The other morning Beth asked me what I thought the interaction between spirituality, religion, and disability was. I was surprised. Most of our dialogs start with, “Remind me again: am I going to pick her up at 5:00, or are you?” But E___ at work was asking this question, so Beth brought it home.
I initially responded with my knee-jerk, “I don't like 'spirituality.' Spirituality = emotional state. Big deal.”
She responded that she disliked “Religion.” “Religion = dogma, piety, stiflement. Who needs it?”
By evening I had reconsidered the question. I said that “spirituality” as a concept didn't make much sense to me, until I read Erik Davis' meditation on Led Zeppelin's fourth album, which prompted me to reflect on my lifelong love of Star Trek: The Original Series. Here are my original thoughts on that, but the summary is: TOS engendered a longing for something that seemed almost attainable, yet remained always just short of actual reach. Perhaps spirituality was another word for that longing, that sense of a platonic ideal making a silent appeal to our imaginations.
“Religion,” on the other hand, strikes me as an organized group response to those urges and feelings. So many pious observations — the Eucharist, reciting the Lord's Prayer, tithing, prayer and thanksgiving (to cite the more obvious Christian examples) — have a rhythmic, ritual similarity to musical exercises that, when explored with sensitivity, turn out to be the foundation of our musical understanding and expression. Scales, chords, arpeggios: rearrange them a certain way and you get Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata” or Howlin' Wolf's “Chocolate Drop.”
If you, as the average privileged First World resident, follow some combination of these two impulses while working in concert with the disabled, I think what you enable is the leisure — the space — for the disabled and their families and communities to attend to their own yearnings and to articulate their own responses in turn. Stretching the music metaphor, I think what we're after is a concert effect. You learn to play a few new notes, while dropping others. It is all, one hopes (as I hope in my own such attempts at response) a good thing.