A Catholic Monthly Magazine

TALKING ABOUT SPIRITUALITY TODAY: 2 What do we mean by ‘Spirituality’

By Fr Tom Ryan sm

By Fr Tom Ryan sm

There are many ways of understanding the term ‘spirituality.’ In other words, it is much broader than what first comes to mind – something Christian or religious in some way. So we ask the question - 

1. What’s different from the past?

One difference would be that living a ‘spiritual life’ is not the preserve of special people or special groups of people. It is something for everyone. It is not just about saying prayers, practicing devotions or going to Church. Spirituality embraces the whole person and the whole of life.

Again, compared to the past, many people today try to follow the spiritual path apart from an institution such as a Church or a community of faith. For some it may involve believing without belonging. For many it may entail seeking without believing. Generally there are three strands to this spiritual quest: firstly, an awareness of deeper levels of reality. It will often entail a needed sense of wonder leading to forms of contemplative awareness about the mystery of life and of the world. Second, there is a desire for personal integration – to somehow become a whole person, to find ways of resisting and overcoming those pressures that can tend to fragment our lives. Third, there is a desire to reach out and be concerned for others. How these three aspects are at work may vary from person to person.

All of this is an expression of the yearnings found in every person, in every culture. There is the quest for meaning – to make sense of the world and of our lives. This revolves around the big three questions: about origins (‘where do I/we come from?’); about identity (‘who am I/are we ?‘); and about the future; (‘Where am I/are we going?’).

At the very personal level all of this finds its setting in what we all share: the search to be oneself and the desire to be in relationship: to be an individual and to be in communion.

2. Towards a Definition of Spirituality

sandra schneiders

Sandra Schneiders IHM

Contemporary writers have been trying to understand and clarify what is happening in this surge in ‘spirituality’ and its many forms. A significant contribution has been made by Sister Sandra Schneiders IHM from the United States. She offers a working definition of Spirituality which is helpful in our discussion here.  She says that it is

“The experience of consciously striving to integrate one’s life in terms not of isolation and self-absorption but of self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives.”

What is striking in this statement is how broad it is. It could apply to a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or someone of no religious faith who tries to lead a good life. The second aspect is that it points beyond oneself to something bigger than oneself – to something or someone ultimate.  Third, it involves a conscious decision about the direction of one’s life. Fourth, the phrase ‘one perceives’ suggests that a person is living according to their ‘lights’, sincerely doing their best.

Finally, the direction and quality of that life is in terms of a focus of life reaching out beyond oneself in response to the needs of others as an ongoing life-project. The ultimate ‘goal’ is moral – to do with values and goodness that the person lives by and, in reality, by which the person defines and shapes who they are. Perhaps one thing muted in Schneiders’ definition is that it tends to start with the individual rather than the person in the context of relationships – which is where human life starts and develops.

In practice what does this look like…?

It may take the form of a long-term concern for issues of justice, peace, human rights or the environment. It may be revealed in a person whose life is centred on needs of others – in the family, the local neighbourhood, in a group of volunteers. It will often involve a sense of righteous anger about the right things, to the right degree and at the right time – about values that are under threat or situations that bring harm to individuals and the community.

What we have said leads to another question -

How does this stand in Catholic Tradition?

There is the Gospel parable in of the Last Judgment and Jesus’ words

“…in so far as you did it to one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mind, you did it to me. …”  (Matthew 25)

Rosa Parks in a bus in Montgomery Alabama 1956

Rosa Parks in a bus in Montgomery Alabama 1956

There are the words of Vatican II in Lumen Gentium 16 concerning “people who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ…yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of their conscience.’

This taps into the mystery of God’s grace at work beyond the Church, silently and unobtrusively in people’s hearts and in all cultures and situations.

This is summed up in Paul’s first letter to Timothy 2:4 – of our loving and merciful God…

“…who wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth.’

3. Engaging the Spiritual

So far our focus has been on the third strand of spirituality noted above - a desire to reach out and be concerned for others, What about the first aspect – the need for ‘forms of contemplative awareness about the mystery of life and of the world’?

The key phrase here is ‘be attentive.’ It is an attitude of being aware, of ‘stop, look and listen’ about life and the world around us.  Without some level of attentiveness to life, we will not recognize the depth or mystery dimension that surrounds us – in events, people and creation. In other words, we will not recognize that something or Someone is beckoning us.

Tour Protest 1981

Tour Protest 1981

It may be in the joy of new life – the birth of a child, or the experience of falling in love or witnessing that in others, or the sense of wonder in the beauty of nature or in the goodness of an act of kindness. It may be in the ongoing sense of peace and contentment in one’s life.

On the other hand, being attentive can lead us to recognize God’s presence in times of suffering, loss, even grief and death. Our familiar landmarks crumble. Things disintegrate and somehow they have to come together again with a new shape, bringing a new and richer perspective on life and on oneself.

These human experiences are the gateway through which something (or Some-one) bigger than ourselves – whether some people call that God or not – opens our eyes (and hearts) to the sense of a reassuring and gracious presence in our midst.

Further steps in the spiritual quest – what does this mean? How has it affected me? What do I do now – all need the building blocks of ‘being attentive.’

To sum up. This approach here resonates with that taken by David Ranson, drawing on the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil. She considered that all religious practice is attention animated by desire. I think she offers us a very helpful approach of what many now refer to as ‘Spirituality’ that complements that of Sandra Schneiders.

Simone Weil

Simone Weil

Spirituality is a certain attentiveness to life — an attentiveness which contains within itself a certain desire, a certain hopefulness, a certain anticipation. 

Spirituality is attention combined with intention. Attention animated by desire, or attention become intention, awakens within us the awareness of a deepened relationship with ourselves and with others, with the world and with some greater sense of meaning.

 Next Month: 

What do we mean by ‘Christian Spirituality’?


Michael Downey, Understanding Christian Spirituality

Sandra Schneiders, ‘Spirituality in the Academy’, Theological Studies 50 [1989]

David Ranson, Across The Great Divide: Bridging Spirituality and Religion Today.

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