Being a Spiritual Person
- 2011 March-April
Recently I was listening to my friend Satish Kumar being interviewed on the BBC. Satish is a former Jain monk who defined his life by walking for world peace. With no financial resources of his own, he founded two successful schools in England. The interviewer asked him about life as a Jain and then offered a question that made my ears prick up: “In what way are you a spiritual person?”
I was interested in Satish’s answer because I’ve been writing a spiritual autobiography in which I describe how my original traditional Catholicism has seeped invisibly into my life, so that it’s difficult to separate the spirituality from the secular life.
As usual, Satish was calm and comfortable as he responded without any hesitation to the question. He said that he devotes his life to service, and he takes care of the world, especially nature and animals. These values are deeply set in the Jain religion, and he has made them his own.
When I heard Satish’s response, I thought about my own spirituality. I, too, spent my youth in a mostly monastic religious community. I, too, shed the outer signs of that life and have tried to live it in my daily life, fully but invisibly. I have made values of reverence, service, godliness, devotion, and prayer part of my daily life but without external signs of the religion.
Step by step throughout my life, I have thoughtfully transformed a highly visible religion into an ordinary way of life.
Notice that Satish didn’t talk about belief or authority or truth. Neither do I. It is the way you live, rather than what you believe, that accounts for your spirituality.
I make no separation between the spiritual and the secular. Yes, there is something called secularism, an ungodly insistence that there is no mystery, no ultimate source or depth, no meaning other than what we give to life. This is the way of the world today, and even church-goers sometimes split their lives between their impassioned belief and this secularistic way of life — another belief.
In recent years I have worked with doctors and hospitals and have seen secularism flourishing in medicine. Of all areas of life, you would think that work so involved with life-or-death issues would be more godly.
I have worked all my life against this kind of secularism, and yet I keep my spirituality so enmeshed with my secular life that no one can tell them apart. I learned this approach from Teilhard de Chardin, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and several Zen masters.
For me, there are three sources of a vital spirituality: First, know one religious tradition well, as in some way your own. I was born a Catholic and will always have that deep base. Second, learn many lessons and ideas from the inexhaustible resources of the many spiritual and religious traditions. Third, expand and deepen your spirituality in secular ways — through nature, the arts, philosophy, psychology, and science (without the secularism).
As a monk, I learned that work is prayer, that reading is a spiritual practice, and that fostering community in concrete ways is the heart of a spiritual way of life. I left the external monastic life behind, but I didn’t abandon these spiritual lessons. It isn’t that any work is automatically spiritual; you have to bend it toward contributing to humanity and protecting the natural world. Not all reading is spiritual; you can be selective, but I would include good novels on my list. And, as Buddhism teaches so well, community isn’t real unless it excludes no human nationality and no sentient beings.
Being spiritual in an invisible, secular style isn’t a piece of cake. It’s demanding, and its rewards have nothing to do with the ego satisfaction of possessing the truth or being right. The rewards are about being part of life and being part of its solution, rather than its problem.