Spirituality and its contents

Dr Anna Holmes

Many people assume that religion is necessary for spirituality. In fact it is the other way round. Religion is a way of ordering spirituality. Spirituality is derived from the Latin spiritus meaning breath. Spirit is as essential to human beings as breath, connecting them to the transcendent. Breath connects them to the world from birth and a failure of breath disconnects them at death.

All great religions begin in spiritual connection, with an inspiration from the transcendent. From this comes the formation of a community practicing virtues arising from the inspiration—charity, justice and compassion and so on.

Greg Dawes (Spirituality and its discontents) disagrees with the use of the word spirituality in relation to health and seems to equate it with religion. Dawes begins by dismissing the definition of spirituality in health as ambiguous and merely reflecting human needs. He goes on to suggest that the different ways these needs are expressed and met is not neutral, giving examples from the Christian tradition. He then moves on to a series of religions with positive and negative aspects in relation to health. Possibly the most telling remark is that ‘the gods could (and should) be ignored.’ At least Epicurus left room for belief.

Having worked in medicine in a number of cultures—Moslem, Christian, Animistic, Hindu and Buddhist—I am certain that spirituality is central to health and healing in human beings. People may be cured of a disease by modern medicine but it does not mean they are healed. They continue to be dis-eased if their sense of wholeness and connection, their spirit, is not attended to.

I think of those in Africa who died in four days when they thought they were cursed. I think of those who came for ‘medical’ treatment and needed forgiveness in order to heal. I think of those who continued to produce serious symptoms until they were asked ‘When did this all begin?’ I think of those who came asking for euthanasia and became calm and peaceful when their human disconnections from family feuds were dealt with.

I do agree with Dawes that defining spirituality is both inaccurate and impossible. It is an ever changing, developing aspect of human beings, experienced as transcendent, beyond self. At the end of my clinical life I did a PhD on spirituality. I decided spirituality can be visualised, not defined, just as any great art reveals the spirit.


The three leaves represent the self, the natural world and the human other. The space at the centre represents the transcendent within and the space around represents the transcendent without.

This is not, as some might think a Celtic Christian diagram, it precedes Christianity by millennia. It shows both the endlessness of connection and the presence of spirit is within and without.

The transcendent is boundless.

Science in the West has tried hard to abolish mystery, in the form of spirit, as something essential to human experience. Biomedicine has been particularly threatened by this, hence the refusal to allow it into the medical curriculum. In the end, though, it is present at birth, death and all life in between, an inherent and mysterious part of humans needing care.

Dr Anna Holmes: Dr Holmes has been a General Practitioner in Africa, the Chatham Islands, Kaitaia, Lincoln, Diamond Harbour and Mosgiel. She worked as Assistant Medical Superintendant in Chief for the Canterbury Hospital and Area Health Boards. She spent ten years working as a medical officer in the Otago Community Hospice. A lifelong interest in spirituality in human development, health and healing led to a PhD in Spirituality in General Practice completed at the University of Otago in 2012.

One thought on “Spirituality and its contents”

  1. Magical Thinking

    The importance of magical thinking is
    that it lets complexity unfold.
    In the absence of evidence,
    humans have faith and ritual.

    Complexity comes out of the realms of chaos
    and unfolds her white wings like an angel.
    She hovers and soars through the
    atmosphere of magic and imagination.

    That indissoluble richness of possibility
    brings lightness, peace and grace to those
    who find cold comfort in statistical analyses.
    Mystery feeds hope and empowerment.

    Boundaries of human understanding
    are created and stretched in experience.
    Magic confounds predictability and
    offers up wonder and potentiality.

    Dissecting complex constructions does
    create interesting objects of attention, and
    inert puzzle pieces provide a memory echo
    of living substance and inspiration.

    Instruments of definition structure the truth
    to provide working tools of knowledge.
    The real magic of comprehension happens
    in the alchemical dance of matter and energy.

    Suzanne Noel-Bentley

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