DISCLAIMER: In what follows, I can tell that my Christian religious background heavily flavors the material and my perspective expressed therein. I have tried to make the focus more general, to turn it into a subject from which different followers of religious or spiritual traditions can benefit. But again, my thoughts are shaped by the Christian teachings and by the Greek and Hebrew “holy scriptures” within that tradition. Perhaps I have not succeede very well in generalization. I still hope this post will have more general benefit, and not come across as a Christian lecture.
Somewhere in religion, between faith and works, is the concept of practice, and we forget this, sometimes, to our detriment. Or perhaps there are other reasons to take the route of faith-only, or good-works-only, observance: They could put us into a comfortable region of absolutism, and perhaps they promise more certainty with less effort. Perhaps they make it seem more about the Divine and less about us, which is a desirable frame of mind and spirit in religious endeavors, after all. Or, in the case of good-works-only, the good works are the end, the benefit to one’s society and one’s fellow human beings, and that’s all there is to be thought about it. We’re not supposed to be doing our religious work for the praise of our fellow human beings, after all, right?
But what about practice? Solitary, focused, and seemingly a matter of seeking, or of contemplating, or of steadfastly knocking at some door, or perhaps even of annihilating oneself spiritually – all arduous tasks for our “monkey-minds” – could this be a supremely genuine form of religious observance? Could it be, in some sense, closer to the heart of the matter of religious belief and observance?
On the surface, it seems like something only mystics, or perhaps only clergy, do – and to some, it seems like something ordinary religious “practitioners” shouldn’t do, despite the appropriation of that word to mean “believer” or “follower.”
You may ask: What has me thinking about this, about how practicing, or having a practice, as part of one’s religion does mean some kind of intense religious work – not to be confused with good works – on one’s part? Well, part of it comes from the lyrics for a piece of music I am currently rehearsing for a Sunday when I get to sing a solo in a couple of weeks. The music is from Mendelssohn, and the words seem to be a conversation between two different Hebrew Testament passages: one in Deuteronomy and one in Job, the former saying basically that if one seeks Divinity with all one’s heart, one will surely find; and the latter exclaiming, “Oh, that I knew where I might find Him, that I might even come before His presence.”
It is that with-all-one’s-heart seeking that jumps out to me today, making me think about practice, and religious experience, and making me wonder the extent to which a person who calls themself religious, or believer, or – again interestingly – practitioner, can be truthful to oneself about it while relying on simple faith or good works.
It is the Narrow Way, after all. It’s not some viral or internationally-popular sensation … not even one that’s one or two thousand years, give or take a century, on the Top Ten Faiths list. Sometimes it is described as something few human beings find – and sometimes the difficulty is also beset by traps, by internal misunderstanding assisted by external deception. Some writers looking from inside and outside mainstream religious tradition suggest that it is not only a Hidden Way, it is a Lost Way.
Perhaps there are just layers of religious experience, levels, as it were, of not only what one can and should do to be “religious,” but also of what the Divine expects and requires of one.
Levels of the Call, as well as levels of the Seeker.
And in the end, we are not to judge each other’s path… but need to be mindful that our own may not, if we are walking it rightly, be as easy and effortless as the purely faith-based adherents might say it is – but also may not ask any more from us than we are willing and able to give.