My theology professor Francis Baur used to say: spirituality has something to do with the living of our lives; otherwise it’s not spirituality, just pious embroidery. The idea that spirituality is woven into our corporeality is key. It can’t be a vague cloak of values added on top of a lifestyle established and immutable. Spirituality has to make a difference. Its purpose is to infuse meaning and direction into everything else.
We’re tempted to think of it as some sort of technique we elect to practice: I do yoga, you do centering prayer, he does the rosary, and they join the Third Order Carmelites. Spirituality-as-technique deceives us into imagining it as a skill we can acquire with enough rehearsal, like making tolerably good birdcalls. It also lures us into magical thinking: if I tough out 30 days of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, I will ascend to a higher moral plane.
Rather than a method of praying, spirituality informs our perception of reality, then moves us toward the values and behaviors that further such a vision. The end of spirituality is not “the mastery of practices but the quality of our very existence,” says Baur. Which means it’s not as esoteric as “spiritual” people sometimes make it sound. Spirituality isn’t for the elite but for all, since we all have an existence, and its quality is largely in our hands.
The pursuit of spirituality will take us through the thickets of theology: What do I believe about who God is and what God wants from me? What is life for? What is the church for? Who is Jesus to me, and how does that affect my decisions? If for example I believe God is love and God wants a relationship of love with me, then the path is plain: the ways of love must inform my spiritual quest. The church’s assembly, teachings, and worship must aid in my learning how to be a more loving person. Following Jesus means becoming a disciple in his school of love.
A piecemeal approach to spirituality will never lead to wholeness or viability. Focusing on procedures for contacting the Divinity makes religion too much like Star Trek’s quest for contacting new life forms—and spirituality truly isn’t rocket science. Faith, in the end, is about faithfulness; not what you believe, but what you do about it. What are you willing to settle for, with your one life? That’s a question worthy of spirituality.
Matthew 5:1—7:29; 10:37-39; Luke 5:33-39; 9:23-27; 11:1-13; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Galatians 5:16-26; Colossians 3:5-17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22; James 3:13-18; 1 Peter 1:13-25
Life in Abundance: A Contemporary Spirituality, by Francis Baur, O.F.M. (Paulist Press, 1983)
What Is the Point of Being a Christian? byTimothy Radcliff, O.P. (Burns & Oates, 2005)