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by Gerald May


cave openingWHEN PEOPLE COME to Shalem for the first time, they often have no clear sense of what they're looking for. They know they are seeking something, and most would identify it as something spiritual. But what does that mean? Some people think spirituality is about ethics and morality. Others think it is something like counseling for healing and personal growth. Still others think it involves communication with spirits.

Spirituality can have as many meanings as there are people interested in it, and at present, a lot of people are interested. 25 years ago, I thought the growing interest in spirituality might be a passing fad. Now it is obviously much more than that. Polls indicate that 95% of Americans believe in a universal Spirit and two-thirds feel a need for "spiritual growth." Spiritual publications, workshops and retreats have multiplied astronomically in the past two decades and various forms of spirituality are finding their ways into health care and business. Many churches that viewed spirituality with suspicion in the past are now sponsoring spiritual formation programs of their own.

It is common for cultures to experience waves of heightened spiritual interest, often at times of disillusionment and re-examination of societal values. The current surge is different, however, because it has assumed a global context. As technology shrinks our world, different cultures find themselves exposed to one another's spiritual traditions. Three fourths of Americans now believe there is no "one true faith" and that a variety of spiritual paths can be equally authentic. This globalization enriches our experience and at the same time deepens the question: what are we talking about when we use words like "spirituality," "spiritual formation" and "contemplation?"

One way to approach this question is to turn to the abiding traditions of spiritual pilgrims who have gone before us, struggling in their own ways and cultures to express their yearnings and insights. Their teachings and writings through the centuries are priceless resources in helping us clarify our own experience. It is upon this gathered wisdom that I base the following discussion.

What Is Spirituality?

In many religious traditions "spirit" refers to life-force, the basic energy of being. Symbolically, spirit is the breath of life. The Hebrew ruah, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus, and Sanskrit prajna all mean both "breath" and "spirit." Traditionally, this life force is seen as manifest in our love--in the passions and inspirations that motivate us and connect us with the world and one another.

In this view, spirituality has to do with the fundamental propelling forces of our lives, our most profound loves, passions and concerns. As such, it is the wellspring of our sense of meaning and of our will to live, the source of our deepest desires, values and dreams. Spirituality, then, is not a thing apart from our daily lives, but rather a part of all our emotions, relationships, work, and everything else we consider meaningful.

Nor is spirituality relegated to extraordinary or supernatural things; it is instead absolutely ordinary and completely natural. Everyone has a spiritual life. We express it in many different ways: not only in places of worship but also in work, community and family, in all our creativity and commitments. The spiritual life is like a deep ocean current, often unseen but flowing through all our experience, moving us to seek fulfillment and connectedness, impelling us towards truth, goodness and beauty. As William Wordsworth said, it is something "deeply interfused" that "rolls through all things."

Spirituality is the living heart of all the great world religions. Each faith tradition in its own way proclaims that the essence of spirituality is love. The Christian expression is in the two great commandments: to love God with one's whole self and to love one's neighbor as oneself. Theologically, spirituality is our desire for love's fulfillment which, in turn, is our response to God's loving us first (1 Jn 4:19). We participate in the divine love that created us "so that we might seek God" (Acts 17:27). Further, the Christian contemplative tradition views God as always active in our lives, inviting, drawing and empowering us towards deepening love. In this light, I assume that people participating in Shalem are somehow responding to this movement of the Divine in their lives.

Three Paths

An ancient understanding in both western and eastern thought says that love impels people to express their spirituality in three main ways: knowing, acting and feeling. In Christian philosophy, these ways are classically associated with the attributes of God. God is ultimate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and these qualities draw people along the Way of the True, the Way of the Good, and the Way of the Beautiful. The more ancient system of Hinduism describes the three ways as yogas (disciplines) or margas (paths). These consist of jnana (knowledge or wisdom), karma (action or service), and bhakti (devotion or worship). Both eastern and western systems understand that all three ways find some degree of expression in everyone, but that at any given time an individual is likely to be more attracted to one than to the others.

The Way of the True is associated with knowledge, understanding, realization, and enlightenment: "...and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32). For people most drawn toward this quality, loving God and neighbor involves intimate knowing and clear understanding. They are interested in theology, philosophy and psychology. They enjoy thought-provoking sermons and are interested in discerning the accurate meanings of scripture. While this path often relies heavily on intellectual understanding, it also includes openness to intuitive insight and inspired realization.

The Way of the Good is concerned with action, righteousness, offering service and seeking justice: "...just as you did it to one of the least of these...you did it to me" (Matt 25:40). People attracted to this quality express their love of God and neighbor by helping the poor, visiting the sick, making peace and seeking justice. They have a strong concern for morality, though they may differ widely in the values they hold. In church they are drawn to mission groups and other volunteer services. In scripture, they tend to look for moral guidelines and calls to action.

The Way of the Beautiful is the path of feeling, of affective experience and devotion: "As a deer longs for running streams, so my soul longs for you, O God" (Ps 42:1). People drawn to this quality are especially responsive to the sensory and emotional dimensions of the spiritual life. For them, love of God and neighbor is associated with passion, empathy and intimacy. They are concerned with direct, sensed experience of relationship with God and others and are drawn to praise, thanksgiving, and adoration. They especially appreciate the aesthetic and inspirational aspects of worship and the moving, heartfelt passages of scripture.


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