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Exalting the Container, Ignoring the Contents

by Richard Rohr, OFM

The recent hype around Popes and Papacy, provoke the writer to reflect on Religion, Rituals and Spiritual Living.

The world’s response to the Papal events of April, either favourable or even antagonistic, made something very clear to me. There will always be a need for religion, and there is a large percentage of people who like religion. Religion gets most of us started on the spiritual path, and keeps prodding us with relevant questions along the way. It creates the container, keeps the edges hot, offers the invitation and the inviting formulas, creates satisfying rituals and boundary-setting commandments. It lures many people onto an initial spiritual path. It is very good and even necessary – as far as it goes.

But after 35 years as a priest, I am convinced that most people stop right there. They confuse the maintenance of this container with the contents themselves. They confuse the rituals with the reality that they point to. Paul is impassioned about this: “It really makes no difference whether one is circumcised or not, all that matters is that one is created anew” (Galatians 6:15). Remember, circumcision was as central to Jews as baptism is for Christians.

I no longer believe that religion is always the same as a sincere and personal search for God. Sometimes it is, often it isn’t. All the concern for the death and funeral of the last Pope, the personality of the Pope, the preoccupation with the conclave and election of the new one, is great historical theatre. But you must admit, that you can be totally “into” such things and not be in the least transformed into what Paul calls “a new creation”. A high percentage of people – I meet them at the post office and hear them on TV, just love the whole spectacle. But there is not ordinarily much matching interest in the actual teaching of Jesus, real prayer, social justice, or any in-depth transformative journeys. Many people just like religion, it seems to me.

I heard a very telling quote recently from the Dalai Lama. When asked by a young person how he could begin a spiritual life, he answered him in a most honest and foreboding way. He apparently said, “If you can possibly avoid a spiritual path, by all means do so! It will take your whole life away.” He got it! I believe that most religion, however, is an attempt to feel spiritual and superior in a very measured and culturally correct way, largely by emphasizing one of two mandates or one or two rituals. This cleverly allows us to avoid discovering and surrendering our “whole life”. No wonder religion is so popular. No wonder piety sells. It is a great bargain. Join, attend, perform, obey here and there – and you can basically live your life unchanged. ‘Whoever would save his life, must lose it,” as Jesus put it. But none of us wants to lose it.

I am not saying that most people are phoney or hypocrites, although I suppose some are. I am just saying that this is what has been largely offered in the West as a vicarious spiritual path. It is what we are led to expect as the goal – join, attend, perform, obey here and there – and that is what it means to know and love God. This has become the cultural pattern for most of our religions, Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Islamic.

If you want and need religion, I think the Papacy is rather excellent at providing just that. No one does it better, and it will continue to appeal to a large percentage of humanity, many young people, and then again at the end of life. Individuals need the container to get started; nations and cultures need religion to hold together. Institutional Christianity, and the Papacy in particular, will give you intellectual arguments, enchanting rituals, grand historical sweep, a fine belonging system, and a clear morality to give you pleasing ego boundaries. This will hold you together quite well. It works at deep and good levels. It can create the real beginnings of spiritual desire, as it did for me. But just remember, it can also give you just enough of God to quite effectively inoculate you from any need or search for the real thing. This is the normal pattern, in my experience. “I have no need for inner experience. I have outer assurances”. In fact, I find a rather clear correlation between one’s preoccupation with outer forms and one’s lack of any inner substance.

The question for me is how much of your life do you want to give to maintaining, supporting, and cheering the container, and when do you get on to finding your real life and “giving it away”? Any preoccupation with exalting or maintaining Peter does not seem to be the least part of Jesus’ teaching, but once you replace the contents with the container, Peter becomes your concern, your figurehead, your projection screen, even your vicarious salvation. Peter is fine, but he as never meant to be a substitute for Jesus or the Gospel.