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. It is about helping others to find and create meaning in their own lives and connecting that meaning to a sense of ultimate meaning and value.
I’ve been doing some reading and reflecting on spirituality today, specifically I have been taking an on-line module from the University of Minnesota Center for spirituality and Healing.
One of the first questions is, of course, What is your understanding of spirituality? This is a fundamental question for someone who is pursuing chaplaincy training, 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 mere religion. Religion is a human construct that developed in response to wonder and awe, to questions about the meaning and significance of life, and in response to personal experience of “something else” at work in the world and in one’s life. It grew into different variations dependent on the culture and the specific cultural wisdom teachers who were identified as spiritual leaders or even gods.
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. And that is where spirituality comes in, I think, with those questions. Spirituality is the origin or basis of all religions. It is our search for, and experience of, the ultimate meaning of our life, of human existence and of the universe.
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 wood. The Giving Tree story had really touched me years before, 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 the outside had often felt safer than the inside of my own home as a child. And now as a 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. And connecting to trees helped me to see that my life story belonged in a much bigger story. That I was part of a bigger reality. Trees helped give me some perspective back.
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. And it was in this something more, something beyond that the ultimate meaning lay. Meanwhile, I could pursue my own meaning, and practice my mindfulness, and connect to other people and the natural world with compassion. And that is what spirituality has come to mean for me.