Dialogue with a Druid (About the Relationship Between the Mystical Life and Faith Community)

On Facebook recently I engaged in a dialogue with a reader named Aaron who commented on my post Letting Go of (Our Limited Image of) God. This reader describes “druidry” as “his main private practice,” although he remains connected with progressive Christianity as well.

Our conversation explores the idea that sometimes, we not only have to let go of a limited image of God, but we also may need to let go of a faith community which seems to be holding us back spiritually as well. While we are largely in agreement with one another, there’s enough give-and-take here to warrant archiving this conversation on this bl0g (with the reader’s permission, of course).

Here goes…

Aaron:

Spot on. I think Cynthia Bourgeault had a similar sentiment where she was essentially stating that “in the end all god talk is metaphor, and we have to find the metaphor which best opens up our heart to god.” I think that is spot on with your conclusion:

“do we love God enough to allow our image of God to keep growing and expanding, to become more inclusive, more compassionate, more loving, more just, and — most of all — more mystical”

In the end some people, me included, reach a point where their experience of god and metaphors of god eclipse the church. We have a profoundly deep love of an expression of god and choose to follow that life giving and enriching expression (while recognizing it too is still metaphor), and it leads us to other places of profound tradition, faith, and religion to better express our new understanding and metaphors (I think my favorite spiritual writer Alan Watts is a good example here). 

So do we love god enough to allow our image of god to keep growing and expanding? To become more mystical? Yes! But I would add to it, do we love god enough to allow it to grow out of a particular metaphor/religion, because it too in the end is limited? Because, in the end, god isn’t owned and operated solely by one religion, with one truth. Truth is a pathless land, krishnamurti says. Leaving Christianity, for a time, or permanently, is okay. Because the Christian god is no more real, authentic, or truer than any other religious conception (fundamentalist god notwithstanding of course). Christianity is merely one metaphor among many, that offers a path, a language, and way of encountering the divine in a (hopefully) deeply intimate and meaningful way. 

And like Cynthia says we need to find the best one that nourishes us. Whatever it is. And rather than defend the religious institutions, we should instead allow people to search to find the best expression: Be it Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or pagan. For in the end we all tread the same path regardless of how we talk about it, and they are all equally valid if tread authentically. And that is my prayer, that we can live with such authenticity. 

To quote the Bard, “to thine own self be true”

Carl:

We are 98% on the same page. The 2% shows up with your last statement. I’m a little wary of the bard’s quotable declaration, mainly because of the rampant narcissism in our culture. We can be true to our own selves all the way to the First Bank of Self-Worship. So I tend to balance “to thine own self be true” with “Love is Real” — and just like any religion can sometimes lead us away from love, so too, the uncriticized self can do the same. So be authentic, as long as that includes a healthy willingness to be at least as non-attached to the self as we are to anything else (including religion).

And FWIW, I agree with yours (and Cynthia’s) assertion that sometimes we have to let go of religion in order to be true to God — but I’m also wary of how there has tended to be in our culture a throwing out of the mystical baby with the religious bathwater. I’m concerned that far too many people abandon religion not in order to grow spiritually, but in order to avoid the hard work that spiritual growth entails. So once again, a blanket statement just doesn’t work. Sometimes, the very thing we need is to stay put, right in the religion that feels really uncomfortable! Because it’s teaching us how to love.

FWIW, I do believe that in their *healthiest* forms, sacramental Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, and mainstream-to-liberal Judaism all have the capacity to support a person as they grow all the way into complete non dual union with the Divine. That’s probably true of Sufi forms of Islam and of Vedanta as well, but I’m just not as familiar with those traditions. So sometimes, what we need is not to abandon religion, but to do the hard work to find the healthiest expression of it — and then dive deep.

Aaron:

I agree on the point of the bard. To me being true to oneself and being authentic requires love. Genuine love. And I’m glad you qualified your definition of love. Because love too can be a form of narcissism. Also taken to extremes it can be a form of obsession. Being authentic and being in Love for me is the same thing, be true to oneself (as in finding what brings Love, peace of mind, and happiness to you that enables you to live life more abundantly). So I should have qualified that more. Fair point my friend. 

As for the other two points I’m gonna push back a bit. For fun and the sake of dialogue amongst friends here. Throwing the mystical baby out with the bath water isn’t a cultural thing. Far too many of the people still inside the religious institutions themselves do that already. Mysticism makes people uncomfortable. So we see a huge rise in fundamentalist belief. Even in liberal sections of the religious institutions mysticism is rare. Both my undergraduate and graduate work, at liberal Christian universities, in theology and philosophy, were very thorough but also very much was devoid of anything mysticism. And this isn’t just a recent thing. I think back to your interview with Rohr. He hits the nail on the head multiple times on this, showing it’s been done for a while, because it’s easier to worship Jesus than to follow him. 

All that to say, playing devils advocate, if god can be reached both authentically and genuinely, mystically , in Love, regardless of the path and religion chosen, why do I need to stay with the religion of my education and birth if it’s not speaking to me or nourishing me? It’s not necessarily true that I’m leaving because of my culture anymore than it is that those who stay are anymore prone to finding authentic mystical truth. And if truth can be encountered anywhere there’s no point in staying in a place on the slim chance of finding such an expression and experience in (this instance) the church when the majority of both the fundamentalist and the liberal don’t have that. 

But why do we cling to the abrahamic truths and religious institutions? Yes, a minority of us can find truth, and mystical truth at that, there. Why do we tell them don’t give up and and don’t leave, because we have the mystical tradition here too, it’s just hidden and rare, and outside of the internet you won’t find many in your local parishes that are like that. This is my point and I take Cynthia’s as well (though I by no means represent her). Yes we have a mystical tradition in our tradition and institution. But can we become too attached to the institution and tradition? so much so that we stay in it no matter what? Even if it’s causing suffering and it’s not fulfilling, because there is a slight chance of finding that mystical baby?

This to me is where I take a 2% disagreement with you my friend. Why do I need to cling to an institution. Why defend the abrahamic traditions above the others? Why not leave? Why do I need to dig deep into a faith that in the majority on both sides has abandoned the mystical path as unnecessary? When I can find one, like druidry or Sufism for example, that is steeped in tradition and mystical experience and replete with others there to support me for the same thing. Especially since the abrahamic traditions are no more truth than the others? Why cling to one metaphor over all others? If you love that tradition (like I feel you do, I see it in your writing) that’s one thing, and possibly worth the struggle and the risk of being different from the majority. But for some, we aren’t attached to that tradition. That myth (in the Joseph Campbell sense) doesn’t nurture our journey to divine union. To me it makes sense to find the right metaphor rather than cling to one out of loyalty. The church has the mystical vein, it’s just rare. I choose to say rare over difficult, because many traditions are mystical, and many are more obviously and strongly in touch with that mystical tradition, and it is just as difficult a path to walk there as in Christianity. The difference being is it’s largely unheard of in Christianity outside of a minority’s of seekers and monasteries. 

So I don’t think one needs to be loyal to an institution to find the mystical truth. I don’t think one needs to dive deep. I think one needs to explore what is enriching and enlivening, and go do that. Not clinging to a tradition but pursuing truth. And truth may lead you elsewhere. But though it seems a different path, in the end it’s all the same goal. Like Matthew Fox says. There are many wells, but one river.

Carl:

You are right that mysticism is missing in action in most churches — and true for religious communities outside of Christianity as well — most Jews are not Kabbalists, most Muslims are not Sufis, etc. But the church carries the DNA of mysticism, and the fact that most Christians are either indifferent or hostile to it is a mirror of the fact that most human beings, in general, are either indifferent to or hostile to mysticism. And if we take Ken Wilber at his word, most people are just not at a level of consciousness where they are capable of “receiving” advanced mystical teaching.

But I still maintain that walking away from the Church-as-carrier-of-the-mystical-DNA can often be a mistake. And that’s because the message we see again and again, across religions and across cultures, is that mystical wisdom needs community and mentorship and a commitment to service in order to blossom. Healthy religion provides all of these; secular society — well, let’s just say I haven’t seen much evidence of it.

“Why do I need to stay within my religion of origin if it’s not speaking to me or nourishing me?” Religion is a place to serve. It’s a place to learn the challenge of loving those who we find unlovable (most contemplatives have a very difficult time loving those who are indifferent to or hostile to contemplation. But those are precisely the people who often are our best teachers in love). In other words, don’t stay in religion for what religion can do for you — stay in it because it is a centuries-old community where we have opportunities to grow through humility, service, and compassion.

It seems to me that you see what I’m saying as “clinging to an institution.” But that’s not what I’m saying: if religion is just an institution, then sure, take it out back and put it out of its misery. Like so many Catholics, I’m over the “institution” when it just results in yet another abuse scandal.

But religion — in terms of what I’m advocating for — is far more than just an institution. It’s a community, it’s a brotherhood/sisterhood, it’s a wisdom lineage, it’s a mystical body. It’s a beautiful and complex neural network that the early Cistercians described as “bonds of charity.” Seen through the eyes of contemplative love, it is simultaneously both profoundly wounded and yet deeply beautiful. The woundedness evokes not disgust, but compassion. And the beauty, of course, evokes wonder.

Once again, I understand that many people must leave the institution — for a season, or for a lifetime. I’m not interested in judging what any one person’s path must take. But I want to avoid making a kind of dogmatic statement like “being a mystic leads to a place where religion just gets in the way.” I don’t believe that’s true — at least, not necessarily. It certainly wasn’t true for Meister Eckhart, or John of the Cross, or Julian of Norwich, or Teresa of Avila, or Thomas Merton, or Evelyn Underhill, or Thomas Keating, or hundreds of other great mystics, all of whom remain profoundly immersed in religious life even as they scaled the summits of Divine Union. Try to see with the eyes of love that religion means something deeper and truer than just the institution — and I think you’ll have a clearer sense of what I’m trying to say.

Finally, thanks for your kind words about keeping this conversation friendly and civil. I appreciate that (and reciprocate the sentiment!). At the end of the day, it’s okay to disagree. But it’s equally important to understand.

Aaron:

That definitely had me smiling. 

I think we agree more than we disagree. Just perhaps a few miscommunications. I don’t see finding a different path as automatically going to secular society. I also don’t see it as a way of leaving community. I think one can find many supportive spiritual communities outside of the church. Be they groves, covens, or sanghas. Part of leaving religion and dogmatism is doing exactly what you describe: finding love, support, and community to help you connect with your deep self and the divine. One still has a religion and community. But sometimes as we journey deeper into a life of faith the community and the stories we grew up with no longer suffice. So we go to find other communities, other stories, that can help us continue on our path to divine union. So we trade Merton, Theresa of Avila, or Meister Eckhart for Mooji, Nisargadatta, Ajahn Chah, or even Gerald Gardner and Scott Cunningham. This could be temporary, or permanent, or it could be a regular switching back and forth or even an integration of the two (I have many friends who are Christian witches and they are absolutely lovely). This way we still have community, love, and support, but perhaps also a better story and community that supports us and our journey in a way that previously we didn’t or couldn’t have. For me druidry has offered that in a way Christianity never has. Yet I still hold Jesus and the holy trinity close to my heart. And the druid community is loving and helpful, is teaching me, and allows me space to still hold Jesus tender in my life. Does that make sense? I’m not advocating a loss of community or a life away from religion. I’m advocating a life and story found outside the church that is equally valid, loving, and supportive, but still very much a religion and community that touches deeply the mystery of the divine.

Carl:

Absolutely we agree more than disagree — I still think we see eye-to-eye 98% of the time. And I am far more supportive of people shifting from one wisdom tradition to another (have done it several times myself!) than simply abandoning community in favor of “do-it-yourself” spirituality (which is, let’s be honest, what a lot of folks are doing these days). 

My one thought in response to your last comment would be that sometimes interspirituality or interreligious dialogue might be more helpful than just a wholesale changing of religious identity. Community really is the key here. I’m in such a vibrant and exciting Jesuit/Catholic community that I can’t imagine being somewhere else — and I have great latitude to go hang out with the Buddhists or write about my experience with Paganism, etc. etc. and it’s all good. I realize many people don’t have that kind of creative and supportive community. Like I said previously, it’s religion *at its healthiest* that can support us all the way up the mountain. And so many people just don’t have access to that kind of healthy community. So there’s a sensibility in leaving a toxic or dysfunctional community. But there’s also a danger: that we become community-hoppers, bolting every time the situation becomes demanding or difficult. It takes great discernment to know when to leave because the community is dysfunctional, versus when to stay and try to help heal the dysfunctional community, versus the community actually isn’t that bad and the dysfunction is found within! So really another important part of the mix is discernment, which almost always needs at least two pairs of eyes to really work.

Thanks for a great thread.

Aaron:

Funny enough that’s almost exactly what my Druid mentors said. To be a Druid one doesn’t have to abandon their faith. They strongly encourage integration, because faith is evolving. And you used my favorite word. Interspiritual. That’s actually where I feel the Spirit leading me. I find my Christian background and the teachings of Celtic Christianity (the writings of J Philip Newell and John O’Donahue are beautifully helpful, you should definitely interview Newell on encountering silence if you can) integrate well with druidry. And although druidry has become my main private practice, I still attend an episcopal church on Sunday. Because my family loves it and the priests are my friends. And communion is beautiful and speaks to my soul, and it’s open table there. Yes, wonderful discussion. Thank you my friend.

Carl:

The thread on Facebook ended with Aaron’s last comment. But since I’m reposting it to my blog, I’ll take the liberty of giving myself the last word. I appreciate that Aaron was so gracious about “agreeing to disagree” — that seems to be in short supply these days, so it’s good when two parties can find their way to that place. So rather than try to make a final argument for my point of view, I’ll just let the dialogue stand. Should those of us who are drawn to the mystical and contemplative heart of spirituality make an effort to remain grounded in one wisdom tradition? Or should we expect to “outgrow” the need for faith community? Put another way: how do we discern when it is time to abandon a faith community, whether in the interest of embracing a different path, or simply “flying solo”? Surely, we can answer these questions in many ways. But I hope we will all continue to wrestle with what these questions represent, and how we each feel called to respond.

Image credits: Standing Stones of Calanais photo (night) by Gordon Williams; Standing Stones of Calanais (day) photo by Jon Tyson; Stonehenge photo by K. Mitch Hodge; on Unsplash.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

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