Lessons From A Rogue Priest

I was raised Catholic in Ireland, went to Mass every Sunday growing up, did both the Communion and Confirmation dealio. I never enjoyed the church experience though, never found any of it particularly meaningful. The most vivid memory I have from religion class in secondary school was when another student asked our reserved teacher if masturbation was wrong[1. That teacher’s response on the masturbation question: He believed it was a sign of immaturity and something boys eventually grow out of. Which I guess means I still have a lot of growing up to do :-P].

I was 17 years old when I consciously decided to turn my back on religion. I remember it was Christmas Day and I was feeling miserable, battling a cold. I went to Mass anyway. The church was packed, shoulder to shoulder. The pews were jammed so close together that I couldn’t even stand straight when supposed to, instead settling for an uncomfortable half-crouch. Between that and the sickly sweat and the severe snuffles, combined with the complete lack of any warm and fuzzy religious feeling, I concluded that this God dude we were supposed to be worshiping must either have a lousy sense of humor or be entirely fictitious.

Since that day, I’ve never stepped foot in a church for a religious ceremony, save for weddings and funerals. I’ve taken brief looks at other religions in recent years, but never felt especially drawn to any of them.

I do consider myself a spiritual person though. I like to believe in a higher power, in reincarnation, in the connectedness of all things. At the same time, I don’t cling too closely to such beliefs. I don’t have unwavering faith in the unprovable, and I’m cool with the uncertainty of it all. What puts me off most religions is that they claim to have all the answers, to know the unknowable.

A priest I can believe in

Given all of the above, you can imagine my recent surprise when I stumbled across the message of an unusual priest, and felt a strong resonance. I’d been aware of Drew Jacob (aka the Rogue Priest) for several months, but I never quite knew what he was all about until I heard his interview with Greg Berg on Radio Enso[2. If you’re looking for insightful interviews with inspiring, rabble-rousing people, look no further than Radio Enso. Greg’s doing a great job over there.].

Here are a few things about Drew that sets him apart from your typical priest:

  • He’s a polytheist, meaning he worships many gods.
  • He says fuck sometimes.
  • He doesn’t have a church.
  • Later this year he’ll start walking from Minnesota to Brazil.

Below I highlight a few of the big lessons I’ve taken from Drew’s ebook, Walk Like A God.

Yay for uncertainty

Drew’s a priest who doesn’t preach. He encourages folks to think for themselves. He doesn’t try to convince or convert. He recognizes the value of uncertainty…

I’ll talk about gods and spirits and all sorts of fantastic stuff. You might not believe in those things. That’s smart.

When you let go of certainty you’re primed to seek, and that is the essence of spirituality.

“Religion should be about self-development”

Drew puts a big emphasis on working to become a better version of yourself. We can’t be of much help to others unless we help ourselves first. The better we are as individuals, the more value we can add to the world.

What most people really want is a chance to explore what’s meaningful to them. The structures a religion offers are only worthy as long as they support that… Religion shouldn’t be about belief, and it shouldn’t be about repeated routines.

Religion should be about self-development.

This path of transformation and empowerment represents the opportunity to change the world itself, to leave it a better place than it was before you, to touch lives. There is no better way to have a profound impact on the world than to discover and develop yourself.

Self-empowerment is the most altruistic path.

Take action

Methinks many religions dangerously under-emphasize the importance of getting up off your ass and taking action. Just believe and you’ll be saved, so they say. Same deal with the Law of Attraction. Apparently all you have to do is lie on your couch thinking the correct thoughts and everything you desire will magically manifest itself.

Drew’s not a big fan of this shit either…

There will never be a day when science or philosophy prove that gods exist or don’t exist. You’ll never get that certainty. So let’s not talk about faith.

Instead, here is my suggestion. Look at the world around you. Look at what you do and think every day. These are the things you know exist.

These are the things you have the power to understand and, if you desire, to change.

That’s where spirituality starts: understanding what’s in your power to change, and making it happen.

Organized religion ain’t all bad

As much as I respect the late Christopher Hitchens[3. If you’ve never heard of Hitchens, start here.], it bugged me that he never seemed to give religion any credit, at all, for anything. I do agree that religion has been the cause of a ridiculous amount of hate, discrimination and injustice in the world, and there’s a good case to be made that we’d be better off without it.

But as Drew notes here, religion also has its redeeming qualities…

I don’t want to knock church. It has its good points. Millions of people find powerful spiritual experiences by attending some kind of formal worship. I would never deny that to anyone.

Church also provides a structure and social network to accompany your spirituality. That’s valuable. It’s hard being an outsider. Churches provide social context and approval. There’s a lot to be said for that.

These benefits are real and important to many people. Religion can fill some basic human needs in a neat little package. Unfortunately, with your allegiance comes a lot of baggage. Which is why I think Alain de Bottom may be on to something with his Atheism 2.0.

Pushing your edge

Drew advocates living the Heroic Life:

To live the Heroic Life means taking action, living for high ideals, charging fearlessly into new and grand plans, building a name around your art or skill, and using your life to change the way the world works.

In the Heroic Life it’s not terribly important whether there is an afterlife, whether gods watch what I do, whether prayers are answered. Instead, I try my best to answer my own prayers. And when I die, if there is nothing more, I’ll have lived a life so exciting and worthwhile that I’ll have no regrets.

I couldn’t be more on board with this. I feel most alive when I’m taking on a big challenge, facing my fears, pushing myself to the limit.

Challenging yourself to your limit is a tool of spiritual development. It is such a strong tool that I call it a weapon of spirituality. By racing into your fears, you radically alter the landscape. Everything changes when you yourself are changing.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

Lastly, while Drew advocates living a heroic, adventurous life, he’s careful to note that such a life is not one endless sequence of blissful moments…

The sum experience of adventure is fulfilling and life-changing, but not every minute of it is fun.

My experience supports this. While I’m off living my wildest dream and traveling to new and exciting places regularly, I still have down days. I only feel like Indiana Jones maybe half the time 😛

Be sure to check out more of Drew’s writing over at Rogue Priest. Lots of good stuff on there. If you want to support his work, I recommend dropping the $12 on Walk Like A God. Tis a quick but powerful read.

What difference does this make?

A question to wrap this up: Now that you’ve read this, what change are you going to make?

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot recently, every time I finish reading a good book or article.

For years I’ve been reading books, telling myself that I should make some of the advised changes or try some of the recommended exercises, but then I just go on about my life as if I’d never read it in the first place.

What I try to do now, as per Karol Gajda, is take time to reflect after reading. I usually read books on my Kindle and go back over the highlights I’ve made once I’m finished. From those I make a short list of action steps. I ask myself: What am I going to change? How am I going to put this knowledge into practice?

In the case of Drew’s ebook that I linked above…

  • Walk just for the sake of walking. I don’t do that enough as is. I usually rush to get places. Going forward, I’ll try to leave a half hour early for appointments so I can take my time and explore, stop to talk to strangers if I feel like, pause to admire a park or a monument or whatever. And I’ll try to take a random walk every so often, with no destination in mind.
  • Spend more time in nature. For most of my trip so far I’ve been confined to big cities. Conveniently enough, an opportunity arose to visit several villages in the Romanian countryside this weekend. The timing is as perfect as it will ever be. So I’m in.

How about you? What are you going to change after reading this post, or that next book? It’s fine to decide to change nothing, but let it be a smart, conscious choice.

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23 Comments

  1. Do you never question how this beautiful world, how perfect it is… I mean look around look how complicated and amazing just the human body is, how the sun rises and sets perfectly how the seasons flow in and out one from another… do you never think that all of this just couldn’t have been possible by accident?

    1. I don’t know, and I’m fine with not knowing. I’d rather revel in uncertainty than accept some man-made, unprovable explanation for every wonderful thing in the world 🙂

  2. I’m personally on the anti-theism side of atheism at the moment, but I know that will shift once I move out of this phase of my life I’m in. I believe that people can have spiritual experiences, but to chalk it up to some paranormal being is not smart.

    I’m currently reading a lot of stuff by Colin Wright and I’m digging what he has to say. Next up on the queue is Networking Awesomely and I’m expecting that I’ll learn some actionable steps that I can take to expand my network and hopefully make some new friends. I really enjoy being challenged to do new things, especially when it can have a positive influence on life.

    Great post. Well laid out for such a verbose (in a good way) posting.

    1. Thanks, Taylor. I’m a big fan of Colin Wright as well. He was actually a big inspiration for me to quit my job and start traveling.

      In case anyone else reading isn’t familiar with Colin’s writing, check out his blog here.

  3. I met Drew in Chiang Mai and he struck me as being one of the most down to earth, sensible people I’ve ever met (aside from his plan to walk through Juarez on his trek). Did you know he also actually built a temple in Minnesota? How many people do you that have done that? Pretty cool guy.

    Changes after this post? Um, probably none. But the post was good 😉

  4. Hi there, love your posts.
    Just thought I’d say this. The religion you grew up in, whatever it might be, is a kind of language of the spiritual life of your culture. If you take a moment to study it that way, as a language or guide to the archetypal forces shaping both history and everyday occurances, you might find it more interesting. I learned this first in the story of the Jew who went to study Buddhism in Tibet – he was sent back home to study his own heritage before he could study Buddhism, and found Judaism rich. For me it was Christianity, and while I certainly don’t agree with mainstream American Christianity, I am fluent now in that discussion, and feel much more confident in my desire to study more shamanic directions. I don’t have to reject my heritage to investigate another, but instead I can use it to inform my current devotions.

    1. Thanks, Anne. That’s a great point. I do appreciate that there are some great lessons to be learned from Christianity. I guess I’m just not willing to dig through all the other stuff to get at them. At least not right now. But life is long 🙂

  5. Top post Niall. I was wondering how you were going to go about NOPROMO month but you’ve done a fine job with this first post and I’ve learned a lot more about Drew in the process.

    I first learned about his plans from LI but it’s cool to see how they’re taking shape.

  6. I like this post very much. Your points on religion are very good and more importantly very informed!
    I especially like this, “Methinks many religions dangerously under-emphasize the importance of getting up off your ass and taking action. Just believe and you’ll be saved, so they say. Apparently all you have to do is lie on your couch thinking the correct thoughts and everything you desire will magically manifest itself.” I agree with you here and am often frustrated by this approach in religion.

    However, I am also a Christian and though I don’t see God nor do I understand him, I do know he is there. I suppose that is the meaning of faith. Of course there is a lot of hypocrisy in the church, but that just means that I have many opportunities to practice not judging others. After all, I cannot see into their heart. My relationship with God is personal and the actions of others should not get in the way.

    I think it’s fantastic that you are open minded and really believe in encouraging others to become the best version of themselves! I greatly respect the person who is willing to explore versus one who simply closes their mind to anything except what they’ve already deemed as the good and holy truth. 🙂 Keep inspiring!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Imahni. You make a great point about having a personal relationship with God. I think that’s key. Religion and spirituality should be highly personal.

      1. I am a practicing Catholic, and too am sometimes frustrated by the lack of palpable spirituality that one finds in the average parish Mass. However I do remain committed to the practice of my faith because I know that there is a deeper core spirituality which exists in Christianity. The greater spiritual tradition of the Church does give me a great deal of satisfaction and peace.

        If you decide to give Christianity a second look, here are some of the authors that have changed my life. John Henry Newman, Thomas Merton (especially The Seven Story Mountain), St. Faustina Kowalska, and St. Maximilian Kolbe (a priest who gave his life up for another man in Auschwitz). You might find out that there is much depth that you may have never been exposed to because, yes unfortunately, many Christians are lazy. Your pastor and catechists might never have introduced you to anything worth getting excited about. It is all to common.

        Just some food for thought. I’ve been reading your blog for a few months and enjoy your posts.

  7. Niall,

    How about a little video on each city you’re visiting in .
    .Your personal view of the place ,people,reception you get etc
    Keep warm 🙂

    1. Thanks for the suggestion, Aleks. I doubt I’ll do anything like that though for two reasons.

      One, I rarely feel like I know a place well enough to give any real insights. Even after living in New Orleans for three years I found it very difficult to get across my impression of the place here on the blog.

      Two, I don’t share much about the places I’m visiting because I usually don’t have much interest in reading about other people’s travels, or watching videos about them. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I believe I can provide more long term value in sharing general things I learn, lessons that are applicable to anyone pretty much anywhere.

      I do like recording my videos out and about though, to give an interesting backdrop to whatever it is I’m talking about.

      And I’ll try to stay warm. Thanks 🙂

  8. I read your post a couple of days ago and had to come back and give you my opinion 🙂

    First, I have to agree with Hitchens on the fact that we would be better off without church/gods. Of course its only my personal opinion :).
    I believe that, as you wisely say, there’s something good and bad on all. I love the Ying-Yang concept.
    That being said, I thinks there’s people that need religion just as there’s people that need nicotine. I believe its a created necessity, doesn’t come natural with the human being. Created for control purposes.
    Of course there’s some good in the religion thing, but I don’t think it justifies the bad that gives back. Kinda like trying to justify Hitler and all his atrocities, because there was some good in his actions.

    And second, I used to believe that I was atheist and spiritual, but I now believe spirituality is just another way to say that we don’t understand the complicated relationships between all the things in the world and beyond it.
    So, I’m not spiritual anymore.

    I just embrace the fact that there are things that we understand, things we don’t understand yet, and things we may never understand.

    So, atheist, non-spiritual. Yet, ethical and with a bigger purpose in life. We’re unique, each one of us.

    Then again, good and bad, are just points of view.

    Cheers man!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Jorge.

      One thing that I keep in my mind about the usefulness of religion comes from one of M. Scott Peck’s books. In all his years as a psychiatrist, he found that some patients achieved a better level of mental health when they moved away from religion, while others improved when they moved towards religion. From that I tend to believe that it can be beneficial to certain people at certain times, although there may of course be other ways for them to improve, not just via religion.

      1. It all depends on what you see/find in it. If you look at religion and see rules and obligations, it will depress and disempower you. If you look at religion and see love and hope, it might help you feel loved and hopeful.

  9. i don’t know if god exists…may be, may be not…but if he is all the universe and everything that is existence, then i am happy for him, he’s in a good place 🙂
    anyway there is no hell like our own imagination, and preaches of priests and churches about what is right and what is wrong..heh…if i listen to them i for sure will be in hell, but not then, i would be now
    Niall aren’t u in heaven just because u aren’t anymore that scared kid? and because u started to do what u like?
    i for sure am, cause living every moment, even a sad one is great :)and doing what i don’t like is worse then hell for me, difference that it is here and now, so i don’t do :)u saw what i like to do , even if it will not make me rich, i am rich to be myself with no help of church or priests…still for many of us they are a beggining, but not an end

    1. I hear you, Olea. All those folks who preach and hate aren’t exactly making the most of this life. I do feel like I’m close to heaven on a day to day basis, pursuing my passions and connecting with legendary people 🙂

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