Spirituality is a word we hear all the time. Frequently, people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” What is this thing we call spirituality? Is it a lofty description reserved for those deeply involved in church activity? Is it the latest exotic buzzword in vogue for the postmodern individual? As I see it, neither of these is true. Spirituality is a normal human quality that is as basic and essential to life as breathing. In fact, I would assert that to be human is to be spiritual.
Simply put, spirituality is defined as a search for the sacred. Author Fr. Ronald Rolheiser speaks of spirituality as an unquenchable fire that is inherent in all human beings, regardless of culture, religion, or upbringing. It is a fundamental inner restlessness propelling each of us to long for something beyond ourselves. We experience this energy as a pull or yearning to express ourselves creatively. Spirituality is about what we do with this longing, whether agonizing over unrealized dreams or rejoicing in hopeful expectation. Plato philosophized that, “humanity is on fire because our souls come from beyond and that beyond, through our longings, tries to draw us back towards itself.” Because we all come from beyond, we each feel this energy from beyond ourselves no matter how we participate in life.
Roots of Spirituality
The word spirituality derives from the Latin word, “spiritus”, which translated from the Greek word, pneuma and the Hebrew word, “ruah”, means the animating, vital principle in creation, literally breath. In Genesis and throughout the Bible, Ruah is used to illustrate how God sets things in motion or brings forth life. By the 5th century, its use grew to include individuals who followed God, with the term, “driven by the spirit.” From that time period until World War II, spirituality and religion were closely associated with one another.
Vatican II’s Influence
With the convening of the Second Vatican Council, a new sense of spirituality emerged. As Dominican Sr. Marygrace Peters from St. Louis University observes, the image that most pervaded Vatican II was the “people of God”. The Church matured in its understanding of itself, challenging laypersons to understand their baptismal call as active participants in fostering the Kingdom of God. The laity was encouraged to pursue study of resources, including access to scripture. The Council reminded the Church that God is active in all aspects of the world which freed Catholics to see the whole world as sacred. Increasingly, spirituality was no longer confined to the Church milieu. Because every facet of creation comes from God, all aspects of the world can and should be seen as potentially spiritual.
What does the Catechism have to say about Spirituality?
The Catechism points out that the benefit of being prayerful and spiritual from a Christian perspective is that we empty ourselves so as to enter into a deeper growing relationship with God. It distinguishes the difference between Christian spirituality and contemporary spirituality in that the latter offers a sense of tranquility but stops at the level of superficial peace. Christian prayer, on the other hand, attends to the presence of God in our lives. It challenges us to seek ways to live our call from God to be of service to God and humanity.
From a Christian perspective, the universal, unquenchable fire towards which all human beings long is God. For Christians and non-Christians alike, a spiritual life means finding a sense of importance in the activities we do in life. For the Christian, a spiritual life also means fulfilling a sense of vocation as one called by God. This sense comes from a desire to imitate the life of Christ. Christian spirituality acknowledges growth in personal development but from the perspective of ongoing conversion and rebirth.
Sacred in the Ordinary
Regardless of whether or not we name God as the unquenchable fire that drives us, one certainty is that spirituality has more to do with awakening to a presence than following specific rules or guidelines. A spiritual person recognizes a greater reality in the world and seeks to make sense or connect with it. Ultimately, spirituality brings us full circle back to the purpose of religion: awareness of the sacred in the ordinary. To see the sacredness of all life is to see the hand of God everywhere. And this realization is not only a religious experience, but it truly is a spiritual one as well.