Alison Wohler, September 14, 2014

Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst

It used to drive me crazy in seminary when they would always ask us what we were doing as a spiritual practice.  I suppose I could have told them about my practice of putting my feet in the water wherever I went – which gave me a feeling of being connected to water all over the planet.  Plus it reminded me of how we human beings came out of the water, and are still mostly water if you break us down.

But what I told them was that living my life was my spiritual practice.  I told them that instinctively, although I wasn’t quite sure why.  After writing this sermon I know why.  And I believe it now more than ever.  Living my life is my spiritual practice.

I’ve talked about this subject before: Religion and Spirituality – but it’s a good subject, worth repeating as immersed as we Unitarian Universalists are in a culture prone to expressions like “Oh, I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

I say we are spiritual, and yes, also, religious.  Maybe it is really hard to distinguish between the two in a free-church such as ours where beliefs are not given out at the door.  When many people think of being religious they are referring to acceptance of the creeds their chosen religious institutions espouse.  They are talking about participation in “organized” religion.

We Unitarian Universalists may be organized in our governance and the fact that we do meet together on Sunday morning, and we definitely know whose turn it is to make the coffee, but we are purposefully unorganized in the creed department.  This is one way we can be spiritual, and yes, religious, because we are a different kind of religious institution.  We “do” religion differently.

But there is more to why I personally believe that if a person is spiritual (and we are all spiritual creatures) then that person is also a religious person.  I have a different way of defining the words, or at least of looking at these words that can certainly be hot buttons for some.

Religion literally means “to re-bind.”  To re-connect to that from which we have become disconnected, whether that is God, the earth, each other, or the oneness that is it all – the interdependent web.

That definition of being religious does not sound like one must have any specified beliefs to be religious, does it?  This is where I think most people make assumptions that cause them to say “Oh, I’m spiritual, but not religious.”  They are using a definition that includes specific beliefs, of whatever flavor.

But to be religious is merely to be on the path of connection.  It’s all about relationship.  Religion is not about beliefs, it’s about an action – connection.

The word spiritual is another one that makes me want to shake my head…

Here are a few commentaries on spirituality:

According to Wikipedia “the traditional meaning of spirituality is a process of re-formation which “aims to recover the original shape of man, the image of God.”

Others on Wikipedia “suggest that modern spirituality is a blend of humanistic psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions.”

UU Minister, Barbara Merrit, loosely defines spirituality as “the task of discovering, and then remembering, that we are not god.”  I had trouble with this one, at first, until I changed the words a little: the task of discovering that we are only a part of the whole.

For blogger Joe Bulao, the basic definition of spirituality is the quality of one’s sensitivity to the things of the spirit. ( “The definition of spirituality is that which relates to or affects the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”  I sort of like that one because I think of spirit as being about the “breath” or the “essence” of life.

Elisa Pearmain is the editor of Doorways to the Soul, a book I use often for stories for our services.  In researching the entries in her book, which come from religious traditions all over the world, “repeatedly encountered in every culture the same principles basic to spiritual development:  Do no harm, practice generosity and loving-kindness, know thyself and follow your highest thought, be aware of the effects of your actions, practice gratitude and forgiveness, enter into direct relationship with the source of life through prayer or meditation.” (p. xi)

Pearmain’s definition “the spiritual journey is the process of learning to know and love ourselves as the sacred beings that we are, and discover in that love that we are connected to all that exists.”

Are you hearing the interesting thing I am hearing?  Many of these definitions of spirituality are essentially the same as the real meaning of the word religion.  Spirituality and religion are both about re-connecting, re-discovering, remembering, re-formation.

Here’s the way I want to sort it out for you this morning.

Maybe religion is typically the way we think about all this re-connecting and relationship building.  What does it mean to be human and how are we to “be” with each other, where is the meaning, where did it all come from?

And spirituality is the way we put those thoughts into action – through experience and feeling.  Religious thinking is more in the abstract – and spirituality brings that abstraction into our bodies, an embodiment of our beliefs.

All about the same things, just different approaches.  

If we as Unitarian Universalists believe that each of us is equally important, then helping with voter registration and encouraging the democratic process is a spiritual practice of that believe.

If we believe that in diversity we are made more whole, then we need to both celebrate and talk to each other about that diversity.  A spiritual practice might be to open up dialogue among people of different faiths.

If we believe there are many ways to find understanding, then our spiritual practice would be to experience those many ways ourselves, not just think about them.

If we believe that our lives are as one, then care and compassion are the spiritual expressions of that belief.  

If we believe that our lives are lived in our relationships, then joining a small group ministry is a spiritual practice.

If we truly believed, and took to heart, that everything in the Universe, including ourselves, is all made of the same stardust, then treating everyone as our brothers and sisters would be a spiritual practice.  What would that do to things like racism?

Can anyone be spiritual and not religious?  Since they are basically two sides of the same coin, I do not think so.  You can be one of the NONES, who stay suspiciously away from specific religious institution, but everyone, including those NONES, has underlying beliefs and assumptions that are religious in nature, that are about connection and relationship, that guide how they live their lives.

And in reverse, only through embodiment can our religion find expression.   Think not only of any traditional spiritual practice in which you might participate.  Think also of your job.  Think about your volunteer work.  Think about how you are raising, or raised, your children.  

Having dinner together is a spiritual practice.

A climate march is a spiritual practice.

In centuries past, perhaps still, there was debate in some churches over which is more important: faith or good works.  There is debate over which begets which, which necessarily comes first: faith or good works.

What I am saying here, this morning, is that one is the same as the other, just different ways of approaching our religious and spiritual lives.

“To be human is to be religious.  To be religious is to make connections.”

Did you realize that this quote at the top of your order of service is a mathematical statement?  You probably remember this from school:  If a = b, and b = c, then a = c.

To be human, a, equals to be religious, b.  To be religious, b = to make connections, c.  Therefore, a, to be human = c, to make connections.

Being human, being religious, making connections, spirituality, are all the same thing.

Prepare for the hike, do your thinking, as in the poem I read to you earlier, but then let the journey unfold.  Do your thinking, but then “let yourself and the journey and nature be one, as you most certainly are.”

Don’t be afraid of the words – spiritual or religious.

We are a spiritual people, but we are also a religious people.

Here is how St. Gregory of Sinai put it:

To try to understand the meaning of the commandments through study and reading without actually living in accordance with them is like mistaking the shadow of something for its reality.  Only by participating in the truth can you share in the meaning of the truth.  (“Thinking as Prayer” by Christopher Bamford, PARABOLA, October, 2006, p. 10)

Living our lives is a spiritual practice.