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That mantra began sometime around the mid- to late-1970s, as I recall. Suddenly it was all around me, especially since I was a representative of (gasp!) organized religion – even if it felt rather unorganized to me.
There seem to be three meanings to the second half of the phrase, “not religious.”
First, at face value, it means the speaker is either not a fan of, or not connected to, a community of faith that has the earmarks of an institution. That much is clear.
Second, the phrase may represent a level of hostility toward “organized religion.” Fair enough. This goes with the observation “the church (or whatever name you insert here) is full of hypocrites.” True. We’re a sorry lot, and we’re so glad for the purity of the world that surrounds us with its absence of ethical problems.
Third, the phrase may be and has been used specifically to cut off conversation with a representative of a religious tradition - like me, for instance. And I get it: nobody wants to be lectured about a particular take on religion, no matter how close or far from the truth it may be. Unfortunately, “religious leaders” are all tarred with the same brush, as if there were no difference in either our approach or our aim. My aim has always been to share, not overpower, but I have been the target of zealots trying to mind-wrestle me into their religious box. I know why people instinctively flee from such types.
What about that first part, “I’m spiritual”? I have no objection to the sentiment expressed; the problem is there’s spirituality and then there’s spirituality. Wooly thinking simply affirms peak experiences as the be-all and end-all of spiritual experience. We know peak experiences in acts like falling in love, giving birth, sitting with someone as they die, and true befriending. They are, on one hand, perfectly normal and, on the other, perfectly extraordinary. They are “spiritual” experiences that transcend those mundane everyday activities we overlook.
Peak experiences are special, so we tend to give them the title “spiritual.”
Many people have another experience they label “spiritual.” This is the ground level experience of the interconnectedness to all things that sometimes overtakes us at odd moments. Poet W. H. Auden called it “the vision of dame kind,” a natural spirituality that comes from recognizing this interconnectedness. It is an experience which is external and, thus, captivates you for a moment. Because it is not inward, however, this vision is not capable of sustenance. It comes and goes like the tide.
Many people get stuck at this ground level, deem it “spiritual,” and never progress beyond it. It’s tricky because we cannot deny that it is transcendent, but it’s not the whole story. St. Teresa sketches an extended metaphor about different rooms you enter to draw close to the Holy. Her work, like that of many medieval mystics, was based on a threefold movement of mind and heart. Entering the interior castle is really a process that moves from cleansing by self-denial and repentance through a growing awareness of the presence of the Holy lighting up all of life. Finally, there is a sense of union and communion with the Holy, which St. Teresa termed the spiritual marriage of the soul with God. This complete spiritual experience can never be fully explained; it will always remain ineffable, but it is real. It is far more wonderful and complex than the ground level. This is the deeper meaning to “I’m spiritual” that I invite you to.
Fr. Gabriel Rochelle is priest emeritus of St. Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Church. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.