A spiritual not religious experience deepened my religious faith

A spiritual not religious experience deepened my religious faith

A woman sits and contemplates the woods, illustrating a spiritual not religious meditation

Spiritual not religious. Did I briefly flirt with it on Mount Seymour?

That’s where Charles and I forgot about God. We felt part of the cosmic unity of creation. We had no need for religious concepts.

Was our experience at Mount Seymour spiritual?

Of course it was. Spirit is our experience of being alive. Our emotions, thoughts, beliefs, ideals, moods, attitudes, intuitions, sense of the sacred. Some events grab our attention and turn it towards spirit. We call those “spiritual experiences.” Experiences that change our consciousness. Uplift us. Re-direct us. Inform us.

Did our experience reflect a spiritual discipline?

Yes. For us, it was a magical, grace-filled, day of higher consciousness — but it was not spontaneous. It was the fruit of long-term spiritual practice. We sought out teachers, studied hiking, trekked regularly, and evolved our own style.

Years ago, I hiked with the AMC, American Mountain Club. From experienced teachers, I learned how to stay safe, use equipment, and respect the environment. I read books about ecology and the spirituality of place; took classes about sacred land with Indigenous teachers; studied stories about non-human animals in my own scriptural tradition.

Charles took classes in earth science, studied orienteering, and learned how to backpack. Before every outing, he studied maps and trail guides, so he could feel the shape of each place. For fifteen years, we walked outdoors in some kind of park almost every weekend.

So, it’s no wonder Mt. Seymour rewarded us with a mystical experience. We spent years developing a consciousness that attunes to our surroundings.

Was our experience religious?

That question may be harder to answer.

Here’s a paraphrase of Emile Durkheim’s famous sociological definition of religion.

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices about sacred things that unites people into one single community across time and space.

Charles and I practice a religion: Judaism. Our daily Jewish rituals around waking, eating, washing, and going to bed integrate the sacred into everyday life. Weekly practices set aside Shabbat as a special time for spiritual reflection. Seasonal practices give historical and spiritual meanings to the rhythm of nature. Interpersonal practices teach kindness, morality and social justice. Jews all over the world practice the basics in similar ways. We feel ourselves as a single, though diverse, Jewish community.

When Charles and I meditate down by the Seymour River, we feel part of a world-wide bio-diverse community of creatures. Does this feeling help unite the Jewish people into a single community?

Judaism designates special days for tuning into the natural environment. Tu BeShevat is a day for celebrating and planting trees. Sukkot is a week of living outdoors, as our ancestors did in the wilderness. If Charles and I smelled the sweet damp forest on Tu BeShevat and flowed with the river on Sukkot, we would be in sync with the Jewish world. We would co-create Jewish community across time and space. We would be doing religion — as Durkheim sees it.

But if Charles and I only followed the Jewish ritual calendar, we would be spiritually poorer. We wouldn’t have become familiar with ecological consciousness. Sought out scientific and Indigenous perspectives. Learned how to feel with other life forms. Come to seek and find the world-soul. And when the designated holidays came around, we couldn’t teach about them in depth.

Was our experience “spiritual not religious”?

The day felt holy, but it was not religious. We stepped outside communal Jewish guidelines. Drew from multiple traditions to craft a personal discipline. Let go of mainstream Jewish language to describe our experience.

Yet the day boosted our religious knowledge. Our personal discipline gave us tools for Jewish practice.  Showed us perspectives hidden by familiar religious language. Made it easier for us to live into the guidelines.

Perhaps the day itself was “spiritual not religious.” But the day’s impact? That was spiritual and religious, too.

Excerpt from a talk at the beautiful Bethlehem Centre, Nanaimo, Canada.

Image: photo of Laura at Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia, by Charles Kaplan

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