All of life is spiritual.
Religious types (and I include myself) often have an unfortunate tendency to over-spiritualise certain things, and under-spiritualise others…
Many of us are quick to imagine spiritual causes behind things that go wrong, or to (mis)read random events as supernatural ‘signs’. This is one kind of over-spiritualising.
Another kind is to over-spiritualise our religious practices, to exalt them to some higher plane than everyday activities. So we often make an overly big deal of prayer and fasting and Bible study, of ‘quiet times’ and church attendance and the rest. We set them apart from the rest of life as though these alone were the truly ‘spiritual’ things. We over-spiritualise ‘Christian’ things, and under-spiritualise everything else – eating, sleeping, working, sport, art, secular music, talking, friendships.
I think this is sometimes because we’re afraid that we’re not spiritual enough, and only by doing ‘Christian’ things can we show (to ourselves and others) that we really are Christian. And also perhaps we’ve imbibed the message that spiritual things have to be different to, set apart from, normal things.
But I’d like to suggest that, on the contrary, ‘normal’ things, including physical things, are spiritual things. All of life is spiritual.
Physical is spiritual
Our spirits or souls are not some separate ethereal part of us. Rather they’re the sum of all we are, physical and emotional and relational and all the rest – plus perhaps an indefinable bit more. We are an interwoven whole, not compartmentalised into ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’. What we do with and to our bodies has an impact throughout our whole being (and vice versa).
This means that looking after ourselves – and each other – physically is spiritually important. It’s a spiritual discipline to get enough rest, to eat healthily, to exercise our bodies. (Though not everyone can, and that doesn’t make them unspiritual.)
Furthermore, eating and drinking, washing, going to the loo, sex, sport, clothing and all the other business and play of our physical lives – all these things can be spiritual activities, acts of worship even. They are not (or need not be) a waste of time. Everything in our life is important. We can’t escape our physicality, and nor do we need to.
Jesus had a physical body, and he wasn’t ashamed of it and he didn’t ignore it. He ate and drank (and fasted); he walked and climbed; he worked with his hands, he touched and held; he slept; he bled and died. Presumably he also went to the lavatory. The physical incarnation (and physical resurrection) of Jesus is hugely important, sanctifying our own physical bodies and natures, meaning that our bodily life can also be spiritual.
And of course everything in our lives – including spiritual experience – is mediated to us through our bodies, our physical senses, our hormonal and nervous systems and our physical brains. Even an ecstatic experience is something we have in the body, or at least in our brains.
Emotional is spiritual
Our emotions are also a lot more important, and more ‘spiritual’, than many of us think. In an important sense, we are our emotions; we perceive life through the filter of our feelings. However much we want to believe ourselves to be rational beings, that’s only ever partly true. How we feel about things, and about ourselves, shapes our reality – often far more than does our rational understanding.
We’re not just bodies that act and we’re not just heads that reason; we are feeling beings, and in many ways it’s that which makes us human. We talk about people as ‘unfeeling’ when they seem to lack human qualities of warmth or mercy, empathy or compassion. Of course, love and compassion are more than emotions; they are also acts of will and sometimes go against our natural feelings. But they are not less than emotions.
For sure, we can’t ever rely on our feelings to be proportionate or to accurately represent the facts. And of course, we’d be unwise to always act on our feelings – murderous rage or adulterous lust for example. We’re not slaves to our emotions.
But the point of feelings is not to tell us the facts nor necessarily to instruct us on how to act. Their point is simply to show us how we feel.
Accepting our feelings
We need to learn to listen to our feelings, even the ‘bad’, uncomfortable or taboo feelings – the ones we’re best not to translate into action. We need to acknowledge how we really feel about things and not just ignore our feelings. Feelings matter. I’m convinced that our emotional lives, how we handle our emotions, forms a huge part of our spiritual lives.
If we merely suppress or repress our ‘bad’ feelings in order to get rid of them, we don’t deal with them but rather store up problems for further down the line. Repressing feelings leads to anxiety or depression, and may ultimately lead to outbursts of uncontrolled action where we do finally give vent to our suppressed murderous rage or inappropriate lust. (Which links back to Emwazi and Jimmy Savile last time.)
Or of course, rather than repressing our bad feelings we might seek to project them out onto others, onto scapegoat ‘baddies’ – as we do when we turn people like Emwazi or Savile into the monsters who we imagine are not at all like the rest of us.
But feelings in themselves are never bad or good; they just are. We need to accept them as part of who we are, and listen to what they can tell us about ourselves, our needs, our fears, the things we may need to work on.
Relational is spiritual
And feelings are closely linked to relationships. A lot of our feelings (pleasant and otherwise) come to us in and through our relationships with others, and it’s unusual to have a relationship with someone that doesn’t involve feelings of some kind.
Relationships matter, because people matter. And relationships matter because we are all fundamentally relational beings, even the most reclusive of us (= me).
We might wish we could be spiritual in isolation – I’ve certainly often felt that I would be a much better Christian if it weren’t for the pressures and temptations and problems of living in society with other flawed and infuriating human beings. I think I’d have made a great desert father, or St Simeon Stylites living on a pillar. And solitude can be a great thing. But as a permanent state, it rather misses the point of Christianity.
The essence of spirituality is love, is relationship, is caring for (and being cared for by) others. The whole context and locus of spirituality is human society (and wider society – I’d include animal society and the whole planet for good measure). We need to withdraw from society at times to pray and contemplate, but only so we can ultimately return and live with people.
Discovering who we are
It’s in relationship with others that we discover who we really are, and see all our good and less good points brought out into the light. I’ve discovered all sorts of pretty uncomfortable things about myself through being a (not particularly fantastic) husband and through being a (sometimes terrible) dad that I’d never have realised if I’d just been a recluse. And that’s good, because now I know about them I can do something about it. I guess it’s what they call ‘character-forming’.
Relationships are where we’re tempted and tested and stretched, where our worst comes out – our envy, hate, prejudice, selfishness, lust and so on. But they’re also where we can develop and express our best, where we have the opportunity to show Christlike mercy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, generosity, welcome – above all love.
Relationships are where we love and where we let ourselves be loved. I’d suggest we’re not fully ourselves until we’re part of some kind of mutual, sharing community. Which could be a family, or friends, or could be (but doesn’t necessarily need to be) a church.
All this – plus a bit more
So spiritual = physical + emotional + relational. All of these parts of our ordinary, everyday lives are hugely important and, I believe, spiritual.
That’s not to say that the spiritual is only ever limited to these things of course. The spiritual is also surely just an indefinable bit more than these things, the “+ …” of the title; something other, extra, above and beyond. And there can be spiritual experiences and encounters outside the normal run of everyday events.
But ordinary, everyday life is not unspiritual. It is, if we choose to see it so, a sacrament through which we receive grace; an act of worship in which we participate incarnationally in the redemption of the world, humanity and ourselves. So get out there and live it. :)