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I Do Know How to Pay Attention: What is Spirituality?


What is spirituality? For years in Ireland it has been associated with religious faith and practice. We are being spiritual when we pray, attend church, light a candle for someone or read the bible. This is entirely true and will continue to be so. These days, however, fewer people are practicing spirituality in this way. Does this mean they are not on a spiritual path – or is there more to discover? How do we find spirituality in our lives?

Firstly, instead of identifying certain practices as ‘spiritual,’ I suggest we look at what is spiritual in how we live our lives. In a recent conversation with young adults, we began to look at what was spiritual about what we already do. For me, loving my family is a deeply spiritual experience. There was nothing holier than carrying a child, including those miscarried; giving birth, and nurturing and loving them, and there still isn’t. They talked about running, which includes both discipline and a sense of connection which comes from being in your body, out in the weather, doing what’s in front of you. I find that in a first-light swim in the sea. We talked about community – caring for other people; kindness; environmental awareness and activism; loving relationships; sexuality; music, literature, art and, hugely, the natural world.

How do I know when someone is talking about their spirituality? It can be when someone finds it hard to put words on their experience. Here, the word ‘something,’ comes up. Searching for something; feeling something; knowing something. We talk about connection, healing, unity, forgiveness, peace and letting go. We also talk about spirituality in actions – protesting, singing, nursing, playing soccer, cooking. There can be a sense of light or darkness; depth, grace, truth, presence, freedom, hope and love.

Often we are not sure what our spirituality is, but find it in glimpses and places which are not acknowledged by formal religion.  American poet, Mary Oliver writes a lot about spirituality and here describes it in terms of ‘paying attention.’

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver The Summer Day (extract)

While everyone is on a personal journey, we believe at Galilee that exploring this together is a way of opening up the spiritual path, and letting the Spirit in. Here we find open hearts, curious minds and a community of support and love. Over the pandemic period many new people have engaged with us online because they are exploring their spirituality for different reasons, and their presence has made us richer.

Spirituality is a powerful force in our personal lives and in the world. It is a deep and necessary part of being a human being, and isn’t owned by any religion or philosophy. We need a spiritual perspective to negotiate life’s many challenges of identity, relationships, and the myriad ways we find of taking our place in the world. We can help one another by listening, by sharing our hard-won wisdom, or just walking a little way together.

Anne Francis