Time was, the theory of everything spiritual had a Shakespearean flair, such as Hamlet’s advice on how to lead a life of virtue: “Get thee to a nunnery.”
That’s not valid any more (and probably was not then), according to two speakers scheduled for the 30th annual conference of the Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse May 1 and 2, with a theme of “Living Your Life as Spiritual Practice.”
“One strain used to say leave everyday life to enter the seminary or convent. That’s simply not true,” said the Rev. Thomas Ryan, a Paulist priest who will be keynote speaker at the conference.
At one time in the Catholic tradition, in fact, laypeople were discouraged from reading the Bible, with the hierarchy insisting that only priests were learned enough to understand Scripture.
Spirituality today has expanded to include all walks of life, from “bus drivers to gardeners to waitresses — people who shine in the Spirit,” Ryan said in a phone interview from his Washington, D.C. office, where he heads his congregation’s North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.
“Scripture is full of stories, such as Joseph, and the good Samaritan, a well-intentioned businessman traveling along the road. Then the ordinary tourist crosses over and helps,” Ryan said.
“Not long ago, the theory was that spirituality was just for the interior life,” Ryan said. “But spirituality involves absolutely everything in our lives — in the grocery line, where our eyes go, where our minds go, how we drive a car, where we live, who our friends are.
“When people do this, with a genuine wholistic spirituality, there is an ongoing spiritual brightness,” he said.
“God does not meet us in strong moralisms and dogmas,” Ryan said. “He meets us in our daily lives. Daily living is truly our daily bread.”
Echoing that sentiment is the Rev. April Ulring Larson, bishop emeritus of the La Crosse Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and another conference speaker.
“I’m probably one of those weird people who pray throughout the day, having conversations with God,” said Larson, who now serves as interim pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in her native Decorah, Iowa.
Being involved with a church nurtures spirituality, Larson and Ryan said.
“We can be spiritual and religious when we gather in community as the body of Christ,” she said. “I like to be challenged the way Jesus challenged people in their lives. What does it mean to follow Jesus in all of your life?”
Seeking a spiritual path without being involved in a religious community can be daunting, Larson said.
“Brothers and sisters challenge us to live spiritually,” she said.
That doesn’t mean cookie-cutter Christians.
Those who say they prefer to gather only with like-minded people are closed to the fact that people are different naturally, and they miss the opportunity to grow through discussion of discordant views, she said.
“When I hear somebody say, ‘This person in the community drives me nuts and is annoying,’ I even wonder about their relationship with Jesus,” Larson said.
Community is necessary in good times and bad, Larson said, recalling the continuing support she and her husband, Judd, also a Lutheran minister, have received since their seminarian son, Ben, died under a collapsed building during a Haitian earthquake Jan. 12, 2010.
Losing Ben, who could be heard singing hymns even as rescuers tried to reach him, was devastating to her, her husband, Judd, also a Lutheran minister, and their twin daughters — both physicians, Katie Larson-Ode and Amy Calhoun, she said.
“You are absolutely changed in every way,” she said. “You profoundly miss what you had before — in that person and in that innocence you lost.”
As a bishop, she said, “I don’t try to make it Hollywood but know that there is real trauma in people’s lives.”
At the same time, people’s prayers and continuing support “provided an amazing sense of being carried,” she said.
That is natural in spiritual communities, Ryan said.
“The journey is too long and too hard to survive on your own,” he said. “We need fellow travelers being part of the community because it provides people who care.”