Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Spirituality: a way of viewing things

For a number of years, a time I recall with gratitude, I taught with the local Carmelites a Ecumenical Program in Christian Spirituality. I have also taught and continue to teach in the diocesan School of Spirituality. The term 'spirituality' has always bothered me, although I have never come up with another word for the thing. 'Spirituality' is especially worrisome given the popular distinction these days between 'religion' and 'spirituality'. But I like Fr. Simon Tugwell's turn of phrase from de Caussade 'a way of viewing things'. 

'Spirituality' seems to be in vogue these days.Yet it is in some ways a tricky notion. The confident modern usage of the word is, in fact, very modern, which makes it unclear quite how we should set about identifying the 'spirituality' of earlier Christian writers.' If we simply look for things which seem to anticipate later, more obviously 'spiritual' writers, not only shall we probably distort the message of the earlier writers, but we shall also strengthen the rather monochrome picture of 'spirituality' which so inhibits our awareness of the diversities which are legitimate within the Christian life.

The earliest known use of the Latin word spiritualitas remains very close to what St Paul meant by 'spiritual' (pneumatikos): Christians, by virtue of their baptism, are meant to be 'spiritual' in the sense that they are meant to be 'led by the Spirit' and to 'live by the Spirit. The 'spiritual' life of the Christians is contrasted, not with some other facets of the Christian life, but with an 'unspiritual', carnal, life.! In the thirteenth century it was still possible to identify the 'spiritual life' as being, precisely, the life of grace, but already 'spirituality' was beginning to be divorced from the Christian life as a whole." By the end of the middle ages it was often regarded as a special way of being a Christian, or a special interest which some Christians might have, but which was not applicable to the general run of believers." Some Christians are 'spiritual' '. others, by implication, are not, and the criterion is not fidelity to the gospel, but a particular intensity of 'interiority', or something of the kind." A theological protest was made against this quite unjustified restriction of 'spiritual' words.? but it did not make much difference.

The standard modern notion of 'spirituality', as expounded, for instance, in Jordan Aumann's admirably clear textbook tends to obscure the fact that there has, down the ages, been a fair amount of controversy and disagreement about what it means for us to live by the Spirit, and suggests a scheme into which it is difficult to fit many Christian writers who might still be able to shed light on our own attempts to live a serious Christian life.

The great French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751)" claimed that what he was proposing was 'a way of viewing things';' and this is how I intend to delimit the subject matter of 'spirituality' . It is not just concerned with prayer and contemplation and spiritual exercises, it is concerned with people's ways of viewing things, the ways in which they try to make sense of the practicalities of Christian living and to illuminate Christian hopes and Christian muddles.

Ways of Imperfection 

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