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Spirituality: tending the fire

[Photo: playing with fire]

What is "spirituality," anyway?

Few words are more ambiguous than this one. It's used to describe all kinds of things within and without the world’s religious traditions, so it can be pretty confusing to figure out what anyone means by using it!

Some think "spirituality" is something special, only given to uniquely pious or holy people. Others associate it with the exotic, paranormal, or otherworldly. Many in the Western world imagine spirit as separate from the body and spiritual matters as separate from the mundane messiness of daily life. We think of rituals and activities such as worship, meditation, reading the Bible, and so on, things we can choose to do or not, depending on our beliefs.

But the word “spirituality” is about something much more basic and essential to human existence than any of that. Before we ever enter into any sort of intentional spiritual practice, each of us has a spirituality.

"Spirituality" has its origins in spirare, a Latin word which means “to breathe.” If you breathe, you have a spirit, and if you have a spirit, you have a spirituality. Just as no one can live without breathing, spirituality is vital to being a fully alive human being.

So how well are you breathing these days? Do you even notice your breath? Chances are there are parallels between your awareness of your breathing and the viability of your spirituality.

I like the breath analogy, but I like the fire analogy Ronald Rolheiser uses even better. In his book The Holy Longing, Rolheiser says that human beings are born into this world lit up with the fire of desire, an intuitive yearning and drive to grow and to connect with others. This same power is at work in everything that exists, all things pushing toward their most expansive self-expression.

[Photo: Ben tends the fire]

The fire of desire is both essential and perilous. We need the warmth and energy to connect with others, to create, to grow, to feel fully alive, and yet when there's too much fire, we burn up or burn out. Spirituality is about tending this fire, so that it steadily energizes us to live fully alive.

Rolheiser writes,

"Long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us. What we do with that fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality. Thus, we all have a spirituality, whether we want one or not, whether we are religious or not. Spirituality is more about whether or not we can sleep at night than about whether or not we go to church. It is about being integrated or falling apart, about being within community or being lonely, about being in harmony with Mother Earth or being alienated from her. Irrespective of whether or not we let ourselves be consciously shaped by any explicit religious idea, we act in ways that leave us either healthy or unhealthy, loving, or bitter. What shapes our actions is our spirituality."

Your spirituality is the means you are using right now to tend your inner sacred fire so that it keeps your house warm, so to speak, but doesn’t burn it down.

Spiritual practices are not rarefied rituals set apart for the holy few, but practical tools for engaging the fire, harnessing it, and offering it to energize others.

How are you tending the fire of life inside you? Do you struggle to keep it alight, or do you struggle to keep it from raging out of control? What does it feel like when that fire burns steadily and gives warmth and light through you to the world around you? [Photo: Hudson house Advent candles]

I'd love to hear your story, so email me about holy fire or the breath of life or spirituality as you understand it at And as the seasons change and autumn weather arrives, may your soul gleam with warmth and light!

Peace be with you,


P.S. Ronald Rolheiser, whom I quoted above, is one of my favorite writers in the Christian spiritual tradition, and he writes a regular column which is well worth a read. You can find him HERE.

P.P.S. If you are interested in chatting with me about ways I can support you in tending your spiritual fire, hop on my calendar for a chat by clicking HERE.

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