What is your understanding of spirituality? This is a fundamental question for someone in chaplaincy, don’t you think? But I find I can’t easily answer it. One image comes to mind is from the movie Major League, where a baseball player, who can’t hit a curve ball to save his life, is praying to his personal god, Jobu, at a shrine he has set up in his locker. I think chickens and snakes were involved.
It’s not at all uncommon for people to associate spirituality with religious ritual and with asking the gods for favors. But there is a meaning to spirituality that transcends religion. Religion is a human construct that develops in response to wonder and awe, to questions about the origin and significance of life and the relationship of a certain group or nation to the source of all life and the controller of all destiny. It grew into different variations dependent on the culture and the specific cultural wisdom-teachers who were identified as religious leaders or even gods. Spirituality comes out of, in response to, personal experience of “something else” at work in the world and in one’s life.
Religions aren’t the same and they don’t offer the same answers, regardless of attempts to gloss over the differences by some sociologists of religion. But what religions do share are the questions, because they are fundamentally universal, human questions. Religions grow out of sacred narratives, stories of where we come from as a tribe, nation, world. Stories about the power of, and control of, nature and history. Stories that respond to our fear of dying and our desire for life to make sense and to be ultimately fair.
Spirituality does not necessarily grow out of religious practice. Religious practice is something we usually learn as part of our childhood ritual and tradition. More often than not we go through a period of rejection of our religious history as a part of the inevitable establishment of our Self as apart from our parents. Spirituality, on the other hand is not something passed down, not something assimilated or absorbed from our educational or home environments. Spirituality develops when we step out into the universe and experience our existential aloneness and all of a sudden the questions we answered in religion class become personal: Why am I here? Why was I born at all? What’s the point of being good, or doing good things if there is no Ultimate reality? And can we be sure there is?
If, in the midst of our existential questioning, we have an experience of personal awe and wonder. If we find ourselves touched by an incredible joy we don’t feel worthy of. If we experience beauty in the creations of artists and musicians and writers. If we are touched by the majesty and mystery of the world into which we have been lucky enough to be born. If we find ourselves alone at night in the midst of a crisis and discover a feeling that we are not – after all – alone. Then we have experienced the beginnings of a personal spirituality.
For many years spirituality and religion were inseparable for me. I would be transported by the beauty and serenity of a church, the magnificence of choral music, the tenderness of contemporary Christian rock songs, and the profound experience of personal redemption communicated through biblical readings, prayers, rituals and sacraments. But then I faced a religious crisis, and the rituals and sacraments, the music and liturgy, all lost their power to raise my spirits or heal my heart. And prayer? I didn’t know who or what to pray to any more. I had led a liturgical music group for over 25 years and now I couldn’t even sing.
So what happened? I found myself connecting in a different way to the natural world. Not to chickens and snakes – no offense to Jobu – but to trees. I had always felt an affinity to trees, their solidity, their willingness to give us shade, to provide us with fruit and even with their very substance – wood. The Giving Tree story really touched me as a teenager, but not just as an allegory – it made me love trees! This wasn’t entirely new in my life. I had always felt safe around trees and as a child the outside world had often felt safer than the inside of my own home. And later as an adult, disaffected Catholic I turned to the wisdom and support of trees once more. This was something my Druid brother could relate with and I was glad to have that connection to him. Connecting to trees helped me connect to myself, where I was in the moment; they grounded me. The Japanese have developed a contemporary practice called “forest bathing” which is simply, but profoundly, spending time immersed in the woods. Apparently there are tangible, measurable health benefits from spending time in a forest.
Connecting to trees helped me to see that my life story was part of a much bigger story; I was part of a bigger reality. The trees seemed to talk to me as the wind swept through their branches. To tell me that even when the branches didn’t move there was another presence, a life force, always there. I would watch as the wind passed from one treetop to the next, as if in conversation. And I was offered the thought that there was something more, something beyond the physical world we could appreciate with our senses; something within and also beyond what we see and experience. And it was in this something more, something beyond, that ultimate meaning lay. Trees helped give me some perspective back – all life dies; all life recycles. There is a sense of eternal life in nature, in the very way in which our world continues to recreate itself season after season, generation upon generation.
Spirituality is not about finding answers to the questions, it is about coming to accept the questions as part of the human experience, and it is about becoming grateful for being here. I believe spirituality is about connectedness, about being part of the same human community, world, universe. It is about asking the question “Why am I here” and discovering the answer is compassion: for ourselves and each other. I continue to pursue my own meaning; I have developed a practice of mindfulness and gratitude, and I attempt always to connect to other people and to the natural world with compassion. And that is what spirituality has come to mean for me.