting this column from a few years ago in memory of Rabbi Phillip Berg who passed away last week. Berg may be best known as the man who introduced Madonna, and several other big name celebrities, to the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. (After his death, Madonna paid tribute to Berg saying: “I learned more from him than any human I have ever met.”)

It is said it can takes decades of study to truly understand Kabbalism which helps explain why Berg was often criticized for presenting to his followers what has been called Kabbalah-lite. Yet, Berg succeeded in introducing the main tenets of this tradition to a vast audience, writing books and founding the Kabbalah Center of Los Angeles, which now has locations in 40 cities worldwide.

 A number of years ago, wondering what all the fuss was about, I read several books on Kabbalah by authors that included Phillip Berg, his son Micheal Berg and the scholar Daniel C. Matt. I found Matt’s book, “The Essential Kabbalah”, to be the most rewarding and it resulted in the column below. Perhaps this short tract will persuade you to learn more about this compelling mystical tradition.

One of the more daunting religious traditions I’ve ever studied is the ancient Jewish mystical teaching known as Kabbalah. According to Wikipedia, Kabbalah’s purpose is to “seek to define the nature of the universe and the human being, the nature and purpose of existence.” Sounds like it could be straightforward, but it’s not.

Reading translations of the Kabbalah texts, or even books about the tradition, is enough to make your head spin. The language is dense and the concepts difficult to comprehend. No wonder, it’s been said that mastering the lessons of Kabbalah can take decades.

Fortunately, I found a nifty short cut in the form of a book by the scholar Daniel C. Matt called The Essential Kabbalah. Matt has studied Kabbalah for decades and condenses his knowledge into 163 generously spaced pages.

For our purposes, I’ve gone a giant step further and cut the text down to a few hundred words, focusing on the subject that interests me most—communing and communicating with God. So consider this the polar opposite of a comprehensive look at Kabbalah. It’s more of a snapshot—or a snapshot of a snapshot.

Note: the words in italics below represent author Matt’s translations from the ancient texts and feature my favorite passages. I’ve grouped them under three main themes.

Where to find God.

When you contemplate the Creator, realize that his encampment extends beyond, infinitely beyond, and so, too, in front of you and behind you, east and west, north and south.

Be aware that God fashioned everything and is within everything. There is nothing else.

All your physical and mental powers and your essential being depend on the divine elements within. You are simply a channel for the divine attributes.

Preparing for God.

Select a special place where no one in the world can hear your voice. Be totally alone. Sit in one spot…and do not reveal your secret to anyone.

As you prepare to speak with your Creator, to seek the revelation of his power, be careful to empty your mind of all mundane vanities.

If it is at night, light many candles, until your eyes shine brightly.

If you wish your intention to be true, imagine that you are light. All around you, in every corner and on every side, is light. Up above, is light.

Receiving God’s Guidance.

Interpret what you hear in an uplifting manner, approximating it as best you can.

When you see that you have achieved a little, concentrate more deeply in your meditation, until you experience a pure spirit speaking within.

Search and discover the source of your soul, so that you can fulfill it and restore it to its source, it essence. The more you fulfill yourself, the closer you approach your authentic self.

In the end, the Blessed Holy One will guide you on the path that it wishes and impart holiness to you. You are walking in the presence of God while being right here in the world. You become a dwelling place of the divine.

This post originally appeared at Wake Up Call,  my column at the faith site Patheos, September 22, 2013.