To make the human sojourn a little less sad….
–Pope John XXIII regarding the true purpose of religion
There are some unusual atheists. They do not believe in the existence of God but feel this not so much as a denial as a sense of loss. Their atheism is more about feeling than thought. God is the equivalent in their lives of an absent lover whom they sometimes miss. We recall the phrase of Jean-Paul Sartre about “a hole the size of God in us.” We might call this a God-shaped hole that only God can fill.
Religion begins where this touching grief begins, with a longing —ancient in the human heart— for an accompanying presence. The central desire in all mammals, the central need for survival, is connection, being-with-others. We thrive only by a series of reliable nurturing attachments which begin in infancy and continue throughout life. For some, this sense of belonging and of personal relationship also happened in a church community. Others locate it instead, or also, in nature, in a family, in a support system, or among friends.
There is an accent in present-day Christian spirituality on personal transformation, interpersonal concern, and transpersonal consciousness but not so much on a personal relationship to Jesus. Devotion is a direct path to that relationship. The form of our personal connection will differ. God or Christ can resemble someone we know. He can seem like someone we talk to and see before us or beside us. The divine can also be felt as a spirit within and around us. The forms are as diverse as we. Relationship has one thing in common for all of us: an accompanying, reliable, available, and responsive presence. A personal relationship with Jesus happens when we go beyond metaphor and feel his presence as personal connectedness with him and with all beings.
The path of devotion involves a personal relationship with a God or master in many religious traditions, not only Christian. For instance, Dogen Zenji, a thirteenth century Buddhist teacher, wrote: “Buddha mind…arises only through deep spiritual communion between sentient beings and the Buddha.” The Pure Land tradition advocates expressing this communion/ devotion to Amida Buddha using similar devotional sense objects as are found in Christianity: candles, incense, prayer, images, music, etc.
Not only is our sense of a personal relationship with the divine unique to us but each of us responds to spirituality and its practices in a different way. Some of us are born with an orientation to love images; others to words; others to music, movement, art, silence, or ritual. We feel something to be real when it reaches us along the innate channel through which we are best geared to receive it. This may explain why personal symbols and personal revelations, such as those experienced by mystics, are equal in value to the symbols and revelations of a collective church.
We do best with attention both to individual and collective resources. When they contradict each other, we pay closer attention and honor our interior knowing, as St. Augustine advises. Interiority is soul. In fact, St. Augustine described the heart as the center of our interiority: “Whose heart is seen into? Who shall comprehend what one is focusing on, what one is capable of, inwardly purposing, wishing?” In his Platonic philosophical view, our heart is a divine abode. In fact, Plato said: “The soul is most like the divine.”
Some Christian mystics experienced relationship with Jesus as an exchange of hearts with Jesus. He took their hearts as his own and gave his to them. The exchange of hearts shows clearly that religious practices can be tailored to individuals. This fits with the central archetype in all of us, that of an heroic journey which each of us has to take in her own way. Each of us is called to follow her own path with access to the ancient collective riches but also with her own assisting and afflicting forces, her own rituals of initiation, and her own experiences and impulses of grace. In this way of relating to religion, it is not that someone tells us how to live but that we are each called by name, that is, in our uniqueness, to act uniquely. Then we begin to see God in this pain, in this joy, in this political event, in this person standing before us. The call is now individual as we hear when Martha says to Mary: “The Master is here and calls for you.” John 11:28
Some religious approaches may not yet be open to the diverse styles in which the divine manifests in our hearts. A fundamentalist view may still insist that the Bible-shaped God is adequate for everyone. But the God-shaped hole in the psyche is uniquely fashioned to fit the shape of each person’s heart and mind. If the means of grace were meant to be the same, we would be the same, not the individuals that we so wonderfully are. Indeed, the human psyche by its diversity is a medium for the sacred so it is itself a sacramental reality.
When we get off the planet, as the astronauts and cosmonauts did, we can see that there are no boundaries marking out the ranges of nations, or races, or religions.