More and more people today describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” This description can of course mean many different things to different people. In my experience, when people make a distinction between spirituality and religion they ususally associate spirituality with one’s private beliefs and practices and religion with a public, organized set of beliefs, rituals, and practices. I regluarly hear people say that spirituality is how a person lives and religion is how or what a person believes.
While I find the distinctions between spiritualty and religion helpful, I do have some concern about how the discussion often unfolds. Today, spirituality is almost always described in positive, life-giving terms, while religion is quite often described in negative terms. People who are religious are often seen as hypocrites whose lives often to not reflect in any way the beliefs and teachings of their religion. People who are spiritual are often seen as more enlightend, more authentic, and more true to living in alignment with their Higher Power, however they may define that Higher Power.
I was thinking about this distinction between spirituality and religion yesterday when tens of thousands of churches around the world were celebrating St. Francis Day. St. Francis of Assisi, who lived eight hundred years ago, remains one of the most poplur of all saints. Six million tourists visit Assisi, his hometown in Italy, every year to see where Francis lived, prayed, and taught. There are no doubt many reasons for his popularity–his commitment to serving the poor, his personal renunciation of his family’s wealth to live with the poor, his connection with nature and with animals, and his beautiful writings and teachings. Perhaps, though, there is one other key to his continued influence today: St. Francis was a man who was both spiritual and religious.
Francis was clearly a devout Christian and a devout Catholic. His commitment to give his life to God and to serving the poor followed a conversion experience he had while praying in church one day. He clearly participated in all of the public rituals and celebrations of the church. This made him a religious person indeed. But it was Francis’ spirituality–the way he lived his life, his committment to the poor, and his love for all of God’s creation that inspires people today as much as it did eight hundred years ago. Francis would most likely be confused about today’s discussions focusing on the distinction between spirituality and religion. For him, the former flowed from the latter and both were seamlessly connected. For him, he walked the talk because the walk flowed from the talk.
How does all of this relate to you and me? In honor of St. Francis, it might wise for us to reflect on our own deepest beliefs and how fully they influece and are integrated into our daily lives. What are your most passionate and most important beliefs? What do you know to be most true and sacred in your life? What are your core values? And most importantly, how fully does your life reflect what you believe to be true and sacred?
St. Francis, once said, “Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words.” St. Francis did just this. What about you and me? Can people detect what our deepest beliefs are simply by observing the way we live our lives? Do we truly walk the talk and through that profess what is most true and sacred in our lives? Clearly this is a life long journey for all of us, but along the way it’s nice to find inpsiration from people like Francis of Assisi who showed us the difference it can truly make when our lives are fully integrated with our beliefs.