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Is Do-it-yourself Faith Dangerous to Your Soul?

10/31/2013 11:54 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

With God in our hearts, my wife and I watched the Trader Joe's gluten-free cracker spiral down the toilet bowl and then flush away into oblivion -- taking along with it, we prayed, our sins.

This was our own twist on the Jewish ritual of Tashlich, the discarding of bread crumbs into a river or flowing body of water -- to symbolize the casting off of sin on Rosh Hashanah. The "sins" we were hoping to banish into the LA metro sewer system had nothing to do with our admittedly intermittent and mostly unaffiliated religious practice. The sins were, in fact, shortcomings that have caused real pain and damage both personally and to our marriage; among them impatience, mistrust, clinging to anger.

But was this freelance atonement enough to make a real difference in our lives? And is it actually possible to grow spiritually by an ad hoc and inconsistent religious practice?

When they're not outright bemoaning our hedonism, the more vocally devout often decry our era as one of "supermarket spirituality." They mean by this the secular browsing of ancient faiths for "cool" ideas and iconography -- picking and choosing, careful never to take on anything that might inconvenience these do it yourself practitioners. Witness hipster chanting circles, non-Hindu henna tattoos, or crucifix earrings on twerking teens. It's a faith, reduced to fashion, that seems to aggrandize, rather than transcend the self.

Take Madonna's Kabbalah study. Most folks see the pop icon's immersion in this obscure wing of Jewish mysticism as another narcissistic celebrity accoutrement, like Paris Hilton's dog or Angelina Jolie's children. But hold up: Could this judgement stem from our own spiritual insecurity? Maybe Madonna's study has infected her with the joyous humility that prayer can evoke -- clearing the way for her to be a better mother, artist, and bi-sexual icon.

My own failed efforts at becoming a bi-sexual icon aside (kind of a joke), it's been my effort to recover from the profoundly alienating effects of alcoholism and drug abuse (not a joke) that's helped me resolve my feelings on this matter of spiritual selectivity: cobbling together personally meaningful ritual -- even mangled or mis-contextualized -- is not only an effective way to enlarge a spiritual life; for me, it's the only way.

In my experience, longterm sobriety seems dependent on enjoying your life sober. According to no less a scientific mind then Carl Jung, this requires a profound psychic shift -- lest sobriety becomes just the pain and isolation of untreated addiction, punctuated by, say, too much sugar, TV, or an intense Lego building fixation which runs you into the hundreds on Amazon.com and enrages your wife. Some very devoted people interpreted Jung's ideas, and helped convince me I'd head down this road to misery, and thus relapse and death, if not for a constant, experiential and personal connection to my spirit life. What I needed, I was told and have come to believe, was a relief from my self at least as great as that which I got from a half a bottle of sweet, sweet Bushmills.

But aside from helping others, the need for personal spiritual contact also means hanging onto traditions that resonate -- and dropping the crap that doesn't. For me that means I eagerly light candles on some Friday nights or accept a blessing from my old man when he's in town. Or I have a Jewish wedding -- to a non-Jewish wife (who occasionally does Tashlich with me over the toilet).

In another post, I'd like to address the profound social pressures that force too many of us into self-exile and self-rejection, rather than brave the toxic currents of shame and defensiveness provoked by selectively choosing from the church of our youth. But for now, sufficed to say that this story of doing Tashlich with my wife marked a new and unusual effort to face those dark forces.

My wife and I had been fighting a lot, over tensions generated from a year of failed efforts to conceive (and more free floating hormones than a middle school swim party). In my car, on my way back to a tense home the other evening, I heard a Rosh Hashanah mention on the radio and remembered Tashlich. Instead of now adding guilt and defensiveness over my lack of observance, I wondered if I dared use the ritual for the opposite: maybe it could help me to both escape the prison of my own frustration and to be a better husband.

To assess my discard-worthy sins I thought of the inventory from one of my twelve step programs (apparently a great warm up for Tashlich): Where was I at fault in our fights? What core anxiety was I protecting? Was I being a good listener, making my wife feel welcome to express her feelings? Or was I being, as the French say, a douchebag?

When I got home it was too late to go to a river -- admittedly a more majestic and humbling altar than our commode. Regardless, after I wished my impatience onto a cracker and sent it down the can, my wife and I went into the bedroom and had one of the warmest, most productive talks in our short year of marriage. The small gamble of performing this personalized version of the ritual had paid big.

As I thought about it, I was struck by the obvious irony that worship is always personal. Because even when the prophet speaks, it's our heart that interprets -- our chaotic, willful, fixated heart. So à la carte faith, like any faith, can be used myopically to build a case for my worst, most narcissistic behavior. But with some effort, it can also do just what it intends -- it can help me briefly transcend my self.

Whether fixed in cycles of celebration and atonement, found in a quiet moment on a canyon ridge, or practiced on Madonna's pool boy, contact of any kind with our spirit is the only way to ensure its evolution. And having finally taken the reigns of my spiritual life on pain of an alcoholic death, I'm grateful that, in the words of Bill Wilson, "God does not make too hard terms with those who seek him."