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Virginia Woolf: spirituality without God

English author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) may have been an atheist, but that doesn’t mean that she didn’t have a rich and deep spirituality, according to Professor Stephanie Paulsell of the Harvard Divinity School. She spoke last night, 8 March, in Milltown Park at the invitation of SpIRE, the Spirituality Institute for Research and Education. Listen to her interview above, in which she covers some of her main themes.

Professor Paulsell described Woolf’s family ties to religious movements and her own complete rejection of any notion of a deity, but also of her intense interest in the very same questions which religions address. She was fascinated by the bible and by other ancient philosophical and theological texts, but she was convinced that Christianity with its theme of redemption and consolation failed adequately to confront “the sadness at the back of life”.

Woolf explored and expressed her own spirituality through her art, her writings. She was a prominent member of the modernist movement in Britain, moving away from the more representational art of the 19th century and towards more abstract forms in order to explore aspects of life which earlier aesthetics did not get to grips with, namely the interior lives of characters, the secret parts of human minds, and the mysterious ways in which people connect with one another. She had a passion for justice and for the ethical life.

Professor Paulsell is Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies in Harvard Divinity School. She is also a former president of the International Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. The two founders of SpIRE, Dr Michael O’Sullivan SJ and Professor Bernadette Flanagan PBVM, were on the governing board of this society during Professor Paulsell’s presidency.

There will be a formal launch of SpIRE in the Arrupe Room, Milltown Park, on Tuesday 22 March. At this same event both SpIRE’s website and its MA in Applied Spirituality will also be launched. All are welcome to attend. Enquiries to Michael O’Sullivan at spiremos@gmail.com.