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Triumph of the human spirit

Singing sensation Susan Boyle reminds us that we are all people of spirit, whether or not we call ourselves spiritual

By David Wilson

Now that 35 million other people have admitted it, I will admit it too. The first time I saw the YouTube clip of Scottish singing sensation Susan Boyle, I got teary.

Usually I don’t tear up easily, and I’m not a big fan of schmaltzy show tunes. But there I was, alone in the living room, watching Boyle belt out a pitch-perfect version of I Dreamed a Dream and growing mistier by the minute. As soon as I could see straight again, I began to surf for information about this unlikely superstar. The more I read, the more apparent it became that Susan Boyle had touched a global nerve. The whole world was weepy and not afraid to say so.

How to explain the phenomenon? Some said she represented a triumph of authenticity over artifice. Others argued she was a champion for ordinary people in a world obsessed with celebrity. To others still, she was a distraction from hard times. Cynics insisted the whole thing was a put-up, and we were all dupes.

Whatever the explanation, the fact remains that Susan Boyle reached a place deep inside our collective selves. For a fleeting instant, we discovered that we share more on the inside than our outward differences might suggest and that what we share needs more nourishment than often it receives.

A good word for that vague but hungry part of us is “soul.” A generation or two ago, people counted on organized religion to nourish it. Many still do today, but growing numbers prefer to think of their inner appetite as “spirituality.” They feed it by practising yoga, meditating, walking labyrinths and retracing ancient pilgrimages.  

As Trisha Elliott points out in her cover story this month, the adjective “spiritual” has also become a code word for “never darkens the door of a church.” Many who identify with the spirituality movement do so partly in reaction to the perceived rigidity of organized religion. Yet as Elliott observes, “spiritual” people can be pretty rigid in their rejection of religious institutions. On the other side of the coin, church people question the movement’s seeming overemphasis on personal fulfilment, its anything-goes approach to living spiritually.

Each tends to dismiss the other, yet neither should. Church people need to admit that religious institutions and rituals don’t satisfy everyone’s inner hunger in the same way they once did. People who profess to be spiritual but not religious have to acknowledge that there’s more to living spiritually than merely attending to one’s personal needs. Both groups should recognize that inner hunger is universal and that it can be fed both in and outside a religious institution.

Sometimes it takes a jolt like Susan Boyle to remind us that we are all people of spirit, whether or not we call ourselves spiritual. Her gift to us was to stand alone before the world and touch us in the place where our hunger begins.

• A church-run health clinic was among the estimated 4,000 buildings destroyed in Israel’s offensive in Gaza last winter. In March, we reported that Moderator Rt. Rev. David Giuliano and other church leaders urged the Canadian government to support an inquiry into the attack. In this month's print edition, veteran journalist Andrew Hogg follows up our March story with an on-the-ground report on the incident, its aftermath and the conditions that made the clinic a vital part of a community in crisis.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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