A Rev. Bill Commentary: Those tricky words: “Spiritual” and “Spirituality”

About 17 years ago I was attending a worship committee meeting at a UU congregation.  I made the remark that I thought we needed to ensure that all our services, whether they were primarily about social justice, or history, or a congregational finance, needed to include a spiritual context.  I was immediately challenged by a rather senior member of the congregation, one I knew to be an outspoken advocate of rather hard-line humanist beliefs. “When you use terms like ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’, he said, I haven’t a clue what you are talking about.  Please edify me.”

I expect I was tongue-tied into some lame response such as “I know it when I see it.”  I have had 17 years to think it through and it is still not easy to articulate.  That’s because at its basic level it is incorporeal, it can’t be weighed or measured or photographed.  What does that encompass?   To the extent it conjures up supernatural beings such as fairies, sprites, angels, demons, gods, or their claimed manifestations, I would agree with my friend.  But there is much more to the spiritual realm.   I see it as the vital principle that animates the physical, including the human body.  It’s also the non-material expressions of that animation such as music, art, poetry, ethics, values, and the emotions that are stirred in us such as wonder, awe, gratitude, love, compassion.  Aha, I think I am getting closer to what I feel should be alive in our worship services.

There are several other dimensions of spirituality that are helpful.

First, it has something to do with desire; to be and do something other than couch-potato nothingness.  It is the eros inside of us and how we handle the pain and the hope it brings to us.  Two persons in my lifetime that were filled with that spiritual eros were Mother Teresa and Janis Joplin.  One shaped it into amazingly constructive ways and the other let it consume her.

A second dimension of spirituality has to do with relationship, the heart’s longing to be connected to the largeness of life; the mystical oneness which makes us our neighbor’s keeper.  That brings me to a favorite definition.  It’s by Richard S. Gilbert:

Spirituality is overcoming our narcissism, our preoccupation with a nonstop celebration of self…. The deeper we delve into the innermost recesses of our soul the more intensely we identify with other human beings, the more we see our common humanity.

That, my friends, is worthy of working upon.

Rev. Bill