How to sense the spiritual aspects of life
Last week a team came to inspect the homeless and geriatric programs at our hospital. After an outbrief, two team members, one older white woman and one middle aged African American woman, came into my office. They admired my models of the War of 1812 frigate USS Constitution and the 1990s US Space Shuttle Endeavor. We talked for a moment, but as they turned to leave, the older woman glimpsed a replica of the ancient Celtic worship and burial site Stonehenge on my table.
“Have you been there?” she inquired, with more than a little excitement in her voice.
“Yes, with my wife and our infant daughter in 1994. How about you?”
“Never, but I would love to go” she replied, both excited and plaintive. She took a deep breath, paused, and looked directly at me. Her face was earnest and anxious, like a novitiate approaching an Archbishop with a question of vital importance.
“Can you feel it? Can you feel the spirituality in that place?”
“Yes,” I replied, instantly knowing what she meant. “You can sense the spirituality at Stonehenge. But there are four things that you have to do in order to feel it.”
Her face lit up, waiting for what would come next.
In her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us, psychology professor and author Jean M. Twenge writes that Americans are becoming dramatically less religious, but also less spiritual, than ever before. This trend is characteristic of the latest generation, iGen, those born from 1995 to 2012, but is growing in Boomers, Xers, and Millennials as well. Other authors and cultural commentators in the West have noted a dwindling sense of the numinous, the Divine presence, in our increasingly individualistic, hedonistic, and materialistic culture. As the Spirit and Glory of God departed the Temple (Ezekiel 10:18-19), so the Spirit and Glory of God seems to be departing American, and Western, culture. Or perhaps the problem is that we cannot see it.
Whether you believe that such generational characterizations are valuable or worthless, all true followers of Christ have endured times when we could not sense the spiritual. During those times, we feel like our lives are nothing more than a day to day fight for food, for fun, for friends, for family, and for fulfillment. God, if He even exists, seems far away. During such dry spells, Bible reading becomes a chore, and prayers don’t seem to get above our heads. Fellowship with other believers is discouraging, especially if they seem to be living a fulfilled and powerful Christian life. Worst of all, we feel very alone.
I have been endured many such spiritual deserts, and anticipate many more in the years ahead. This is typical of the Christian life. God told Ananias in Damascus “I will show him (Saul) how much he must suffer for my name (Acts 9:16).” Like the King did to Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress and the Shepherd did to Much Afraid in Hinds Feet on High Places, the Lord will send me through times, places, and situations that are painful, discouraging, and much longer than I think that they need to be.
But bad times are not the only times when we can’t sense the spiritual. Moments of success, satisfaction, and surplus also blind our eyes to the work, and even the presence, of God in the world. Agur in Proverbs 30:8-9 recognized that any state of life, wealth or poverty, can cause us to blind our eyes to our Creator.
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.
Whether in easy times or hard, it can be difficult to sense the spiritual. But God commands His people to be active, not passive, in all areas of life. We cannot merely wait and hope that we can feel Him, but must dwell on His Word (Joshua 1:8-9), trust, and obey. When His people pursue Him, God gives us ways to feel Him even in the hardest times. Paul writes “No temptation (or trial) has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).” Inability to sense the spiritual, or sensing it wrongly, is part of every trial. In this article I will address the question “How can we sense the spiritual – how can we enjoy the ethereal – how can we have courage instead of cowering – in our lives?”
- We must believe that the spiritual realm exists.
As physical beings, we spend all day, every day, in the world of matter (atoms, molecules) and energy (light, motion). Few deny that a physical world exists, and even those esoteric philosophers who claim to deny the physical world must check these “beliefs” at the door when they leave their classrooms and writing closets to face real life. No matter his wealth, fame, or education, a man who rejected the physical necessity of food and therefore didn’t eat would either change his ways or depart this world in short order.
Unlike the physical world, the spiritual world does not force itself into our consciousness. Many people in the ancient and modern worlds alike have denied the existence of a realm outside of matter. Jains and many Buddhists reject the possibility of non-material existence. These people don’t starve, don’t freeze, and don’t fail to reproduce. They live normal and often moral lives well aligned with their communities. People who deny the spiritual realm often don’t see the need to consider spirituality, and so they don’t. Such folks are the ultimate materialists, believing only in the universe of matter (material). Most are apathetic, while some are hostile, to spiritual things. Many people who claim to follow a religion live their lives as functional materialists.
The spiritual world does not force us, but instead intrigues us, comforts us, and frightens us. Belief in spiritual forces – of angels, demons, nature spirits, and others, depending upon the religion – peaks the curiosity of people bored, and disenchanted, with mechanistic modern life. The idea that these forces are more powerful than humans and work for our benefit reassures us in hard times. Belief that we ourselves are spiritual beings grants us a personhood unavailable if we are only piles of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and trace elements. Ultimately, love, truth, and beauty are meaningless if they are nothing more than electrochemical reactions, and life after death is impossible if we are no more than failing matter. We die, are eaten by bacteria, are recycled by natural processes, and our physical elements end up as part of a tree, animal, or someone else’ body. This process continues thousands of times until the universe winds down and dies. Nothing remains. To deny the spiritual world is to deny anything eternal, and ultimately, anything meaningful, in life.
People who refuse to believe in a spiritual realm, a “universe beyond matter”, will never sense the spiritual. They reject the possibility, closing their eyes to spirituality. In so doing, they close their eyes to the “lovely intangibles” that make present life worth living and everlasting life possible. No wonder the vast majority of people throughout time have believed in a spiritual world as well as a material one.
- We must take time, clear our minds, be where we are, and focus.
A tour bus pulled up outside Mycenae in Greece and about 50 travelers disembarked. Chatting wildly, with smart phones in hand, they walked around the ruins of the ancient village, snapping selfies and texting friends. A Greek tour guide fed them a few morsels of history, but few listened. They climbed over 3000-year-old ruins, danced to American pop music, texted, and discussed boyfriends and singers. Within 20 minutes, they loaded back on to the bus and rode off to do the same at a different site.
Though they seemed to be having a good time, such a way of experiencing Mycenae will not likely lead to knowledge about ancient Greece. At a site such as Stonehenge, such an experience will not likely bring spiritual enlightenment. Constant physical stimulation, whether from music, pictures, words, or something else, prevents us from hearing the voice of our own thoughts. An unrelenting stream of stimuli from our phones consumes our attention and prevents us from thinking about past or future. We cannot fully experience where we are. When my daughter Rachel was in middle school, a friend had her smart phone taken away for a week. The friend confided that she was desperate to get her phone back because scary thoughts crept into her mind through all of the quiet.
Fully being in the moment is tough in every age, but smart phones and other new media make it worse. Past and future pains and pleasures, or the anticipation thereof, robs us of our moments – the stuff the life is actually made of. If we do not force ourselves to take time, clear our minds, be where we are, and focus, we will never sense the spiritual.
- We must know something about the place we are at.
A wide variety of peoples used Stonehenge over thousands of years as a burial place, a crematorium, and as a site for religious rituals, which probably included ancestor worship and astronomical observations. Archaeologists excavating Stonehenge have found the bones of a teenager from the Mediterranean, a metal worker from Southern Germany, and a man from Brittany in France. Roman coins and other artifacts abound. Historians know little of the specifics of what happened at Stonehenge, but much about life during its heyday; in the millennia before Christ. People lived in wooden shelters, and fed themselves by hunting, gathering, fishing, and farming. There was little leisure time, and no one was literate. Violence was commonplace, and life was short for the Celts, Saxons, and others.
Knowing about the lives of the people at Stonehenge helps us imagine who they were, what they thought, and what they did. We can imagine how they dealt with discouragement, disease, destitution, disability, and death – issues common to all humanity, including us. Imbibing part of their sense of the spiritual can heighten our sense.
For the informed Stonehenge is a place of wonder while for the uninformed, it is a pile of rocks.
- We must go to spiritual places.
In one sense, God made all of the universe, so no single place is more sacred, more holy, or more spiritual than any other. In another sense, man throughout history has considered some locations more spiritual than others. Events, people, and sensory experiences make the difference in how spiritual we consider a place to be. While God made Los Angeles through the hands of men just as He did Jerusalem, no one considers the former to be as sacred as the latter. Places also become spiritual through the roles they play in individual lives. Cemeteries are the classic example.
Throughout the world, most people die at home. Even in America, until the past century, most people died at home. Death was a common part of life, and virtually everyone had seen a friend or family member pass. The living visited the graves, and celebrated the lives, of those who had gone before them. Pastor Don Davidson of the First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia, noted that funeral services and cemeteries are places where he can best encounter Christ. He and his wife Audrey visit the grave of Baptist Missionary Lottie Moon (1840-1912) every Christmas season.
The natural world feels intensely spiritual. All but the most obtuse of us revel in the glory of the sunrise, and the intricacy of a flower. Who cannot feel tiny and even insignificant when looking at a storm on the ocean, or the immensity of the night sky? How can we not wonder at the flight of a bird, or the strength of a lion?
To go to Jerusalem, Stonehenge, Lourdes, Mecca, Borobudur, Amritsar, or thousands of other sites throughout the world, is to participate in the great events that happened there and join with the millions who encounter the spiritual there. Office buildings, malls, schools, and stadiums are important places in our modern lives. Manmade structures are man sized, ultimately tailored for us. We spend most of our time in such places, and indoors. In so doing, we shield ourselves from the numinosity of nature, and the spirituality of sacred sites. No wonder we can’t “feel it.”
A Christian Perspective
To know the Bible is to know the spiritual realm, good and bad. Every religion, and many non-religious philosophies, touch the spiritual. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, animists, and pagans have real, and often intense spiritual experiences. Mormons claim that you will know Mormonism is true when you “feel a burning in your bosom.” The important question is not whether a religion generates a spiritual experience – they all do. The real question is whether or not that experience leads one closer to a saving knowledge of Christ, and then growth in His likeness. King Saul had a genuine spiritual experience at Endor (1 Samuel 28), as a later Saul did on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), but only one of those experiences ended in salvation.
Christians need to experience, not flee, experiences in which they can sense the spiritual. Paul did not reason his way to faith – he found Christ through an experience. However, we must test the spirits and ensure that the experiences that we crave lead us to, not away from, our God. The same is true for the non-believers in our lives. Followers of Jesus can help those around us to have genuine experiences in Him.
The woman in my office did not seem to be a Christian. Her question, and my answer described in the majority of this article, regarded spirituality, not Christianity. Followers of Jesus should seek to sense the spiritual in accordance with the Biblical testimony. Spiritual experiences are vital to life, but only those that ultimately promote eternal life. Sensing the spiritual is an important skill, but like all other skills, can be used for good or for ill. Eternal life hangs in the balance.