"Spirituality not Religion"

(Homily for Third Sunday Easter)

We live in the age of the soundbite: the short, easily remembered phrase. A current example is "ground troops should not be kept off the table." As the soundbite catches on, many begin to repeat some version of it, reassuring us, for example, that they would not want to have anything "kept off the table."

The use of soundbites means great issues are not decided by cogent argument, but by clever slogans. In the pro-life movement we've felt the sting of this strategy. Those favoring legalized abortion have defined themselves as pro-choice. The one who agrees with them is a moderate (the governor of New Jersey, for example, qualifies as a "moderate Republican") while the the rest of us are extreme or right-wing*.

To argue against soundbites can be exasperating, but it is part of the culture we live in. I would like to mention one more slogan because it touches directly on this Sunday's Gospel. We hear folks today make the contrast between spirituality and religion. Recently a guy informed me he does not go to church on Sunday because he "believes in spirituality not religion."

My response was to remind him there are spirits and there are spirits. Being spiritual is not the same as being good. The devil is a spirit. In fact it is hard to get more spiritual than Satan. That's why St. John warns us to "test the spirits to see whether they are of God." (1 Jn 4:1) One of the things that makes me shiver is talk about "spirituality" as if it were an end in itself. That spirituality leads to worship of self-image or worse to a worship of invisible powers, life forces, creative energy whatever you want to call them. For a Christian the goal is not to achieve spirituality. Our goal is God. He alone is pure goodness.

The people who contrast spirituality and religion have fallen into a subtle error. It is what Pope John Paul II calls the New Manicheism. Manicheism is an ancient belief system which considered matter to be evil.** The goal of life was escape from entrapment in the material world in order to arrive at some spiritual realm. That philosophy held a great attraction for St. Augustine as he tells us in his Confessions. The Holy Father has alerted us to a New Manicheism which would reject the Church because of her human, institutional side. It even goes so far as to look down on the sacraments as a necessary means of grace. For that reason you hear, "I do not need baptism or the Mass. I can go directly to God. All I need is a personal relationship with Jesus."

Well, Jesus himself did not take that approach. Even after his earthly life was completed, he showed a remarkable use of material things. He ate a piece of boiled fish in the presence of his disciples (Lk. 24:43) and showed them the wounds in his hands and side.

This Sunday's Gospel recounts a material gesture which has enormous implications. When he arrived at Emmaus with the two disciples who did not recognize him, Jesus "took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them." (Lk. 24:30) These are the same four verbs as the multiplication of the loaves and the Last Supper: took, blessed, broke and gave. That physcial gesture caused the two disciples to recognize Jesus, but when they did, he vanished from their sight. The reason he disappeared is evident. He is now present in the bread. When they returned to Jerusalem, the two told the others how the Lord had made himself known in the breaking of the bread. This is the earliest phrase for what we now know as the Mass. We hear references to it in the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of Paul and throughout the New Testament.

The point should be clear. It's fine to go out and look at Mount Rainier. It might even be a spiritual experience. But Jesus himself has chosen a specific place to meet us. It is in the breaking of the bread, in Mass. There alone we offer perfect worship to God our Father. If you want to call that "religion," I cheerfully accept the label.


*In case you are curious or suspect a political agenda, I am not a Republican. Whatever the party, the guidelines about abortion are clear.

**Manicheism is akin to Gnosticism

From Archives:

2014 Homily: Journey to Hope Week 3
2011: Restoration
2008: The Incorruptibles
2005: Nor Did His Flesh See Corruption
2002: Time Stood Still
1999: Spirituality not Religion

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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