Spirituality in Odd Places
It is commonplace for people to think of churches, synagogues and mosques when you talk about religion. Everyone would say that those are not the only places where religion can happen, yet most of us associate religion with those kinds of venues. I think that is much less so when we talk about spirituality. I am sure there is a wide range of definitions of spirituality, but most folks I know think it is different than religion. While many of us think spirituality may be related to religion, few people I know think the two are the same thing.
I am not sure I associate religion with churches, but I do think there often is an institutional aspect to religion that most of us do not associate with spirituality. And since I spend most of my time teaching “spirituality,” whatever that is, I am more focused on that. So when I am with students, I am often talking about spirituality in ways that are not very connected to the church. Most students with whom I find myself do think they are spiritual in some way, although a high percentage of college-age students do not regularly go to a church.
For example, I am used to talking about spirituality in ways that encompass nature. For centuries nature has been one of the spots that people feel spiritual. It is often true that the ocean and mountains are favorite spots where people feel spiritual. The rhythmic sound and feel of the ocean waves tend to have a positive spiritual effect on folks. The beauty and grandeur of mountains communicate the same effect to people’s souls. One hears words like awe, majestic and inspiring when these spiritual spots are part of people’s spiritual stories.
I am intrigued by the ideas of places and spaces. It is a fascinating study to think about the places and spaces where spiritual experience happens. Ocean shores and mountains are just two of the most predictable places. But it does not have to be place-specific. Sometimes it is more like a space that leads a person into a spiritual experience. It might be a space where one finds oneself with another special person. Time may have a space in routine when the spiritual comes to the fore and creates an experience.
Recently, I encountered the spiritual at an odd time in an odd place. I did not go looking for it and only slowly realized what was happening spiritually. It came right in the middle of routine for me in one of the most unobvious places I could have imagined. I climbed the second floor of our Recreation Center, headed down the hallway to the locker room in order to change clothes so I could go for a run. I have done this countless times. I never do it expecting anything spiritual to happen. I had no forewarning.
As I walked into the locker room, a colleague and general friend had just finished working out. We chitchatted. And then the chitchat began to take on a depth that would have been totally unexpected with this guy anywhere on campus. As far as I know, he is not really interested in spirituality. He is a very curious, open, eager-to-learn kind of guy and I appreciate that about him.
Certainly the locker room is not the place I expect to get spiritual! Spirituality in an odd place is all I could think about as we talked with some increasing depth. Fairly quickly it seemed, the conversation begin to focus on the idea of the “self.” I know I have written about that---probably many times. He became very curious how I deal with the idea of the “self.” He is the kind of guy who knows something about everything---very smart, hopelessly curious and up for a conversation about anything.
As I understand it, our idea of the “self” is created. All of us have a “self-image.” That self-image likely changes over time with experience and growth. I do not think “my self” is the same as it was at age sixteen! The conversation became deeper when I said that I do believe there is a “true self’ that each one of us is---as opposed to a true self that we have. That true self is the self God can know and with whom God can relate.
I am fine saying that true self is my “soul.” It is the person I am at my deepest. It is my “heart.” It is the “heart and soul” people talk about, perhaps without knowing fully all they are trying to convey by this. This true self is the place of spiritual identity and spiritual connection. It is the place of authentic love and of amazing compassion. The true self explains Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Jesus, the Buddha and all the spiritual giants.
We all have that capacity to discover and develop our true self. This became the locker room conversation. It became a spiritual encounter between two guys who had simply come to work out and be friendly in greeting each other. It reminded me of the wonder of spiritual serendipity. I am deeply grateful for the Spirit appearing in odd places. I could have gone to a church only to find it locked. Instead I go to the locker room and find the Spirit. Who would have thought to look for our true self in a locker room with a guy sitting half-naked! Spirituality in odd places, to be sure.