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TRUE SPIRITUALITY SofS 4:16-5:2; 8:6-7; Matt 27:61- 28:10

Nowadays you often hear people say that they are spiritual but not religious. It is something they seem very clear about, but I often wonder (and so do other religious leaders) what that means. I think it means that the person claiming that for themselves sees themselves as having some kind of belief in a higher being and some motivation for acting ethically but wishes to dissociate themselves from any kind of organised religion. They believe that there is more to life than the purely material and there is some kind of higher reality which they try to be in touch with, a higher reason for being or doing good and a transcendent source for what it means to be human. Religion is relegated to a place of far less worth, and the idea of a set of beliefs that is handed down, or certain ceremonies or forms of ritual that are organised in any way are rejected. Religion is somehow suspect and spirituality much more acceptable.

Trying to pin words down
But what is spirituality? What does it mean to be spiritual? Spirituality is a tricky concept to define and yet the word is used so much these days. Philip Sheldrake, a Catholic theologian who has researched and written extensively on the subject, has pointed out that spirituality as a distinct concept has a only a relatively recent pedigree – perhaps only emerging in the last 100 years or so. That may seem surprising, as we imagine there has always been spirituality in some form or another. But religion as a distinct concept has also not been in existence that long, either. When we are puzzled by that statement, it throws up the fact that the ways in which we think nowadays have not always existed. For our forebears, the kinds of things that we now call “spiritual” or “religious” were simply part of the way they lived their normal lives. One just did say ones prayers, go to church and believe in God. It was all given and special attention wasn’t paid to it as a separate kind of thing. I suppose a simple illustration of this is our awareness of breathing. Until someone says to you: “hold your breath” or “breathe deeply”, you are not always consciously thinking about breathing – it is just something that goes on all the time if you are alive! Unless your attention is specifically brought to your breathing, you are not specially aware of it as a distinct part of being alive. But once it is singled out from the rest of our bodily functions, we can begin to describe and analyse it in ever increasing complexity: shallow or deep breathing; fast or slow; laboured or easy and so on. In a similar way, the human life in God has always gone on, but drawing special attention to it by calling it either or both “religion” and “spirituality” is only more recent.

Pinning down spirituality
My working theory at the moment is that there is no such thing as “pure” spirituality – that is, a way of living the inner life that is somehow abstract. Another sensory illustration may help to explain what I mean. There is no such thing as pure taste. Although we have the concept of “taste” as one of our five senses, it is always the taste of something. Taste does not exist as a separate thing – it is always the particular way in which our gustatory system conveys senses to our perception stimulated by something that comes into contact, say with our tongue. There is the taste of coffee, curry or cake. Although we might draw different tastes together such as bitter, spicy or sweet, they are only collective concepts based on specific foods. In a similar way, I feel that spirituality does not exist in a vacuum, there is only spirituality that is part of the particular way someone may relate to the ultimate: Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, for instance. I feel this even applies to our contemporaries who profess no allegiance to any particular religion, for theirs is a pick n mix spirituality which could be described as “Roger’s spirituality” or “Olivia’s spirituality”. So what is spirituality and how can it be distinguished from religion? The 20th C Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar suggested this definition: “The way a man understands his own ethically and religiously committed existence, and the way he acts and reacts habitually to this understanding.” The emphasis is on how individuals relate to what they consider to be the ultimate reality. Religion, on the other hand, carries with it the sense of something organised, something that has traditions and a history, certain customs, festivals, rituals and a central body of wisdom, such as scripture. Our contemporaries, having seen through the poverty of pure materialism, but wanting to avoid the undesirable elements in religion, seek to live their lives in ways which hold onto that higher reality which many of us prefer to call “God”.

Spirituality and sexuality
It may sound surprising to those who have never come across this suggestion, but spirituality and sexuality are closely linked. It is because both are bound up with the core of what it means to be a human person. This is where our readings come in. What is an erotic book doing in our Bibles, we may ask? What is the place of the Song of Solomon in our scriptures? After all it doesn’t mention God but does use the word love 25 times. The answer is that the whole book (it is poetry) can be read either as a love-poem between human lovers or as standing symbolically for the relationship between God and the human. After all, following the symbolism of Revelation, the Church and Jesus are described as the bride and her groom. If we believe that God is love, then there must be connections, because ultimately love is one. Love is the highest value: if one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned; love is as strong as death; many waters cannot quench love.(SoS 8)

Today we celebrate Mary Magdalene, someone who perhaps symbolises the close connection of sexuality and spirituality. There is no firm evidence from the biblical gospels that the woman called Mary who witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection was the same who anointed Jesus’ feet, nor even was a reformed prostitute. Later legend and tradition do connect them, and perhaps it is attractive to do so, even though it might not be historically accurate. We also have to be careful by what we mean when we use the word “sexuality”. Certainly we are not to overlay our contemporary ideas about sexuality onto the culture of Bible times and people. By Mary’s sexuality, I mean what the Bible has to say and mean about her womanhood, her care for Jesus’ body as well as her following him faithfully, along with the other disciples, male and female. It is because of these very qualities that she is able to witness the most extreme and profound truths about Jesus: that he was crucified and died, was buried and then rose again. Indeed, precisely because she witnessed the crucifixion she was in a position to bear witness to Jesus being raised again. It was in these ways that we can say she loved Jesus as a woman – all the modern stuff about her being “in love” with him is what I mean by mistakenly overlaying contemporary ideas onto the culture of Bible people. the Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart talked of the divine spark which lies deep inside each person. This is also the ground or the core of our being. This, I believe, connects sexuality and spirituality. The spark which makes us who we are: male, female or a mysterious combination of the two; the core of what it means to be human, and created in the image of God, and to reach beyond ourselves or into the very depths of ourselves, as we search for God, are bound up with one another. The purer our sexuality is, the more authentic our spirituality. What I mean by that is the more I accept my own physicality and the extent to which I am male or female and all that comes in the package, the more I am able to bear witness to the life that God lives.

There is one last thing which needs to be clarified, and which Mary Magdalene stands to remind us of. Mary encountered the risen Christ and in obedience to him, she went and told the other disciples the Easter news. Her encounter with Christ transformed her grief to joy: in some senses a very personal thing. But her personal or inner transformation, resulted in an outward action – she was part of the transformation of other’s lives, and formed the core of what the Church would stand for. Christian spirituality, therefore, is not just about feeling better inside yourself. Christian spirituality is bound up with the Trinity and Christ; and it is also bound up with outward action – making a difference in the world. True spirituality integrates our inner lives with the real world and in this way we live up to the example of Mary Magdalene.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith