Reader Case Study: How a Skeptic Learned to Benefit From Organized Religion

Earlier this year I offered readers the opportunity to take on a customized ancient wisdom projects that would help them explore or address an issue or problem they were interested in. Several courageous readers took me up on the offer and I am in the process of turning their experiences into case studies. Lara offers a particularly compelling story that I think will resonate with those of you who are skeptical of ancient wisdom that comes in the form of organized religion.

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Lara is a 28-year old German Catholic who recently decided to make a big life change by not pursuing a PhD and deciding instead to pursue a career as a guitar instructor.

She reached out to me after I announced that I was looking for readers who would be interested in participating in their own Ancient Wisdom Project. In order to participate, I asked Lara to tell me a little bit about her background and what she would like to achieve with AWP.

Though she was born into a Catholic family, religion never held a strong influence on her, but she could never completely walk away from it either.

I was baptized a Catholic (and even was an altar girl for a short while) but religion didn’t play an important role in my upbringing. And yet, for various reasons, I don’t seem to be able to turn my back on a church that I disagree with on many issues. In the past, I have tried weekly “spiritual meetings” for a year and short retreats to embrace the Catholic faith / God, but it never worked. I stayed an agnostic who “just doesn’t get” religion. I’ve read about various other religions and philosophies, but never actively practiced any.

One of the things that worry people about religion is that they don’t want to become brainwashed. They are afraid of losing their individuality and will have to force themselves to agree with the religion on every single issue. Lara was wrestling with exactly this.

I understand that I’m just one small human being who doesn’t know the “ultimate truth”, but on the other I keep being alienated by quite a few of the Catholic Church’s teachings and positions, unable to accept that maybe there’s wisdom in some of their uncomfortable positions. I see the… “danger” of DIY religions as “feel good religions”, but at the same time I am just so convinced that the Church is simply *wrong* in many ways. I don’t know how to reconcile that.

Knowing that this was her fundamental problem, she set a goal for herself.

I think what I’d like to do is to somehow develop a more humble attitude without becoming part of the sheeple.

What Lara wanted was to be able to engage with a church that had potentially so much to offer, but at the same time also be able to challenge it.

The Project

I assigned Lara a modified version of my own Catholicism experiment. I gave her two rituals and some reading materials to practice and read over a 6 week period.

First, I gave her the goal of attending Mass two times per week. One Sunday Mass, and one mid-week Mass. It was up to her to figure out how she could get this done.

Second, I asked that she perform the Jesuit spiritual exercises daily for approximately 0.5 – 1 hour. This is a sort of guided meditation created by Saint Ignatius of Loyola (founder of The Society of Jesus aka The Jesuits) that asks its practicioners to read select Bible passages and meditate on particular questions or ideas.

I also asked her to read a few books.

  1. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything – A Spirituality for Real Life: This book was written by a Jesuit priest and explains the philosophy of Jesuit/Catholic thinking in a very accessible and easy-to-read manner.
  1. The Ignatian Adventure – Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in Daily Life: This was my primary guide for performing the daily spiritual exercises and thought it would be helpful to Lara as well.

How did Lara react when she received the assignment?

Since I already suspected what was coming, it wasn’t much of a surprise and I was excited to start. I’d planned on replicating your experiment anyway, but that you then started to look for participants was very helpful because of the accountability aspect. I was (and still am) somewhat nervous about the weekday Masses.

Turns out she wasn’t surprised, but that having some accountability was useful, especially since she was a bit nervous about attending the weekday Mass (where it’s harder to blend in than on the better attended Sunday Mass).

Lara’s progress

A difficult first week

It’s always difficult to begin a new practice or routine. For Lara, one of her challenges was to find a mid-week Mass that she could attend that would fit into her schedule. After some research, she was able to find one, but her bigger worry was that she would completely stand out and make a fool of herself.

Turns out, she did stand out.

I was really nervous about the Tuesday mass, because I suspected there’d only be a few people there. There were surprisingly many (about 20), but I still stood out as the only young-ish person and the only person not getting communion. I don’t like standing out.

Lara also had some classic troubles with completing the Examen [Note: The Examen is a guided reflection on your day] so late at night: she would fall asleep!

But since I usually do the meditations quite late, I have little energy left for the Examen and do it in bed. I tend to be asleep by the time I reach noon in the review. 

By the end of her first week, Lara was thinking a lot about her relationship with religion and it wasn’t entirely positive.

I have lots of trouble reconciling a God that is ever present in our daily lives and helps us with the smallest things – and a God who lets hardcore suffering go on. I’m also finding out more and more just how much I resist the idea of submitting to authorities (be they God or the Jesuit Superior).

However, this didn’t deter her from continuing with the project.

I’m glad you opened your experiments to others because at this point, I’m so disheartened concerning my “quest for God” that I’d probably have abandoned the experiment already on Sunday. (I quit things fairly easily…) But since I’m accountable to someone else I’ll have to continue, and that’s probably for the better. Even if it doesn’t bring me any closer to believing, maybe it’ll still help make me a better person. And that’s a worthwhile quest as well. 

Shades of gray and hidden benefits

Though Lara continued to worry about “believing” or trusting an organization so completely, she also considered the possibility that perhaps believing in the infallibility of the Catholic Church is not a requirement of Catholics.

I mentioned to Lara that a friend of a friend of mine joined the Jesuits but realized he was unable to take the vow of obedience, so he quit the Jesuits (but not Catholicism).

I was thinking again about the obedience aspect, and why I – and the friend of your friend – tend to see it so black and white. I mean: you could always join the Jesuits and see where it takes you. Maybe all the superior’s decisions will align with yours, or you regard him as a very wise person who you trust to have better insights than you and thus follow even if you disagree. Or there really comes a fundamental split that you can’t heal, no matter how hard you pray and discern – and then you *can* leave. But you won’t know until you try. 

Part of becoming a discerning and tolerant person is always being aware that you are fallible and could be wrong, even about your strongest beliefs. Lara pointed out that sometimes you won’t know if you’re wrong until you’re willing to try things you don’t believe in (which I discovered by experimenting with ancient wisdom).

Lara learned that some ancient practices that seem burdensome or ridiculous have potential hidden benefits. For example, nuns have to ask their superior for permission and money if they want to buy a personal item. Many of us would chafe at the restriction. But the hidden benefit is that you’re much less likely to buy things you don’t need!

I read that nuns have to ask their superior whenever they want to buy things. Now I’ve become much better over the years at not buying stuff I don’t really need, sometimes working with the 30 day waiting period test. But even with the test, you sometimes buy things you later realize weren’t really necessary. Having to actually ask another person AND being conscious that whatever money you ask for will be taken out of the community’s funds, now that must be the ultimate test for voluntary poverty!

There were also hidden benefits to the spiritual exercises Lara was performing and the books she was reading.

A dormant desire to live more simply became active again.

I’ve been dreaming about living in a Tiny House for years now. The longing stopped for a while, but now it’s back. I’m experiencing this longing for living simpler again more strongly. And by simpler, I do mean simpler. Have even fewer possessions (I don’t have much now, I sleep in my sleeping bag, have one plate, etc.). Live without running water. Currently pondering a house without electricity as well.

That of course goes against what the majority of secular culture advocates, but I sometimes forget that, because it’s so popular on the blogs I (used to) read 😉

Meaningfulness has seeped into her daily life.

In general, I find more meaningful things and find myself asking more meaningful questions. Examples: When I hear church bells ring, it’s no longer a nuisance or just a way to tell time, it’s a reminder to think about God/Jesus/morality, etc. When I go online, I’m less looking for interesting-but-ultimately-unimportant stuff (aka distractions) and more for articles and talks about Christianity and what have you.

She found new role models in the saints.

Before, I hardly knew anything about [the saints]. They were fairy tale characters or martyrs we knew almost nothing about (apart from their death) or patrons my grandma prayed to when she lost things, etc. (which seemed more like a superstition/pagan ritual to me). I never really saw them as friends and hardly as role models. Their lives where so distant (and uber-holy). I didn’t know any of the more “contemporary saints” either, apart from Mother Teresa. So I learned a lot in the book and just borrowed another this morning on those contemporaries, hoping to find some inspiration in e.g. Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day.

Lara also discovered that you have more options than simply abandoning or running away from an institution when you disagree with its teachings. You can continue to be a part of it and try to change it.

The only way to be a member of the institutional Church is to vocally or otherwise stand up for your beliefs, even where they go against status quo…It’s not hypocritical (as I tended to believe), it’s trying to improve a very flawed but in parts also very …giving institution.

Before the experiment, Lara had this idea that you had to be a rebel or a sheep, at least when it comes to the Catholic Church. But because she made the effort to participate in her own Ancient Wisdom project, she learned that it’s not an either/or situation. She can be Catholic and still disagree with it and even benefit from many of its rituals.

Lara’s final thoughts

How does Lara feel about the Catholic Church after her ancient wisdom experiment?

I never thought I’d say this, because the Catholic Church has hurt some friends and acquaintances and my queer community at large so much over the years (centuries?), but I wish more people would attend Mass again. Yes, there are some idiot priests (like the one that led my Grandpa’s funeral…), but far more, at least from those I’ve met, speak about compassion, mercy, and love. Attitudes we desperately need right now.

Though Lara’s exploration of Catholicism began before she formally started this project, the project encouraged her to continue participating in the rituals that previously seemed so alien to her. She continues to attend Mass (even the weekday ones!) and practice the Examen (the daily reflection), which she says is a “very simple but very powerful tool to help you become a better person.”

Lara is becoming more and more convinced that the Church, contrary to her previous beliefs, doesn’t require you to blindly accept its teachings. She even discovered that the Church teaches that, “each and every one of its rules must be subordinated to each individual’s conscience” which suggests that it is incumbent upon each individual to wrestle with the tough moral and ethical issues. It is not enough to blindly follow rules. Your conscience must be developed and often times the best way to do that is to engage with ideas that you disagree with or practices that don’t seem to make sense.

I asked Lara if she would recommend ancient wisdom to others and what advice she has for them.

Sure I’d recommend it, and pretty much for the reasons you listed on your blog: if they endured for so long, chances are, there really is some wisdom to be found in them.

I suspect the ritualistic aspects are really important. I mean, many (most?) of us know the path to a happy or at least happier life. The trouble is walking it. And the rituals can help get you on that path and keep you on it.

As for advice? I don’t know. People will struggle with very different things. Maybe this: don’t fixate on your goal too much and keep your eyes open to all the other wisdom you will encounter during your journey.

Lara’s story is an excellent example of the benefits of opening yourself up to ancient (and surviving) institutions that on first glance seems to be incompatible with your beliefs and lifestyle. While skepticism is healthy, it is best served as a basis for exploration and discovery, not as an excuse to close yourself off to challenging experiences.

Thanks to Lara for allowing me to share her story here on AWP.

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  • Magicub

    Great reading and nice new layout!!

    • Thanks buddy!