August 16, 2008
The Ties that Bind – Spirituality.
“God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal deity. But we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance of wonder renewed daily, the source of which is beyond all reason.”
– Dag Hammerskjöld, the former UN Secretary-General
It’s has been said that the central theme of all the world’s major religions and spiritual traditions is the same spiritual principle – for man’s Ego to… “Let go”, “to Surrender.” Off and on, for the past fifteen years or maybe longer, I have attended a Sunday morning talk in lieu of a traditional worship service. I believe this talk is one of a kind. It’s definitely unique to my community and I suspect that’s probably the case for the rest of the country.
This one-hour talk is written and delivered by “John F.,” a recovering alcoholic and a former deacon in the Catholic Church. My young family was once parishioners of the same parish where John and his family were also members. I attended the parish’s elementary school and was in the same grade as his fourth child. John has long been interested in theology and was active in Bible studies beginning in his early adult life. At the age of 47, John decided to take the next logical step in deepening his faith when he studied for three years to become an ordained deacon.
Upon completing his studies and receiving his religious designation, John was assigned to his home parish. One of his new privileges was to deliver the homily, a 10-15 minute sermon, every third Sunday during Mass before his family, friends, neighbors and all other members in attendance. This parish with its church and school serves the city’s largest and most affluent neighborhood, which is made up of Catholics, Protestants and Jews, and is located along one of city’s major arteries.
The church with its contemporary-design was rebuilt in the late 1970’s, after a fire destroyed the original structure. The building has only received one major addition since to boost seating in the sanctuary. Among the parishioners and passersby, this odd, brick building with its modern design and its funny pitched roof is often compared to or even called an old “Pizza Hut.”
The building has a maximum seating capacity up to 500 worshippers at each service. The role of the deacon during Mass is to assist the presiding priest. After a reading out of the Gospels, John would stand up and walk across the raised wooden altar to the podium and microphone where he would pontificate on the week’s message. In recent years, this former financial adviser, has openly confessed in a joking manner of having much grander ambitions, while a younger man, of being a “Rev. Billy Graham” filling up stadiums with the faithful seeking to hear his every last word all the while adoring him. In John’s own words, “To be famous and to be beloved, now who wouldn’t want that?” In 1985, after serving as a deacon for nearly five years, the director of a new residential treatment center for alcoholism and drug addiction contacted John about joining the new staff and becoming the center’s first chaplain.
Remotely located some thirty minutes west of the city’s outer limits, John made his first excursion from his home driving right pass the church and out into the abyss surrounded by pastures, farms and pine forests. Miss the turn, go another mile or two further and you’re surely to leave the county and the state of Alabama only to enter a whole new world known as Mississippi. It’s a bad idea, not everyone who crosses the Stateline makes it back alive.
John arrived safely at the newly built complex that had been open for business for only a few weeks. On his first visit there were a dozen men in treatment. Without making chapel mandatory, John stood the chance of making the drive only to give his hour-long talks to maybe one or two residents receiving treatment or worse being stood up, entirely. Recently, he told the story that some four or five men did turn out to hear him on that first morning.
Standing before several rows of chairs and those few men in some multi-purpose room, John delivered his first talk. It was a far cry from the homilies he gave at his Catholic Church with its important congregation and a pipedream away from addressing a sold-out crowd at NY’s Yankee Stadium. Nearly alone and only a few feet away from his small audience, John found himself surprised to be connecting and immediately identified with this group of alcoholics and their circumstance that put each one of them in there.
Every Sunday, John would make the westerly voyage to speak once more to these same drunks whose growing numbers he could now count with his two hands. As he neared his destination, John actually found himself excited about getting to see these guys. Within weeks, he would resign as the deacon of his church to serve full-time at the west Mobile rehab.
During the 1980’s a wave of treatment centers sprung up like mushrooms across the United States triggering a mass influx of men, women and teens seeking help for their addiction that was initially covered by their generous health insurance policies. By the end of the decade, the insurance companies had largely cut-off the financial spigot funding this heavily used benefit resulting in many facilities going bust including this chain of Midwest-based rehabs which closed its doors for good, in 1990. Soon afterwards, John was invited to serve in the same capacity as chaplain of another residential treatment center better situated for local residents to access.
This new facility, which occupied an abandoned Holiday Inn, was built along a state highway connecting the city of Mobile with the residential communities situated along the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. What was originally an audience of men and women in treatment listening to John, at the remote rehab, quickly shifted to area residents in recovery coming each week to hear him speak. Soon the local residents outnumbered those getting treatment filling up most of the fifty chairs in the old motel’s tiny barroom. The irony of which a group of recovering alcoholics and a contingent of recovering Catholics were showing up to receive spiritual nourishment, in an old bar, didn’t go without notice.
Today, John continues to donate his time and energy in crafting his weekly talks and sharing them with those in attendance for eleven months out of the year. In this informal gathering, he has always had an “open floor” policy allowing anyone to simply make a comment or to share his or her own personal experience. Many appreciate the gesture and take advantage of the given opportunity.
The Twelve-Step recovery program is a process of finding a personal deity, finding one’s own Higher Power, reconnecting our severed umbilical cord, from childhood, with God. This is the founding principle within the rooms of A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous), Ala-non, C.A. (Cocaine), O.A (Overeaters), G.A. (Gamblers) and others… it is also well understood by most everyone in attendance at John’s talks. Unlike religion, in spirituality there is no communal God. The telling evidence from religion is overwhelming; it simply does not work. If it did, then there would have been no need for A.A.’s worldwide fellowship and for all of the other 12-Step groups that have come online since to meet the growing thirst for spirituality, for life.
In this same spirit, John has been known to occasionally give a disclaimer rare within walls of religion. When he speaks, he is speaking about the God of his understanding, which is drawn from his own experience. No one in attendance is expected to embrace his ideas about God any more than they would be expected to at an A.A. meeting. In these rooms of spirituality, this notion is sacred. However, in the circles of religion that’s a privilege unheard of within most flocks.
Those of us pursuing spirituality are no longer an easy prey – a flock of sheep or a school of fish, we may be wild fowl, but definitely not schooled sheep or fish. Devils, wolves and sharks all run in schools. Recovery is all about restoring one’s personal relationship with God, one’s integrity, one’s freedom, one’s happiness and thus finally taking to flight like a soaring eagle up into the wild blue yonder or swimming alone out to sea, without fear – being free to live out the adventure of a lifetime. Isn’t that why we are all here?
John shared that everything he was originally seeking in some Billy Graham-style ministry or performing before a more prestigious audience he has quietly found and continues to enjoy in this lively crowd. His weekly talks are built on A.A.’s 12-Steps while incorporating his Christian beliefs and embracing the other world faiths. Over a decade ago, I first heard John say that the core message in all the major religions is exactly the same. With all these clashing theologies, I had never once heard that idea expressed within my Catholic education or since by officials of mainstream religion.
I was surprised by his comment, but I trusted his opinion and with time I have come to accept his word. He continues to repeat this same theme even today. For many years, I didn’t understand a lot of what was being spoken at his weekly talks or the comments being expressed by others. Much of what was spoken went right over my head; it was too intellectual for this small brain. Today, I am happy to say that all that has changed with my breakdown and now having an IQ exceeding 140.
Ever since I started this writing endeavor I have found myself enjoying his talks even more so. On several occasions, John’s message for the week has coincided with an essay that I had just finished or was currently working on. With the opportunity to share along with my new mental abilities his talks have become a game, as I try to anticipate what he is going to say next and possibly share my thoughts or try to “cut him off at the pass.” More than once, I have spoken up and challenged his last thought. John F., our very talented and humble guide, makes this opportunity of sharing and critiquing him at all possible. At your next Sunday service, try “standing up” to your favorite priest, pastor, rabbi or cleric and tell them that they have it all wrong. See what happens.
Several weeks ago, John gave another talk on the subject of how the world religions share the same spiritual principles – for man’s Ego to… “Let go”, “to Surrender.” Having heard him express this thought before, I posed the following question. Could it be possible that the founders (Abraham, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and…) of these religions and spiritual traditions, while on their own journey, arrived at the same principles from which their theology and traditions were later built around? After all, wouldn’t it make more sense that they shared the same starting point and then took off in different directions, during different time periods, than to each randomly stumble upon these truths after erecting their unique, elaborate creeds and traditions? On that Sunday morning, that’s how his statement came across to me. This was the latest example of me playing my little game.
In John’s heart and mind, there is room for all the world religions to coexist without struggling to defend one’s beliefs at the expense of denouncing the rest. I like this idea and accept it. Isn’t that the problem with our world today? Religion with its communal God seems to be a mere starting point for the masses, but not an ending point for the free. Those seeking a more direct connection to God have to leave the wide and well-worn road for a daring adventure down a narrow and uncharted path. Fear keeps the masses on the road while an individual with some faith veers off trusting some power, some mystery.
It’s to go against the grain of, both, the inflated Ego and society. It takes a person falling off the road and landing into one of the two ditches many times. In the beginning, all time and energy is spent trying to return to the well-known road, return to this broken world and to rejoin the masses, but overtime and bumping up against reality, bumping up against the truth enough times the Ego slowly gives way to the God in us, due to waking up. Only the desperate, the insane and the foolish will abandon the safety and the comfort of the road, man’s religions and his fabricated world for the wilderness and the true search for God. Are there any takers?
How many of you have remained in the same “church or denomination” your whole life? How many of you (or your parents) feeling dissatisfied left one brand for another and so on? How many of you were never exposed to church at all or your family simply quit going entirely for whatever reasons? How many of you joined your spouse’s church after getting married finding something inviting that was unavailable at your previous church?
Are you living life as a journey, where each and every day is a new or are you walking around a familiar circle much like the calendar year with its four seasons and marked holidays? It’s all mapped out and predictable with no new surprises. Have you ever gotten sick and tired of the whole thing, asking yourself if there was something more to life than this material world? I first saw through Christmas, at an early age, after experiencing one too many letdowns after weeks of a frenzied build up in my mind. The weeks of excitement never matched the thirty minutes of unwrapping presents.
One interesting discovery that I have found as of late, are in the lives of several men. Three were members of different religious orders in the Catholic Church and the forth was a headmaster. I have previously quoted all four in earlier essays. The Catholic Church with its history, power and influence has long attracted highly intelligent men to serve as priests. All three were trained or programmed to see themselves, the Church, God and their fellow man in a certain light. That was the starting point for this special group, but it wasn’t going to be its ending.
In the Church’s early years, priests were sent out to establish new churches by converting the natives. In the later years and in more modern times, priests are generally assigned to an established parish with the responsibility for managing the affairs and supporting its needs. Others maybe removed from the community choosing to study and write about their views on Catholic Theology. Over the last year, I have quoted the late Fr. Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest from India, Matthew Fox, an expelled American Dominican priest and Fr. Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan priest. None of what I have ever quoted, by any one of them, was inline with Church doctrine. Clearly all have departed from “the easy road having found the ditches” these experiences tested the lessons they had learned while studying to become priests. How does this happen?
The reason why priests would break from Church theology is because they no longer believe the Church’s position on a given issue is true having continuously rechecked their own faith in the course of living life and bumping up against reality, truths. As a recovering Catholic, this tidbit of information reinforced my own life experience and attitude towards the Church. I found, both, de Mello’s writings on spirituality, awareness and Matthew Fox’s New Age ideas on Original Blessing to be refreshing, attractive, palatable and a radical departure from the well-beaten doctrine of original sin.
Cardinal Ratzinger (now, Pope Pius XII) served in the capacity of enforcer for the Roman Catholic Church’s official doctrine, under Pope John Paul II. During the 1980’s, Ratzinger (known by his critics as “God’s Rottweiler”) censured, both, de Mello and Fox for their blasphemous writings. While De Mello died unexpectedly soon after, Fox continued with his new line of thinking and by the early 1990’s he was kicked out of his order. In “The Fool’s Court”, I quoted an excerpt from one of Fr. Rohr’s 2005 essays regarding his observations of Alcoholics Anonymous compared to the Church. There’s no doubt that the Vatican would not look too fondly upon his honest views of this dying or dead institution.
Like our culture, religion has become concerned mostly about people conforming rather than being transformed, which was the whole of Jesus’ ministry. There’s a concerted effort to mold the congregation especially God’s little children into angles and saints and not “allowing them” to turn into little devils and sinners. How’s that project working? Displaying good behavior while in God’s House is preferred to authenticity, there’s no interest in the principles of democracy and individual freedom for the worshipper. This attitude compliments our society and thus nobody really knows what democracy and freedom are about.
Freedom is the primary goal of God’s business, but that’s not the business of these man-made religions concerned with salaries, mortgages and rents, utilities, equipment purchases, car and van leases, insurance, tithing and most importantly, growing the flock of sheep to support all the above. Jesus appears to have had little interest in these material concerns in order to carry out his work. If the agenda is to build a large church for somebody’s inflated Ego then the first casualty will surely be the truth and freedom.
Lies, shackles and chains cover the annual budgets and capital campaigns not free thinkers who leisurely come and go when moved to do so. Slavery, addiction and insanity will surely be the borne fruits. The flock of sheep or the school of fish will get eaten alive by those “protecting” them from the outside evils. Hasn’t this historically been the case and doesn’t it continue still – church officials abusing their parishioners’ trust, their minds and bodies?
Lastly, A.S. Neill, founder and headmaster for over forty years of the renowned Summerhill School, in the U.K., put it best about freedom in his 1960’s classic about his boarding school. Neill had this to say about the unwanted children that he accepted from the state-run schools,
“Every child has a god in him. Our attempts to mold the child will turn the god into a devil. Children come to my school, little devils, hating the world, destructive, unmannerly, lying, thieving, bad-tempered. In six months they are happy, healthy children who do no evil. And I am no genius, I am merely a man who refuses to guide the steps of children.” What about original sin? “I let them form their own values and the values are invariably good and social. The religion that makes people good makes people bad, but the religion known as freedom makes all people good, for it destroys the [inner] conflict that makes people devils.”
“The religion that makes people good makes people bad, but the religion known as freedom makes all people good, for it destroys the [inner] conflict that makes people devils.” The true goal of any ministry should be freedom not goodness, not making saints and martyrs out of the enslaved. The 12 Steps of A.A., N.A., G.A., O.A… and John’s weekly talks are about the slow process of waking up to reality, to spirituality and discovering one’s truth, one’s freedom and one’s happiness by finding the God of our understanding. It’s about having a personal deity and not a communal one. It never has.
What are the ties that bind – “Let go and let God” and “Surrender to…?” These are two slogans serve as tools in the rooms of A.A. Through my year of writing, I have come to use “Let go…” more than ever before in turning over daily problems, unforeseen crises and all of life. It’s true. If you learn just one thing from this essay it’s this one slogan. It’s a simple, but powerful tool for improving your quality of life and for reclaiming your sanity and serenity – “Let go and let God.” “It really works, if you work it.” How fitting that it’s the same shared principle of all our major religions. What are we all fighting about?
I am available for speaking, consulting and political advising. My other essays can be viewed at my blog @ http://www.toxicnation.blogspot.com/. All essays are available in a MS Word format upon request. I can be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2008.
All Rights Reserved. “The Ties that Bind – Spirituality” by Ted Burnett.
Summerhill School – A New View of Childhood, Alexander S. Neill, Copyright © 1998