What is the purpose of religion? What is the purpose of its practice? The most devout in the Western tradition may believe that religious practice is for salvation. That without practice, damnation is the end result. This concept is predicated on two shaky foundations.
First, it is a quid pro quo. I give in order to get. I don’t believe that salvation and goodness work that way. The bartering heart is not a clean heart. You cannot approach religious practice, or God, with the intent of “getting”.
Second, it requires a belief in a before, during, and after. Although many people take the literalist view that there is an afterlife, or even more so, that the concepts of heaven and hell are more than just earthly ideas. But to believe such is to also shut out a far more plausible reality. That this is it. And this being it, takes nothing from the importance of God, or what God may or may not be. Indeed, it makes God more present, and more important in daily life. It forces us to enjoy the process, and to be more morally conscious in the present.
Without being overly polemic, a brief look at history and the atrocities committed in the name of religion, highlight the problems that might result from an inability to respect the present, or to respect the “other”. And yet, what is the value of religious teaching if we cannot respect the “other”. The Christian concept of turning the other cheek, as an example, requires us to let go of ourselves. I can’t remember where I read this, but remember reading that in Judaism, this idea is hard to accept given the history of the diaspora. And yet, I have often found that Jewish people are more conscious of the present, more comfortable in their skins, and more uncluttered in their relationship with the divine. So too, the Moslem.
I am not a religious expert, and my intensely religious upbringing was one that caused me to question the institutions of religion much more than I might have. As an essentially rebellious, but also intellectually curious child, I honed in on the inconsistencies and deemed hypocrisy of the institution. But the philosophy, the core of teaching, the meaning of life, that has remained as an important constant.
Faith, for me, is part of me. I do believe that some of us are wired to believe [I blogged about this once]. I’ve never doubted the existence or meaning of God. But I have also never accepted that God is the way we are told God is. For one, how on earth (or in heaven) could anyone be an authority on that? How could another human tell us the way God is? That is an inherent impossibility.
Where does that leave me? God is in all of us, and in all things. Our lives take the course they do for a reason. That reason is one of our own making though not all circumstances of life are within our grasp. It is not God’s plan that we should suffer, though suffering is often a part of our lives. Instead, it is our holiness, our own individual Godliness, that is honoured when we endeavour. Our obligation to God is to make the best of what we have, who we are, and to constantly strive to be better. That also includes towards one another. We have a sacred duty for self-care, for care of others, and for care of our world. To behave otherwise is to reject God.
This line of thinking should tell us that the only thing that matters is the here and now. Presence. Being present requires us to be good. Ironically, armed with that belief, I struggle to be present. This may be the curse of ADD, and of being a “dreamer”, and is, at least on a practical level, one of the things I value most about D/s. An unexpected benefit of D/s has been learning about presence. It is hard to be anywhere but present under the whip. And while that might generate a snigger, there is great religious precedent. Self-flagellation is but one tool of the devout. Fasting, meditation, are all tools which drive towards the same result.
This belief in the Godliness of all things also places a special responsibility on us as individuals and as a society. We have a duty of collective care. Serving God is about tending to that collective care. Sadly, this seems ever further away. The collective social discourse is one of increased argument and unpleasantry. The politic is no longer such, but rather a sensational and hideous spectacle. The concept of community has left the room in many cases, though in times of duress, our collective need to feel community comes out with real beauty and vigour (consider for a moment how we all respond to help each other in the wake of a natural disaster).
But in my mind, this kind of community spirit is something we need to live in the everyday. That is, for me, a form of prayer. And what do you do when you serve community? You behave politely, and in a civil fashion. You tolerate and respect the “other”. You do small acts of daily service. And you live as righteously as you possibly can. That might include things like being carbon neutral, not using plastics, turning the lights off in your home, recycling, not getting on a plane to go on holiday, consciously letting go of the hedonistic and consumerist culture we are all driven to.
And this brings me full circle. Submission in its purest form is a deeply spiritual act. And what is it exactly? Well, it feels like letting go of the self. I think that the Buddhists are closest to this in their practice. To being able to let go of the present, to live with less, to be submissive. Statistically, they are meant to be the happiest people in the world…and certainly meditation is meant to get you “high”. It isn’t to say one practice is better than another, but rather to highlight that letting go of our selfish selves, is a path towards a happier and more fulfilling life. It runs completely counter to the on-demand society, and if practiced truthfully, leads to a very different style of life.
To live effectively and happily in the present is to be accepting, and to be understanding. It is to go gently into the day, and to speak softly and warmly. I contrast this with my life as a hard-charging executive, and one which I am ready to let go of. Indeed, I believe that my current goals may be inconsistent with career practice as I have understood it, and my true need is to find my way back to a life of entrepreneurship.
I write a lot about the various people in my life that are helping me figure all of this out, though the Reiki practitioner I have seen has told me that the truth is already inside of me, and that I should no longer look outside of me to find it. She is certainly challenging.
And Mistress too. Mistress is a guide. A person who is supremely grounded and comfortable in her own skin. It would not be possible to do what she does for a living and to do it so well, without that level of presence. And curiously enough, she more than any other person right now, without consciously or explicitly doing so, is the one who is provoking my religious contemplation at the most fundamental levels. Not through any direct application, but simply by challenging me in the way we interact, I am forced to think about life, its meaning, mortality, our purpose, humanity, nature, and the divine. It is a wonder to be able to explore this landscape with someone who is so articulate. In that sense, I am increasingly thinking of her as a Guru or a High Priestess—a medium through which all of this spiritual richness can be discovered, thought about, and lived.
Who in your life provokes you in this way?