“Spirituality is the way in which we express a living faith in a real world. Spirituality is the sum total of the attitudes and actions that define our life of faith.”
– Joan Chittister
Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun, author and campaigner for global justice and peace, especially for women. In this excerpt from the beginning of her book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, she sees spirituality not as something contained in sacred places or practices, but as something deeply integrated into our daily lives. Her teaching tradition is derived from that of St. Benedict whose book, The Rule of St Benedict is a guiding text for monasteries and for living a Christian-centered spiritual life. St. Benedict’s teachings were characterized by his measured wisdom and sense of moderation.
A young monastic came upon an elder one day sitting among a group of praying, working, meditating people.
“I have the capacity to walk on water,” the young disciple said. “So, let’s you and I go onto that small lake over there and sit down and carry on a spiritual discussion.
But the Teacher answered, “If what you are trying to do is to get away from all of these people, why do you not come with me and fly into the air and drift along in the quiet, open sky and talk there.”
And the young seeker replied, “I can’t do that because the power you mention is not one that I possess.”
And the Teacher explained, “Just so. Your power of remaining still on top of the water is one that is possessed by fish. And my capacity of floating through the air can he done by any fly. These abilities have nothing to do with real truth and, in fact, may simply become the basis of arrogance and competition, not spirituality. If we’re going to talk about spiritual things, we should really be talking here.”
“Spirituality is something I have to leave where I am in order to find it.”
Just about every person I have ever met who was serious about spiritual things thinks the point of the story is true: daily life is the stuff of which high sanctity can be made. But just about nobody I have ever met, however, really thinks it is easily possible. Spirituality, we have all learned somehow, is something I have to leave where I am in order to find it. I get it in small doses, in special places and under rarefied conditions. I hope I get enough at one time in life to carry me through all the other times. The idea that sanctity is as much a part of the married life or the single life as it is of the religious life or the clerical life is an idea dearly loved but seldom deeply believed.
In our own times, too, just as at the time of the story, fads crowd into the spiritual life. We are told that novenas are the answer one year and retreats another and meditation centers a third. True believers tell us that the cult of their choice is the only answer to the struggles of life. The occultists promise salvation in the stars or from ancient oriental lore. The therapeutic community offers marathon encounters or anger-release workshops to cleanse the soul.
“If we are not spiritual where we are and as we are, we are not spiritual at all.”
Over and over again, cures and cults and psychological exercises are regularly tried and regularly discarded while people look for something that will make them feel good, steady their perspective, and bring meaning and direction to their lives. But, as the ancient story demonstrates, if we are not spiritual where we are and as we are, we are not spiritual at all. We are simply consumers of the latest in spiritual gadgetry that numbs our confusions but never fills our spirits or frees our hearts.
Spirituality is more than churchgoing. It is possible to go to church and never develop a spirituality at all. Spirituality is the way in which we express a living faith in a real world. Spirituality is the sum total of the attitudes and actions that define our life of faith.
For the apostle Paul, spirituality meant living “in Christ” and seeing the gifts of the Spirit as gifts meant to “build up the Body of Christ” here and now. But understandings of what constituted the perfect Christian life changed from period to period across the ages. It was equated, variously, with martyrdom and withdrawal and evangelization and self-denial. By the period in the church closest to our own, for instance, spirituality had come to mean being obedient to “duly constituted superiors” and able to arouse a great deal of emotional response in private prayer.
“It is spirituality that draws us beyond ourselves to find significance and meaning in life.”
Spirituality, or “life according to the Spirit,” was measured for many by the number of masses attended or the number of rosaries said or the number of commands accepted with docility or the number and kinds of things that were “given up” in order to lead a higher or more “perfect” life. As a result of those criteria, only nuns, monks, and priests were credited with really being able to live the spiritual life. This understanding persisted until Vatican II with its recognition of the universal call to holiness and the authenticity of the lay vocation in the Church.
We are beginning again, as people did in earlier times, to see the spiritual life through a wider angle lens. The spirituality we develop affects the way we image God, the way we pray, the types of asceticism we practice, the place we give to ministry and community in our definition of “the spiritual life.” It is spirituality that draws us beyond ourselves to find significance and meaning in life. It is our spirituality that defines our life values: self-abnegation or self-development; community or solitude; contemplation or evangelization; personal transformation or social justice; hierarchy or equality. The spirituality we develop, in other words, is the filter through which we view our worlds and the limits within which we operate.