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Why I Am Both Spiritual And Religious

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My days start early. I usually roll over to see our three-year-old son William standing next to our bed, and I feel lucky when the clock behind him reads 6:00. If we send him back to his room, he is prone to awaken his older sister, so I try to convince him to do puzzles in the playroom by himself. He says, "But Mom, then I will be lonely." A few minutes later I hear Marilee, ten-months old, rustling and fussing from her crib down the hall. I'm up. And we're moving.

Bottles and breakfast and dishes. Black tea for me and coffee for Peter. Shower and pack lunches for school and get everyone dressed. Most mornings our babysitter arrives to help with the final moments of preparation -- brush teeth and comb hair and find backpacks and get out the door. Drop off with hugs and kisses. Three hours into my day, and the sink is filled with half-rinsed dishes, the counters strewn with Penny and William's attempts to clear their plates, the floor littered with Marilee's toys. And even with a babysitter who helps keep it all in order, the relentless demands of family life still threaten to overwhelm us all.

I long for stillness, for space, for contemplation and rest. I long for a sense of meaning and purpose to undergird the tedium of housekeeping and the demands of caring for small children. But I ignore or deny those longings because to pay attention seems impractical, indulgent, and nearly impossible. The list of things to do is too long already. And time for prayer or long walks in the woods would require less sleep or a less chaotic household or leaving too many things undone. Where would I find the time? And how would I justify it? There are toys to pick up, for heaven's sake.

I could go the religious route. Try hard to be kind and patient. Say prayers with my children at a specified time each day. Take them to church. Memorize some Bible verses. And yet I know that the order offered through routine religious observance easily slides into drudgery and even oppression, particularly when divorced from the personal presence of God.

If religion isn't my answer, another part of me thinks I need to become more spiritual, that I need to start my day with a few calming breaths or prayer and meditation. And yet in and of itself, spirituality leaves me unsatisfied. If religion is all about obedience and rituals, then spirituality is all about doing whatever feels right and paying attention to me. Spirituality without religion runs the risk of becoming self-centered at its core. Spirituality without religion sets up the self as God, as the ultimate arbiter of what feels good and right. But the self can be just as oppressive as religious obedience, and the self wields great power to deceive.

I want more rest and purpose in my life, and as a result, I'm drawn to religion on the one hand and spirituality on the other. But I'm starting to realize that religion and spirituality are not opposed to each other. Rather, they are two poles on a continuum, and both reflect the human need to know God's presence and to experience the deep rest and purpose that comes from that knowledge. The busyness and distractions that infuse my days are symptoms of a larger problem, a problem that can't be solved simply by attending a church service or by drinking herbal tea. In order to learn how to be still and know rest for my soul in the midst of dirty diapers and deadlines and car maintenance and doctors' appointments and everything else, I need more than religion. And I need more than spirituality. I need them both.

When Christianity is practiced as a religion without spirituality, there are good reasons to leave the faith. Religious texts have been used to justify everything from slavery to homophobia to abusive relationships. Religious people in positions of power have abused that power and harmed others, including children. There have never been any "spirituality wars," but conflict in the name of religion has often escalated into violence and has claimed countless lives. For many, religion is synonymous with rigidity, exclusion, unquestioned authority and rule keeping. It almost seems un-American.

But abandoning religion in favor of spirituality doesn't solve the problem. Spirituality is a vague enough term to encompass beliefs and practices ranging from yoga to reiki to watching the sunset and thinking about God or the divine. Spirituality, according to the dictionary, is "incorporeal," which is to say, hard to grasp, hard to contain. This fluidity and freedom offers relief from the rigidity of religion, but spirituality sacrifices authority in the process. It offers a path, but not a destination. It raises questions, but provides few answers. And in freeing the self, it divorces the self from connection to community and to God.

Spirituality without religion poses problems. So too does religion in a vacuum. But Christianity describes God as a Trinity -- as God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As God who is both authoritative and intimate, holy and humble, revealed through the structures of church and Bible and creeds, revealed through the person of Jesus, revealed through the ministry of care and comfort from one person to another. Christian spirituality offers a path of peace, joy, love, and fulfillment for everyone who longs for meaning and connection both to others and to God.

As I turn again to the challenges I face every morning -- the challenge to remember or discover meaning and purpose in the context of William's temper tantrum and Marilee's dirty diaper and Penny's refusal to eat her strawberries, the challenge to summon the energy to care for myself and my family and other people, the challenge to balance bill paying and laundry and writing essays and playing with my children -- as I turn to those challenges, I need spirituality. And I need religion. Together, they offer authority and intimacy, community and personal attention, service and rest, grandeur and goodness, morality and grace. Together, they anchor me, and they set me free.

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.