In the spirit: A conversation about spirituality with poet Richard Chess

Richard Chess

Editor’s note: As part of Xpress‘ In the Winter Spirit issue, we reached out to local poets, religious leaders, activists and soothsayers to share their thoughts on the topic of spirituality. Below is one in a series of conversations featured in this week’s issue. 

Richard Chess is a professor emeritus of English at UNC Asheville, where he served as the director of the Center for Jewish Studies for 30 years.

Xpress: What does spirituality mean to you, and how do you experience it in Western North Carolina? 

Chess: Spirituality is such an imprecise word. But I don’t have a better, more precise word to replace it. I’ll try this: “Spirituality” is fullness of being. It’s more than the fullness of my individual being. It’s expansive — a feeling of connection to all beings, to all being — and it’s also humbling: an awareness of all of being working through my small, separate self at every moment. I experience this only rarely. Sometimes during prayer; in my case, Jewish prayer. Sometimes during meditation. Sometimes in engaging with art, especially but not only poetry. Language: right there, in the experience, for me, of human language, though that’s not the only language. The language of being alive in me. Your language. My language. His language. Her language. Their language. The language of poetry. Especially that. Here in Western North Carolina, I have a prayer book. A meditation bench. A book of poetry. A synagogue. Practices to open me to the fullness of being, within, around, beyond me.

What misconceptions exist about spirituality?

Spirituality is not bliss. Spirituality is not clean. It’s messy. We’re human. We’re imperfect. We experience joy. We suffer. We can and do work toward the reduction of suffering of others. Doing so may help us reduce our own suffering.

For those seeking to embrace a more spiritual life, what advice would you offer?

When we open ourselves to the messiness, the whole thing — the beauty and joy, the ugliness and pain — we may have the greatest chance of experiencing something we may call “spiritual.”


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