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When did we start discussing spirituality? I don't remember the word having much currency when I was younger, yet now it seems everyone talks about it, writes about it, sings about it. Religion is a heavy, dull word. Faith is perhaps a shade warmer. But spirituality is where the buzz is.


Everyone is having spiritual experiences. I even heard someone promising tourists who visit some limestone cave a spiritual experience. I can't imagine that being a promotional plus 20 years ago. If you go to the Internet you can find dozens of sites containing this word. For example, a few topics from just one site, Beliefnet which describes itself as a ‘multi-faith e-community'. You can go to pages on meditation and prayer, angels and guides, health and healing, garden and home, the workplace. And the types of spirituality included Christian, Jewish, I Ching, Feng Shui, Tarot, Wicca, and Tibetan Buddhism – to name just a selection.


So the word obviously covers a huge area of human thought and experience, but I'm still not sure how well I understand what we're talking about.


The analogy that I find most useful and interesting is with sexuality. Another fairly vague concept (and incidentally, also a word much more widely used now than formerly.) Of both spirituality and sexuality it may be said: it is an intrinsic part of being human; it is affected by childhood experience and training; organised religion tries to control its expression; it is shared communally yet it is uniquely personal; it connects to social, emotional, physical and mental areas of life. Both may be abused and exploited, misunderstood, analysed, demonised and glorified – or enjoyed as a gift. And finally, both have to do with intimacy. However freely we may discuss them in general terms we are inclined to be somewhat reserved in revealing our personal experiences. To explore either our spirituality or our sexuality we need privacy, respect and safety.


Some interesting study has been done about human spiritual experience. Paul Hawker in his book Secret Affairs of the Soul refers to study done by the Religious Experience Unit of Oxford University. This is a study done not by theologians, but by scientists - in fact a biologist, Alister Hardy. He wasn't trying to prove or disprove anything - just report what people were experiencing. He asked the question: Have you ever been aware of, or influenced by, a presence or power (whether you call it God or not) which is different from your every day self?


In 1987 in Britain, 48 % of people polled answered yes to that question. What they reported was synchronicity - recognition of divine providence; a sense of the presence of God; answered prayer; a presence in nature; the presence of the dead; and the presence of evil. The same study done in 2000 had 76% of those polled answering yes to the basic question.


These people weren't church go-ers, or members of any particular religious group. But when given the chance they admitted to spiritual experience. Interestingly and perhaps rather alarmingly a study done in America in 1998 discovered that one third of people who regularly attend Christian churches said that they had never experienced God's presence at any time in their life.


I'm wondering now if there's another dimension to the analogy of spirituality and sexuality. Does spirituality find different expression in men and women? Or is that perception based on a purely cultural understanding of masculinity and femininity? It's a fact that at events such as retreats, quiet days, or reflective prayer experiences, women will generally outnumber men at least three to one.  Is that because women are more in touch with their spiritual side? Have more time? Or is it that such events are perceived by men as overly feminised? There seem to be a growing number of events and groups catering for male spirituality, from Promise Keepers to Wilderness retreats. Are men re-claiming something they had forgotten they own?


For me spirituality seems to be part of what is universally human. I feel vaguely irritated when the male/female dichotomy is insisted upon even in this field of human experience. Why do we have to polarize everything? Maybe I have the wrong perspective and should be rejoicing in complementary masculine and feminine spirituality, each enriching the other. I would love to know what other people have discovered.       


Adrienne Thompson

Note from Ed:  This issue contains views on spirituality from three women. It would be great to hear other views and particularly from a man's perspective. What is happening for men in this realm of spirituality that Adrienne has raised in her last paragraph? How do men develop their spirituality, particularly when they move outside more patriarchal church structures?

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