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The roots of spirituality

The Unmeasureable

The roots of spiritualityThe astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan made complex scientific ideas easier to understand.  He and his professional colleagues hypothesized dimensions in the universe beyond space and time, which, although not directly "visible" to telescopes and spectrometers, seemed to be present through observations of their "shadows" or very real but otherwise unexplainable "effects" on what was measurable.

The Mysterious

The word spirituality, referenced so often as critically important in the realm of Twelve Step principles and practices for recovery from addiction, presents a similar challenge to our understanding and investigation of its shadows and effects. Many other terms retain this air of mystery and lack of common or precise definition, e.g. God, the Divine, the Mystical, Grace and Providence.

"Closer than Breathing and Nearer than Hands and Feet" - Alfred Tennyson

Word origins (etymologies) often contain clarifying wisdom for truer sense and meaning.  The origin of "spiritual" is the Latin word spiritus meaning breath.  Breathing, an essential element of human life, thus informs that spirituality has something to do with an essence of living.  Other words with this common root include inspire, aspire and to conspire which means to breathe together.

Universally Applicable

Dr. Carl G. Jung noted in a January, 1961 letter to Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, "You see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison.  The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum."   In other words, the highest form of religious experience counters the most depraving poison - high spirit against low spirit.  Dr. Jung is noted in the annals of AA history as naming the solution of "a vital spiritual experience" for his alcoholic client Rowland Hazard, who sought and found it in the tenets of Oxford Groups.  Rowland then helped Ebby Thacher find this spiritual experience in the same way and eventually Ebby carried that solution and the means of its acquisition to Wilson.

Referenced in Many Different Words

The late Dr. David Simon of The Chopra Center wrote in a holiday letter a few seasons ago, "The word religion comes from the Latin religare, which means "to bind" or "to tie." Similarly, the term ligature, meaning suture, also derives from this same Latin root. These derivations give us a clue to the original intention of religion, which is to reconnect the part to the whole. This is the essence of spirituality….."  How interesting that today's use of the word spirituality has replaced what the essence of religion used to mean. 

Here are a few more related words and their Latin origins:

  • Providence - providere  to foresee, look after, provide for
  • Grace - gratia "pleasing quality, good will, gratitude," from gratus "pleasing, agreeable"
  • Mystical - mysticus, and from Greek mystikos "secret, mystic," from mystes "one who has been initiated"

Described in Many Different Ways

Twelve Step wisdom texts use many different descriptions in teaching how the "Design for Living" will manifest in people's lives.  In Appendix II of Alcoholics Anonymous, titled "Spiritual Experience," the phrases "spiritual experience" and "spiritual awakening" are equated with the phrase "personality change, sufficient to recover from alcoholism."  In a following paragraph, another completely different description is noted, "With few exceptions, our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves."  In "The Doctor's Opinion" of the Big Book, Dr. Silkworth describes recovery as "an entire psychic change."

In Conclusion

Our efforts to understand spirituality will be trumped by our experiences of spirituality if we are following spiritual directions.  All wisdom texts contain spiritual directions and all spiritual directions create paths for our lives of less suffering and greater fulfillment.  Since we see things less the way they are and more the way we are, it's critical that we are growing and changing so that life doesn't get boring.  Life on the spiritual path, which means very different things to different people, turns out to be the only sustainable one for alcoholics and addicts.  Find what's meaningful for you and enjoy the ride.  Since paradox is often as close as we'll get to describing the spiritual, I leave you with my favorite bit of Latin wisdom:

Lux Umbra Dei
(Light is the Shadow of God)

Written by Fred Holmquist, director of The Lodge Program at Hazelden, a popular lecturer, and Big Book scholar.

April 2012