Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
PART ONE - beginning
CHAPTER ONE - a larger picture
CHAPTER TWO - beyond religion
PART TWO - seeking
CHAPTER THREE - sacred skeptic
CHAPTER FOUR - beliefs
CHAPTER FIVE - discernment
CHAPTER SIX - obstacles
PART THREE - building
CHAPTER SEVEN - detachment
CHAPTER EIGHT - innocence
CHAPTER NINE - responsibility
CHAPTER TEN - peak experience
PART FOUR - being
CHAPTER TWELVE - heaven on earth

On Silence
The Way of the Traveler
The Magical Realism of Alyce Frank
Live Better Longer
The Serigraphs of Doug West
Will Shuster: A Santa Fe Legend
The House of Alarcon (novel)
Advertising the American Woman
Freeze Frame: A History of the American Film
Reruns: Cinema on Television
Forgotten Patriot


Teachers open the door.
You enter by yourself.
This book is dedicated to all my teachers.

RECENTLY, I WAS interviewed by a regional magazine. I mentioned that I sometimes use Tarot cards when making a big decision. I got a letter back from a man who quoted the Bible against divination and said I was dead wrong and leading young people astray. I responded by asking him to lighten up his theology. I suggested that the Bible warns against a certain kind of magic that is indeed wrongheaded, but that I use the Tarot to jump-start my intuition. Hoping to find a little middle ground, I was disappointed to get another letter from him, even more condemning.
I have the sense that this man represents millions of people, in various religions, who grew up deep in anxiety that manifests itself in harsh, punitive, and joyless judgment of others. This is not religion in any vital sense of the word, but a profound twisting of what could be a source of life-affirming spirituality into some deathly, inhumane caricature. People who persist in this kind of religion suffer their highly constricted lives and paradoxically stand in the way of the world enjoying the meaning and self-affirmation that deep religion offers.
Joseph Dispenza and I have much in common. We know monastic life firsthand, and we know Christian theology. When we were very young, something stirred to turn us toward an unknown spiritual focus; though the forms have shifted over the years, the path of seeking is intact. I admire many elements in his story, especially his willingness to pursue intuition in service of his unique spiritual destiny. He takes the spiritual life seriously and yet wears it lightly.
I know that this book can help many people who find themselves stuck between their old religious practices gone stale and the uncertain possibilities in front of them. Joseph’s principles are solid. I am especially pleased to see his emphasis on avoiding spiritual seeking as a way to bypass the emotional issues that keep us stuck. If we go forward in our spiritual search and fail to deal head-on with the major problematical raw material of our past, and with emotions and fantasies that block the life in us, then our spirituality doesn’t have much chance to be vital and honest.
We are all neurotic, some more than others. This means we all have a pile of raw material to sift through and refine. If you had an abusive childhood, you have a big pile to deal with. If you have had a drinking problem, your pile is thick and rich. The more difficult the stuff of your past, the more promising your future spirituality. As this book demonstrates so beautifully, spiritual seeking is not a pleasant safari through a lush landscape but a lifelong trek through jungle and desert. There will be moments of clarity and delight, but the way is challenging. It demands that you take your life seriously and, in the words of my namesake, Thomas More of England, not pin it on someone else’s shirtsleeve.
On the other hand, Joseph makes it clear that certain gifted people may well appear at crucial moments and help you make important turns and leaps. But you have to be alert and willing to be their student. The lone spiritual path is not for those who think themselves superior to religions and churches. In fact, it is a humbler way.
I admit I was a bit shocked to read some of Joseph’s words against religion. Especially in my doctoral studies in world religions, I developed a love of this word religion, and I still try to give it fresh life. To me, religion is a prerequisite for being alive as a human being. It is not just an outward and outmoded institutionalization of spirituality. It is a posture in life: reverence for life’s mysteries, practice of contemplation and deep consideration of those mysteries, and consequent profound ethical sensitivity. Joseph speaks quite properly when he says that spirituality requires a life of service.
But I do think this difference is largely a matter of words—my concern for keeping religion alive. Joseph even tells us how to keep traditional teachings and practices fresh and meaningful. Nothing could be more important in this age of secularism, which is to say soullessness. Unfortunately, religious institutions often collude in keeping modern life secular by failing to understand sufficiently the prophetic and penetrating nature of the religious point of view.
I too live a monk’s life, disguised as an ordinary citizen trying to get along. Contemplation, detachment, deepened sexuality, obedience to the spirit when it moves, community, reverence, and certain stillness can be part of an ordinary life. Spirituality is sensual, practical, and quotidian, if it is anything real at all.
Maybe Joseph and I can convince others to try the monastic life in the world and create an invisible monasticism. In the medieval world, monasticism was the source of learning, art, and moral sensibility. There is no reason a new, invisible monasticism cannot similarly revive culture and transform our current unconsciousness, materialism, and aggressiveness into intelligence, sensuousness, and mutual regard.
Thomas Moore

We find God in our own being, which is the mirror of God.
ONE NIGHT IN 1984, in a remote village in northern New Mexico, I stood barefoot before a path of hot coals about three feet wide and thirty feet long, trying to decide if I was going to walk on it, or walk away. I was told that at that moment the glowing red nuggets, half a foot deep, had reached the temperature automobile factories use to melt down scrap metal.
I hesitated there, my pant legs rolled up to my knees, my eyes fixed straight ahead at the fire-path, reminding myself to breathe. The hypnotic sounds of drumming filled my ears. I knew I did not have to do this, but on another level I absolutely knew I had to do it if I were going to break through to a new place inside myself.
I filled my lungs with the chill night air, let it out slowly, and made the first step onto the fire bed. Staring ahead, avoiding looking down at my feet, I took one step, then another, then another. The fiery coals felt like soft cinders under my feet. I made my way down the path with unhurried, deliberate steps, and at last reached the end. I stepped off the fire and onto the cool earth.
For a moment, I just stood there dazed and slightly numb. I had not been incinerated. The soles of my feet had not been scorched, had not turned to ash, had not even blistered. I had confronted one my greatest fears and moved through it. My body had survived fire.
Then, as if in slow motion, I lifted my eyes to a sky ablaze with starlight and sensed a rush through my body so powerful that for some time I seemed to be weightless and outside myself. In that thrilling moment I felt myself one with all of creation—one with the earth I was standing on, with the sky, with the stars, with all people, animals, trees, mountains, rivers, the very air I was inhaling. I felt truly alive, grateful for my life and my connection to all other living things.
For me, walking on fire led to a high spiritual experience, a sacred encounter with the Source of all life. That feeling stayed in me with varying intensity for several days afterward. In time, my life went on as usual, but somehow with more spiritual awareness and attention. The memory of the firewalk and its aftermath has remained with me all these years as a reference point—one of many that were to follow—for a spiritual life I have forged for myself outside of organized religion.
Long before I walked on hot coals that night in search of spiritual connection, I turned my back on the life of a monk and gave up my faith—the religion of my parents. I decided to seek the divinity, if there was a divinity, away from the traditions, rituals, and rules of Roman Catholicism.
I was born into a family of practicing Catholics and so grew up as a member in good standing of that religion. After graduating from Catholic high school, I entered an order of teaching monks and lived as a professional religious man for eight years. In monastic life, I had the opportunity to study the theology of my religion in great depth. My inquiries led me, in time, to question many of the beliefs I accepted blindly as a child and a teenager. The questions became spiritual issues for me, and finally and ironically they became blocks to my spiritual growth.
Leaving the faith of my childhood was not easy, particularly at that time, forty years ago, when attitudes about religion were considerably less flexible than they are today. Predicable pressures exerted themselves: the puzzlement and then the disapproval of family and friends, the embarrassment, the shame. Leaving religious life was even more difficult. When I gave up my religious vows, I received a letter from the Vatican that began, “Insofar as we are able, we release you. . . .” I had made my vows to God, you see, and therefore I was answerable to God for my actions. A disapproving family was one thing; a disapproving God was quite another—divine displeasure could endanger my immortal soul.
Years later, now, I see that walking away from religion has turned out to be a blessing. It led me to many fascinating areas of soul exploration, from past-life regression and dream work to faith healing and shamanism, and just about everything in between. It allowed me to investigate the splendid spiritual traditions of other cultures and go deeply into a mystic realm in search of my spiritual Source. Leaving the confines of organized religion opened me to the possibility of creating my own spiritual life, one that gives direction and meaning to all I do and all I am.
In my search, the challenge for me has been to try to recognize spiritual truth when I see it and discard the rest—particularly the superficial offerings of popular metaphysical thought and practice. My background was in the rigorous discipline of traditional theology; I wanted my spirituality to be solid. Looking back at the process I went through on my journey from organized religion to personal spirituality, the most discouraging times were when I realized I had no roadmap to guide me even a little. I left the spiritual “certainties” of religion because I was finding no nourishment there, but outside religion there were no certainties of any kind, only open questions and sometimes crushing doubts that what I was pursuing had any meaning at all. I was on my own.
This book emerged from my experience of wandering in a kind of spiritual no-man’s-land for many years after leaving organized religion and finding, at last, a spiritual home within. When you leave religion, you are not handed a guidebook for leading a sound spiritual life. If you are in that spiritual place, taking full responsibility for your soul and looking for guideposts, my story may help you navigate your way.
I believe we are waking up as a species. One sign of that grand awakening is the dawning awareness of our essential spiritual nature. Half a century ago, the mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin anticipated this new leap in consciousness when he said, “We have been thinking of ourselves as human beings on a spiritual journey—it would be more correct to think of ourselves as spiritual beings on a human journey.”
Suddenly, it seems, many of us are feeling compelled to seek and have our own personal connection with our spiritual Source. We are making our own spiritual way in life apart from the compulsory dogmas, doctrines, and canons of organized religion. Every year, more and more of us are embarking on a spiritual search outside religion. From 1960 to 1980, the years during which I was struggling with the discrepancies between my religious faith and my evolving personal spiritual beliefs, Americans dropped out of organized religions in huge numbers: 84 percent of Jews, 69 percent of mainline Protestants, 61 percent of conservative Protestants, and 67 percent of Catholics.
In the past decade, 14.3 million Americans left organized religions, giving rise to the term “nones” for people who choose none on surveys of religious affiliation or preference. Of the nearly thirty million nones in total in America, less than one million think of themselves as atheists. This leaves approximately twenty-nine million Americans in search of a personal relationship with God, the Source, the Divinity, the Creator, the Great Spirit, the Supernatural Being, or whatever name they attach to a power higher than themselves, including the Higher Power. They are spiritual seekers.
Seeking spiritual truth and connection with the divine, however we conceive it, is part of being human. The pioneer psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung and many others before and after him understood that spiritual seeking was a powerful theme in human nature. According to Jung, we all share a deep level of consciousness, which he called the collective unconsciousness—a pool of human experience and concepts that includes patterns of human thought or archetypes developed through the centuries. The Seeker is one of those archetypes.
So many of us, as we have seen, are being called to take full responsibility for the care of our souls by becoming spiritual seekers. This movement away from organized religion surely is part of a wider trend that touches many other areas of our lives. Probably the most well-documented is the parallel development taking place in the care of our bodies. The National Institutes of Health reports that in the United States 36 percent of us are using some form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM). If megavitamin therapy is included in the definition of CAM, the figure rises to 62 percent.
Seekers of physical well-being are leaving conventional Western medicine, with its doctrinaire methods based solely on narrowly interpreted science, to pursue healing through alternative medical systems such as homeopathy, naturopathy, and ayurveda. Thirty years ago, alternative medical modalities were practically unheard of in the United States. Today, many thousands of people take up biologically based therapies, such as food supplements and herbs, along with chiropractic, osteopathy, energy healing, massage therapy, and acupuncture to address their health issues.
Spiritual seeking meets bodily healing in mind-body medicine, a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind’s ability to affect bodily function and symptoms. They include yoga, meditation, and other relaxation practices, and a range of spiritual practices.
What is happening in our relationship to the body—taking the primary responsibility for it away from “professionals”—is strikingly similar to what is unfolding in the realm of our spirituality. Just as we are seeking physical healing outside the old system of medicine we grew up with, we are also seeking to create a personal spiritual life away from the old structure of organized religion.
Many people in our culture find it difficult to recognize that there is a difference between religion and spirituality. Confusion around the two keeps sincere spiritual seekers in organized religion even when they know they are not being nourished by it. They often suspect, as I did, that continuing as a faithful member of a religious organization actually is impeding their spiritual progress. Nevertheless, they remain in religion because they believe it is the only way to have a relationship with their divine Source.
Religion offers us a connection with the divine—with conditions. Primary among those conditions, which include myriad laws regulating our conduct, is the notion that our relationship with our Source depends on the agency of a church and its ministers. In religion, we go to “God” through a paternal authority figure, a priest, minister, rabbi, preacher, guru, or some other form of spiritual specialist. The underlying assumption is that we are incapable of making and keeping a connection to our Source on our own. There is no room for spiritual seeking inside religion, because religion already has all the answers. In religion, what is required is faith.
Personal spirituality is entirely different from religiosity. Spirituality is the content of religion (or should be, under the best of circumstances). Spirituality is the awareness of ourselves as beings living in a multidimensional world, in connection with our Source and all other living beings. We know there is much more to us than what we can see and touch. This “much more” is the realm of spirit. We understand that our human experience is like an iceberg: only the tip, a small part of the whole, is visible. Living daily in this awareness, we lift all that is human in us to the level of interconnectedness with all other living things, all there is.
The challenge for the spiritual seeker is to come eventually to spiritually solid ground, avoiding the temptation to follow this self-important guru or that ego-inflated workshop leader, and sidestepping the sentimentality of most modern inspirational writers. The search for a meaningful personal spirituality is a serious one, demanding the full attention of both heart and mind.
Spiritual seekers create their own spiritual lives out of their personal experience of the divinity. They are led to build a personal spiritual philosophy—an open-minded, open-hearted, ever-evolving one—from many spiritual or humanistic traditions and worldviews. Some seekers are even guided back to all or part of the religion of their parents, but with a completely different spiritual understanding.
Out of personal spiritual philosophy, which motivates and gives meaning to all of our life, we live as “higher humans,” beings with one foot on the earthly plane and the other in the mystical, unknown kingdom where we are one with all. From that awareness, we are moved to live our lives in a certain principled way—leading to service. The proof of a healthy spiritual life, I believe, is the extent to which we make ourselves available to the needs of others.
Many people remain members of an organized religion because they are concerned that without religion their children and family will receive no moral guidance. They may also be troubled about the prospect of being on their own spiritually, without a professional religious overseer or caretaker. If this or a similar fear is keeping you tied to a set of religious beliefs that have ceased to nourish your soul, what follows should assure you that there is indeed life after religion.
If you have left organized religion and are searching for a way to create a rich spiritual life on your own, you will find here a plan for doing so, with my experience as an example. As a member of a Catholic religious order, I was as religious as one can get. Now, outside religion, I try to live a spiritually informed and inspired life, connected to my Source and to all that had its beginnings there.
When we become spiritual seekers, we take full responsibility for creating a deep personal bond with the divine on our own. The path may not be an easy one for some (it was not for me, at times), but the rewards of searching for the Source of all being and enjoying an intimate relationship with it are immense.


a larger picture
Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise
From outward things, whate’er you may believe.
A FEW YEARS AGO, I took a meditation class with a small group of instructors at the college where I was teaching. The class, designed to reduce stress, met once a week for two hours. I was familiar with meditation from my earlier monastic experience, so generally I knew what to expect. For the first two weeks, everything I encountered was straightforward and somewhat predictable. Then, toward the end of the third class, something extraordinary happened.
As I sat on the floor cross-legged with my eyes closed, concentrating on my breathing, I felt myself pulling apart from my body and starting to float upward. My first feeling was a rush of anxiety, but then I worked through my fear of being separated from my body and the possibility that I might not be able to come back. Gradually, I relaxed into a pleasant feeling of weightlessness. I drifted up to the ceiling and slipped through the roof and into the night sky.
I was aware of myself as a large transparent ball, like a perfectly spherical soap bubble. There I was, flying through space. I found that I could fly fast and that I could maneuver myself in any direction. Right now, I decided to fly with tremendous speed toward a distant cool white light.
As I was flying, I looked to one side and saw another big bubble like myself. I flew to it and, to my surprise, merged with it—two bubbles in one. During this merging, I told a story to the other bubble. The story I told was the lifetime I was experiencing on earth. When I finished telling my story, the other bubble told me its story.
After I pulled away, I noticed there were other bubbles—millions of them—all flying at various speeds toward the far-off light. I flew over to one of those other bubbles, merged, and told my story again, this time remembering more of it and grasping more of its meaning.
At that point, the meditation class ended. With one long, deep breath, I was back in the room and back in my body. My colleagues ambled out of the room quietly and the instructor started closing up. Slowly, I moved out of my cross-legged position and stood up. My hand went to my face and wiped away a tear I did not remember shedding.
“We may be storytellers, then,” I said to myself.
As I began writing this book, I remembered that fleeting vision, which could have been just a whimsical flight of my imagination or something more profound and more revealing, a window into eternity opening a crack during an otherwise perfectly ordinary exercise in stress reduction. Who we are may be storytellers. Why we are here may be to collect stories and share them with one another. These stories are the content of our lifetime.
From this vantage point in time, I am beginning to see the story I have been creating, with varying degrees of awareness, since I was born. Like your own story, probably, it has had its twists and turns, with more time than I would have liked spent in subplots and departures from the narrative. But those digressions aside, the theme of my story at least is beginning to emerge for me. I appear to have spent most of my life on a search for my spiritual self.
In this way as well, my story may be much the same as yours. I believe all of us are called to explore the world of spirit. When the call comes and how we go about our quest differs for each of us. But the impulse to venture beyond the narrow confines of our bodies into parts of us we cannot see or touch, yet know are there, appears to be an inherent human trait. You and I are seekers after spirit. We came into this world that way and we live our human lives, whether entirely conscious of it or not, deeply involved in a spiritual search.
Who are we, really? What are we doing here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Are we more than our bodies? Did we live before we were born? Will we live again after we die? Why will we die? What happens to us after we die? These questions occur to all of us at one time or another during our lives. In asking them, we begin to push the physical envelope that we know well and move into spiritual territory, about which we still know little but to which we are irresistibly drawn.
Traditionally, many of us have sought answers to these and perhaps a hundred more spiritual questions in organized religion. We went to churches, synagogues, mosque, temples, and ashrams to try to learn something about our purpose here on earth and about a grander plan in the world, if any, and how one might relate to the other. Beyond our questions, we were looking to satisfy that deep, passionate yearning we all feel for a connection to a world beyond the limitations of the physical.
For some of us, the answers we received from religion were inadequate or not answers at all. Instead, religion offered us a set of beliefs about spirituality to which we should subscribe “on faith.” Even though we felt spiritually undernourished by organized religion, we might have stayed with it and tried to make it work for ourselves. Or we might simply have given up on the possibility of having a meaningful spiritual life, resigning ourselves to wander forever in a spiritless twilight zone.
However, you and I do have other choices, and that is what this book is about. You absolutely can have a satisfying and meaningful spiritual life outside religion. Seeking for your personal spiritual identity is your birthright. You can move out of the confines of a religious system if it is not furthering your spiritual life; you can free yourself to explore the great human questions, and you can be successful in that sacred endeavor.
This is a fascinating time of transition and transformation. One of the many areas of our life experiencing fundamental change is how we approach our relationship to our divine Source. Willingness to experiment with spiritual searching has come into the cultural mainstream, giving rise to the term “cafeteria religions,” where people choose their religious beliefs and practices according to what inspires and nourishes them.
Our religious landscape at this exciting time in human evolution is vast and varied. You may be a member in good standing of an organized religion and regularly attend church or temple. Or you may consider yourself to have a religious affiliation—Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Baptist, and so on—but do not practice your religion often. Maybe you attend services more or less regularly at quasi-religious organizations such as Unity or Religious Science but regard traditional religions as too limiting for your taste. You might have a cultural connection with a religion, but little else.
On the other hand, you may never have been associated with a religion. In the 1960s, when all the established religions in the United States (and in many other parts of the world) experienced a sudden hemorrhage of membership, the people who left the religion of their parents and grandparents typically reared their children outside religion. You may be a member of that generation of the religionless, just now navigating your way along a personal spiritual path with few guideposts to help.
If you are like millions of us at this moment in history, you may have more than one of these scenarios running inside you. You could be culturally devoted to Judaism, for instance, enjoying certain music, dances, foods, and traditions but at the same time finding that its core beliefs and rituals have little or no meaning to your day-to-day life. You may appreciate Islamic customs and manners, with their elaborate emphasis on hospitality and respect, but stay away from a mosque because the religious beliefs behind those customs do not inspire you. Or you might feel drawn to the philosophy of a Catholic saint such as Francis of Assisi, but not to practice Catholicism because you are not interested in following the doctrines and proscriptions of the Catholic Church.
When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, hundreds of thousands descended upon Rome to pay their last respects. At Saint Peter’s Basilica, they waited in long lines night and day through all kinds of weather to view his body and say good-bye. But when the mourners were interviewed about why they had made such a heroic effort to be there, many said they were not Catholic. Others who were Catholic said they did not agree with the church’s doctrines on birth control, abortion, gay rights, and a range of other social issues. They had come to Rome to honor John Paul’s moral courage and humanitarianism. They admired his dedication to his own personal spiritual path.
Like those sincere pilgrims to Rome, you may feel that you have one foot in and one foot out of organized religion. No matter where you are on this spectrum of possibilities, however, religion is an issue for you. It is not a concern for you alone, since where you stand on religion influences your relationships with the people in your life in essential ways. You may be troubled to think that in the absence of religion your children, or the children of others, would receive no moral guidance; that is enough for many dedicated parents to stay uncomfortably, even intolerably, in a religion. You may fear that if you sever your religious affiliation you will destroy a precious bond with your parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—your family support structure.
Sometimes, the prospect of being on your own spiritually appears daunting, or worse, risky, or downright dangerous. If you are contemplating leaving your religion or have done so, you may be experiencing anxiety, anger, grief, or shame over it. These emotions are common to everyone who has left a religion. I have felt all of them at times in my own process, but even if they are typical and expected while we are feeling them, they can be enormously disturbing.
I have traveled in the sometimes-hard terrain between organized religion and personal spirituality. I know what it is like to wander in a spiritual no-man’s-land. I also know what peace of mind, joy, and sense of connection lies at the destination of spiritual striving. In these pages, I offer you the story of that journey, as told by one big bubble to another.
My experience with the realm of spirit began long before I entered a monastery. It happened out of nowhere when I was seven or eight years old. I was playing a game of tag with the other children in the neighborhood, running around on the lawn of my grandparents’ house. Suddenly, the other children were gone and I was alone, or so it seemed to me. Something welled up from deep within me. Even now, after all these years of remembering that moment and reflecting on it, I find it difficult to describe the feeling. A wave of joy rose from my solar plexus and filled my body completely. Time stopped. I felt sheer bliss. I was utterly filled and finished.
In that ecstatic moment, my consciousness seemed to take a wild leap upward. I knew there was another world I had never imagined existed, and I felt perfectly at home in it. For days after my blissful moment, I tried to recreate the feeling, but without success. Instead of getting the feeling back, I began to sense a vague tug at my heart to venture forth and explore. My business-as-usual childhood was over.
“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in,” Deepak Chopra has written. You may remember something like that happening to you during your childhood or at another stage in your life. These experiences might have come on spontaneously, as mine did, or some outside event could have triggered them. We all respond differently to these brief openings into another reality, but I believe we all have experienced them at one time or another. My response was to consider it a kind of call. Little did I know at the time that a momentary break while playing a children’s game of tag would lead me, a decade later, to the gates of a monastery.
Our family was Catholic, but not unusually so. We observed the ordinary daily lives of Catholics: meatless Fridays, Confession on Saturdays, Mass on Sundays. By the time I got to Catholic high school, I was familiar with the concept of a religious vocation—how it meant “a calling from God,” and how this is what priests and nuns experienced that directed them into their profession. If a vocation is a feeling deep within that cannot be denied or avoided, then sometime in the middle of the twelfth grade I knew had a vocation.
I applied for entrance to the Congregation of Holy Cross, an order of teaching brothers or monks, and was accepted. Our parish priest volunteered to drive me from my home in Ohio to the congregation’s postulancy in Wisconsin. Early one muggy June morning, a week after high school graduation, his black Buick pulled up into our driveway. Inside the house, my sleep-deprived mother sniffed back her tears. She had spent much of the night packing my footlocker, and folding in love notes for me to find when I unpacked. I walked out of the house and into the car—the shortest imaginable distance that was also the unfathomable space between two worlds.
When I entered monastic life, I embarked on a path to becoming a professional religious man. Like others before me who had chosen that profession in a tradition stretching back centuries, I wore the contemporary garb of a “religious,” black with a Roman collar, which identified me in public and set me apart.
Along with my brothers, I practiced the Catholic religion to the letter: attendance at Mass every morning, recitation of daily prayers, litanies, devotions, the rosary, the sacraments, and so on. In fact, being a professional religious meant I was living what our master of novices would say was “the fullness of religion.” Catholics outside the cloister did as much as they could to live the faith, he explained, but there were always the distractions of lay life—relationships, children, jobs, and all the obligations that went with them. We who were professional religious were kind of prototype Catholics, models of what it meant to live our religion truly and completely.
Within the walls of the monastery, my life was not much different from the life of a monk in Europe during the Middle Ages. I was part of a community of about sixty monks, ranging in age from eighteen, like me, to eighty. The monastery was self-sufficient. We grew our own food in the fields around the monastery, which was in a remote farming area in the Midwest. Our life was exceedingly simple. We wore plain clothing, ate humble meals, and at night retired to small individual rooms furnished only with a bed, a sink, and a desk and chair for reading and for study. We rose before dawn to chant prayers and went to sleep in the early evening, after meditation. Except for rare occasions, we observed the rule of silence.
All the monks living in my monastery took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Under the vow of poverty, we gave up personal ownership of all material things; everyone owned everything in common. The intent of the vow was to foster detachment from possessions. The vow of chastity meant we abstained from sensual pleasure and remained celibate and outside of relationship with another person.
Obedience was the surrender of our personal will to the needs of the community, articulated by the monastery’s chief administrator, the abbot. The vow of obedience dictated where we would live—at this monastery or another affiliated one—and what tasks we would perform. We might be assigned to work in the kitchen or the garden, or given the job of porter (taking care of visitors), regulator (supervising the daily schedule), apothecary (looking after the physical health of the other monks), or extern (going outside the monastery to obtain special items or services). One of my favorite “obediences,” as they were called, was reader—reading aloud from inspirational books in the monastery refectory during our silent meals.
The practice of obedience became a somewhat larger issue as the years went on. At a moment’s notice, we might be sent to another of the order’s monastic houses to carry out an assignment there. We would pack one small bag and hurry to the next religious house to become part of that established community of monks. The process of being uprooted and replanted served several purposes. One was to fill the needs of the greater community, of course, but the more spiritual aspect had to do with detachment—giving us still another opportunity to surrender the comforts of familiarity.
Poverty, chastity, and obedience formed the foundation of our monastic way of life. The objective was to be free to concentrate completely on the life of the spirit without allowing anything to interfere. The three vows were sacred promises we made to God, not to the Catholic Church or to the monastery. So serious was the commitment to the vows, monks new to monastic life took them only for a year at a time for three years. After those three years, monks could opt to extend their trial period for another three consecutive years before pronouncing “perpetual vows.” Taking the vows was a grave matter.
Being a monk was not easy. We lived apart from the world not only geographically but also emotionally and mentally. In our monastery, there were no radios, televisions, newspapers, magazines—anything that might distract us from our focus on the inner life. A telephone, in the abbot’s office, connected us marginally with the outside world. Although we lived in community, the rule of silence and the restriction on forming “particular friendships” distanced us from one another, leaving us with an aching loneliness even amid a large group of men.
Many of the brothers, craving more intimate human connections or fewer constraints on their freedom, left monastic life and returned home during the first or second year. It was just too much. But I stayed behind the walls, looking for answers to spiritual questions I seemed to have been asking since that remarkable afternoon of my childhood. Spirituality was what I aspired to; for me, the fullness of religion was the means to that end.
Historically, the methods we humans have followed to explore our spiritual dimension are varied almost beyond belief, from murmuring prayers on a string of beads to ritually murdering each other on an altar of sacrifice. We have starved and mutilated ourselves, or stuffed and drugged ourselves, trying to connect to the realm of spirit. We have investigated our spiritual nature within groups—in tribes with unique identity, such as “the chosen people” or “the elect”—and individually, as mystics, mediums, saints, and shamans.
Through it all, we have become attached to a few interesting notions. One is that the spiritual world exists far outside the earthly world we can see and experience. Another is that the world of spirit, ruled by an all-powerful divinity, is separate and apart from us, making any kind of association extremely difficult. Still another is that access to the spiritual realm depends on a middle-person whose job it is to take us to the other world, usually through a process that involves making us worthy to enter it.
We invented religion to house these notions and many more. With its rituals, ceremonies, and other formal procedures, religion was the way we thought we could get a glimpse into our own spiritual nature. Of course, owing to our fundamentally unworthy condition (or so went our core mind-set), we would have to submit to the rules of religion, administered by a priest caste, and commit to its system of beliefs, which we would have to take on faith as truth.
“Religion starts with the perception that something is wrong,” writes Karen Armstrong in The History of God. We believe we came into this world flawed, and we must spend the rest of our lives making up for that original imperfection. Only religion, with its elaborate formulas and stipulations, can lift us out of our faulty nature and reform us to the point where we can have access to the spiritual realm.
Eventually, we institutionalized religion and made it one of the pillars of civilization, alongside education, government, medicine, commerce, and so on. Religion was, and is now, organized much like a corporation, with a hierarchy of command, a structure for getting things done more or less efficiently, employees, a body of beliefs and ideological viewpoints, a “product” (connection to the divine and the world of spirit), and a recognizable character and “culture.”