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.”