What Is Spirituality?


By Thomas Ehnert

I have a confession to make. When I was asked to write a regular column about GLBT spirituality, I had to think for a long time about what spirituality is!

You would think someone with a Master of Divinity degree would know that! The religious tradition of my upbringing didn’t talk about spirituality. We talked about the spirit, by which we meant the soul. We talked about spiritual life as something that came about through the rituals and teachings of our religious institution. But we didn’t talk about spirituality. In fact, we honestly tended to scoff at the notion of spirituality. People were claiming to be spiritual without needing our religious teachings and rituals. To us, it was unthinkable that there could be a spirituality without religion.

But spirituality and religion most certainly are separable. We call it hypocrisy when someone practices religion outwardly, but their spirit isn’t in it. So I think it’s very important to know that leaving religion, per se, doesn’t equal leaving spirituality.

So I needed to get at the heart of that question, “What is spirituality?” Sometimes it helps me to talk about what something isn’t. Spirituality is the part of us that isn’t physical. Its hunger isn’t fed by food. Its thirst isn’t quenched by water. Its coldness isn’t warmed by fire. Its pain isn’t medicated by a drug or a drink or by any other substance. It’s intimately connected to the five senses, affected deeply by the five senses, but it isn’t the five senses.

I’ve been paying close attention to when people talk about spirituality. Almost invariably they point to their hearts. Our “spiritual side” is the side of us that needs to love and be loved, to need and be needed, to fulfill and be fulfilled, to have joy and give joy, to be creative and to be inspired.

Where and how one finds all of that is different for every person. Some find that in a religious institution. Others do not. One of the tragedies for many of us in the GLBT community is that, because of what we were taught about ourselves in a religious tradition, we felt excluded from the sense of belonging, comfort, and peace that religion brings others. When I was a child, I learned the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” When my religious tradition later taught me that the same Bible says people like me are gross, evil, disgusting, sinful, and going to hell, I stopped believing Jesus loved me. How could I? I remember that, when I finally came out, I could finally ask pastors the question, “How could God have done this to me?” That specific religion robbed me of the spiritual comfort, joy, hope, and peace it sought to bring others. I leave to others the fight over what the Bible means or doesn’t mean. I’ve stopped fighting. I’ve adopted a non-violent attitude toward my spirit.

To heal from that really deep wound, I needed to leave religion in some ways. But I still needed to fill that spiritual void. I found my spirituality in music, reading, journaling, running outside in the sunshine, meditation, playing with my son, coffee with friends, and volunteering. Some of us fill that void in joining religious institutions that are accepting of us. Some of us fill it in the rituals and writings of religious institutions that aren’t accepting of us, but we separate what is harmful from what is beneficial. Others of us actively fight for GLBT rights. Still others find it in creative outlets, or in volunteering.

Here’s the best advice I can give from my own spiritual journey. Ask yourself, “What gives me a sense of joy, a sense of peace, a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging?” Those things are your spirituality. Maybe even that word, “spirituality”, is a loaded term for you. It is for me sometimes. So then I call it living creatively, living naturally, or living holistically. Honestly, I most often call it “being the real me.” It’s that simple. It’s a return to who I was — before the religious teachings of my former faith tradition devastated me by teaching me there was something intrinsically wrong with me as a gay person.

Just because many of us are not in a religious building on a religious day, that does not mean we are uninterested in spirituality. Let’s look for, embrace, and pursue those things that feed our spirits, that bring us a sense of belonging, fulfillment, joy, peace, and wholeness. Those are what make up our spirituality.

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