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How often have you heard someone remark that another individual is “a very religious person?”
What does that really mean? We often refer to people as “religious” simply because they fulfill the outward, material requirements of their faith. They follow the traditions and participate, perhaps scrupulously, in the rituals prescribed by their respective creeds. These actions, however, can occur without deep inner devotion or belief–but does following rituals and traditions speak of their true spirituality?
Many Christians attend church every Sunday, and many Jews go to synagogue every Saturday. Lots of Muslims, Hindus, and Jews keep their dietary laws. But not all of them do it out of love for their Lord. Sometimes their actions have very practical reasons. For some they provide a sense of identity, for others, attending services looks good; it paints a picture of respectability; they keep up appearances to obtain credibility and standing in the community. None of these reasons indicate that the individual is in fact spiritually oriented. They might simultaneously, in practice, be ruthless businessman, corrupt politicians, members of organized crime groups, thieves or adulterers.
Let’s examine the actual definitions of religious and spiritual:
The Definition of “Religious”
1. relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or
2. of, relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or
3. a. scrupulously and conscientiously faithful
b. fervent, zealous
In the examples above, the congregants would fall under the second definition: “of, relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances.”
If they do not also embody the first definition: “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity,” or the third: “scrupulously and conscientiously faithful,” can they honestly be described as religious?
The Definition of “Spiritual”
1. of soul: relating to the soul or spirit, usually in contrast to material things
2. of religion: relating to religious or sacred things rather than worldly things
3. temperamentally or intellectually akin: connected by an affinity of the mind, spirit, or temperament spiritual mother of the young artist
4. refined: showing great refinement and concern with the higher things in life
5. of or pertaining to the spirit as the seat of the moral or religious nature.
A spiritual person needs to manifest the first definition: of soul: relating to the soul or spirit, usually in contrast to material things, and/or the second: of religion: relating to religious or sacred things rather than worldly things, or five: of or pertaining to the spirit as the seat of the moral or religious nature.
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According to these definitions, one can be religious without being spiritual. People who don’t consider themselves religious, who are not affiliated with any specific religious group or who do belong but are not actively involved, can still be considered spiritual due to the way they conduct their lives, and their belief in and connection to a higher ultimate authority or deity.
The Baha’i teachings liken true spirituality “…unto a lake of clear water which reflects the divine.” – Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 107.
Abdu’l-Baha also said, “There is another kind which is like a mirage, seeming to be spiritual when it is not.” – Ibid. He went on to explain:
That which is truly spiritual must light the path to God, and must result in deeds. We cannot believe the call to be spiritual when there is no result. Spirit is reality, and when the spirit in each of us seeks to join itself with the Great Reality, it must in turn give life. – Ibid.
As with all knowledge and character development, true spirituality most effectively begins in childhood:
As to thy question concerning training children: It is incumbent upon thee to nurture them from the breast of the love of God, to urge them towards spiritual matters, to turn unto God and to acquire good manners, best characteristics and praiseworthy virtues and qualities in the world of humanity, and to study sciences with the utmost diligence; so that they may become spiritual, heavenly and attracted to the fragrances of sanctity from their childhood and be reared in a religious, spiritual and heavenly training. Verily, I beg of God to confirm them therein. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 383
Just because the process of spiritual training works best when young, though, doesn’t mean anyone older should give up. We all have the capacity for growth and improvement. It is never too late, and the benefits have no limits:
The life of animals is more simple than that of man. Animals have all their needs supplied for them. All the grasses of the meadows are free to them. The birds build their nests in the branching trees and the palaces of kings are not so beautiful. If earthly needs are all then the animals are better supplied than man. But man has another food, the heavenly manna of the knowledge of God. All the divine prophets and Manifestations appeared in the world that this heavenly manna, might be given to man. This is the food which fosters spiritual growth and strength and causes pure illumination in the souls of men. They become filled with the breaths of the Holy Spirit. They increase in the knowledge of God and in those virtues which belong to the world of humanity. They attain to the very image and likeness of God.
What greater joy is there than this? When they invoke God’s favour at the divine threshold their minds become open, they enter into spiritual pleasures and make discoveries. By this they enjoy ecstasies of the Spirit and see the world illumined. They are filled with insight. They become fully attuned to the bounties of God and see them face to face, acquiring in themselves the virtues of the Manifestations. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 160.
Each of us can continue to attain heavenly virtues, gain spiritual strength, and in improving ourselves become an instrument of inspiration to others.