“I want to promote a religion that is felt and not just thought out, meaningful and not just emotional, my own and not just an ancient tradition” (p. 7).
For centuries, religious institutions have dictated doctrine, and their members followed unquestioningly. In our modern era, however, millions feel alienated by the inflexible teachings of formal religion, and many have even abandoned it altogether. Thomas Moore, a former monk, understands their disillusionment, but also knows that lives devoid of spirituality are empty and unsatisfying. In A Religion of One’s Own, Moore illuminates a middle way: one with myriad paths to spirituality in which even a secular life can be infused with transcendence.
Moore was raised a devout Catholic and lived for thirteen years as a brother in the Servite Order. He eventually left the Church altogether, immersing himself in the study of world religions, holistic medicine, music, art, and psychotherapy. He writes, “forty years later, I feel more religious and even more Catholic than ever before, although you would see few external signs of it” (p. 6).
Instead of following the precepts of one belief system, Moore draws elements from many spiritual traditions. While some might find Taoism, Greek polytheism, and Zen Buddhism incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church, he believes that wisdom does not lose its value because it lacks the correct institutional affiliation. “The point is not to join the right group, but to find resources that will take you deep into your search and give you penetrating insights” (p. 23).
Moore does not regard his spirituality as a fixed entity. It is constantly evolving, incorporating new experiences and new reflections on long-held beliefs. Nor does Moore limit his quest to what is strictly defined as religious. He reads “secular writings that go so deep in the reflections on human experience” (p. 23) and seeks out music, art, and architecture that connect him to the divine. In daily life, Moore strives to be conscious of nature, dreams, coincidence, and the magic in ordinary acts.
In order to open one’s soul more fully, Moore advocates either formal therapy or self-therapy. Each of us carries wounds from our past, and depression, anger, and masochism impede spiritual growth. Yet, Moore does not advocate eradicating our issues, but healing oneself by transforming “troublesome habits to useful traits” (p. 97).
After living under a vow of celibacy for more than a decade, Moore has also come to embrace eros as an integral element of his personal religion. “Many people have been convinced by formal religion that they would be better if they were free of the stain of their sexuality. But real virtue can’t be bought with repression” (p. 119). Moore understands that by recognizing the power of eros and celebrating it respectfully, we bring greater vitality to everything we do.
In A Religion of One’s Own, the bestselling author of the classic Care of the Soul shares the philosophy behind his personal spirituality and the stories of ordinary individuals, thought leaders, and celebrities to show how all of us-whether inside or outside formal religion-can live a richer and more meaningful life.
Thomas Moore is a bestselling author, university professor, musician, and psychotherapist who lectures widely on holistic medicine, spirituality, psychotherapy, and the arts. He has been awarded numerous honors, including the Humanitarian Award from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. The author of eighteen previous books, Moore lives in New Hampshire.
In many ways, A Religion of One’s Own revisits some of the themes you first raised in Care of the Soul. Would it be fair to say that you have been working on this book for the past twenty years?
It would be fair to say that I’ve been working on this book all my life. From the fifth grade in school, when I was an altar boy, through my monastic years and then my graduate studies in religion, I’ve been exploring the issues raised in this book. To me, they’re not just intellectual puzzles; they’re the object of my passionate search and have defined my existence.
Care of the Soul was my manifesto for the soul, the expression of my personal discovery of a life mission: to make the world a more soul-centered place. In that sense, all my work is a follow-up to Care of the Soul. But, it’s true, specific issues in this new book can be found in Care of the Soul.
The Catholic Church is perhaps the most prominent example of a religious institution that no longer meets the needs of ordinary people. Do you think the new Pope can turn the tide?
The new pope can turn the tide toward a different and more vital kind of Catholic spirituality. He started doing this from the first moments of his papacy. I find his approach full of hope for the whole world, not just for Catholics. I’ve been saying for years that people throughout the world are looking for a spirituality suited to our times. They don’t know what that means, but they’ll know it when they see it. Meanwhile, many established churches seem to be afraid to adapt to a changing culture. They have been declining, while the average person is frustrated in his search. It would take very little to turn this situation around. I do my best, but I don’t have an official position. I’m a lone voice. I’m hopeful that the new pope will inaugurate a new spiritual movement among all the people of the world. In fact, I’d like to see his language become so radically fresh that he would speak to all the people and not just to Catholics. We’re all Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and atheist, to a degree and in a certain sense.
If enough people create their own religion and there’s an exodus away from traditional institutions, do you envision a day when the Church becomes obsolete?
This is a very good question. No, I don’t see formal religion becoming obsolete. Not necessarily. If religion becomes obsolete, it will be because the institutions have not adapted. They’ve been too self-absorbed, worried more about their membership levels and agendas than about the spiritual lives of people. The spiritual and religious traditions are rich in wisdom, beauty, method, art, and spiritual insight. We need them. We need all of them. Each of us needs all of them. We’re entering a new era when joining a church may not be the best way to go. I see the churches becoming more relevant, not less, by seeing themselves as resources for all people. I see them getting past the notion that they serve only those who identify with their tradition. Just as people from all over the world travel to be with teachers such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, people can go to anyone of any tradition who proves himself or herself to be a strong, deep and perceptive spiritual guide. I think Catholic churches could well start filling up again if they addressed all people, got over their sex and gender issues, and offered their resources with a much diminished emphasis on authority and obligation.
What precipitated your own formal break from the Church? Was it when you left the Servites, or did it come later?
It sounds strange to me to think of making a formal break with the Catholic Church. I left the Servite Order just before ordination to the priesthood because I felt deep change in me, due in part to the revolutionary times in which I was living (mid-1960’s). I didn’t think of my departure from the order as breaking with the Church. In fact, I left the order in good standing with the Church. In some ways, I’ve always been ready to go back to being a leader there, if the situation changed seriously. But maybe that is only dreamy thinking. I’ve changed too much probably to return to a formal religious setting. I do think, though, that anyone can develop a religion of one’s own within a tradition.
Sometimes I feel that that I didn’t leave the Church but that the church left me. In the early years after my departure from the Servites, I was ready to be involved in the Church, but the message I got generally was that my thinking was too radical. Once, I was picketed at a large convention center where I was giving a talk on spiritual education. On the other hand, churches of many denominations have invited me to speak. I find that many priests, ministers and imams are highly educated and have thoughtful approaches to being spiritual leaders.
How do you think your former brothers in the order would react if they were to learn that you practice the I Ching and read tea leaves?
Most of my colleagues in the Servite Order were high educated and open-minded people. I don’t think they’d blink an eye at my use of the I Ching or Tarot Cards. They may wonder about the tea leaves. That practice does sound rather odd. I get it from my Irish-American grandmother and like to trace my interest in a magical way of life to my Irish roots and my love of Italian culture. I discovered “natural magic” when I was researching my dissertation at Syracuse University. I consider it a serious and weighty matter, even though in our highly rationalistic and scientific society it may sound anachronistic. I sometimes say that my work in natural magic is post-modern, not pre-modern. I mean that we have yet to discover many important laws of nature and directions in study and practice, approaches that are quite subtle but rooted in our history. It’s interesting to note that when we teach history we pass over the entire tradition of natural magic that is strong in European, Asian, African, and Native American cultures.
Your wife and daughter are Sikh. Does their adherence to a strict set of religious beliefs ever cause discord within your household?
We never have discord in our house over our different approaches to the spiritual life. In fact, we all are enriched by the variety. I do have to affirm my own way to myself because my spiritual practices are not nearly as visible and as articulated as those of my wife and daughter. They wear turbans and white garments and jewels and even tiny ritual symbolic swords.
I see my spirituality embedded in my work as a writer, my meditative piano playing, walks in nature and my efforts to help people live more fulfilling lives and create a more peaceful world. I like keeping all of this “spirituality” disguised in everyday life. I learned this partly from being a monk, for whom laborare orare est: “to work is to pray.” I also learned it through my studies in Zen Buddhism, the kind of Zen that is not lived out in monasteries but in ordinary life. Most of my life I’ve been interested in the spiritual potential of the arts and in overlapping the sacred and the secular.
My wife and daughter are very sophisticated about the spiritual life and know my approach in every subtle detail. They simply prefer a different way. I think I mention this in the book: They have Sikh names. I’ve asked to be called “Wu-Wei,” the Taoist Chinese teaching about accomplishing much by doing nothing. My spiritual method is like wu-wei or sunyata, emptiness. It is empty of almost all formal religion trappings. To use a Japanese term all my family members enjoy, my way is also wabi-sabi: made up of old, falling-apart, aging and imperfect materials.
You write beautifully about the lessons you’ve learned from Freud and Jung. Would you say that psychotherapy is a religion of sorts in that it helps us to comprehend the incomprehensible?
I always want to keep soul and spirit connected. That means always being psychological and spiritual at the same time. The work of both Freud and Jung is rich and valuable for the deep psyche and for the transcending spirit. I remember well that when I was home schooling my daughter I asked her to read some pages from Freud’s book The Interpretation of Dreams. She loved it and carried it around with her for weeks. Many people today poke fun at Freud, thinking that he is absurd in his interpretations. I don’t think so. He teaches us how to see the smallest factors in ordinary life as meaningful. In my ideal high school, every student would be taught how to read Freud and to think psychoanalytically. Jung went even deeper and included the spiritual and religious traditions in a positive way. You can’t read a paragraph of Jung, especially his later work, without knowing that you’re reading a combination of depth psychology and a broad kind of theology.
I passed up opportunities to become a Jungian analyst because I find that people who get stuck on Jung enter an orthodoxy just as rigid as the Catholicism I knew as a young person. But I study Jung almost every day today and can’t imagine my life without his wisdom and example. Everyone should read Memories, Dreams, Reflections, his memoir about his inner life. I have to add a third name in this context: James Hillman. He was my friend and colleague for thirty-eight years. I think he is one of the greatest thinkers ever to have lived. I owe everything to him, to his writings and to his loving friendship. I couldn’t begin to describe his work here in a few words, but I can say that it shows how to read all the great writers, including Freud and Jung, and how to live with imagination.
In many ways, your definition of spirituality hearkens back to the ancient beliefs of polytheism. Would you say that the evolving relationship between humankind and religion charts more a circle than a straight line?
I certainly don’t think of polytheism as somehow more primitive or less evolved than monotheism, though some ardent monotheists have claimed this. Read the wonderful Greek tragedies and you will gain insight into your own human struggles. You will learn that modern thought is shallow in treating the psyche scientifically and in behavioral terms. As a therapist, I always say that I’m not interested in helping a person manage her life but in exploring her soul, with its rich and influential past, its depth of emotion and fantasy and the extreme originality and individuality of what it means to be a person. The most important lesson in a polytheistic imagination of the soul is to appreciate its richness, paradoxes and contradictions; to be reluctant to require certain outcomes and a narrow definition of emotional health. I learned from Hillman, who brought back the idea of psychological polytheism, to see value in every expression of soul, no matter how objectionable or painful.
Why do you think so many religions try to circumscribe-and even stifle-our erotic nature?
The Greeks praised Eros as a divine figure, part of the polytheistic universe, that wasn’t about sex in a plain biological or physical sense, but about attraction, magnetism, sensuality and worldliness in the deepest and most moral sense. They called Eros a world-creator and said that it was eros, the same force that drives us to have sex or to desire someone or to look at the human body, that keeps the planets on course and seasons on time. I see Eros as the dynamic force of life itself. We repress the erotic because we are more afraid of living than of dying.
When a person is having an erotic conflict, for example, whether to have an affair or not, the issue is really about life wanting to expand and deepen. If we can find the larger erotic dimensions to our conflicts, then we can resolve them without acting-out in ways that are destructive. Formal religion has been afraid of eros and has therefore succumbed to a philosophy of death rather than enjoy the way of life. Curious that Jesus would have said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
You talk about your spirituality as an ever-evolving entity. How did it change over the course of writing this book?
Like all my books, I began with a question I couldn’t answer: Is it possible or even desirable to live your own religion today rather than bind your soul to an institution? In the course of writing, I was able to sort out many important and subtle issues. I feel that the writing of the book has intensified my own spirituality, and I’m more convinced of the ideas in the book than when I began. I found it especially helpful to study of the lives of certain remarkable men and women I thought would well embody the idea of a religion of one’s own. I had planned on using Glenn Gould as a main example. I’ve admired him since my teen years. But I took a few important lessons from him and went on. Thoreau became more important than ever. He was someone who lived this philosophy and wrote about it in detail. I think that Walden and his journals are the main inspiration for my book. Emerson and Dickinson, as usual, were also key resources for me, and reading them yet again, I was inspired to create my own religious movement, even if it turns out to be a movement of one.
I’m more convinced than ever that the arts must come back as essential ingredients in a serious and fully lived life, along with spirituality. They go together. Hillman used to say that I was first a musician and then whatever else I was. He never knew how to categorize my work. I see more now how important the arts are to me, especially music, and I now incorporate them more into my daily life. I prefer meditation with art than what people often call mindfulness meditation.
I sometimes have a fantasy of making my own church, to show how a small institution could be a spiritual resource rather than a place where you’re told how to think and live. It will never happen, but this book brought that thought to me more forcefully than anything else has. In my grandiose fantasies, I’d rather have a job in the White House as guide for the spiritual life of the country and spiritual ambassador to the world.