How I Found Spirituality in Religion
Religion is too easy to condemn.
I get so sick of people complaining about religion. Religion has to be wrong, right? Isn’t it just a leftover from our barbaric past?
Religion is not the enemy. We are the problem. We create religion and we create society, so it is we who are responsible for whether institutions such as these serve constructive or destructive ends. We invented every religious idea that has ever existed. We invented society. Society does not make us do bad things; our inner nature makes us. We are the enemy. To each other and to everything else. The continued existence of humanity depends on our willingness to overcome this destructive tendency.
The most rule-bound and fundamentalist religion can be practiced in a spiritual way. For example, one can belong to an orthodox sect of a hidebound faith and still have transcendent, ecstatic spiritual experiences. One can live a closed and limited life that is still illuminated with joy and gratitude. Religious practices can bring people together or keep them in isolation. The same can be said for the practice of atheism, or an “out there” New Age religion.
The same religious ideology can be used to create misery or happiness. It can give joy or prevent joy. It depends on how the religious system is used. It depends on the individual user. It depends on the individual user’s inner light and how she uses it. It depends on the individual user’s understanding of himself.
My struggle with religion.
I have struggled with the idea of religion for most of my life. When I was a teenager, I rejected all religion because I “knew” it was nothing but mindless indoctrination.
When I was thirty-nine, I embraced the Christianity of my childhood because I was unhappy and lonely. I needed spiritual answers, so I joined a church. At the time I felt that my new church, and religion in general, had the right answers because they contained the wisdom of the ages. The particular church I chose also incorporated beautiful music that spoke to my soul. I stayed with that church for seven years. It did not alleviate my loneliness or my unhappiness: that existed inside of me and I held it close like a talisman. I found few spiritual answers. And yet I reacquainted myself with the poetry of the bible and the exquisite beauty of sacred music. But I needed to change myself.
When I was in my early forties and recently divorced and still going to church, I decided that if I could attract the perfect relationship, I would achieve perfect spiritual happiness. I fantasized about it all the time. I remember talking to my mom on the phone and complaining about how lonely and dissatisfied I was, and she told me to think about the advantages of being single. I dismissively told her that there were no such advantages. What I lacked was gratitude for my life. Looking back, I can see that my real problem was spiritual: inner, not outer. I lacked self-awareness and that manifested as unreflective projection into an ideal future.
When I was forty-seven, I finally found love. I met a man who was an atheist. I married him and stopped going to church. He got upset with me if I asked him anything about his Jewish background. Religion to him was all pretentiousness and fakery: his parents going to shul once a year so that they could have a Jewish burial. He boasted that he remembered nothing about his bar mitzvah preparations. He was also proud that he said something during the ceremony that got him barred from the synagogue. He had fought religion and won. Religion was the problem, not him. The remainder of his life was about rebelling against any limitations that were imposed on him.
He died five months after our wedding.
How everything finally changed.
I had to start my life over again and I was about to turn fifty. I moved back to my old city and took up my old friends and my old job.
I didn’t know it, but I wasn’t finished with religion.
I had settled into a kind of informal Buddhism, based mostly on reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Nowand trying to feel present and grateful at all times. I was definitely feeling more joy when I wasn’t feeling sad about my late husband.
I joined a dating site and made up a profile. I said I didn’t want a serious relationship. I connected with someone who also said he wanted something casual. The first thing I asked him when we spoke on the phone was about his religion. I asked if he was Jewish for some reason, and I was stunned when he told me he was a rabbi. My reaction was something like “Cool!” He also told me that women usually rejected him at this point. We talked. We met for coffee. We eventually moved in together.
Now, eight years later, I have converted to Judaism and live a joyful life with my rabbi partner. After one divorce and one marriage cut short by sudden death, I have a happy, mostly conflict-free relationship. I love living a Jewish life: Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, candle-lit Hanukkah celebrations, Passover with our families, hearing him conduct Saturday morning services in our loving community. But that’s not where the happiness comes from. The happiness comes from knowing how to relate empathetically and joyfully with people, something I had to teach myself to do with painful self-reflection. The happiness comes from using the religious rituals and personal relationships to connect with a sense of inner joy that always lies beneath the surface of all existence.
Most of my life I was at war with myself. Now I have found inner peace. Many political wars and conflicts are also religious ones. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could find their inner joy and stop condemning everything outside of their narrow definitions of happiness, including religion?