Who We Are As Body And Spirit

There is one body and one Spirit.
– Ephesians 4:4
We all have a spirituality, whether we want one or not,
whether we are religious or not. Spirituality is more about
whether or not we can sleep at night than about whether or not
we go to church. It is about being integrated or falling apart,
about being with community or being lonely, about being in harmony with
Mother Earth or being alienated from her.
– Ronald Rolheiser

Anyone who has been in a bookstore recently, or who subscribes to any magazine or newspaper, knows that there is a great deal of talk these days about spirituality and its role in our daily lives.  Some people ask: “Are we really spiritual beings having a human experience, or are we human beings growing into spiritual beings, through our human experiences?”  I have come to see this as the wrong approach. I believe this question is not an either/or proposition.

The late Thomas Berry (1987), a Passionist priest and proponent of the new cosmology, suggested in his writings that our Universe from the beginning has had both a physical and a psychic dimension (p. 107). What Berry is essentially saying is that all of creation has both a physical nature and, to some degree, an interior capacity for consciousness.  I believe this means that our physical human nature and our spiritual human nature are both intrinsic to who we are, and both need our attention if we are to grow to our full potential.

Berry describes “consciousness” as “the capacity for intimate presence of things to one another through knowledge and sensitivity.”  He believes that every living being has its own mode of consciousness; however, “the consciousness of a plant and an animal are qualitatively different.” For humans, this qualitative difference in consciousness requires us to be intentional about developing our “capacity for intimate presence” to others. I see this as the core of our spiritual experience. It is a lifelong journey.

It was during my brief career as a newspaper journalist that I slowly began to accept and to begin to deal with the spiritual nature of who I am. It began one night, after about a year spent working on a small community newspaper. On this night, I was working late and was alone at the newspaper office. At one point, I decided to call my managing editor at home to ask a question about an article I was trying to finish. After a few rings, a young child answered my telephone call. His tiny voice caught me off guard, and I only managed to ask quickly if his daddy was at home.

As I waited for the child to bring his father to the phone, I sat pondering the realization that, although I had worked closely with my editor for more than a year by that time, I had had no idea up until that moment that his life outside of the newspaper office included the raising of small children.  Somehow, something in that moment of awareness felt dramatically wrong to me. The fact that there was a whole dimension to his life to which I was not in the least small way “present” did not sit well with some deep part of me. Something in me questioned whether such a disconnected person was the person I hoped to become.

Long after I completed the call, the feeling of disconnection it engendered in me remained. As I continued to reflect on the experience, I realized that even in those times after work when our little band of employees went out for a drink together, the conversation had always focused on complaints or challenges involved with the work. In one sense that was understandable, because there always seemed to be much dissatisfaction and “burnout” among the employees, but for me there was more to it than that.

At about the same time, by a set of circumstances too lengthy to go into here, I had become involved as a volunteer working in an office offering ministry to single adults. The office was located with other ministry offices in an old bank building. On my first day of work as a volunteer, as I approached the large glass doors at the front of the building, I could feel myself experiencing my old sense of resistance to doing any of “God’s” work. As I reached for the door handle, I could feel my body tense and my will begin to balk at the idea of being in a place where, as one part of my mind imaged it, “people wear crucifixes or smiley faces on their lapels, and hang holy posters on the walls.”

I was by that time, however, feeling enough of a disconnect in the rest of my life to muster the courage to take the plunge, and to open the door and enter my future. To my surprise, after only a few weeks of work, and an opportunity to get to know some of the other people working there, I became aware that my initial dread had been alleviated by a sense of belonging and affirmation. I felt good about completing the tasks assigned to me, but more than that, there were opportunities to interact more intimately with co-workers.  There were small, daily liturgies to attend during the lunch hour, in which people prayed for others in their family or community who were in need. The conversation with colleagues afterwards at lunch took on a different tone than had been common in most previous experiences for me.

Eventually, I began to see that in that workplace we shared a fuller accounting of ourselves, and our lives, that felt healthier and more fulfilling than my earlier experiences working as a journalist had felt for me. I began to view people as whole persons, who felt comfortable bringing their emotions and their spirit as well as their skills to the workplace.  Furthermore, the people I found there were deeply engaged in what was going on in the world, eager to help themselves and others grow more fully in their ability to live life to the fullest.

Though I did not have the knowledge or words with which to speak about my experience at the time, I believe now that what I experienced in those two early professional settings was a difference in attentiveness to human “spirituality” in every day life.

In summary, I am coming to believe that as humans we are spiritual in the same way that we are biological.  It is part of our makeup, one more gift of the God who made us as we are. This means learning how to live as spiritual beings is as important to becoming who we are, and to our overall health and happiness, as learning how to take care of our physical and biological needs.  In other words, just as we know that by eating the right things, getting enough sleep, and routinely exercising, we are going to be physically healthy and able to enjoy life more, the same is true of the disciplines needed to enjoy spiritual health.

As human beings we are spiritual, and that means we have spiritual needs as well as intellectual, emotional, psychological, and physical needs. What are the disciplines that will help us to meet our spiritual needs? That is for each of us to work out for ourselves, for we are all unique in this regard.

I believe, though, that a good place to start on the spiritual journey is with the quality of “presence” you bring into the daily encounters you experience. Good luck with developing your own spiritual practices. May they lead to enjoying life more fully.

Rolheiser, R. (1999). The holy longing: The search for a Christian spirituality. New York, NY: Doubleday. [Opening quote: pp.6-7.]

Berry, T. (1987) Thomas Berry and the new cosmology. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications.

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