On Sunday, August 28, 2022 Rev. Tony Ponticello gave a talk for the Community Miracles Center's Sunday Gathering. A lightly edited transcription of the talk is presented here.
Hello everybody. Thank you all for being here. The title of my talk today is "Hiding in the Spiritual / Religious Closet." "Being in the closet" is a term that is usually applied to the gay community. The actual definition I found for it was, "a term used to describe a homosexual person who has not told anybody of his or her sexual orientation." I would probably qualify that. They haven't told key people, or they haven't told those people who you might want to tell in your life, people who you feel close to. Or maybe you haven't told your place of employment. You're just not "out," as they say. You're not out of the closet. You are not out.
Getting out of the closet, for a gay person, is usually a process. There isn't just one big declaration usually. I remember when I came out as a bisexual person. I told my mother. She took it very well. I told my sister, Sara, who did not take it as well as my mother, but she eventually did. So it's a process. Then I was pretty public about it. I'm still very public about being a bisexual person, but coming out of the closet is a continual process. You need to continually come out, as they say.
What I've noticed over the years though, is that there is another closet. It's the spiritual closet, or maybe the religious closet. Some people are fine about calling themselves spiritual, but they're not so great about calling themselves religious. I've got a great graphic for this. I'm going to share it. (Rev. Tony does a screen share with the picture that you see here in *Miracles Monthly*.)
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This is the graphic that's on our Sunday program. It's literally somebody in the closet, scared, and today I want to talk about that. How much of that is what is going on with all of us? Even if you don't believe this is going on with you, I think coming out of the closet as a spiritual / religious person is a continual process as well. There is a continual, I believe, challenge to be out and open about your spirituality, or maybe your religious convictions.
This came up for me this week, when I got a communication from one of our students. This is a new student taking a class with us. When this student joined the class, they paid for the class with two different credit cards. They paid part of the fee with one card, part of the fee with another card.
About 2 weeks later this person emailed me, and I could tell that the person was upset. This person said — it was a woman — that I had to immediately ... please would I refund the money charged on the one card, because her husband saw it and her husband did not approve. She was going to have to tell her husband that this was some kind of mistake and she got the business to reverse the charge. Then she would find some other way to pay us, but please do it quickly because her husband was very upset. So of course I did, and that was what it was. She was very grateful that I did that.
However I thought about this, taking a class, a simple class, in a spiritual program and not being able to be open about it, not being able to tell key people in your life — like your husband — having to hide it. And I wish I could say that this is a rare experience, but I've actually had it many times, even recently, when people have some issue about how they pay for a class, because they don't want key people to know. There's also people who can't take the Zoom class in their home because then other people would find out. So they have to go to a public place like a library or a cafe to take the class. There's all these issues with some people.
Sometimes people have alternative emails. They tell me to communicate with them only through the alternative email because their main email is shared and key people will see it. Some people want to make sure I'm not going to send them anything through the regular postal mail, because other people pick up the mail and that would create a problem for them. I think about this and wonder why is this so? Why is it a problem to be spiritual? Why is it a problem to be religious? Is it truly a problem to be religious? I thought about the Bible story that he have about the apostle Peter. Peter, in the clench when the apostle Peter could have declared he actually was a follower of Jesus, he denied Jesus three times — because he was afraid. Here was a person truly of strong conviction that had been totally submerged in the teaching and life of Jesus for years then, but yet, fear got the best of him. He chose to be in the closet at that time, like that picture — scared, in the closet.
I love the story of the apostle Peter, because it's actually something that is mentioned in A Course in Miracles itself. Jesus mentions it. It was in the reading that was read a little while ago. "Peter swore he would never deny me, but he did so three times." (OrEd.Tx.6.11) That's what I'm challenging people today to think about for themselves. Maybe you believe you would never deny that you're a spiritual person, or maybe a religious person. Yet in the clench, if you think you're going to be judged for it, or even worse, you're going to have some kind of discrimination because of it, a lot of people deny it.
There's a term that has emerged. It's been around for a couple decades now. I've talked about it before. It's the label "Spiritual But Not Religious. It can be abbreviated SBNR. Sometimes on forms, when they ask you what your religion is, they give you an option that you can check Spiritual But Not Religious. When I first was exposed to Spiritual But Not Religious, I thought it was a good thing. It meant that people were spiritual, but I have shifted over the years. I actually think it's just part of this war on religion that has been waging for many, many years. Decades, really. It's just part of trying to make religion "bad" in some way, shape, or form. Our society, the ego reflected in society, is trying to make religion bad. It's truly a war on religion that's going on.
Society makes it okay for you to be spiritual, but God forbid it should be organized in any way into some sort of authority structure, because then that authority structure challenges the authority of government — so government is usually in a covert war with religion. We don't have to look very far to see how this operated. Two plus years ago, when we had the shelter-in-place happening because of the COVID pandemic, churches were deemed as non-essential businesses, so churches were shut down. Considering that churches probably could have socially distanced and masked the attendees way better than big box stores, it doesn't really make a lot of sense. People, even by the public health standards, could have been pretty safe in a church.
Yet churches weren't essential businesses, but marijuana dispensaries were essential businesses. They were allowed to stay open. Liquor stores were essential businesses. They were allowed to stay open, but churches, "No." Churches were non-essential. That's just one of the things. As I've mentioned before, I've had many discussions with friends in the church business and with A Course in Miracles author and teacher Jon Mundy in particular. He talks about all the churches that have gone out of business during the past two plus years. Small churches that have gone out of business during the whole COVID pandemic. Actually, it's a miracle the Community Miracles Center is still here, still going strong, and planning to start in-person services again. I'm really grateful and blessed. It's through the grace of God and through guidance that this is happening, because the whole COVID pandemic was not good for churches.
Why does religion get such a bad name? People define religion in all kinds of ways, but religion is a very simple thing. I always like to go to the dictionary definition. The dictionary definition of religion is, "the belief in, and worship of, a supernatural controlling power, especially a personal God or Gods." Excuse me. Okay, so that's all religion is. It's the study, the worship, the belief in a superhuman — above the human — experience of a divinity. I don't really see what's so negative about all of that. Of course people usually, when they're down on religion, they're down on organized religion. Organized religion gets a real bad rap.
There have been terrible atrocities by organized religion. Society likes to focus on those atrocities, but society rarely focuses on the many wonderful things that religion and church have done throughout history. How about preserving the written word all through the dark ages? Has anybody ever said "Thank you" to church and to religion for training some of it's priests and monks to read and write, and then giving them the function of transcribing text and rewriting manuscripts so that the written word would be preserved for all those centuries? That was a great service that churches provided. I want to say thank you. "Thank you, church." "Thank you, religion for preserving the written word through the dark ages." That was a very good thing.
Community Miracles Center is an organized church. We have all the paperwork and done all the legal stuff. We're recognized. We're officially recognized by the State of California and the United States federal government. We're a church, and we're an A Course in Miracles church. I certainly consider A Course in Miracles to be my religion. I don't have any problem about that. When Marianne Williamson was running for president a couple years ago, everybody in the A Course in Miracles community was a buzz about that. Some people liked it. Some people didn't like it, but I thought it was quite interesting. She certainly did get A Course in Miracles mentioned. Yet, I also was a little disappointed when she was quizzed on some of her TV appearances about A Course of Miracles and her involvement with the Course, because I think she was trying to put it back in the closet a little bit.
She would always say, or she said several times, "Well, A Course of Miracles is not a religion." She would say, "There's no dogma. It's just talking about universal spiritual truths." Now, when I think about universal spiritual truths, I think of things like, "love is real" and "light is eternal." Those are universal spiritual truths. You don't need 1,200 pages to talk about universal spiritual truths. A Course of Miracles is a very particular spiritual discipline with a very particular teaching. And to say there's no dogma in A Course in Miracles .... I'm sure she knows what the word "dogma" means, but let's look at the dictionary definition of dogma. "Dogma, a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true." A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. That's A Course in Miracles.
Jesus, Holy Spirit, the Voice for God, is giving us many principles here that it tells us are true — absolutely true. True for everybody, incontrovertibly true. In A Course in Miracles, there's a little section called The Laws of Chaos. The very first law of chaos says, "The first chaotic law is that the truth is different for everyone. Like all these principles, this one maintains that each is separate and has a different set of thoughts which sets him off from others." (OrEd.Tx.23.20) It's saying that is not true. Truth isn't different for everyone. That's actually what chaos is founded on.
Chaos is founded on the idea that there are no incontrovertibly true ideas. A Course in Miracles definitely has dogma. It's telling us that there are absolute true things — incontrovertibly true. Then it teaches those things. To say A Course in Miracles doesn't have dogma, I think it's very misleading. Again, I was happy that Marianne Williamson was bringing attention to A Course in Miracles, but I wasn't particularly happy that in moments when she could have given witness to what A Course in Miracles was, I think she was at the affect of her own Internalized Spiritual Phobia. That's a term I coined a couple of decades ago when I talked about this. That was 20 some years ago.
It's this fear of being out of the spiritual / religious closet. Somehow religion's bad. You've got to distance yourself a little bit from it. You can't just say that your religion is A Course in Miracles, that it has a teaching you adhere to and you follow its principles. You have to soft pedal it somehow, and I wonder why. The word "incontrovertible" means "not able to be denied or disputed." A Course in Miracles has all kinds of principles that are incontrovertible. They're not able to be denied or disputed. Look at that in your own lives. Where is your Internalized Spiritual Phobia manifesting? Obviously, it got the apostle Peter. When I heard Ms. Williamson say those things, I knew she was going to lose. I truly knew she was going to lose.
I thought about the apostle Peter and the three times he denied that he knew Jesus. Marianne Williamson has been teaching A Course in Miracles for decades, and yet she's publicly denying what it really is. I thought Holy Spirit was using her to get the message out there. She got it out there somewhat. I publicly thanked her for that, but I think it was also a missed opportunity. I listen to a lot of things. I expose my mind and my consciousness to a lot of things. I was listening to a political commentator. His name is Dr. Sebastian Gorka. He said this, "If you are not prepared to put your face and your name to those values, you do not represent those values." We have to really be willing to be out of the closet, to clearly state things, to put our name, our face, and our identity in back of things.
If we don't, we don't really believe them. We can't actually be a spokesperson for them. We can't truly expect them to have this wonderful, positive effect in our lives. If we're not truly willing to declare that A Course in Miracles is our spiritual path, and it's a specific teaching that we embrace. "Yes," it has certain principles and sometimes they're challenging, but I do my best. If we're not willing to declare things like that publicly in those opportunities, when we get to declare them, is it any wonder why we sometimes feel that this discipline isn't working the way that we would hope it would work?
Maybe it depends on the different experiences that people had as a child. I didn't have a negative experience of church as a child. I had a fairly positive experience of church. My family was Roman Catholic — Italian, good Italian Catholic family. Every Sunday, we took a bath — it's Sunday morning so we put on our best clothes. We combed our hair. We got well groomed, and we went to church. There were all these other well groomed people there, and it was a big thing. Everybody put on their Sunday best. Everybody put their best foot forward and showed up in their best presentation. My mother loved to get dressed up. She always got dressed up and had special outfits for Sunday. She always wore some fancy hat. The hat went with the outfit. My mother used to work at a cosmetic department in a drugstore, so I've always had access to men's colognes, because she used to bring me home little testers of men's colognes. Even as an adolescent, I would put on a little cologne.
Going to church was a fun thing. It was fun to get dressed up, go to church. The Community Miracles Center used to meet in person. There was a little bit of that getting dressed up, though people downplayed it, but look at what we got going on here now on Zoom. Get dressed up?! Why?! It's just a Zoom meeting. We're lucky if people are dressed at all. The dress code for being on Zoom is, "Don't be naked." That's the entirety of the dress code for being on Zoom. People, a lot of times aren't paying a whole lot of attention. They're eating, they're distracted, or they are just playing, got their cameras off. God bless you for being here. But at least at an in-person gathering people were trying to look at you when you spoke, make eye contact, and pay attention. Sometimes people fell asleep, I forgave them. But this Zoom experience is what church has become now. It leave a lot to be desired.
And — we're getting ready to start in-person gatherings again, which we hope to do as a hybrid of in-person and Zoom at the same time. I've got to admit — I'm going to get out of this closet — I'm a little nervous about resuming in-person meetings, because we never had large in-person attendance anyway. Now people have gotten out of the habit. There's all kinds of statistics about church participation and church membership being way down, all throughout our country. It's not that great of a time for churches right now, but I'm ready, as Sebastian Gorka said, to put my face and my name there with my values. I think there's tremendous value in getting together in organized spiritual community. I'm going to repeat his quote one more time. "If you are not prepared to put your face and your name to those values, you do not represent those values." We need to put our face and our name to the ideas, values, and to the reality of what A Course the Miracles is.
A Course in Miracles is a particular teaching. If we embrace it, then we need to stand for it. We need to declare it. There's an old secular expression, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." I think that's really true. We have to stand for our spiritual principles. If we don't stand for them, we get buffeted and swayed by the world and everything that goes on there. A Course in Miracles said, and this again was in the reading, "There is no choice in this because only you can be the foundation of God's church." (OrEd.Tx.6.12) People don't want to accept that this is what A Course in Miracles says. When they read this they thought, "It's a metaphor. It doesn't really mean that we're going to be members of a church. It's a metaphor." Well, there's nothing in that statement that makes it sound like a metaphor. It sounds like an absolute statement.
How about this statement? This was also in the reading. "I must found His church on you because you who accept me as a model are literally my disciples. Disciples are followers." (OrEd.Tx.6.12) How's that for dogma? We're asked to be Jesus' disciples. We're asked to be Jesus' followers. We're asked to be the foundation for Jesus' church. That means we're going to have to stand for it. We're going to have to stand up and declare it. We're going to have to put our face and our name to those declarations, because if we're not going to put our face and our name to them, then they are meaningless. They aren't going to have the effect and the healing that they actually could have. That all sounds very religious to me, these passages from A Course in Miracles that talk about church. I don't understand how people would say that A Course in Miracles is not a religion. They're trying to make it into something that it's not. It's a prescribed spiritual program that has a particular beliefs. It is teaching us incontrovertible truths. Sounds truly religious.
I think about my own life. My first major ordination was in 1985. I became Reverend Tony in 1985 through our predecessor organization, Community Miracles Foundation. I started using the Reverend title right away, and I got a considerable amount of flack for it. But I was following my guidance. I was putting my name to my spiritual ideas. I wasn't hiding that I was involved with an A Course in Miracles church. Within a short period of time, I was able to get my official name basically changed. I got "Reverend Tony" put on my driver's license and put on my IRS documents. The "Reverend" not a title. It's now part of my name. "Reverend Tony" is my first name. I still have to tell a lot of people that all the time. Whenever I'm opening up a new bank account or something, I have to convince them that "Reverend Tony" is actually my legal name. I have to show them my California ID so they believe me. When the pandemic started two and a half years ago, when they announced that we were all going to have to shelter-in-place, that went against my spiritual principles. I had to clearly declare, "No, I will not comply with that." I am just not going to comply with that. For me, that's wrong. Other people can comply with it if they want to. I'm not going to comply with it.
It was the first time in history that we quarantined, or tried to quarantine, healthy people. When I brought that to the Holy Spirit and asked for some guidance about that, the guidance I got was put on a priest collar. "Put on the collar." That would help me in many ways, and in ways that I didn't even realize. That would just help me confront this thing in society that I didn't accept. "I will not comply." I was going to be a conscientious objector to it on religious grounds, on religious grounds that my spiritual guidance and my direct communication with Holy Spirit told me not to. If somebody wanted to argue with Reverend Tony about that, well okay, go ahead. Let's have the argument. Let's have the discussion.
Wearing the collar now for the past two and a half years has been truly interesting because, and what I want to tell people about it is, people like it. People really like me showing up with a collar. People come up and talk to me, people smile, people are nicer, people remember you. When you go to restaurants, they tend to remember you more. Of course, maybe they remember me because I'm a really big tipper, but they remember you. So whatever fear people have about not being in the spiritual / religious closet, let me tell you, it's vaporous. The more I've come out of the closet, the nicer life is, and the nicer people are to me.
I've now gone back East a couple times and I'm going back East again in a couple of days. I'll see my sister, Sara. I'm going back with Rev. Dusa Althea this time, and I wear my collar to the little family reunions that we have, and my high school reunions. I have gotten no negativity at all about it. Nobody is rejecting me or judging me because I've got a priest collar on. They like it. They literally like it. They come up and talk to me, and they don't talk to me about my religious, spiritual beliefs. There's just a sense of warmth, and openness, and friendliness, and love maybe, that it communicates to people that I encounter.
So get out of the closet. Get out of the spiritual / religious closet. Stand for your religion. Declare your religion. Don't downplay it. Don't hide it. There's no reason to hide. If you stand for it, then you won't have to fall for everything else.
Okay. That's my talk today. Thank you very much. ♥
Rev. Tony Ponticello is CMC's 20 minister. He currently (01.23.23) serves on the CMC's Executive Minister and is President of CMC's Board of Directors. He was ordained by the CMC on Oct. 17, 1997.
Rev. Tony Ponticello c/o Community Miracles Center
San Francisco, CA 94147
This article appeared in the September 2022 (Vol. 36 No. 7) issue of Miracles Monthly. Miracles Monthly is published by Community Miracles Center in San Francisco, CA. CMC is supported solely by people just like you who: become CMC Supporting Members, Give Donations and Purchase Books and Products through us.