What does it mean to live a spiritual life?
Last week, I attended a lecture presented by Helen and Alexander Astin, co-authors of a recent book called Cultivating The Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Lives. The thrust of the presentation was that according to the authors’ reams of research, today’s college students crave the spiritual in their lives. This cuts across organized religion, lifestyles, and ethnicities. That’s right: even Atheists and Agnostics desire a connection to the spiritual.
I had occasion to reflect on this research this weekend with the events in Arizona, where a young, vibrant, intelligent congresswoman nearly lost her life, and a host of others did lose theirs, in a shooting rampage by a mentally deranged man. The youngest victim was just nine years old.
With all the challenges we face, maybe people are starting to return to a search for the deeper meanings of existence. When human life can be extinguished in an instant, we must come to an understanding about what it means to be alive and why life is a gift we are given for all too brief a moment. How do we make the best use of this gift?
Organized religion offers a guide for the spiritual life, but it is by no means the only method to arrive at a deeply spiritual existence. If anything, religion is a framework, a template to guide us in our search. A truly spiritual life comes from within, from knowing ourselves and who we are, of realizing the importance of the human connection, of what it means to love someone even as we love ourselves.
People need to know there is something more than a random world. A life span of seventy-five years is nothing in the ions of time. What difference can a single person make with his years that will have an impact on human history? We cannot all be Shakespeare or Einstein. The answer is the ripple effect. A small stone tossed into a pond leaves ripples emanating out in concentric circles until the entire surface is affected. Yes, a large rock will do this more quickly, but even the smallest pebble causes a ripple. Our lives do have resonance beyond the immediate. There is something more, and that is what we must continue to search for within the need for a spiritual connection. We do matter, every one of us.
I imagine that gunman in Arizona sitting in a jail cell somewhere knowing with terrible certainty that he matters. He has the entire country’s attention. He took lives. How can we live a deeper, more meaningful and spiritual existence when such people walk among us and seem to work against our efforts to make the world better?
During the Holocaust of the Second World War, many Jewish people lost their faith in the camps. They were haunted by the questions. Where was God in the Holocaust? How could He abandon his Chosen People in their moment of most dire need? There are all manner of theological and philosophical answers to those questions.
In this world, there is good and evil. One cannot exist without the other. To ask how God would allow a Holocaust to occur to his people is to miss the point. Many twentieth century writers give the answer in their novels: man’s inhumanity to man. People committed the Holocaust, and the only thing God did was give us the freedom of choice. And for those who say God does not exist, then we were simply created with the power to choose, but any way you look at the situation, man chooses to abuse another, just as he can choose not to shoot, beat, hate, or condemn his brother or sister.
Spirituality is about that. It is about the deeper lessons of our experiences. Life does transcend us. That is the power of it. We occupy this earth for a brief time before handing it off to others to continue for us. This is reflected in nature—the leaves that fall in October die, but they fertilize the new growth the following spring. And that growth will die as well the next fall. Spirituality is about recognizing the cyclical nature of things, and that the travails of our days are all part and parcel of human existence. In the end, what means more is the interconnectedness of all things, the way we live, and what we leave behind.
A great man named Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: each of us lives now, this brief instant.” He goes on to say that “Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born.”
We will die, of that we can be certain. The seasons will change, and night will fall. Many, many days, our efforts will come to nothing, and we will feel as if we wasted daylight in the pursuit of loneliness.
But take heart.
The soul of us, the spirit, belongs to all life, all existence. The tiny leaf we carry within us, when the body dies, will rejoin the great glorious river of existence. To quote dear Robert Frost: “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”
The spirit we carry transcends history, the deeds of men, natural disasters, bullets and blood. The life of the spiritual is the realization that we go on long after we cease to breath the fire and our mortal essence decays to the dust from which it first congealed. In every turn of the world, we live.