There's a verse from Psalm 46 that summarizes the relationship between the practice of religion and the practice of spirituality: "Be still, and know that I am God." It's a prayer, an admonition, an encouragement. The two poles of this verse -- be still, know God -- together they offer a different way than the frenetic pace of my daily life. They offer the promise of rest as a result of trusting in someone greater than myself.
But it's hard to be still. My children embody (and create) this difficulty for me. We have a green and yellow painted table where Penny and William are supposed to eat breakfast. They sit in their little chairs for all of three minutes, and then one of them pops up. "I need to give you a hug," Penny says. Or William, carefully carrying his cereal bowl, announces, "I would like to eat on the floor." Or they want to open the microwave or feed Marilee a spoonful of baby food or run into the playroom "just for a minute." They aren't being intentionally disobedient. They get distracted. It's hard to be still.
If I'm honest, I know the same is true for me. Whenever I try to turn my undivided attention to a writing project or reading to my children or praying for five minutes or even to a simple task like cooking dinner, my mind jumps around just like my kids at breakfast. I fault my iPhone explicitly for taking away some stillness in my life. I used to pray when I found myself with a few unstructured moments. Now, I pull out my phone. I can scan my e-mail, glance at the most popular articles from the New York Times and possibly even check a few blogs. Prayer takes more concentration, more energy and, well, more stillness.
Stillness is possible, of course, and the Psalmist implies that such stillness only arrives in the context of a relationship with God. But knowing God -- acknowledging and submitting to God's power and authority -- is at least as hard, in our culture, as attempting to be still. For me, the difficulties start with doubt. I've been a Christian for decades, and yet questions and fears line up outside the door of my mind, and the less time I spend being still in God's presence, the more space those questions and fears consume. But part of the point of Psalm 46 is to say that even when the world is literally falling apart all around us, even then, God is God.
The second form my trouble takes is that of pride. Not only do I forget that God is God, but I also forget that I am not God. I have trouble remembering that at the end of the day, whether or not I have responded to every e-mail that has come in, the world will keep on spinning. I have trouble remembering that I can't (and shouldn't) control other people. I have trouble remembering that even when I get it wrong, God is still good and faithful and can redeem my mistakes and my sins. I have trouble remembering that God will keep working around me, no matter what I do or don't do.
We have three kids, and a few months back we moved William into a bed so that Marilee could move out of a pack 'n' play and into a crib. Over the course of the next few weeks William stayed up later and later and later. He got up earlier and earlier and earlier. One night, I held him on my lap. He was exhausted, but he refused to stay in his bed. I said, "William, what do you need to be able to go to sleep?" He turned his head to look at me and said, "Mom, I need a fence." We put him back in his crib, and he returned to his previous pattern of sleeping 11 hours at night. In order to be still, he needed boundaries. He needed a fence.
When I think about the interplay between spirituality and religion, I imagine that religion is the fence, the boundaries that give us freedom to explore true spirituality. Or, in the words of the Psalm, knowing God is the fence, the protective barrier, that allows us to be still. Our son William needed a fence -- the bars of his crib -- in order to sleep, and those crib bars were good for him. Of course those bars only served their purpose as long as there was a mattress. Without a mattress, crib bars would be a terrible way of forcing him into an incredibly uncomfortable position in which being still was even more impossible than ever before. Religion without spirituality is as uncomfortable and purposeless as a crib with no mattress. But spirituality without religion offers freedom without security. We need to understand how to develop both spirituality and religion, how to be still and how to know God.
America is awash in spirituality. And again, spiritual practices -- personal prayer, meditation, yoga and the like -- can indeed nourish the soul even if divorced from their religious roots. The world is awash in religions, and religions other than Christianity can offer meaning, moral guidance, and other good things for their adherents and communities. What I have to offer is my experience as a Christian, and I believe the Christian story makes the most sense of the world and is the best news for all of us. It anchors our spiritual longings -- for goodness, peace, joy, justice, love, acceptance, community and rest -- in a God who is love and who has demonstrated that love in a particular way through Christ. It's an oft-quoted line for a reason, I suppose, by Augustine, that "our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee." I am spiritual and I am religious because I am a Christian. Because my restless heart has found stillness in knowing the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Bible, the Triune God of power and love.
This essay is adapted from a longer ebook, 'Why I am Both Spiritual and Religious.' Amy Julia Becker is also the author of 'A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny.'