In Pursuit of the Spirit

lost_c_shadowFor a period of time, I owned the domain Although I never did anything with it, and I eventually let it lapse, I thought it would make a good site for a spirituality blog. Spirituality has become quite popular in both religious and secular circles, but I think it often comes with connotations that can be unhelpful. For some, spirituality is a kind of new age voodoo that involves communing with nature, being intentionally un-religious, and/or a lot chanting. For others, the term brings to mind spiritual disciplines and there is a sense of rigidity, rules, and confining structures that were part of an ancient Christianity, but no longer seem relevant. And for still others, the term spirituality is so vague and pervasive that it seems hopeless to even try figuring out what it’s all about.

Not that these exaggerated impressions are completely off-base, there’s an element of truth in each of them, but they all serve to keep us at arm’s length from spirituality. And that is unfortunate because at its most basic level, spirituality is simple and easy to grasp. The very thing that often deters people from diving in and exploring spirituality (the plethora of definitions and descriptions, the overwhelming number of practices and places to begin, the sheer volume of literature on the topic in both printed and digital media) is also what makes it so “user friendly.” There are so many places to start, so many different definitions to consider or try on, so many practices with which to experiment. We just need to let go of the idea that there is a “right way” or a set path to follow if only we could find the definitive guide.

When I first started studying spirituality in college, every book I read either defined spirituality differently or didn’t bother to define it at all. Realizing this, I thought that if I could just read enough books I’d eventually see a common thread and I would know what the term meant. I was wrong. I came to realize that there are as many definitions of spirituality as there are books about it, if not more. Rather than trying to condense them, I needed to define spirituality for myself—figure out what I meant when I used the term.

For me, spirituality is our attempts to recognize and respond to the Spirit. Holy Goose Poop might verge on sacrilege, but when paired with the tagline “following the droppings of the Holy Spirit,” it does a good job of conveying my approach to spirituality. Celtic Christians have long imaged the Holy Spirit as a goose: noisy, messy, and not the least bit concerned about getting in your way or inconveniencing you. Wild and free, many geese move with the weather, sometimes signaling the changing of seasons before we’ve begun to notice and sometimes honking their way overhead late in the season, seemingly intent on alerting us to the already obvious change in weather. Imagining the Holy Spirit as a goose keeps us on our toes and prevents us from domesticating God. And spirituality, I would argue, is all about following the Spirit (looking for its droppings, attending to its abrasive honks, and noticing the changes its flight often signals) and learning how to respond.

There’s no “right way” to do spirituality. It’s all about finding the practices or triggers that help you begin to notice the movement of the Spirit in the world. And if you’re not sure what the Spirit looks like, start by looking for the things/people/places/events that make you feel energized or inspired, calm or at peace, happy or full of joy. Often, those are signs that the Spirit is calling you to those things/people/places/events. Head in those directions and see where it takes you . . . .

Blog-HeadShot-300x300Sarah Walker Cleaveland is a spiritual director, preacher, teacher, retreat leader, and writer. After graduating from Hobart & William Smith Colleges with a degree in religious studies, she spent two years working in Christian Education at a Presbyterian Church and a Presbyterian Retreat Center. She earned her M.Div. at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, married her husband Adam, then earned a Masters of Theology from Princeton Seminary. Adam serves as Associate Pastor at Winnetka Presbyterian Church in a suburb north of Chicago. Sarah is currently chasing their two and a half year old son Caleb and developing her spiritual direction practice.

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