The spiritual-but-not-religious phenomenon has its roots in the Reformation, but it has taken flight in the United States, fanned by the ego-affirming consumerism, democratic individualism, and the atomizing effects of mass media and modern technology.
Now, more than a quarter of Americans identify as “spiritual but not religious,” according to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center. This category claims a broad swath of American society, according to Pew: in almost equal numbers white and black, Republicans and Democrats, millennials and Boomers. Needless to say, being spiritual but not religious is a deep-seated sentiment within the American psyche that anyone making the case for that old-time religion must overcome.
Enter Tyler Blanski’s new book, An Immovable Feast: How I Gave Up Spirituality for a Life of Religious Abundance, released in early April by Ignatius Press.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Blanski, a musician, poet, and Catholic writer from Minnesota, was once as ‘spiritual’ as they come. Blanski’s spirituality was a product of his evangelical low-church upbringing. When he was 12, he “accepted Jesus Christ” as his “personal Lord and Savior” while at a church camp. For Blanski, true faith meant opposing religion. People who tried to follow religion had fallen for the false gospel of works-righteousness, contrary to the true way of salvation, which was by faith alone, so Blanski thought. “I can love Jesus without going to church,” he once said.
But from the beginning, Blanski questioned how his faith was presented to him. “Did the Father really punish Jesus instead of us, and is this an accurate picture of the life of the Trinity?” Blanski asked himself.
At an early age, Blanski began to sense that what he believed in his mind and professed with his mouth was at odds with his “deepest longings.” He scoffed at outward displays of piety, such as regular church attendance, but he simultaneously felt a yearning for all the outward trappings of religion—the priesthood, monasteries, frequent communion, and the Daily Office.
This tension between his attachment to spirituality and his longing for religion is what drives most of the story of An Immovable Feast, as Blanski is gradually transformed—from a skeptic who dismissed Catholic teachings about the saints and the Eucharist as ‘barnacles’ on the ‘ship’ of a once-pure early church to a liturgical conservative who silently scolded a new co-religionist at Mass for adopting the orans position.
With the benefit of hindsight, he is able to pinpoint the contradiction at the heart of the spiritual-but-not-religious mindset: “Growing up, I thought the good news was that I could have a personal relationship with Jesus—without religion. I wanted the King but not the Kingdom, the head but not the body, the vine but not the branches, a culture but not the cult,” Blanski writes.
The journey into the Kingdom is a slow one. There is no single moment in Blanski’s book that is really a turning point. And, in a way, that is the whole point. Evangelical spirituality promises the instantaneous conversion, the one-and-done prayer of accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior, the flash of grace and the lightning strike of faith that makes one “saved”—emphasis on the past tense in the sense of a completed once and for all event.
Much of the value of this book is Blanski’s description what is wrong with such a spirituality. “I could see that my spirituality was woefully inadequate for the realities of a world east of Eden. It warmed to literature and sunsets but was worthless in the face of cancer. It soared at the sight of a beautiful woman or a well-turned phrase in the Book of Common Prayer, but it froze at the sound of wails late at night. It was inadequate, but I didn’t know what to do about it,” Blanski writes.
Blanski’s spirituality was a house divided against itself. He realized that not all the pieces fit together—and that some were missing. For a time, rather than seek clarity, Blanski embraced what he called “a beautiful mess,” likening it to the way poetry was able to take the tragic disorder and senselessness of the world and make it beautiful without rationalizing or resolving its problems.
His was also a spirituality of impoverishment. For those of us whose journeys into the Church passed through Anglicanism, his book is a wonderful insight into what a ‘mess’ it is. At Nashotah House, the Anglican seminary in Wisconsin that Blanski attended, he recalls how the community was able to make peace among all the warring factions within the Anglican communion.
One anecdote is particularly telling: the Anglo-Catholics on campus firmly believed in Mary’s intercession. So, three times a day, the campus would pause for the Angelus. But the seminary had to find a way of doing this without offending those who scorned Marian devotion as idolatry. The solution was silence. “The Saint Michael bell rang out the Angelus, the students would stand, but everyone was silent. Silence was the via media applied to Mary. Silence allowed for truth and lies to mix without discord,” Blanski writes.
This was the typical approach to all divisive dogmas. “All may, some should, none must,” was the mantra applied to such question like whether one should go to confession or pray for the dead. As the result, the Anglicans held to just a “few fundamentals.”
Blanski’s bridge from such mere spirituality to the abundance of religion was the sacraments. This sets the stage for one of the great insights of the book. Man isn’t only a political or social animal, as Aristotle declared. He is also a “sacramental creature.”
Long before he experienced sacraments in a formal religious context, Blanski was unknowingly seeking them out. At an early age, he found sacramental fulfillment in nature at a resort where he worked: “As far as I was concerned, the Shekinah glory of God had condescended to dwell somewhere in the wild places of the north, and for me the long drive to the resort was a kind of approach, an opportunity to come clean and to receive absolution from the pines before the moment of encounter.”
His time at the seminary pursuing a vocation to the priesthood was, as might be expected, immensely formative. His encounter with the Eucharist was particularly decisive. “I had been attending daily Mass, and the way I described the Eucharist back then was like a hammer. The Eucharist was like a medieval bludgeon to my heart,” Blanski writes.
His marriage was another big step—not just in terms of the marriage itself, but for the broader theological ramifications it held for Blanski. In his nuptials, he sees the marriage of heaven and earth. In its own way, their wedding told the story of the Church as the mystical bride of Christ. United to Christ, the Church is invited to participate in the eternal self-offering of love the Son makes to the Father.
What he was doing, Blanski says, was a profoundly religious act—religion in the sense of its Latin root, religare, to bind. It was the “beginning of the end” of his spirituality. A few more steps remained on his way into the Church, including a reckoning with the evils of artificial contraception, the reality of fatherhood, and the prophetic power and biblical basis for the papacy.
Blanski’s pathway to the Church is studded with insights on the truths of Catholic teaching. For example: There is his explanation of how praise of Mary is oriented towards God: when someone admires any great artist he lauds the artist’s works of art. Submission, or “slavery,” to Christ is liberating in the same way that submission to a teacher and the discipline of learning the frets enables one to play the guitar freely. Love is more of a “presence” not a “proclamation.”
The author is, perhaps, at his most eloquent in describing the vocations of fathers and mothers. Fatherhood, he points, out is deeply connected with priesthood in the Old Testament. Women, he says, have always “lifted the lids of their soup pots to share the aroma of holiness with a world that had lost its sense of smell.”
Blanski also on occasion offers broader social commentary. He observes how modern medicine, industrialization, technology and other factors have pushed death out of mind and transformed the nature of work, producing “extended adolescence.” He rues how the “sexualization of everything” has diminished male friendships. Modern society has made food “abstract” to us.
In addition to his promising career as a writer, Blanski is also a musician and published poet. And, occasionally, Blanski treats his readers to a nice turn of phrase or imaginative metaphor. During Lent at the seminary he was, he writes, “practically percolating in the poetry of our fathers.” On one venture into a forest, the trees leave a “lace of shadows” on the ground. The meadow is awash in the “fragrant breath of sun-warmed grasses.” Winter is “like an old prophet” who “has a way of making things black and white again.”
At one point, early in the book, Blanski compares the spiritual-but-not-religious attitude to someone who says they “love music but never sing.” “It’s great to be a fan or to have a nice record collection, but it’s not enough,” Blanski writes. “If you want to be a saint, you have to sing. You have to do the work.” The Immovable Feast is Blanski’s story of how he learned to sing. It is a love song to which we are all invited to join in.