It seems that nothing in the world has caused more war and destruction than religion, yet many of the greatest leaders embraced spirituality as a central source of their strength. How do we come to understand this apparent dichotomy?
Perhaps the issue is that people have created religion to understand the deeper spiritual nature of humanity.
Institutions serve important social purposes but they’re not perfect. As religions evolve, they take on social aspects, developing rules and regulations. Along with creating a sense of belonging for their members, they also begin to define who can and who can’t be part of the community. At their worst, they become a means of social control, telling followers what they need to do in order to achieve salvation.
I grew up Catholic and Catholicism was central to my education. This was never a problem for me because I lived in a society that was growing more critical of institutionalized religion. I’ve always felt free to question doctrine and practice – and that’s a very good thing.
I’ve come to several realizations in this process. The most important is that there’s a very big difference between the doctrine of the Catholic church and the message of Jesus of Nazareth. Catholicism has been around for over 2,000 years and has endured some questionable leadership. It was also the unifying force in Europe for many centuries and thus developed some odd rules in this effort to create social unity and enforce compliance.
Through my questioning, I learned that what’s most moral is to follow an informed conscience, even if it brings you in conflict with civil and religious laws. This led to further exploration of my own spirituality. What I found is a comfort and a peace in the message of Jesus, despite the noise of dos and don’ts proclaimed by Catholic teaching.
I’ve also found other seekers, some Christian and some not, who were on the same journey. It was as if we had all discovered a deeper river, a source of understanding that flowed beyond religion and brought peace and joy.
Jesus taught us to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. It’s all about love, and love is beautifully defined in a teaching given to early Christians and recorded in the first book of Corinthians. Love is patient and kind. It doesn’t hold grudges and it’s not boastful. It wants what’s best for your neighbour and it always forgives.
In loving God, we realize that we too are loved. God is patient and kind with each of us and asks us to be the same with each other. The message really is that simple.
For me, this has led to a deeper understanding of what’s central to Catholicism. Perhaps it ties in with my own early Christian and Semitic roots, but I’ve come to cherish my friendship with Jesus. The mass is no longer an obligation, it’s an opportunity for us to commune in a deeply spiritual way. This is not to say that Catholicism is better than any other spiritual practice, only that it’s the one that touches my soul in this way. I believe others find the same peace in the ways they choose to believe and that’s a wonderful thing.
If what I believe ever leads to separation and seeing others as ‘less than,’ then I’m off track. If it draws me closer to joy, peace and the celebration of myself and each person I meet as a beautiful and sacred gift to the world, then I know I’m travelling in the right direction.
My questioning has brought me to the conclusion that life is not about religion, it’s simply about learning to love.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.