I’m Religious But Not Very Spiritual

An Advent Meditation by Becca Stevens

Juxtaposing Advent and the pre-Christmas rush sometimes makes me want to take up the mantra, “I’m religious, but not spiritual.”  I don't know about you, but sometimes I just don't feel the spirit of Christmas, and then I feel like I am missing something.  During this season when it feels like waiting and watching is an extinct theological sport, such a mantra is freeing in a few ways. First, it’s an invitation to participate in all the rituals leading up to Christmas without the pressure of having to be in the spirit of Christmas at the same time. The practice of our religious disciplines in this way is enough to carry us into the season without all the stress of having to feel it at the same time. Second, such a mantra makes us accountable for the faithfulness of our lives without having to be inspired. People can count on us to give, serve, and love, knowing that we believe religion is deeper than a feeling of spirituality. Third, it allows us to be open freely to a deep and genuine spirituality that comes as we move through our daily lives, surprised by the spirit and not claiming it is ours. The two signs that the spirit is present is when it catches you off guard and when it is more abundant than you imagined.

 This is Advent. The season of four weeks during the longest nights of the year to prepare for the incarnation of love in the past, in the present, and in the future. It is called the season of watching and waiting, and it is set in the midst of what is also called the “Christmas Rush.” It’s the oxymoron of theology as we are called to get busy and sit still. Advent is like the wallflower at a techno-dance party. It is the tea in a world of coffee drinkers. It is the silent prayer uttered in a Pentecostal-style worship service. It is the grief of a person in the midst of a Christmas party. Advent is the silent night between the wrapped Christmas tree's glaring light. It takes extraordinary religious discipline to carve out this space. But every now and again, we are surprised by the spirituality of it all, where in the meandering commercial chaos, we find a pathway open up and our spirits connected. This is the gift offered to us in Advent that saves the season.

In the season of Advent the readings in church take us back to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. It is the time to remember how, in that chaos, that the Son of God came, not as an infant, but as led by the Spirit of God to the river to be baptized by John and begin his ministry to love the whole world. We begin our Christmas preparation then by remembering the prophet John. He calls us to be religious. Standing in the wilderness, he invites us to welcome a strange, spiritual life amid our dedicated practice of our faith. John is a deeply religious man; he has sacrificed, he fasts, he prays, he goes on retreat, and he preaches that in it all, he makes a highway for God, a pathway towards our Lord. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Having prepared the way, Jesus comes and takes the religious practice of baptism, a rite of repentance and submission, and the heavens surprisingly open with a spirit that drives him to the wilderness and calls him to offer his life for the sake of the world.

One of my religious tasks has been to try everyday to light incense in the quiet morning of the chapel and say prayers for those who are hurting, grieving, afraid, and oppressed. I love sitting before the smoke in the grey morning light, watching it swirl in the air and fill the room. But truly many mornings it feels very religious with not much spirit in it. It is a discipline in which I go through the motions, trying to be faithful and not worrying that I am not inspired. What I have noticed this past week is how every now and then the swirling of the incense smoke stops and the smoky prayers and incense are all of a sudden pulled in updraft. They look like they are transformed into the tail of a comet, pulling the variegated streams of grey smoke into a line that disappears into the apex of the chapel, high above the flat spirit of my life. This week the incense transformed and looked like a ribbon tying up a gift that I almost couldn’t accept. It was, as best as I can describe it, an answered prayer that I didn’t know I was praying. The religious act was filled with spirit, thick like a ribbon on a kite. This is an example of the small gift of deep spirituality that you and I long for in the midst of our religion and in the midst of Advent. It is God hearing that silent prayer, like we found our peace in the midst of the night and like we felt the clouds parting for us to find our way home to God. The gift of the spirit descending is humble, honest, and hopeful enough that it is possible to cut a pathway through being religious into the deep life of spirit.

 My Advent mantra now is simply, “keep the faith.”  Keep being faithful in your work and in your hearts, and trust the spirit will come. Keep giving drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, food to the hungry, comforting the sorrowful, tending the sick, visiting the prisoners, and burying the dead, whether or not you are always inspired to do so. It is enough to do it religiously and to trust the spirit is close by. It can be as simple as a ribbon of incense, the shadow of a passing bird, or even come in the middle of the night when you have held out little hope. Such longing is a sign that the spirit is close and that we are making a pathway towards our God.