by Kate Elledge
I am not a spiritual person.
This is possibly a bad thing, because I am an ordained minister. No, I’m not an atheist hanging around for the great working conditions and excellent pay. I believe in God. Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit. The whole, holy Trinity are my constant companions. They’re like the high school pals that crammed into your junker of a car and then talked, sang, and otherwise distracted you as you cruised down the highway of life. That’s God and me.
But I am not spiritual. I do not meditate, or do centering prayers, or count breaths. I do not light candles in my prayer room or play drums to get in touch with the rhythm of creation. I am the first person to break the silence on a “silent” retreat. My attention span for communing with the Holy Spirit in the solitude of nature or an empty chapel is embarrassingly short. When I meet people, they are not struck by my otherworldliness, and I often forget to even ask about their prayer life, much less join them in it. In short, I am the world’s worst mystic.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not bragging. I wish I were more spiritual. While I’m nervously thrashing around in this world, hoping against hope I’m getting things right, the spiritual people seem to have access to a mystical well of tranquility they can dip into on an as-needed basis. And spiritual people are definitely way cooler than religious people. That’s not even much of a comparison, because of course religious people aren’t cool at all. Spiritual people, on the other hand, are sometimes (not always) admired by the general population, and almost always admired—or at least tolerated—by the plain old religious folks. Even old spiritual people have a shot at being one of the cool kids, as long as they keep their spirituality somewhat up-to-date. But religious people? Cool? Not a chance.
But don’t consign religious folks to the dustbin of history just yet, because we have a skill that the rest of the world needs to (re)learn: how to engage people week after week and year after year even though we disagree with them. Even when we don’t like them. Even if the only thing we have in common is the room we’re in. Religious people get together. It’s what we do. And contrary to what the navel-gazers may think, it’s not necessarily because we like each other. Sometimes, in fact, we don’t like each other. But we love each other, and that means reaching out—past our dislike, past our discomfort, past personal hurts—and making a real connection with the brother or sister sitting next to us. That’s hard to do even once. Try doing it every week for a lifetime: you will learn what it means to forgive and be forgiven. And when religious-not-spiritual types are at our best, we try to expand that “religious” experience, so that everywhere we go we engage our companions on life’s journey.
So here’s what I propose: a religious geek revolution. Yes. Revolution! We religious-not-spiritual types need to stop hanging our head in shame at our complete inability to reduce religion to a laser-like intensity focused on me, me, me. You don’t want to spend a half-hour each day in omphaloskepsis (navel-gazing)? Great! Spend it at the coffee shop or on the soccer-field sidelines or in the break room. Talk to people. Get to know them. It’s much easier to love your neighbor if you know him or her. Consider it a religious experience. It is.
The Rev. Kate Elledge is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Stoneham, Massachusetts. She formerly served parishes in the dioceses of Chicago, Cleveland, Michigan and Hawaii
image: Section of the Berlin Wall depicting a detail of people crowded onto a boat from the painting Wir Sind Ein Volk or The World’s People by Schamil Gimajew, damaged by graffiti. Photo by Manuel Cohen