Anyone who acts as their own lawyer has a fool for a client, as the old saying goes. We all know this, but somehow someone who serves as their own priest, spiritual father, confessor, or guru is wise?
If you want to get fit and in shape, you see a physical trainer, maybe a dietician. If you want to get your accounts in order and plan for the future, you see a financial advisor. If you want to get the most out of your sporting endeavors, you see a coach. If you want to get past psychological trauma you’ve suffered, you see a counselor or therapist. If you want to get proficient on the French horn or cello, you see a music teacher.
Why is it that we have little trouble realizing that we need experts in many areas of our lives and have humility so reflexive we don’t even think it’s humility? We just ask for direction, guidance, encouragement, and instruction, admitting by the very request that we are deficient and need help. No problem. But tell someone that they need same sort help for their soul, and people take umbrage.
Still, isn’t this obvious? No frontier is so unknown as the sweeping plains and crooked valleys of the human heart. Act as your own cartographer, your own trailblazer, and you might end up finding some new vistas and wonders, sure. But you’re more likely to go in circles and end up lost after making very little real progress.
Believers in largely ritual-less forms of Christianity, for instance, have trouble establishing a healthy sense of self, according to Danish philosopher Matias Møl Dalsgaard of Aarhus University. Rather than getting direction from tradition (including the church calendar, regular periods of fasting and feasting, the discipline of hourly prayer, the counsel of a spiritual father, etc.), the lone Christian is left to work out the faith on their own. It’s liberating on the one hand — no rules! — but it’s also an unmanageable burden, and many buckle under the weight.
Maybe more suggestive of the risks, a recent study found that people who identify as spiritual but not religious — read: untethered from regular, ritualized expressions of faith — are more likely to suffer mental illness. Trying to hack your own path through the tangle of the heart is liable to drive you crazy.
But there’s no point trying to do it on your own. DIY spirituality promises freedom but delivers futility. Others have walked the way before. Others can see into your life from different vantages. Others can give perspective, counsel, encouragement, even rebukes. But a spiritual life that denies access to others gains no such benefits.
Spiritually speaking, we’re often like the stereotypical man driving around lost, refusing to ask for directions, unable to see that our pride only evidences the desperate need we really have. Or in the more frightening picture offered by journalist Mark Vernon, we’re like participants in an extreme sport who take neither safety precautions nor seek coaching.
This is not a blanket defense of religion or all traditions. Not all institutional expressions of the faith are equal. It’s to some people’s credit that they leave some churches. But that only underscores the importance of finding a spiritual home where flourishing is possible.