by George Clifford
What constitutes a spiritual practice? Initially, I defined spiritual practice in terms of traditional Anglican activities: praying and reading scripture (the daily offices), attending and receiving Holy Communion, devotional reading, giving alms, meditating, offering thanks before meals, etc.
This clarity began to dissolve in college when I studied world religions and learned about a host of divergent spiritual practices, e.g., yoga, zazen, nature mysticism, and Tantrism. During this time, I was exposed to the now largely forgotten charismatic renewal movement. Comprised of Christians dissatisfied with the perceived aridness of the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches, participants in the charismatic renewal often acted as if the most valuable spiritual practices were those linked to the Holy Spirit’s gifts.
Then in seminary, while employed by a Quaker social service agency in a state prison, one of the men I with whom I worked, who was serving time for multiple felony convictions, vigorously asserted that using cannabis was a spiritual practice for him. Subsequently, a man on the fringe of my first parish introduced me to Carlos Castaneda’s writings about Native American shamanism in Mexico and their use of peyote. These incidents complemented concurrent news stories about controversial efforts to demonstrate LSD and cannabis’ alleged ability to expand consciousness and deepen spiritual awareness.
When the locus of my ministry shifted from the parish to the military, I met and had chaplain colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates from dozens of different faith traditions. A Conservative rabbi’s spiritual practices, centered on observing the Torah, are mostly distinctive from those of an Imam or fundamentalist Baptist minister. I also had my introduction to evangelical parachurch organizations, especially the Navigators, Officers’ Christians Fellowship, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. These groups send lay people to minister full-time to military personnel and their families, generally expecting the person (or couple) to solicit contributions to cover their expenses, stipend, and a proportionate share of the organization’s expenses. These missionaries teach spiritual practices that emphasize personal commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior followed by a life of ever-deepening discipleship. Discipleship connotes scripture memorization, adherence to a strict code of personal morality, an extended period of tutoring by a mature Christian mentor (often a staff person), tithing as a minimum standard of giving, and indoctrination into the group’s version of theological orthodoxy. And finally, toward the end of my active duty, I dealt with Wiccans, whose spiritual practices are far more akin to magic or alchemy than to traditional Christianity.
Adherents of these practices aim, given their diverse theological or philosophical beliefs, to cultivate the human spirit and the human spirit’s relationship to ultimate reality. Beyond that commonality of intent, this bewildering and still-expanding array of spiritual practices (e.g., some spiritual but not religious persons describe football games or gym sessions as their spiritual practice) includes much that is contradictory and mutually exclusive. Like many post-modern people, I struggled to formulate an approach to spirituality that both identifies what is truly spiritual and practices helpful in developing that aspect of my life.
I started with the widely held idea that human spirit connotes an eternal soul, i.e., the everlasting spark or image of God in a person. Yet mystics in many traditions stress that God is ineffable and infinite. God therefore eludes human definition. In time, I realized that thinking of the human spirit as the eternal soul poses a similar unsolvable puzzle This approach also requires explaining how, and perhaps when, ensoulment occurs, i.e., how and when a human acquires her/his soul or spirit. Furthermore, this approach creates problems of body-spirit dualism with which theologians, philosophers, and scientists have wrestled unsuccessfully since Descartes. Finally, it’s far from certain that the Christian Scriptures unambiguously support belief in an eternal soul.
Eventually, I tentatively adopted an alternative approach: identifying the human spirit as that which is quintessentially human. This approach advantageously avoids the problems associated with body-spirit dualism and with locating the exact moment of ensoulment because evolution, and not ensoulment, produced the human spirit. Thus, each aspect of the human spirit has a biological basis and is observable to lesser degrees in some other species. Importantly, not every aspect of human uniqueness is necessarily an element of the human spirit. For example, blushing is unique to humans but this ability does not appear integral to the quintessence of being human.
Research and reflection have led me to hypothesize that the human spirit consists of six distinct but overlapping facets:
- Self-awareness (sometimes described as self-transcendence)
- Linguistic ability (especially the symbolic use of language, which enables humans to find meaning in life and to build community)
- The aesthetic sense (art can add depth to life, offer a fresh perspective and increase self-awareness, improve communication, and contribute to community)
- Creativity (humans have introduced significant novelty into the cosmos, unlike any other species, and implicitly poses questions of value, i.e., it points to moral concerns)
- Limited autonomy (located between determinism and freedom, but probably closer to the former than to the latter)
- Loving and being loved (sometimes called reciprocal altruism, but that term minimizes the importance of emotion for this facet of the spirit; this facet explicitly adds a moral dimension to spirituality).
Together these six facets, sketched succinctly above, comprise the quintessence of what it means to be a human, i.e., the human spirit. (Incidentally, the Episcopal Café’s layout implicitly presumes that the human spirit has these six facets.)
This conception of the human spirit has provided me with a workable framework for shaping and assessing my spiritual life and for helping others to do likewise. Additional research may identify stages or levels of spiritual development. More broadly, the framework should also prove useful for assisting congregations to evaluate and to shape corporate worship, spiritual formation programs, and other activities in ways designed to cultivate spiritual growth and development.
In the meantime, I no longer give inquirers a catalogue of theoretically spiritual practices from which to choose ones that seem attractive. Instead, I explain that beneficial spiritual practices are habits that assist an individual in developing or more fully living into one or more facets of the human spirit. An individualized, balanced rule of life addresses all six facets in a way that the person will find appealing, practical, and sustainable.
For example, the daily office may help an individual to develop a fuller sense of self-awareness and improve his/her linguistic capacity. Various forms of analysis, spiritual direction, and devotional reading may provide similar benefits. Spending time in nature, whether walking in the woods, tending a garden, or snorkeling may awaken a person’s aesthetic sense, prompting ponderings about beauty and origins of life. Another person may find that painting, sculpting, or visiting an art museum provides the same type of catalyst. Exercising one’s limited autonomy may entail engaging in creative activities (e.g., art, writing, or programming) or becoming more intentional about one’s use of time, talent, or treasure. Learning to love and to accept being loved more fully may involve a plethora of practices including volunteering in a church or non-profit, marital or family therapy, or participating in Cursillo.
These brief comments hopefully suggest the potential that clarity about the human spirit holds for shaping individual and corporate spiritual practices. If we wish to remain credible in our post-modern, evidence-based society, then we need to replace vague notions of spirituality with clearer, more robust concepts.
George Clifford is an ethicist and retired priest in Honolulu, HI. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.