I was talking to a good friend, at one of our regular lunches, about balance in work and life. Not just about the balance of work and life, which is the way this matter is normally discussed, but about the balancing of different dimensions. You could call these mind, body and spirit, to adopt a category used in bookshops. Mind and body seemed straightforward; we are both enthusiasts for intellectually challenging films, theatre, books, and are both sporty. We agreed that the most difficult dimension was the spiritual one.
Just to use the word spiritual is problematic. Some dismiss spirituality as a vague, wishy-washy brew; others go further and call it mumbo jumbo. For others still it is very clearly or, indeed, narrowly defined in terms of conventional religious practice; but that itself, at least for me, is a problem.
Over Easter, David Cameron, the British prime minister, rediscovered his Christian faith and urged the country to follow his example. Writing in the Church Times, he suggested Britons “should be more confident about our status as a Christian country”.
I can see that mainstream religions are highly convenient vessels and conduits of spirituality; I can even understand the prejudice in favour of them, although I do not share it. They are convenient because they add social cohesion to the more inward and personal elements of religious faith or spiritual experience. The great churches and temples, built for the long term, have gathered, held and protected people through the most solemn passages of life (and death) for generation after generation; just the fact and feeling of that holding through time is worthy of respect, as the agnostic Philip Larkin recognised in his great poem “Church Going”. Non-believers, such as he, were drawn to churches because they “held unspilt/ So long and equably what since is found/ Only in separation”.
But Larkin’s poem is also about the decay of the meaning that churches have preserved over centuries. He speculates about the time in the future when the will to maintain them has faded, when they have been reduced to “grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky” when no one can even remember what purpose they once served.
This happens, history shows, not just to the buildings but to the faiths in honour of which churches and temples are raised. Strangely enough, the buildings sometimes last better than the faiths. The Parthenon inspires with the perfection of its form, the subtle grace of the curves and bulges that contradict its rectangular plainness, but who can really identify with the religious fervour that once animated those who gazed on Phidias’ 40ft-high statue of Athena, the temple’s centrepiece?
Well, perhaps it is possible to get somewhere close in terms of imagining this fervour; I guess it was what we might now call nationalistic. I would think Athenians gathered to worship their patron goddess especially in times of threat; no doubt with increasing intensity as the long-drawn-out Peloponnesian war began to go badly for the Athenians.
Nationalism and religion often go together but this for me is not the most noble manifestation of spirituality. Vladimir Putin has used the Russian Orthodox Church, oppressed under communism, to lend spurious respectability or even moral authority to his darkly authoritarian regime. I wouldn’t normally bracket a moderate and liberal prime minister with a former KGB hard man but maybe Cameron should think twice about the kind of bedfellows he has when he seeks to marry patriotism and religion.
Spirituality, in its noblest forms, is not narrow, tribal and defensive but quite the opposite: it is generous, embracing, open to all. This was how the early Christian churches were, which is why they appealed to so many and why an obscure Palestinian sect became a world religion. But as ecclesiastical institutions and hieratic structures harden, the spirituality they were supposed to contain escapes from them and seeks other vessels.
Spirituality in our day is difficult – to return to that original conversation – because it is diffuse and has not yet found a strong enough vessel. If we accept with the prophetic WB Yeats that we’re still waiting for the next “rough beast” to slouch “towards Bethlehem to be born”, where do we look in the meantime? Is a mix of eastern practices such as yoga and meditation (all too often misinterpreted as ways of keeping fit) and western psychotherapies sufficient?
Actually I think it is, when combined with all our resources of literature, music, art, which are, in essence, spiritual. I go with the great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau who as a despairing young man, contemplating suicide, found his salvation in Jungian psychoanalysis. He felt increasingly liberated from physical, emotional and psychological blocks and able to express himself as an artist and as a man. As Arrau wrote of Mahler: “Anguish and fear of death had given way to a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul.”
More columns at ft.com/eyres
Letter in response to this column: