A friend and I were chatting recently, checking in with each other on the usual stuff — how’s work? how’s your family? how are you handling the global pandemic? — when he said something that got me thinking.
He told me he was doing “surprisingly well, given the circumstances.” He liked the work he was doing. He felt close to his partner. He was even grateful for the slower pace of life necessitated by the lockdowns.
Then, after a ruminative pause, he told me his one snag in this season (aside from the obvious — death, disconnection, anxiety, etc.):
“My spiritual life is basically non-existent.”
This was far from the first time I’d heard that phrase over the past year or so. I think I’d even used it myself a time or two. But the longer I sat with it, the louder the dissonance grew.
What he meant was that he hadn’t “gone to church” in a while (which, of course, in this season means he hasn’t watched a livestream or listened to a podcast) and that he couldn’t remember the last time he opened his Bible or set aside time to pray.
But is that really all there is to spirituality?
All Life is “Spiritual Life”
I know I’m not the first person to ask that question. In fact, as I write this, several Sunday evening sermons from my youth group days come to mind. But it bears repeating.
Why do we compartmentalize spirituality into spiritual practices?
Maybe you know this already, but the word ‘spiritual’ has no Hebrew equivalent. If you were to scan the Old Testament — Genesis to Malachi — you would find no mention of ‘spiritual’ anything.
But that’s not the point I’m making.
Fact is, spirituality is very real to us today. For many Christians — many people, for that matter — spirituality describes any esoteric, immaterial, enigmatic, deep, or mystical experience. And “spiritual life” is often the way we describe the practices we utilize to drum up those sorts of experiences — prayer, devotional reading, listening to sermons, singing songs of praise, etc.
Here’s the problem: “spiritual life,” in this sense, is ontological dualism (the belief that the body and spirit are separate entities).
Now, maybe that’s your jam — no judgement here. But if you consider yourself a Christian, it’s probably going to create some philosophical paradoxes.
I don’t have space to get into it here, but N.T. Wright expresses it well (as always):
Each and every aspect of the human being is addressed by God, is claimed by God, is loved by God, and can respond to God. It is not the case that God, as it were, sneaks in to the human being through one aspect in order to influence or direct the rest… A rich meal is set before us, and every course and every wine contributes to the complete whole.
Or, to put it in question form: when was the last time you referred to your “material life?” My guess is never. We don’t refer to our embodied life as if it’s a unique entity, compartmentalized into various practices like eating, or sleeping, or driving to work. It’s all just life.
In the same way that you have a body, you have a spirit, and the two are inseparable — that means all “life” is “spiritual life.”
Language Shapes Understanding
In the end, this is all just syntax — we know what we mean when we talk about our “spiritual lives,” and most of the time we don’t mean some separable aspect of life-in-general. So, why make a big deal of it?
Here’s why: language shapes understanding.
Think about time. In the West, we speak of time linearly — events happen in a line moving left to right, “past” to “future.” We measure time as markings of a particular distance on that line (e.g. a “short” walk or a “long” movie).
Greek and Spanish speakers, on the other hand, use physical quantities to describe time, and the passage of time is perceived as a growing volume (e.g. a “small” walk or a “big” movie).
This perception of time, molded by language, impacts our subconscious decision making. For instance, Western speakers are less likely to save money because they think of the future as something distant. (I know I’m that way…)
The same is true when we use the language of “spiritual life.”
When we compartmentalize spirituality into just a few practices, we begin to believe that the rest of our life is somehow less-than-spiritual, and it’s a short trip from there to seeing life — or the planet, or our neighbors — as less-than-holy.
Conclusion: Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself
What I want to say to you — and what I wish I would have said to my friend during our chat — is this: don’t be so hard on yourself.
If all life is spiritual life, then all of life matters.
God is as present in our everyday life — our work, our leisure, our relationships — as in our spiritual practices.
Don’t get me wrong, spiritual practices are a good, holy, and necessary part of life. But they’re just that: a part of life. They do not encompass life, nor spirituality — they are merely invitations into a larger, fuller reality.
(And frankly, our definition of spiritual practice is probably too narrow — as a new parent I can assure you, a nap can be just as sacred as a prayer. But that’s a reflection for another day.)
The point is, if you find that you’re doing “surprisingly well, given the circumstances,” but still feel guilty about your lack of discipline in your spiritual practices, look closer at the rest of your life — you may find that the joy and peace you sense in this season is a reflection of God’s presence in your ordinary world. And in some seasons, that’s more than enough.