“The Essence of Being” (Definitions of spirituality emerging from courthouse lunches and ancient markets)

“Quick question,” I said to a friend over lunch today at the courthouse.  (She has been serving on a jury for five days.  I was summoned for duty today.)  My question was: “What is your definition of spirituality?”  After I asked, we both impulsively laughed given that this surely was not a “quick question.”

You see, I had brought homework with me to pass the hours of waiting in the jury holding room.  The work consisted of readings for a class entitled “Spirituality and Health.”  And our first assignment is to write our own “working definition of spirituality.”

The holding room was an interesting space for the exercise.  Notions of justice and mercy reside at this intersection of humanity and spirituality, and informed my definition in ways that might have been missing from ponderings elsewhere.  As many do, I struggle at times with the balance of justice and mercy, ever-grateful for all the grace which I have been shown, and yet ever-cognizant of the importance of law in the fight against tyranny.  (“Where laws end, tyranny begins.”  –William Pitt, British Prime Minister 1783-1801, 1804-06 during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.)

The notion of duty is one for which I have great respect.  And as I stand up for “rights,” I am more than willing to report for “duty” in this system which is balanced on both.

After a short pause, my friend decided that “spirituality is the true essence of who you are.”  I liked that.

The word “essence” always makes me think of the many times I have walked through the ancient suqs in places like Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Cairo; truly bizarre bazaars that host a myriad of both delights and unpleasantries.  Just two weeks ago, I was walking with a friend through the Old Market in Kasoa, Accra, Ghana.  When we got to the fish section, I couldn’t help but sarcastically (and frankly) ask, “Do you smell something?” in reaction to the pungent odor.

In the suqs, you have similar experiences, then round a corner, duck through a small, low doorway, and emerge into an emporium selling the bases of all perfumes and colognes, the soul of every wonderful potion ever made.  Each one is called an “essence.”

And so my friend’s definition took me right back to one of those ancient emporiums, surrounded by humanity in its rawest form, and it spoke to me from the essences of beauty and delight.

Our short 15-minute courthouse-lunch was punctuated by our long wait to pass through security.  As we talked there, I second-naturedly removed my belt in preparation for the check ahead.  “Oh, excuse me,” I said as I realized the rather personal nature of the act.  We again laughed at the bizarre realities to which we have become accustomed in the modern world.  Again I reflected on justice and the fight against tyranny, the notion of spirituality in an all too ugly space.

As we parted ways—she to her deliberations, I to my wait and homework—I wondered how one factors “the essence” of who someone is into a decision about their legal innocence or guilt.

Before lunch, I had started a list of keywords and key-thoughts as I worked on my definition.  These included:

  • Wholeness.  (Mind, body, AND spirit.)
  • Meaning-making
  • Somatic knowledge
  • We are spiritual beings having a human experience.
  • Sensing
  • Ways of knowing

I added: “Your true essence.”

And then I wrote my academic definition for class purposes:

“Spirituality is the true essence of being.  It informs meaning-making and epistemologies through sensibilities and faculties which both enrich—and transcend the limitations of—the human experience.”

That is the language of academe.  In the language of the soul, though, words become irrelevant, and the definition emerges from the wisdom of feeling.  Such as the feeling I get when I remember:

  • falling asleep at Grandma’s side
  • standing over my child’s fresh grave
  • hearing Mom or Dad’s voice on my voicemail
  • receiving an unexpected expression of kindness
  • extending forgiveness
  • finding the capacity to survive and surpass things that should never have been
  • embracing hope when it seems impossible
  • and believing in a destination found where horizons aren’t.

Surely such as these are the essence of being.

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