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You write in A Religion of One’s Own that your interior life actually became more deeply religious after you left the Servite Order.
I can’t say anything negative about my experience in the religious order. I thought it was fantastic and it still influences me; in a way I still have a monastic lifestyle. But then again, I came to a point in my own life and the people in this community with me did not come to the same conclusion I did, which was very individual I didn’t really decide, it just happened to me that I just couldn’t continue with it. And I left. I thought, I have to leave. In a way, and I mention this in the book, it was more religious of me to leave than to stay with that order even though it looked the opposite, because I had to find my own way to my own destiny. And I did that, I left, and I eventually found my way. [Through] getting a doctorate in religion, which was wonderful for me, I got to study the world’s religions, and I studied the arts and psychology and many things [that] gave me a very rich, broad picture of what religions could be defined more broadly and more deeply. And in an odd way, I feel that my Catholicism is still with me and deeper than it ever was. But from the outside you wouldn’t see that.
I can’t generalize for anybody else, but for me there had to be a process of moving from the outside to the inside. You’d probably be surprised by how little religion there is. On the other hand I feel more religious than ever. I’ve always wanted to make every bit of my life spiritual or religious. I didn’t want a divided life, like, here’s the secular part and there’s the religious part.
Do you feel more awake living this way?
Oh yes. Much more awake. And that’s a very important thing, being awake. So yes, I feel more awake and I feel that all my studies in the various religions of the world have had a deep effect on me. So I don’t feel that I’m guilty of the cafeteria approach, where you dabble in the various religions. I didn’t dabble. I really was affected by certain teachings in many different spiritual traditions. And it didn’t tell me I shouldn’t be Catholic or it wasn’t only looking at one religion, like that religion is in competition with other religions, it wasn’t that at all. It’s that one religion can deepen the other. One can give you a perspective and can help you better understand some of the aspects of the religion you’re familiar with. I really feel that my entire religious life has been deepened by that experience. I continue to study and my writing is a form of study. I do a lot of reading and research in preparation for writing my books. I read Latin and Green and I translate; I look very closely at the words in the traditions. That kind of study, I think, is part of a spiritual practice. I try to put all that into books that people can read. That’s not easy to do, but I try. I feel that my calling in life is to write for a large audience of people, and yet I do all this work in preparation that is pretty technical and I can’t put that into the book, so I try to use language that people can follow. And yet behind that language there is a great deal of study.
What can people expect at the talk and retreat you’ll be giving at Garrison Institute?
What I want to do is be with people. It’s on April Fool’s Day which is a day I really love. I’ve given many retreats and lectures on how important it is to be foolish, to be in touch with your own foolishness. So I love the time of April Fool’s Day—it’s a very good time to be playful and get serious at the same time. The way I’m seeing this retreat is, we have an opportunity to come together and I think [we] really have [a] sense of community, because I think we will be serious but not so heavy in what we do. And we’ll be somewhat playful. But playful in a way that can be witty with ideas and with language and with the arts and to come together that way on a retreat that is really for the soul, because the soul works mainly from imagination, not from mind. The mind is something else. [The] soul really is affected by imagination, and dreams are really an example of that. In modern times we don’t use the word "imagination" with much weight. We think it’s frivolous, but I don’t. I think the imagination is central along with the arts and language and so I rarely have a chance to get together without such a tight focus where I can’t just talk about what it means to have a soulful life. That’s what this retreat will be—discovering together for each individual what it would mean to have a soulful life with others, and to appreciate the arts either in actually making art or making festivals. All of this is ritual work, birthday parties at home or whatever it is. To be on board to have ritual in life, that’s part of one’s own religion as well, and so I think it will be a great opportunity to explore the heart of all my work. It’s not going to be focused on one book or one theme, and that’s such a relief to me. We can get together—I’ve done this before many times when I give talks, I walk onto a stage and I purposefully have my mind empty so that I can be there fully present to talk to people. I’ve done my homework. I’ve got plenty to say. I could be there for hours, that’s no problem. But that’s how I’m looking at this retreat: I’ve been preparing for it for years and years, and I’m going to go, and it’s going to be very very rich.
So you’ll be open to what people need.
I always want to know where people are coming from; it affects what I do and what I talk about. But on the other hand, I have a lot to offer and give to people, and I think I know what some of their concerns are. I’m also a psychotherapist and I can talk with a lot of depth.
And I have a lot of that soul work that I’d like to be able to present to people so that they can be inspired toward their own creative work, but also discover ways of dealing with some of the problems they run into. We all run into problems in relationships, depressions, problems with the past, families, and sexual issues—all of these things can come up because they’re all measures of the soul. And if we can deal with them, then we’re free to have happier lives and be more creative. That’s the goal of this retreat in my mind.
Things are happening in our society that are changing us. We can’t have all this new technology and new ways of communicating and working without having big changes in our identity and who we are, and how we feel about ourselves. That’s affecting our spirituality and our practice of religion. I think this is a time when we can approach the formal religions and our institutions and organizations differently than we have in the past. In the past we’d go to a religion and say, “That appeals to me” or “that doesn’t appeal,” and we’d ask “Can I join this religion or not?” But we don’t have to do that anymore. We no longer have to become a member—in fact, it might be better not to become a member, but rather to take as much as you can through familiarity with that religious tradition. I’ll put it quickly and simply: I have been studying Zen Buddhism I guess for nearly 25 years, and Zen has been a very important influence on me and how I feel about my life daily, and my sense of religion has been affected by it. Now, I can say the same thing about Ancient Greek religions and how profoundly they've affected me. Native American religions have affected me a lot. So I think we have to approach the religions differently today and see what they are, and [after] exploring them seriously and giving them some time we will be affected by them. That’s a very different way of approaching it, and I think that’s the first way to develop your own religion. So A Religion of One’s Own really is about developing your own ideas and your own practices that are analogous to a form of religion, but they are now your own.
I’d like to keep that notion of the formal religion at the forefront all the time. That’s not what we’re doing, this is not a vague spirituality—it’s a religion of one’s own—founded on a certain collection of ideas and theological ideas on how the world is, and how to live, and also some practices that may be borrowed directly from one of the world’s religions like a form of meditation. And other practices that may be your own. We can have our own religion that we learn how to make from the religious traditions, so that means [religions] are more important than they were in the past, not less important. My book is more in favor of religion, and certainly not a critique of religions.
What do you say to people who say they are “spiritual but not religious”?
When I hear that, most of the time people are saying: I want a spiritual life that is mine that is really relevant to me, that I’m really engaged in, that makes sense, [and] that’s really important to me. I don’t want religion the way it’s always been, with all the authoritative leaders, lists of things to believe and not to believe, and things to do and not to do. I don’t want that. I don’t want the big organization. I want a spiritual life that I am really engaged in. So when I talk about religion, I don’t think that statement would apply about wanting spirituality but not religion. I think you can have both.