Selections from “Images & Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism” by Mircea Eliade

“Symbolic thinking is not the exclusive privilege of the child, of the poet or of the unbalanced mind: it is consubstantial with human existence, it comes before language and discursive reasoning.  The symbol reveals certain aspects of reality—the deepest aspects—which defy any other means of knowledge.  Images, symbols and myths are not irresponsible creations of the psyche; they respond to a need and fulfill a function, that of bringing to light the most hidden modalities of being…

Images by their very structure are multivalent.  If the mind makes use of images to grasp the ultimate reality of things, it is just because reality manifests itself in contradictory ways and therefore cannot be expressed in concepts…  It is therefore the image as such, as a whole bundle of meanings, that is true, and not any one of its meanings, nor one alone of its many frames of reference.  To translate an image into a concrete terminology by restricting it to any one of its frames of reference is to do worse than mutilate it—it is to annihilate, to annul it as an instrument of cognition…

Symbols never disappear from the reality of the psyche.  The aspect of them may change, but their function remains the same; one has to only look behind their latest masks…  Modern man is swarming with half-forgotten myths, decaying hierophanies and secularized symbols.  The progressive de-sacralisation of modern man has altered the content of his spiritual life without breaking the matrices of his imagination: a quality of mythical litter still lingers in the ill-controlled zones of the mind…

These degraded images present to us the only possible point of departure for the spiritual renewal of modern man.  It is of the greatest importance, we believe, to rediscover a whole mythology, if not a theology, still concealed in the most ordinary, everyday life of contemporary man; it will depend upon himself whether he can work his way back to the source and rediscover the profound meanings of all these faded images and damaged myths…  It depends, as we said, upon modern man—to “reawaken” the inestimable treasure of images that he bears within him; and to reawaken the images so as to contemplate them in their pristine purity and assimilate their message…

Symbols and myths comes from such depths: they are part and parcel of the human being, and it is impossible that they should not be found again in any and every existential situation of man in the Cosmos.”


On Spirituality

The core of human spirituality in lived experience is simply that which one gives their life to.  This finds its expression in our most basic energies, drives, desires, and longings from which we form our life’s goals and pursuits.  One of the most central and fundamental spiritual questions then is, what are you giving your life to?  This big question can be broken down and approached through some smaller questions.  For instance, what do you give your time, attention, and energy to hour by hour throughout the day?  What do you want in life?  What do you long and dream for?  What ambitions and goals do you strive for?  What is your vision of happiness and success and what are you doing to pursue it?  What would be your ideal life’s work?  What purposes and values motivate your choices and shape lifestyle?  What do you consider to be a valuable way to spend your time?  What ethical convictions influence your behaviour and decisions?   And why and how do you going about doing all of the above?

All of these questions surround and relate to the central question of spirituality, what are you giving your life to?  The unique set of answers you or I or anyone gives to questions like these will provide us with a snapshot of the spirituality we are currently living.  One important distinction worth bearing in mind here is a person’s assumed spirituality may not be entirely the same as their actual spirituality, if it even is at all, as David Benner puts it.  In other words, the spirituality that an individual professes may not be the spirituality they actually practice and live.  People can say one thing and do another.  But this is nothing new.  In the end, spirituality is not merely a matter of belief.  Spirituality is an entire way of being and living in the world, which includes beliefs, but is certainly not limited to beliefs.  One’s spirituality is more fully represented by what one is living for.

On Spirituality

Honest questions and curiosity are the lifeblood of healthy spirituality.  Contrary to some popular notions, real inquiry is not the enemy of authentic spirituality.  Quite the opposite actually: the spiritual life thrives through genuine inquiry, curiosity, and questioning—through intentionally pursuing life’s depths and horizons while allowing oneself to be changed in the process.  Certain religious commitments and attitudes can absolutely discourage curiosity, and therefore stifle ongoing spiritual development. Sometimes these attitudes can accumulate into overall cultural ethos that is anti-rational, anti-intellectual, and anti-inquiry, the results of which are always harmful.  Though some non-religious attitudes can also oppose spiritual development, sometimes ironically by way of asking lots questions, though disingenuously, with a motive of apathy or fear or cynicism, and without a real interest in discovering any answers that may disrupt or challenge one to change.  Here asking questions actually becomes a strategy for defending oneself against real questioning while maintaining the appearance of being a “free thinker.”  Questions obscure to protect.

But the truth is that curiosity nurtures the spiritual life.  Our spirits press and expand within us, longing to be unleashed into life.  Spirituality is truly for the curious, the questioners, the inquirers, the free thinkers and movers; for those dissatisfied with cliches, easy answers, and party lines; for the learners, the explorers, the risk-takers, and the students of life; for those who want to throw their entire being—body, mind, soul, and spirit—into the pursuit of life and truth; and for those who are willing to change, to grow, to evolve, and to expand in doing so.  Authentic spirituality then enters one into a lifelong pilgrimage of seeking and searching, the destination of which cannot be fully known.  Spirituality then is for the brave.  It is for those who have the courage to dare to make its unknown journey.


On Spirituality

When the core of spirituality is properly seen as a universal human activity that exists beyond apparently religious beliefs or practices, various forms of human life or work or culture can exhibit new and surprising and even sacred significance.  Erich Fromm’s comments, for instance, concerning how “modern man”  devotes his “life energy,” presents a striking portrait of what could be called the contemporary spirituality of capitalism:

“Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity; he experiences his life energy as an investment with which he should make the highest profit, considering his position and the situation on the personality market. He is alienated from himself, from his fellow men and from nature. His main aim is profitable exchange of his skills, knowledge, and of himself, his ‘personality package’ with others who are equally intent on a fair and profitable exchange. Life has no goal except the one to move, no principle except the one of fair exchange, no satisfaction except the one to consume.”

Capitalist spirituality has all of the classic features of an established tradition: a vision of paradise (the free market); goals for human life (maximize profit, frenetic activity, steadily consume); an implicit anthropology (humans are rational actors, commodities, consumers); principles, codes, and values (fair exchange, supply and demand, accumulate wealth, live to consume); a view of evil (market interferences, extra-market commitments, consumer decline, inner boredom); special places of congregation and worship (trading floors, shopping malls); an image of the good life (unlimited consumption); a mission for the faithful (market expansion, economic globalization); and a functional deity (the invisible hand, the market forces).  Is it any wonder then that it has been so successful?


On Spirituality

Spirituality is not in essence some optional set of beliefs or practices.  Spirituality is not something that some people choose to believe or do whereas some other people choose not to.  Spirituality, at its core, is a universal human activity, an essential feature of the human condition.  This is because spirituality essentially involves what each and every one of us chooses to do with our spirit.  If the word “spirit” has too much conceptual baggage then switch it for the word “life.”  Each one of us has life surging in us, coursing through our bodies and minds and souls, empowering, enlivening, and energizing us every single second.  The existence of this life is undeniable.   It is so essential to our experience that we can easily take it for granted.  Life, indeed, is what allows us to experience, to breathe, to be awake and alive.  This life is a precious and mysterious gift.  And life is something that no one can earn or control, but simply receive, moment by moment, as a grace.  Indeed, rejoicing with gratitude is most natural response to openly receiving this incredible gift of life.

The ancient Hebrew understanding of “spirit” did not primarily have to do with disembodied ghost-like beings (or spirits).  Spirit itself actually tended to be associated with the very essence of life itself.  Ruach, the ancient Hebrew word for spirit, could also be translated as “breath” or “wind.”  Spirit was understood to be as close as one’s breath and as prevailing as the winds.  Spirit is immanent.  Spirit is everywhere.  Spirit is the lifeblood of existence.  Our individual spirits and lives were indeed understood to be sustained by the divine Spirit of Life.  But the fact remains that the ancient understanding of “spirit” was basically practical, concrete, clinical: spirit is the present, animating force within that sustains each one of us, giving us breath and vitality and life.  The spiritual life therefore “is not a life before, after, or beyond our everyday existence,” as Henri Nouwen put it.  The spiritual life, whatever it fully involves, is here.  The spiritual life is now.

Our spirit, our life, is expressed most profoundly through our deepest desires, longings, appetites, and energies.  Spirituality and sexuality are actually very closely related.  Sexuality is one of our most powerful and profound spiritual energies, which has the potential for great good or harm depending upon how we choose to channel it.  Our spirits are very powerful forces indeed.  This is one of the primary reasons why spiritual and religious traditions have been formed and reformed throughout human history.  Such traditions are responses to managing the human spirit, either for better of for worse.  Healthy religions or spiritualities provide practical supports, boundaries, ethics, taboos, teachings, values, and theologies for the overall purpose of supporting the human spirit into maturity and flourishing.  Unhealthy religions or spiritualities provide practical supports, boundaries, ethics, taboos, teachings, values, and theologies that become ends in themselves, which inevitably stunt spiritual development, either intentionally or unintentionally, and perhaps for ulterior purposes.  It is possible for a religious or spiritual tradition with healthy beginnings to evolve into an unhealthy tradition over time, depending upon how its adherents relate to it and carry it forward.  This is why reforms have been a regular theme throughout the history of human religions.  Healthy religions are reforming religions—or living traditions—that evolve over time.



On Spirituality

Toward a Renewed Christian Spirituality: A Manifesto by Kenneth Leech

A renewed Christian spirituality will be concerned with the recovery of the vision of God in the contemporary world.  It will seek to speak of God and the deep things of the spirit in ways which are meaningful in the present climate.

It will be a spirituality which is rooted in the experience of God in the life of the Jewish people.  In the study of the Old Testament, it will bear witness to the revelation of God in the desert to a people of pilgrimage.

It will be a spirituality which finds its centre in Jesus Christ, seeing in him the fullness of the Godhead dwelling bodily.  It will seek to be faithful to his proclamation of the Kingdom of God. It will see in Jesus both God incarnate and a human comrade, the divine revealed and the human raised up.

It will be a spirituality which looks to the faith of the Apostolic Church as exhibited in the New Testament: the faith in God who brings unity to the human race, and who has wrought salvation and reconciliation through Christ; a God of light and love; a God whose Spirit brings freedom; a God who nourishes and builds up the Body of Christ.

It will be a spirituality of the “desert.”  From the desert experience it will cherish and seek to strengthen the contemplative life of the Church.  It will seek both solitude and communion as equally important aspects of the life of the spirit.

It will be a spirituality of “cloud and darkness.”  It will bear witness to the mystery at the heart of God, and to the mystery at the heart of the human encounter with the divine.  It will seek to lead people away from a religion of easy answers into the dark night of faith.  It will be a contemplative spirituality.

It will be a spirituality of “water and fire,” of cleansing and purifying, of renewal and spiritual warmth.  In the symbols of the water of baptism and the fire of the Spirit, it will see the call to continual rebirth and the daily challenge of the God whose nature is consuming fire.  It will be a charismatic spirituality.

It will be a spirituality rooted in the Word made Flesh.  It will hold to the truth of God incarnate, and will seek to find and serve God in the flesh and blood of God’s children.  It will rejoice in the divine gifts of matter and sexuality, seeing in the human the gateway to the divine.  It will be a materialistic spirituality.

It will be a eucharistic spirituality.  At its heart will be the celebration of the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  It will recognize Christ both in the Eucharist and in those who share his nature.  It will seek to manifest the eucharistic life of sharing and equality in the world.  It will therefore be a spirituality of the common life, of holy communion.

It will be a spirituality of pain, seeing in the passion and death of Jesus the heart of the gospel.  It will preach Jesus crucified and seek to follow the way of the cross.

It will learn from the mystical writers to see God as the ground of all reality and of our own beings.  It will seek to recover and promote a true Christian mysticism as an integral element in Christian theology and will encourage the ministry of spiritual guidance.

It will be a spirituality which will take seriously the experience of God in women’s history; the feminine namings of God in Scripture and tradition; and the forgotten or neglected insights of writers who have experienced God in a feminine way.

It will be a spirituality of justice and peace.  It will seek to know and follow God in the pursuit of justice for all people, in the struggle against racism and other forms of domination, in the movement for world peace, and in the campaign against poverty and inequality.  In the struggles for a more humane world, a renewed spirituality will come to discern the face of God, the holy and just One, and to share in the peace of God which passes all understanding.


On Spirituality

What is the relationship between spirituality and religion?  Since the words spirituality and religion both potentially possess a wide variety of meanings, the terms must first be given some definition.  By “spirituality,” I mean that which a person chooses to do with their spirit.  “Spirit” here refers to the dynamic seat of an individual’s life, desires, and vitality which energizes and enlivens them.  Spirituality, in this sense, is a universal human activity that may or may not be engaged in along with religion.  By “religion,” I mean the rules, rituals, theologies, ethics, taboos, communities, and traditions we form in an effort to manage the human spirit, for better or for worse, which are often also engaged in in our search for God.  So, with these working—though not exhaustive—definitions now in mind, we can return to the original question.

The relationship between spirituality and religion is similar to the relationship between that of human health and eating and exercise.  Ideally, we choose to form eating and exercise habits, disciplines, and lifestyles, perhaps even in communities with others, that enhance our physical and psychological health.  We follow a balanced and healthy diet, eat reasonable portions of food, ensure we get enough physical activity, spend time doing things that nurture our psychosocial wellbeing, and so on.  But sometimes we don’t live up to these ideals.  Take a bodybuilder, for instance, who begins exercising their body to such an extreme that it’s damaging to their health, possibly even taking years off their lifespan, because they become more motived to appear a certain way than to be healthy.  Or take myself, as an example.  Forming and maintaining healthy eating habits has been challenging for me since I have formed the habit of overeating unhealthy foods to ease discomforting emotions.  There are many possible reasons that we can become motivated to eat or exercise in ways that do not support or enhance our own health.  When this happens, sometimes the habits and lifestyles we form can unfortunately become unhealthy, sometimes even extremely so.

Ideally, we likewise choose to form religious habits, disciplines, communities, and lifestyles that enhance our spiritual health, and indeed simultaneously support and enhance the spiritual health of others.  Religious traditions at their best have done this, but sadly religion has not always been at its best throughout human history or around the world—which is a significant understatement, I know.  At its worst, a person or group can become motived to engage in religious activities, ideologies, and lifestyles for reasons other than enhancing spiritual health and development.  Religious individuals can be motivated to engage in religion in order to gain power and control over others, in order to sanctify hatred and violence against strangers, in order to insulate themselves from the harsh realities of life, and in order to justify countless other possible evils.  Whenever this occurs, spiritual health is invariably ignored if not actively suppressed, since authentic spiritual growth can challenge and threaten the status quo of immature religions.  Indeed, the history of human religions shows that religion can ironically be engaged in as a means of avoiding spiritual growth altogether.

This is why religion at its best should always act in the service of the spiritual health and development of human beings.  Problems and even outright evils arise whenever we get their proper relationship wrong.  This is precisely why human spirituality must always take primacy over human religions.  To use more overtly “religious” language, it is why the Spirit of Life should always be our primary source of inspiration and guidance before that of religious traditions.  This, however, does not mean that the wisdom of the ages contained in the best of our religious traditions has no value.  It means, rather, that following the guidance of humanmade religious traditions should always be infinitely secondary to following the ever-unpredictable and ever-expanding movements of the Spirit.