Guide-Post: A Religion of One's Own
Updated: Feb 25, 2019
Adapted from A Religion of One's Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World by Thomas Moore (Avery, 2015).
The idea for my book, A Religion of One’s Own, began with a visit to Walden Pond, which is only an hour’s drive from my house. There, on the Fourth of July, 1845, Henry David Thoreau began his experiment in living alone to discover himself and jump-start a meaningful life. I was homeschooling my daughter and we went to Walden to give her a taste of the transcendentalists of New England. It was on a quiet early spring day that we stood silently inside the replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin and then walked the perimeter of the small lake.
Thoreau belonged to no formal religion and yet his simple act of moving out of town, not unlike the Christian fathers going off to the desert, and building his cabin on the lake became an iconic deed. He started a movement: shifting from the mammoth religious institutions to an inspired and educated personal religion.
On this visit I had a little daydream of Thoreau making the short journey from the town of Concord to the outpost of Walden and building his ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin in the spirit of the old cathedral builders. They were building a house for God, as was Thoreau in his more modest way. In the end, he wrote a small bible, Walden, a verbal companion to his tiny cathedral that contains a myriad of mundane details as a perfect background for profound insights into the spiritual life. You could do no better than to read his words again and again, placing them next to Tao Te Ching and the Gospel stories and some poems from Rumi and Hafiz. But the main task would be to emulate Thoreau and follow your own inspiration and build your own “cathedral,” however personal and freely adapted, and create your own Bible and Walden.
A RELIGION OF ONE’S OWN
If you had told me when I was a young man that the churches would be closing their doors and the seminaries and convents emptying, I wouldn’t have believed it. The emptying and graying of the churches feels much like climate change—something big and ominous is happening to us.
The disappearance of religious feelings goes hand in hand with the loss of soul, because at its best, religion speaks to the soul and feeds it. Traditional religion may well need an overhaul from top to bottom, but personal religion is a requirement. It is the indispensable foundation of an intelligent, openhearted approach to life.
I think we need a religion that comes out of our hearts and minds and is tailor-made to our own values and sensitivities. This new approach looks to formal religions for insight, but it takes root and flourishes in an individual life...
When I speak of a religion of one’s own, I’m not talking about a selfish, ego-centered, loosely patched together spiritual concoction. I’m recommending a courageous, deep-seated, fate-driven, informed, and intelligent life that has sublime and transcendent dimension. It can be shared in a community. It can be accomplished inside or outside a traditional religious organization. It is suitable for pious members of a religious group and for agnostics and atheists. To be religious even in a personal way, you have to wake up and find your own portals to wonder and transcendence.
A PERSONAL RELIGION TO LIVE BY
Traditionally, the word “religion” has implied some kind of action, often one that is symbolic or ethical—one reason I prefer the word “religion” over “spirituality.” Personal religion is both an awareness of the sacred and concrete action arising out of that awareness. When you realize that something is sacred, say a special stream or lake or even old farm buildings, you may want to protect them from destruction. Deep religious realizations lead to specific responses.
Take the tragic mass shootings that shock people into spontaneous religious action. They place candles, bouquets, and sometimes handmaid angels at the place where the violence occurred. You also see crosses and flowers on the highway where there has been a fatal accident. These are personal religious responses to a mysterious and tragic act that can’t be dealt with rationally. These rituals come from the direct inspiration of people trying to deal with something they can’t fathom. They help restore the original spirit of the place and render it sacred, and often bring soul back to a community.
When you’re religious in a deep way, you sense the sacred in things—a faint and mysterious pulse. Both in the world and in yourself you catch sight of the numinous, a hint of something more than human. In developing a religion of one’s own, it’s important to cultivate an eye for the numinous, a sacred light within things or an aura around them, the feeling that there is more to the world than what meets the eye. You don’t have to be naïve or literal about this; it’s simply a capacity in human beings to catch a glimpse of the infinite in the finite world, or deep vitality and meaning in what would otherwise be hollow and only material.
INSPIRATION FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE AND STUDY
I have been involved with formal religion all my life. I grew up in a devout Catholic family and then left home to study for the priesthood. For thirteen years I enjoyed life in a religious community, as a solemn-professed brother with the Servites, an Italian order founded in the thirteenth century. Servites live together in priories and convents but also have work outside, such as serving a parish or teaching at a school. The men are not strictly monks but friars. As a student for the priesthood I didn’t do outside work, and so my life with the Servites was almost identical with that of a monk. At twenty-six I left the order and eventually abandoned formal religion. Yet, almost every day I miss my former life in a monastery. I don’t regret my decision to leave it or to end my preparation for the priesthood, because in retrospect it’s clear that I was destined for a different form of religious life that is equally intense. I went on to pursue doctoral studies in the field of religious studies. Although I no longer wore a black habit with a rosary dangling off my belt and no longer meditated every morning and evening in a highly polished wood choir stall with sleepy confreres around me, my interior life became more deeply religious.
As I describe my personal religion, I draw on several sources: my years in a monastery, my studies of religion, my practice of psychotherapy, my ongoing study and writing. They are all part of my personal religion. I’ve moved further away from organized religion and much deeper into my own personal mode of spirituality. It may be more accurate to say that I have changed significantly in my relationship with the spiritual traditions. Today they are an essential part of my personal practice, though I am not an active member of any. The more traditions I study and borrow from, the deeper my spiritual life becomes.
Strangely, my personal religion becomes more individual as I study the various traditions. In the past, when I restricted my vision to Catholicism, I had almost no spiritual individuality. But now that I’m open to many traditions, paradoxically I have an intense personal experience of religion.
A Religion of One’s Own comes from my own experience, the emergence of my own spiritual life over many years. I have lived it and now want to show others how it can enrich life, give it meaning, and make ordinary days worth living. I want to proclaim that nothing is not sacred. I want to promote a religion that is felt and not just thought out, meaningful and not just emotional, my own and not just an ancient tradition. I’m convinced that this kind of personal religion, as real as the Vatican and as holy as the Dalai Lama, could offer a solution to the problem of faith in the modern world.
CREATING YOUR RELIGION
Every day I add another piece to the religion that is my own. It’s built on years of meditation, chanting, theological study, and the practice of therapy—to me, a sacred activity. But I use my own inspirations, knowledge, taste, and understanding to give shape to this religion that suits the person I am today.
I don’t want to convert anybody to my own way, and I don’t want followers. Yes, if you want to learn more about what I’ve discovered you can study with me, but my hope is that you will create a religion of your own. I’d reverse the missionary urge: Instead of converting others, I’d like to help them find their own path.
Many people, like me, have a background in formal religion or are attached to a particular tradition. You can shape a religion of your own by going deep into your tradition, understanding its more subtle teachings, not being too literal in your interpretations of it, and feeling free to take it in directions that have meaning for you. The main thing is not to be passive with it but actively engaged. It can be a rich resource and a good starting point.
When you decide to create your own religion, you will want to study the traditions of the formal religions with a fervor you’ve never known before. You’ll discover how valuable they are and how much beauty and wisdom lie in their art and texts and stories and rituals and holy images. You’ll want to learn from Buddhist sutras and the Gospel teachings and the Sufi poets and the sayings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. You will be amazed at the beautiful precision of the Kabbalah and the acute spiritual sensitivity of the Qur’an—all because you know what it’s like to search for spiritual insight and express your spiritual feelings.
You may also discover, as I did, that so-called secular literature and art complete your spiritual education. You won’t know what religion is until you read Emerson and Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Beckett and Anne Sexton, D. H. Lawrence, Wordsworth, and W. B. Yeats. You won’t know how to be spiritual until you final know how to listen to J. S. Bach and Arvo Pärt. You will be astonished at what the painters Lucas Cranach and Rene Magritte can offer your religion. These, of course, are some of my favorites.
This new kind of religion asks that you move away from being a follower to being a creator. I foresee a new kind of spiritual creativity, in which we no longer decide whether to believe in a given creed and follow a certain tradition blindly. Now we allow ourselves a healthy and even pious skepticism. Most important, we no longer feel pressure to choose one tradition over another but rather are able to appreciate many routes to spiritual richness. This new religion is a blend of individual inspiration and inspiring tradition.
The religion I am putting forward is not the domesticated, tame, rehearsed, and constantly repeated variety. It is ever revealing and renewing itself. When I say that it is your own, that’s what I mean. It is not someone else’s summary of what you should do and be. It is the constant new revelation of the deep truths that can shape your life.