Themes in Literature

Literary Spirituality


The term spirituality has been used in a great variety of ways, both religious and secular. When associated with religion, the term is practically inextricable from “God” and the myriad concepts connected with a belief in a higher power that guides, directs, and rewards human beings for leading a life in accordance with religious principles. From a secular perspective, the term is aligned with the workings of the mind, the senses, and the perceived material and, in some cases, immaterial world. For instance, the American transcendentalists used spirituality as a special mark of those superior intellects able to perceive a reality beyond the material world, a world of the “spirit” which is not necessarily dependent on the physical senses to interpret. Evangelical Christianity reserves the term to describe tender religious emotions, while, in contrast, the French have appropriated it as the name for the finer perceptions of life, which implies a firm link with the material evidence of reality around us. Various derivatives of the term include spiritual, spiritualism, spiritualist, spiritism, and the spirit, all words implying slightly more nuanced interpretations of the disconnect between the perceived reality of the physical world and a conceived reality of a realm beyond it—one that is not relative to, nor dependent on, the senses reacting in conjunction with the mind. If all of this sounds rather mysterious, it is primarily because the conceptual nature of the term has its etymological roots in the Hebrew word ruach, which refers to the ethereal or elusive nature of spirit, breath, or wind, as that which gives life and animation to something. Further, the term gets its modern implications from the Latin definition of immaterial (immaterialis, late Latin, 14th century) which consists of an essence that cannot be seen, contained, or even proven in a validated manner (i.e., scientifically). Thus, spirituality is a quality that is associated with persons or things but is paradoxically distinct from material or worldly concerns.

Indeed, as the Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond stated in Natural Law in the Spiritual World (1883), “No spiritual man ever claims that his spirituality is his own” (89). This distinction between the material or natural world and the immaterial or spiritual world is central to the history of the debate regarding the nature of spirituality. By the 19th century, this debate assumed even greater proportions after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which posited man’s descent from apes through a process of natural selection, thereby calling into doubt the validity of man’s creation by God as depicted in the book of Genesis in the Bible. The struggle to define spirituality in terms that account for this ongoing debate has continued ever since. However, what can be stated with assurance is that the concept of spirituality relates directly to the conception of faith and arises from a creative and dynamic synthesis of faith and life. Broadly interpreted, fiction is about the human condition, and spirituality is that sense of our selves as linked in some relational way to the larger concept of the universe.

As such, this theme permeates nearly all fiction in ways that can be either subtle or dramatically overt, depending on how we as readers react to the conceptual, and frequently nonmaterial, clues provided by the author. Concepts such as the divine (or divinity), the soul or spirit, the mystical, transcendence, suffering, love, ecstasy, and even human egotism are linked in multiple complex ways to our understanding and practice of spirituality. Among the Christians (especially the mystics) and the Sufis (a Muslim sect), the main concern of spiritual life is with the human mind and its divine essence. As Saint Catherine of Genoa, a renowned Christian mystic, wrote, “My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me” (quoted in Huxley 11, italics added). Within a religious context, there are myriad guides to understanding what constitutes the “spiritual” since religious history provides us with textual references that document, historicize, and instruct the individual’s understanding of the universe and their place in it. These guides include the Bible; the Torah; the Quran; and the writings of Buddha, the Hindu gods, and Confucius, to name but a few. Yet the spiritual cannot be confined to merely the religious and textual foundations of belief, since the spiritual also puts us in touch with that center of ourselves that is silent, mystical, and profoundly aware of the awesome beauty and power of what is clearly felt, yet beyond our control—the emotive force and energy of love; the symmetry and perfection of nature; and, not least of all, the passions and beliefs that ignite the soul. In more explicitly fictional terms, spirituality can be thematically reflected in texts through a number of literary devices that evoke specific spiritual responses from the reader. Readers may feel transformed in their consciousnesses or their lives, either vicariously through the fictive experience of one or more characters or more directly through a cathartic (energizing or healing) response to the work as a whole. Readers might also experience and know God through the creation of a fictional world; these works serve as allegories and are frequently imitative of previous works.

Some works describe quest narratives that take one or more characters through the stages of a spiritual journey toward greater understanding of themselves; of the world around them; and of the nature of faith, hope, and love. Works that describe spirituality on this level may involve actual or imaginative travel to realms of otherworldliness, flights of fancy, or human physical/mental transport that defies the limitations of time and place. Other works infuse mystical feeling into their settings and natural worlds, such that a divine influence or presence is rendered as an aesthetic sensibility (an artistic, visual representation of beauty). Poetry, in particular, abounds with examples of natural imagery that is imbued with an ethereal quality reminiscent of spiritual perfection. Writers might also include symbols and motifs that emphasize aspects of faith particular to one or more sets of religious beliefs and values (the theology that can give rise to different spiritualities). Such references are usually universally identifiable by virtue of their iconic significance or historical prevalence, and they can include both occult as well as monotheistic images, such as angels, the all-seeing eye, butterflies, the cross of Christianity, the Celtic cross, the dove, the circle (or ring), the evil eye, the hexagram (or six-pointed star), the serpent or snake, the trident, and the triangle (or pyramid). For example, works such as Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost address the theme of spirituality within an exclusively religious or ecclesiastical context, since each work is essentially an allegory or parable that posits a fictional account of the respective Catholic, Puritan, and Episcopal traditions of religious life and afterlife as described by believers.

Indeed, the function of parable in religion is to exhibit “form by form”; thus, natural phenomena serve mainly an illustrative function in religion. Accordingly, within each of these works, the path to spiritual awareness is well documented and the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn; the individual’s experience in life and on earth is characterized as a precursor to the progress of their soul after death. Similarly, works such as Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor; Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; George Eliot’s Silas Marner; and William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience can also be considered parables in which the individual is subjected to external, natural, and social forces characterized as both good and evil in order to illustrate the power of the spirit over the materiality and grossness of the world, albeit at a price.

See also Anaya, Rudolfo: Bless Me, Ultima; Black Elk: Black Elk Speaks; Carver, Raymond: “Cathedral”; Davis, Robertson: Fifth Business; Dickinson, Emily: poems; Dostoyevsky, Fyodor: Crime and Punishment; Emerson, Ralph Waldo: “American Scholar, The”; “Divinity School Address, The”; Equiano, Olaudah: Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, The; Hesse, Herman: Siddhartha; Ibsen, Henrik: Hedda Gabler; Kipling, Rudyard: Kim; Kureishi, Hanif: Buddha of Suburbbia, The; Reed, Ishmael: Mumbo Jumbo; Thoreau, Henry David: Walden.

4 thoughts on “Literary Spirituality

  1. My observation for today: Fellas who cannot appreciate great literature are some of the most unattractive people.

  2. can imagine that! did u study literature or really to be a librarian? hope u get the job hun then its bye bye boss

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.