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Leaving the Church?

One day, when I was 25, I woke up with the unusual sensation that my life was about to move in a different direction. I was living in a Catholic religious community, the Servites, under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I had been a Servite for nine years and had attended their high school seminary, with a modified monastic lifestyle, for another four. But that morning I woke with the realization that it was all over. I had been sure I would stick it out. But something happened.

I loved the Servites and was proud of their intelligence, free thinking, and joyous spirit, but something strong compelled me to leave. Sometimes I wonder if I was educated out of the order by discovering, through my teachers and my reading, a bigger, more appealing world. I wanted the freedom to think and explore and express myself, without undue concern for authorities and the restrictions of Catholic teachings.

And so, on that autumn day, I left the order and, in some ways, the Church. Or so I thought. I began to study the religions of the world, to delve deeper into Christian theology, and to explore depth psychology. I was born with an artistic temperament and was drawn to the theology of Teilhard de Chardin with its profound love of life and the physical world. Paul Tillich inspired me to think of God as the ultimate concern, shaping my life from the inside. I read and re-read the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to live as though God did not exist - within the presence of God. He wrote that he hesitated to use the word "God," because his parishioners would understand it entirely differently from his use of the word.

For many years I tried various ways to stay connected to the Catholic Church, but I could see that the deeper I went in my theological thinking, the further the Church went in the opposite direction. I left the Servites when the liberal spirit of Vatican II was strong, but that spirit receded with surprising speed.

I was taught in monastic life to see every tangible aspect of the life as part of my spirituality. Later, in my Ph.D. studies, I became acquainted with Greek polytheism, where reverence, devotion, and morality were connected to every aspect of ordinary life. I was strongly attracted to the idea of spirituality in the world and that it was in no way an escape from the pleasures and demands of earthly existence.

Forty years have passed since that morning of decision, and I have tried to follow the monastic ideals in my own way. I continue to enrich my layperson married writer's life with the Servite spirit. But little by little, all that religion has become invisible in my life and personality. If you looked closely at me and my life, you wouldn't see the things that typically identify a religious person, but in my own view I am more Catholic, more religious, and more spiritual than ever.

So, it seems that I didn't leave the order that morning, nor did I leave the Church. On the contrary, I have been moving farther into it. Today, I lecture and give sermons in churches of every denomination. The Church is not a building, not a creed, not a membership, not an authority, not even a community, unless it is the community of all beings. It's a vision, expressed in values and action, shared with the entire world.

Being in the Church and maintaining the monastic spirit in my life means being more engaged with life itself, more connected to the community of the world, and catholic - meaning universal, openly engaged in every moment, in every place, with every thing.

I know that I have not created this path. It was laid out there for me from the beginning. I had only to accept the invitation to follow it. I know it isn't for everyone, probably for very few. I haven't the slightest need to convert anyone to it. I don't even understand it.

I must say, though, that from the vantage point of my catholic spirit, the schisms, pieties, moralisms, condemnations, and certainties that I see all around me - offering themselves as religion - are not terribly attractive. I thank God for the gift of being invited one fateful autumn day into a bigger world and a larger sense of religion.

Thomas Moore's new book is A Life's Work: The Joy of Discovering What You Were Born to Do (Random House, February 2008). See
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Title Annotation:on religious life
Publication:Spirituality & Health Magazine
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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