There are as many paths to God as there are individuals. This series looks at six of the most well-traveled paths for contemporary believers.
A few years ago, I worked with an Off-Broadway acting company that was producing on a new play about the relationship between Jesus and Judas. After some meetings with the actor who would play Judas, the playwright and the director, I was invited to help the cast better understand the subject material. In time they asked me to serve as "theological consultant" for the play. This isn't as strange as it may seem: the Jesuits have historically been active in theater, having used it extensively in their schools from the earliest days.
Over the course of six months, I found myself talking with the actors not simply about Jesus and Judas, but also about their spiritual lives, questions prompted by our freewheeling discussions about the Gospels, about sin and forgiveness, and about faith.
Several of the actors had toggled between one religious tradition and another, seeking something that would "fit." One actor, named Yetta, who played Mary Magdalene, told me that her mother was Catholic and her father was Jewish. They decided to let her choose her own religion when she was grown. "But," she said, "I haven't chosen yet." (By the way, when I quote people in this book, or tell their stories, it is with their permission.)
My time with the actors was not only one of discovering the theater but also meeting people who were traveling along a path I hadn't seen before. They were on the path of exploration.
Given their profession this was not surprising. Good actors often research a new role by spending time with a person from that background. An actor prepping for a role in a police drama, for instance, will hang out with real-life police officers. So the idea of "exploration" comes naturally to them. Stepping into another person's shoes for a time is not that different from entering into another religious tradition for a time.
Others -- not just actors -- more settled in their religious beliefs often find that their own spiritual practices are enhanced through interactions with other religious traditions. Several years ago I was astonished by the richness of my prayer one Sunday morning in a Quaker meeting house near my parent's home in Philadelphia. While I had ample experience praying contemplatively on my own, and worshiping together during Catholic Masses, the Quakers' "gathered silence" (praying silently together) was a type of contemplation I'd never before imagined. Their tradition had enriched my own.
As Anthony de Mello, the great Indian Jesuit spiritual master said: "I have wandered freely in mystical traditions that are not religious and have been profoundly influenced by them. It is to my Church, however, that I keep returning, for she is my spiritual home..."
Exploration comes naturally to Americans in particular, and is a theme celebrated in not only in U.S. history but in our great works of literature: Huckleberry Finn is an explorer. So are the heroes and heroines of the novels of Jack London and Willa Cather, to name but two favorite authors. Our homegrown religious writers -- especially the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau -- were inner explorers. "Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road," wrote Walt Whitman, "Healthy, free, the world before me,/The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose."
Exploration comes naturally in American faith as well. Turned off by their childhood faith, or by the failings of organized religion, and lacking extensive religious training, many searching for a religion that "fits" embark on a quest -- itself a spiritual metaphor.
The benefit of this group is plain. After a serious search, you may discover a tradition ideally suited to your understanding of God, your desires for community and even to your own personality. Likewise, returning to your original community may give you a renewed appreciation for your "spiritual home." Explorers may also be more grateful for what they have found, and are not as likely to take their communities for granted. The most grateful pilgrim is the one who has finished the longest journey.
The pitfall for this path is similar to the one for the path of independence: the danger of not settling for any tradition because none is perfect. An even greater danger is not settling on any one religious tradition because it doesn't suit them: God may become someone who is supposed to satisfy their needs. God becomes what one writer called a "pocket-size God," small enough to put in your pocket when God doesn't suit you (for example, when the Scriptures say things that you would rather not hear) and take out of your pocket only when convenient.
Another danger is a lack of commitment. Your entire life may become one of exploration -- constant sampling, spiritual grazing. And when the path becomes your goal, rather than God, people may ultimately find themselves unfulfilled, confused, lost and maybe even a little sad.
Next is The Path of Confusion.
James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, from which this series is adapted.