Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Many StylesOne Spirit
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'
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
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
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
personbody and soul, thoughts and feelings, emotions and
passions, hopes, fears, dreamsas 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
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.
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
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")
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 existsa sense of identity,
a sharing of joy and pain, of questioning and challenge, of searching
and growingwe can legitimately discern a style of Christian
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 livesspeaking in our hearts, in our relationships, in
our Churchand 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
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.