On August 18, 1963 Jean-Luc Poirot set out of Boston Harbor in a fully stocked thirty two foot schooner, intent on sailing solo around the world. He was never heard from again. Twenty years later, in 1983, a merchant vessel blew off course in a storm near Malaysia and spotted a signal fire on a tiny, uninhabited island out in the middle of nowhere. Drawing closer they saw a man with a very long beard jumping up and down on the beach. It was Jean-Luc Poirot.
The captain of the merchant vessel and a few of his men dropped a skiff into the water and ferried over to the island. They landed and stepped out onto the beach where Jean-Luc stood in disbelief, tears of joy streaming down his face. As the men helped Jean-Luc gather up his meager belongings to take back to the ship, the captain noticed that Jean had built three beautiful huts from drift wood and palm fronds, decorated with shells and strands of betel nut and dried flowers. The captain was very impressed.
“What is that building there?” the captain asked, pointing to the first shelter.
“That’s my house”, Jean said proudly.
“What’s that second building?” the captain asked.
“That’s my church,” Jean said, a hushed sense of reverence coming into his voice.
"Then what’s that third building?” asked the captain.
“Oh,” Jean said, “that’s the church I used to go to.”
I have to laugh every time I hear that story. Many of us have “churches we used to go to”. And some of us, if we ever went at all, stopped going to church a long time ago. About 50% of Americans attend a weekly worship service of some kind – a mosque, a synagogue or a church. That number is much lower in Europe, especially northern Europe where in some countries it hovers well below 10%. And like Jean-Luc, most church goers are not attending the church they used to go to.
In the 19th century American Christianity began to split into nearly infinite variety. Buffeted by wave after wave of immigration and a steady stream of new ideas and practices, American religion became as fractured as American individualism. Alternate spiritualities spread like fire through the dry and desiccated theologies of our forefathers. By the twentieth century the transformation was complete. We became a nation of seekers. A new paradigm of religion as an individual path of discovery replaced the old paradigm of religion as a socially binding tribal affiliation. The gale force winds of religious freedom had blown down all the doors. Our individualism and commercial consciousness turned spirituality into a marketplace and each of us into shoppers.
Many of us call ourselves “spiritual”, not “religious”. We are no longer fed by the old institutions and rituals, preferring instead the direct experience of spirit in manifold forms. We know that the God of our understanding, and the God that surpasses all understanding, is bigger than any church. That’s what makes Jean-Luc’s story so funny.
Some of us feel the sacred presence in nature, and as we walk alone in the woods or on a lake shore we sense an infinite expanse no scripture or doctrine could convey. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman who sees the Lord everywhere.”
Some of us broke down the walls of our perceptual prisons with drugs. Like Carlos Castaneda, and usually without the tutelage of a Don Juan, we roamed the desert stoned out of our minds, seeing the world with new eyes and riding waves of consciousness to distant shores and back again. Then, after time, the drugs themselves became a prison, dulling our sensibilities and driving us deeper and deeper into lonely lives of isolation. We grew small and hunkered down into the long night, a beer in one hand, a bong in the other, caught up in the pseudo-rapture of our own egoic fear, craving and resentment until the only thing we really cared about was the next buzz. Sometimes you need medicine. And then you get sick from the medicine.
Some of us uncovered our spirituality in recovery. In church basements and cafes, AA and NA and other 12-step movements presented a new vision of freedom, a vision the ego has no chance of understanding. Laying bare the mechanics of our compulsions, we learned that it is only through surrender of the ego that real joy emerges. The discursive mind chafes against the illogic of gaining power by admitting powerlessness, but through direct experience we came to understand.
Some of us found the truth in organized religion. Faith communities centered around a specific scriptural tradition gave us the necessary framework within which we could experience the divine. We all remember Dylan’s born-again phase. Sometimes a powerful theology and more importantly the community that embodies it draws us into its loving embrace. At its best, this approach heals us and softens us into our deeper humanity. At its worst, this approach leads to provincial or even bigoted thinking and the delusion that one’s religion is better than all the others. As Joseph Campbell quipped when asked to define mythology, “Mythology is other people’s religion.”
Some of us find our joy in service. Through the attainment of professional mastery we cultivate skills that enable us to be of use to others. We become doctors and lawyers and writers and musicians and builders and counselors and creators of all kinds. We use our work to experience the depth of our connection to the source energy that runs through all things. In a life of duty and service we feel a vast, divine presence gently wresting the reins away from our fading ego.
Some of us draw profound sustenance from a life of study. We read great books by poets and philosophers and geniuses of all disciplines and through their polished lenses we come to see a little farther and deeper than before. Religious experience is not always about leaving the intellect behind. “The mind is indeed our prison,” the Maitri Upanishad says, “but the mind is also our liberator.”
Mohandas Gandhi was asked by a journalist once to sum up his philosophy in three words. “Renounce and enjoy,” he said, quoting the Isha Upanishad. Surrender the ego, give up attachment to this outcome or that outcome, release all petty desires, learn to love the world and all the imperfect people in it just the way they are. But stay fully engaged, vitally alive and completely committed to the creative path you have been given. Grow your business, write your book, heal the wounded, plant an orchard, harvest the fruit. Make something beautiful out of the seeds you have been given. Then give it away. You will be paid in full in ways your ego can never even imagine.
You might not need the preacher’s sermon or the theologian’s doctrinal argument. You might not need the ancient scriptural passage. You might not need the sacred ritual or the solemn hymn. Each of these are spokes of the great wheel, and all spokes lead to the center. But none of them contains or fully expresses the mystery of the center. “We shape clay into a vessel,” Laozi writes in the Daodejing, “but it is the emptiness within that holds whatever we want.” We grow attached to the outer forms of things – our doctrines, our churches, our ideas – and we forget the treasure those forms were made to hold. Emerson remarked, “I like the silent church before the service begins better than any preaching,” and we know exactly what he meant. Out of the depths of our own being, heard only in silence, we hear the one wordless voice, the voice that speaks to each of us in our own language. As we walk our paths, sometimes alone, sometimes together, sometimes in song, sometimes in silence, we finally realize that in all our restless seeking not one of our steps leads away from the truth. Your true church is right where you are.