What is Spirituality?

Each month, we choose one theme at New Unity and we explore it from a variety of different perspectives throughout the month. This month, our focus on spirituality comes close to the heart of the religious enterprise. 

Having led quite a few discussions on the subject now in our Three Facets newcomer groups, I have some idea how you may respond to that word. 

For many of you, the immediate response is ‘yuck.’ You have been turned off to the term ‘spirituality’ by its use in traditional or in very non-traditional religion. 

Looking at the traditional perspective, spirituality may be too much about the supernatural for you. It has to be about a God you don’t believe in or an eternal soul that doesn’t quite grab you either. 

And then we take a look at the very non-traditional use of the word. There, it is associated with the New Age movement. You may immediately think of angels, past-life regression, spiritual healing, chakras, and others from a wide range of practices. But especially, you may have an image of someone proclaiming ‘I’m spiritual’ as though their interest in new age practices had somehow made them a different and superior kind of human being. 

For quite a while, the phrase “spiritual but not religious” was a popular one. It reflected a rejection of the dogmatic and patriarchal nature of traditional religion and a new kind of freedom. The attractiveness of that use of the word ‘spiritual’ has faded quite a lot, as spirituality increasingly became an industry geared to freeing people – not of their worries and ego entanglements – but of their hard-earned money. 

Now, the word spirituality seems at once too traditionally religious and too “airy-fairy”, too ascetic and too commercial, too hidebound and too ‘anything goes.’ 

And yet, there is something important in the realm of things that are loosely labelled with the word spiritual or spirituality. 

I have watched people search for an alternative word. The suggestions all feel either like they are incomplete and lacking something important or they require at least fifteen words. 

I would offer “the journey toward wholeness,” but I know that some of you find the word wholeness also too challenging and incomplete. Well, we need words in order to talk and discuss, so, until we come up with a better substitute, let’s use the word spirituality. 

If we are to define this so-called spiritual realm in our own way, what do we mean? 

In our readings this morning, two poets speak of a journey and a process. Wendell Berry tells us this journey – by which we discover the world – is a spiritual journey. That journey in fact returns us to the ground at our feet where we, at last, learn to be at home. 

James’ Broughton’s journey is toward the ‘lucent surprise of enlightenment.’ And, he reminds us, we will bump into wonder often as we go. 

Spirituality is a process, it is a journey, it is our growth and change. 

Spirituality is not only the work we undertake to progress in that process. Broughton’s sharpened sword is a tool that aids us in the journey, but it is not spirituality itself. To imagine so – to imagine that the fact that you pray or meditate or do yoga means you are spiritual – is not different than imagining that the fact you use a hammer means that you are a professional builder and have completed the house. So let’s be clear that spirituality is a process. Along the way, we may employ spiritual practice, spiritual guidance, and spiritual teaching. Spiritual is the direction of travel. 

Some of you have showed me me that – as attractive as it is - the metaphor of spiritual journey is imperfect. Journeys tend to have destinations. Is there a final destination to the spiritual journey? Perhaps some faiths would say yes. Buddhism might say that it is Nirvana – awakening. Hinduism calls it moksha – release from the cycle of death and rebirth. My own view is that we can continue growing and developing spiritually until our time here in life is done. In that way, spirituality is like the process of learning. We can know more and more, but we are never finished – never perfected – there is always something more to learn and there is always further we can grow. 

I have thus far said almost nothing about where this spiritual journey might take us! In what direction do we aim to travel or grow? What are we looking for or moving towards? 

Enlightenment or wonder, as James Broughton would have it? 

Learning to be ‘at home’ as Wendell Berry writes? 

Connection with God, as traditional western religion or Islam would have it? 

Nirvana or Moksha as the religions of India would say? 

Wholeness as I tend to say? 

Are these ideas meant to be actual and concrete? Is it really union with God that Christians are after? Is it really release from rebirth that Hindus are after? 

Surely, this kind of literalism tends to dominate in most faiths, but I prefer to see these spiritual goals merely as metaphors – just like arriving ‘at the ground at our feet’ and learning ‘to be at home’ there. 

The metaphors – the poetry – indicates something that is impossible to describe because it is not a simple or straightforward process. Can we begin to unpack those metaphors to say what we are really about in the spiritual journey? 

Imagine being a farmer, but not knowing what you are trying to accomplish. You are told to put seeds in the ground, to cover them just so, to spray them with this and that. Eventually, it becomes meaningless ritual, which may or may not get you to some goal that has not really been revealed to you, except perhaps in metaphor: “and then, thou shalt know the glory of the flesh of the earth in its fullness.” 

Oops! And then another ‘expert’ comes along to tell you to do something quite different. “No – put them this far apart and use this product instead of that!” “This indeed shall bring you freedom from the torment of earthly craving. Ye shall revel in heavenly lusciousness!” 

What if we take a pragmatic approach? What if – rather than asking what the spiritual journey is and how to do it – we first ask about what it is intended to yield? 

Remarkably, this is much easier than the rest. Rather than focusing on the ritualized actions of sowing and spraying and weeding, we actually recognize that it’s tomatoes or courgettes or strawberries we’re trying to grow! 

Compared to the cryptic teachings of many religions and spiritual practices, the fruits of the spiritual journey are more easily agreed upon. 

Of course, there are many ways to describe these fruits. I will suggest just four primary fruits of the spiritual journey – four fruits that can grow for our whole lives. And these four fruits then lead to many of the other qualities that we think of as associated with spiritual growth. 

The four primary fruits are Mindfulness, Compassion, Faith, and Gratitude. 

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in any moment, fully aware of what is going on – both inside of us and around us. Mindfulness includes self-knowledge, a growing understanding of our own motivations and the actions they produce. 

Compassion literally means ‘suffering with.’ When we are compassionate toward another person, we understand their pain – not in a distant way – but in an immediate and personal way. Compassion connects us to one another in an immensely powerful way. 

The word faith may conjure up all kinds of unpleasant images – the notion of being required to accept certain beliefs because we are told to or because they are found in a particularly old book. We think of the phrase ‘blind faith.’ Let’s think of this as open-eyed faith. It is a faith that knows that some things may be extremely unlikely or difficult or impossible and then goes full-speed ahead. It is faith that makes the growth of social justice possible despite the many barriers built against it. It is faith that allows us to live another day despite the certainty that we and everything we know and love will eventually pass away. 

Finally, Gratitude is the fourth of the primary fruits. Gratitude means being in the world without expectations and entitlement. It means finding joy in our hearts for every positive thing that comes. It even means finding the ability to be thankful for the small goodness that comes from all the negative events we encounter. 

Mindfulness, Compassion, Faith, and Gratitude. You will notice that each of these will appear in a variety of ways in different religions. There, they tend to be tied up with specific stories and ritualized behaviours. 

Mindfulness though, is mindfulness whether or not it comes from meditation as practiced by so many eastern religions, from prayer, from philosophical introspection, from study, or from long walks. 

Compassion does not have to be the subject of a divine teaching offered through Jesus or Mohammed or anyone else. Faith does not have to be faith in a storied deity. Gratitude does not have to be gratitude to. The most important thing is that there is gratitude or celebration or delight or wonder or awe for the wonders – even the tiniest wonders – of our lives. 

These primary fruits of spiritual growth mix and intermingle to create the secondary fruits. To follow our growth and fruit analogy, the secondary fruits might best be called pies and jams and puddings and trifles. 

Combine compassion and gratitude, season generously with faith, and bake at 160 for 40 minutes and you have generosity. 

Blend mindful self-knowledge with compassion. Wisk briskly, and the result is the airy sweet delight of self-acceptance. 

Humility, connection, forgiveness, equanimity... there are recipes for the preparation of each of these from the primary spiritual fruits of mindfulness, compassion, faith, and gratitude. 

Will you achieve enlightenment? If enlightenment is, as the Buddhists would have it, a relief of the suffering that comes of grasping and clinging to things, then yes. An awareness of the world as it is through mindfulness, the connection that comes of compassion, the gratitude that brings joy from the smallest of blessings, and the faith to hold it all despite the waves that batter us each day – yes – together these bring us toward enlightenment. 

Will you achieve union with God? Compassion and mindfulness and gratitude and faith show us that the whole world is holy – that we ourselves are part of the divine. The union we achieve is already here. 

Today, we have talked about the fruits of the spiritual journey. We have tried to remove some of the confusing mysteries and stories and beliefs surrounding that journey and those fruits so we can see this process of living and growing in a way that we can use and understand. 

We have not talked about the ‘hows’ of that journey or the many paths that we can take. You know of many if not most of them: meditation, prayer, solitude, service, and many more. You have come here rather a traditional religion because you know that you are an individual and that you need to be able to choose what is right for you, rather than adopt a preordained set of rules that may or may not fit you. 

The hard truth of that is it is up to you to find the path and practices that suit you at this moment – and be able to change when your changing situation calls for it. The good news is that you have the freedom and the support to do that. You have the blessing of this spiritual community of people travelling in the same direction by many paths, who will guide and encourage you – and even hold your hand when the going gets rough. 

We journey along many different paths, and yet we journey together. You are not alone. 

May it be so.