Part of why we started visiting the places that ultimately would end up on this blog, was to experience first hand the sacred places that spiritual beliefs go to grow and be honored. The initial goal was to just visit the physical places themselves and learn all we could; but along the way we’ve encountered a number of people who’s dedication to their beliefs has kept us wondering more than just about the physical sanctuary. There have been a few places in the course of the blog that we’ve discussed the importance of the personal connections we’ve had and we wanted to find a way to explore those in addition to the places we’ve been. This post will be the first in a scattered series of interviews with a few of those people.
After visiting Christ Church Unity for a service and visiting with Reverend Eleanor Celentani and seeing what a unique set of principles guides the church, we wanted to know more. After emailing back and forth a bit, I asked her to answer a few questions. We’re grateful for the chance to have crossed paths with her, and even more grateful that she was open to the idea of being the first person to be featured on the blog in this way. Reverend Celentani’s answers are an exploration in to her personal sanctuary, and we’re honored that she’s agreed to bare her personal thoughts here with us and our readers.
Bio: Rev. Eleanor Celentani has been minister of Christ Church Unity in Rochester since 2005. Before that she was spiritual leader of another New Thought community called Pathfinders Fellowship for fifteen years. Raised in Catholicism, she was a member of a religious order of women for nine years. Before her career in ministry she was a high school English teacher and also worked in local government and adult education.
ETBOD: How do you define God?
Reverend Eleanor Celentani: We cannot really define God, since the human mind cannot comprehend that which is limitless. My sense of God is that God is Spirit, and thus beyond materiality, space and time. God is the Infinite Goodness, Infinite Love and Wisdom which is the Source of all that is in the material and non-material planes. God is Consciousness itself, Life itself, and the All-Knowing Presence which both contains and interpenetrates all things. God is the One Reality which is unchangeable. This is the transcendent aspect of God.
At the same time I can personally experience God in those moments when my consciousness is uplifted to a higher awareness. I can feel that Presence within me in prayer or meditation, and I can observe it in the unfoldment of events which lead toward Good which is beyond my conscious control. I can experience God’s Presence as the guidance which is given to me in the present moment when, humanly speaking, I am facing something beyond my ability to know. God’s Presence within is also the source of healing for the trials of the human condition. This is the immanent aspect. This is available to anyone who sincerely desires it.
ETBOD: How do you define evil?
Reverend Eleanor Celentani: I see evil as the absence of Good, or ignorance of Good, or the place where our human woundedness is unable to see or accept the infinite Lovingness of the Creator. Evil does not have any lasting power. In our tradition we say that evil is not a power; God is the only Power and God is Good. Unity’s teaching on this is quite radical, and something that I am still growing into realization of: that there is no power to oppose God. In this sense, Unity is different from other religions which are based on the idea of a war going on between good and evil. My perception is that the advanced thinkers and spiritually evolved beings in many religions all arrive at this knowing: God is all there is. They overcome the dualistic thinking which is endemic to human conditioning.
ETBOD: What’s the purpose of religion?
Reverend Eleanor Celentani: The word “religion” comes from the word ‘religio” which meant “binding together.” Originally it meant something that kept human beings and God connected, bound together in a good sense. Of course religion can also bind people to one another. Connectedness with other people is something which most people want.
I see the purpose of religion as offering a vehicle for teaching spiritual Truth, and offering a pathway to allow people to express their internal beliefs and devotional feelings in an external, material way. It is a vehicle for expressing the intangible in the tangible. True religion becomes a way of life; it affects the way you live your life in all aspects because it becomes part of who you are. True religion also feeds the human soul, as I believe that the yearning for something beyond the material is built into us and people are seeking to satisfy that need. People also enjoy being with like-minded people in the celebration of what they experience as Good. Religious gatherings make that possible.
Since people are on all different levels of consciousness, different religions appeal to different people. The founders of different religions had their own experience of God, and their spiritual traditions attract the people on their wavelength. Having many religions is a good thing, we just need to live together in harmony.
ETBOD: What’s challenged your faith the most?
Reverend Eleanor Celentani: I don’t really doubt God or the truth of the teachings I have received. I do feel discouraged sometimes by my own lack of ability to fully demonstrate the Truth I say I believe in; my inability to bring through healings by prayer as the luminaries of New Thought were able to do [this error is called attachment to results]; the aspects of myself which have not yet been healed. On the broader scale I am discouraged sometimes by humanity’s unwillingness to surrender ego, fear and greed and seek the common good.
ETBOD: Why are more and more people leaving organized religion now than they every have before?
Reverend Eleanor Celentani: I am not really sure if the assertion of this question is true, but assuming that people are leaving organized religion, I think there are several reasons.
People I talk to who are opposed to organized religion most often mention that their reason is something to do with social teaching, not theological tenets. They see religious bodies take positions on social issues, e.g. opposition to gay marriage or the ordination of women, and they see this as proof that religious people use religion to justify hurtful treatment of others. They then make the leap to the position that all religion is bad and should be avoided. Past and present religious wars do not help in this regard. It is true that religion has been used to justify abhorrent behavior and people have been unconscious enough to allow that and participate in it.
A related problem is that people see a lot of hurt in the world, and they think that if there were a God, God would prevent it. They see God as being like an all-powerful parent who has control of what people choose to do. This position is, I think, based on faulty assumptions. We do not understand who we really are; we are basing so much on appearances. Jesus specifically counseled not to do that.
As our population has become more and more diverse, our culture has become more and more secularized because we don’t have any successful models of expressing the spiritual aspect of our human nature in our public life. Since we don’t know how to express spirituality inclusively, we have had more voices pushing spirituality out of public life. Since we cannot endorse any one religion, we push all religion to the fringes. Unfortunately this leaves people with the feeling that spirituality is not important.
The pace of modern life is fast and the demands on people are many. Speaking as a Christian, I note that many times Sunday is the only day working people have off, and they are too exhausted to attend church, not to mention doing all the other tasks they need to do. When I drive to church on Sunday morning I often see people jogging, walking their dogs, or gardening. I guess for some people this is the relaxation they need and want. Unfortunately people do not realize that a nourishing spiritual experience would give them more fuel for the week.
A few years ago social commentators were talking about the phenomenon of “cocooning.” This was the idea that people want to have a mental and physical rest from all the demands on them and just stay home in their cocoon. Added to this is the ever-present media, where people may access inspirational programs on the internet and TV, and listen to meditations they download. This leads to the attitude that “I can get what I want online, I don’t need to be with people in a religious/spiritual setting.” These technical tools can be helpful, but they are also isolating.
Our culture in the United States, at least as seen through the media, seems to be extremely focused on making money and having things and experiences which money can buy. People are defined by their lifestyle, incomes, job titles, etc. How much power and prestige someone has is news; the general population seems to be mesmerized by celebrities and sports figures. All this materialism and glitz is contrary to looking within and finding God there.
The perceived failures and sins of churches and religious groups are probably the greatest reason why people avoid religion now. What people perceive as too much focus on rules, hypocrisy, and other moral failings of religious people have turned many people into skeptics about there being anything valuable or true in religion.
Bad experiences in the past have made people close-minded in the present. My personal opinion is that in the past many people were not taught the deep Truths of their religions, they were just taught the outer forms, so they do not have any deep roots to hold on to.
In my more enlightened moments I see all this as a necessary step in the spiritual evolution of humanity. It is necessary to give up lesser forms and lesser levels of development in order to receive the greater. This often requires a time of emptiness, forming a vacuum which will ultimately be filled with new Good. Some spiritual teachers call it the stirring of “divine discontent.” This reminds me of something Jesus said, “You are being pruned now for greater fruitfulness.” [Gospel of John 15:1-2]
Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts. This is just a snapshot of where I am today. As I grow my views may change. Blessings to you for opening up this place where people may consider these questions and let their own consciousness unfold.
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com