Sometimes I come across a book that explains so much, answers so many questions that I never quite formulated much less asked, that I regret that I am reading it so late in life. The book The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, lectures that the psychologist delivered "at Edinburgh in 1901-1902" is such a book. It's a synthetic work, which doesn't get bogged down in the details of individual beliefs but offers a grand overview of what we talk about when we talk about religion. Here's a favorite quotation, from the chapter on mysticism:
"Most of us can remember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young, irrational doorways as they were through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them. The words have now perhaps become mere polished surfaces for us; but lyric poetry and music are alive and significant only in proportion as they fetch these vague vistas of a life continuous with our own, beckoning and inviting, yet ever eluding our pursuit. We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept or lost this mystical susceptibility."
I think of my school hymn, "Lord, thy daughters pray thee, make us one and all, like the polished corners, of thy temple wall..." and finally understand why I disliked it so much when I learned it in middle school. I already recognized that those polished surfaces were not for me.