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Spirituality: What’s Your Style?
These days we hear a lot about various spiritualities, especially those from the Eastern cultures, such as the Dali Lama’s Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, yoga. All of these traditions emphasize admirable yearnings of the human spirit to be in touch with God. Our Catholic tradition has learned much by its encounter with the East, finding common ground especially in areas of contemplation, for example. All told, there is a rediscovery of the value of many traditions within our Catholic spirituality. People are looking back into our tradition and finding that the approaches and insights of our own spiritual masters can be applied to contemporary lives.
What we’ve learned in a new way in recent years is that our individual spirituality is linked to our personality style. There are many Christian spiritualities, just as there are many personality styles. For example, Alejandra found centering prayer a real source of nourishment and serenity in busy days as a mother and grandmother. After months of telling her husband how wonderful it was, she finally persuaded him to join her for a session. He was twitchy and uncomfortable, amazed that people would sit for a long time without speaking. The ultimate puzzle came as they left, when Alejandra made a donation. “What?” he sputtered. “You paid money to sit in silence?” Clearly, the two had different spirituality styles.
Fortunately, the Catholic tradition offers as many styles as a richly stocked smorgasbord. “You don’t like roast beef? Then try the chicken” seems like obvious advice at a restaurant. So why do we stay with prayer forms that fail to nourish, and repeat processes that don’t deliver? Fortunately, there is no One Right Way. Within our Catholic tradition we’re blessed to have an abundance of different approaches and the freedom to choose what suits each of us best. Just as biodiversity strengthens a forest or field, so Christians are enriched by an abundance of spirituality styles. In this Update we’ll take a quick look at some of these.
The descriptions that follow are necessarily brief, and the selection of styles somewhat arbitrary. But the hope is that the reader will resonate with some more than others, and eventually try more than this first taste. All spirituality styles are meant to bring us to the same ends: growing closer to God and loving others better. So the genuine measure of a style is: Does it help me accomplish this?
Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister defines spirituality as “the way we express a living faith in a real world....” Over the centuries, it’s been defined many ways, beginning with martyrdom and self-denial, evolving toward pious practices, especially for priests and nuns. Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness” awakened us to the value of laypeople practicing their spirituality outside the cloister, in a world that desperately needed it. We began to see that a mom calming a fussy two-year-old could be just as “spiritual” as a monk saying the Divine Office. The way we live and pray is thus the voice or expression of a deeply held commitment.
Benedictine/Reverence for the Ordinary
While the classical names for spiritual styles originated with different religious orders, they have evolved into forms that fit the laity. Many are now discovering that anything that has flourished since the sixth century deserves serious consideration. Written by a layperson for laypeople, the Benedictine Rule gives a special lens on the ordinary, affirming that God is found there.
St. Benedict was concerned not so much with mysticism or denial as with how to make “here and now right and holy.” As Sister Joan Chittister describes a style she’s followed most of her adult life, it “simply takes the dust and clay of every day and turns it into beauty.” For that reason, Benedictines see the tools they use daily—spatula, shovel or computer—being as sacred as the altar vessels. Passionist Father Thomas Berry explains this stance: “Reverence will be total or it will not be at all.”
The architecture of medieval monasteries such as Canterbury reflected a life balanced among prayer, study and work. The spiritual self was nurtured in the church, the physical in dormitory and dining room, and the mind in the library. When our lives seem out of whack, we should see if one part has ballooned out of balance. Are we getting adequate sleep and healthy nutrition? Does overwork dominate our days?
Most importantly, the central core of the monastery was open space. The cloisters enclosed a garden, open to the sky, in which a fountain or well stood. Author Esther De Waal describes, “the audacity of a way of life that put uncluttered space, emptiness, at its heart.” She points out that we too must keep an inner place free and open, watered and refreshed by God.
Given the chaos of contemporary life, this spirituality is firmly grounded in four anchors: the Rule, the gospel, the wisdom of the community and the particular circumstances of a person’s life. It is both steadying and flexible. Prayer is a regular part of the rhythm of each day—not only when it’s convenient or comfortable. Praising God is why we’re here.
Those drawn to this style know that some things can be learned only in community or family. The social dimension of life corrects our craziness and helps us mature. People who have gone through crisis or tragedy attest that God is present through the kind eyes and tender touches of other people.
The preferred form of prayer for this style is liturgy, psalms or hymns sung together. Transcending our unique styles, one sentence from the Benedictine Rule speaks to all, sounding clear as a bell on a frosty morning: “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ.”
Carmelite/Depths of Silence
While it may seem contradictory, placing community and solitude together here shows that the roomy house of Christian spirituality isn’t a simplistic either/or, but a place for both/and. We need solos and we need a full chorus. The tradition has always emphasized the value of silence, entering into the stillness of our hearts to find God. If we fear silence, we risk becoming shallow or fickle, never quite sure what we believe or who we are.
The two 16th-century founders of Carmelite spirituality, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, were committed to prayer and solitude as the foundation for proper action in the world.
The prayer of Trappist Thomas Merton perfectly expresses this style: “To be here with the silence of Sonship in my heart is to be a center in which all things converge upon you....Therefore, Father, I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it the word of your peace and the word of your mercy and the word of your gentleness to the world: and that through me perhaps your word of peace may make itself heard where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time.”
Note that we don’t enter silence to escape the world, but to better embrace it. We listen long and hard for God’s word in order to get it right when we speak to others. In a noisy world, with chatter, traffic and the constant blare of T.V., radio and iPods, silence is the necessary antidote where we remember what matters. As Meister Eckhart wrote, “Nothing so much approximates the language of God as silence.”
People who make an annual silent retreat or practice centering prayer may not know exactly what happens there. But they leave the silence refreshed, more aware that they dwell within God’s prodigious love, more conscious of how to serve others.
Sam may not join the Franciscans, but he feels closest to God when he’s working in his garden, weeding the tomatoes and admiring the light on their leaves. He’s interested in the early roots of this style, expressed in St. Francis’ “Canticle of Brother Sun” (below) and in the life and work of his beloved friend, St. Clare. Beauty is Sam’s door to the sacred. He likes the contemporary version, creation spirituality, reading books by Thomas Barry or Wendell Berry, the new cosmology or the poetry of Mary Oliver that praises nature and finds there the inspiration for living well.
“To a Franciscan, the whole world is a tabernacle.” People who draw energy and inspiration from God’s creation naturally want to preserve it. Their spirituality might find expression in recycling, organic gardening, working for cleaner air and water, preserving the rainforest or dedication to other environmental issues. Sitting quietly beside a stream reminds them of the flow of God’s life, the abundance of God’s goodness and care, the essence of God’s nature, which is infinitely creative.
Some like a logical, carefully reasoned, thoughtful approach to faith. They enjoy brilliant works like Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica or Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. They don’t respond eagerly to guided meditation or liturgical dance; they have a passion for truth and order.
A form of prayer which appeals to these thinkers is lectio divina, with its orderly four steps: slowly reading a Scripture passage; meditating on God’s message within it; praying over it; and contemplating its meaning.
These thinkers like an approach that’s not “touchy-feely.” Scholars at universities can present the orderly structure of Christian belief without embarrassment. It contains elegant proofs for God’s existence and moral behavior, fascinating background on Scripture, enough thought-provoking material to engage a seeker throughout a lifetime.
The dimension of learning seems sadly neglected when people proclaim, “We’ve always done it this way.” “Not exactly,” the scholar responds. “The practice of Confirmation changed dramatically in the 9th century, as did clerical celibacy in the 11th.” Studying Church history gives a sense of where we’ve been and how that affects where we’re going.
Ignatian/Stand for justice
Ignatian spirituality is best summarized by the motto, “finding God in all things.” One of the finest contemporary interpreters of this style is William Barry, S.J., author of Finding God in All Things and God’s Passionate Desire and Our Response.
St. Ignatius believed our deep desires are healthy, leading us towards the God who made us. While this may seem mysterious, we ultimately long for union with God. This founder of the Jesuits encouraged people to develop an intimate relationship with a God who isn’t punitive, tyrannical or obsessed with rules. Instead, this God desires what is best for us, and God’s creative actions bring it about. Our task is to align our desires with God’s. We discern the path for which we were created by noting whether we feel empowered and joyful about a decision, or depressed and drained by it.
In this style, we look at the texts of our lives to see where God is active. We savor what Ignatius called the “consolations,” seeing what has brought us peace and joy so we can repeat those experiences. We also look at the “desolations,” which make us angry or miserable, with an intention of avoiding those situations. Over time, we establish a pattern of seeking what’s life-giving, staying away from the pitfalls that distract from God’s peace.
One of Ignatius’s great contributions to Christian spirituality is his Examen of Consciousness (below).
We stand with each other because God first stood with us. Symbolically, this incarnation is represented in the mingling of water and wine during the Eucharistic Liturgy. “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity,” we pray.
The only way the Jewish and Christian people have known God is as part of the struggle. The Bible shows God active in storms and upheavals, crisis and battle, tragedy and division. In the Old Testament, the priestly work of intercession meant identifying with the people’s suffering.
After the Spanish conquest, the Mexican people were devastated. They had nothing left, and harbored a collective death wish. When Mary appeared 10 years later as one of them, a native woman at Guadalupe, she restored their will to live. If God stands with us, and we stand together, we have less to fear than as shaky individuals.
A spirituality that tries to isolate itself from the world’s sorrows is doomed to fail. In fact, as Kenneth Leech points out in True Prayer, “The word private comes from the Latin privatio, which means robbery. To the Christian, nothing is private, least of all prayer....That is the meaning of the symbol of the Trinity: that in God there is social life, community, sharing.”
This may not translate to gigantic deeds, but rather to simple practices such as turning off the T.V., listening instead to a child’s rambling story, answering the phone even when Caller I.D. signals an annoying acquaintance, sending a card or e-mail to one who’s grieving. At a national level, it’s writing congresspersons to assure children’s health insurance, or standing for the dignity and rights of workers, fighting for the rights of immigrants, for the cause of peace, and so on. Christians in Latin America have given us not only the name for the struggle, la lucha, but also the image: joined together, we can more effectively fight injustice and bring God’s kingdom than we can alone.
Throughout the history of spirituality, women have made rich contributions. Clare of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Thérèse of Lisieux and many other voices have enriched the Catholic chorus. A contemporary renaissance in women’s spirituality has come as a relief to people who find it more bodily, less heady, more concerned with here-and-now lived experience, less with abstract theories.
Without stereotyping, most women tend to glaze over during detailed descriptions of football plays. Some men aren’t thrilled with the prospect of a day’s shopping. So their prayer styles are also distinct. Those who, using masculine forms, felt as if they were wearing a garment inside out are now delighted with a more personal fit. Women might praise God’s presence in the curling tendrils of a child’s hair or the warmth of coffee and conversation with friends. Less interested in rules, they yearn for more solace and caring in a hurting, hungry world.
What’s right for me?
You can see by now that many styles of Christian spirituality have developed over the centuries. Truly there is no right or wrong among them—one style works best for some, another for others. All Christian spiritualities are ultimately rooted in the Eucharist. As laypeople “try on” various styles, they may actually find themselves “mixing and matching”—picking various elements from all of them.
Various styles might speak to various times of people’s lives, too. Remember Alejandra and her centering prayer at this article’s outset? It may be that this centering style suited her best at life’s busiest times, and that she would embrace some other style as her life situation changes. That’s fine! God is not complaining! As the Jewish writer Eli Weisel says, “There are many paths into the same orchard.”
Some spiritual directors say that the only way we can fail at prayer is by not showing up. Surveying many spirituality styles, we can appreciate the healthy variety of a smorgasbord that nurtures at the deepest level. As the Italians say, “Mange bene.” Come and eat—well!
NEXT: Sacraments of Initiation: God’s ‘I Love You’ (by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.)
The Canticle of Brother Sun
In this condensation of his Canticle, we see St. Francis’ exuberant spirit of loving praise for his Creator and his profound respect for the goodness and beauty of the created world. Starting with Brother Sun, all creatures reflect the bounteous goodness and love of God.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made,
And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day; and light you give us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright
And precious and fair.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
Through whom you brighten up the night.
How beautiful is he, how merry!
Full of power and strength.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces
Various fruits with colored flower and herbs….
Praise and bless my Lord,
And serve him with great humility.
The Examen of Consciousness
St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus, was a very practical man when it came to prayer. St. Ignatius taught that the key to a healthy spirituality was twofold: find God in all things and constantly work to gain freedom to cooperate with God’s will. St. Ignatius proposed a daily exercise, which he called the Examen, that has been used by many Christians ever since.
1) Why is there more than one style of spirituality?
2) To what style(s) are you most attracted? Why?
3) Why is it said, “The only way we can fail at prayer is not showing up”?