“There is an Indian proverb that says that everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional, and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time but unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.” ― Rumer Godden
I recently co-led a class on atheist spirituality with the family minister at my church. I had many reasons–the first was enjoying the shock value of that first sentence when I mentioned the class to anyone. The second was that I had randomly found a book in my local library while looking for something else: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, by Andre Compte-Sponville. I took it home and was delighted to find a gentle, positive book on atheism, so I proposed a class on the topic. I found that there was a good deal of interest; I had to start a waiting list and promise to teach it again next year. As it turned out there was little need for people to discuss atheism–few members of my Unitarian Universalist church believe in the guy in the white beard sitting on a throne and most of us feel comfortable with that stance in our non-doctrinal fellowship. There was, indeed, a huge interest in spirituality that doesn’t depend on worshipping an anthropomorphic deity. We all recognize the importance of that fourth room.
My main goal for the class, then was expanding the definition of spirituality beyond worshipping a god.
Since we had just survived the holidays, I started with an essay by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, “The Zen of Fruitcake.” Blumenauer describes how his holiday ritual of making fruitcakes has expanded into giving away over 200 cakes each year, and he in essence describes how this has become a spiritual experience for him. “Connection, creation, and fellowship. From Thanksgiving to New Year, this simple ritual, however idiosyncratic, has become an expression of what makes the holidays and the New Year special for me.”
Unfortunately, fruitcake didn’t resonate with many in the class as a spiritual creation. I tried to expand on the theme, but few people came up with ways in which they celebrated the holidays that they considered spiritual. Feeling that my first class was falling flat, I finally said in desperation, “How many of you were here for Christmas Eve service?” Many hands went up.
I played flute for that service, accompanying many carols along with piano, violin, and string bass. It was unrehearsed, a last-minute request from the music director for a special touch. We all knew the tunes intimately, of course, and we were comfortable seamlessly taking turns on melody and improvising harmony. That evening I entered the Musician’s Nirvana of effortlessly letting the music flow through me, mingle with the others, and float out to the congregation. I tried to describe that feeling of flow to the class, and I said, “That was a spiritual moment. Connection, creation, and fellowship.”
And that worked. Those who had been there had felt it too.
From there, we came up with many facets of spirituality:
Enrichment of self and others
Going beyond one’s self
Feeling part of nature and appreciating its beauty and immensity
“A way of being in the world that brings awareness and gratitude and humility.”
Curiously, while I was searching for the Rumer Godden quote with which I began the first class, Google led me to the Spirituality and Practice website by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. Among the many resources for interfaith spirituality on the website is their Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy. I think it’s appropriate that the first, for letter A, is Attention; it is the inspiration for all the rest.
I ended the last of four classes with a quotation from the little book that started me on this quest.
It is possible to do without religion but not without community, fidelity, or love. In these matters what we share is more important than what separates us. Peace to all, believers and unbelievers alike. Life is more precious than religion; this is where inquisitors and torturers are wrong. Communion is more precious than churches; this is where sectarians are wrong. Finally—and this is where fine people are right, whether they believe in God or not—love is more precious than hope or despair. There is no need to wait until we are saved to be human.