Let’s Get Spiritual
There are two stories in the Book of Genesis about the creation of
human beings. The first story, in Chapter One, simply says that God
created the male and the female. The second story, in the second
chapter, is more specific about how the first human came into being.
In the second Genesis story of creation, no plants or creatures had
yet been made. A mist covered the face of the earth. And, the story
says, “God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed
into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living
God “formed the creature from the dust of the ground…” The
ancient writer is using the image of the potter and the clay. The
human form was shaped as the artist shapes a vessel. And there it lay
on the brown, still-infertile earth, the mist swirling up about it;
life-less, immobile, unconscious, insentient; looking, I would
imagine, very much like something out of “The
Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
Then, the story says, God “breathed into the creature’s
nostrils the breath of life…” the Hebrew word used for
“breath of life” is “ruach.” It means
“wind,” like a gust of wind or a swirling wind. The word
also means “spirit.” God breathed life into the creature by
breathing into him the breath of spirit. And, having been given
spirit, the creature became — no longer just a thing — but, the
bible story says, it became “a living soul.” The word used
for “a living soul” is “nephesh.” The word
also means, “A whole person, a complete person.”
The origin stories and the creation stories — universal and
timeless themes — are stories that respond to our curiosity about
ourselves and our world. “How did we come to be the way we
are?” “What is this mysterious, almost indefinable
awareness, this intuition we have about ourselves that we are
more than a mere biological machine made for
mere survival and reproduction? Where did we come by these yearnings,
these thoughts and visions, this music, these paintings and these
We are the creature that is aware of itself — not merely aware
of its footfalls on the forest floor, of its hunger, its fear — but
aware of its self, of its being. And so we
tell stories, like the ancient Hebrew story of that first creature,
made a whole person, made a human being by having breathed into it the
breath of life, by being endowed with spirit.
These terms have a bad reputation with some Unitarian
Universalists, particularly older Unitarian Universalists who, some
years ago, were perhaps attracted to liberal religion by its
then-studious avoidance of religious language. The Unitarians of our
Unitarian Universalist union in particular tossed spiritual language
on the trash heap of the irrational.
For my part, I had help in understanding that
“spiritual” and “irrational” are not synonymous by
serving the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Princeton, New
Jersey. In that congregation, renowned physicists likeJohn
Wheeler and Eugene Wigner,
knew most of the knowable facts of existence. And still they sought to
embrace the spirit their intuition told them lay at the heart of
existence. These scientists had been neighbors and friends of that
deeply spiritual man of faith and much loved citizen of the town of
Princeton, Albert Einstein.
I believe that the language of spirit, religious language, needs
to be redeemed by liberal religion because it is the language which
speaks of precious aspects of our humanness which cannot be captured
in more precise terms. I think it was the physicist Niels
Bohr who said that he could not abandon the term
“God” because, for him, no other word would do for the
awesome wonder of the core of being.
If what the spirit is cannot be articulated with any precision,
then the approach must be poetic, intuitive, metaphorical. The artist
can depict the spirit, for example, by depicting its absence.
Mary McDermott Shideler, in her book
In Search of the Spirit, suggests
that very concept when she says that we are aware of the Presence of
the Spirit when we become aware of its absence.
We have seen the absence of the spirit in the sad shells of
beings on city streets and on the benches of parks and shopping
centers. Their bodies slumped, as if frameless, nothing holding them
into the world. Their faces are without expression. Their eyes,
the windows of the spirit, register nothing, reveal nothing within,
windows to an empty house.
And there are others, not derelict or abandoned. They walk among
us. They work with us. They take part in the daily rituals and
routines by which we live in the world. But they make us uneasy —
reminiscent, again, of the fictional humanoid; empty, humorless, cold,
faces unreflecting. Their eyes do not support the mouth’s smile.
One knows, as they know, that they could disappear from the sea of
humanity without leaving so much as a ripple.
There is also positive evidence of the spirit. There are those
human capacities which we experience in ourselves when we are in
health, which are “spiritual” in that they are “more
than” our mere physical being. We have the capacity for hope.
Indeed, we live by hope. Hope is the projection of our experience, of
our self-awareness, into future time. Those who we observe to be
without spirit appear to be without desire, without hope.
And we experience happiness and joy. We know the thrill of
experience itself, the joy of being, the exhilaration provoked and
fired by our senses. Then we say “Ah, it’s good to be
alive!” And why, why is it good to be alive? Not merely because
the heart beats but because we are alive to
experience. We experience wonder and awe, the
aesthetic/religious capacity to be moved to an emotional, worshipful
response to beauty. These experiences are not vestiges of animal
survival mechanisms. We don’t need them to survive. They are not
biological needs but spiritual needs. We need
them to be human beings.
Out of the human spirit also we commit ourselves to values and
principles which transcend ourselves — sometimes at the cost of self,
even unto death, for principle. Compelled by the spirit, the human
being can be heroic, willing to sacrifice the individual self for
something greater — humanness overriding, transcending the supposed
“natural” instinct for survival. And, of course, there is
love. Again, like spirit itself, the aspects of the spirit, such as
love, seem in themselves indefinable. But we experience them. We
recognize love when we have it and, unless the spirit has withered and
died within us, we know what love is when we are without it.
These aspects of our humanness, which we know in our experience,
which we know in the experience of others, which are conspicuous in
their absence, may be spoken of as evidences of the spirit.
What, then, about “spiritual” and
The danger in speaking about spirituality is that whatever we say
about it is going to miss it, define it too narrowly or too precisely.
Remembering Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
comment about spirituality ought to make anyone reluctant to say much
of anything. Emerson said, “Of that ineffable essence which we
call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least.”
Still, we do what we can.
Unitarian Universalist minister, Arvid
Straube, says that spirituality is our relationship with
the sources of our existence. To practice spirituality, then, is to do
whatever we might do to nurture our relationship with the sources of
our existence. To not practice spirituality, is to deny or ignore the
sources of our existence in the exclusive pursuit of, or the
enslavement to, what is not spiritual.
What are the sources of our existence?
Speaking of Emerson, certainly Nature is one of the sources of
our existence. We separate ourselves from that source at our peril.
There’s a sense in which ecology is the most spiritual of human
concerns as it affirms the inseparable link between the Life of Nature
and our own. In Emerson’s terms we are “part and parcel”
of Nature. Our Mind is Nature’s Mind, which is, he taught, the
Mind of God. We live and move and have our being, not as observers of
Nature, not as Masters of Nature, but as part of Nature. Nature is a
source of our existence — not merely in terms of where we come from,
but a source of our continuing existence. The more our work — and the
places in which we work — shut us away from Nature, the more we are
separated from the source of our humanness. Virtual reality will only
produce virtual people. And so whatever experience we have, whatever
experience we can create for ourselves which intensifies, increases
understanding and appreciation, nurtures our relationship with nature,
is spiritual experience.
I believe that our ancestors, our forebears, living still or long
gone before us, loved and admired or hated and feared, are sources of
our existence. Continuing in relationship with “our people,”
embracing without fear the lives that were a source of our lives, is
Our relationships are a source of our existence. Our existence is
enriched as we find ourselves in others and as others find themselves
in us. Human relationship is a source of our existence.
Art, beauty of all forms and sorts, the awesome wonders of
science, are sources of our existence. Being in relationship with
beauty and wonder, not just looking at it but engaging in it, is
spiritual practice. Appreciating art, listening to music, reading
poetry — making music, creating art, writing poetry, is spiritual
practice, nurturing the sources of our existence.
Some know the primary source of their existence and address it as
God; for them, their relationship with that source is their essential
religious practice, perhaps through prayer or meditation.
My own spiritual practice is a nurturing of those sources of my
existence — nature, ocean, woodland, garden, beauty, art music, and,
yes, that which I sometimes address as God but most often need not
name at all. That source is my center. It is mystery — but, like the
American Indian, I know that that center is the same center which is
the source of all being. When I meditate, it is to practice the
relationship with the Source of my existence.
I believe that we share the same major sources of our existence
— Nature, our people, beauty.
But I also know that each of us has sources of our existence that
are special to us, sources that we have learned though personal
experience are vital to our sense of wholeness and well-being. If you
would begin the enlarging of your life then begin the life-enhancing,
life-giving practice of growing in spirituality by identifying,
knowing, rediscovering what are the true sources of your existence. In
doing this, you may also be reminded of what are not the true sources
of your existence, though they drive your days, sap your energy, and
displace what is nurturing and life-giving. What does it profit us,
Jesus asked, if we gain the world and lose
The spiritual journey begins out of an awareness of an absence,
an awareness that we are living in an incompleteness, and in a desire
to overcome the estrangement of the various parts of ourselves, to
overcome our estrangement from others, and from our world. One gets
up, goes to work, comes home, cleans, watches television, deals with
home maintenance, kids, homework, neighbors, the roof, termites,
laundry, goes to bed, gets up and goes around again. And, wait —
something is missing. There is an awareness of an absence. There has
to be more than this! We yearn for the “more than” that we
know is the meaning of our humanness. We yearn for the “more
than” because we are “more
than.” If we were mere flesh and blood, the pallid, empty
dailiness would be fine with us.
The spiritual life is that which makes life whole. But,
Abraham Heschel said, “Spiritual
suicide is within the reach of everyone.” It is quite possible,
in fact, it is relatively easy, to dis-integrate ourselves, to divide
and estrange ourselves, and to let the spirit become still and die.
The suicide of the spirit is accomplished when we fear and distrust
those aspects of our humanness which we cannot control and manipulate
easily, which frighten us with their power, which, like love, like
desire and hope, often bear with them the pain of loss. Those
aspects of being can be shut away, buried in some dark tomb of being
like a threatening pretender to the throne one dare not kill outright
but will not give light of day.
“Spiritual suicide is within the reach of everyone.”
There are those moments in the lives of each of us in which the deep
hunger of the spirit presses to the foreground of consciousness. It is
then that we are confronted with those unsettling questions about what
our lives mean and about what we are doing with them, how they are
being used up so quickly — and to what ends?
Preventing the death of the spirit requires two things:
First, uncertain and inarticulate about it though we may be, the
beginning of spiritual growth is to recognize — to confess — that we
are not whole, and summon the will to recognize and honor the spirit,
and to make the conscious commitment to nurture it.
And, secondly, must come the discipline by which the spirit is
invited nurtured, enhanced.
We cannot put our lives into compartments — as if we were not
whole persons, as if all the aspects of our selves were not
interdependent. The decisions made in our dailiness come out of the
same place where the sea-wind has blown about, where the moonlight
through the trees has shone, where the laughter began. If not — if
our crucial life-decisions do not come out of the sources of our
existence — they are not human decisions, made in a world of
relatedness, but utilitarian, uncreative, spirit-less decisions which
leave the better part of us behind as we go.
Robert Frost wrote, “Yield who
will to their separation, my object in living is to unite my vocation
and avocation as my two eyes make one in sight.”
Our spirits are various and wondrously diverse. Our hungers are
not the same. But the need to nurture the spirit is basic to us all.
There are always ways to turn from it and our culture more and more
supports us in the process of spiritual suicide. There is always
something whispered about what we “ought to be doing”
instead of sitting with our books, our music, creating, forming,
building, holding one another. There is always another call we could
make, another report we could write, another coin we could squeeze out
of the realm. Or there is always the flickering, mesmerizing light of
the screen which, for the most part, documents the death of the spirit
and invites us to join it.
Yet, if the suicide of the spirit is available to everyone, so is
the recovery and expansion of the spirit. We can, if we don’t wait
too long, decide for it, choose it, commit to it. We can learn
to become as aware of the spirit’s hunger as we are of the
As we regularly place ourselves in the sight of beauty, in the
sound of beauty; as we place ourselves by the tranquil streams, on the
quiet hillsides, in the temples bearing still the aura of holiness, as
we place ourselves in the presence of loving friends, or in the
solitude of rooms of our own, we place our being in the depths of the
spiritual; as we gather here to together, to worship–to declare what
is of worth and to celebrate it, we place ourselves in the depths of
the spiritual; and, when we emerge from the depths of those moments,
lo, we are made whole again.