Four Ways of Religion–Part 1

Recently, I have been reading What Is Religion? written by Georgetown University theology professor John F. Haught. In it, Haught examines five major religious traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and from them comes up with four “ways” of being religious: sacramentalism, mysticism, silence, and action. While certain religious traditions emphasize one of the four ways over the others (e.g. Buddhism emphasizes the way of silence), Haught argues that a balance of the four elements is important for authentic religious practice. Reading this made me wonder how balanced my own religious practice is. In this post, I consider the first two ways of sacramentalism and mysticism and will address silence and action next week.

What is Religion?The first way of being religious Haught calls “sacramentalism.” Those with a sacramental attitude sense the presence of mystery through symbols, myths, rituals, and the natural world. Those with a sacramental attitude also take joy in the goods of the earth and appreciate sharing their joy with others through religious rituals. Finally, those with a sacramental approach to religion have a strong sense of gratitude, feeling as if the world and our lives in it are awesome gifts from God to be accepted with delight. Given our attention to the sacraments, many Roman Catholics may find the sacramental way of religion quite familiar and comfortable.

When I look at the world, I see it through sacramental glasses. I often catch glimpses of the divine when I am out in nature or spending time with the people I care about most. Knowing that I have so much to be thankful for, I try to begin my prayers each evening with a litany of appreciation, thanking God for all that is good in my life. Yet even though this sacramentalism is central to my being in the world, I find that it is often lacking where it (possibly) should be the most apparent: at Eucharist, the central sacramental celebration of our faith community. All too often, participating in Eucharist is something I do because I feel like I have to do it. As I say the prayers at mass that I have said my whole life, my mind wanders off, as I make to do lists for the coming week or start writing in my head the assignment I have due the next day. With such a mindset, I all too often miss the wonder and the joy of the Eucharistic celebration. Certainly for me this Lent, a way to better balance my religious practice would be to be more attentive to the symbolism and mystery of the Eucharist and to really pay attention to what happens as I take the body and blood of Christ into myself each week.

  • Where and when do you experience mystery in the world? In nature? In the sacraments? With your friends?
  • What is your relationship with the natural world like? How can you cultivate more appreciation for the wonderful gift we have in God’s creation?
  • What makes you the most joyful in life? How can you create more joy in your life this Lenten season?
  • For what are you most thankful? Have you had the chance to express this thankfulness to God and those who are important in your life?
  • What has your relationship with the sacraments been? Do you find them occasions of joy and wonder or are they more something to just get through? What could you do this Lent to more fully celebrate the sacrament of Eucharist?

A second way of religion that Haught identifies is mysticism, which he defines as having “an exceptionally vivid intuition of one’s union with ultimate reality,” (97). People living the mystical way of life are aware of how separated most human beings are from each other and from the ultimate ground of our being, which is God for Catholic Christians. They have also successfully sought to overcome this estrangement by engaging in prayer and meditative practices that give them a better sense of their oneness with God. As St. Catherine of Genoa wrote of one of her mystical insights, “My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself.” Part of their mystical experience is the intense feeling of love and being loved, although those who have had a vivid mystical experience often find it hard to put the experience into words.

I think that I have had something close to a mystical experience. When I was in middle school, I was praying one morning about something important that I had to do that day. As I prayed that God would be with me, I felt that God was with me in a way that I had never felt before. The feeling did not last long, but it was intense enough that I still remember the moment with great clarity and it has stuck with me as reassurance that God is with me, even if I am having trouble feeling or knowing God’s presence in my life.

Despite this mystical experience, I am a long way from being a mystic. Something that tends to stand in my way is this recurring sense that I am somehow not good enough as I am. Despite everything I hear about God’s love being abundant and full of grace, I can’t quite shake the idea that I have to do something or be something in particular to earn that love. On the majority of my days, I am a long way from seeing my unity with God, dwellings more frequently on my all-too-human failings. Maybe part of my Lenten journey this year needs to be a sustained reflection on God’s love, my own loveliness that is given by God, and the loveliness that surrounds me in God’s creation.

  • Have you ever had something you might call a mystical experience or a time when you felt particularly close to God? What was happening at the time? How did it feel?
  • Do you tend to reflect more on your closeness with God or on your separateness from God?
  • Knowing that God wants to be close to you, what can you do to be close to God this Lent?

One thought on “Four Ways of Religion–Part 1

  1. […] Last week, I started writing about John Haught’s book What Is Religion? in which he examines five major religious traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and from them comes up with four “ways” of being religious: sacramentalism, mysticism, silence, and action. One of his main arguments is that authentic religious practice (and authentic religious traditions, for that matter) find a way to balance all four of these “ways” of doing religion. Reading this led me to examine the balance in my own religious practice, starting with sacramentalism and mysticism last week. This week I consider silence. (Next week, action.) […]

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