Just as relationships without rules aren't likely to last, rules without relationship sucks the life -- and love -- right out of us.
A lot of people these days identify themselves as "spiritual-but-not-religious." It's almost as if those two things were mutually exclusive. In other words, our culture assumes you can choose between being "spiritual" or "religious," but you can't possibly be both. As Catholics, we know that simply isn't true. In fact, bringing "spiritual" and "religious" together is a central goal of living our faith in Jesus Christ.
Despite the reigning skepticism, things "spiritual" are still prized by many. People are surprisingly open to a broad range of spiritual practices that include things like meditation, fasting, simplicity, and charitable giving. They don't shrink from taking up a challenge. They just don't want to be obligated or bound. They are afraid that obedience might mar their spiritual endeavors or experiences.
Of course, obedience and being "bound" is precisely what religion is all about. The word itself comes from the Latin verb "religare," meaning "to bind" or "to moor." And that, I think, is why things associated with religious practice, especially those that belong to "organized" or "institutional" religion, are so very out of favor. A culture so convinced that unlimited personal freedom is the pre-requisite for personal fulfillment shuns anything that might bind or oblige.
The problem is that in order to endure and flourish, spiritual things need to be moored. Even more, spiritual people need the form and support religion offers. Vows -- whether they are to love, honor, and cherish, or to poverty, chastity, and obedience -- aren't for days of impassioned love and devotion. They are for days of doubt and disillusionment. The things that bind us don't place us in bondage; they keep us connected to the things we value most, and strengthen those connections when we are weak.
Of course, people who could be described as "religious-but-not-spiritual" are missing the point entirely. Just as relationships without rules aren't likely to last, rules without relationship sucks the life -- and love -- right out of us. And that is about as far from authentic Christian discipleship as you can get.
Jesus criticized the religionists of his day and preached a Gospel of liberating love. But he also came to fulfill the law, and not to abolish it. The convergence of love and law is what is most revolutionary about Christianity. That convergence is taken to its ultimate degree by Christ himself, when he gives those closest to him a new commandment: the law of love.
That love cannot be reduced to gushy sentimentalism. Nor can it be emptied of intimacy or passion. The love Jesus commanded is the love God is, the self-giving love that saves. St. Maximilian Kolbe expressed it fully when he said, "There is no love without sacrifice." That is why the Church gives us this annual 40-day retreat: to inspire in us the love that is capable of sacrificial self-gift.
This Lent, each one of us has an opportunity bring all that is spiritual and all that is religious together in our own lives. Over the next 40 days, our spiritual natures can become more religious and our religion can grow more spiritual. We can moor ourselves to the steady shore of faith, and bind ourselves to the things we value most. We can take up the great traditional observances of Lent in order to more fully obey the greatest of all commandments: You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and serves as a senior editor at Ave Maria Press. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.