St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Oh No not the “Organized Religion” Bit Again

Occasionally I have to remind people who say, “I don’t believe in organized religion,” that there may be religion without organization but in the history of the world, every form of spiritual development and exploration worth its salt became organized.  There is a good reason.

People clustered around those recipients of revelations or inaugurators of spiritual movements because they saw in them truth that they could not ferret out for themselves.  Whether or not the followers of those leaders were able to attain unto the spiritual heights is a different story.  We see this in history.  On occasion these mimickers ended up making degenerate attempts to force people to accept their truths.  Oh no, as Monty Python would say, not the Spanish Inquisition!  But that’s not the whole story.

There were also those who mined the resources they were given and in fact drove the insights they received much deeper.  Would this not be a worthy project?  This is what we see with movements like the Desert Fathers and Mothers in early Christianity.  These people took the initial impetus of their founder’s faith and discovered or invented ways to enable ordinary people to attain spiritual wholeness.  They created pathways, in other words.  They did it in an organized fashion.  They systematized without creating a “system;” they organized without creating an institution.  This too occurred across history, and it seems to me a good thing.

It is my opinion, of course, but I think people dislike “organized religion” because there are dues to be paid, and not many people are willing to pay them.  When I say that, I’m not thinking of money.  I am thinking of spiritual struggles you endure in order to take the pathway that leads to the burning center of your faith.  I am thinking of the fact that you have to achieve a baseline of morality before you can advance to the height of spirituality.  You have to agree that the universe requires certain behaviors: not stealing, not bearing false witness, not committing murder, not engaging in idolatry or adultery (they are related), and so forth.  Only when you start with these disciplines can you proceed on the path.  But many people balk at these markers on the way, and thus bail out on “organized religion,” as they call it.

I grant that Jesus never thought he would become the CEO of a large corporation, but he was not without a pathway.  As a faithful Jew he knew that the path led from the commandments to a deeper reality, and we have inherited this awareness and action.

In our Orthodox Christian tradition a one-way two-lane highway leads into the heart of the faith.  The lanes proceed together as the sacramental life and the ascetic disciplines.  These lanes lead you into life with God through different but complementary ways of participation.  Prayer, fasting, charity, and observance of the commandments: these are the paving on the ascetic lane.  Baptism, anointing in the Spirit, participation on the Lord’s Supper and confession: these are the paving on the sacramental lane.  They belong together, and we have no other road.  These are not gimmicks or techniques; they are the way of faith.  We have no spectacular methods beyond this; there is no esoteric spirituality, no magic sign, and no secret word.  All we can offer is this hard uphill pathway.

You may not want “organized religion.”  But if you are looking for a spiritual pathway it has to have markers, guidelines, and clear guidance.

That’s what the ascetic path is all about.  The path is worth embracing, and you can only do it through some form of organization.