When I first started working with Unitarian Universalist congregations about 20 years ago, I was surprised to find out that the word “spiritual” was controversial.
I had spent the last decade or so not attending church (not so unusual for folks in their 20s and 30s), but I was raised in a religious tradition (Methodism) where “spiritual” was a perfectly acceptable word to use for one’s interior life—especially as it related to one’s relationship to the Holy.
But when I finally came back to organized religion and started attending (and later working for) a thriving UU congregation, I quickly found out that, like “prayer,” “faith,” “worship,” and “God,” “spiritual” was not a word everyone accepted.
A little surprising, given that the third of our Principles says we affirm and promote “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”
The word is not nearly as controversial now as it was back then. Of course that doesn’t mean that any two UUs will agree on a definition of spirituality.
Fortunately, the Faith Development folks at the UUA have provided us with a great resource for exploring spirituality: Erik Walker Wikstrom’s excellent “Spirit in Practice.” What I love most about this resource is the “eight-sphere concept” of spiritual engagement.
“Drawing on a model developed by the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York,” Wikstrom says, “Spirit in Practice focuses on eight spheres of holistic and wholehearted spiritual practices.”
Personal Spiritual Practices: These are practices done alone and, perhaps, daily—such as meditation, dream work, journaling, prayer, and so on. They’re what most people think of when they hear the words “spiritual practice.”
Communal Worship Practices: Although Unitarian Universalists affirm the uniqueness and individual nature of a person’s spiritual path, our movement is also founded on a belief that community is essential to that journey. Regular engagement with communal worship—the ongoing and collective search for truth and meaning—is one way of supporting this belief.
Spiritual Partnerships: Spiritual development is hard work, and most faith traditions affirm the usefulness of companions on the journey. A spiritual partnership can take the form of participation in a small group, a one-on-one relationship with another congregant, spiritual guidance with a minister, or one’s own personal therapy. What matters most is the intentional relationship with another person and a mutual commitment to the journey.
Mind Practices: Could a program of spiritual development be Unitarian Universalist without an intellectual component? This is a role of adult religious education: book studies, film discussions, lectures, adult forums, scripture studies, courses in UU history, and other RE offerings are all ways to fulfill this dimension of a “rich, integrated program.”
Body Practices: We know that mind, body, and soul are interconnected. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that a well-rounded spiritual practice includes some kind of physical practice? It might be running, sitting, gardening, tai chi, massage, or virtually anything else that keeps us in touch with the miracle of our physical selves.
Soul Practices: These are the practices that exercise our creative selves—drawing, painting, sculpting, music, poetry, and other creative endeavors. It has been said that the Biblical expression that humans are “made in the image of God” means that we are made to be creative.
Life Practices: Religious traditions from around the world agree that we eventually need to take what we do in private and in our congregations and bring it out into the rest of our lives—in our relationships with our family members, in our workplaces, in our interactions with strangers.
Justice Practices: A fully mature spirituality does not stop at the goal of transforming oneself, but must extend beyond oneself—to others—and include a vision of transforming the world.
I’m thinking most of us regularly engage in at least two or three (and perhaps more) of these practice. We just may not consider them as “spiritual.” Spirit in Practice is a great way for congregations to help friends and members explore where they might be practicing spirituality in their own lives.