What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
The first time I read this quote it stopped me in my tracks. The force of the question hit me like a punch to the gut. I know that thanks to the internet, this quote from Mary Oliver has been shared so many times that its power is often lost, but it still haunts me—in a good way—daily.
For most of my life, I was taught that good people were ‘spiritual’ people. What was usually meant by this is that good people were committed members of some religious organisation (they got extra points if their religion or denomination was the same as ours) and that they attended worship regularly. And of course, priests, nuns, and others who had committed to a religious life were extra-specially spiritual.
As an ordained minister in the Church, I was one of these extra-spiritual people for a while. I remember once being asked to pray for someone because, although there were lots of people praying, my prayers were, you know, special to God.
In recent years I have begun to question this view. I no longer believe that a religious life is automatically a good life. And I no longer believe that a spiritual life is necessarily a religious life. But I do believe that the answer to Mary Oliver’s searching question is to be found in living a spiritual life—or perhaps a spirited life, an inspired life, or a life of the Spirit. But what is a spiritual life really? I’m so glad you asked.
WHAT A SPIRITUAL LIFE IS NOT
Perhaps I can begin by outlining what I believe a spiritual life is not. Here are a few things I have encountered over the years that I was taught to view as inherently spiritual that I no longer believe are spiritual:
- A spiritual life is not one that rejects all material things as ‘unspiritual’;
- It is not a life that seeks to stay pure by staying away from such defiling things as politics or social justice work;
- It is not a life that is built on poverty (rejecting money), chastity (rejecting sex), and obedience (rejecting personal power and self-determination);
- It is not a life with an overdeveloped ‘sin-consciousness’ in which we are hyper-alert to anything that is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ and which must be condemned. I’m not talking about resisting serious issues of injustice like racism, sexism, homophobia, or environmental damage. I’m referring to the tendency of some ‘spiritual’ people to point self-righteous and judgemental fingers at anyone who does not conform to their standards of morality or religious rightness;
- A spiritual life is not necessarily all that different from what we might call a ‘normal’ life.
WHAT A SPIRITUAL LIFE IS
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I see spirituality as that which brings meaning, purpose, and goodness into our lives, shapes our values and priorities, directs what is important to us, and guides how we live and relate to others. If that’s the case, we need to ask what this looks like practically as it influences how we live and relate to others.
In the light of this, I would suggest the following thoughts when it comes to an authentically spiritual life:
- There is no single way to live a spiritual life;
- A spiritual life is more about the attitudes and values we bring to our lives than it is about what we do. But…
- A spiritual life is one in which actions are shaped and empowered by values and attitudes. So what we do matters. There is simply a recognition that the same action can be creative or destructive depending on the context, the culture, and the values and attitudes that drive it;
- Esther Perel, the brilliant psychotherapist and writer is famous for saying that, ‘The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.’ Which means that a spiritual life is a relational life. The ultimate mark of a good life is the impact for good that it has on others;
- A spiritual life is a life that connects with more than just itself. It’s a life of big questions, big connections, and diving into the Big Mystery of Life, the Universe and Everything.
WHAT IS A SPIRITUAL LIFE TO YOU?
Of course all of this begs the question: Why would we care what a spiritual life is? I believe the answer goes back to Socrates’ famous words: ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’ If spirituality is about finding our best life and our best selves and contributing to building the best possible world, then that requires self-examination, mindfulness, and intentionality in our actions. And that, for me is the essence of spirituality. We cannot find our best lives or our best world without living spiritual lives.
But would you agree? What is a spiritual life for you? Is it important to you to live a spiritual life? And why do you feel that living a spiritual life is important? What would you add to this post? What would you leave out?
Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments and let’s journey together into a deeper spirituality!
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Thanks, John, I particularly liked the middle section, “What is a Spiritual Life”. I see a great deal of value in what you stated about being impacted by our faith.