What is a “spiritual” practice anyway?
I recently had a great conversation with my friend Larry about what it means to be a Pastoral Counselor, a professional identity that Larry and I share. At the crux of the issue is the word “spiritual,” and what we mean when we say that word. Our conversations, both in person and via email exchange were quite lively, one might even say spirited! (pun fully intended). Given that most of us include meditation within the rubric of spirituality, I thought I would opine on a few ideas about the word “spiritual” in hopes of stimulating further thought and reflection for anyone interested in the topic.
Looking at the definition of the word spiritual in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, I’m not sure that the creators of this dictionary have any better idea on this than I do. They start off safe, simply saying “of, or relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit.” Well that doesn’t really settle matters, does it? Then they go on to say “of or relating to sacred matters,” leaving us to wonder what is meant by “sacred.” Their next two definitions lapse into religious ideation, with “ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal” and “concerned with religious values.” OK, I get it, being spiritual is related to being religious, but I still don’t really know what “spiritual” means based on all this.
Their final two definitions didn’t help either. “Related or joined in spirit” still leaves one to define “spirit.” How much different is that from defining “spiritual”? And, finally, “of or relating to supernatural beings or phenomena.” Well, now I’m really lost. I see my life as a spiritual journey, but I haven’t met any supernatural beings on the road quite yet. And, frankly, I’m with the old Buddhist expression that says “if you meet the Buddha on the road kill him.” I guess I’m just not into looking outside of my own being for evidence of the spiritual.
So I turned to Google in hopes of finding something, anything, that might help me here. So I searched on the terms “spirit hovered” and “ruah.” I chose the term “spirit hovered” because it’s the first reference in the Hebrew scripture to “spirit,” found in the beginning of Genesis in reference to the first creation story. And I chose “ruah” knowing that this anglicized spelling of the Hebrew word usually translates as spirit. And wouldn’t you know it, the first “hit” on Google was to the Vatican website! Well, maybe the Catholics know something about this, so I took a look.
At the Vatican website I found an essay titled “The Jewish ‘Roots’ of the Holy Spirit.” Keeping in mind that Christianity has interpreted and reinterpreted Jewish scriptures for two millennia, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, I proceeded cautiously. As I read the text, it was clear that the Catholic point of view (and the Christian point of view in general) is that the Jewish scriptures are understood in light of the Christian revelations which come later. But the article was clearly respectful, and actually helped me to see exactly how we might understand the word spiritual a little better by listing seven aspects of the word spirit.
First, the word spirit, in the context of the Jewish scriptures, is the translation of the Hebrew word ruah, which is properly translated as breath, air, and/or wind. Second, spirit is seen as the source of ordering power; that is, that which transforms chaos into cosmos, disorder into order. Third, spirit transforms dust into life, common clay becomes a human being with the infusion of spirit. Fourth, spirit guides, brings counsel and power, along with wisdom and insight. Fifth, spirit heals by allowing one to become a new creation, overcoming sin and restoring relations. Sixth, spirit is universal, all humans (all creatures?) are filled and possessed by the spirit. And seventh, the outpouring of the spirit leads to a feast, a celebration. This celebration recognizes the gift of the spirit to all humans.
In the days and weeks to come I’d like to meditate a bit on these seven qualities of the spirit and hope to share some ideas about mindfulness and the spirit. I like the idea that my meditation and commitment to mindful living are connected to these seven qualities. More later, but for now notice your breath, come to know yourself in your sitting, and bring this transformational gift to all who you encounter in this ordinary time.