Each issue carries an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited

Christian Spirituality:
Many Styles—One Spirit

by Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M.

Spirituality is the in thing these days. Religious books and articles dealing with spiritual topics abound. Retreats of all sorts are gaining in popularity. Sales are brisk for taped lectures and retreat conferences. Everywhere one can find a range of personal growth and human potential programs, as well as various "new age" movements. People are interested in living fuller, deeper, more personal human lives. Today there is a great hunger and thirst for more authentic spiritual life, in short, for spirituality.

But what do we mean by spirituality? Because of the wide range of movements and approaches, the term can be vague. In this Catholic Update, however, we will try to say what spirituality is, especially Catholic Christian spirituality. Maybe a good question to guide our inquiry is, "What is the 'spirit' in spirituality?"

Breath of life and love: Spirit in Scripture

Look at Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Native American or any number of religions, and you will find something shared in common: namely, the quest of the human spirit for something that is above us, that is bigger, deeper, "more than" the ordinary, surface reality of life. Christian spirituality, though, stresses that we begin with the gift from above from the Holy Spirit of God. You could even define Christian spirituality as "our life in the Spirit of God" or "the art of letting God's Spirit fill us, work in us, guide us." But what is this Spirit and how does it work in us? A look at the Spirit in Scriptures points the way.

In Hebrew and Christian Scripture the basic meaning of spirit is very concrete. Whether the Hebrew ruach or Greek pneuma, the basic meaning is "wind/breath." In the Old Testament, a few texts refer to the activity of God's Spirit in creation (Gn 1:2; Ps 33:6), but most often, it is seen empowering persons to do God's work. Thus, Moses is led by God's Spirit: "I will come down and speak with you there. I will also take some of the spirit that is on you and will bestow it on them, that they may share the burden of the people with you. You will then not have to bear it by yourself" (Num 11:17). The Spirit raises up judges to deliver Israel in times of distress, it rushes on Israel's kings, filling them with wisdom, understanding and strength so that they might truly rule with justice and peace. David's anointing is a key example: "Then Samuel, with the horn of oil in hand, anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and from that day on, the spirit of the LORD rushed upon David" (1 Sam 16:13).

The Servant of Yahweh receives the Spirit especially for establishing justice for the lands. We see evidence of this again and again in the historic and prophetic books of the Old Testament. Further, the Spirit of God works in and through prophets, moving them to speak and act on God's behalf. Finally, some texts look to the outpouring of God's Spirit on all as part of the messianic age. Isaiah contains some of the most familiar passages. The "Spirit of God," then, is the dynamic breath or power by which God achieves the divine purposes in the world, purposes of revelation, deliverance and the rule of justice and peace.

New Testament outlook

In the New Testament, Jesus is conceived through the power of the Spirit (Mt 1:18, 20; Lk 1:35). His ministry begins and continues in the Spirit (Lk 3:22, 4:1, 4:18). He preaches, confronts sin and evil, and brings healing (Mt 12:28) in and through the Spirit. At his death, he hands over his Spirit (Jn 19:30). At the Last Supper, Jesus had promised his disciples the gift of the Spirit (Jn 14:16-17), and when he appears to them on the evening of the day of the Resurrection, he fulfills that promise: "[Jesus] breathed upon them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit" (Jn 20:2).

Powerful witness to the work of the Spirit continues in Acts and Paul. The Spirit of Jesus is given to Christians making them one with Jesus and enabling them to continue his activity in the world. At Pentecost, the Spirit rushes on the disciples and through their preaching they are able to reverse, as it were, the effects of the tower of Babel. Thanks to the power of the Spirit at Pentecost, people of diverse languages are brought together in unity (Acts 2:1-11).

The Christian lives in and through and with the power of the same breath-Spirit as Jesus. "But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him" (1 Cor 6:17). The Spirit gives different gifts for the building up of the community in love and is the bond of union holding all together in Christ (1 Cor 12:13). The fruit of the Spirit in our lives is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal 5:22-23).

The Holy Spirit makes us holy, calling each of us to be a saint, a holy person. For the Christian, then, "spiritual" refers to the whole of our existence, filled with the Spirit of Christ. We are so filled with this Spirit that Paul can say, "It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20).

Spirit, body and soul

Many Christians have learned that the spiritual life is primarily (if not exclusively) the life of the soul. To this way of thinking the body (and the world of matter in general) is spurned, distrusted, even despised as we seek to "save our soul."

Yet nothing could be further from the revealed truth of Scripture. The biblical, Christian view is that spiritual refers to the whole person, body and soul, living under the influence of God's Spirit. In the biblical view, matter is not opposed to the Spirit; only sin is. When St. Paul speaks of our whole person under the dominion of sin, weakness and death, he sometimes calls this "living according to the flesh" (Rom 8:5-10; Gal 5:16-26). This use of flesh should not be equated with "the body." That body-soul distinction crept in well after Paul's time and is not what he meant.

Christian spirituality, then, deals with the whole person—body and soul, thoughts and feelings, emotions and passions, hopes, fears, dreams—as we live in and with the power of the Spirit. And it deals with the whole life of the whole person, calling us to live this life to the fullest. The call and challenge of the spiritual life is not restricted only to some Christians (priests or religious, for example) but is addressed to all. All share the same Spirit and are called to one and the same holiness. This basic fact was much stressed by Vatican Council II.

Its Decree on the Church, Lumen Gentium, devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 5) to this theme: Everyone shares one call to holiness in the Spirit.

Different spiritualities

At times we hear talk of different spiritualities: Franciscan, Jesuit, lay, priestly, and so on. How can this be if there is only one Christian spirituality? The answer lies in the broad diversity of human experience. No one lives Christian spirituality in the abstract. We all live at specific and particular moments of space and time. All of us belong to particular religious communities into which we are born, in which we grow, are educated, come to know and experience God. These circumstances shape our response to the Spirit's call. Differing times and places pose new challenges, new questions. They call forth different models of life seeking to respond to those questions and challenges.

In short, the concrete and changing circumstances of our lives cannot but affect the way we live out our Christian spirituality. It is on this secondary level that we can speak of different Christian spiritualities. These are but different responses to the one common Christian call to holiness.

At what point in history does one live? The Christian lifestyle in the contemporary situation of a "global village" in the age of Internet and satellite TV is surely different, on the surface, from the Christian lifestyle of the early Church, of the Middle Ages, of the Reformation. Where in the world do we live? Here we can speak of Irish spirituality, or French, or Hispanic, Asian, American. (Some would even add a distinct "Californian" spirituality!) Different religious traditions within Christianity offer another factor (for example, Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran and so on). So does our choice of vocation. Lay, religious, priest, married: Each of these contexts presents life in slightly different ways, asks slightly different formation questions, poses different problems, proposes different models for inspiration and imitation.

During Christianity's 2,000-year history, certain charismatic figures have spearheaded religious renewals. Through the power of their lives and examples they attracted followers down through the centuries. Consider St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, St. Francis and St. Clare, St. Dominic, St. Angela Merici, St. Ignatius Loyola. Certainly none of these individuals set out to found new schools of spirituality! They wanted simply to live the gospel life, to follow Christ fully and seriously to the best of their ability and in response to the needs of their times. Their example inspired others down through the ages to follow Christ as they did. Their followers pass on to us Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, Ursuline, Ignatian styles (or "schools") of spirituality.

Modern 'schools'

Today one often hears and reads of other spiritualities within the Christian community. Books are written and talks are given on adolescent spirituality, African-American spirituality, gay and lesbian spirituality, feminist spirituality. Whenever a meaningful community of life exists—a sense of identity, a sharing of joy and pain, of questioning and challenge, of searching and growing—we can legitimately discern a style of Christian spirituality.

Each of us lives his or her life at the intersection of a number of these different streams. For example, this author is (in no particular order) Roman Catholic, Franciscan, male, 1990's, American (further back, Irish and Italian) and Californian (northern California, to be precise!). While there is validity to each of these distinctions, we should note again that they exist on a secondary level. We are dealing with styles, expressions, modifications of the one basic Christian call to holiness in the Spirit. They all exist within and manifest the richness of the Christian community through the ages.

When a child latches on to a new idea, she or he can quickly assume that everyone else's ideas are now wrong. The same danger exists in Christian spirituality. "Our" spirituality all too quickly can begin to look like the only spirituality. We cannot lose sight of the fact that whatever style we may feel most at home in, it is only a secondary (even if inevitable) modification of the one Christian spirituality.

That's all well and good. The rosary is fine, one might argue, but centering prayer is really superior. Or another Catholic might accept the presence of a spirituality centered on small prayer groups meeting weekly, but feel that praying individual novenas is a superior path to God. Or we might say, "I find Hispanic devotions interesting, but why do they do so much at home instead of at church where they belong?" Here the danger is of spiritual chauvinism. The Christian is not called to spiritual isolationism or one-upmanship. Whatever the particular style, all are gifts of the one Spirit. The word catholic means, after all, "embracing the whole, the totality." Any truly catholic view will recognize that no one form captures all of the Christian life. Diversity manifests the richness of the Christian life.

A unique spirituality?

That catholic worldview involves even one further dimension. Each one of us is an individual and unique person and represents a unique embodiment of Christian spirituality. There has never been before, nor will there ever be again, a spirituality exactly like mine, exactly like yours. No one else has the constellation of heredity, experiences, talents, values, hopes and dreams which characterize you or me as individuals. On this level, there are as many different spiritualities as there are persons.

What a wonderful aspect of God's creation! We can say in true humility that each of us gives to God something which God did not have before and would not have if we did not give it. That something is your and my unique embodiment of the risen Christ in this world here and now. This is one of the mysteries of God's gift of freedom. And it carries an awesome responsibility. No one has ever lived my life before. We have to be open to the God who calls us, as Abraham was called, into unknown futures. Jesus calls his disciples, "Come, follow me."

Living a full Christian life takes courage. Every Christian has times of doubt, confusion, uncertainty and struggle. What lifestyle of holiness am I called to? How can I follow Jesus in a consumer culture? Am I being faithful to my spouse, my children, my family, my community? Am I devoted to peace and to justice, to love? Do I spend enough time in prayer? Am I open to God calling me through my choices and relationships?

Are we willing to assume this much responsibility? That is a question each Christian must answer in his or her heart. Following legitimate religious authority does not mean giving up our freedom as sons and daughters of God. Some of us look for priests, pope, "religious" people, even a false reading of the Bible, to whom we can surrender our freedom in return for a security blanket. Yet refusing to take responsibility for our calling is refusing to hear the voice of God calling us to new and fuller life. Personal responsibility means listening to the Spirit in our lives—speaking in our hearts, in our relationships, in our Church—and making life-giving choices. The guidance of parents, priests and counselors can be very helpful in discerning the Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is our most important spiritual director.

At the outset of this article we suggested that a guiding question for our exploration of spirituality is, "What is the 'spirit' in spirituality?" We see now that the spirit in Christian spirituality is the Holy Spirit, God calling us here and now in our hearts, in our families, in our Church and society. It is the same spirit that calls all of us. But since no two people are the same, our response to God's call will be as unique as each person, each child of God, who has ever lived.

Michael D. Guinan, a Franciscan priest, is a professor of Old Testament, Semitic languages and biblical spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California. He is author of To Be Human Before God (The Liturgical Press), from which this article is adapted.


I want to order print copies of this
Catholic Update.

Bulk discounts available!

I want to order a 12-month bulk subscription to hand out in my parish or classroom.

View the Catholic Update reprint complete list at our catalog site.



An AmericanCatholic.org Web Site from the Franciscans and
Franciscan Media     ©1996-2014 Copyright