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Produced by David B. Alexander


by Felix Adler

The Essentials of Spirituality

The first essential is an awakening, a sense of the absence of
spirituality, the realized need of giving to our lives a new and
higher quality; first there must be the hunger before there can be
the satisfaction.

Similar effects are often produced by widely differing processes. In
the psychical world that quality which we call spirituality may be
associated with and evoked by Theism, or the belief in a Divine
Father; by Pantheism, as in the case of Spinoza, whose face at the
very first glance impresses you with its spiritual cast; or even by
the Buddhist belief in Nirvana. It may also be attained by following
the precepts and striving after the ideals of Ethical Culture. For
spirituality is not indissolubly associated with any one type of
religion or philosophy; it is a quality of soul manifesting itself in a
variety of activities and beliefs.

Before we proceed further, however, we must hazard a definition
of the word. In the region of mental activity which is called the
spiritual life vagueness is apt to prevail, the outlines of thought are
apt to be blurred, the feelings aroused are apt to be indistinct and
transitory. The word 'spiritual' becomes a synonym of muddy
thought and misty emotionalism. If there were another word in the
language to take its place, it would be well to use it. But there is
not. We must use the word 'spiritual,' despite its associations and
its abuse. We shall endeavor, however, to attach a distinct and
definite meaning to the word. Mere definition, however, is too
abstract and nakedly intellectual. Perhaps a description of some
types of character, combined with definition, will be the better

Savonarola is surely one of the commanding figures in history. His
fiery earnestness, his passion for righteousness, the boldness with
which he censured the corruptions of the Roman Court, the
personal qualities by which he - a foreigner and a mere monk - made
himself for a short period the lawgiver, the prophet, and virtually
the dictator of Florence - that Florence which was at the time the
very gemmary of the Renaissance - his sudden fall and tragic death;
all combine to attract toward him our admiration, pity, and love,
and to leave upon our minds the impression of his extraordinary
moral genius. And yet, though a spiritual side was not wanting in
Savonarola, we should not quote him as an outstanding exemplar
of spirituality. The spiritual life is unperturbed and serene. His
nature was too passionate, he was too vehement in his philippics,
too deeply engrossed in the attainment of immediate results,
too stormy a soul to deserve the name of spiritual.

Again, our own Washington is one of the commanding figures in
history. He achieved the great task which he set himself; he
secured the political independence of America. He became the
master builder of a nation; he laid securely the foundations on
which succeeding generations have built. He was calm, too, with
rare exceptions; an expert in self-control. But there was mingled
with his calmness a certain coldness. He was lofty and pure, but
we should hardly go to him for instruction in the interior secrets of
the spiritual life. His achievements were in another field. His claim
to our gratitude rests on other grounds. The spiritual life is calm,
but serenely calm; irradiated by a fervor and a depth of feeling that
were to some extent lacking in our first president. Lincoln,
perhaps, came nearer to possessing them.

Again, we have such types of men as John Howard, the prison
reformer, and George Peabody, who devoted his great fortune to
bettering the housing of the poor and to multiplying and improving
schools. These men - especially the latter - were practical and sane,
and were prompted in their endeavors by an active and tender
benevolence. Yet we should scarcely think of them as conspicuous
examples of the spiritual quality in human life and conduct.
Benevolence, be it never so tender and practical, does not reach
the high mark of spirituality. Spirituality is more than benevolence
in the ordinary sense of the term. The spiritual man is benevolent
to a signal degree, but his benevolence is of a peculiar kind. It is
characterized by a certain serene fervor which we may almost call

But perhaps some one may object that a standard by which
personalities like Savonarola, Washington, Howard and Peabody
fall short is probably set too high, and that in any case the erection
of such a standard cannot be very helpful to the common run of
human beings. Where these heroic natures fall short, can you and I
hope to attain? To such an objection the reply is that we cannot be
too fastidious or exacting in respect to our standard, however poor
our performance may be. Nothing less than a kind of divine
completeness should ever content us. Furthermore, there have
been some men who approached nearer to the spiritual ideal than
the patriots and the philanthropists just mentioned - some few men
among the Greeks, the Hindus, and the Hebrews. And for the
guidance of conduct, these more excellent spirits avail us more
than the examples of a Savonarola, a Washington or a Howard. To
be a prophet or the lawgiver of a nation is not within your
province and mine. For such a task hardly one among millions has
the opportunity or the gifts. To be liberators of their country has
been accorded in all the ages thus far covered by human history to
so small a number of men that one might count them on the fingers
of a single hand. Even to be philanthropists on a large scale is the
restricted privilege of a very few. But to lead the spiritual life is
possible to you and me if we choose to do so. The best is within
the reach of all, or it would not be the best. Every one is permitted
to share life's highest good.

The spiritual life, then, may be described by its characteristic
marks of serenity, a certain inwardness, a measure of saintliness.
By the latter we are not to understand merely the aspiration after
virtue or after a lofty ideal, still pursued and still eluding, but to a
certain extent the embodiment of this ideal in the life - virtue
become a normal experience like the inhalation and exhalation of
breath! Moreover, the spiritually-minded seem always to be
possessed of a great secret. This air of interior knowledge, of the
perception of that which is hidden from the uninitiated, is a
common mark of all refinement, aesthetic as well as moral. In
studying the face of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa,' for instance,
one will find that it is this interior insight that explains the so-called
"cryptic smile." In the case of aesthetic refinement, the secret
discloses itself as at bottom delicacy, the delicacy which prevents
intrusion on the personality of others; which abhors a prying
curiosity; which finds subtle ways of conveying esteem and
delicate modes of rendering service. But the secret of moral
refinement is of a far higher order, transcending aesthetic
refinement by as much as goodness is superior to mere charm. The
secret in this case consists in the insight vouchsafed to the
spiritually-minded of the true end of human existence.

Constituted as we are, there exist for us lower and higher ends.
This distinction is fundamental for ethics. Food is necessary;
without it we cannot live. But the getting of food - however
necessary - is a lower end. Knowledge is a necessary end, and a
higher one. The practical moral ends, such as the reformation of
prisons, the improvement of the dwellings of the poor, are yet
higher ends. But above all these is the highest end, that of moral
completeness, of perfection, not in one particular but in every
particular. Spirituality consists in always keeping in view this
supreme end. The spiritually-minded person is one who regards
whatever he undertakes from the point of view of its hindering or
furthering his attainment of the supreme end. If a river had a
consciousness like the human consciousness, we might imagine
that it hears the murmur of the distant sea from the very moment
when it leaves its source, and that the murmur grows clearer and
clearer as the river flows on its way, welcoming every tributary it
receives as adding to the volume which it will contribute to the
sea, rejoicing at every turn and bend in its long course that brings
it nearer to its goal. Such is the consciousness of a spiritually-minded
human being. Or to take a simile from human experience. There
are times when we go abroad to travel just for change of scenery
and the refreshment which change brings with it. When we go in
this mood we are likely to be intent on wayside pleasures, and
at every stage of the journey, at every town where we halt, we
shall suffer ourselves to be engrossed in the points of interest
which that temporary abiding-place has to offer us, careless of
what may await us farther on. But there are other times when
we go abroad on serious business. Some congress of scientists or
fellow-workers is to meet in which we are to take our part; or there
is a conflict being waged in which we are to bear our share of
wounds or death, as in the case of the Japanese, who are now
setting out from their homes toward the battlefields of Manchuria;
or there is some loved one at a distance who needs us, calls us,
expects us. Then the stations on the way are unable to captivate
our attention; we are impatient to pass them by; we welcome each
one as we approach it as bringing us one step nearer to the desired

Some such analogy will help us understand the inner state of a
spiritually-minded person. He thinks always of the ultimate end.
In whatever he does or omits to do he asks himself, Will it advance
me or divert me from the ultimate goal? Since spirituality consists
in keeping in mind the ultimate goal, it follows, in accordance with
what was said in the beginning, that there must be various types of
spirituality, corresponding to the various ways in which the
ultimate goal is conceived. For those to whom the final end of
human life is union with God, the Divine Father, the thought of
this Divine Father gives color and complexion to their spiritual life.
They think of Him when they lie down at night and when they rise
up in the morning; his praise is ever on their lips; the desire to win
his approbation is with them in all their undertakings. To those
who regard the attainment of Nirvana as the supreme end, like the
Buddhists, the thought of Nirvana is a perpetual admonition. To
those who view the supreme end of life as moral perfection, the
thought of that perfection is the constant inner companion. The
moral man, commonly so-called; the man who is honest, pays his
debts, performs his duties to his family; the man who works for
specific objects, such as political reform; this man, worthy of all
respect though he be, is still intent on the stages of his journey.
The spiritual man, as we must now define him from the point of
view of Ethical Culture, is the man who always thinks of the
ultimate goal of his journey, i. e., a moral character complete in
every particular, and who is influenced by that thought at all times
and in all things. Spirituality, in this conception of it, is nothing but
morality raised to its highest power.

And now, let us ask what are some of the conditions on which the
attainment of such a life depends. The prime condition is to
acquire the habit of ever and anon detaching one's self from one's
accustomed interests and pursuits, becoming, as it were, a
spectator of one's self and one's doings, escaping from the
sweeping current and standing on the shore. For this purpose it is
advisable to consecrate certain times, preferably a certain time
each day, to self-recollection; to dedicate an hour - or a half-hour,
if no more can be spared - to seeing one's life in all its relations;
that is, as the poet has put it, to seeing life "steadily and seeing it
whole." The sane view is to see things in their relation to other
things; the non-sane view is to see them isolated, in such a way
that they exercise a kind of hypnotic spell over us. And it makes no
difference what a man's habitual interests may be, whether they be
sordid or lofty, he needs ever and anon to get away from them. In
reality, nothing wherewith a man occupies himself need be sordid.
The spiritual attitude does not consist in turning one's back on
things mundane and fixing one's gaze on some supernal blaze of
glory, but rather in seeing things mundane in their relation to
things ultimate, perfect.

The eating of bread is surely a sufficiently commonplace
operation. Yet Jesus brake bread with his disciples in such way
that that simple act has become the symbol of sublimely spiritual
relations, the centre of the most august rite of the Christian
Church. In like manner the act of sitting down to an ordinary meal
with the members of our family may, if seen in its relations, be for
us a spiritual consecration. The common meal may become for us
the type of the common life we share, the common love we bear.

On the other hand, seemingly much more lofty pursuits may have a
narrowing and deadening effect on us if we do not see them in
their ultimate relations, and so divest them of reference to life's
highest end. For instance, the pursuit of science may have this
effect, if the sole object of the scientist be to perform some
astonishing piece of work for the purpose of attracting attention or
to secure a well-salaried position, or even if he be so wedded to
his specialty as to fail to be sensitive to the relations of it to the
body of truth in general. And the same holds good of the
narrow-minded reformer, of whom Emerson has said that his
virtue so painfully resembles vice; the man who puts a moral idol
in the place of the moral ideal, who erects into the object toward
which all his enthusiasm goes some particular reform, such as the
single tax, or socialism, or public parks, or a model school; the
man, in short, who strives for a good instead of striving for
goodness. Whatever our pursuits may be, we should often
mentally detach ourselves from them, and, standing aloof as
impartial spectators, consider the direction in which they are taking

This counsel is frequently urged on grounds of health, since the
wear and tear of too intense absorption in any pursuit is apt to
wreck the nervous system. I urge it on the ground of mental sanity,
since a man cannot maintain his mental poise if he follows the
object of his devotion singly, without seeing it in relation to other
objects. And I urge it also on the ground of spirituality, for a
salient characteristic of spirituality is calmness, and without the
mental repose which comes of detachment we cannot import
calmness into our lives. There are some persons, notably among
those engaged in philanthropic activities, who glory in being
completely engrossed in their tasks, and who hug a secret sense of
martyrdom, when late at night, perhaps worn out in mind and
body, they throw themselves upon their couch to snatch a few
hours of insufficient sleep. Great occasions, of course, do occur
when every thought of self should be effaced in service; but as a
rule, complete absorption in philanthropic activity is as little sane
and as little moral as complete absorption in the race for gain. The
tired and worn-out worker cannot do justice to others, nor can he
do justice to that inner self whose demands are not satisfied even
by philanthropic activity. If, then, self-recollection is essential, let
us make daily provision for it. Some interest we should have - even
worldly prudence counsels this much - as far remote as possible
from our leading interest; and beyond that, some book belonging
to the world's great spiritual literature on which we may daily feed.
The Bible used to be in the old days all-sufficient for this purpose,
and it is still, in part at least, an admirable aid to those who know
how to use it. But there are other books, such as the legacy of the
great Stoics, the writings of our latter-day prophets, the essays of
Arnold and Carlyle and Emerson, the wisdom of Goethe. These
noble works, even if they do not wholly satisfy us, serve to set
our thoughts in motion about high concerns, and give to the mind
a spiritual direction.

A second condition of the spiritual life has been expressed in
the precept, reiterated in many religions, by many experts in things
relating to the life of the soul: "Live as if this hour were thy last."
You will recall, as I pronounce these words, the _memento mori_
of the Ancients, their custom of exhibiting a skeleton at the feast,
in order to remind the banqueters of the fate that awaited them.
You will remember the other-worldliness of Christian monks and
ascetics who decried this pleasant earth as a vale of tears, and
endeavored to fix the attention of their followers upon the pale
joys of the Christian heaven, and you will wonder, perhaps, that I
should be harking back to these conceptions of the past. I have,
however, no such intention.

The prevailing attitude toward the thought of death is that of
studied neglect. Men wish to face it as little as possible. We know,
of course, what the fate is that awaits us. We know what are the
terms of the compact. Now and again we are momentarily struck
by the pathos of it all; for instance, when we walk through some
crowded thoroughfare on a bright day and reflect that before
many years this entire multitude will have disappeared. The
rosy-cheeked girl who has just passed; the gay young fellow at her
side, full of his hopes, confident of his achievements, acting and
speaking as if the lease of eternity were his; that "grave and
reverend seigneur," clad with dignity and authority - all will have
gone, and others will have taken their places. Yet, as a rule, we are
not much affected by such reflections. When one of our friends has
met with a painless death we are apt to solace ourselves with the
hope that perhaps we shall be as lucky as he; at all events, we
know that when our time comes we must take our turn. Even
those who look forward with apprehension to the last moment,
and who when it approaches, cling desperately to life, are prudent
enough to hold their peace. There is a general understanding that
those who go shall not mar the composure of those who stay, and
that public decorum shall not be disturbed by outcries.

This is the baldly secular view of the matter, and this view, though
based on low considerations, in some respects is sound enough.
And yet I reiterate the opinion that to live as if this hour were our
last - in other words, to frankly face the idea of death - is most
conducive to the spiritual life. It is for the sake of the reflex action
upon life that the practice of coming to a right understanding with
death is so valuable. Take the case of a man who calls on his
physician, and there unexpectedly discovers that he is afflicted with
a fatal malady, and is told that he may have only a few months
longer to live. This visit to the physician has changed the whole
complexion of life for him. What will be the effect upon him? If he
be a sane, strong, morally high-bred man, the effect will be
ennobling; it will certainly not darken the face of nature for him.
Matthew Arnold wished that when he died he might be placed at
the open window, that he might see the sun shining on the
landscape, and catch at evening the gleam of the rising star.
Everything that is beautiful in the world will still be beautiful; he
will thankfully accept the last draught of the joy which nature has
poured into his goblet. Everything that is really uplifting in human
life will have a more exquisite and tender message for him. The
gayety of children will thrill him as never before, interpreted as a
sign of the invincible buoyancy of the human race, of that race
which will go on battling its way after he has ceased to live. If he
be a man of large business connections, he will still, and more than
ever, be interested in planning how what he has begun may be
safely continued. If he be the father of a family, he will provide
with a wise solicitude, as far as possible, for every contingency. He
will dispose of matters now, as if he could see what will happen
after his departure. On the other hand, all that is vain or frivolous,
every vile pleasure, gambling, cruelty, harsh language to wife or
child, trickery in business, social snobbishness, all the base traits
that disfigure human conduct, he will now recoil from with horror,
as being incongruous with the solemn realization of his condition.
The frank facing of death, therefore, has the effect of sifting out
the true values of life from the false, the things that are worth
while from the things that are not worth while, the things that
are related to the highest end from those related to the lower
partial ends. The precept, "Live as if this hour were thy last," is
enjoined as a touchstone; not for the purpose of dampening the
healthy relish of life, but as a means of enhancing the relish for
real living, the kind of living that is devoted to things really worth
while. As such a test it is invaluable. The question, "Should I care
to be surprised by death in what I am doing now?" - put it to the
dissipated young man in his cups, put it to the respectable
rogue - nay, put it to each one of us, and it will often bring the
blush of shame to our cheeks. When, therefore, I commend the
thought of death, I think of death not as a grim, grisly skeleton, a
King of Terrors, but rather as a mighty angel, holding with averted
face a wondrous lamp. By that lamp - hold it still nearer, O
Death - I would read the scripture of my life, and what I read in
that searching light, that would I take to heart.

Finally, there is a third condition of the spiritual life which I would
mention, and which comes nearer to the heart of the matter than
anything that has yet been said. Learn to look upon any pains and
injuries which you may have to endure as you would upon the
same pains and injuries endured by someone else. If sick and
suffering, remember what you would say to someone else who is
sick and suffering, remember how you would admonish him that
he is not the first or the only one that has been in like case, how
you would expect of him fortitude in bearing pain as an evidence
of human dignity. Exhort yourself in like manner; expect the same
fortitude of yourself. If any one has done you a wrong, remember
what you would adduce in palliation of the offence if another were
in the same situation; remember how you would suggest that
perhaps the one injured had given some provocation to the
wrongdoer, how you would perhaps have quoted the saying:
_"Tout comprendre est tout pardonner"_ - "to understand is to
pardon," how you would in any case have condemned vindictive
resentment. In the moral world each one counts for one and not
more than one. The judgment that you pass on others, pass on
yourself, and the fact that you are able to do so, that you have the
power to rise above your subjective self and take the public
universal point of view with respect to yourself, will give you a
wonderful sense of enfranchisement and poise and spiritual dignity.
And, on the other hand (and this is but the obverse of the same
rule), look upon everyone else as being from the moral point of
view just as important as you are; nay, realize that every human
being is but another self, a part of the same spiritual being that is in
you, a complement of yourself, a part of your essential being.
Realize the unity that subsists between you and your fellow-men,
and then your life will be spiritual indeed. For the highest end with
which we must be ever in touch, toward which we must be ever
looking, is to make actual that unity between ourselves and others
of which our moral nature is the prophecy. The realization of that
unity is the goal toward which humanity tends.

Spirituality depends upon our tutoring ourselves to regard the
welfare of others - moral as well as external - as much our concern
as our own. What this practically means the following illustration
will indicate. A certain bank official, a man of excellent education
and of high social standing, committed a crime. He allowed himself
in a moment of lamentable weakness to use certain trust funds
which had been committed to him to cover losses which he had
sustained. He intended to replace what he had taken, of course,
but he could not do so, for he became more and more deeply
involved. One night as he was alone in his office it became plain to

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Online LibraryFelix AdlerThe Essentials of Spirituality → online text (page 1 of 5)