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Active Spirituality

Fara Choi Ashimoto
Headington Institute, 2012.


“As the body count multiplied, I tried to ignore the physical, emotional and mental toll such work had begun to extract from me…I woke up one morning to discover I had lost my religious faith, as if it was a suitcase left behind in a distant airport.” (Tucker, in Zimbabwe)

My understanding of God has changed so much in the past ten years. Everything was so black and white when I was younger. Evil versus good and all that stuff. It’s a whole lot different for me now. For me, God is all about life, and life is good. It’s possible to see God almost everywhere, even in the camps. Sure they are miserable places, but if you look carefully you can see life and love, people genuinely trying to help each other.” (Grace, in Kenya)


Humanitarian work is soul work. Few other occupations carry such a high risk of spiritual disruption on the one hand, and potential for spiritual growth on the other. If you stick at this work for long, the way you see the divine, the world, and yourself will change. Your spirituality is central to your own sense of identity and where you find your deepest sense of purpose, meaning, and hope.

Given this, paying attention to changes in spirituality and how you are caring for yourself spiritually is at least as important as paying attention to how you care for yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Research suggests that active spirituality – the exercise and nourishing of your soul – can help you better deal with the stress of the present and strengthen your capacity to deal with future stress. Many people are familiar with the concept of exercising their bodies, but not their souls. What, you might wonder, does being actively spiritual mean? And how can I exercise my soul?

There are at least two important facets to an active spirituality. One is grappling with questions of meaning and purpose, and (in an ongoing manner) seeking a clearer understanding of how your spirituality provides the central basis for your important values – the values that inform your ideas and actions regarding morality, personal growth, and service to others.

A second important part of active spirituality is being open to beauty and other things that stir and inspire you – seeking out things that make you feel whole, alive, joyful, and connected with something beyond yourself. If you are a humanitarian worker spending three months on an earthquake site in Haiti, how you exercise your soul may look quite different than if you were a housewife caring for small children in Missouri. Think about the different ways you can exercise your soul in your particular context.


  • What would the phrase “active spirituality” have meant to you when you were eighteen?
  • What about twenty-five? Make some notes. What does being actively spiritual mean to you at this point in your life? Is it generally more connected with thinking (e.g., understanding what you value and why) or feeling (e.g., being moved by beauty)?

Adapted by Fara Choi Ashimoto from our Peace by Piece series on spirituality written by Lisa McKay. 

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