The other day I was browsing through some of the articles I have posted on this blog over the past few years and I noticed how often I use the word “spirituality” in so much of my writing. As I think about it, that word has become very popular nowadays, an often-used “hashtag” in many social media venues. A a matter of fact, in an era where more and more people are turning away from affiliating with an institutional religion, the word “spiritual” is becoming far more acceptable than the word, “religious” as many people refer to themselves as “spiritual but not religious”.
I often wonder what people mean when they talk about “spirituality” and what they mean when they identify themselves as “spiritual?” My guess is that, for many people, their “spirituality” is some deep inner space – private, intimate, comforting, comfortable, known only to themselves in the silence of the heart. The problem is that I don’t actually think this is what “spirituality” actually means.
In his book, Jesus and Buddha, Paul Knitter (a contemporary theologian who calls himself a “Buddhist Christian”) offers this simple and yet wonderfully articulate definition:
Spirituality is what one does to stay connected.
For both Buddha and Jesus, if we are not connected,
if we are not in some way extended beyond our self-awareness,
we’re going to have a hard time putting our lives together.
Moving beyond our own limited, individual sense of self
was both for Buddha and Jesus essential to the process of what
Buddha called waking up and what Jesus termed conversion.
I find much wisdom in this understanding of the “spiritual” life. After all, a spiritual journey is supposed to lead us into “transcendence.” The purpose of the journey is to help connect us to the “bigger picture” beyond our own isolated self. Any “spiritual” practice that only leads us inward into our own privatized space is by definition “not-spiritual”
As I see it, this understanding of spirituality as what one does to stay connected can also serve as a very helpful guideline to gauge the authenticity of anything that we may label as “spiritual.”
Religious people can be very isolated and judgmental. They sometimes use their “religiosity” as a “righteous wedge” to drive between themselves and those who do not believe as they do or who follow a different path to the truth. They want little or nothing to do with others outside their small circle of belonging. I’d say that this is an example of religious folks who have probably “missed the boat” when it comes to authentic “spirituality”
On the other hand, I also know plenty of religious people who go to church and feel very connected to those who sit beside them and they are very hospitable to differing beliefs and different paths to truth. They commit their lives to serve the needs of others and are intimately connected to the world of nature – this is a perfect example of “religion” that is “spiritual.”
As I think about it, when it comes to those folks who have abandoned religion on behalf of “spirituality,” I sometimes wonder if they are as “spiritual” as they profess themselves to be? Many avoid associating with others in a church, temple or mosque choosing instead to sit alone in a quiet place to meditate and they see their spiritual path as a road of self discovery, sometimes as a means for reducing personal stress.
It seems to me that the enduring mark of all authentic spirituality is “being connected.” Spiritual people are always engaged in establishing connections. All religious or spiritual beliefs and practices have one primary goal: to help people get connected and to stay connected – connected to a transcendence that is beyond our own isolated selves, connected to others and committed to serving the needs of others, connected to a world of nature, connected to a cosmos in which everything and everyone all belong together,.
I think of a line from a poem by Rainer Marie Rilke. It is yet another wonderful articulation of what authentic “spirituality” is all about:
To see everything and ourselves in everything
healed and whole
In these troubled times when everyday life seems so chaotic and unraveled, an authentic spirituality may indeed be our only hope for the future of humanity.