It was one of the best holidays of my childhood: two weeks in early springtime on the Gold Coast staying across the road from the beach. Perhaps 10, I was old enough to be allowed to the beach by myself, playing in the sand and exploring the nearby North Burleigh headland.
Of an afternoon I would follow the well-worn foot track to the top of the headland and venture out to its edge as far as I dare. With my knees pulled up to my chin, staring out to the eastern horizon, all I could see was sky and water; blue on blue. I was infused by a sense of peace; being part of a reality immensely bigger than myself. It was my favourite place that holiday. I returned as often as I could to that spot. Just me, the ocean, and the sky.
Though I would not have described it at the time, being in that place was a spiritual experience, being connected in some mysterious way to a reality much bigger than my own; and of being at peace. It is a precious experience that has stayed with me through the decades.
That type of experience is far from unique. Many people have a special place where they feel safe, connected, and at peace: the bush, the mountain, the creek, the desert, the sea, the backyard. For many individuals and families, retreats to places like these offer an opportunity to reconnect, to bond, to seek healing and growth towards wholeness. These are all spiritual experiences. The capacity to be aware of and open to the spiritual is part of the human make-up.
Experiences of the spiritual are the raw material from which religious traditions of all kinds take shape.
Religious narratives help followers to shape, explore and describe their own spirituality. Often it is the experiences and stories of founders and other key characters which guide and direct religious communities’ spiritual understanding and wisdom. Think of the ancient people of the Dreamtime; Abraham and Moses; Jesus of Nazareth and St Paul of Tarsus; Mohammed the Prophet; the Buddha; these among many. Connection with these founding experiences offer adherents of every era an understanding of their origins and their destiny, of how to live in an authentic manner, and of what makes living meaningful.
It is surprising, or perhaps it’s not, how much commonality exists across core values of spiritual traditions. “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself” is a standard that is supported almost universally by people of goodwill everywhere, including those of religious traditions. It is known as ‘The Golden Rule’. And flowing from this rule is a whole set of moral and ethical values we would want our children to absorb: respect, dignity, community, justice, compassion, inclusion, fairness, forgiveness, hopefulness and love.
Spiritual experiences, either expressed in religious tradition or independent from them, sustain human beings’ capacities to embody these values in daily relationships.
Religious traditions offer their members ritual expressions for spirituality and guided support in living these values in an authentic manner. Here in Australia we have a beautiful experience of the spiritual ‘intersection’ between the secular and the sacred. Every December in parks across our land, the community gathers for Carols by Candlelight. In the wistfulness of carols sung by soft candlelight, the Christmas story prompts hearts to seek a sense of family and belonging, of purity and simplicity, of peacefulness and generosity.
It is often said that Christmas is for children. While this clearly is not exclusively the case, it is true that the joyous naivety, spontaneity, and sense of wonder so often exhibited by children can lead us into the experience of all that is at the heart of this magnificent season.
I recall fondly a special encounter I shared with our eldest daughter when she was about three:
We were going through the night-time ritual of teeth, stories, and bed. Tucked into bed we were saying our ‘God bless Nana and Grandad, friends at kindy’ and so on. In the midst of this our three-year-old asked a question which should not be unexpected from a child that age.
“Where’s God?” she asked.
“Hmmm… God’s everywhere,” I speculated.
“How can God be everywhere?” was the curious response.
“Well… God’s in everyone’s heart.”
“How can God be in your heart?”
“Um… you know when Mum and Dad say to you that we love you?” “Yes…”
“And you tell us back that you love us too?” “Yes”
“And you know that feeling you get inside?”
“Oh, yes! The warm of God!”
‘The warm of God’… out of the mouth of babes!
That’s it of course; the knowledge and experience of being loved and being wanted no matter what, and of belonging somewhere and with someone is humanity’s core spiritual experience.
When it sinks home – year after year; again, and again – it has the power to change our lives.
We can come to the realisation that we are not alone, that life is not a trap, that we are loved and are worthwhile and are valued for who we are.
While from one angle it looks like a truth for individuals (i.e. ‘it’s true for me’), spirituality is always at the same time corporate; we are called to live with and for one another. What we believe about ourselves – our personal lovability and worthwhileness – we are called to enact communally. This spirituality reminds us to engage in deliberate acts of other-centeredness.
For me, the essence of spirituality is love, actually. Just like love, spirituality is a gift; a gift that makes all the difference. Borrowing from the great French storyteller, Victor Hugo: “When we love another person, we see the face of God”. We see a reflected vision of the people we are called to become, in the Divine’s own face.
The kid on the headland absorbed by the immensity of sea and sky; Aussie communities in candlelit hope for enduring goodwill towards all; the child tucked into bed warmed by the embrace of love – truly, spirituality is all around.
Luke Reed is the Principal at MacKillop Catholic College, Mount Peter