What is Spirituality?

Annmarie.This is a really good question, because over the centuries the meaning of the term Spirituality has changed and been adapted. In fact the term as we use it today is comparatively modern. If you try to Google a definition you will find amongst others that even in 1961 the Oxford dictionary gave six meanings, five of which had nothing to do with religion at all, and the last one merely used the term to distinguish the difference between spiritual interests and material things. Communicating with the dead for instance is suggested or a life principle or an interest in religion!!! OR an alternative to religion.

In the words of the spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill ‘The Spiritual life is a dangerously ambiguous term, it would be interesting to know what meaning any one reader might give to the term. Many might say, ‘a life of my own inside’: and others something very holy, difficult and peculiar!’ Purity of heart, she says, is not something killed in the refrigerator but the secure and ardent love of Christ,’ which raises yet another unusual concept for us today that of purity of heart.

Early Christian teaching suggested that to be full of God was to be pure of heart, something we might well long for and desire but not something that many of us would dare to claim we have achieved, even though St. John’s Gospel suggests in its prologue that everyone coming into the world has something of the ‘true light, which enlightens everyone…’ John 1:9.

In Paul’s letters to be united with Christ is to enter into the sphere of the Spiritual. 1 Cor 6:17. ‘But anyone united to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him.’ In Paul’s writings the idea of Spirituality is not opposed to or contrasted with the physical or material world, as he recognises that there can be flaws in our spiritual lives just as much as in our physical lives or in our use of material things. The Spiritual person is not someone who turns away from material or physical things, but someone within whom the spirit of God lives, and dare I add is alive and well.

In fact it wasn’t until the 12th Century that Christian people once again began to make a distinction between the Spirit which equalled goodness and the material or physical which was not considered good, although the Manichean heresy had held this belief for many centuries before Christ and continued to hold the notion for many more centuries. It was only in the 17th Century in France that the term began to be used in a positive way to describe a personal, affective (i.e. loving) relationship with God.

Various different words began to be used to describe this state, such as ‘devotion’, used by the English mystic William Law & ‘perfection’ used by John Wesley and the early Methodists, while the Evangelicals preferred the word, ‘Piety.’ And many of the mainstream churches became rather suspicious of the term Spirituality, as I think many remain so today!

So it was mainly used in the 19th Century by those outside of any of the mainstream churches, and has sadly led to many people today still seeking beyond the church for a type of spirituality which is rich and full of insight; a treasure which lies hidden and secret within the church of God. In my work of teaching Spirituality so very often people have asked me why on earth we do not hear any of this from our parishes, while those who do not consider themselves members of a church welcome this kind of teaching with open arms.

As a term it has really only become popular during the present century, as people wished to distinguish between the ordinary and the extraordinary between theology, and the experience of prayer, and the experience of the nearness of God. It was possibly used because it describes a more fully rounded and comprehensive way of talking about the Spiritual life, or Christian living in all its variety, vitality and richness.

My own personal definition derives from the scriptural term, Spirit, which in the original Hebrew has several meanings, Ruah meaning Spirit, Breath, and wind; that which animates and gives life to something, so my personal definition would go like this, Spirituality concerns the life enhancing love-relationship with the Living God, which animates our beings, bringing our religious faith and practice to life, and fitting us to face the vagaries of life. It awakens our capacity to savour everything with which the Lord has endowed us as individual human beings who live in community, or alone, who face all the complexity of our lives together with the beauty or the ugliness that surrounds us.

I am a Franciscan nun, so I am slightly biased as the writings of the mystics and of Francis and Clare of Assisi have always interested me. Francis had an unusual way of Reading Scripture. Each morning during his time of prayer, he would lift the Book of the Bible, and let it fall open at random. Then he would read the page wherever it opened and whatever text lifted off the page and caught his attention, he would take as what the Lord wished to say to him for that day, and for that day the text would provide the atmosphere for whatever he wanted to undertake.

Some texts like the one to go out and spread the good news of the Gospel and to rest very lightly on material things, Luke 10: 1-11 lasted for the whole of his life, and he built it into his life style. For Francis and Clare it was the music behind the words of Scripture that moved them most, even though their writings are shot through with Scriptural references. In fact what Clare and Francis taught was that each one of us is called to live every moment of our lives steeped in the presence of the Living God. They taught that there was no human activity separate from the presence of the living God. Hence my own personal definition of Spirituality, as being not only life enhancing, but also covering every aspect of the day from getting up in the morning, cleaning ones teeth, to preparing for bed, cleaning one’s teeth & going to bed at night, and covering us even while we sleep.

The Celtic Christians took this idea very seriously. Just as the earliest disciples lived alongside, and walked and learned, and talked with Jesus day in and day out that’s how the Celtic Christians and Francis and Clare saw our everyday Christian life. That’s why Francis opened the Bible the way he did, wishing to come as close as possible to his teacher, Christ.

However the Celtic Christians add another important dimension, Trinity. They saw our dangerous and worrying world and certainly ourselves as being in need of being held within the Trinity. Not outside of God but right inside, utterly surrounded by God. At times their writings almost suggest that not only does God’s presence surround us, but He weaves His presence amongst us, and also rather like a trampoline lies beneath our feet supporting us.(See Psalm 139.) If only we would let go and let God be who God wishes to be for us. They saw Trinity as a safe place full of light where we can feel so safe that we dare to be our best selves.

The journey of the Spiritual life; and it is necessarily a journey that continually develops and changes over the months and years, is not just something for a holy half hour here or there, or some kind of esoteric adventure but a journey that will affect us day in and day out. And the vast array of Spiritual writings down through the centuries is available to feed our need and assist us in our search to become more fully human for we have a wonderful inbuilt capacity for rapture, if we just give ourselves a chance.

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