In my first theology class as an aspiring nun, a burly Lithuanian Jesuit priest announced in a thick accent, “Your religion is the set of beliefs passed down to you from the church. Your spirituality, your faith, is something you create based on your commitments and ultimate concerns. You have to know what you are committed to in order to have your faith mean anything.”
There were 30 postulants in the room, all under 20, and I suspect none of us knew what he was talking about. We had memorized the Baltimore Catechism and had our rote answers for everything, but this notion of spirituality being separate from religion was unnerving. We had been taught what to think, not how to think. How did he expect us to know what our ultimate concerns were?
It took Father Grabys the whole semester to teach us how to think for ourselves, mine our own depths, and identify what we were willing to live for, as much as die for. It was grueling work. I wanted religion to be religion like I’d always known it. I didn’t want to create something on my own. I didn’t like any of his ideas. But week after week, we entered the mines, scoured our histories, surfaced our hopes, and finally, by the end of the class, each of us proclaimed our ultimate commitments.
I don’t remember anyone else’s, but my commitments were to social justice and peacemaking. “I will be my sisters’ and brothers’ keeper,” I said to the class. “I will speak out against injustice and I will make peace wherever I go.”
Fifty years later, I look back and see that resolve has not wavered. Everything I do springs from that well. Whatever I create is connected to who I am spiritually. And who I am spiritually is the one who acts for justice and peace. This is my living faith. It has little to do with religion and does not require a church. It is a spiritual force that is active wherever I am.
If someone asked me how to create a living faith, I’d suggest two steps. First, let go of beliefs you inherited that no longer suit you. See what comes up when you think about the Divine, or Infinity, or the Cosmos. Write out your own Apostle’s Creed. See what it feels like to be the author of your own spiritual beliefs. There is no need to be right. There is nothing to defend. You are unique and your spirituality originates in that very uniqueness.
Your faith is your own personal creation. It is your private covenant with the Source of Life, the One Who Is Breathing You. Based on everything you know to be true from your lived experience, you decide what you are absolutely committed to. It’s like a marriage vow you make to the Great Beloved. No matter what your career is, what religion you grew up in, where you live, what terrible things have happened to you, underneath everything is the faith that holds you up, based on the pillars of your ultimate concerns.
You don’t have to know anything more, read any new books, talk to any priest, rabbi, or minister; you only need to proclaim to yourself what you are committed to. If you live from that, dedicate yourself to that, then that very thing will be your living faith. When the Dalai Lama says, “My religion is human kindness,” we learn something about his ultimate commitment. And we see from his actions that he practices his faith daily.
The second step, after you have let go of old beliefs and affirmed your commitments, is to begin a mindfulness practice. This can be only five minutes a day. The essential element is not length, but loyalty. This is your time with the Beloved. Imagine being in love with someone and always canceling your dates because you “didn’t have time” to meet. Whenever people say to me “I don’t have time to meditate,” I get an image of a mother who says, “I didn’t have time to feed my baby.”
You may create a living faith without a practice, but you cannot sustain it. Just as your body needs food, your spirit needs silence and solitude. It needs communion time with Mind-at-Large. Your practice is where you breathe life into your soul. It needs your time and loving attention to thrive.
I started my practice in 1990 at 20 minutes a day. I had a candle lit and I sat there staring at it until the time went by. No phones, papers, computers. Just me and the candle. When my thoughts drifted, I came back to my breathing and paid attention to that. I had no goal but to start a practice, because my life was unbalanced and a spiritual teacher said I’d never find balance without a practice.
Since then, the most incredible thoughts, creations, and experiences have occurred during my meditation time that I can’t seem to get enough of it. I now dedicate an hour every day to complete silence and solitude. That may seem like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the Dalai Lama’s six hours daily. We all get to decide what works best for us, but first comes the establishment of a new habit. And that’s why I say give it five minutes, for starters. You’re the one in charge of your time. If you can’t dedicate five minutes to your own well-being, you really have to wonder: how committed are you to being well?
So that’s my blueprint for creating a living faith. Nothing to seek. Nowhere to go. It’s alive inside you now, waiting to be claimed, acknowledged, practiced. You are a sacred vessel carrying a bright and holy light. Time now to let it shine.