Spiritual Living
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Spiritual Regeneration

Craig Russell

  For the writer, the spiritual is a practical matter. It is about getting right our relationship with those who are poor, with those who are different and with nature. The fruit of such spiritual practice in our own neighbourhood will be community development.

Spirituality is found in those actions that bring about liberation from selfishness, ego and pride and that build justice, harmony and sustainability.

Community development cannot happen without the exercise of the imagination. How can we connect reflection and action into a method that has spiritually rooted into community development? Can we open up new creative ways to integrate imagination into the cycle of experience - analysis - reflection - action?

At its most basic level empathy begins as we imagine the life of someone else.. Community development has to start with the move beyond ourselves and into someone else's shoes. This is essential if collective experience and language is to be established. Building this idea into an appropriate methodology is especially important in a diverse, multi-cultural and individualistic society. How do we develop the skills for this task with the greatest sensitivity and in the most empowering way?

Imagination is needed as we fit together an analysis of a particular area and map out the needs and strengths with which we must work. Making connections between incidents, people and attitudes demands that we go beyond the immediate, and start forming pictures to help us to see what is going on. Can we find effective ways to discern what are the dynamics of a community and gain direct means to test these out?

Reflection demands imagination as we assess the everyday life of our communities against the values, faith and principles that we hold. Prayer is an act of the imagination. As we bring our material reality into the spiritual realm we can only make sense of what we are doing if we use our imagination. Faith is also an act of the imagination. Faith is real if rooted in practical realities, but it will not survive unless it sees beyond those realities and holds a vision of what could be.

To know what action to take to bring about change we first need to see things differently. We must have a solid grip on the nature of our time and place, but we must also learn to enhance our perception of how to renew, regenerate and reaffirm the life around us. Perception links reality to vision. Vision has to be at the heart of all good community development. As well as cultivating our own powers to create visions of our communities and how they may develop, we need to have the skills to encourage the power to envision within other people, and create the methods by which visions can be shared and built up collectively. How do we make real our faith in our communities and how do we bring them closer to what our world needs or our Creator desires?

Community Development And Spirituality-A Motive

Spirituality is about the imagination but has to be about practical material realities if it is to mean anything. Smells, bells, chants and candles have been used for centuries to evoke the spiritual in a material world. They have received a revival in a truly materialistic way as the secular consumerist spirituality of 'Gregorian Girl Bands', gift shops and candle manufacturers attempt to grab the action.

Spirituality is not a higher plain, it is the world in which we all interact. A deeper spirituality is making connection with the other. This has to be more than just contact, for that can be creative or destructive, and is rarely neutral. The spiritual connection will be judged by its material outcome. Selfishness, abuse, exploitation and cultural imposition will soon be revealed through the nature of the contact. Spirituality is about motive, intent, respect for the other and these can produce beautiful and succulent fruit, but fruit can be grown that is deadly or tasteless. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self control are fruits of the spirit. Jealousy, self pride, arrogance, greed would be the start of a list to identify seeds that would produce poisonous or ugly fruit.

Otherness can be understood in many ways. Here it is explored in three ways that relate to community development. The first of these are the socially and economically marginalised. The realisation that our spiritual health is determined by our inclusion of the poor and excluded is a central tenet of many faiths. This teaching has to be applied individually, communally and in society as a whole.

The second element for spiritual growth concerns the acceptance and celebration of those who are ethnically and culturally different from ourselves. There may be a challenge to our perceptions, values or even faith through a genuine meeting with people who we have to connect with through a leap of the imagination. It is this that can stir our emotions and even disrupt our balance. This is what can lead to fear of the other and on to anger and hatred. The challenge can also develop into an interest, an admiration and a creative interchange and relationship. All the nuances of the two sides to this same experience of meeting the other need to be part of our awareness as we work towards community and spiritual understanding. The importance of the stranger is recognised in almost all faith traditions as an expression of spirituality.

Ecological commitment is the third area that provides a sustenance and expression for the spiritual. Our relationship with the rest of creation has to move beyond that of exploiter and even of steward to accepting an integrated role for humanity.

You will be right to think that this form of spirituality is very earthbound, material and practical. Spirituality is found everyday in the commonplace. It is usually in those actions that bring about liberation from selfishness, ego and pride and that build justice, harmony and sustainability.

If a spiritual language is to be retrieved from just smells and bells, the faddy and the fluffy, it has to have form and yet challenge a simple materialism.

The universe as we know it, and we increasingly understand it, is the basis for a spiritual foundation and growth. Within this there is sufficient to stretch the most adventurous imaginings, enough to challenge what it is to be a responsible being, and ample space to dream, create and make many new things.

Spirituality has to be rooted in the practical and in relationship with others. Inclusion of the marginalised happens through acceptance, understanding and action to overcome power differentials. Welcoming of ethnic and cultural diversity will only happen as we reach beyond our own prejudgments, ethnic background and cultural niche. We have to accept that we belong to nature and that nature does not belong to us if we are ever to feel at home. Along side these three practical ways to forge spirituality would be the connection with the other in those of a different generation, gender or sexuality. Connection with the other can also be applied in relation to time and history.

If these relationships with the other are good they will take us beyond our self. Relationship and building community will need but also feed our imagination. This gives a frame for how imagination and spirituality can be integrally linked to community development.

If a spiritual language is to be retrieved from just smells and bells, the faddy and the fluffy, it has to have form and yet challenge a simple materialism. Then we may be able to again talk of the transcendent Other in a meaningful way. Spirituality can open life in all its fullness and can enable us to find more readily our roles and responsibilities in relation to the rest of creation.

Seeing Is Believing

The visual image can open possibilibes for communication and relationship potentially more free from some of the divisiveness inherent within text. There is no total escape from cultural conditioning but the image can allow for different interpretations that often words will not permit. It can be seen that the art form is that which occurs in the mind of the perceiver and not in the object itself. From this understanding communication becomes a far more fluid and less structured way of making connections.

Text has given us many problems when it comes to dealing with the spiritual. In that it has been too often assumed that words can lock in a truth for all times and places leading to religious expression based on creeds and textual formulations, and to politics based on fixed ideology. These approaches can lead not only to the suffering or death of those who will not accept the right words but also to the death of that which the words seek to hold. Having said this, images held too tightly, as a flag on the battlefield, can have the same power and killing strength as words.

Great religious leaders have tended to let their actions speak of their intent. Their spoken wisdom has usually been in pictures and stories, not of creeds and formulae. This is no accident. Some later followers have formulated systems and drawn the dotted line on which you must sign.


The visual is about perception. Alongside music, food, aromas and the touch, it engages the senses. It can touch parts of us than the intellect simply cannot reach. Visual art is also about memory; pictures we hold in the mind, and impressions that have shaped who we are. Images can trigger responses, ideas we have long since submerged.

Visual art connects with the emotions through colour, form and texture. Moods can be determined by what we see. Images can elicit hatred and empathy, lust and love. Visual art helps us imagine who we think we are. Aspiration is what locks us into the current economic system; image is what makes us. Image can also open the door on the realm of the transcendent in the images of the faith traditions or more contemporary images of nature, the poor, the stranger. Seeing is believing but this is also the seeing of the soul's and mind's eyes.


The spiritual has to be poetic, visual and profoundly practical. We are usually a long way from any of these. The word regeneration can be taken as a material metaphor of many of the themes opened up by this article. It illustrates how the substance of the spiritual has been lost in our contemporary western world, but I hope that it holds out some hope as to how our spiritual imagination and practical transformative work can be retrieved.

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of 1979 to regenerate means to:

Invest with a new and higher spiritual nature; improve moral condition of, breathe new and more vigour and spiritual life into (person, institution etc.). Generate again, bring into renewed existence; form afresh. Reform oneself. Come into renewed existence.

This is a reminder of how quickly we are losing our spiritual understanding and ability to communicate on that level. Regeneration is probably more widely understood today as meaning the process by which a community is changed through material bricks and mortar redevelopment.

As a test for us we need to know how spirituality can be understood today in relation to this new meaning of regeneration. How can we meaningfully communicate about anything transcendent in a deeply secular, materialist and functionalist world? We have to establish ideas of the common good rather than lowest common denominator, ideas of the included rather than excluded, ideas of creativity not exploitation, and creation not simply seen as resources. We have a long way to go on each of these.

The wisdom of the faith traditions have a great deal to contribute, and those spiritual resources need to be mustered to engage with the challenges our world faces. We must however escape from an 'ark' mentality, for this approach in effect sends damnation on the rest of creation. Our universe is greater then our language can grasp; it is full of spiritual as well as materialist possibilities. If the spiritual is to be understood through the material realities, our imagination and inspiration from the other will enable us to see it.

Craig Russell is a sculptor and is active in community development. He coordinates the Art and Spirituality Network.

Contact: sarah@highaskew.freeserve.co.uk

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