From a young age Tyler Blanski showed something of a precocious propensity to concern himself with questions regarding the true, good, and beautiful. Beauty, in particular, seemed to have a distinct power to drive him into serious contemplation of reality. Is there something behind the beauty? Why does beauty have such power to summon the human heart? Fittingly, right from the earliest pages of Blanski’s new book from Ignatius Press, An Immovable Feast, the reader is introduced to this Catholic convert’s long search for truth, goodness, and beauty, and the ultimate source behind them all.
I am sure An Immovable Feast will prove to be one of the great conversion stories of our “spiritual but not religious” culture—and one among many, I hope. Despite the temptation to frustration that too easily beckons us as the result of modern spiritual phenomena like the rise of the “nones” and the widespread religious indifference, there are good reasons to be joyful and optimistic. I suspect this alluring story about a young person’s pilgrimage from vague spirituality to religious abundance contains echoes of many other modern conversion stories, some that have taken place—and some that are unfolding as you read this.
Most of the great conversion stories of our age, and the generations to come, will not make it to print, and will only be heard straight from the horse’s mouth in living rooms and coffee shops; but it cannot be denied that the Holy Spirit is at work in young people’s lives everywhere. For where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Rom. 5:20). God never rests. And once in a while, it would seem, God allows real-life stories of metanoia, like that of Tyler Blanski’s, to work as instruments of grace. Thus his new book is highly relevant for us as missionaries to the religiously indifferent.
Religion is Relationship
By telling his story, Blanski is on a mission to re-introduce Catholicism to a culture that thinks religion is bunk. But religion, at least in the way Catholics have always understood it to be, is not a mere system of rules and regulations. Religion is a relationship of love, and nothing less. “Good intentions are almost never good enough, but it is difficult to imagine where sainthood would begin if it didn’t begin with the heart. Before anything else, it has to be about falling in love…Maybe this is why for the saints there is no spirituality apart from religion,” writes Blanski.
“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.” Like the younger Tyler Blanski, many today believe that religion must be separated from spirituality, skimmed off like cream from milk. But with the removal of all the richness of religion—with dogma, liturgy, and authority scraped away—all that is left is a dilution of the original thing.
Man is a spiritual creature by nature; but he is also a religious creature by nature. To seperate the two from one another is, like any attempted deviation from laws of natures, a recipe for chaos. As the Catholic convert and Trappist monk Thomas Merton observed in The Seven Story Mountain:
It is a law of man’s nature, written into his very essence, and just as much a part of him as his desire to build houses and cultivate the land and marry and have children and read books and sing songs, that he should want to stand together with other men in order to acknowledge their common dependence on God, their Father and Creator. In fact this desire is much more fundamental than any other purely physical necessity.
Thus, as Blanski wisely analogizes, to say that you are “spiritual but not religious” is like saying you love soccer but never play, or love music but never sing.
Every person wants to be saved. That is, every person wants to be happy, to achieve inner peace and the everlasting fulfillment of all their desires. But as St. Augustine famously wrote, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Welcoming God into our lives and ordering our lives according to a reality—the only reality, in fact—where God is in charge and not us, is the first step to achieving that inner serenity we all desire. God has made us for Himself; thus “in His will is our peace,” as Dante muses in the Paradiso.
The divorcing of spirituality from religion often leaves one with a spirituality steeped in individualism. With a spirituality tailored to one’s preferences and deprived of all authorities outside oneself, the “spiritual but not religious” person puts himself in charge. But this distorts the lens through which he looks out at reality, and knocks things out of order and into obscurity.
Blanski learned, thus, that “if first things are put first, second things will follow. As a twentysomething, I put second things first only to find that in doing so I lost not only the second things, but also the first things.” He would come to realize that the first thing before all others was and is God, for “in the beginning was the Word.” And he would come to understand that to know God is to know Jesus, and to know Jesus fully is to know the Catholic Church: for “Christ and his Church together make up the ‘whole Christ’” (CCC 795). Entering the Catholic Church as a faithful member, therefore, became his new first step towards a rightly ordered life.
Tyler Blanski’s An Immovable Feast is essentially the story of a man putting his life in order amidst the chaos and clamor of the contemporary culture. It is the story of discovering religion for what it really is, in all its fullness. Blanski gets it; and we all would do well to be reminded:
Religion is the kind of love that doesn’t stop at thoughts and feeling. It’s a love that takes action….Religion is a bodily as well as an emotional and spiritual union, a corporate as well as a personal relationship with Jesus and His Church.