by Emily Ling
In thinking of what spirituality means to me at this point in my life, I think of it primarily as the experience of learning to live into the most alive and genuine version of who I was created to be.
Given my upbringing in a Protestant tradition, my understanding of who I was created to be was defined for much of my life by concepts within the Christian religion that proposed my true calling was to “follow in the way of Jesus” – though I learned as I grew up that what exactly that meant varied greatly among Christian teachers and different denominations.
It was a long journey of spiritual formation in my youth and early adulthood, but the part of all that teaching that resonated with me the most was that living as Jesus taught to live seemed to mean learning to love other people — ALL other people. And perhaps because it comes by nature much more easy to love people we like and who are similar to us than it does to love people we don’t like and who are different, it seemed to me that the people who most appeared to be living in the Love of God were folks who were intentionally loving people that the rest of the world didn’t seem to care much about. The early examples of spiritual leaders that I admired were people like Dorothy Day who found God in the lives of the urban poor of America, Mother Teresa who saw God in the those dying in poverty in India, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the leaders of the Black-led Freedom Movement who found God in a multi-racial Beloved Community even as white people beat and killed them, and Sister Helen Prejean who befriended those on death row who were waiting to be executed. My reading of the Bible led me to think those folks and others like them were understanding something about God that most of the church-goers I knew didn’t seem to get (or were intentionally ignoring.) Verses like these shaped an understanding of spirituality for me that was very intimately linked with work that is often called “social justice” or “liberation”:
Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
The Lord, via the prophet Jeremiah to King Shallum: “’Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 22:15-16)
The Lord, via the prophet Isaiah: “Declare to my people their rebellion... For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they are a nation that does what is right... Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife… Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear...” (Isaiah 58:1-8)
Looking back on the times that I felt most alive and most like I was living in a way that was connected to Divine Love, many of them were times when I tried to live out those verses in tangible ways: when I lived for a year in inner-city Atlanta and tried to help youth access better education amidst great poverty, when I lived for a year in New Orleans working with communities rebuilding after Katrina, when I worked for a couple years to help inmates in county jails who needed medical and mental health care, when I spent a summer building relationships with and feeding folks who were living on the streets of San Antonio. And those experiences were wonderful not just because I myself was trying to “do good” on my own, but because I was always in the midst of beautiful communities of people who shared meals and conversations and consistent time together. I don’t want to over-romanticize those times because they were definitely also really challenging, and there was no doubt some varying degrees of unhealthy white-savior-complex mixed in my motivations. But those experiences did feel holy, joyful, and rich in a way that I still have found unmatched in many typical “worship” times in church, or in most social entertainment events, or in experiences of wordly “success”.
And yet at this point, all of that focus on loving others who are marginalized and striving to pursue justice doesn’t capture the whole picture for what it means for me to be fully alive. My Christian tradition didn’t teach me much about what it means to be a creature alive in an ecosystem that is much more expansive than just humans -- but other communities have been teaching me the importance of that reality. To be in relationship with the land and the natural world such that I don’t just soak up the beauty of a place but so that I also participate in nurturing its health has become an increasingly important piece of what I think it means to “keep in step with the Spirit.” To pay attention to the wisdom and glory that is manifest in creation and to celebrate that goodness is an important part of engaging in Divinity to me.
I also have found that spirituality must include fostering joy amidst the tragedy of life, because there is so much sorrow and despair in all of our lives and our communities (granted in many varying ways). So nurturing spirituality for me is also to awaken hope and joy in our own lives and in others – whether that be through poetry, music, laughter, flowers, hiking, dinner parties, or any number of creative endeavors. To create something good, particularly in a way that is shared with others, is to participate in our nature of being little artists who are made to embody the qualities of the Divine Creator.
I keep learning about spirituality and my understanding keeps growing with each passing year, but for now these elements of pursuing justice, relationship with the natural world, and joy-giving creativity are some of the most important to me.