Updated: Aug 26, 2021
Not long ago, I spent a weekend with my son and daughter-in-law in Concord, Massachusetts. We visited Walden Pond, a national historical landmark that pays tribute to the pond’s famous lodger, Henry David Thoreau. For two years, Thoreau lived in a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, and the writing he did there became the foundation for Walden; or, Life in the Woods.
Near the site of Thoreau’s cabin, we watched as visitor after visitor picked up a stone and added it to a series of cairns - rocks stacked one on top of the other into mounds.
After our visit, my son and I talked about his faith journey. Raised Catholic, he no longer considers himself Catholic nor does he believe in God. Like so many others today, his disaffiliation was a thoughtful, conscious, and intentional choice made in a secularized culture where faith and religious practice are simply two options among many.
But his disaffiliation has come at a price. He talked about a sense of loss and his search for some other form of guidance. He grew up thinking of Catholicism as his guiding principle. But he no longer has that guiding light to rely on. He is left with some regrets and sometimes experiences waves of fear about the nothingness he now believes comes after death. That anxiety of future nonbeing drives him to experience as much as he can for as long as he can.
Near the end of the conversation, my son said to me: “Remember when we watched people piling rocks into cairns at Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond?
Thoreau’s philosophy resonated in their lives, so they left their mark at the place where he found the words to write Walden. That is their religion. This is what I am looking for.”
“They left their mark.” As I thought back on the cairn-building we had witnessed, I saw it as a simple religious ritual – a symbolic action that, at some level, impacted each person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
I was reminded of the liturgies and other transcendent symbolic practices that have emerged in the church through the centuries. They all started with similar intentions as the cairn building – ways to acknowledge the transcendent. Catholicism remains to this day particularly good at expressing the mystical, the ineffable.
But Catholicism has also become the Amazon of religious institutions. We are universal and expect all people to comply with all our dogma, rituals and moral directives. We have so intertwined the story of Jesus with participation in the ecclesial institution that when a person disaffiliates from the religion, he or she often assumes ex post facto that this also means disaffiliation from Jesus as well. Thoreau can be found today in his own writings and philosophy. Jesus’s philosophy is largely entangled in pomp and circumstance, and rules and regulations.
It’s time for those of us who love Catholicism to read the signs of the times and trust that the Spirit is, as always, working in ways beyond our understanding. It is time to introduce Jesus more simply - with less paperwork. Let's let Jesus himself resonate in people's lives, and also offer an open community of faith whose primary purpose is to accompany and support people through the ever-changing landscape of their lives. As Fr. Richard Rohr has said, it is time to:
“Take your Christian head off,
shake it wildly
and put it back on.”