One of the things I'm most queried about, as a minister, is spirituality--how is it different from religion, is it important, and what is it anyhow? I had never wondered about this very much myself, content to let the experiences happen and not try to define them. But when parishioners wanted to talk about spirituality and spiritual experience, I realized I needed to be more thoughtful.
I have normally defined religion as a public expression of my relationship with the universe; it happens in community, it is strengthened by my relationships with others, and it gives me an external outlet for my efforts to make the world a better place.
Spirituality, for me, is a private expression of my relationship with the universe; it is my internal awareness of the beauty of each of life's moments. It is available to me always, if I am mindful. Most of my spiritual experiences I don't share; most of them I savor privately and ponder privately. Sometimes I'll share one as a story in a public way, as a sermon illustration. But most are private.
It's hard to share spiritual experience in words, to make it as profound to a listener as to the experiencer. Sometimes we find that others have had the same experience and it gives us a link to one another that is more intimate than religion can usually offer.
I was with a young couple a few days ago, preparing for their wedding, and the young man observed that he and his fiancee were different in some ways and that spirituality was one of them. He wondered about spiritual experience and how to increase it in one's life.
I looked at him and his fiancee sitting on my couch in the morning sunshine, he with his arm around her, my cat on her lap, and it was a revelatory moment for me. I tried to put it into words.
"Here we are, the three of us, talking about how to make the ceremony of your marriage meaningful and beautiful, not just for yourselves but also for your friends and family. That in itself is a spiritual act.
"You are sitting in the sunshine, basking in its warmth, savoring the relationship between you and your fiancee. That in itself is a spiritual moment.
"She is next to you, enjoying your arm around her, petting an animal on her lap as it purrs and expresses its enjoyment of her care. That too is a spiritual experience.
"Every moment of our lives has the potential to be a spiritual experience, whether it's a joyous or sorrowful or so-called ordinary moment. It is our mindfulness, our awareness, that gives it meaning and importance. We can call spiritual experience into our lives just by noticing it."
Last night I attended a house concert offered by a small trio whose members are all connected through the church. It was a wonderful spiritual experience for many of us, I suspect, to see these musicians' intensity, their virtuosity, and to feel the waves of music which broke over us as they played.
It could have been just a performance, an excellent one, but for me it was more, because I know these musicians, I know their lives, their hopes, their sorrows. And I saw how the music filled them and us, how their gift of the music was sacred, holy. I let the music and the musicians fill me with joy and it was, indeed, a spiritual experience.