I am becoming increasing nauseated and depressed by the excessive use of the adjective “spiritual”! On blogs, on Facebook postings, on web sites and in correspondence, people seem to insist on defining things as “spiritual”. As opposed to what?
I note, recently, writers declaring that they had a “spiritual conversation” with someone; or gave a “spiritual talk”; or wrote a “spiritual article” or a “spiritual paper”; or attended or spoke at a “spiritual meeting”; or read a “spiritual book”; or engaged in “spiritual practices”. Or gave “spiritual guidance”, or sought “spiritual advice”. Or, as is bizarrely common in the Coptic Orthodox tradition, sought or obtained a “spiritual word”.
So, let me consider some examples:
This afternoon I undertook some work in and watering of The Hermitage garden. Was that “spiritual”?
One of my neighbours, who holds to no religious beliefs, was doing likewise. Was his activity “spiritual”?
I subsequently undertook some housework, cleaning cupboards under the kitchen sink, after major plumbing repairs. Was that “spiritual”?
Last evening, I spent several hours talking with a young, recent immigrant to Australia, who was finding difficulty finding employment (despite his professional qualifications), and sought advice on how he wrote his job applications. Was that a “spiritual conversation”? The young man was a Moslem: does that make the conversation less “spiritual”? Can I have a “spiritual conversation” with a Moslem that is not intended to bring about his conversion to Christianity?
This afternoon, I spoke by telephone with a young woman seeking legal advice regarding separating from her violently abusive (but “devoutly Orthodox”) husband. Was that a “spiritual conversation”?
The use of “spiritual” by individuals seems to me to be indicative of pomposity, self-righteousness, and spiritual (sorry to have to use that descriptor!) arrogance.
The idea of distinguishing the “spiritual” from the….well, something else, seems to me to be essentially founded in the ancient heresy of Manichaeism, based in a dualistic cosmology, in direct conflict with the Incarnational Theology of Christianity.
If I seek – however inadequately, incompetently and incompletely – to live as a Christian, there can be nothing that I do or say – watering the garden, giving career advice, counselling victims of violence – that cannot be, and must not be, “spiritual”. As the great Anglican divine, George Herbert (1593-1633), declared in his poem, “The Elixir”, found in his collection, “The Temple” (1633):
“Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see,
And what I do in any thing,
To do it as for thee:
Not rudely, as a beast,
To runne into an action;
But still to make thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
And then the heav’n espie.
All may of thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture (for thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold:
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told.”
There is nothing of such “drudgerie”, nothing “so mean”, that it cannot, and will not “turneth all to gold”. Nor is there anything that is so “pious”, “self-promoting” or Pharisaical that cannot, for all the characteristics of its outer forms, be truly – and sadly – non-spiritual.