SALT LAKE CITY — A last will and testament is important, but it's a dry, legal document that conveys only physical assets, not the values parents want to leave to their children. For that, you need a spiritual, or ethical, will.
The spiritual will is a centuries-old tradition in Judaism, with roots that snake back to Genesis, and the custom is gaining favor in other religious traditions.
“People think of a will as what you go to a lawyer for, to distribute your goods," said Sister Mary Petrosky, a psychiatric social worker and Catholic nun who recently published a book about how to write a spiritual will.
“But (this kind of will) is nothing about your earnings; it’s about your learnings. It’s nothing about your valuables, it’s about your values,” she said.
Sister Petrosky, who is 86 and affiliated with the Holy Name of Jesus Convent in New York City, said she’d never heard of a spiritual will before she was asked by Ave Maria Press to write a book about it. But once she began doing research, she embraced the concept and has composed a will directed at her nieces and nephews.
In it, she encourages them to carry on the family’s mission of hospitality to all, her father’s pride in paying taxes, and love so strong and tangible that she can still get tears in her eyes thinking about her dad and the sense of security that his presence gave her.
While a spiritual will can be a simple letter only a page or so in length, the process of writing one requires a careful excavation of your beliefs. This work can be challenging but it is helpful, not only to the eventual recipients, but to the writer, according to Sister Petrosky and other people who teach ethical-will writing.
"The drafting of a spiritual or ethical will can help clarify life goals, give purpose to life while living; it can be a vehicle for life change; it can be a vehicle for healing," said Rabbi David Markus, who holds workshops in writing ethical wills.
And you don’t have to be a sophisticated thinker or writer to compose one that will matter to people centuries after you’ve passed.
“If you had a meaningful letter from a great-grandparent you never met, would you care about whether it was well-written? You wouldn’t,” says Daniel Taylor, a writer and retired college professor in Minneapolis. “The important thing is to know them, and to know what they thought about life, and their life experience.”
A spiritual harvest
As both an attorney and a rabbi at Temple Beth-El of City Island outside New York City, Rabbi Markus has experience in legal and ethical wills. The concept of the ethical will goes back to the Torah in the pronouncement of a blessing by a dying patriarch upon his family.
“The first ethical will we have in the printed record is approximately 1,000 years old. It reads a little bit like a personal book of Ecclesiastes,” Rabbi Markus said.
“I suspect that the reason a spiritual or ethical will — some call it a legacy letter — is so ingrained in Jewish history is that intergenerational transfer, the preservation of the family unit, has been a priority of Jewish life for so many centuries,” he said.
“Intergenerational transfer has never meant only the physical things, the physical possessions, of one’s life,” he added. Who we are, not what we own, may be the most important part of our legacy.
Rabbi Markus talks about ethical wills in terms of a spiritual harvest, a reaping.
“Our life is like a field, and the things that grow in the field are not just the house, the car, the bank accounts; it’s also the lessons learned, even sometimes the hard ones. One can have a sense of harvesting the wisdom of one’s life,” he said.
“For people who are aging, and even preparing to face death, this process can lead to closure and can be part of giving oneself a gift of spiritual health in the death process.”
A blessing for the future
Taylor, the author of 12 books, including “Creating a Spiritual Legacy,” teaches workshops on how to write an ethical will and, as an extension of that, how to write personal stories that convey values you want to share with your descendants. For him, wills are a “down payment” on a legacy of stories.
Taylor prefers the term spiritual will to ethical will or legacy letter because, as he says, “The human spirit — and I don’t use that strictly in a religious sense — is larger than behavioral guidelines. The word ethical doesn’t quite seem big enough for me.”
At a workshop, the first thing Taylor asks participants to do is to decide on an audience, “the people you would like to bless in this way.”
Identifying the recipients helps the sharpen the writer’s focus and differentiates an ethical will from a general compendium of advice, such as in a commencement speech.
“It’s best when it has a specified audience, rather than general comments that would be good for any person,” he said. “It’s not just talking about your life; it’s talking about your life for the benefit of a specific person or people.”
And the purpose of talking to those people is not just to remain in their memory, but to lift them up — whether it be by sharing lessons you learned (sometimes painfully), by asking for forgiveness, recalling things others did for you or said to you, or spiritual insight you believe to be especially important.
Taylor recalls a pastor at one of his workshops who wrote about a difficult incident in his childhood that turned out to be a powerful turning point. As a teen, the man had felt called to the ministry, but after he delivered a disastrous message at his church, his parents told him on the ride home that maybe he should consider another profession.
Heartbroken, the teen retreated to his room and turned out all the lights. “And then his grandfather comes thumping up in the dark, and puts his hand on him, and in Swedish, puts a blessing on him and asks God not to remove his call.” In telling the story, the man called the moment his ordination into his life’s calling.
“What a powerful story,” Taylor said. “My point to him, and to the group, was that this is a story that would be a tragedy (if it were) to die. He has since died. The story has to be preserved. It is a blessing to anyone who hears it.”
Honesty and trust
The practice of writing down spiritual insights is not new or unique, nor is it limited to any one faith tradition.
In an article on the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Utah writer Jennifer Johnson shares her experience in keeping journals of personal spiritual revelations, inspired by a seminary instructor and the words of the late Elder Richard G. Scott, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who advised, “Write down in a secure place the important things you learn from the spirit. You will find that as you write down precious impressions, often more will come. Also, the knowledge you gain will be available throughout your life.”
This advice and other values coalesce in the writing of spiritual wills which, according to Rabbi Markus, may even be distributed while the writer is alive.
“The giving and receiving of an ethical will, not after death, but during life, can be a transformational experience between two people who care about each other. An ethical will does not have to be given after death. In fact, it can promote the most healing, the most closure, if given while the writer is still alive.”
Sharing an ethical will before your death, however, makes demands of all the people involved. “An ethical will asks deep honesty of the writer, and deep receptivity from the recipient, and a great deal of trust, because by opening up our hearts in these ways, we make ourselves vulnerable,” Rabbi Markus said.
Preparing your spiritual will
In her new book, Sister Petrosky gives examples of 10 spiritual wills and suggests 14 questions for people to think about when considering what to write. Among them: What gets you out of bed in the morning? Where do I find inner peace? What experience of beauty has moved you, lifted you out of yourself? What would I be willing to die for?
She recommends beginning and ending the process with a prayer. “It’s simple, really, but you have to search into your heart to do it and to be happy with what you’ve done.”
Rabbi Markus said that authenticity is the most important quality of an ethical will, and he advises, “Be audacious, be bold, leave it all here.” His own will, which he revises or rewrites every five years, is currently 5 pages long.
But while authenticity is important, it’s also important that the writer come at the process of preparing an ethical will with the proper intent.
“I hope what an ethical will never be is the equivalent of a slap from the grave,” he said. “As an attorney, I have seen people use their legal wills to say things to their loved ones that are hurtful and even full of revenge. And there’s no way to speak back, and there’s no way to heal, and they end up doing a great deal of harm.”
The purpose of an ethical will is not to have a screaming match or give a lecture, he said. “It’s to harness our highest wisdom, our deepest truths and to refine them in ways that will be constructive, not destructive.”
It helps to think of an ethical will as your blessing on your loved ones and future generations. “A blessing is anything transferred from one person to another to enhance the recipient’s life,” Taylor said. “My argument is, the kind of spiritual blessings or life blessings you can give to people are much more important than financial blessings.”