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Sunstone Presentation: What Is Authentic Spirituality?

On Thursday, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate on a panel with Dan Wotherspoon, Phyllis Barber, and Bob Rees at the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City.  Our topic was “just what is spirituality?”  The text of the presentation I gave is as follows…

The idea of being spiritual but not religious is one that I’ve heard from several friends, but it’s never been something that has resonated with my experience. That’s because I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with the opposite problem – being religious but not spiritual.

In my presentation today, I’d like to speak a little bit about what that means, share my story of how I came to a place of more spiritual connectedness, and then perhaps try to explore some of the things I have discovered about what spirituality is and how religion can help or hinder it.

To begin with, perhaps a working definition of spirituality is in order. In its simplest terms, spirituality means being connected to that transcendent, indescribable thing that transforms us. Different people have words for this, but I call it God. And you can find God out in the world, you can find God in the people around you, and you can find God within.

I was raised in a devout Mormon home. We were the kind of people who had scripture study, family prayer, and Family Home Evening on a regular basis. On Sundays, we had to wear our church clothes all day and couldn’t go outside to play with our friends. I turned sixteen right before the high school Homecoming Dance so this ended up a non-issue, but my mother told me that if my birthday had been even one day afterward, I wouldn’t have been permitted to go to avoid disobedience. I grew up believing that obeying the rules was the secret to being connected to God.

To be honest, that was all right with me. My personality is such that I don’t really like to kick against the pricks. I saw what was expected of me and I genuinely wanted to fulfill it. In fact, I’m what you might call a recovering perfectionist. And through the combination of my family’s and Mormonism’s emphasis on obedience, and my own personality traits, I developed something of a love affair with rules. They became the foundation of my spiritual life.

Rules are quite wonderful, you see. They’re objective. They’re concrete. If I wonder how I’m doing, I can simply think of the rule and then evaluate my performance based on it. I bought into the idea that if I could just obey the rules well enough, I would be a spiritual giant.

Of course, there’s a downside to rules. Because they’re objective and concrete, the very things I loved so much about them, they’re inflexible and hard. The evaluation process that I appreciated for its efficiency also proved to be quite discouraging; it turns out, I never measured up nearly as well as I thought I should. I developed severe anxiety related to my personal righteousness. I never felt worthy. I lacked peace. I experienced increasing doubts about the things that I believed and had been taught. I prayed mightily to feel the burning in the bosom confirming that everything was true, but I never experienced it.

Of course, I blamed my doubts on the fact that I couldn’t obey the rules perfectly, so what was my solution? Double down and try even harder to obey the rules! I resented people around me who seemed to be carefree and not nearly as concerned about the rules as I was. I judged them. And so ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, all my efforts to grow closer to God took me further and further away.

I was devout but disconnected, a whited sepulcher. I was religious, but not spiritual.

When I was in my late 20’s, I reached a breaking point. I still had doubts but I refused to acknowledge them. But then I had an experience – a profound spiritual experience. I want to share a short blog post I wrote about the experience for Doves and Serpents.

It had been a miserable five years.

I’d returned home from my mission in July 2004. My mission was a furnace: white-hot anxiety and hungry, red zeal drew me into a desperate blaze of obedience and fervor. Like all zeal, mine was born of fear–fear that what I believed wasn’t true, that I was on the wrong track, that the tremendous efforts I’d made my entire life to control my actions and monitor my thoughts were in vain.

I couldn’t face the possibilty.

So I’d thrust in my sickle with my might. I’d hoped that if I could just use that phrase enough — “I know” — I would finally convince myself that I did.

I’d obeyed every rule. Knocked thousands of doors. Taught hundreds of discussions. Memorized dozens of scriptures. And day after day, contact after contact, the words had fallen out of my mouth in a downpour of piety: I know, I know, I know.

“I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God.”

“I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet.”

“I know that if you stop drinking coffee, you will be happier and healthier than you are today.”

It had almost worked. I’d returned home, almost sure. The nagging doubts that had driven me into the mission field now hummed quietly below the surface, unacknowledged, neglected — strange thoughts I could not explain but vowed never again to entertain seriously. It was Satan’s influence, I reasoned, one of the devil’s dirty tricks. It was an odd thing to take comfort in, but I did: the devil is inside my mind.

I must never let him out.

But keeping Satan at bay was easier on the mission than it was in real life. On the mission, you had one focus: teach the gospel. You locked your life to anything else. You opened your mouth and it was filled with reassuring platitudes, safely scripted replies, even the occasional flash of insight that felt as if it couldn’t possibly have come from you.

At home you were surrounded by distractions. Books, school, friends, boyfriends — then eventually husband, work, mortgage, child. The safety died.

Five years had passed since my mission, and slowly but surely, Satan had weaseled his way back to the forefront of my mind. Doubt swirled around me like a country twister, snippets of questions hurtling past too quickly to see or grasp. I could make out just one question in the storm, over and over, in a million different varieties: What if? What if? What if what if what if what if what if…

Until tonight, the night I found myself in the kitchen, alone–again–long after my family had gone to bed. The refrigerator hummed meancingly, and I kicked it in a vain attempt to silence it. Then I opened it, searching for comfort, and snapped it closed, unfulfilled.

Exhausted, I sank to my knees by the sink.

“Dear God,” I prayed, “I don’t know what more you want from me, but I’m SO DAMNED SICK of this.”

The ice maker gurgled.

“What else am I supposed to do, God? I’ve done everything–everything–you wanted! I’ve fasted. I’ve prayed. I served a mission. I married in the temple. And still I doubt! Either take these doubts away from me, or I’m done. Do you hear me, God? I’M DONE!”

Silence descended. As if in deference to my agony, the refrigerator stopped its incessant hum. It was just enough time for me to whisper the words I had never dared admit to anyone, especially myself, “I don’t know if any of this is real. Including You.”

As soon as the confession left my lips, warmth radiated through my body. Just like I’d promised every investigator on my mission. Just like I’d asked for a million times in desperate, tear-filled prayers.

“I doubt, God! I doubt! I don’t know a damn thing!”

Now I was laughing, giddy with freedom. “I don’t know if You’re there! I don’t know what any of this means!”

The more I said it, the more it filled me, that burning in the bosom, that unbridled peace.

It had been a miserable five years. There was more misery to come. You don’t tear apart your worldview without consequence. But looking back on it, I say that was the day I really met God, a God of love, a loyal God, a God who is more interested in my truth–not the truth I expected to learn.

There are a couple of things I take from my experience. First, it’s that spirituality is honest. It is able to deal with the truth, even when the truth is messy, difficult, ambiguous, unflattering, imperfect.

There’s a quote by Byron Katie that I really like. She says, “Don’t be spiritual. Be honest instead.”

When you’re religious but not spiritual, you’re very concerned with the outward appearance. You want to make sure the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. You want to show up with the right smile on your face, the right clothes on your body, the right words on your lips. But if those things don’t come from a genuine place, what you are doing is constructing barriers between yourself and God.

This is because God deals in realness.

Our Mormon tradition has wonderful language to express this concept. The Book of Mormon puts it this way: “Behold, the Spirit speaketh truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).

C.S. Lewis wrote a book, probably his best, called ‘Til We have Faces. In it, the main character writes a complaint against the gods. They’ve wronged her. They’ve ruined her life. At least, this is the story she believes about her own experience. At the end of the book, she has a profound experience where she actually meets a god. She recognizes that the story she’s told herself isn’t true, that she’s been selfish and jealous. She stops deceiving herself and has a moment of bright clarity.

She says, “How can the gods meet us face to face until we have faces?”

C.S. Lewis later shared what he meant by this: “a person must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines it desires), being good or ill itself, not any mask.”

In other words, before we can experience spiritual communion we must come as we are. I think this because who we are is itself divine.

A second question that I’m driven to ask based on my experience is how does religion interact with spirituality? We’ve seen that it can be a terrible hindrance. It was in my life. So should we just throw it out? Should everyone be spiritual but not religious?

I think there are three things that religion does extremely well for spiritual development that we will miss if we abandon it entirely.

  1. Community
  2. Language
  3. Practices

Community is important to the spiritual life because it is in community that we discover God in those around us. The core of spirituality is connection. Christ’s Intercessory Prayer taps into this yearning: “That they may all be One; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in you, that they also may be in Us. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one” (John 17:21-22).

The second thing that religion provides is a common language for speaking about spiritual things. God transcends words and descriptions, but as inadequate as it might be, we need to have a common vocabulary to speak about God. Religion provides this vocabulary in ways that are accessible to people from all walks of life and at divergent points on the spiritual journey. This makes it very valuable.

The third thing that religion provides is spiritual practices – ways of experiencing God. Practices dig deeper and go beyond what even vocabulary and language can provide. They can facilitate powerful connections to God. Communal practices draw us together in tangible ways to remind us that we are all connected.

My sister’s pastor says it this way: religion is NOT spirituality. Religion is the home for your spirituality, because ideally, it provides an environment where spirituality can grow and thrive.

In conclusion, I want to say a few words about Mormonism, since we’re all here because of our connection to Mormonism.

I have hope for Mormonism. All the ingredients are here for a beautiful, transcendent, mansion of a home. We are GOOD at community. We have beautiful language to describe God: Mother, Father, Elder Brother.  We have unique and engaging practices that can provide whole-body communal experiences.

The trouble we have is the same trouble I experienced: as an institution, as a Body, we’re not totally honest yet. We have yet to remove the mask and stand as we are, warts and all. We cling to a shiny PR image and shove difficult truths under the rug. I think I see slow improvements in this regard, but I pray for the moment that we just tear the mask off, like a band-aid, if I may mix my metaphors, and face the world as we truly are.  Only then will real connection be possible.

Thank you again for the opportunity to be here with all of you today. It’s been such a wonderful treat. Thank you.

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2 Responses to “Sunstone Presentation: What Is Authentic Spirituality?”

  1. Jared C
    August 5, 2013 at 10:31 am #

    I appreciate your thoughts on this. A close, honest look at things made a big difference in my life.

  2. theoldadam
    January 24, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

    What is “spirituality”, anyway?

    It seems to me that is a million different things to a million different people.

    If it can mean just about anything…then it can mean nothing at all.


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