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The dimension that is the spiritual

One thing you may not know about me is that I was an undergraduate physics major, of all things, in my time at William & Mary. I loved the work, and the farther you get into physics, the more your ability to succeed hinges on your ability to conceptualize things for which there is not an easy metaphor. Word problems about shopping carts full of watermelons rolling down hills give way after one semester to equations that have no numbers in them, or for which Greek letters and funny little symbols outnumber alphabet letters.

So, practice some conceptualizing with me for a moment,

We live in a three-dimensional world. We can move left and right, one dimension, we can go forward and backward, two dimensions, we can move up and down, three dimensions.

A piece of floss is one dimensional, it only has length. A piece of paper has two dimensions, it has length and width. A cube or a person has three dimensions, length and width and height.

Now, if you add a fourth dimension, where do you put it? Which direction do you go to move in the fourth dimension? Some scientists would say the fourth dimension is time, we move through time, albeit against your volition. Okay, where would you put a fifth dimension? Where would you put a sixth? Some scientists would say, dimensions 5 and 6 are about branching realities and parallel realities. I can cook at home tonight or I can go out, or you know, ten years ago I couldve decided to get the physics PhD instead of becoming a priest, or I couldve become a physical therapist or a sports medicine doctor. Doctor Ethan, Physicist Ethan, spaghetti at home and spaghetti at Olive Garden Ethan all live in dimensions 5 and 6.

It's all very complicated, isn't it, as if Christianity isn't.

I was having coffee with someone recently -- a longtime spiritual director -- and the question came up, what does it mean to be spiritual? What is the spiritual?

As people of faith, as spiritual beings, we have this elusive oft-inarticulable dimension to our lives, to our beings, to our souls and that is the spiritual. There is a spiritual dimension that is not left-right, forward-backward, up-down, and yet it is a dimension along which we see and perceive and intuit and live.

Well, what is it? What is the spiritual? If you or I wanted to move along the spiritual dimension or attune our hearts and minds to it, which direction do you go, what do you do? How do you access the spiritual? And what is it?

One way we describe this is that the spiritual dimension is that along which all living things, all creation, and God are connected, and this connection supersedes and transcends our measly three-dimension connection.

We have straightforward ways of describing and understanding connections in 3D -- I might feel that I am connected to you because we share proximity to one another. I am connected to you because we have shared interests, or our personalities mesh or complement one another, I feel connected to you because we have a shared experience or shared pain, or simply for having spent a bunch of time together, or because we are family.

What's tough is that relying on non-spiritual connection leaves a lot of people out; look around in the world, physical proximity, shared interests, shared experience, even common or coerced ideologies have not been enough to knit together this human family into one body. And when you are standing on opposite sides from someone on a life-or-death political issue, the means of corporeal and secular connection suddenly and completely fall short.

Part of what we do as Christians is that we give ourselves over to the truth that there is a spiritual reality -- there is a spiritual dimension along which we are all connected, all of us, regardless of the circumstances of our three-dimensional bodies. And we can be so dense to that fact that God had to take on three dimensions and come down here and show us what he was talking about.

Scripture is full of stories of Jesus and his followers trying to explain the spiritual.

Jesus says, listen, the normal modes of family tie aren't enough, can you imagine that everybody you encounter is your brother or sister, your mother or your son, your family. If I told you that everybody was your family, would you believe me?

Paul says, now imagine there's this body -- God's body -- and we are all members of that body. We all have our role, and however one part of that body fares is how well we all fare.

Acts tell us, imagine you can understand everyone even though they speak different languages than you-- well that's what happened on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down and alighted the disciples. The Holy Spirit -- that which presides over and directs the spiritual -- for a moment made the spiritual reality into a physical reality.

The spiritual hinges on the belief that there is something that connects us all, in spite of ourselves, in spite of our consciences and predilections and biases, in spite of the unassailable distances between us. And if you can find it within yourself to believe it, or to even aspire to believe it, then you'll be ready to notice it when it breaks through. And if you can figure out how to root that belief deep, if you can find other people to hold you in that spirituality, if you've felt it break through enough, then maybe you'll be able to still believe it when it becomes unbelievable -- in conflict, in fight or flight, in three day weekend I-95 traffic, or even during a presidential election season, when all other modes of connection fall short.

It really sounds conceptually quite easy, I guess to name. There is something that connects us all. And yet the spiritual lives not really in the concept, but in the practice. Can you believe that there is something knitting us all together? Sure, probably, usually. Can you live your life acting like you are knit together with everyone you know, everyone you will meet, and everyone you will never meet? Well that's the spiritual work. But how heartening to know that it's doable, that's it's been done, and that aren't alone in the doing.


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