This was the topic of my covenant group meeting last night. It seemed an odd topic to spend ninety minutes or so discussing in a church basement.
Being Unitarian Universalists we all had different ideas of what spirituality meant. Many UUs are spiritually vacant. This is after all a denomination that attracts the unchurched and the left-brain dominant types. A typical UU congregation might be a quarter to half full of atheists, agnostics or people with no particular belief in God. So asking a UU what is spirituality might be like asking someone blind from birth to describe colors.
Nonetheless many UUs are spiritual in their own way. Upon reflection I realized I probably was a spiritual creature, just not in the traditional sense of the world. For me spirituality has almost nothing to do with religion. But for most Americans I suspect it is impossible to not talk about spirituality without mentioning religion.
When I am spiritual I generally feel a sense of utter peace, an absence of worry and contentment. I am intimately plugged in to a larger reality that I can neither name nor describe but which is still absolutely real. The cares of the physical world seem to leave me. I feel not just at peace, but I often feel a subtle or even overt joy. I often feel a sense of wonder, and sometimes I sense the fantastic. I hesitate to call this God. To me it is simply that which is normally not perceived.
I have occasionally had spiritual feelings in churches. But it hasn’t happened in any service that I have ever attended. Yet I have felt moments of it inside cathedrals. Some years ago when I took a group of religious education students to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington DC I felt spiritual. Cathedrals are radically altered spaces designed to skew reality and suggest the supernatural. Their gothic arches, their spires, their stained glass, their darkness, their votive candles, their people whispering their prayers, their polished floors and their intricate statues had the effect of making me feel spiritual. I am sure they are designed that way. There is a certain majesty to a cathedral that is difficult to match elsewhere. It is hard for me to feel the real world when in every direction the effect is surreal, ornate and majestic.
As marvelous as cathedrals are they are not nearly as spiritual to me as nature in her finest. Once or twice a year I arrive home to see a spectacular sunset displayed in all its finery with my house as the foreground. It awes me that such exquisite beauty can be a result of such complete randomness. In my travels the beauty of Hawaii is so far unsurpassed. But I have felt similar feelings in other places I’ve visited. Some examples: the Canyon de Chelley in Arizona and watching a plethora of stars arranged against an obsidian background from the back of a cruise ship far out in the Atlantic. But I have also felt spiritual at certain moments during a long and sustained bike ride, with the wind whistling in my ears and coursing through my nostrils. I feel almost attached to the nature around me.
The most spiritual moment of my life so far came from witnessing my daughter’s birth. She was delivered Caesarian section in a cold operating room and pulled out feet first from my wife’s steaming womb. I was humbled. I was awed. I was scared. I was joyful. I was crying. And I loved her with an intensity I have never felt before or since and we didn’t even know each other.
But was this spiritual or just a wash of emotions? For me her birth brought home to me the miracle of life and reproduction. I hesitate to say I experienced God, but I can say it was brought home to me what an amazing place our universe it.
I find spirituality in strange places sometimes. I find it in my cat, who sits now contentedly on my lap and purrs. He too is a miracle. Through him I realize that other species see and react to the world in their own unique ways. When I pet him I realize that not only does it feel good, but also that we truly love each other. We have a mutually supportive relationship.
I often feel like we are seeing at most .001% of reality. We have senses but they are extremely limiting. We cannot see infrared or ultraviolet rays but they are real enough. Most of us are only dully aware of the other life around us, or how utterly pervasive life is on all levels. My backyard is in many ways a botanical wonder, not because I have a huge and diverse garden but because it is such a complex system of its own. On one level it is just a lawn. But on another level there a thousands of species, plants, insects and animals living back there, all mutually dependent on each other for survival. Occasionally I may roll in the grass. But what a different perspective the universe must be to a centipede crawling through my lawn. I wonder what the grub experiences pushing its way through my soil. I wonder what it must be like to be the blacktop on my driveway when the rain falls on it. To get through life we generally tune out such thoughts and think them nonsensical or pointless.
To some extent I think even the rocks in my soil are alive. I just see them living on vast cosmic timescales. Over millennium they too move. I wonder what it is to be a rock under the ground, and to feel the moisture of the soil and the rain permeate it or move around it. I wonder just what life is anyhow. I think it exists on so many different levels but it is only the prison of our own existence that makes it hard to see.
I feel this connectedness of all things. I think on some level we all do. I feel a universe that is alive and multidimensional across space and time. When this connectedness permeates me as a presence, when I feel in touch with its harmony and vibration that’s when I feel spiritual.
That’s what spirituality means to me.