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Thomas Moore: Accounting for the Mysterious 

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Popular spiritual books author Thomas Moore burst onto the New York Times Bestseller List in 1992 with his first book, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. Moore's 14th book, A Religion of One's Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World (Gotham Books), just published in January, is a guide for people who are searching for deeper personal meaning in an increasingly secular world—whether they are practitioners of traditional religions, spiritual seekers, agnostics, or even atheists.

Moore, who is also a psychotherapist and former member of the Catholic Servite Order, will be visiting Garrison Institute in celebration of his latest book. On Monday, March 31, at 7:30 p.m., Moore will give a free public talk titled "A Religion of One's Own," focusing on grounding spirituality according to personal searching and intuition. From March 31 to April 2, Moore will also lead a retreat on "The Orange Box: A Conversation with Thomas Moore," which, in the words of retreat organizer Katherine Gottshall, will be a "soul salon celebrating the holy fool and the importance of neighborhoods, festivals, carnivals, conferences, and gatherings around fireplaces and long kitchen tables." According to Gotshall, the "orange box" refers to the Nike shoebox, which has "Just Do It" printed inside its lid, and will be converted for retreat attendees into a "container for catching dreams" in relation to topics such as deepening a sense of community, organizing creative gatherings, and designing soulful spaces. (845) 424-4800.
Thomas Moore's Public Talk at Garrison Institute
Thomas Moore's Retreat at Garrison Institute

It feels like A Religion of One’s Own has come about at just the right time. How did the book come into being?

Thomas Moore: Well, it’s hard to say where these things begin. I think probably the immediate thing was, I travel a great deal in many parts of the world and I always have my ears open to hear what people are concerned about. And one of the things I’ve heard for years now is that so many people have been brought up in a particular religious background—a traditional religion that was just part of the family life. And people have gotten a lot of good things from that experience. But two things happen. One of them is that they get tired of it or angry at it. So we have a lot of angry people out there, angry at formal religion. And the second thing is that they just sort of grow out of it. They just aren’t interested anymore. And I think that has to do with the changes in culture right now. Books are going out right now too, so it isn’t surprising that religion is not disappearing but not being quite as popular.

I want to write to people who are looking for alternatives. And I wanted to say that: you know the way you’ve understood religion in the past, where you’ve signed up, you believe what you’re told, and you do what you’re told? Well, those days are over. Nobody wants to live that way anymore. And so I recommend that people take responsibility for their own spiritual life whether they’re in a formal religion or not. I call that having your own religion.

Has the way that you think about the soul changed over the years?

Not much. I’ve learned a lot giving talks in different places. For example, I’ve learned some very concrete things that are important to the soul that I didn’t realize were so important. For example, food. I’d never realized before that food is such an important thing for the soul. So how you cook and what you eat and family traditions of food—all of that is rather important to the soul, not just a thing for your body. Another thing I’ve learned is just simple things like bathing—I often talk about taking a bath. How it’s more likely for your soul rather than your body. I doubt you take a bath to get cleaner, you probably take a shower for that, but bathing is a ritual which is really important for the soul. I quote Henry David Thoreau who said that taking a bath was a sacrament for him. It isn’t a sacrament for most people, but it was for him. So those are some concrete things I’ve learned that I didn’t realize in the beginning [of my writing] were so important.

One passage that I particularly liked in the book was this: “The emptying and graying of the churches is like climate change. Something ominous is happening to us.” What do you see as being ominous?

I feel the same thing about many things. I mention books because I make my living writing and it’s getting more difficult because people simply are not buying books and reading as much anymore. Books are still there, and people still buy books, but not at all like they were. And that’s a strange feeling. I think that what’s happening to us even if we’re not thinking or talking about it much is that our habits are changing and that feels like climate change, it feels like something is happening to us that we have no control over. We’re not even that aware of the change enough to really be able to do anything about it, like think of alternative ways of how to react, so I feel strange and odd about those developments in religion. And I can’t explain it because it’s quite mysterious, but suddenly this change is taking place.

The book has been written for agnostics and atheists as well. Can non-believers have something in their lives that’s akin to religion?

That’s really the point of the book—I think you can. In some ways, atheists are probably in a better position to have a religion of their own than people who attend church because the church, in a way, gets in the way of their own religion. Not entirely, but it does get in the way. People can go to church mindlessly and really not develop a religious way of life. So I think that atheists—although they can be very hard-minded about their own decisions and be rather fundamentalist at times about their atheism—I still think they have a better chance of developing a religion of the type I’m talking about.

So when I say the soul needs religion I don’t mean that it needs church going or going to a synagogue or anything like that. I think that it needs a way of life in which you account for the mysteries in life and that which is beyond what you can explain and control. And if you don’t have that religious sense of wonder and questioning and search, then your soul can become lost in the secular life; you might only be concerned about money or a job or you might unconsciously just do what everyone’s doing and not think about it at all. I think a lot of people are in that position and that the soul is hurt then when people do not have that kind of religion.

You say in your book, “Whether or not you like it you have a soul that complains when you neglect it. Soul needs religion, it’s not an option.” And you make a connection between the soul being hurt and illnesses like depression.

I think you do get depressed when you don’t live from a deep enough place. Vitality comes from being really deeply engaged in life. Not just going through the motions. I think there’s a kind of depression—maybe it’s not the same clinical depression that some people complain about—but I think there’s at least a mild form of cultural depression where we feel that life doesn’t have a lot of zest and meaning so we wonder about, “Why do I get up in the morning?” and “What am I doing at this job?” We think, “This is what life is all about—isn’t there any more than this?” Those kinds of questions are rather depressive. And I think they come from the fact that we don’t engage in life at a deep level. Once you do that, then your work will again have more vitality, and then there’s no room for depression. Your work can really mean something to you. And your life, your family life, or your life with children or animals or nature or art—there can be so much in life that makes you feel alive and makes you want to get everything out of life that you can, and that is an antidote to depression. And that’s a soulful life.

Moving on to the concept of Eros, you talk about that is not only about love, it can also be about expanding and enriching life.

Loving what you do in life, loving where you live, loving the people around you—all that love is part of Eros. If we don’t attend to [Eros], I think it can get shrunken and focused on sexuality. But Eros seems to be all about sex. And I’ve said this for so long, and I wrote a book called The Soul of Sex a few years ago, and I like talking about this a lot. Our sexuality is not limited to having a sex partner and sexual experiences. It’s about being in this world where we feel connected and we have desire and longings that we attend to, and find some satisfaction. So to be really engaged in life and to want to learn, to wonder, to feel connected to the people around you and feel that you’re doing some kind of work that manifests who you are, all of that is part of an erotic life. I think our sexuality is directly involved in that, so I think we may feel we have sexual problems and try to deal with those directly, but it’s better to look at life in a broader sense and say, Where is the love? Where is the awareness of the desire, the longing? Where is the pleasure, the satisfaction, and the wonder?

You’ve spoken of yourself as a “religious humanist.”

My namesake, Thomas Moore of England, who lived in the 16th century, was called a religious humanist and there were people around him—friends of his, Erasmus and other intellectuals—who were very interested in the arts, humanities, and learning. They were translating books and they were part of Renaissance humanism. They loved to get more and more knowledge, especially to learn from people who had gone before, so that’s how I think of religious humanism. It’s a lot of worldly life, a lot of learning, of the arts, and taking deep pleasure in these very worldly things—and at the same time appreciating the great mysteries and having this profound sense of wonder so you’re always asking about the deep things that happen and what are they all about. And searching for meaning. So I think you put those two together. And a lot of times people use the word "humanist" to refer to someone who doesn’t have any interest in religion, but that’s only a modern view. That’s not the way humanism was discussed a few centuries ago. I always live in the past so I really relate to that time of Thomas Moore of England. I feel at home calling myself a religious humanist.

I was raised Catholic so I understand being angry at the Church.

My point exactly.

So most likely given publishing schedules you were probably writing this before Pope Francis came into the world.

Yes, I was.

I’ve heard a lot of lapsed Catholics saying that they feel welcome and hopeful again, which is something they never thought they’d experience. You were brought up Catholic and served in the Servite Order for 12 years. What do you think of Pope Francis?

Well he’s definitely having an impact. I’ve been saying lately that I’ve been waiting most of my life for a pope to come along who could talk more simply and without all that heavy authority and leave room for people to find their own way, not just moralistically thinking—that’s what it means to be religious. But he has been doing that publically and it’s amazing, so here we have a pope who makes his own breakfast in the Vatican and word of that gets all around the globe, and suddenly people want to be Catholic again. It’s quite a remarkable thing. So he doesn’t have to talk about dogma and what you should believe—for him it’s more about style. I think it’s wonderful. That’s what a religious leader ought to be. I always thought that the pope should be very much like the Dalai Lama—someone who is respected around the world as a religious leader and is not caught up in all the pomp and circumstance and finances and rules and judging people. And Pope Francis has shown himself to be wonderful along those lines, especially about not judging people. If he continues that way and has an impact on his own official church that way—I’m not sure that he can, but if he can, I’m sure that a lot more people will come back to the Catholic Church.

And this fits into another thing. I know from my travels that people all over the globe are hungry for spiritual guidance. They want to have spirituality in their lives. And the churches are emptying, as we were talking about before. So if you put those two things together, it just makes sense. The church should be able to reach those people and offer them guidance. But there are several things they have to do—the first thing the Church needs to do is get over its gender problem. And not be so male-dominated—it’s so obvious that that’s a huge problem today. You really, truly have to be living in some other century not to see that. And people today don’t want to be told so much what to do and don’t want to be judged—and rightfully so. They want some guidance and encouragement and inspiration. If the Catholic Church can do all that, I can see it coming back and really thriving. But they’re going to have to change radically, and the church is going to have to go further than we are right now with Pope Francis.

You write in A Religion of One’s Own that your interior life actually became more deeply religious after you left the Servite Order.

I can’t say anything negative about my experience in the religious order. I thought it was fantastic and it still influences me; in a way I still have a monastic lifestyle. But then again, I came to a point in my own life and the people in this community with me did not come to the same conclusion I did, which was very individual I didn’t really decide, it just happened to me that I just couldn’t continue with it. And I left. I thought, I have to leave. In a way, and I mention this in the book, it was more religious of me to leave than to stay with that order even though it looked the opposite, because I had to find my own way to my own destiny. And I did that, I left, and I eventually found my way. [Through] getting a doctorate in religion, which was wonderful for me, I got to study the world’s religions, and I studied the arts and psychology and many things [that] gave me a very rich, broad picture of what religions could be defined more broadly and more deeply. And in an odd way, I feel that my Catholicism is still with me and deeper than it ever was. But from the outside you wouldn’t see that.

I can’t generalize for anybody else, but for me there had to be a process of moving from the outside to the inside. You’d probably be surprised by how little religion there is. On the other hand I feel more religious than ever. I’ve always wanted to make every bit of my life spiritual or religious. I didn’t want a divided life, like, here’s the secular part and there’s the religious part.

Do you feel more awake living this way?

Oh yes. Much more awake. And that’s a very important thing, being awake. So yes, I feel more awake and I feel that all my studies in the various religions of the world have had a deep effect on me. So I don’t feel that I’m guilty of the cafeteria approach, where you dabble in the various religions. I didn’t dabble. I really was affected by certain teachings in many different spiritual traditions. And it didn’t tell me I shouldn’t be Catholic or it wasn’t only looking at one religion, like that religion is in competition with other religions, it wasn’t that at all. It’s that one religion can deepen the other. One can give you a perspective and can help you better understand some of the aspects of the religion you’re familiar with. I really feel that my entire religious life has been deepened by that experience. I continue to study and my writing is a form of study. I do a lot of reading and research in preparation for writing my books. I read Latin and Green and I translate; I look very closely at the words in the traditions. That kind of study, I think, is part of a spiritual practice. I try to put all that into books that people can read. That’s not easy to do, but I try. I feel that my calling in life is to write for a large audience of people, and yet I do all this work in preparation that is pretty technical and I can’t put that into the book, so I try to use language that people can follow. And yet behind that language there is a great deal of study.

What can people expect at the talk and retreat you’ll be giving at Garrison Institute?

What I want to do is be with people. It’s on April Fool’s Day which is a day I really love. I’ve given many retreats and lectures on how important it is to be foolish, to be in touch with your own foolishness. So I love the time of April Fool’s Day—it’s a very good time to be playful and get serious at the same time. The way I’m seeing this retreat is, we have an opportunity to come together and I think [we] really have [a] sense of community, because I think we will be serious but not so heavy in what we do. And we’ll be somewhat playful. But playful in a way that can be witty with ideas and with language and with the arts and to come together that way on a retreat that is really for the soul, because the soul works mainly from imagination, not from mind. The mind is something else. [The] soul really is affected by imagination, and dreams are really an example of that. In modern times we don’t use the word "imagination" with much weight. We think it’s frivolous, but I don’t. I think the imagination is central along with the arts and language and so I rarely have a chance to get together without such a tight focus where I can’t just talk about what it means to have a soulful life. That’s what this retreat will be—discovering together for each individual what it would mean to have a soulful life with others, and to appreciate the arts either in actually making art or making festivals. All of this is ritual work, birthday parties at home or whatever it is. To be on board to have ritual in life, that’s part of one’s own religion as well, and so I think it will be a great opportunity to explore the heart of all my work. It’s not going to be focused on one book or one theme, and that’s such a relief to me. We can get together—I’ve done this before many times when I give talks, I walk onto a stage and I purposefully have my mind empty so that I can be there fully present to talk to people. I’ve done my homework. I’ve got plenty to say. I could be there for hours, that’s no problem. But that’s how I’m looking at this retreat: I’ve been preparing for it for years and years, and I’m going to go, and it’s going to be very very rich.

So you’ll be open to what people need.

I always want to know where people are coming from; it affects what I do and what I talk about. But on the other hand, I have a lot to offer and give to people, and I think I know what some of their concerns are. I’m also a psychotherapist and I can talk with a lot of depth.

And I have a lot of that soul work that I’d like to be able to present to people so that they can be inspired toward their own creative work, but also discover ways of dealing with some of the problems they run into. We all run into problems in relationships, depressions, problems with the past, families, and sexual issues—all of these things can come up because they’re all measures of the soul. And if we can deal with them, then we’re free to have happier lives and be more creative. That’s the goal of this retreat in my mind.

Things are happening in our society that are changing us. We can’t have all this new technology and new ways of communicating and working without having big changes in our identity and who we are, and how we feel about ourselves. That’s affecting our spirituality and our practice of religion. I think this is a time when we can approach the formal religions and our institutions and organizations differently than we have in the past. In the past we’d go to a religion and say, “That appeals to me” or “that doesn’t appeal,” and we’d ask “Can I join this religion or not?” But we don’t have to do that anymore. We no longer have to become a member—in fact, it might be better not to become a member, but rather to take as much as you can through familiarity with that religious tradition. I’ll put it quickly and simply: I have been studying Zen Buddhism I guess for nearly 25 years, and Zen has been a very important influence on me and how I feel about my life daily, and my sense of religion has been affected by it. Now, I can say the same thing about Ancient Greek religions and how profoundly they've affected me. Native American religions have affected me a lot. So I think we have to approach the religions differently today and see what they are, and [after] exploring them seriously and giving them some time we will be affected by them. That’s a very different way of approaching it, and I think that’s the first way to develop your own religion. So A Religion of One’s Own really is about developing your own ideas and your own practices that are analogous to a form of religion, but they are now your own.

I’d like to keep that notion of the formal religion at the forefront all the time. That’s not what we’re doing, this is not a vague spirituality—it’s a religion of one’s own—founded on a certain collection of ideas and theological ideas on how the world is, and how to live, and also some practices that may be borrowed directly from one of the world’s religions like a form of meditation. And other practices that may be your own. We can have our own religion that we learn how to make from the religious traditions, so that means [religions] are more important than they were in the past, not less important. My book is more in favor of religion, and certainly not a critique of religions.

What do you say to people who say they are “spiritual but not religious”?

When I hear that, most of the time people are saying: I want a spiritual life that is mine that is really relevant to me, that I’m really engaged in, that makes sense, [and] that’s really important to me. I don’t want religion the way it’s always been, with all the authoritative leaders, lists of things to believe and not to believe, and things to do and not to do. I don’t want that. I don’t want the big organization. I want a spiritual life that I am really engaged in. So when I talk about religion, I don’t think that statement would apply about wanting spirituality but not religion. I think you can have both.

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