At the core of our being, we are all uniquely spiritual. Barry Oliver shares an insight into authentic spirituality from a pink galah.
What is spirituality? The question is easy to ask but difficult to answer. It can be easy to define doctrines and list beliefs. But to define spiritual experience—in a fact-based world—nears impossibility. How do you quantify and qualify an experience that by its very nature is intimate, personal and subjective?
Maybe the reason why we have found spirituality so hard to talk about is that it may be difficult to know exactly what we are talking about. Some Christians have pointed out that spirituality cannot be defined logically. They are probably right. Can we adequately describe love, joy and anger on a piece of paper? I don’t think so. We only know what these intangible emotions are as we experience them.
In the same way I do not think we can describe spirituality by writing about it. Like all human qualities, emotions and experiences it can only be understood in the context of what happens to us in our daily lives. Let me illustrate.
Australian songwriter John Williamson has written a song called “Galleries of Pink Galahs.” It is a song about experiencing the struggles of living in the Australian bush. We listened to this song in a theology class I taught one day. It turned out to be a milestone in my understanding of the nature of spirituality. Not so much because of the content of the song itself, but because of the reactions of the class members to the song. Many (but not all) said that the experience they had while listening to that song was almost mystical. Some went so far as to actually call it a spiritual experience.
Soon afterwards, I played the song to a group of church ministers. Their reaction was the same as that of the students. Then I invited a group of people who have worked on the land most of their lives to listen to the song. There was hardly a dry eye in the room.
Interestingly, there were some in each group who did not experience the same reaction as the majority. Questioning revealed that all who were not particularly moved by the song had either grown up outside Australia or had lived most of their formative years in a city.
It did not take too much intelligence to work out what was happening. For those in the groups who had experienced the struggles of life in the Australian bush—who knew its pain and its frustration and who knew something of the dogged perseverance that it takes to survive and thrive in that environment, the song called forth a spiritual response. Those who had little prior experience of the events and scenes described in the song could not respond in the same way.
A spirituality of everyday life
An important insight has emerged from this experience with “Galleries of Pink Galahs.” It appears that our spirituality is, at least in part, closely tied to our experiences. It seems to be particularly tied to the struggles and heartaches of everyday life. Genuine Christian spirituality can only arise as we find the God of the Scripture in the context of our personal journey through the world. Without a knowledge and experience of life, spirituality cannot be born and it cannot mature. Spirituality is closely tied to everyday life.
It is important we understand that spirituality can only be lived in the context of life and its experiences. What is the point of a spirituality that is unrelated to living in the real world? Spirituality has too often been associated with monks, hermits and people who have separated themselves from the cut and thrust of life. For them, the idea seemed to prevail that in order to be spiritual one had to somehow rise “above the world” and live a life of self-denial and asceticism. There are some prime examples of such devotion recorded in the dusty archives of scores of medieval monasteries. But I am no longer convinced this is the kind of spirituality needed in the 21st century. Authentic spirituality is lived. It is alive, not dead.
A spirituality of the desert
In contrast to the above, there are many biblical precedents for nurturing spirituality at times when we remove ourselves temporarily from the bustle of life. The Bible repeatedly refers to the “desert place.” Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Paul and Jesus Himself all had significant spiritual encounters in “the desert.” The Scriptures make it abundantly plain that there is a need to separate oneself from the world in order to find a particularly deep and meaningful relationship with God. There is need to revitalise oneself and spend time in individual and intimate communion with the Creator.
In the same way that there is no substitute in building a secure relationship between parent and child than one-on-one time, there can be no substitute for time spent in communion with God in order to maintain a relationship with Him. If your spiritual experience is lagging somewhat and you cannot remember a recent “desert experience” with God, then it may well be necessary to take time out. It might be in a forest of gnarled old gum trees, in a spring garden, on a mountain top or in a verdant valley. God may catch up with you as you ride a wave on a beautiful summer’s morning, or as you look up at the stars on a cold winter’s night. If you want to know what it is to be spiritual, then you need to give God a chance to show you.
In addition to His 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus often spent time with His Father in prayer. He recognised the need to separate Himself at times from His family and nearest friends in order to build the spiritual resources He needed to maintain His ministry among the people who needed Him. His spirituality was not accidental or haphazard. He was intentional about it and endeavoured to teach His disciples to do the same. Unfortunately they were slow learners. It was not until they experienced the trauma of His betrayal, scourging and death that they began to understand the depth of His relationship with His Father and with them, and they realised their own need for that kind of relationship.
Spirituality in today’s world
Along with the “desert place,” Scripture makes it equally clear that spirituality must be lived in the experiences of everyday life if it is to be authentic and meaningful.
Jesus took His message and His life to the people. He ate with people, walked with people, cried with people and rejoiced with people. He slept in their homes, fished in their boats, raised their dead and healed their hurts. He was not some wandering ascetic who did not know what it meant to go in to God and out to the people. He did not practise an exclusive monasticism but a genuinely integrative spirituality. His was a spirituality that reflected His relationship with God in the context of the common experiences of His life.
Using Jesus as our example, it is important that if we are going to have a viable and vibrant spirituality in the modern world, we must recognise that our relationship with God cannot be separated from all that life is.
Signposts of spirituality
- Our spirituality must inform and be informed by the journey of life and faith that we are walking day by day.
- Our spirituality will change and mature as we meet the challenges, frustrations and joys of life.
- Our spirituality is ours and ours alone. We cannot sit in judgment on the spirituality of another, nor can that other sit in judgment on the way in which we experience and express our spirituality.
- Our spirituality will take time out to be disciplined.
What is spirituality? Spirituality for the Christian in today’s world must grow from communion with God in the “desert” and in everyday life. Each aspect of your spirituality cannot function without the other. Each will complement and build the other in a spiritual relationship with God that may not necessarily be expressed in words, and may be even more difficult to include in a statement of beliefs. But without a viable spirituality, you and I will have little reason to become or remain a Christian and very little to offer the world around us.