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12 Principles for Living a Rich Spiritual Life

Personal Perspective: Wisdom from the Rev. Dr. David Burhans

Source: Paul Brockwell, Jr./UR
The Rev. Dr. David D. Burhans
Source: Paul Brockwell, Jr./UR

The recent passing of my good friend, the Reverend David Burhans, has inspired me to compile a list of his deepest insights about how to live a rich, spiritual life. People who knew David agree that he was among the most beloved individuals they've ever known. Even the briefest encounter with David left many people feeling valued and loved and certainly moved at the deepest level of their being.

From my experiences with him and from his own writings, here are 12 spiritual principles that David lived by and cultivated in us all:

1. Look at the world with a sense of wonder and awe.

The American poet Mary Oliver encouraged us all "to look, to listen." Rabbi Abraham Heschel used the term radical amazement to describe the practice of remaining present and aware of the small miracles that abound in every moment. David encouraged us to cultivate a sense of awe and wonder.

2. We must answer three important spiritual questions.

David believed we are called to ponder three great spiritual questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What difference can I make? Answering these questions instills in us a sense of meaning and purpose.

3. Find a welcoming place to discuss life's meaning and purpose.

David believed it was important for us to find a spiritual community that fosters an atmosphere of openness, acceptance, and a free exchange of ideas. Such a place should encourage people to discuss personal issues, share grief experiences, celebrate joys and achievements, and strengthen one's own spiritual perspective.

4. A loving higher power guides us on the journey toward becoming our best selves.

David believed that the God of our understanding was a "Living God" of love, compassion, and healing. David embraced secularists and atheists as warmly as he welcomed believers. Everyone's higher power, whether God or Nature, "requires of you to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly."

5. We engage in practices that improve our conscious contact with our higher power.

David often shared personal experiences—"moments of profound gratitude, insight, guidance, wonder upon wonder"—that cemented his relationship with his higher power. These practices help us during times of loss and suffering. David's spiritual practices were prayer, wonder, gratitude, loving-kindness, unshakeable faith, and enduring optimism that all is well no matter what adversity we face.

6. We remember that gratitude, compassion, and humility are the greatest of virtues.

"A profound spiritual truth I strongly embraced," wrote David, is that "life is a gift: handle this journey with gratitude, compassion, and humility." David quoted the ancient Roman philosopher Cicero: "Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues but the parent of all others." He believed in "listening with awareness and creating a culture of caring." Humility calls us to examine our actions and never be too certain of our own virtue.

7. We treat all people with congruence, empathy, and respect.

David admired the humanistic perspective of Carl Rogers, who believed that human relationships are forged with congruence, empathy, and respect. Congruence is being genuine and honest with others; empathy is the ability to feel what others feel; and respect is the unconditional positive regard for all people.

8. Cultivating relationships with others is the key to a vibrant spiritual life.

"All relationships are sacred," David told me more than once. David was skillful in the heartful art of human connection. He listened attentively and made nurturing human relationships his top priority.

9. Keeping an open mind and an open heart will heal and unify us all.

Our greatest heroes direct their energies toward healing and unifying people. David recognized that love, compassion, and embracing the multiplicity of humanity were essential qualities. He made it a priority to "break down barriers that divide us, to broaden our worldview, reaching beyond our own kind, our own country, our own religious creed."

10. The higher power of our understanding loves and affirms us.

David held the steadfast belief that "there has been and continues to be a presence of something far greater than I can comprehend which loves and affirms me." He had faith that this "Living God" was a central part of each person's life, whether they knew it or not.

11. A sense of humor can enrich life and build bonds.

David believed that "laughter is the shortest distance between two people." He wrote, "Humor is one of those key characteristics of a minister—that you not take yourself too seriously and be able to laugh at yourself and with others." Research confirms what David intuitively knew: Humor brings people together and acts as a "social glue" that builds loving, trustful bonds.

12. Wonder is in pursuit of us.

David wrote, "Anyone who is seeing and listening and paying attention will likely understand that wonder just might be another name for God." If human beings seek the transcendent, the transcendent is seeking us. The "ultimate truth," said David, is not just that we pursue wonder but that "wonder is in pursuit of us!"

Those of us who knew and loved David Burhans will never forget his spark of life, his wisdom, and his tender, generous, and loving spirit. That David took a warm, deep interest in each person he met is proof that wonder is pursuing us and that we are called to pass on this wonderous spirit to others. There's no better way to honor him than to live our lives the way he lived his—with his boundless, effervescent joy, wonder, and love.


Brockwell, P. (2015). David Burhans’ exit interview. Retrieved from

Burhans, R. (1986). Prayer of dedication. Worship celebration and dedication of The Jessie Ball duPont Chair of the Chaplaincy, Cannon Memorial Chapel, University of Richmond, October 19th.

Burhans, D. (2016). The pursuit of wonder. In S. T. Allison, C. T. Kocher, & G. R. Goethals (Eds), Frontiers in spiritual leadership: Discovering the better angels of our nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Heschel, A. J. (1983). I asked for wonder: A spiritual anthology. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co.

Kurtz, L., & Algoe, S. (2015). Putting laughter in context. Personal Relationships, 22, 573-590.

Oliver, M. (2004). Mindful. Why I wake early. Boston: Beacon Press.

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