“I am a very spiritual person Father, but I am not religious”. If only the Provost had received five pounds for every time he heard this old chestnut or some variation on it, he could by now have sponsored a top-of-the-range new amplification system to replace the tired old microphones and speakers that sorely need replacing in the Oratory church.
The first thing to be said in answer to this bromide is that religion is not a sentiment but a virtue. The human mind is capable of establishing that God exists, that He is infinite in all of His perfections and that everything in Creation receives its being from Him. We do not need Divine Revelation to tell us that every rational creature is therefore bound to render to the Creator the worship that is due to Him as the source of all being and the principle of government of all things.
Lactantius, Christian apologist and mentor of the Emperor Constantine, speculated that the word religion derives from religare, meaning ‘to bind’. Although this particular etymology has been challenged, it certainly expresses a phenomenon that is manifested in diverse ages and cultures – the sense that somehow man’s good relationship with his Creator has been undone and needs to be re-connected. A tie that has been broken needs to be ‘re-bound’.
Left to his own devices, man will devise homemade answers to the quandary he finds himself in, and his own solutions to the problem of his awareness of some need for salvation. He might easily conclude that the existence of evil can be explained by the existence of some lesser malevolent god as well as the good God. Perhaps he will decide that salvation must consist in the spiritual soul somehow struggling free from what he perceives as its imprisonment in flesh and matter, and arriving in a realm of pure spirit, possibly via a process of reincarnation. Here we have the birth of man-made religions. Man’s intellect having reached the boundaries of what can be known by reason alone, it then carries him into the thickets of myth and superstition, a dark realm of gaping chasms where demons lurk in readiness to take advantage of his blindness.
Thank Heavens, the God Who has endowed us with a mind capable of discerning His existence has not left us prey to myth and superstition. He has revealed Himself to us, along with everything we need to know and to do to be saved. The fullness of this Divine Revelation is not some shadowy gnosis, accessible only to an initiated caste of cognoscenti. Neither is it a book. ‘It’ is in fact a Person. The fullness of Divine Revelation is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity made man. In the Divine Person of Jesus Christ God has revealed Himself to us as The Way, The Truth and The Life.
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has given to us a very definite religion. On Holy Thursday, we saw how He instituted the Sacrifice and the Sacrament of the Mass, commanding the Apostles whom he ordained to the priesthood on that same occasion to: “Do this is memory of me.” Having on different occasions instituted all seven of the Sacraments, He entrusted their administration and governance to the Apostles, and to their successors the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter. Likewise the Gospel (the whole body of Catholic teaching) has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the Pope, whose duty is to preserve this ‘Deposit of Faith’ from novelty and to teach it in its fullness in every age.
The devil is spiritual but not religious. As an angel he is pure spirit. According to tradition he set out on life as one of the most splendid angels, the name Lucifer denoting his office as ‘bearer of the light’. And he is distinctly anti-religious. It was an irreligious act of rebellion against the Creator that occasioned his fall from grace. The Jesuit theologian Francisco Suarez is among those who have speculated that this calamity occurred after the angels had been given a preview of the creation of man. The devil was distinctly unimpressed by the idea of glorious spirit being ‘contaminated’ by contact with matter in a lesser creature. When it was further revealed that God would unite Himself with human flesh in the Incarnation, and that the angels would have to bow down and worship the Word made flesh, the thought of such an ‘indignity’ was too much for his pride to bear. The cry “Non serviam!” that issued from the fallen angels as they were expelled from Heaven has echoed throughout history whenever sin has been committed ever since.
Father Suarez’s thesis would certainly help to explain the devil’s particular malevolence towards human beings. It might also throw light on the source of the insidious strains of dualism that have so persistently threatened to pollute the pure milk of Christian doctrine down the centuries.
Our Lord’s Incarnation puts paid to the pernicious notion that spirit is good and flesh is intrinsically evil. The Resurrection of His Body, in which His spirit and flesh were reunited, demolishes the argument that salvation involves the soul freeing itself from matter. His Ascension, body and soul, into Heaven should leave us in no doubt that Heaven is a real place in which our salvation will include the reunion of our bodies and souls for eternal life. Since the Assumption of Our Lady, there are already two bodies that we know of at the Throne of Grace.
Baptism sanctifies not only our souls but also our bodies, because through this Sacrament our bodies become living temples of the Holy Ghost. And so our bodies have an essential part to play in religion. Grace is imparted to our souls by the touch of physical substances such as oil and water to our flesh. We worship God through singing His praises with our lips, and we honour Him on our knees as we adore Him at the Altar. We achieve the higher level of Communion with Our Lord by receiving His Body in Holy Communion.
Through the Incarnation, places and objects take on a role in our sanctification. Whenever someone says: “Father, I can pray to God on a mountain or in the bath, I don’t need to go to church,” one has to explain as patiently as possible that, while praying in the bath is indisputably a laudable habit, you will not very often find the Mystical Body of Christ united around the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary taking place in a bathroom. We can and should pray to God in all places, but there is something unique and irreplaceable about worshipping Him at Mass, especially on a Sunday.
Another type of dualism that many people fall into very easily is the thought that religion which includes worshipping God with beauty and solemnity is somehow incompatible with love of the poor and care for the disadvantaged. The God we honour in the Blessed Sacrament with incense and sacred music is the same God Whom we go out to look for in the needy. The Sacrifice of all sacrifices that is made present on the altar is the main source of strength for all of those acts of self-sacrificial love by which we should strive to bring Our Lord into the lives and hearts of our neighbours.
So please, as Christians, let us not be ashamed to be both spiritual and religious.