I was at my most religious when I was in high school and early college, ages 14-20 or so. My religious beliefs during that time tended toward the extreme -- not in a fundamentalist theological-political sense, but in an absolutist, give-up-everything for God sort of way. I admired the urgency of Jesus' all-or-nothing message in the Gospels, particularly Matthew " "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.". If you'd asked my when I was 19 what was most important in life, I may well have answered "mystical communion with the divine." Though I wasn't planning on selling my possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor, I felt vaguely bad about not doing so. To me the best life was the most meaningful life, and the most meaningful life was the one tied to the highest things.
I suppose there are several reasons for my adolescent religiosity.
As is probably typical of young men, I craved extremity -- as an example for around 3 years or so I would have described myself as a sort of communitarian quasi-anarchist -- I didn't know how people would go about smashing the state but I was pretty sure the world would be better off if it were broken up into small autonomous communities. A beautiful ideal, recklessly adhered to is what I wanted. And so when it came to the religious life the impracticality of everyone living like St Francis of Assisi didn't bother me -- what mattered was that such a life would be beautiful and total, even if only I did it. Asceticism and mysticism appealed to my sense of reckless abandon. Perhaps this seems odd -- in response I can only point to the Gospel of Matthew and Christ's complete insistence throughout that people leave their parents unburied and their fields unplowed and dedicate themselves to the Kingdom of Heaven. Those are words that a young hot-head can relate to. In the end I wanted a sort of spiritual peace, but mostly because the means of achieving it looked to be so extreme -- in hindsight I was working at cross-purposes, meditating impatiently and expectantly, mercilessly critical of my own failings, and in general quite agitated much of the time. But that's what I wanted, at least partly, and what my reckless temperament demanded
One of Several El Greco paintings of St Francis
In a more prosaic way, it was a lot easier to renounce the pleasures of the world when I didn't know what I was giving up. When I was 17 I had kissed a girl once,* had never worn really nice clothes, had never smoked a pipe, had never been to a (non-high school) play, had never had a drink. I had assumed that I was leaving an unfulfilling and pointless life of the world behind for a life of the spirit.
But as I aged I became both more self-indulgent and more temperamentally conservative. These have melded together into a fairly humdrum life of sitting at home drinking a bit with my friends or my spouse, going for walks around town or planning my next outfit, livened up with the occasional party or excursion. It is a life I like. And I can't say that I don't miss identifying so strongly with Pascal's fervent quotes about "God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, God of Fire!" or with my paradoxically restless search for spiritual peace. But I am no longer an impetuous wannabe ascetic, and I can't turn back the clock.
Because my own religious beliefs were so wrapped up in the extremity of my younger self, and because my religion has a rather hot-headed absolutist as its founder and God (there are many wonderful things contained in the gospels, none of them moderate), I have trouble feeling authentically religious as my mid-twenties, somewhat boring self, even if most of the people next to me in Church don't seem to be bothered by it most of the time. I am reminded of the line in Robertson Davies' Fifth Business where an aging Jesuit Hagiographer speculates that Christ will return as an old man, to teach the gospel again, with ardor of youth replaced by the acknowledgement of complexity and subtlety that comes with old age. I'm hardly old, but I have outgrown chasing nearly impossible ideals, or believing that my life must be given to one thing, however great. And yet I can't help but feel that the alternative to all that striving is a sort of stagnation.
Thus my spirituality is in a kind of limbo right now, as I search for something that is true to who I am now but doesn't make me feel like a hypocrite or a coward who believed what was easiest. This Holy Week I will once again ponder Jesus' ultimate act of courageous immoderation, and try to figure out how I can apply such an act to my own life. I doubt that I will find an answer this year.
In the meantime I will still have Ecclesiastes, the biblical Teacher who tried everything, enjoyed much of it and concluded that in the end we can't hold on to any of it. His are words I can live by, wherever I am -- "For everything there is a season."
*my best friend, on valentine's day (oddly enough, a coincidence); part of the biggest unrequited crush of my high school years.