Thursday, July 14, 2011

Spirituality 2

Towards a Definition

Aspect of a Sculpture, Park, Mullingar, April, 2011
Spirituality is quite an elusive phenomenon and has a veritable legion of definitions.  Hence, there are as many definitions of it as there are writers who attempt to define it.  Let us start with a more orthodox (though rather modern scholarly take than traditionally conservative) Catholic definition of this phenomenon:  O'Collins, S.J. and Farugia, S.J. give the following orthodox definition in A Concise Dictionary of Theology (Harper Collins, 1991):

Systematic practice of and reflection on a prayerful, devout and disciplined Christian life.  In its practice Christian spirituality has always called for an ascetical and prayerful life in which a spiritual guide and the light of the Holy spirit help discern the direction in which individuals and communities are being led... As a field of study, spirituality involves theological (including liturgical), scriptural, historical, psychological and social elements (Op. cit., p. 228)
I remember writing the following definition myself in the first chapter of my S.T.L. thesis:

Spirituality describes the inner movement of the human spirit towards the transcendent or the divine.  In the Christian context this is essentially the journey of the pilgrim soul to God, renewed and nourished on the way through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who has wrought our salvation. Faith and Theological Method in the Works of John Henry Newman, Quinlan T., unpublished S.T. L. Thesis, Milltown, 1994, p. 6) 
I have come a long way in my personal journey since then.  At the time I was a practising and believing Catholic of 36 years of age.  That I firmly believed the above at the time is firmly without doubt.  That what is outlined above is an honest and good definition of spirituality is also a given.  However, as I have stated in my opening few lines - there are literally as many definitions of spirituality as there are those who attempt to write about it, though some will be obviously more orthodox and religious while others will be highly unorthodox and some even extremely woolly, to say the least.

Detail, same piece of sculpture
In the years since I wrote the above definition much has changed on my own personal landscape.  My fortieth year brought with it a severe mental break-down, which resulted in a seven week stay in a psychiatric hospital.  I had one further episode of severe depression the following year, but luckily it did not necessitate a hospital stay.  I now look on those horrible episodes as a break-through to a different and deeper dimension in my own soul - to a deeper and more spiritual dimension if you like.  When I left that hospital I knew a lot had changed for me.  I began to wonder what had happened, and the question which affected my mind literally at a chemical level, as well as at an existential one, was "If all these drugs can change my personality, then who am I?  Am I a mere biochemical reality?  What defines me as Tim Quinlan anyway?  Am I just a random collection of chemicals or neurotransmitters?  Where does the biochemistry end and the psychology or personality begin?  Is there such a reality as soul at all?  Were we after all what Bertrand Russell had once said in words similar to the following, "just a mere collocation of atoms"?  Religion was now something I had no experiential or existential or psychological need of anymore.  I had literally outgrown it.


Such questions saw me move beyond religion into a more spiritual phase in my life where I sought to understand what I was about in a more existential and meaningful way.  I read voluminously in psychology and psychiatry and in spirituality.  At this stage, spirituality had become a more "real" and more existentially-meaningful phenomenon in my life.  It was now becoming a way of making or forging connections.  For me, then, spirituality became a way of forging connections between the disparate parts of my self - in other words unifying and integrating ( Jungian terms here and terms also borrowed from the great psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Dr Anthony Storr) all the sub-personalities within my psyche, all the archetypes and most especially the Shadow that lurks in all our unconscious.  Spirituality is definitely about two things and possibly, though not especially about a third: (i) about connecting with the Real Self (ii) with others and (iii) with the source of that thrust-to-connect in God or some Ultimate Being or some inert, impersonal force behind the Universe.

Another detail, same sculptural piece
As you can see my modern personal definition of spirituality is quite psychological.  Having read Jung and Storr and a legion of other psychiatrists and psychologists and neuroscientists, as is evidenced in these pages, I have learned that true spirituality is about going inwards and downwards rather than upwards and outwards.  The Transcendent or God may not just be out there - perhaps he/she/it is in here in my own very soul or Immanent as the theological language puts it.  Having read Jung I can now see why my erstwhile professor of theology Dr. Bernard Kelly was so afraid of Jung.  Anyone who reads Jung will see that while the great man had oodles of time for theology and the rituals of religions, he also suggested that God may be an invention of humankind, may in fact be a psychological or sociological phenomenon equatable to the Collective Unconscious itself.  Needless to say, we are here returning to the central fear of organised and controlling religion, that namely the individual can make his/her way to whatever they see as their God (a mere metaphor for what they essentially believe) without the help of any church.  What's that the famous Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire said:  "If God has made us in his own image and likeness, we have more than returned the compliment!"  There's a lot of truth in that statement.

To be continued.

2 comments:

Christopher Dos Santos said...

Namaste my brother TQ. Now that you are on my blog list I won't miss these fantastic posts.

I don't believe spirituality is a comfortable bedfellow of structured psychology or religious ideology. I see spirituality as a connection to the true eternal "God self" being within. Beyond the noun is the path of spirit which I prefer to see as a philosophical journey beyond the illusion of ego self.

In Lak' ech, brother, ripples of reality...

TQ said...

I graciously return your bow, Christopher! With the kindest of regards and many thanks for reading!