Abbey Bookshelf: An Altar in the World (on belief and practice)

“Welcome to your own priesthood,
practiced at the altar of your own life.” (xvii)

“Christianity ‘is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be a Christian, but rather Christianity is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.’ (quote from Stanley Hauerwas) In our embodied life together, the words of our doctrines take on flesh.  If one of our orthodox beliefs has no corporeal value, if we cannot come up with a single consequence it has for our embodied life together, then there is good reason to ask why we should bother with it at all.” (44-45)

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor

“I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.”

Karen Armstrong

I began reflecting on Taylor’s beautiful book a few weeks ago. For many months now I have come to a place in my spiritual life where belief is far less important than practice.  In the world around us, we are inundated with messages rooted in a battle over beliefs, but very little of which spills over into how we actually treat one another.

Karen Armstrong writes that belief is only a very recent religious emphasis, emerging in the western world in the 17th century, when the definition of belief became much narrower in focus to mean an intellectual assent.  But, she goes on to say, religion is not about belief but about how we behave. “Doctrine are to be understood as summons to action. You only understand them when you put them into practice. Pride of place is given to compassion. When we get rid of ego we grow closer to the divine. Any belief that leads to hatred of others is illegitimate.”

For me, orthopraxis (right practice) has always been more important than orthodoxy (right belief).  In an interview with Raimundo Pannikar I recently read, a man who was raised by a Catholic mother and Hindu father, considers himself fully both. “How is that possible?” he asks. “By living religion as an experience rather than as an ideology,” Pannikar responds.

One of the many reasons I love monastic spirituality and am a Benedictine Oblate is I find in this path a call to practice hospitality, humility, contemplative ways of being, a movement toward radical simplicity, and service shaped by love. These are not abstract concepts, but ideas which become real only when enfleshed. My spiritual director said to me the other day, “everything we do is a form of self-narration.”  I have been contemplating this phrase, wondering what story my life and practice tells about me.  Am I witness to compassion?  Does my life lay bare an authentic journey toward love?  Is my belief in the enlivening and transforming power of creativity expressed in how I perform the daily tasks of my day? Do I embody the things I say I value most?

What is the story your life tells about what you consider to be most vital in the world?  Has your body been shaped by what you believe to be true, so that every movement, every word transforms you?

© Christine Valters Paintner at Abbey of the Arts:
Transformative Living through Contemplative & Expressive Arts

* There is still time to register for the Honoring Our Ancestors Art & Movement Retreat October 29-November 1, 2009 on the beautiful Hood Canal. *

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