Sunday, July 25, 2010

Spiritual Mutts

A Soulful Canine © Gabe Palmer

Article © 2010 by Joyce Mason

My friend Elizabeth and I have deeply spiritual discussions. One day last year, I was struggling with my growing inability to feel comfortable attending my church, a liberal Catholic parish to which she had introduced me. It had been so much a part of my life at that point, but I was being called to move on—to reclaim my larger spirituality that transcends denomination or ritual.

That’s when she did it. Elizabeth called herself a “spiritual mutt,” someone who doesn’t quite fit into any one church. I knew instantly that I was the same kind of  mongrel.

The downside of this metaphor: Maybe it’s because I was raised Catholic with its historical shadow of darkness including the Inquisition. I couldn’t quite shake the idea of the Dogma Catcher coming after me.

Still, the concept really helped me sort out yet another phase of my never-ending journey. Elizabeth was instrumental in helping me find a Catholic church so welcoming and open-minded; I could go there and heal the dark side of my religious roots. I had a lot of hurt to heal. I had been away for 40 years.

My comeback was like most things I do—all or nothing. I dove into the deep end of the baptismal font. Before I knew it, I was back into the groove of weekly Mass and all the rituals I had missed for most of my adult life. I was involved in key ministries, including those that welcomed others to the community—or welcomed them back after long absences like mine.

I developed a new appreciation for the fact that the spiritual and spirited being I have become emanates from the same core beliefs that molded many of the mystics.

I was back to rediscover the good in my spiritual beginnings. I completed a circle that had been broken and desperately needed repair. It was one of the greatest losses of my lifetime, feeling that I couldn't remain in the church of my childhood. When I could once again be there—even for a while—it was heaven.

By far, I am not the only person on earth who has struggled with Catholicism (or perhaps your own, different religion) and how to relate to our religious upbringing as adults in a modern world. Most of my life I have known more “recovering” Catholics than practicing ones. By now, I have no beef with anyone who is in either camp, and not just because I’m old enough to remember meatless Fridays. It is a beautiful faith, and I envy those who can be there wholeheartedly. It must be wonderful to be a pedigreed Catholic or Baptist, Jew or Buddhist—to have a certain breed of spirituality that’s consistent with your internal beliefs that brings a community of support with it for the believer, not to mention activities and fun! I’ve had some of my best times ever in the church hall. (Catholics really know how to party!)

Jesus: Teacher and Radical

Still, a single religion isn’t big enough for me. My beliefs are more universal, and I see Jesus in a different light than more conservative or biblically literal Christians. I believe in less emphasis on Jesus dying for our sins and more on his teaching us how to live. The former is hard to take without inducing guilt for merely being alive, not a good psychological state from which to become all we can be—in the image and likeness of the divine. Jesus showed us how to put love in action. I doubt Jesus’ first choice for jobs would have been scapegoat. I believe he would have “saved” us whether or not he was executed, which was a political act. He saved us by showing us the path of compassion and universal love. The horrible way he died made his life more dramatic and memorable; we still talk about it all the time, over 2000 years later.

Even though conservatives have claimed him as their own, Jesus was a radical—a man who loved others regardless of class or status, saint or sinner. That was unusual in his day, and it’s too bad it’s still unusual now. He really rocked the status quo—why he was seen as a political threat, and why his life ended in capital punishment.

Jesus and his teachings remain the foundation of who I am; yet, I cannot deny or discard the boatload of blessings from other paths. Like an artist who wants to choose from all colors in the palette to make the most beautiful painting, I want my spiritual life to have the most color and beauty possible. That, for me, comes with universality—seeing the best in all paths and where they converge. It also minimizes prejudice. So much conflict and death has come out of religious differences; I can only feel that being ecumenical and embracing is the best possible thing I can do.

One thing I’m sure of: God has no religion.

Whatever way you perceive the spark of the divine, I believe Universal Love is so all encompassing; there couldn’t possibly be a “Catholics Only” heaven like I was taught in the 1950s. And if heaven’s truly a state of mind, which I also believe at many levels, then it’s also full of diversity—and not full enough!

Great Scotty!

If there’s a patron saint for spiritual mutts, in my mind, he’s Rev. Scotty McClennan. While his name might not exactly be a household word, a character based on him may have been to your house a lot in your life. Scotty is a good friend of cartoonist Gary Trudeau, and the character Rev. Scot Sloan in Doonesbury was inspired by him.

Scotty McClennan is a Unitarian Universalist minister (a denomination where I spent five years as an adult). He’s author of Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up with Has Lost Its Meaning. That book has been a godsend for me, no pun intended. One of its neatest features is a spiritual evolutionary timeline. It goes from Stage 1 (Magic), where spirits, demons, fairy tales and a vision of God making everything happen through Stage 7 (Unity) where you feel community with all traditions and sense the divine in everything. As you can probably guess, spiritual mutts tend to be in Stage Seven or in 7th Heaven, as I like to think of it. I can’t recommend this book enough, if you’re struggling with how your religious roots fit into stretching your spiritual wings.

Another concept I heard at a Catholic women’s retreat also speaks to stages of spiritual evolution through the three persons in one God or Trinity. When we are young and need a simplified look at life, love, and God, we are likely to resonate most to God the Father. In the mid-stage, we spend much time identifying with Jesus, the Son. In the third and final stage, we resonate to the Holy Spirit—see God and signs of God everywhere.

Finally, there’s one more Great Scotty, his newest book, Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All. It takes a new look at who Jesus was and how his teachings apply to all the big issues in modern ethical dilemmas and social justice.


As an astrologer and a writer on spirituality, I sometimes I think of myself as a missionary on the frontiers of outer space. I help many grateful people; it is moving, gratifying work. I feel privileged that people trust me to journey with them to the deepest, most magnificent parts of themselves. These places of purest possibility are often hidden by our own evolutionary limits and unexamined habit patterns.

This mission is hard to do from most religious traditions because many religions condemn astrology. At least my favorite, open-minded Catholic parish says every Christmas—out loud!—that the Magi were astrologers. I find it paradoxical that the Three Wise Men who attended the birth of the Christ child were Zoroastrian priest-astrologers, yet astrology tends to make the religious hierarchy nervous. I suspect they fear it has something to do with giving one’s faith over to something other than God. On the contrary, I see God and Creator in the movement of the stars, planets, and the power behind the astrologers motto, “As above, so below.” The Bible is full of references to the stars as signs, not to mention heaven/the heavens, starting with the Star of Bethlehem. Yet, sadly, many people have not gotten out of the Dark Ages with their vision of astrology. As most modern astrologers practice it, astrology is about following divine hints and an actual, personalized roadmap of how to get to heaven—metaphorically, becoming all you can be as embodied spirit.

I have noted before in other articles my discontent, growing up, with the word “vocation” being used strictly to denote a call to the religious life as a priest, nun, monk, or similar dedicated life path with formal vows. (That in my mind is “vowcation.”) Vocation, more broadly, is whatever pursuit contains a divine calling for you. Mine is astrology and eclectic spirituality. Given the “faith of my fathers” has not been very friendly toward either astrology or women in leadership roles, there’s not a fit.

But I don’t have to have a fit. In the past, I would have bemoaned and groaned about this as small-minded on the part of the Church. Now, thanks to Rev. Scotty and others who have re-attuned me to the concept of spiritual evolution, I recognize that both institutions and people are on different roads or stages of their spiritual quest. I knew many Stage 7’s (Unity) in my Catholic parish, but the institutional church is more Stage 3 (Dependence).

Symbols and Spirit

I think most of us realize that the true divide, when it comes to religion, is the chasm of Literal and Figurative. It’s difficult to argue with people who view the Bible as literal. I don’t try; I just respect their view from a different place on the spiritual spectrum.

Symbolism is the life’s blood of my own spirituality, and because writing is where symbols meet communication, I write.

My own spirituality is a sort of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof speaking to God meets the Cosmic Bonfire of Creativity or the Tao in the channeled Michael Teachings. The latter contain one of my favorite ways of seeing the spiritual world, a creation myth I paraphrase in a December 2007 holiday blog post, Turn on the Lights!

Symbols, to me, are sparks of the God stuff everywhere; synchronicities, omens, hunches and inklings all are Spirit, taking whatever form it needs to leave a message. Spirit is a shape shifter, after all, and when she leaves messages in writing, it doesn’t matter if it’s on paper, a coffee cup, or graffiti on a construction site fence. I have found guidance in all those places.

Theological Outlaws

Recently, I learned a more humorous vision of Spiritual Mutts from astrologer Steven Forrest. He calls us Theological Outlaws. (See The Mountain Astrologer, June/July 2010.) That certainly matches my self-image as a missionary on the frontier of spirituality and outer space. Actually, the trait of being a spiritual outlaw is one of nine for people who have a special characteristic of their Moon in astrology. It’s called Moon out-of-bounds (OOB). Without getting into all the technical astrobabble, it means you have an overdose of lunar characteristics and no bounds to where you’ll go, because your feeling and spiritual life are colored limitless. We are mutts that can’t be collared or confined to a dogma run! And let’s not forget; dog is God spelled backwards, and multi-breed spirited types just get to God from a different direction.

(See my post Moonwalk: Cancer on the Radical Virgo, if you want to learn more bout OOBies.)

Pack of Mutts

The one thing that religion provides that spiritual mutts sometimes miss is the convenient access to community the church structure provides. The denominations where I’ve most spent time as an adult are Unitarian Universalist (UU) and Unity. I think I like religions that start with a U because it reminds me of a smile. Also, the word Unity fits my Stage 7 unity consciousness.

Even when I get my most spirited match when it comes to a church, I still find myself not quite fitting in. That used to make me sad, but I finally had this epiphany, and it wasn’t even January 6th. There are all kinds of ways we wild dogs run together. Some examples are Facebook, Twitter, our spiritual mutt blogs (astrology, spirituality), and our local metaphysical centers. So, we don’t have bake sales. But the community is still there, even when it’s often virtual. (Upside: No plate is passed and there are no committees to draft you.)

I’m starting to realize that I have community as a spiritual mutt/theological outlaw. Indeed, it’s mostly on the frontier of the Internet.

The other important insight: I used to feel I fit in nowhere; nowadays, I’m more apt to feel I can fit in most anywhere. Of course, like anyone else, I’ll choose to spend most of my time with people who are like-minded, but one of my favorite activities is church hopping. I love to go to different services, study various religions, and see Spirit from all angles.

Religion and Spirituality: Same or Different?

I’d love to hear your experiences in the Comments. Are religion and spirituality the same thing for you? (I think it can be “either/or” or “both/and.”)

One of my favorite sayings is, The best thing we can give our children is roots and wings. For me, religion is my roots, the recognition from baptism that I’m in communion with All That Is, everyone and everything under the sun and stars.

My wings span that God Has No Religion place, and yet, coming to terms with the part religion has played in molding me has been one of the most important passages of my life. While my ideas are dotted with Buddhist and Jewish concepts (I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and absorbed much Jewish culture and perspective), my Catholic Christian core most fully formed who I am today, spirituality.

I’ve always been told by psychics that I’m an Old Soul. Wonder how that translates in dog years?


Photo credit: A Soulful Canine © Gabe Palmer


Elizabeth said...

I knew you'd go places with that moniker I would never think of. Well done!


Joyce Mason said...

Thank you for inspiring it, Elizabeth, and for being such an important spiritual catalyst in my life. Our friendship proves what I wrote in Your Cosmic Tractor Beam.

Mandi Lockley said...

Great post. Religion and spirituality are different things to me. I think a person can be religious without being spiritual (i.e. simply following the dogma) and vice versa. I think of myself as spiritual, but not religious.
Religions are fascinating and if you look into their origins they all boil down to the same thing and that's why I'm so sad that religion can be so divisive. For that reason, I tend to avoid it.

Anne Whitaker said...

Dear Joyce

as a 'spiritual mutt' myself who has found her way back to a church community in the last five years, whilst retaining my basic conviction shared with my Druid forbears that 'all gods are one', I thank you for this wise, deep and highly ecumenical reflection.


Joyce Mason said...

Mandi, thanks for your comments and perspective! I agree; it's sad religions can't emphasize their huge area of common ground. I have met people who are both spiritual and religious, but notice that you can't assume one means the other. Sometimes it astounds me that a certain breed of dogmatic church-goers can be the least agile at walking the talk, especially of the Christian message of loving all. I know atheists and agnostics who act more christian than this archetype, especially those individuals who use faith to create a Them and Us. I believe anything divisive is not of Spirit.

Joyce Mason said...

Anne, I have a synchronicity and true irony to share. Tim and I have been feeling the need for an ongoing spiritual booster shot, so we've been church hopping our several local Unity churches. (When we reconnected, we both were attending Unity in separate cities, and it fits our philosophy most.)

Yesterday we visited the one we most attended in the past, but left due to a number of "life interventions" without really getting to know the husband/wife minister team that were new at the time.

Rev. Mark is in the middle of a series on Unity and other religions. Yesterday was Buddhism, and to our amazement, he has the exact perspective of this blog post and an identical background: born Catholic, even went to seminary for 5 years, from Chicago, and sees Unity as honoring his Christian roots while drawing from any spiritual path that's life affirming. He has actually practiced many facets of Buddhism for years.

So, maybe this mutt has found herself a home. Especially since these folks won't keep me on a leash, LOL!

LB said...

Hi Joyce – Thanks for this very thoughtful post. I realized a long time ago that spirituality and religion are not necessarily synonymous; neither are they mutually exclusive – I agree with both you and Mandi. I also believe God has no religion, and like you, I’ve encountered atheists with more humanistic views than their spiritual counterparts. Another great book for progressive, inclusive Christians who may be struggling with their faith is, “If God Is Love; Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World” by Gulley and Mulholland.

Although I consider myself a progressive Christian, I’m also a spiritual mutt, since I find truths in many religious and spiritual philosophies. Much as I’d love to find a church of like-minded souls, so far that’s eluded me – I become quickly disillusioned by the groupthink and have to leave.

Having said all that, I remain drawn to certain old Catholic chapels and occasionally go in to light a candle and/or say a prayer; this despite the fact that I’m not (nor have I ever been) Catholic! I’ve loved Catholic churches since childhood (when I would ask to attend services with friends); certain rituals feel very familiar and comforting, not to mention mystical. I don’t think God minds that I’m not a Catholic. Maybe I was in a past life. :)

Joyce Mason said...

Hi, LB! Thanks for your wonderful comments and the new book reference. I will definitely check it out.

Catholic churches and chapels are so powerful! All that prayer and ritual that takes place in them day after day, year after year creates an amazing resonance of the sacred. When I sit there in silence, it's not completely quiet. It's as though all that intent and trust in divine intervention sparks the air, not to mention the baptisms, weddings and other sacraments. There's nothing quite like it. It's like the tuning fork of my soul.

LB said...

Yes Joyce, that's it exactly!