What's Spirituality Got To Do With It?
Updated: Sep 17
This is the first of two articles examining the “building blocks” of the Great Lakes Spirituality Project. The second article dealt with the concept of Place.
My sister-in-law and I were standing on a hill overlooking Lake Superior on a bright June summer day. We had just traveled about 90 minutes from the inland north woods of Wisconsin, where we visited my daughter who was working at a summer camp for girls. The air at the camp was hot and dripping with humidity, but the breeze from the Lake had swept away most of the moisture and kept us cool that afternoon.
Standing there, I took in large breaths of Lake air and reluctantly exhaled, not wanting to let go of the scent and feel of the water. I tried to describe to her how I felt seeing the big Lake, what emotions it brought up for me, what responsibilities it evoked in me, what connections I felt to God... but the words came out in stumbles and half-syllables. Nothing I could conjure in that moment seemed adequate. All I could come up with was something like, “When I’m here, by one of the Great Lakes, I feel a peace and connection I don’t feel anywhere else.”
I’ve had many other moments like that at the Lakes. It’s not always that way, of course. There are times when I’m on the shore that are as ordinary as any other moment. And there have even been times when I wished I was some place else. But those are the exceptions for me.
The string that binds me to the Lakes is of the same material that binds me to the wider reality around me, to the presence of the Divine, to my understanding of God and people and community and nature and my place in the world and... well, all the big stuff.
For me, that’s the essence of spirituality – how we see ourselves connected to the greater reality in which we live, how we feed and sustain that connection, and how we practically respond to that connection in our lives. Talking about a spirituality of the Great Lakes, then, make a lot of sense to me.
But I know the connection between the Great Lakes and spirituality is not evident to everyone, so I thought I’d lay out a few principles under which this Project is operating:
Spirituality is basic to who we are. What could be more central to being human than the big questions... Who am I? What is my connection to the people and the world around me? Where do I fit into the bigger picture? What is that bigger picture, and is there more to this world than I can perceive with my five senses? Spirituality helps us address those questions, even if we don’t come to complete answers.
The use of the word Spirituality is meant to be inclusive of all communal and personal experiences. I grew up in the Catholic Church and the Christian tradition, and at times I speak from that experience because that is what I know. This Project, however, is inclusive because I believe spirituality can be something that binds us all together, at least on our better days. In the short life of this Project, I’ve shared Indigenous voices, the writings of the leader of a Muslim environmental organization, conversations with Christian ministers and lay people, passages from Jewish scripture, the insights of someone who doesn’t claim any particular religious tradition, and the spiritual perspective of an atheist. The Project will continue to expand its reach and to highlight a diversity of spiritual voices.
The use of the word Spirituality is limited. Those of us of European descent may make a distinction between our spiritual and physical selves, between humans and nature, but for the Indigenous people I’ve talked to, these are false distinctions. They see us as a whole, of one piece, and not divided. Simply using the word Spirituality can show the limits of the English language and a “western” mindset that divides the whole into parts. Still, the dominant society in the Great Lakes Basin is based on the English language and a western mindset, so Spirituality is still a useful and helpful idea.
Spirituality, and by connection religion, can be a negative in people’s lives. There are moments these days when I cringe at the public face put forth by some Christians, at times the face of judgement, rejection and exclusion, discrimination, selfishness, and greed. And the history of religion in our world is mixed, so I respect that some people don’t see how a spiritual perspective can be helpful in our connection to the Lakes. At the same time...
Spirituality, and by connection religion, can also be a force for good. The people I have interviewed for this Project have seen their spirituality as a positive, something that informs and motivates them, brings them joy, helps them to understand their place in the world, and calls them to act on their responsibility to the Great Lakes and the wider world. My own life has been shaped by a Christianity that proclaims and works for justice for all people and all creation, and that calls me to do the same.
Spirituality must involve practical action. The Great Lakes are not healthy. That seems to be a consensus opinion. While they are getting healthier, they have a long way to go. Therefore, it’s not enough to express feelings of love and connection to the Lakes. That may be a place to start, but it is not sufficient. A spiritual connection must translate into practical work that helps heal the Lakes, from individual actions of cleaning up a beach or reducing the use of plastics, to societal actions of changing public policy to keep invasive species from entering the Lakes or to combat climate change.
Spirituality can be an entry point to bring new people into the work of protecting the Great Lakes. If we are to help heal the damage we have done to the Lakes, we need to expand the number of people investing in and working towards that healing. Spirituality can be a connecting point and a language that helps create relationships with new people and builds in them a new or renewed sense of responsibility. For example, all the major religions contain teachings that call their members to care for the wider world. While membership in organized religion may be down, the number of people who identify with a particular religious community is still large and holds the potential for a greater voice advocating for the Great Lakes.
Spirituality reminds us that caring for the wider world means caring for ourselves. This brings me back to where I started this piece. The Lakes have cradled me and soothed me, scared me and challenged me, confounded me and filled me with awe. But they have also always called me to something greater, to care for them and the waters that feed them, to care for the world in which they exist. In acting on that call, I help sustain an ecosystem that feeds back to me what I need.
Talking about my connection to the Great Lakes flows a little easier now than it did when I was tongue-tied with my sister-in-law. My spirituality has also helped me express that connection in both words and deeds. Whether your special spot is on the Great Lakes or another place on this beautiful planet, may you discover how to express that connection in your own way, in your own words and deeds.