Too often spirituality, and religion for that matter, is portrayed as the antidote to sadness, sickness and sundry other less than desirable aspects of life. Of course, no one told me explicitly that was the case, but it is true this was the implication I took from my young days. The implication was the truly religious or spiritual never would suffer from being sick, from being sad or other human maladies. When I was young, I guess I thought religion was a kind of inoculation shot against human problems.
Now that I am older (but questionably wiser!), I don’t think this is true at all. Religious and spiritual folks get sick just like normal people. We have bouts of sadness just like all humans. And we are not immune from any of the other maladies that afflict the human race. In fact, I would argue to be human is to be a sitting duck for sadness, sickness and sundry other aspects of life. That just seems to be the reality of the deal. So what does this suggest about spirituality?
The first thing I take away from this question is my conviction that spirituality can never make us less than fully human. In fact, I would argue just the opposite. To be spiritual is to be as fully human as we can possibly be. To be fully human never means that we won’t get sick. Of course we will. And clearly we will die. And probably there will be suffering somewhere along the way of life. And there are sundry other things lurking in the bushes of life that will ambush us---often when we are not even looking.
Maybe in Paradise it was different. But as Genesis describes and John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, tells the story, we are all living east of Eden---outside Paradise. There, Adam had to begin working for a living---till the ground. And Eve was given to childbirth---no easy task. East of Eden is where one brother killed another brother. All the hallmarks of human strife and stupidity begin to characterize people living in a world of sin, having opted for that instead of the world of sanctity characteristic of Paradise. We all live out our lives East of Eden.
If all this is true, the obvious question asks, so what good is spirituality or religion then? That is a fair question and not an easy one to answer. My thinking on this was guided by some pondering on the Psalms. Although the Psalmist uses some imagery that I might not use in my own writing, the Psalmist does get to the heart of things. In some prayerful words to God the Psalmist complains, “The enemy has hounded my spirit, he has crushed my life to the ground, he has shut me in darkness, like the dead of long ago.” Perhaps many of you would balk at the idea of an enemy hounding you. “I don’t believe in a Devil,” you might say. I am not sure I do either. But look at it this way.
What if our enemy is not the Devil, but something else that is equally diabolical? What if the enemy is cancer or depression? What if our enemy is some kind of addiction that keeps us in an unseen prison? The enemy might be a failing heart or kidneys. It could be Alzheimer’s disease. All of these feel like they attack the very core of our being. They feel like an attack on our human worth and worthiness. This is how I get hold of the Psalmist’s wisdom.
If I understand it this way, then I can appreciate that the enemy hounds my spirit. The enemy crushes life---sometimes ultimately in our death. The enemy can shut us in the darkness. Surely, this is one apt description of my friends who suffer some emotional disturbance in life. That is like moving from the light into the darkness. Every one of these maladies feels very personal when it afflicts us. But every one is characteristic of humanity as a whole. The question is not whether I might be afflicted. The real question is how does spirituality enable me to understand and deal with life at this level?
The obvious thing to say is spirituality does not make me immune from life’s troubles. But I would argue, spirituality does provide some valuable means to cope with being human. In my case, spirituality offers an intellectual means of understanding life in its entirety. My view of myself and my world includes a loving God. That God will not spare me any of the range of human experiences. But the story of my God is the story of a compassionate, sacrificial God who can suffer. This intellectual knowing does not magically help me rise above maladies. But it does enable me to cope in healthy ways.
My spirituality also provides an emotional means to deal with life’s orneriness. To be spiritual is not an option to be naive. God does not come down and pat me on the head! But I do think God is in it with me. Personally, God comes into the picture for me with community. My spirituality holds that God is at work in the world through people. God continues the incarnating presence through my friends and, sometimes, through strangers. Again, that does not mean my problems are solved. Some problems never get “solved” in the sense that they disappear. Spirituality can help me put my problems in their place.
The longer I live, the more convinced I am spirituality must be a spirituality for all seasons if it is going to be worth anything. If spirituality is just for sunshiny days, then most of us will be in trouble when it gets cloudy!