What is Spirituality?
by Harvey Gillman
We are grateful to Harvey Gillman for sending us a copy
of this essay, which originated as a talk given to Forest Hill
Meeting at High Leigh in the U.K. It first appeared in print as a
two-part piece in the November and December, 2008, issues of
Quaker Monthly, a publication of Britain Yearly Meeting, and it
is reprinted here with permission.
Harvey Gillman served for many years as outreach
secretary for Britain Yearly Meeting. He has published a number of
books, and he is much revered on both sides of the Atlantic as
a spokesperson for liberal Quakerism. His most recent
work, Consider the Blackbird, was reviewed in
Universalist Friends Number 48 (summer, 2008).
Rhoda R. Gilman
What is Spirituality?
By Harvey Gillman
I was delighted to be asked to define and explore with
you the theme of spirituality. If you think about it, there is
a contradiction here. To define means to put a border around,
to close in, to show the limitations of; to explore a territory on
the other hand may assume the territory has a border, but it is
more about opening up, visiting the unknown regions,
making discoveries. In fact I'd like to do both. I am not really offering
a map to the territory of spirituality, more a lantern and a
compass some tools to help you on the path. If you don't accept
what I am saying, then I hope at least you will find some of the tools
I am offering useful for your own journey. Do with them as
So thanks for the challenge of the invitation. It has been
a real privilege for me to have travelled around Friends and
other groups in this country and abroad for over twenty-five
years. With them I have reflected on their own understanding of
the life of the Spirit and my own. I am an extravert, which means
I learn as I go along, I get my energy from conversations
with others. In fact I only know where I am and what I believe
when I have to talk with others and explain things. Otherwise I
sit there intuitively thinking in blissful, and sometimes, not so
blissful, uncertainty. So I am learning all the time and am discovering
as I speak.
Let's make a journey together.
I would like to begin by quoting a poem I found in
a magazine many years ago and which I used to keep on a board
in my office in Friends House I called it my wisdom board.
The poem is called Mysticism, by Wallace E. Chappell:
I am passing on
into another era of my life:
I am looking again
but not as once
I gazed a score
of years ago.
I look today as one
who has travelled through
the awe of youth,
the search for earned perfection,
the times of secularity
and scientific humanism,
the drying up of prayer,
the death of "death of god",
the days of world-defined
for the church.
I am coming now
to wrestle once again
with the same mystery
who has followed me
along my journey.
But not as in the past.
all are altered.
My goal is redefined.
I simply want
to hear and heed,
to know and follow.
I seek no superpower.
God has purged
my immature direction.
I journey inward
I am created with capacity
for that quest,
not less, of world and church
As I was preparing this talk, I had a sense that this
poem was right as an introduction. When I read it aloud as I was
writing this, I was still as deeply moved as I was the first time I saw it.
It speaks totally to my condition. OK, I am a linguist obsessed
by theology; I have written a lot on this theme, but I speak to
you as someone who is daily, hourly challenged by Spirit. I
have called it being haunted by God. But I am not defining Spirit
or God. Interestingly the poem is called Mysticism; and I
guess nowadays I would call myself a mystic, an everyday sort of
mystic. But the insights of the poem strike to the heart of the
spiritual life. I journey because I am created with that capacity for
quest as indeed we all are. I am speaking from the awareness that
I also am passing on to a new era of my life, one that makes
me realise that I must put away many of the preoccupations of
my younger days.
The story of Jacob struggling with the angel in the Book
of Genesis is the image which speaks most to me. We struggle
with the mystery on the bank of a river, at the crossing of a
threshold. We struggle all night; we demand to be blessed by the angel
at the threshold of a new territory; we will not let go even when
we are rendered lame by the angel; but at the end we are
transformed; we change from Jacob to Israel; we find in the dignity of
the search for meaning a new deeper self. To hear and heed, to
know and to follow the truth which reality discloses to us that is
the quest. Not with certainty, not a truth better than that of
other people, but the truth which is revealed to us in our life and
which we try to come to terms with in the community of seekers
in which we find ourselves.
This movement of self to deeper self and of self moving
out towards the other is to me at the heart of the spiritual life. I
shall explore this further in a few moments. I am well aware
however that the word spirituality does not please everyone. In my
own meeting at Brighton one older Friend says she does not
understand what the word means. Even when the word is explained she
still points out that she cannot, or even will not, understand
it. Possibly that is because she declares herself to be an
agnostic, albeit one who often quotes Jesus. She is after all a
For many other people the word
spirituality refers spookily to spirits, things that go through walls, shadowy creatures
found in many a children's film or even horror movie. For others
it overlaps with spiritualism and is about getting in contact
with the spirits of the dead. And then there is the open-ended use
of the word referring to anything which gives you a glow. A
whole book called Selling Spirituality has been written on how the
word has been used in an effort to give spurious psychological
depth to the capitalist enterprise. It notes how in a world of
individual-istic consumerism, the word
spirituality confers a new selling advantage. In a market devoted to personal enhancement
and personal well-being, it actually helps selling things. The
authors of the book declare that spiritual is the new
mystical, with the advantage that spiritual can be used without any reference
to the divine. Though again Brighton is a planet of its own. I saw
a health shop offering a mystical tan. I found the
advertisement quite mind-boggling. Alas. I never pursued the offer!
Many years ago I was giving a talk about the Quaker
way and I used the word spirituality. Someone in the
audience challenged me on this, saying that it was a word used too
often without a definition and would I give him one. I
mumbled something, but on the train going home I wrote a
paragraph which now forms the core for me of how I use the word. I
see reality as a series of relationships: the self as it grows through
its interaction with the world around, through family, friends,
community, through the whole cosmos. The self grows as it
were outwardly and inwardly. At one level there is only being, so
that we are all part of each other; the self is not an isolated atom.
I happen to believe also that there is a universal energy
which animates and encourages these relationships. For want of a
better word, I shall call this energy
Spirit. Spirituality is thus about deepening relationships in a reality that is essentially sacred,
in the sense of inspiring awe and wonder and reverence. Since
all humans are part of this reality, and are on the quest for
meaning and relationship, I would say that we are all on a spiritual
journey, though the path is not necessarily linear. There are many
windings and turnings, seeming dead-ends. We spiral through
experiences and events. To be alive is to be on a pilgrimage. Each
moment of the pilgrimage is itself a discovery; we seek as we find; we
find as we seek. A mystic would say that a deepening
understanding of our role within the world is a growing ability to see the
world through the eyes of love.
In my book, Consider the
Blackbird, I spent a large amount of space giving other definitions of
spirituality. I should like to offer a few of them here:
Spirituality is what we do with our solitude, it is the
reflection on ultimate things, it can be expressed by the Aztec "finding
one's face, finding one's heart."
Spirituality is what we do with the flame within. Are these definitions or exploration? I leave that to you.
I would add that spirituality may be seen as the call to the
deep places where the one is joined to the many. But that is why I
call myself a mystic.
If we consider the origins of the word, we shall see how
the word has changed its meaning, and how the world in which it
is used has changed also. One of the earliest usages is in the
phrase "the estates spiritual." This refers to the possessions of the
priestly caste. Spiritual direction was advice given by spiritual
directors, who were also priests, members of monastic communities,
religious hermits and so on. Eventually the word spirituality came to
refer to religious practice which led to a closeness to God thus
we find expressions such as Franciscan spirituality, Quaker spirituality
etc. In a shop I visited recently all the books under the title
of spirituality referred to ways of prayer.
So spiritual referred to the priestly and the monastic;
then to practices related to them. But there is another
wider dimension. "Spirit" is the English translation given to the
Greek "pneuma." According to Paul of Tarsus we are all filled
with spirit, if we follow Christ, not just the clergy if indeed
Paul believed in a priestly caste at all but all of us. This was
also translated by the word ghostly as is found in the translation
of Holy Ghost, for an original Hebrew or Aramaic phrase
meaning Holy Wind. So, the wind blows where it wills in and out
and through religious establishments. Now
spiritual and spirituality have been liberated from the religious elite and refer to
something much more universal.
The word was used first to refer to Christian life but it
is now used in other religions. I have a book at home on
Jewish spirituality, a sort of title which would not have been found
many years ago. As the word has lost its mooring from a
set-aside priesthood, it has gained a sort of independence from
religion itself. To some people this is anathema. I remember a panel of
a Muslim, a Jew, and a liberal Anglican discussing the word.
For the Muslim, who was very orthodox, spirituality could not
exist outside of religious practice; the Jew, who was on the liberal
side of his faith, was somewhat suspicious that spirituality could
be found outside of religion, though admitting it might take
place there also; the liberal Anglican took it for granted that
spirituality could be found outside of religion. For my part I see
spirituality as a universal given; a call to which we may or may not
respond, but which somehow we cannot completely ignore. We may
use religious vocabulary to heed it; we may not. It is not whether
we use the religious language or not, rather what we say in
the language we use. Words are sacred not because the
dictionary says so, but their sacredness depends on how we use them.
We create sacredness as we encounter Spirit. We open ourselves
to what is already there and establish, or re-establish relationship.
In that sense the whole of life is sacred as we act with
sacredness and this, as I have said, depends on our ability to learn to
see with our eyes, with our minds, with our hearts, and with
our souls. But the Spirit is always there. We are not.
Let us explore further the tension between the realm
of religion and that of spirituality.
I found a useful passage written by the Dalai Lama in
Ancient Wisdom, Modern World (1999) which I should like to share
I believe there is an important distinction to be made
between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned
with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or
another, an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical
or supernatural reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven
or nirvana. Connected with this are religious teachings or
dogma, rituals, prayer and so on. Spirituality, I take to be concerned
with those qualities of the human spirit such as love and
compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense
of responsibility, a sense of harmony which bring happiness
to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with
the questions of nirvana and salvation, are directly connected
with religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however.
There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop
them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious
or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say that
religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot
do without are these basic spiritual qualities.
So much for the Dalai Lama.
Some Friends may well agree with this quotation, though
I would add that religion is a useful historical construct. At
its best it is how we communally explore and work out
our spirituality at a given time, through myth, story, ritual,
worship, and the way we live together. It is a language which may
enable us or not to develop relationship and provide sources
of meaning. In fact, in a new book by Keith Ward, called
significantly Is Religion
Dangerous? he talks of religion whose basic presumption is that "there exists a supreme objective reality
and value in conscious relation to which humans can find
fulfilment." This for some people may seem to be a very spiritual
definition of religious conviction. I guess this is close to my own position.
As you can see then, there is an overlap between
religion and spirituality. As many people come to be suspicious of
religion they may turn to spirituality. The use of these words may
be generational as well younger people may be reacting
against the word religion more than older people, in whose
childhood religion played a larger role than today as a source of an
ethical way of living.
Another problem for anyone exploring the nature
of spirituality is based on the old contradiction between spirit
and matter. This goes back to the Platonic idea that there is a
world of ideal forms which is perfect and eternal. This was taken
over by Christians who saw it as the realm of the Spirit. Thus,
in contrast, the world of matter is fallen, imperfect, a place
of temptation, hence one to be escaped from as soon as
possible. My emphasis on spirituality through relationship takes me
to the opposite view: that of matter permeated, suffused by
Spirit. In a beautiful sentence from a fascinating book called
The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden C. Lane wrote:
The interior truth. . . is that human beings do not long
for another world, far beyond the ordinariness of this one. We
long for our own world, perceived in all its hidden grandeur. We
sense it to be filled with a glory we could see if only we had the gifts
of attention and the proper rituals of entry.
So I would wish that spirituality be no longer seen as
a superior form over and against the world in which we
find ourselves. Rather I see spirituality as a deep attending to
and communion with Spirit, fleshed out, embodied, incarnate
even, in this beautiful, sacred, scarred and polluted reality of which
we ourselves are a part. Spirituality is beholding with love this
world in which we find ourselves.
Another part of the equation which I have not
yet mentioned is that of the scientific enterprise. Michael Hallar,
a Polish scientist and theologian, talks of the difference
between scientific enquiry and the religious quest as being the
difference between knowledge and meaning. This points up a problem
in much so-called religious-scientific debate. The scientific
method seeks to understand the how and what of things. The
religious may try to give a picture of the why of things. For literalists
in both camps, these may seem to be exclusive questions. If
you take the Bible, for example, as a source of historical fact
then you may have a real incompatibility between the two sources
of information. If you see the scientific method as the only way
of understanding the universe and how to live within it, then
you will see religious truth as invalid because it is not tested
by quantifiable experiment. If on the other hand you assert
that truth is not just fact, but is about authenticity of relationship;
is about how you treat others; if you accept that the spiritual life
is about deepening and seeing connections, then you may find,
as I do, the old nineteenth-century debates tedious and
time consuming. The fundamental questions of spirituality are:
How do we live truthfully? How do we share the planet with
others? How, as the mystics declare, do we give birth to the divine
in the everyday relationships, in the details of our lives?
To talk of the spiritual life without an ethical
dimension and in contradiction to scientific exploration seems to me to
be a futile enterprise. I see religion at its best as the way we
explore together our spiritual insights, give form to the search in
worship, and live out our findings, experimentally, in testimony. It is
not science as such that contradicts spirituality, but science in
its fundamentalist guise as a totalitarian world-view, denying
that which cannot be quantified. It is not religion in its sense
of corporate exploration that is the enemy of spirituality, but in
its demand for hierarchy; power, conformity, and imposition of
one way of being over the diversity of human experience.
Indeed any totalitarian system is the enemy of the spiritual search. How
can you catch the fierce wind of the Spirit in the net of
any given system?
Belden Lane wrote: "if only we had the gifts of
attention and the proper rituals of entry." As I have stated, for me the
first challenge of the spiritual life is that of seeing, of attending,
of witnessing. The great Quaker insight and challenge is that
"we answer that of God in everyone." In a recent correspondence
in the weekly, The Friend, there was a discussion as to what
was meant by "answering." Someone pointed out that George
Fox's basic idea was that there was a seed or a light from God in
each of us. But actually that seed often lay dormant; the light
was dim. The role of one human being for another was that we
help the seed in each other to grow; we help the light to shine.
In Eckhart's famous phrase, we help each other to give birth
to God. We evoke, call out the divine in each other. This is in
fact the basis of our testimonies. But before we can do that we
must actually see each other. We must give each other attention
as each is, as it says in Advices &
Queries, unique, precious, a child of God. (I am not mad on the idea of our remaining children
but that is another theme.)
We cannot build relationships unless we recognise
that uniqueness, that preciousness in ourselves. So we need to
attend to ourselves, see ourselves, warts and all, darkness and light.
This is a real challenge. It does not need hierarchies or elaborate
rituals or books or gurus or creeds. It needs eyes to see, and hearts
to attend. The light shows us our darkness, but it gives us energy
to overcome the ocean of darkness and leads us into
community with those who also seek, and then perhaps with those
who cannot seek, or who can no longer seek, or who are too afraid
In a sense, our worship is our exercise of seeing, of
listening, of beholding. It is where faithfulness is practised. But the path
is not linear. There are times when God is there, but we are
not. There are times that we see the light in others but not in
ourselves. There are times when we are too busy saving the planet to behold
the details of the world around, its small beauties and its
troubles. I know one Quaker who tells me that the more dust in a
house, the greater the commitment to Quaker work outside it. Of
course there are priorities; of course we all have different talents. I
am often told by my partner that I am so clumsy in the
physical world because my head is usually in the clouds. But the
challenge is precisely to notice, to give time to the small links in the
great chain of things. So the spiritual path is not a race to a
certain goal. Perhaps it is more like a spiral which turns back on itself
at a greater depth. It is not a matter of success or of a
comparison with anyone else; it is what it is and we walk it with
whatever feet we have, even though we may feel our feet have the
heaviness of clay.
I was once asked by a group of nuns whether
Quakers believe in the communion of saints. I pointed out that we
do not have creeds or dogmas, but yes, we do have an awareness
of the communion of saints. Go any week to meeting for
worship and there they are, the saints in all their glory. We are
always quoting Fox and Woolman and Penn, Jesus and the
Buddha, Margaret Fell and Elizabeth Fry even members of our
own meetings are our saints. When I come into meeting, I
watch other members come into the room; these are my
companions; if I read from Quaker Faith and Practice,
the authors there are my companions also. And when I close my eyes I hold in the
light those of my friends (with a capital and a small f) who are ill
or are in trouble.
Thus worship and prayer (or holding in the light if
you prefer) are my ways of making firm the links, of
building relationships. In worship I am also aware of the dead ends
and blind alleys of my own life. I ask. I pray for light.
In all of this there is another essential element of
spiritual awareness. That is of transcending the ego. Because I do not
buy into the old myth of the sinfulness of humanity or of matter, I
do not see the ego as the enemy. But it strikes me that we build up
the ego, the sense of self which is at the core of our identity,
in order to survive, to enable us to manipulate the world
around us. There is a danger however that we assume we are our
egos. There is a time when we may realise that life is not all
about survival, that we do not have to defend ourselves against
others, that perhaps our greatest fulfilment is when we take the ego
and go beyond it. I do not find the concept of "sin" useful, but if
I had to give it a definition I would say that it is the partial
self which tries to separate itself from the rest of creation.
The beholding of the other, the respecting the sacredness of the
other, leads us to see that whatever redemption is to be found is to
be found with others, in community. Thus we need to know
each other, as Quakers say, "in the things which are eternal"
but this does not exclude the things that are temporal also.
A deepening of the spiritual life of the group arises
from the sharing of story. In many traditions there is a common
story, a given theology which we are born into, and to which we
have to assent to find whatever salvation is offered. I would want
to start the other way round. Part of our recognition of our self
and we cannot recognise others, without some recognition
of the self is the ability to delve into our own experience and
to try to hear what our lives are saying to us. Paradoxically we
can only do this when we have others to listen to us. Over the
last few years I have been developing a series of propositions
which I should now like to share with you. I use them also in
the Blackbird book. I call this:
Each story is important.
All people have their stories.
Each story is important.
We need others to hear our stories and care.
This will help us listen to the stories of others. This
will help us reflect upon our own story. From the particular details
of these stories we can begin to understand the human story.
This leads us to understand the divine story.
I wonder how much we live this out in our meetings. To
do this we need to overcome fears about ourselves and
suspicions about others; we need to have time and patience; we need to
be able to deal with difference as there will be elements in
each other's stories that are alien to our own experience. Even
the language of the other story may be very different from what
we might use.
But a danger lies with the limited stories of our
own communities. There are other stories in this world; there
are stories which are so painful they may not be articulated,
cannot be articulated. There is story even in the silence. One gift
we can offer the other is the gift of the voice. The prophet is the
one who voices the story of the unheard and of the overlooked.
Eckhart, whom I quoted before, said that the spiritual
life was one of subtraction rather than of addition. Many of us
have come to Friends leaving behind what we may have thought of
as being an inauthentic way, as an incomplete or even false
story. In my own case, however much I love Jewish culture,
music, food, warmth, and mysticism, I found that I needed to go
back from the promised land into the desert to strip myself bare of
the burdens of ritual, orthodox legalism, exclusivity. The
desert teaches you the value of vulnerability and creativity; you
can only carry the minimum; you must listen to each sound and
watch where you are going. You value the company of other
So I think what I am trying to convey here is quite
simple, though I apologise if I have made it sound complicated. We
live in Spirit; it is the glue of the universe; it suffuses all life; it
gives whatever meaning there is to our fragile existences; it gives
us the connection with all life, if we attend to its promptings.
It leads us beyond the individualism of the separated ego to
the oasis where we can meet together before the next part of
our journey. But most of us are called out of the desert into
the bustling market place among the traders, the shakers and
the movers; among the beggars and the broken. And it is there
that we are called to answer that of God in everyone.
I have always loved poetry and music. Sometimes when
I need to put aside words I listen to Schubert and late
Beethoven. I find the arts a rich source of spiritual insight. I would love
to play for you part of Schubert's great Quintet in C the
second movement. That to me says it all. It has both hesitancy
and great daring, contemplation and dance. But instead I am
going to end with a poem by Walt Whitman, another
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with anyone I love, or sleep in bed at night
with anyone I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy round the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of the
stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate curve of the new moon in spring;
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place
To me every hour of light and dark is a miracle,
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same,
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim the rocks the motion of the waves
the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
The word "miracle" comes from a Latin root meaning
to wonder at. In Spanish the idea of beholding has survived
"mirar" means to look at. It seems to me that the very core of
the spiritual journey is that we look, we behold, we wonder
at, we respect, we affirm; we do this as individuals, in
communities, in our daily work, and in our worship. Our attempts to
establish a vision of peace, justice, equality, respect for the
environment, are all aspects of this spiritual vision. Indeed our testimony
in the world is the proof of the depths of the vision we have
been granted. When I am overwhelmed yet again by the
sheer negativity of the news, by the almost unrelieved darkness of
so much in national and international politics, it is this
amazement that gives me hope. When confronted by the fact of my
own mortality and that of all I love, it is this that gives me
the confidence to cherish the fragility of things.