The Piety Test

I’ve got a test I use on so-called religious people. I ask them what it feels like to pray. It’s not meant as a trick question or a joke. It’s simply a way for me to gauge their… what’s the right word? Their authenticity.

You see, many religious people fail the test by pretending to be religious. That is to say, that they feign being immune to the struggles of regular people. So, for example, when I ask a religious person about the nature of his prayers and he says something like,

“I don’t know about you, but no matter what I’ve got going on in my life I never fail to connect fully with God and get close to Him. I am always happy and confident because I’m having an intimate conversation with the Creator of heaven and Earth on a daily basis…”

I know I’m dealing with a salesman of sorts, someone who is marketing the practice of an observant lifestyle, as opposed to living it. Here’s how I know. Except for the Lamed Vavniks —those legendary thirty-six entirely holy people who are said to inhabit the Earth at any given time and who, through their unending, unerring acts of selflessness and piety, the world continues to exist —you will only find regular people. The problem with religion is that we’ve have come to believe that there are actually “religious” people.

To clarify: Being religious isn’t a state that’s somehow achieved or some threshold that’s crossed. No one finds his or herself transformed into an entirely different species through religious practice. At best, we are religious for moments at a time. And then, when we (invariably) allow certain negative thoughts to intrude, we slide back into being non-religious. This goes on moment-to-moment, minute-by-minute, throughout the whole of our lives. It is a condition of change and flux, similar in some sense to the movement of water. It’s as if each new impulse were carried by the current of our subconscious and washed up on the shore of our conscious minds as our latest challenge. The question in any particular instant therefore is: will we rise to the apex of our selflessness, or sink to the nadir of our baser selves?

A wise Rabbi once told me on the eve of my marriage to my wife of nearly thirty-years that if my own religious observance has not made me more willing to compromise, more alert to being kind, and more humble in the face of affronts to my dignity, than it has done very little for myself and for the world. And as for those of us who are dutiful practitioners of religious ritual, we know this pattern all too well. Paradoxically, it is we who are the most susceptible to a kind of condescension, of a sort of elitism, which comes from our commitment to those very religious rituals. In our hubris, we often feel that we should be something more than what we actually are —fallible human beings. Being religious is a willingness to struggle with ourselves. To me that struggle sounds something like this:

“As for feeling connected with God, I will be honest with you. A sense of true personal connection has happened so few times that it feels like it’s almost beside the point to speak about them. I may have learned some things along my path, but you should know I struggle every day. I fight with my desires, with my ego, and with my need to be respected and loved. This animal part of me, this baser part, isn’t something I’ve ever tamed and dealing with it remains a lifelong battle. The one thing that gives me a modicum hope is that each time I fall I pick myself up and continue down a path that I believe God derives great joy from, especially when He finds me striving to stay on it. I look for the strength to accept that being religious is more about resilience than it is about perfection.”

As the great poet Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It isn’t the task of the religious to sell religion, it is to ­bring joy and hope to oneself and to the world.