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Caitlin Kennell Kim
Fr. Rick Malloy, SJ
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Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP
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Culture, Moral Theology
Ann Naffziger, M.A., M.Div.
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Our readers asked:

How can I be spiritual without following organized religion?

Thomas Ryan, CSP Answers:

spiritiualWOorgRelgionLet’s start with what “spirituality” essentially is. Spirituality is a growing intimacy with God experienced through the people, events, places, and things in each day’s living. And how will that happen? Through what you see, hear, taste, touch, smell. We are embodied spirits, and the doorways to our hearts and minds are our senses.

In other words, spirituality is not abstract and ethereal or airy-fairey. It’s grounded and rooted in the concrete realities of life and expressed through ritual acts. We need ritual. It’s the way we express the inexpressible. And who are the experts in ritual actions that express that for which we have no words? The religions of the world! They have developed ritual actions over the centuries that have helped people find meaning in mystery, that have given people a way to communicate with the Divine. And, not surprisingly, these ritual actions involve things like words (say, of forgiveness) to hear, bread you can taste, water you can feel being poured on your head or oil rubbed on your skin. Sound familiar? The sacraments in the Catholic Church are the ritual actions by which we communicate with God.

Neither is spirituality a solitary journey. Why? Because we are social beings. We need one another. We find our happiness and fulfillment in personal relationships. That’s why, for example, people are called to come together every Sunday: to strengthen each other in their faith in God. To offer one another assurance that “you’re not alone on this journey.” Trying to live the Gospel is hard. One can become easily discouraged and throw in the towel. But the good news is that we don’t have to try to do it alone. There’s a whole community of people coming together each week to offer each other both challenge to keep going when you want to give up and comfort when you’re feeling hurt or lonely.

I know there are a lot of people out there who like to say “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” My response to that is this: If your spirituality is healthy, it will be anchored in and nurtured by an organized religion with a long track record of ritual actions in community whereby seekers of God support each other in deepening their intimacy with God experienced through the people, events, places, and things in each day’s living.

The Author : Thomas Ryan, CSP
Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Julie Hagan Bloch

    No, we don’t *need* ritual. It’s fine if you like it, but for some of us, it is just another way of creating distance. Divinity and humanity are, in fact, so close that the only distance is in people’s minds. How about seeing the inherent divinity in such everyday actions as walking your dogs, writing a letter, brushing your teeth? Realizing that ALL of it is divine. To have to do something out of the ordinary to express a connection is like saying that I have to wear a special beret and smock in order to express that I am an artist. Anyone could wear a beret and smock. It doesn’t make a person an artist. It is merely an external expression that may or may not reflect what is an inner truth. I don’t need them.
    One of the problems of ritual is that it is limiting. It is “this” ritual, from “this” belief system, to be distinguished from “that” ritual from “that” belief system. It creates distance not only between the individual and the essential divinity, but between the individual and those in other belief systems.
    Divinity is ubiquitous. Different religions are just different masks on it.
    Spirituality is religion with its mask off.

  • Mike

    Even Jesus had to be somewhat organized and he brought about the Christian religion, so why are you having a problem with organized religion?

    spirituality, is for them that are like Priest that know about spirituality the way they know it, and spirituality too is for everybody, because Jesus said. God is looking for them to worship Him in truth and spirit. therefore you have to be at least part spirit and part human too, honest and spirit ….

  • Eric

    Nice article, Padre. I get the “spiritual but not religious” line at least once a week. Very apropos.

  • Maureen

    Yes, I have a few friends that say they don’t need an organized religion. They can pray in the garden or in the mountains. But my response to that is, and I always qualify it with..I don’t want an answer, I just want you to think about it…how often in our busy day do you spend one hour just with God? When one or more are gathered in my name, I am there.
    I find it confusing that a certain friend is always posting religious quotes and referring to Jesus in her FB and will get up at the crack of dawn to go to horse shows and travel to other states for showing, but will not bother to find a church that she can worship in. I love this person and don’t want to alienate her so I have not said anything other than making a few general statements. Once I said she should check out some of the churches in our town to see if they are somewhere she would like to participate but got no response. She is extremely generous and a really good person.

    • Stephen

      Sounds like your friend has found Jesus and in time, he will lead her where she needs to be. I do not believe everyone needs to be in a church. I do believe everyone needs to share their faith with someone. A bible study group, a spiritual director, a friend with the same beliefs. A church is not always necessary and sometimes, if the churches in her area are mostly toxic, (which many are) then it’s better she not engage. There are some beautiful churches out there, but there are also ones where Jesus is nowhere to be found.

    • Julie Hagan Bloch

      Maureen, you don’t know what’s in your friend’s heart. Be very careful about making judgments about someone’s spiritual life based on what you see externally. Besides, to be blunt, her personal spiritual life is none of your business.

  • Theresa

    well said!!!!

  • Jude

    By their fruits …

  • PWB

    This is a two-way street. It’s been my experience that people who say they are “spiritual but not religious” are quite open-minded to religion, but they haven’t found a community/organized religion that makes sense to them. We can’t just expect them to come through our doors without first opening our doors. And certainly using a derogatory tone (i.e., calling them egoists), as some do, towards people at different points in their faith journey does not create a welcoming environment.

    • Stephen

      Thank you for this. It took me many years away from the church to finally come back. That is only because I found a really great community. If not for them, I wouldn’t have come back. Everyone is on a path and if they are genuinely seeking….they will find their way and yes, you are right — the church needs to be more welcoming and not judge other people’s experiences of faith. We aren’t all at the same place. The church is really quick to forget how much it has wounded people and continues to do so….they quickly get agitated by people who walk out but refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater as I did.

  • John Fox

    Nicely put. Thank you.

  • Jude

    My take on “Spiritual but not religious” is I’m a “taker”!

    I’m a consumer even in the most sublime area of human life. I will take what I need/want . I will not be making a contribution to this Tradition (teaching the young, putting some money in the basket, etc.). Nor will I be accountable to anyone in my “spirituality”.

    I will not even realize that all “spiritual” programs are essentially programs of giving not getting. That is, of course, except one – Satan’s. (The Devil is “spiritual” too after all)

    In short, “I’m spiritual but not religious” (usually said in a superior tone!) translates to egoism and consumerism which sounds like the default for our current American culture to me.

    What baffles me is why this is not challenged by the “spiritual and religious”.

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