Every so often, we at Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction and Ministries host an "Ask a Spiritual Director Day" on our social media pages. For this month's blog, we've compiled some of our favorite Q&A's. Thank you to everyone who has submitted questions over the years for your vulnerability, thoughtfulness, and humor. If you'd like to submit a question for our next Ask a Spiritual Director Day, ask away in the comments below. Let's get to it!
Q: What does it mean to be spiritual but not religious?
A: There are possibly two ways to answer this question, and I definitely prefer one answer over the other. But I’ll say both anyway. At any rate, TL;DR: messy semantics.
First, the boring answer:
To break it down to dictionary-level components: religion is an organized belief system in a higher power. Spirituality is an individual soul’s connection to the world, both seen and unseen. A religious practice might lend inspiration and structure to that connection, but some may not find that practice necessary to feel connected or fulfilled. In other words, spirituality is related to how one orients themself in the world, and religion is the response. Spirituality is the felt experience, religion is the codification. Spirituality, theory. Religion, practice.
You could easily argue the exact opposite to all of this, so not only is this answer boring, it’s possibly entirely false.
Furthermore, definitions of the word “religion” tend to emphasize the involvement of a deity or deities, so you could argue that “spirituality” differs from religion in that it does not necessarily involve deities, but this is obviously not a hard and fast rule. The strictest monotheists talk about their “spiritual growth,” and, depending on which Buddhist to whom you speak, plenty will call their spiritual practice–which involves transcendent thinking without any deities–a “religion.”
Now, the more interesting (to me) answer:
I think they’re the same thing. There was a cultural shift (in the US at least) away from using terms like “religious” in the 1800s-early 1900s (think: Walt Whitman, etc.) when less and less people found fulfillment in the established religious practices of the culture. As a way to show this delineation, more people described themselves “spiritual.” In this way, the term “spiritual” achieved the goal of communication by eliciting a nuanced meaning when used.
These days, when we say that someone is “spiritual but not religious,” we culturally understand that to mean something similar. We usually mean that they have some kind of understanding of a transcendent reality and that they perform corresponding behaviors that do not cleanly align themselves with an institutional religion (which I would argue is different from “organized religion”, but that’s a whole other story). In this way, the term “spiritual” is serving a communicative purpose.
However, I’d prefer to operate in a world where they are considered the same thing.
Using the term “spiritual” because you feel elbowed out of the term “religious” by the Major Religions Powers That Be is something I find, frankly, tragic. Religion is one of the most incredible facets of human (and other sentient lifeforms’) behavior. Everyone, including atheists, is religious. We look at sunsets because we want to. We grieve our dead. We light candles for our friends in need. We bring good luck charms to baseball games. We do things that don’t exactly “change” anything, but it still feels extremely important for us to do them. Even if you don’t think that’s a good thing, you have to admit it’s at least interesting.
All of this is truly just scratching the surface. Fortunately, my best friend, who happens to be a philosophy grad, is going to take us on a deep dive into the meaning of the term “spirituality” in an upcoming blog post on the Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction and Ministries website. Keep an eye out!
Q: Being in nature is super important to my spiritual practice, but I can't really go outside now for obvious reasons [pandemic]. How do you connect to nature from inside?
A: I want to start with a reminder that you ARE nature; you aren’t an alien who isn’t part of our ecosystem! We’ve absorbed this unhealthy dichotomy that our human bodies and the enclosures in which we live aren’t part of nature, but you wouldn’t say that ants in an anthill aren’t a part of nature because they've built themselves a city system, would you?
However, there are certainly ways to make “in here” feel more connected to “out there,” especially while we’re all doing our part to keep ourselves and our communities healthy by staying indoors. Nurturing a few windowsill plants, whether edible or decorative, can be a nourishing meditative practice. There’s something profound about running a hot shower or bath (drawing water up from the ground and into your home) and letting it engulf you. And don’t be afraid to crack the windows and let in a little sunlight, breeze, and maybe the spray of a rainfall. Try to remember that, even though you may feel disconnected from the natural world, it’s already all around you. The items in your home —the wood of your coffee table, the metal in your computer, your pet, your partner — are all parts of nature.
Your own body is an amazing place to start if you want to reconnect with nature. Bring your focus on yourself and your own infinite natural processes. If you can gaze at a river to find a sense of rhythm and calm, you can gaze at your own pulse.
Q: I'm interested in learning more about ecstatic dance, but I don't think there are any workshops near me. Can I get started by myself at home?
A: This question is hitting home (literally), since we’ve had to postpone our regular ecstatic dance sessions for the time being due to the pandemic. In the meantime, to answer your question, absolutely you can get started at home!
“Dance” is a beautifully loose term. Dance is simply movement, so if you have a pulse, you’re dancing. If you can inhale and exhale, you can dance. At the end of the day, ecstatic dance is about getting in touch with your body. While in a normal session you’re encouraged to not hold back from any movement you feel inspired to make, the final product does not have to be proper dance per se. To quote a Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction and Ministries Ecstatic Dance attendee:
“Ecstatic dance does not necessarily require dancing. During my session, I sat, stretched, and took a short nap. Leaving my session, I felt refreshed and that I had reconnected with the divine in a physical way.”
That said, in-home dance parties are the actual greatest. (Assuming consent of any downstairs neighbors.) The body is essential to a well-balanced spiritual life. Ecstatic dance is a great way to begin engaging that balance. It’s all about trusting your body to move freely and joyfully (or grievously) so your spirit can do the same. A safe, comfortable space to do that is key, so in times like these, home is a great place to start.
Ecstatic dance is a joy-filled end in itself. Dancing is a receptive, harmonizing, and responsive act. In dance we embrace our bodies, interact with the musical, human, and spatial blessings around us, join these blessings on their own terms, and contribute new creation in return. Some food for thought when starting out:
What would it be like to dance your feelings?
Recite your creed or bring to mind your deepest convictions, and see how your body wants to move as you do so.
Pick out an object in your home and dance to/with/as it.
Dance the color green.
Try to avoid “interpretive dance” or “charades” and just let the body do what it wants. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. Let the body speak its own language.
Q: I need my prayers to sleep, but they feel void of Grace, and the last two times I've been in a church I had a strong feeling that there was no place further removed from God. My background is Catholic with a sprinkle of syncretism via Cuba, and I'm in a weird place where mysticism/magic seems appealing, because I'm so very desperate to feel SOMETHING, and my Catholic brain is like "NO," but I need a way to reconnect. Thoughts?
A: You may be here for a while, and that’s completely fine.
If you are not currently feeling Grace in your usual sacred spaces, I would begin by asking, “What has changed?” What specific elements do you find spiritually fulfilling, and what do you feel is missing now? Trust and be honest with yourself - it’s your spirituality, and there are no wrong answers at this point of the journey. Honestly, I think “cherry picking” spiritual practices is vastly underrated, and we spend a lot of time denying that every single religious sect is a product of it.
As an exvangelical myself, I totally get the “Catholic brain” thing. But I find that often enough, by stopping to check out the side-paths and by-roads that appeal to us in our spiritual journeys, we discover more about what we find spiritually fulfilling in our current practices.
You mention mysticism/magic specifically. These practices both involve lots of meditation and high ritual - both huge elements in Catholicism! Not to mention, Catholicism has a profound mystical tradition. As distant as a spiritual path might seem from your own, chances are, there is a common thread that will shed light on what brings you closer to that sacred presence in your life. Feeling trepidation is normal, especially if you hail from an “us versus them” religion like the Abrahamic faiths. But the history of the Abrahamic faiths is peppered with people finding God in unexpected places.
With that in mind, don’t be afraid to explore, read up, and check out local spiritual communities (in a safe, social-distancing way). Maybe your research will lead you to a different path, or maybe it will show what you appreciate about your current path.
Hungry for more? Schedule a free first spiritual direction session with our resident spiritual director today. Online, telephone, and outdoor sessions available.
July 17, 2020 | Denver, Colorado