On The Spirit:
Looking at its Definitions andDimensions: A starting point for discussion for our inclusive understanding
The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
Today, there is a cross-cultural growing interest in all the manner of ideas and experiences that are generally labeled as spiritual- in fact, other than community building, and of course, connected to it, spirituality is one of the hot topics in social circles.
Yet, this concern is even larger than our liberal religious quest, all people whether churched or unchurched, in the so-called New Age or people in their questioning old age, all of them are talking, and wanting to explore more about what the spiritual depths and dimensions of their lives might hold or what spirituality might truly mean for them!
Given this broad and almost universal personal concern, I have concluded that our society is incredibly curious about spirituality, but also quite incredulous and uninformed about all its complexities and implications- the theology, physiology, and even the cosmology of it all!
So, to frame this sermon and its later discussion, I will hold forth with a few basic ideas and supportive principles associated with the whole field of pneumatology- the study of the Spirit- and then relate some of my research to our personal identities as spiritual beings.
I will draw on not just my academic studies, but also from my many years of visceral and experiential training, experiences and insights. It is my goal for this morning to bring you into a greater appreciation for what GUS might mean for religious liberals! (GREAT or GENERAL UNIVERSAL SPIRIT)
So, I will begin and maybe most provocatively declare, that I contend that there is not a person alive who is not also a spiritual person! In its most universal and applicable sense, all the great religions of humankind, all the major belief systems and practices of the world have always contended that life itself could not be maintained without a connection to spirit. What???
In the most elemental and the most natural definition of spirit which has come down from the ancients to we moderns, is this: The spirit is symbolically found in the air- in the wind- that is, in every breathe we take- therefore we cannot live without an active recognition and participation in that physical spirit, that keeps us alive!(My doctorate was entitled the W, W, W)
For ancients delving into esoteric mysteries, for we contemporary people seeking greater fulfillment, freedom, and meaning, the spirit can be best understood as the essence of who we are… It is the soul’s fuel and the primal energy of our lives. Differing cultures will use different names, and have slightly differing concepts- as an example, in the Eastern religions, it is the Ki or the Chi; or in Hinduism, it is the prana or pranayama; and it the Western European circles, it is the élan vital, or in the ancient texts of the Bible, it is know as the Ruah or the Ruach.
In its origins, before institutional theology severely limited it, and before dogma confined and narrowly defined it, this Ruah was the wind the swept across the desert; it was the animating breeze that rustled the leaves of the forest; it is the very breath of life!
Now let’s say the word together… And maybe you will get the sense of the wind or the breathe and how they are connected… ROOOO AHHHH< ROOO AHHH…
Ah is the universal heart mantra…. And Hu or Ru is the Middle Eastern version of the Hindu Om- the sound or vibration of the Cosmos! When something feels good, or pleasurable, or satisfying we often say AH or OOOH…. And among the Hawaiians, we are given Aloha… Which like the more familiar Hindu greeting or salutation, Namaste, is a salute to the essence, the inner being, of the person you are greeting….
Progressing now to the Greeks and onto the Latin languages, the translation of the word from its feminine Hebrew roots becomes more familiar. From our knowledge of vocabulary prefixes and suffixes and from the awareness of the the epistemological fact that one’s culture gives its meaning to words, we are given the Greek word for spirit, which is Pneuma. What words have pneuma in them? (pneumonia; pneumatic)
Next, would be the Latin derivations. In the Romance languages, we are given the Latin for spirit as spirare or spiritus, which is defined as to live, to breathe, to exist…. What common words do we have in our language that contain the suffix, spire, or to be in spirit??? (inspire, aspire, respire, perspire, expire,conspire…. )
As it has come down to us in religious community building, there is a correlative meaning- a special sense of an abiding presence or a spirit of companionship. For some, it was an accompanying, pious yet benevolent abstraction called the Holy Ghost. For others, it is simply a compassionate presence- one that sustains, uplifts, and encourages us during our life trials. A presence or a sense of quiet comforting assurance that can be felt and that walks with us or accompanies us during our life’s turmoil’s and troubles.
cause we, as religious liberals, are more Emersonian, transcendental, we can readily acknowledge these inclusive connections…
So, from the beginnings of language, civilization, and religion there is a strong correlation between air, wind, spirit, and our breaths; So on the most basic level we are, at our first breath, spiritual beings… Who are incarnating now to have a fleshly, human experience… Not as commonly thought or held, that we are only human beings who, once and a while might have a spiritual experience!
Next in our overview, we will need to distinguish between two misunderstood terms, spirit and soul… . I will try to sort out the confusion, and then posit a working definition of what constitutes spiritual experience…
Spirit is that vital and visceral, animating energy or presence that activates and sustains our human consciousness- from the moment of our first breath or inspiration, to the moment of our last, expiration- She accompanies us along a continuum of life experiences, during a life that we lead one breath at a time…
Spirit conspires… While able to function alone, in the individual, Spirit completes its purpose and its divine intent when it teaches us to conspire- when it is shared between or among people as a source of their community, their commitment to one another, as a source of commonly held ideals, feelings, mission, and motives. Spirit understood this way, is the source for our ethical impulses, accompanying any movement toward personal change or social transformation; Spirit is the ally and companion to justice, dignity, and self worth. We gather as churches or congregations to work out our common values in community, in a gracious conspiracy! (breathe together)
I contend that there has never been a successful social movement of any depth or lasting value without such a commonly held, shared bond… Whether you cite Schweitzer, Ghandi, or King, or any radical reformer among U-Uists during the last five centuries! Each of these great ideas and social revolutions had a clear spiritual sense of mission and vision that sustained, preserved, consoled and uplifted them.
Next, Spirit empathizes… It is from our active acknowledgment of this miracle we call life, that we learn to act unselfishly- to firmly yet compassionately seek the common good, to promote ecological responsibility, and to work to heal our culture and ourselves of life’s injuries, injustices, inequalities and insults.
Soul is not Spirit; but the soul of the individual, of the community, of the nation, depends on how the Spirit manifests and animates or directs its purpose and define its values in them. (German Zeitgeist)
Soul is best known or defined as the entirety of our being. Many of us were erroneously taught to believe that the soul was somewhere located inside our bodies- usually thought to be housed either in one’s heart or brain… Instead, it is our bodies that are inside our souls!
Additionally, Soul is the sum total of all our sensory-motor input, our feelings, and all its cellular correspondences and connections to health and well being. Soul, as I was taught by various spiritual masters, is our whole “psychic container”- where all of our experiences, conscious and unconscious, past and present, are stored.
Soul, then manifests, as a result of all of our learning; the results of our social conditioning and our cultural programming, the depth our psychological insights, and the extent of our metaphysical comprehension. Soul contains all our survival mechanisms, our interaction skills, our ability to understand and to adapt to life’s blessings and demands. Soul is the container of consciousness, the sum total of our awareness. Therefore, whatever you do to your body, or whatever you do with your body, you also do to your soul. As the entirety of our awareness, individually and collectively, the soul is synonymous with all the emotional depths and dimensions of consciousness, including when we think, express, and create and love … When sleep, dream, pray or meditate. In short, it is the way we think, how we relate, and how we respond to life itself.
Spirit, then, animates and activates the soul. From the prerogatives of the Spirit, we take or catch our breath and continue our inspired search for connection, and to give meaning to our innermost feelings and deepest intentions. Spirit gives purpose to our lives.
There we engage the soul in what the mystics call perichoresis- talking a walk around our heart- when we understand the need for being courageous, caring, examining our motives for behavior, etc., we are acting spiritually, and given evidence of having an active soul.Such personal and spiritual growth is not for the faint-hearted; This inner search, this walk around, examines all the tragedies and glories, heartbreak and exhilaration, all the despair and ecstasy we have experienced. I know this personally, and I feel priviledged when someone comes to me for spiritual direction or guidance on their search. In those sessions, Spirit compels us to discover together what might be missing or lacking or incomplete. It also impels or teaches us to guard our ethical awareness and to celebrate the good of our lives by never postponing joy. It’s the heartfelt invitation to integrity, to wholeness, and to a complete sense of love.
Lastly, we arrive at trying to define spiritual experiences. Remember, this has little formal connection to either theology or religion. In fact, it one of the principal reasons why people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. All through church history, East and West, it has been the spiritual types who would antagonize the status quo, and upset all those who needed order and rules. Spirit compels us to follow inner directives, not restrictive doctrines or obligations… As Joseph Campbell puts it, we are to “follow our bliss” and to do what makes our spirit soar and our hearts sing!
Next, it is important to ask the questions of discernment… What distinguishes the spiritual from the usual or the ordinary has to contain one or more of these feelings or experiences:
First, the experience must take you outside of yourself, past your ordinary awareness, beyond your ego boundaries… It often involves a risk and has an emotional quality that asks us to be vulnerable, open, and willing…
Second, for something to be spiritual, it has to create or provide a greater sense of bonding or belonging- a gracious connection- a quality of connectedness or relationship that differs from others that you have previously experienced.
Third, for something to be considered spiritual, it needs to provide you with feelings of unity or immersion; to become one with Nature, the Universe, God- and that can be something blissful or something that is deeply disconcerting, These events and experiences are what lead you beyond the ordinary or the fearfully ego bound, to a new level of perception; a change that is meaningful, and often compelling, transcendent, and lasting.
These varieties of spiritual experience can be brief, even a once in a lifetime event! When they occur, no one can actually predict- While you can make yourself more open, receptive through spiritual exercises, disciplines, or practices, even through drugs and deprivations, that doesn’t mean they will occur. Spiritual inbreakings are synchronistic; they are whimsical and gracious, and cannot be outlined or conveniently scheduled. Just because you feel that it is not the right time for you, doesn’t mean it is not the true time for some experience of the Spirit to manifest in your life! Because the Spirit has its own timetable, she follows her own calendar of the heart!
Sometimes, it comes to us through a dream or as some sort of ESP experience. Spirit can come to us during an intense time of caring, or of tenderness- such as when you find or lose someone special or someone who has been close to you; a relative, a friend; a beloved pet.
With a spiritual experience comes deep connection; from being with your lover, or belonging to a spiritual group; it can be found when you look at your child, at a sunset, or when you hear a special strain of music, or behold something in nature that is beautiful, serene.
These inspirational times and experiences are then preserved or translated into shared rituals for a culture or a community. They are recalled in and through common worship which would include such mind and heart altering practices as singing, dancing, chanting, praying, healing and so on… Something any religious or spiritual community needs to allow, design and often recall as a vital part of their times together…
Opening Words and Chalice Lighting:
The quest for spirituality exists whenever we struggle for greater meaning and purpose to our lives. Spirituality becomes central to us whenever we ask about our place in the Cosmos, and our place in the lives of others. Spirituality manifests whenever we are moved by the ideals associated with beauty, unselfishness, sacrifice, risk, courage, and intimacy….
On the real question for our lives:
A woman lying in a coma, was dying… She suddenly had a feeling that she was being taken up to heaven, and there, she stood before the Judgment seat… “Who are you?” A Voice said to her. And she replied, “I’m the wife of the mayor”
“I did not ask you whose wife you were, but who are you? The woman, taken back slightly now responds with, ” I am the mother of four children.”
The Voice came back and spoke again: ” I did not ask you whose mother you are, but who are you? She then said, ” I am a school teacher.” The Voice then said, ” I did not ask you what your profession was, but who are you?
And so it went on for some time…..
Who are you? “I am a Christian. I did not ask what religion you are, and I asked, who are you? Well, I am the one who helps the needy, and does lots of favors for others.
I did not ask what you did that was right or wrong, but who are you?
She evidently failed the examination, for she was sent back to earth. When she eventually recovered from her illness, she was determined to find out who she was, outside of all the roles and responsibilities she had previously taken on and that was the way she had defined herself. And that quest, to find oneself, made all the difference in the rest of her life.
It is not by our money, but by our capacity for joy, that we are truly rich or poor. To strive for wealth, and yet have no real capacity for enjoyment of life’s simple treasures, is like a bald man who struggles to keep up his comb collection!
With all the concern for spirituality today, there are still people who feel empty, unloved, uninspired by the lives they lead. Spirituality tries to satisfy that gnawing hunger, in a culture, where as our hymn puts it, we are rich in things, but poor in soul.”
If we are faced with severe challenges, either in our personal lives or in our society, what spiritual ideas and ideals, what practices and disciplines do we need? In a world where there is so much cynicism, immoral motives, and self absorption, we are called to creativity, caring, and compassion. We need to revive, what Jesus and the Dali Lama both proclaimed as the key to a happy or a blessed life: to live and to act out of the goodness of our hearts. Obviously, this does not being someone’s doormat, or not having the courage to stand up to injustice wherever it is found in our lives. As I regard this advice, it is to try to do no harm by our actions; and to seek out the company of those who choose to ascribe to a higher ethical and spiritually motivated life- as our support system, as our brothers and sisters who also seek “to love mercy, do justice and to walk humbly before our God,” before the mystery of being…. I believe that a church or a community that prizes such mutual support and the goodness that is found in each other, can promote lasting growth and change- in one another, and in our world…..
Mechtild of Magdeburg, you all remember her, don’t you? Well, she was a feminine mystic in the Middle Ages who felt that our spiritual feelings are stirred during the listening to harp music. She said: It is the Holy Spirit who guides the harpist, so that all the strings that touched, resound in mutual love.
On the problem of jumping to judgment or false conclusions:
Village drunkard staggered up to the old parish priest, newspaper in hand, and greeted him politely. The priest annoyed and full of judgment, ignored him. But he had come to the priest with a purpose. ” Excuse me, Father, he said, “could you tell me what causes arthritis? The priest ignored him again. But when the slightly tipsy man repeated the question, the priest turned on him, and impatiently declared: “drinking causes arthritis, gambling causes arthritis, chasing women causes arthritis…. And then, just a little too late, the priest wonders, ” Why did you ask?” Oh, because it says right here, that is what the Pope has !