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Being spiritual, yet remembering to be physical

July 13, 2010

It’s been weeks since I have posted on Dark Nights White Soul, mostly because I have had been given the great opportunity to start a new job  – namely, working as a leader in a small Fresh Expression of church in the East Midlands of England. I have suddenly – almost over night – been given the job of my hopes, prayers and dreams the chance to encourage others to grow in their spiritual journey with God (or without God some might argue). It’s an amazing privilege. One that has been hard-won over many years of frustration with institutional church; mostly in that I have felt institutional religion has often frustrated the Church’s mission to help ordinary people experience the love and forgiveness of God. All of a sudden, I have been given a formative role within a relatively young church, less than twenty years old. It feels like all my birthdays have come at once! It is a refreshing change to the bleakness of desert and night spirituality.

Ok, so understandably as a new church leader much of my role is to be a spiritual conduit to others, in this case, to be a channel of God’s love and wisdom to a vibrant, yet in some ways tender young Christian community. So why the need to ‘remember to be physical’? Aren’t we always physical any way? Don’t we need to forget our physicality and become more spiritual? more prayerful?

It’s perhaps a contradiction, but in the Christian and Judaic tradition spirituality or prayer and engagement with Holiness is not so much an escape from physicality, but rather a heightening of one’s appreciation of the physical worth of creation. Unlike some Eastern traditions or the western mediterranean cult of gnosticism Judaism and Christianity were intended to be deeply rooted in the earth, the soil of matter, the materiality of nature. For Judaism in particular, but also reflected in Orthodox Christianity, men and women were kings and queens of the created order – importantly there were also priests, priestesses in a sacramental tradition that described God as entrusting to humanity – men and women – the role of representing God to nature and nature to God. According to Judaism and Christianity humanity was therefore an intermediary (for Jews, the people of Israel were exquisitely so) between the material world of planet Earth and the esoteric spiritual God of the Heavens.

In spite of a rich religio-cultural tradition in Judaism especially, but also in the Gospels of people being encouraged by the writers of Scripture to deeply value Creation, there has always been a tendency at least in Western Christendom to drift away from sanctifying nature and the material world through prayer and Godly intention to trying to escape the limits and confines of the physical world to enter into some premature experience of spiritual bliss. Church history is certainly repleet with examples of where this has happened overtly or subtly and detrimentally to personal, societal and environmental health.

I think in recent days I have found myself slipping into this inconspicuous trap. I think the real danger is that religion, in my case the Christian faith, becomes a shortcut and highway to personal or corporate success (even if this success is defined in  spiritual terms). Perniciously religion then becomes a container of programmes or principles for new churches and for conventional religious establishments, rules and regulations, classes and classifications. In short, religion loses sight of the people and the planet it is meant to represent one moment at a time, one person at a time, one face at a time. That  is to say, it loses that engaged relationship with the material other, who happens to be our sister or brother – animal or human, plant or flesh and blood. With the intention of rapidly reaching spiritual highs of personal feelings or popular acclaim, we loosen the tie to humanity, to nature, to the elements – water, fire, wind, earth.

I caught myself doing that today. Forgetting that the people I meet are human – physical and yes, spiritual, but part of a physical history of place, persons and stories. Each prone to feelings of hurt, vulnerability, pain. Everyone needing regular food and drink, fresh air and clothes, physical touch and affection, gentle encouragement and kind humour. I forgot that each person I encounter every day of my life is a masterpiece, perhaps a flawed work of art, yes, but nevertheless a mystery of eternal as well as earthly proportions. I’m sorry people that I didn’t treat you right. I should have shown you more care, a little more awareness to your story and background, as well as your physical needs. I’ll try to be better next time, so help me God, I pray.

Don’t forget we are physical too. We’re only human even if we can sometimes appear to be almost angelic, we are a mixture of earth and breath. It’s unwise to separate the two.

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