It’s a common statement when conversation turns to matters concerning God; “I’m not religious but I am spiritual.” Maybe, but I recall Fr Bob Maguire’s words, “Religion will kill you on its own. Spirituality on its own will lead you up the garden path. You’ve got to have them together.” Religion may be meant to bring us to spirituality but over the centuries it got lost in clerical structures and words, while the laity made do with piety.
Spirituality is about the hunger in the human heart. It arises out of a sense that there is a dimension to life that goes beyond what can be neatly packaged into words that hit the spot. People express their spirituality in many different ways – early morning walks with the dog, surfing, bush walking, essential oils and candles, yoga, music, art. Even reading romance fiction can be seen as a search for the elusive ’something more’.
Monash University’s Professor Garry Bouma in his Australian Soul (2006) argues that ‘Australians are quietly spiritual rather than explicitly religious with an understated spirituality characterised by ‘a serious, quiet reverence, a deliberate silence … an inarticulate awe and a serious distaste for glib wordiness’.
Whether we seek meaning in the environment, books or social justice issues, we are really asking deep, personal questions about the meaning of life. When someone says they are a spiritual person they might be talking about religious involvement or the practice of mindfulness, but mostly they are talking about becoming a better person or as they would say, a more spiritual person. That deep knowing that there is more to life than material things is what Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr call getting in touch with the true self.
There’s nothing new about spirituality. It pre-dates religion by thousands of years. We talk about life being a journey. Religion is seen as a roadway on which we travel, signposted with directions to keep us focused on that journey. Someone with a literary turn of mind described religion as being like a watermark that shows up when light is focused on it. A lovely scriptural image!
But that’s not how I saw religion in my formative years. It was about rules that I assumed were there to keep hell at bay. It was about dogma wrapped up in incomprehensible words, about beliefs that seemed more like magic than faith, and about tribal loyalties. Everything was supposed to be Catholic – tennis clubs, deb balls, schools, marriage.
Vatican 2 didn’t exactly undermine all this, but it did blow some holes in how I saw my baptismal religion. I discovered that the Bible wasn’t just a collection of Jesus stories, no different to the British history we heard in Social Studies classes. It was a living document which became part of my life. Till then I had assumed that the Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, was something to do with the Protestant religions. My Methodist grandmother had a little black Bible one on her bedside table and I was careful to give it a wide berth in case . . .well, you never knew!
In the years following Vatican 2 the Sisters not only replaced their medieval clothing for something more appropriate, but they wrote books about spirituality. As I read them and talked about them in faith sharing groups I was introduced to a way of praying that I had assumed was not for the laity. I realized that relating to God gently and reflectively was the opening into contemplative prayer, and that the way men and women relate to God differs – greatly.
Sometimes the way we express spirituality is not enough. We need more than chicken soup for the soul. From where I sit today I understand and appreciate the rituals, sacraments and theology that have been gifted to me as a structure for my God Journey. From where I sit today, I even appreciate its theology, despite having little patience with the way I have to dig through theological language to find the treasures that underlie the way my spirituality is expressed. Spirituality makes real what religion talks about.