A word that has become more and more common in religious writing and discussion in the last twenty-five years is “spirituality.” Writers in this field of study offer various definitions for spirituality, but a simple description that can be helpful in living the Christian life is to understand it as the way we put into practice what we believe; how we live our faith in the daily thoughts, words and actions of our lives. If we believe that we are called to love and forgive one another, how do we incorporate that belief in our human relationships, especially with the significant people in our lives? If we believe in the moral values of justice and charity, how do we bring those values into our work or professional lives? As we treat the other as we ourselves would like to be treated, we bring our faith and values into play in the experiences of our everyday lives. This simple way of understanding spirituality calls us to strive to bring congruence to our lives and thus to grow in authenticity and live our lives with increasing personal integrity.
When we add the adjective “Christian” to spirituality it helps to define and describe that faith or set of beliefs that we are trying to put into practice in our lives. It is the teaching of Jesus Christ that forms our faith as Christians; it is what he taught us about who God is and how God wants us to live our life that is the very heart of our faith. The guidance of the Church helps us to apply Christ’s teachings to the present time and in the society and culture in which we live. American Christian spiritual writers like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, Dorothy Day and Kathleen Norris have over the years helped Christians to weave together their faith and their daily lives. Christianity has always been a practical religion holding that what we believe and value must be useful in helping believers throughout their life-long pilgrimage, from birth to death. The totality of two thousand years of Christian wisdom is available to each of us as a resource for forming our expression of our living Christian spirituality.
Although many Christian denominations hold beliefs in common (the centrality of Sacred Scripture, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the importance of the faith community as the Body of Christ ministering in the world, etc.) there are also differences in understanding and interpretation of the various tenets of Christianity. The distinctive teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, its unique tradition of practices and rituals, the very hierarchical structure of the Church are some examples of how the Catholic Church interprets and professes what is important to consider as we express our community’s faith and most importantly what is at the heart of living a Christian life in our denomination’s tradition. Catholics believe that regular participation in the Eucharist is essential to sustain one’s faith. Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a community is also central to being able to grow in one’s relationship with God and our neighbor. Personal prayer as a way of communicating with God has been emphasized through the centuries as a key practice in the process of growing in holiness. These and many other teachings and customs form a valuable resource which is what is known as the guiding principles of Roman Catholic spirituality.
Finally, each Roman Catholic Christian has to personalize his or her spirituality. This personalizing of spirituality takes place when we take into consideration the uniqueness of who we are as individuals. Knowing my personality, my gifts and limitations, my life goals, the significant relationships in my life, the vocation I am living, even my family of origin background has to be considered as I formulate the best way for me to live my faith in my daily life. This knowledge allows me to see more clearly what form of prayer is most beneficial to me. Because of my personality, I may be a person who is called to demonstrate boldly through public and prophetic expression what I believe about justice. As a married woman with young children, I may have to structure in some formal way, a time of solitude within my busy day to nourish my spiritual life. If I am someone who has struggled with an addiction and found a way to control it, I may be now in a position to offer my guidance and support to others who suffer from a similar addiction. These examples try to demonstrate how even as we accept a Roman Catholic interpretation of Christian spirituality, we still need to make it our own so that it fits with the person we truly are as we live our lives following the way of Jesus Christ.
Spirituality, like the Sabbath, is made for us humans, not vice versa. We should explore our Christian spiritual tradition, especially as it has developed in the Roman Catholic community, so as to understand it as an important resource and support for our growth in our relationship with God and with our sisters and brothers. For in that growth comes a fuller understanding of who we are as individuals created in love and called to witness to the presence of God in the world.
Harry M. Byrne, O.P.
Aquinas Institute of Theology
St. Louis, MO
(First published in 2003; revised in 2010)