He was shocked. Many people are when they learn that I am 32 years old, wear red lipstick, have a signature cocktail, and yes, am Catholic. That’s because my particular religion isn’t as en vogue as say mainstream spirituality. If you’re a modern woman, conventional wisdom says religion is out and spirituality is in. Well personally, I disagree.
Here’s why I’m not into spirituality
I understand why religion has become unpopular. Religion involves a set of doctrines to believe, a set of value systems to follow, and a set of spiritual texts to read. And all of those things are based on scriptural texts that are thousands of years old. To the modern spiritual being, that sounds like your grandmother trying to give you bikini waxing advice. It just doesn’t make sense anymore.
I also understand why spirituality is so popular. It means you don’t have to believe the stories that are in the bible, but you can quote them for inspiration. It means you don’t have to believe Mary is a virgin, but you can pray the rosary and look to her for guidance. And it means you don’t have to behave according to 7,000-year-old moral values, but you can simply be kind, and that is enough.
But though I understand the draw to this kind of philosophy, I don’t understand the point of it. If we can pick and choose what we want to believe, if we can pick and choose what value systems we want to follow, and if we can pick and choose which spiritual texts we want to read, we’re just making it up as we go along. And I don’t feel qualified enough to make those kinds of decisions.
To me, spirituality gives the individual way too much power, and God not nearly enough
I tried to do it that way once. At one point in my mid-twenties, everything about my faith became harder for me to believe. “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” I’d think. Impossible. “Was Mary really a virgin?” I’d wonder, or did the people just not understand biology at the time? No matter what I read in the bible at the time, I found an excuse not to believe it. So I did what every twenty-something does during an existential crisis. I meditated, I did a lot of yoga, I went to Hay House conferences, all the usual things.
And you know what? It didn’t work for me. At all. I felt scattered. I didn’t know where to turn for guidance. And all the so-called “spiritual” texts I was reading didn’t actually contain any wisdom. They were merely thoughts written down by Marianne Williamson, Gabrielle Bernstein, and the random group of people who wrote A Course in Miracles after they’d been meditating for a while.
That, by the way, was how the gnostic texts were written. And while all of these texts are still an interesting read and everything, they were based on personal experiences of the Divine. As in, “I was just in a trance for three hours and these are the hallucinations I saw.” or “I was meditating this morning for 15 minutes and this is what I realized.” And while it can absolutely be therapeutic to read about other people’s spiritual experiences—after all, Gabrielle Bernstein has helped thousands quit drugs through meditation—personal truth isn’t the same as universal truth.
Case in point: A woman once came up to me at a Hay House conference. She told me that her guardian angel had come to her in meditation. He told her that she had a very important mission in life: That she was meant to help me become the first woman president. Now I have no doubt that this woman had a profound meditative experience—we’ve all been there—but since I know for a fact that I’m not going to become the first woman president, I know that her truth is not my truth.
What I’m saying here is that personal experiences of the Divine are great and all, but they’re not enough for me to base my entire existence on. Just because I talk to angels whenever I am alone in my car or Gabrielle Bernstein uses meditation to avoid eating sugar, that doesn’t mean it’s a universal truth. Universal truth means it is true no matter what you or I believe. And no matter what spiritual experiences you or I have.
In theology, this is known as revelation, and there is a difference between a private revelation (lowercase “r”) and a public Revelation (uppercase “R”). A private revelation is a personal experience with God. Though God may reveal wisdom to an individual during a revelation, that wisdom is only significant to the individual—like this one.
A public Revelation, on the other hand, is a public experience with God. Though God is revealing wisdom to an individual, that wisdom is significant to a large portion of the population. Like when the prophet Isaiah foretold the coming of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. Or when the Quran was revealed to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel.
The point of this theological tangent is that spirituality is all about personal revelation—personal truth—and I was so over that. I wanted to get at what was universally true. And I wasn’t going to get that by meditating.
Here’s why I’m into religion
During this existential crisis, I was reading a book by the Dalai Lama in which he told the story of a man who was spiritually lost. The man had studied Buddhism under great Buddhist masters, and Taoism under great Taoist masters, but their philosophies were conflicting and he didn’t know which to believe. In search of answers, he traveled to Dharamsala, India where he secured an audience with the Dalai Lama.
“What is the one true religion?” the man asked upon meeting his holiness. “In which religion were you raised?” the Dalai Lama asked in return. “I grew up as a Christian,” the man answered. “Then go, practice Christianity and devote your entire life to it. For all religions have the same destination, we must only choose a path to get there.” I have since heard these sentiments echoed in several of the Dalai Lama’s teachings. The reward isn’t the religion itself, he says, the reward is in the devotion you have to it.
I totally get that. As an adult, I’ve always wished that my parents had forced me to take ballet classes when I was young. Or maybe voice lessons. Or perhaps piano lessons. Because if I had been forced to do something as a child, I would have been a master at it by the time I was an adult. Instead, I took ballet for a while, voice lessons for a while, and piano lessons for a while. I was always allowed to quit when I didn’t like it anymore. So I did, and as a result, I never got good at any of it.
To me, that’s the difference between spirituality and religion. Spirituality means following your inner truth. But inner truth changes a lot. Religion, on the other hand, means dedicating your life to something bigger than your inner truth. It means outer truth. Something that stays true and constant no matter if your inner truth tells you to cut off all your hair and dye it platinum blonde or get rid of all your clothing except for only ten things (lord knows I’ve done both before).
So I decided there were two options: I could choose to not follow any religion (because maybe they were all just a little too hard to believe). When I died I’d either be right, or wrong, or just dead, and I would have spent my life searching for truth without ever finding any. Or I could choose to follow a religion and believe it. When I died I’d either be right, or wrong, or just dead, but at least I would have spent my life devoted to something. Needless to say, I choose the latter.
Here’s why I’m into Catholicism in particular
I don’t think any of us would say that there is a big difference between the benefits that come from being able to dance ballet and the benefits that come from being able to sing well. That is because the reward doesn’t come from practicing a particular discipline, but rather it comes from an individual’s devotion to it. It comes from working hard and spending countless hours attempting to achieve mastery at it.
That’s kind of how I feel about religion. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose because they all contain universal truth, they only practice that truth differently. The important thing is to choose one and devote your life to it. To find a truth and to practice it. Which I suppose makes me somewhat of a universalist. Which isn’t really a religion in and of itself. It just means I don’t necessarily think any particular religion is “wrong.”
That being said, I did ultimately decide to be Catholic—and it’s not because I grew up Catholic (I didn’t). I became Catholic in high school for the same reasons I became Catholic as an adult. To me, it seemed the most beautiful, the most spiritual, the most logical, and the most theologically sound.
I love the Cathedrals, the beautiful art, the rosaries, the veils, and the candles. I love the sound of the choir, the smell of the incense, and the feel of the holy water on my skin. I love the ritual of mass. The alter that stands before us as a reminder of the sacrifices we no longer have to make. The priest’s robes that symbolize blood, sorrow, mourning, repentance, and hope. The consecration of the bread and wine that allows us to take the body and the blood of Jesus into our own. It’s rich with ritual and substance and I absolutely love that.
I also love that Catholicism has a deep tradition of prayer and devotion. That there is a liturgical calendar (which you can add to your Google Calendar by clicking here) denoting the significance of every season and every day within that season. I love reading the Liturgy of the Hours: monastic prayers that are read by church clergy five times daily and can be read by the laity as well. I love the rosary. Using beautiful beads to pray thousand-year-old prayers.
And I love that there is a lineage to it. That for five thousand years our Jewish ancestors foretold of a prophecy. That Jesus came and fulfilled that prophecy. That the followers of Jesus named his apostle Peter as the next leader of the church and that 266 popes have succeeded him over the past 2000 years. I love that Pope Francis is a successor of Peter and that the Vatican was built over Saint Peter’s bones. I love that Catholicism is one of the oldest religions still being practiced today.
And finally, I love that the religion was not taken lightly. That it was well researched and debated. That the Jewish people had spent more than 5,000 years developing their faith. That Jesus’ apostles spent 300 years after his death debating and writing about the prophetic events that had occurred in their region. That, like the writers of the old testament, the world’s best philosophers, theologians, and great minds debated and argued and researched until they had unanimously agreed upon what would be included in the new testament.
So ultimately, I decided to become a Catholic. And I decided that if I was going to be a Catholic that I would go all in. I would completely devote myself to it and I would believe every word of it. I understand what that sounds like to the spiritual set—it sounds like blind faith. But to me, it was just faith. I trusted the religion that had close to ten thousand years of theology behind it and I decided I would rather spend my whole life believing in something, than not believing in anything.
In short, I was tired of doubting everything. So instead, I just believed. And I vowed to be one of those people that continued to study and debate and research the religion for the rest of my life. That’s what led me to pursue my graduate studies in Mariology (the study of the Virgin Mary) at the University of Dayton and it’s why I will spend much of my life studying all of the scriptures, all of the Apocrypha, all of the Gnostics, all of the fathers, and all of the saints.
Because I in no way have the wisdom it requires to make decisions about complex moral and theological decisions. And I in no way have the ability to discern that one thing is true, and another thing is not. So I became a theologian to understand why we believe all of the things that we do. And to be convinced of them.
When blind faith becomes true faith
I recently read a quote that stated, “People think you have a passion and then you do something a lot. But it’s the opposite: You do something a lot and it develops into a passion.” The same was true for me and religion. Once I decided to become Catholic, my life became more miraculous.
I remember when I first read the bible after I became Catholic. It was a passage in Daniel about a disembodied hand that magically appears in front of the king and writes something on the wall that he can’t discern. My gut instinct was to think, “yeah there’s no way that happened, this must be a metaphor.” Instead, I remembered that I had promised to believe my new faith and I read it again:
“Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.”
This time I was in awe. I realized that although I had never seen a hand appear in front of me, I absolutely believed it could happen. That God could speak to us in mysterious ways, and that in fact, that I have experienced those mysterious ways on more than one occasion.
One time, as a child, I sat crying at the kitchen table. Suddenly a wind blew through my kitchen door and opened several pages on a calendar that was on the wall in front of me. It stayed open on a page that said, “In difficult times, turn to the Lord.”
A few years later, I developed a fear of flying. So, one time, in order to calm my nerves on a flight, I sat back, closed my eyes, and imagined a beautiful angel carrying the plane on his back. He had long hair and out-of-this-world blue eyes. And for some reason his name was Azrael. What can I say, I have an active imagination. Well since then, I have prayed to Azrael every time I’ve flown for the past several years. Imagining him holding the plane and carrying us to safety. It wasn’t until this year that I realized there was actually an angel named Azrael. Oh, and according to Abrahamic religions, he is the angel of death.
For as long as I can remember, I have spontaneously had the sensation that someone is holding my hand, or that someone is grabbing my arm to hold me back. When I look, no one is there, and yet this has happened to me every few months since I was a child. For some reason, I have always assumed it was an angel holding my hand or trying to whisper something to me.
Well, two years ago I began to worry that maybe I was being a little too existential. What if it actually wasn’t an angel, I thought, what if I had a disease in my arm or hand and I was feeling the effects of it. After all, it only ever happened to my left arm. The second I started to worry, the sensation disappeared. I concluded this year that it was, in fact, an angel, and the sensation returned.
These kinds of things happen to me every day. So was it so strange to believe that a king saw a hand appear before him with an important message? We probably all have similar stories. At least I do. And though I experience these moments both when I am spiritual and when I am religious, it wasn’t until I became Catholic that I felt safe in them. That I had a context for them. Because Catholics are notorious for experiencing these kinds of things. And these private revelations are all part of a larger public Revelation.
So yes, I chose to be religious, not just spiritual. But though I may have made a conscious decision to become Catholic, since then, I have completely fallen in love with it. I no longer have to logically choose to believe it. I actually do! With all my heart! And my life has become so much more rich and beautiful as a result.