|© Copyright 2001 David Clark, P.O. Box 148/Cochran, GA 31014
The phrase "Practical Spirituality" reminds one of other gems such as military intelligence, jumbo shrimp, and government efficiency.
The word practical concerns everyday life experience. It implies acting sensibly about material things: balancing one's checkbook, stopping at stop signs, or looking both ways before crossing the street.
The word spiritual concerns another part of us that's harder to define. The spiritual part of us is not of the material world. The Hebrew usage indicates that spirit is like the wind. The Greek definition also describes wind and air, but adds the idea of the human spirit serving as God's instrument. The use of the word spirit in both languages is a mysterious usage. It is fitting that the word "spirit" takes advantage of the beauty of language. It breaks free from nailed-down definitions.
Practical spirituality seems to be a contradiction in terms.
How can one act sensibly in matters of air?
No one doubts the sensibility of balancing one's checkbook or stopping at stop signs. The reasons for following practical advice in these matters can be visibly seen. Checks bounce, and if they bounce enough the check-writer can go to jail. Drivers running stop signs usually wind up getting mauled by oncoming traffic. This sort of argument cannot be doubted.
But now, it's easy to doubt spiritual principles like the need for reverence, the reason to love others, the power of turning the other cheek, the importance of being honest, of forgiving others, of acting with compassion. We've all seen examples of people running roughshod over these principles -- sometimes it doesn't seem like they suffer at all. In the business world it seems that people ignoring these principles are the ones who get ahead.
When one considers the idea of spirituality, one is almost bound to consider the idea of God. And God is one of those ideas that's widely disputed. Some folks say God doesn't exist. Some folks say God is an angry old man in a chair intent on smashing us flat like a bug.
Members of western culture want proof of what they believe in. No one doubts the proof offered by a car that's been hit by running a stop sign.
Modern society is highly influenced by the scientific world's measurements and proofs. This one-sided influence presents a problem for our culture, because the ideas of spirit and God defy measurement and proof.
No one must actually experience getting nailed after running a stop sign in order to understand the practical aspects of stopping at stop signs.
But the idea of spirit and God are something one must experience in order to believe in.
One can see the value of practical things before the need for the knowledge arises. And if one follows the practical advice -- such as stopping at stop signs -- then one doesn't suffer the consequences of failing to live a practical life.
Paying attention to practical matters is to be in control of one's life.
Most folks encounter spirituality as a need and a hunger resulting from their life's journey.
We fool ourselves into thinking we are in control of our life's journey, but life consists in much more than stopping at stop signs and balancing our checkbook.
Things rock along. We develop a sort of arrogance. We begin to believe we have our hands on the great steering wheel of the world.
It is usually when we believe we are most in control of life that we discover how uncontrollable our journey really is.
Our culture denies what it cannot measure. Our culture thinks success is measured by countable piles of hoarded money.
The journey of our lives teaches us that success requires an invisible currency that's countable only when it's given away.
No one experiences a loved one's death without coming face to face with the unmeasurable but undeniable hunger for a way to act sensibly in matters of air.
The idea of practical spirituality sounds like an oxymoron. It is more correct to say that practical spirituality represents a paradox.
A friend of mine who teaches Greek tells me the word paradox is formed from the Greek words "para" -- which means "next to," and "doxa" -- which means "praise and glory." My teacher-friend says a paradox can describe being taken from the realm of the practical and put us right next to the realm of the spiritual -- and our initial urge is to praise God.
My dictionary says paradox literally means "unbelievable, or beyond what is thought."
A paradox seems self-contradictory and absurd to the overly-scientific man, but in reality the paradox expresses truth.
The only way to feed our soul is by feeding the souls of others.
The only way to love ourselves is to love others.
Forgiveness is more powerful than anger.
The indescribable thing called God is love.
The way to truly live one's life is to be willing to lose one's life.
The journey of one's lifetime is lived brand-new each day.
These are all statements of important spiritual truth. But what do they mean on a day-to-day basis?
This is the quandary of Practical Spirituality.
This is the challenge of acting sensibly in matters of air.
It is tempting to list certain things to do, but the spiritual journey cannot be laid out like a recipe -- but then it can, in a sort of way. It's just that one must understand one's own ingredients.
Our culture loves checklists and "How-to" books. There's a book on how to do everything from tuning up one's car to building a house.
One could say the spiritual journey is like tuning up one's car every few minutes.
The notion of a practical approach to spirituality implies there are things one must do. Sometimes there are indeed things one must do. But it is just as likely that there are times when one must do absolutely nothing. One of the basic ideas of spiritual growth is to be still and know that God is God.
How can someone who is extremely busy take the time to be still and know that God is God? I cannot tell a person how to be still. I can only say they must be still. Telling a person to be still is very practical advice, from a spiritual standpoint. But being still isn't very practical for a busy person's life.
The spiritual journey demands that certain choices be made. It is like an automobile journey. One must take certain exits off the busy interstate if one is to reach one's destination. One must choose to take certain exits on one's daily spiritual road.
When one considers the pressures of living and working and tending to one's various duties, taking the time to be still seems like something that can wait. The best way to illustrate the importance of making choices based on spiritual needs is to offer the reminder that one day we will all take the exit marked "death."
Our culture doesn't like to think of dying. We think it's a horrible thing.
The spiritual point of view says that dying is simply part of life -- a graduation into the next stage of life.
The spiritual point of view says dying is simply a change of address, so to speak. We move to a world known only to God.
The spiritual journey is all about making sure we've got a home to go to.
Practical spirituality implies that we build that home every moment of every day.
The urge to make practical choices is easy. That is our culture's way.
What's difficult is making spiritual choices.
Sometimes these choices don't seem to make sense. How do we choose forgiveness when we have a perfectly good right to be angry? I cannot tell one how to forgive. I can only tell one that forgiveness is stronger than anger, and that when one forgives one grows in a place that cannot be measured. When one forgives, one has learned a little bit about acting sensibly in matters of air.
A very real part of the spiritual journey are the places where we don't know what to do. We yearn for someone to tell us the right thing to do. It is in those places that no one can tell us what to do. We have to decide for ourselves, whether we like it or not. No decision is still a decision.
It is as if we were suffering from a deep thirst.
The Greek says that to thirst is to eagerly long for those things by which the soul is refreshed, supported, strengthened.
Our culture says to drink a soft drink or a beer.
The spiritual answer is to drink of the living water. What is the practical way to find this living water? The most practical thing I know sounds very impractical: ask God for it, be still and know that God is God. If one asks God for living water, then God will give one living water.
And you ask: "But how do I do this on a daily basis?"
My answer remains the same. Ask God, and be still -- be still down in the part of your mind that is always thinking of what you need to do next. Be aware that God moves in mysterious ways. Pay attention. God will put living water right in your path. If you're not too busy -- or too proud -- you'll see it.
One of the basic choices one makes on a spiritual journey is to study spiritual writings. The basic spiritual text of western culture is the Bible. One who spends serious time studying this book will find untold guidance in its pages.
One can also find guidance from the texts of other cultures, and from more modern writings as well.
I have spent most of my study-time with the Bible, because it is the book I was raised on. While modern translations are available, I prefer the King James version because its beautiful text is sometimes difficult to follow. This doesn't sound very practical, but taking the time to ponder the shades of meanings brings a depth to the words that is lost in the modern translations.
It is interesting to note that the word spirit appears 550 times in the King James version of the Bible.
The word practicality doesn't appear a single time.
In the Bible stories, Jesus was constantly asked by the Pharisees to prove his word was true. Jesus almost always answered their questions with either a question or with a parable. The beauty of parables is their ability to speak to the limits of the listener's ability to hear.
A parable is maddening to someone who wants a concrete answer. Part of the point of a parable is to get over wanting concrete answers and learn to listen to the small voice of God that will speak inside you.
The danger of practical spiritual advice is that it is human nature to mistakenly think that all one has to do is follow the advice.
While it is one thing to believe it is a good idea to not judge others, it is a completely different level of thinking to be aware of what one is doing and why one is choosing to not judge others. It is another matter yet again to choose to instead clear up our own problems.
Practicality implies a short-term return. While this is sometimes true in a spiritual sense, the true benefit of one's spiritual journey is not always readily apparent. Sometimes it takes time to see the reasons for following spiritual practices.
We are all children on our spiritual journey, and part of the journey is learning to be patient. How can I tell someone how to be patient? I can only tell them they need to be patient. They must learn their own way of doing this. How do they learn it? Ask God.
The word practicality is defined as having to do with practice or action. Practicality is concerned with ordinary activities and adapted for actual use. Practicality is mindful of the results of action.
While practicality and spirituality seem to be conflicting words, the actual truth of the thing is that spirituality means nothing unless it is put into actual practice. The Bible tells us that faith without works is dead.
The problem with integrating practicality and spirituality is the inherent conflict of action and contemplation. We are a culture of action, and the spiritual journey requires some degree of contemplation. It is very practical to contemplate with reverence. It is very practical to pray. The stillness is food for the soul.
We are a culture of control. The urge to have a practical spirituality reflects that urge. We think if we can find some practical things to do, we will be in control of our spiritual journey.
We can be in control of our spiritual journey, but only when we let go of that control and place it in God's hands. Is this practical sounding?
One of the most important parts of one's spiritual journey lies in the act of giving of oneself to others. One will be presented with plenty of opportunities to give of oneself. What is important is to be aware of the opportunities, and to be willing to give of oneself.
You can ask: "Why is it important to give to others? What's in it for me, practically speaking?"
I can name any number of reasons why it's good to give of oneself to others -- it will make you feel good inside, it will help the world be a better place.
But the real reason one should give to others is because one's spiritual journey commands one to give. A vital part of the spiritual journey is to submit to the commands of the spiritual journey. The most important reason to submit is because it is the right thing to do. To follow a command because one expects a return for one's giving is the wrong reason. To ask why we should submit to a spiritual command is to be asking the wrong question.
Spiritual teachings would say only a fool asks why one should obey.
The Chinese spiritual teaching says to plant with no thought of harvest. This is the essence of the spiritual journey. It's not a practical sounding command, unless one understands that the teaching is intended to cause one to plant with all one's might and not be distracted by thought of reward. The whole point of the spiritual journey is to put all of one's being into one's actions. This is a practical thing to do, and ultimately it is the only thing to do. Why? Because we are commanded to do it.
It's a practical thing to say: Have faith in God. This is sometimes no easy task.
Are there practical reasons for having faith? Well, one can say it will lessen stress to have faith.
But the real question is whether or not one can keep one's practical mind from raising objections to the idea of having faith when everything seems hopeless.
Jesus said: "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein."
What does this mean? Does this mean to do practical things? Or does it mean that it's practical to believe as a child, without question?
Jesus said: "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you."
What does this mean?
Jesus' closest followers were the first to tell him his sayings were hard.
There is no practical and logical way to say what Jesus said.
Spiritual teachings are presented in ways that are hard for the adult to understand, yet children sometimes see them clearly. Why? Because children haven't yet learned how to be "practical."
What does it mean to say that it's practical to not be practical?
There are at least two levels to the story: there is the story itself, and there is the meaning of the story on a personal level. We can memorize the story until we can say it backwards and forwards, but until the story has meaning for us through our own experience, then it's nothing but a story.
Our practical side wants to hear the story and to be warmed inside by the good news of hope the story contains. But the spiritual journey isn't about feeling good about the story. The spiritual journey is about taking the story inside ourselves and wondering about it so it will be lived out in our own lives.
One can believe all one wants that Jesus was born in a stable. But what does it mean to get to know those shepherd boys inside ourselves -- the outcast and criminal part of ourselves? What does it mean to join one's mind and heart and become the wise man? What does it mean to set out on a long journey to see that little child? How can I tell you that if you begin the journey you will see a guiding star? And how can I tell someone that if they find those shepherds, they will see an angel bringing good news?
How can I describe how to find one's internal shepherd boys? How can I describe how to become the wise man? All I know is that when one makes the journey and finds those shepherds and wise men, then one will find a newborn child in the most unexpected place -- because somewhere inside each of us is a stable just waiting for a magical birth.
One can believe all one wants that Jesus was crucified and rose again on the third day. But until one learns how to allow one's pride to die, then the story is just a story.
How does one learn how to allow one's pride to die? Read the story. Ask God. Be aware. The cross will come.
And then: the point is not the dying, but the rising again. That is the point of the spiritual journey.
The spiritual journey is not only practical. It is the only journey one can really make. The challenge in practical spirituality is as simple as acting sensibly in matters of air.
David Clark is a writer, guitarist, and storyteller living in Cochran, Georgia. His weekly column appears in a couple dozen Southeastern newspapers. His essays have run on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." He performs regularly for all kinds of groups, telling his stories and singing his songs. He also tells Uncle Remus stories. Clark has released nine CDs and 3 books.
©Copyright 2003 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.