Before I had learned how to dance, I used to love going to weddings because it was one of the few places I felt free to dance, to express myself in the spirit of the music. Because I would be with friends and with people I trusted, I could go out in the dance floor and I felt secure showing off all my cool dance moves. But I’d only go out on the dance floor if I had enough of my friends on the dance floor at the time. And my moves were not nearly so cool as I thought.
Then I began to learn to dance. In the beginning it was really difficult. Like a lot of people, asking a stranger to dance was difficult for me. Most of my brain activity was focused on my footwork, and very little was directed to connection or expression, and I only knew a few patterns, so it did not feel free at all. But as I improved, as I learned more patterns and more techniques, and as my technique got better and better, it felt more and more free. Then one day, after a year of dancing, I had that dance. That amazing, wonderful dance with a follower who was much more advanced than me. I felt as if I really connected for the first time. I no longer had to think about the rules of dance. I could just dance. It’s not as if I forgot the rules though. Rather it’s because I had learned them so well that I no longer needed to think about them. They became a part of who I am. I thought I finally knew how to dance.
But then I realized that I had not yet arrived at the pinnacle of dance, and that there was so much more I had to learn. When I take lessons, I come to see how there is some rule or another I have yet to master. When I master that new rule, I experience the epiphany that comes from dancing the right way. And when I social dance I don’t think about most of the rules; however I often do think about one or two rules I want to work on. But sometimes I do have that dance, when every though of the rules of dance leave my mind, and I am just contemplating my partner in the spirit of the music.
These rules we learn in dance are not arbitrary, but are based on our bodies, our spirits, and the music. There is usually more than one right way to dance to a song, but for every right way there are a thousand ways we can make it go wrong. In dance we don’t just learn the right way to do something; we also unlearn the wrong way. We desire to learn the rules of dance because we understand these rules are the way we experience the ecstasy of the dance. If we wanted to learn these rules on our own, we would not get very far at all. So instead we join a community of other dancers, a community which has handed on these ways for hundreds of years now. We don’t master these ways on our own, but in this community. While the community adds to the wisdom on a regular basis, it does so in the context of its tradition. The tradition is the base for any new growth, and all growth is in continuity with the tradition.
I think of this whenever people try to explain to me that religion is bad and gets in the way of spirituality. Now I would agree that on a fairly regular basis, people often do stifle their spiritual growth through a bad use of religion. But the truth is that religion is to spirituality what the dance community is to dancing, especially in the case of Christianity. Just as one maximizes their ability to dance by being in the community, so to one maximizes their ability to be spiritual by being in a religion. As a Christian I can tell you I benefit greatly by being around others who also work to be spiritual. The dedication of my fellow Christians to be in harmony with God inspires and encourages me to do the same. But it goes far beyond that.
Christianity is about a dance where we follow Jesus in the music of the Holy Spirit. In the dance community we seek the advice of really good dancers to become better dancers ourselves. In my faith I can see how some members of my faith seem to have a very strong spirituality, and I can get advice from them on how to be more spiritual. And I don’t need to limit myself to those still here on earth. There are numerous saints who have written on the subject. In reading the works of these spiritual masters and authors, it’s clear that they were great innovators, but only because they were doing it in the context of a community and a tradition. I can also see the commonality they share These innovations in spirituality were based on and grew out of the tradition and the community. This tradition and community is religion. Without religion they would never had been able to come to this vast wisdom for our relationship with God. This wisdom has all sorts of rules, but every writer has a clear expectation that the point is to learn the rules so well that we no longer need to remember them. The point of the Christian religion is not to keep rules just because someone said so; it’s to allow us to be spiritual in a way we never could on our own. It’s to allow us to experience, if only briefly, those moments we can just be with God in the dance.
Of course, early on, it does not feel that way at all for many of us. For that reason some folks choose a religion with less rules or even no religion at all. But someone who claims to be spiritual but not religious is either someone who is slowly and painfully reinventing a 5000 year old wheel and not getting very far, or someone who picks and chooses wisdom from religion, but denies the religion’s contribution.
Even if you pick from religions, there very few people are capable of coming up with even a relatively coherent spirituality and way of life on their own. Even those who do create something, create something far less awesome than what I have found in religion. Plus, what happens if your spirituality is good? Well, you wind up with followers and then you are in the process of founding a religion. I’m an exceeding imaginative person, and I can assure you, I have never on my own been able to create the beautiful thing that is my religion.
As a Catholic, I’ve also come to see that going to mass and going dancing to me are very similar things, and they evoke very similar feelings. Both are places where I go to contemplate. Both have a lot of rules about how you are to act, but because I have learned the rules well, I no longer need to think about them. At the mass I know the flow and I am able to be in relationship with God, and to do it in a community. Sure, from time to time, I need to think about what I am doing, but most of the time I can think about my relationship with God, or better yet, just be in that relationship where he leads and I follow. When someone says that they can be in a relationship with God without going to church, just being on their own, it’s like telling me you can dance alone in the house. I do dance alone in my place, and I do enjoy it, but ultimately, the dance is meant to be part of a community, and my dancing in my house is the same kind of dancing I do in community.
As dancers there is a world wide community for many dances. Wherever you go the world over, you can find a place that dances the way you do. You walk in on a dance in Europe or Asia and it’s the same kind of dancing you do here in the states. Even if you don’t speak the same language, you do share a dance language. It’s the same with my religion. It’s simple enough to find someone who shares my spirituality practically the world over. And whenever I find someone who shares my spirituality, I find someone who is easy to make friends with and someone to have a meaningful conversation with. In our dance community we love to talk about dance. If you dance, you’ve probably had the experience of talking with someone who does not dance. They don’t get you, and say things about the dance you love and the community you belong to that you know are not true, For instance, I have been told more than once “Well I don’t dance, because dancing in your way would restrict what I could do.” Those of us who dance know this is not true. The same is true of my faith. It does not restrict my spirituality; it allows it to grow in a much more powerful way.