Spirituality and Service

For centuries in the Roman Catholic tradition the Pope has been seen as being essentially the “servus servorum Dei,” that is “the servant of the servants of God.” It is a title many recent Popes have used in documents of note. Indeed, the present Pope, Francis I sees himself as embodying quintessentially this perspective on the papacy. One of his first acts on being proclaimed supreme pontiff was to bow to the people of God (that is the Church) gathered in St Peter’s Square and to ask for their prayers. Such an act of humility was a powerful expression of his determination to be at the service of the people, that is, to embody the Christlike stance of being “sevus servorum Dei.”

The spirituality of service is at the very heart of discipleship and is found clearly expressed in the Gospels. Jesus said, “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)

Needless to say, service of others is not the sole preserve of any one religious or spiritual tradition. It is there at the heart of all religions. In his book Kindness, Clarity, and Insight (1984) the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, put it succinctly: “My religion (Buddhism) is very simple. My religion is kindness.” Later, in an interview with Catherine Ingram, Dharamsala, India (2 November 1988), he answered a question on the link between spirituality and service with these insightful words: “I feel that the essence of spiritual practice is your attitude toward others. When you have a pure, sincere motivation, then you have right attitude toward others based on kindness, compassion, love and respect. Practice brings the clear realisation of the oneness of all human beings and the importance of others benefiting by your actions.”

In Buddhism, the term “bodhicitta,” translates as “enlightenment-mind” (as distinct from “enlightened mind”) refers to the mind that strives towards awakening and compassion for all sentient creatures. Speaking of the doctrine of bodhicitta the Dalai Lama averred that it is “the medicine which revives and gives life to every sentient being who even hears of it. When you engage in fulfilling the needs of others, your own needs are fulfilled as a by-product.” [The Path to Tranquillity: Daily Wisdom (1998) edited by Renuka Singh]

Notice how close this is to the famous prayer of that most Christ-like of Saints, St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) (though modern scholarship states that it has erroneously been so attributed) the appropriate lines of which run in this context: “For it is in giving that we receive.” In his meditations on the Our Father, this same humblest of servants prayed that he and his companions might “help all to bear their trials” and might “never render harm for harm, but rather try to do good to all…” History and tradition teaches us that this simplest of Saints, who took Christ at his word, lived in service of all, especially the poor.

The importance of the link between spirituality and service can very clearly be seen also in Judaism. Love and kindness have been a part of Judaism from the very beginning. When Jesus said, “love thy neighbour as thyself,” he was merely quoting Torah, the Jewish law books and he was quoting the book that is most commonly dismissed as a source of harsh laws, namely Leviticus 19:18. This point is repeated in Leviticus 19:34: love the stranger as thyself. It is interesting to note in this context the simple fact that acts of kindness are so much a part of Jewish law that the word “mitzvah” (literally, “commandment”) – a word we are all familiar with from the term “bar mitzvah” – is informally used to mean any good deed.

One of the five pillars of Islam is the tithe for the poor (“zakat”). Every Muslim is required to give a fixed percentage of income for the poor of the community. It differs from almsgiving (sadaqa), which is highly encouraged, in that the zakat is obligatory and fixed according to precise rules and calculations. One of the manifestations of Islamic revival is the emergence of “zakat lawyers” in Muslim countries who are specialized in assisting pious Muslims to determine how much they are to pay in tithe. In several countries, such as Pakistan, the tithe is collected from Muslims by the state and used to finance charitable works for the poor.

This practice is opposed by others (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood), who see the collection and distribution of the zakat as something outside the competence of the state. The tithe should be a personal offering, they hold, given by the Muslim directly to those in need. Their point is that each Muslim must realize that the poor of the community are his or her responsibility, a sacred obligation which is not to be simply written off on a tax form.

In the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, we read clearly that doing good onto others is essential to its spiritual practice:

Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to self-less work one attains the supreme goal in life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind. It was by such work that Janaka attained perfection; others, too, have followed this path. The ignorant work for their own profit, Arjuna; the wise work for the welfare of the world, without thought to themselves. By abstaining from work you will confuse the ignorant, who are engrossed in their actions. Perform all work carefully, guided by compassion. (Bhagavad Gita 3.10-26)

In the above comments, I have concentrated on the link between spirituality and service of others in the major world religions, and have deliberately omitted references to other smaller but no less important religions and spiritualities for sake of brevity. Suffice it to say here that any religion worth its salt has a distinct and obvious concern for the wellbeing of all others on this planet. Alas, we all can list the evils and horrors done, and indeed is currently being done, by religions in this world – but more often than not, such evil-doers are not religious at all in the strict sense as their religion has become so uncoupled from its underlying spirituality of service to others that it has been reduced just to a codification of heartless laws that know nothing of compassion.

Religion can never solely be a list of rules and regulations. Any religion worth its salt must have a living spirituality at its core, a spirituality that by definition means a reaching out to and a forging of connection with all men and women of ever race, creed and colour.

I began this short article by referring to Pope Francis I who deliberately chose the name Francis by way of solidarity with the poor of the earth. One would not have expected less from Jorge Mario Bergoglio who throughout his public life, both as an individual and as a religious leader, has been noted for his humility, his concern for the poor in his native Argentine and his commitment to dialogue as a way to build bridges between people of all backgrounds, beliefs and faiths.

There are many contemporary spiritual leaders, then, who go beyond narrow denominational restriction and appeal like Dr Desmond Tutu of St Africa, the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis I, Dr Rowan Douglas Williams of Great Britain, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Karen Armstrong, John & Caitlín Matthews (Celtic Spirituality in its widest sense), Caroline Myss and so on and so forth. In their practice of their respective religions, all these contemporary spiritual leaders go beyond a rigid, dogmatic or monolithic interpretation of the truth because they truly know that such an interpretation is one that kills spiritual growth and promotes disharmony both consciously and unconsciously. Real religion has deep spiritual roots. Plucked from those roots, religion stifles life and in many cases smothers it entirely.

For related Articles by Tim Quinlan you can click the following link: Tim Quinlan Archive (Spirituality Ireland.org)

Leave a Reply