Religious but Not Spiritual

It was Memorial Sunday this weekend, so naturally I wore my white pencil skirt to church. Memorial Day weekend is the seasonal debut of the white section of my wardrobe: I only wear white skirts and shorts between Memorial Day and Labor Day, except for select "winter whites" that I'll wear in January and February. It's an entirely self-imposed rule, arbitrary and very limiting, observed by almost nobody else in my circles, of dubious provenance and doubtful utility. And it makes me ridiculously happy to observe it every year between May and September.

The whites rule is only one of several sumptuary regulations that I enjoy keeping. I have seasonal rules for when I wear tall boots and when I wear peep-toe pumps; policies for what I won't wear to weddings and what I will wear to business meetings. It bothers me not one whit if other people ignore or flout these rules, and I don't care if they notice or approve of my compliance. It's an entirely private pleasure to know and master these byways of custom.

Nor are clothes the only province of my affinity for folkways. I enjoy knowing and keeping traditional rules of housekeeping. For instance: I do my laundry on Monday, my grocery shopping on Thursday, and my baking on Saturday. I like to observe rules of formal etiquette, though I fail often in this realm. Most of all I love customary foodways. While on my mission in Portugal, I learned that fried fish should be served with rice, while boiled fish should be served with potatoes. This struck me as a wonderful rule to live by, and I have never deviated.

Certain holiday foods are compulsory in my kitchen: black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, soda bread on St Patrick's Day, flag cake on the Fourth of July, and on and on. On Thanksgiving I labor lovingly over my traditional homemade feast, rarely deviating from the menu and recipes I gathered early in my married life. I really do think there are two kinds of people in the world: those who take pleasure in observing the traditional Thanksgiving menu, and those who take pleasure in disregarding it. No question into which category I fall.

Religious traditions are the mother lode of traditional folkways. My own tradition, arising as it does from Puritan roots in New England, lacks its own calendar of religious festivals and holidays, so it's no surprise that I borrow liberally from other traditions: Fat Tuesday, Lent, Passover, Hanukkah, Advent. These borrowings are made greedily but with a bad conscience, for I know that without an undergirding spiritual connection and communal history my versions of these festivals are only an outward shell—some would say a profane mockery—of a true observance. I am the bane of the prophets: Amos said, "I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me"; Christ would recognize me straightaway as a whited sepulcher; Paul would observe that I exploit the forms of godliness but deny the power thereof. They are right about me.

Nevertheless, there is something about observing the "forms of godliness"—and the more workaday "forms of community"—that creates for me a deep sense of well-being in the world. I am religious but not spiritual. This inversion of the clichéd formula "spiritual but not religious" is by now a cliché itself. It even has its own spoof in The Onion! But it is true: I am drawn to the structure and beauty of religious tradition and cultural folkways, but I lack a strong spiritual sensibility or intuition.

I've spent some time thinking about why this is so. I've heard it suggested that outward religious forms work to nourish and revitalize the soul when our inner spirituality wanes. But this is not really the case for me: I love observing customs and mores even when they have no spiritual component at all. My white skirt on Memorial Sunday fall into this category and, as my daughter would say, can't get up.

Part of it, certainly, is the sense of social connectedness that these practices create for me. I suffer from some mild social anxieties, though I like to think I hide it well, and I have difficulty creating and negotiating close relationships from scratch. The knowledge that I am sharing an experience—a holiday, a traditional food, a daily routine—with my friends, family, and forebears gives me a feeling of commonality, security, embeddedness. It's a basis for connection that is always available and mutually meaningful.

But that's not all of it. Like I said, I enjoy mastering and observing arcane rules—again with the white skirt—that most people quite sensibly ignore. These rules are arbitrary and limiting, yes. But for me this is a feature, not a bug: behavioral strictures work to discipline the desiring self, the self that prefers a certain food or a certain skirt today, the self that would move from moment to moment merely on whim, the self that would remake the universe in its own image. Rules that limit choice, even when the choices they limit are otherwise morally neutral, tame the ego, force us to accept experience as it comes to us rather than as we wish it were. Observing rules merely for the sake of the observation itself is a valuable ascetic practice.