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Spiritual vs religious in the new age


When I was a kid I could spend hours silently waiting to hear a whisper from God.

I grew up vaguely Catholic, but the moment I “got” the ecstatic beauty and tragedy of what Christ actually embodied, I meant it. I went to church every Sunday, prayed dutifully before tests, closed my mopey 12 year old journal entries with, “Thank you, Lord.” I was, in fact, religious. Catholicism was the portal I knew through which I could glimpse the Great Unknown, and I’m just an intense Scorpio with a full throttle Aquarius rising, sun sign and Pluto both in my 9th house, etc. etc. I’ve always been destined to devote myself to the divine, I’ve known that in my bones.

As beautiful as Catholicism’s mythology of sacrifice and love, I ultimately lost my connection to an exclusively male triune, and looked back to the earth to fulfill my fascination for the divine. But without the church walls around me, without the structure of defined ritual, I simply could no longer call myself religious, but spiritual? Without a doubt.

When I began my little Instagram account about a year ago, I was overwhelmed by the amount of people that seemed to feel like I did. Everywhere I looked the word spiritual popped up, and I believed I finally found the community who’d understand my particular spiritual seeking. But I didn’t get the expected roar of sympathetic piety, and wondered if my feeling of the word was in somehow different. Then last week I happened upon Benebell Wen’s self-description in her website bio: “Religious, maybe, but definitely not spiritual,” and something clicked.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Benebell, she’s a pretty popular writer in the contemporary tarot world, mixing Kabbalah, Taoism, karmic philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines to interpret the cards. So seeing Benebell, student of multiple spiritual disciplines, reject being spiritual struck a chord.

But Benebell’s reason for rejecting the label “spiritual” is not because she doesn’t appreciate the divine or wonder at the deep mysteries. (She very much does—hence religious.) It’s because she is reluctant to claim part of the spiritual community, a sentiment that rang through me, too. And so here comes the unpopular opinion, you’re forewarned.

The spiritual community is one that embraces all forms of spiritual expression. You can chant on a mountaintop or burn sage in your living room, bathe in moonwater twice monthly or douse yourself in reiki. What unifies this movement is its emphasis on empowerment, healing, and a new age ritualistic aesthetic, but what often seems to be pronouncedly missing is—well—spirituality.

Now before you get a little hot about that, hear me out. This is not true for everyone, absolutely. It’s not a statement about the people in the community as much as the timbre of the community overall. I’m talking about the “love & light” feel, the tenor of empty positivity, vapid high-vibing, the conflation of shimmery wellness with interest in divine truth. Often the “spiritual” aspect of the community is a broad amalgamation of practices appropriated from real religions, typically sold to us by some pretty insta account with lots of natural light and white drapey sweaters and perfectly coiffed pink hair.

But I hold the strong conviction that the real essence of spirituality is spirit. And I don’t mean the formless, ambiguous spirit-guides here to make your life better. I mean the spirit within. The drop of divinity we all hold as our birthright that grows in us with each moment we’re alive. It’s the way warmth tingles through our limbs when we connect to who we are on our deepest levels. It’s the profound, choking silence that catches us when we get a peek at the mystery, the great magician behind the curtain, who has orchestrated our lives, somehow perfectly.

It’s really okay if you burn Paolo Santo or light candles on your altar for your guides or pull endless rows of oracle cards. My point is not to shit on these practices, but to ask why. Why do we anoint ourselves with Florida water? Why do we fill our purses with crystals? Why do we perform the new moon ritual posted by some lavendery account? Do we do these things because they swirl us into a state spiritual reverence, or because they seem lovely and cozy and—frankly—cool? 

I’m guilty of this too. I have a whole box of essential oils and use them religiously just cuz, and those flowy, pink-headed, velvet-voiced insta witches get me every time. But I believe we can all reclaim the term spiritual, reclaim the meaning it was given at its genesis in the 60s. Back then the country finally felt liberated from institutionalized religion, and so the open-armed spiritual community was the natural next step for those with divine devotion. So I don’t mean to imply that you give up your practices, but instead recommend that you deepen them, that you find the soul-connection. Ask the blunt questions about what binds these practices to your sense of spirituality, or if that’s their purpose in your life at all. Investigate what spirit really feels like inside yourself, be willing to pray or meditate or simply be curious about the divine. And most of all, be brave enough to speak about it.

As for me, I just can’t bring myself to jump on the Benebell band-wagon and call myself religious. That word has its own long history. I keep thinking of Joseph Campbell’s documentary series The Power of Myth, when Bill Moyers asks Joe if theoretically we could craft religions to suit our own personal needs by taking the best things and merging them. Joe laughs and says no, of course not, to which Bill (and me), baffled, asks why. His answer: Because each religion takes centuries to become what it is, to ignite the divine spark intuitively within its followers, and to communicate its own particular message of human growth. To disassemble it for parts is to lose the precise and precious shade of god (or goddess, or sheer spirit, or who knows) inside.

I don’t know if that’s definitively true, but I do know that the spiritual practices I’ve adopted all derive from some reverent past, they all have greater depth than it seems on Instagram. The least I can do is remember that, and give the word spiritual the meaning it deserves.


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