Introduction to Spirituality

The young man was searching for authentic spirituality. He sought the practices of his tradition that seemed to be connected with spiritual development. For instance he got up early to pray, he read his Bible a whole lot, and memorized long passages of scripture. He followed all the social rules and expectations connected with being a spiritual person, but before long he began to realize that historically many really cruel, even evil, persons had been known for memorizing scripture and for long, long prayers early in the morning. He came to realize that traditional "spiritual practice" wasn't a guarantee of the kind of development he was seeking. He looked elsewhere for the path to spirituality.

He joined a group of people following the most conservative traditional theology he could find. People who tried to observe every single precept of his tradition and he tried to follow their practices, and when he recognized that they had no lock on love, peace, or spirituality, he sought out members of liberal activist religious communities--people working for the poor and disenfranchised of the world--and tried to become like them, but found that often they were more involved with good actions than with the spiritual peace he was seeking. He came to realize that the theology and intellectual disciplines of both the right and left fell short of the spiritual path he was drawn toward. Neither theological position seemed to assure him he was really progressing toward his goal of being a spiritual person. So he looked elsewhere for the path to spirituality.

Chartres LayrinthThis young man sought to find spiritual peace in a variety of secular spiritual practices. He contemplated beautiful music and art. He studied the writings of great thinkers both within and outside of his religious tradition. He considered the folk tales of spirits and angels and the more orthodox teachings of his religion's elders. He meditated and he prayed, he sang and he sat in silence. But he still often felt far from the goal of spiritual enlightenment he craved.

All of these practices seemed to move him in the direction he was seeking, and yet none of them seemed to be the path to the top of the mountain of spiritual enlightenment. Eventually he began to despair that he would ever become a spiritual person.

Then slowly over many years, he came to believe that spiritual enlightenment would never be an inescapable consequence of any set of actions. It was not a completed state he was seeking; it was the seeking itself.

Spirituality wouldn't be something he could simply achieve like a cub scout earns a merit badge by following a formula, completing a checklist or passing a battery of tests. It was a way of living and being constantly mindful of the world around him.

certificateEven this "wonderful" online class will not give you a "Spiritual Certification" diploma when you complete these five lessons. At best it will merely suggest some of the areas of growth that most of us need to be mindful of and help you ask questions that will move you a little farther along.

Since most of you taking this class will be just entering adult life and responsibilities, I will also try to introduce you to some questions that may move you past some of the roadblocks that messed up my generation, but I realize that some learning cannot be passed on it can only be learned by experience.

The first major teaching I hope to pass on is almost too simple to warrant mention, but it has trapped many persons in the past. That teaching is that spirituality is not a function of labels or location or external trappings. At best external actions may aid you, but they are not the same as being spiritual.

Examining one's life and seeking spiritual life--what is sometimes called "mindfulness"--is more than religious labels, memorized prayers, rituals, or traditions. These are sometimes means to spiritual growth but never the ends themselves.

Many of us have religious traditions that provide us with useful, beautiful, and psychologically balanced approaches to spirituality and devotional practice. And these traditions usually give us the essential concepts and vocabularies we need in our seeking. These traditions are, however, not the end in and of themselves. God is not contained in any ritual, tradition, artifact, or memory. God uses these tools to cause us to crave the divine and keep on seeking.

There is always a debate about whether spirituality is distinct from religious tradition, whether it is in opposition to a particular tradition, or whether it is merely a part of religion. I contend that most all religions whether they believe in one God, many gods, or no specific deity contain practices that direct the individual to connection with the numinous--what some call God, what others call the Universal Spirit, and what still others consider the underlying ground of being.

These practices of examining one's life can be generalized into (in no particular order)

  • discipline of the body;
  • exercise of the intellect;
  • contemplation of visual beauty (photography, sculpture, painting, dance, etc.), beautiful music, and uplifting literature,
  • meditation and prayer; and
  • caring for and being cared for by others.

In the following lessons we will look at some of the ways that our lives are led to spiritual growth or enlightenment and how persons in a variety of religious traditions and periods in history have responded in these practices when confronted with a variety of life issues. We will discuss how spirituality and the practices listed above are influenced by community, love, pain, and the future.