The word sentimental doesn’t get good press. “Having or arousing feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way” is how the usual definitions run. “Exaggerated and self-indulgent” emotion does sound pretty unwholesome. But I see no reason to disdain tenderness, sadness, and nostalgia, and I think they even have a place in religious feeling as well.
Unlike emotions with more voltage like anger or joy, sentimentality about a person, a place, a pet, a song or even a smell amounts to a quiet but vivid sense of the thing itself and how fleeting it is or was. I am sentimental about people I’ve known in the past but also about those I feel close to today. I’m being sentimental about them whenever I stop for a moment to take a mental snapshot of them, in the hope that doing so will hold them from fading away. The old saw about taking time to smell the roses is sentimental for the same reason.
Sentimentality is about the fleeting nature of things, ultimately about the swift passage of life itself, about stepping into the river that never stops moving. It can also be about merging. The desire to hold on to a moment or a memory can shape itself into a craving to lose oneself in it. The object of nostalgia may be a mother or father or other figure from childhood, but it may also be a god, nature, the cosmos, eternity, or mystery itself. Sentimentality and spirituality overlap here.
I’m not saying that spirituality is sentimental, nor that sentimentality is spiritual. I’m sensing, though, that some of my spiritual moments and my sentimental ones have a thread of emotion in common. They both mourn the frailty of worldly things in time. We are always in the present moment, which thus is a constant, but the past is no such thing.