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What is ‘spirituality’ anyway?

All religious practice is about putting oneself under a certain discipline

What is spirituality and what makes for different spiritualities? The word “spirituality” is relatively new within the English-speaking world, at least in terms of how it is being used today. Prior to the 1960s you would have found very few books in English with the word “spirituality” in their title, though that wasn’t true for the French-speaking world.

A half-century ago spiritual writers within Catholicism wrote about the subject but mostly under titles such as The Spiritual Life or Ascetical Theology, or in the form of devotional treatises. Protestants and Evangelicals, for the most part, identified spirituality with Catholic devotions and steered clear of the word.

What is spirituality as generally understood within Church circles today? Definitions abound, but most define spirituality with a particular goal in mind. Many of these definitions are helpful within academic discussions yet are less so outside those circles. So, let me risk simplifying things with a definition that’s wide, inter-religious, ecumenical and, I hope, simple enough to be helpful.

Spirituality is the attempt by an individual or a group to meet and experience the presence of God, other persons and the cosmic world so as to come into a community of life and celebration with them. The generic and specific disciplines and habits that develop from this become the basis for various different spiritualities.

Stripped to its root, spirituality can be spoken of as a “discipline” to which someone submits. For example, in Christianity we call ourselves “disciples” of Jesus Christ. The word “discipleship” takes it root in the word “discipline”. A disciple is someone who puts him or herself under a discipline. To be a practising Hindu or Buddhist you need be practising a certain spiritual discipline, which they term a “yoga”. And that’s what constitutes any religious practice.

All religious practice is a question of putting oneself under a certain discipline. But we can distinguish among them. Aristotle gave us a distinction which can be helpful here. He distinguished between a “genus” and a “species” (eg, bird is a genus, robin is a species). Thus looking at various spiritualities we can distinguish between “generic” disciplines and “specific” disciplines: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and various native religions are “generic” spiritualities. But within each of these you will then find a range of “specific” spiritualities.

For example, within the wide category of Christianity you will find Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Protestants, Evangelicals, Mormons and Congregationalists. Each of these is a species.

Then we can distinguish still further. Within each of these you will find a range of “sub-species”, that is, particular Christian “disciplines”. For instance, within Catholicism, we can speak of persons who have a Jesuit, Franciscan, Carmelite, or Salesian spirituality, to name just a few. Notice the pattern here: from genus to species to sub-species. As a spirituality, Christianity is a genus, Catholicism is a species and being a Jesuit or a Franciscan is a sub-species.

I apologise if this seems a bit irreverent, that is, to speak so clinically of genus, species and sub-species in reference to cherished faith traditions wherein martyrs’ blood has been shed. But the hope is that this can help us understand more clearly a complex issue and its roots.

No one serves one’s God fully, just as no one lives out one’s God-given dignity fully. We need guidance. We need trusted, God-blessed patterns of behaviour and disciplines that ultimately come from divine revelation itself. We call these religions. Then, inside these religions, we can be further helped by models of behaviour lived out by certain saints and wisdom figures.

Thus, inside Christianity, we have the time-tested example and wisdom of 2,000 years of faithful women and men who have carved out various “disciplines” which can be helpful for us better to live out our own discipleship. Jesuit, Franciscan, Carmelite, Salesian, Mazenodian, Charismatic, Opus Dei, Focolare and Catholic Worker, among others, are spiritualities, and just as the exercise and diet regimens of health experts can help us keep our bodies more healthy, so too can the discipleship practices of particular saints, spiritual giants and wisdom figures help make our following of Jesus more faithful and generative.

Which one of these spiritualities is best for you? That depends upon your individual temperament, your particular vocation and call, and your circumstance within life. One size doesn’t fit all. Just as each snowflake is different from every other snowflake, so too with us. God gives us different gifts and different callings and life puts us in different situations.

They say the book you need to read finds you and finds you at the exact time that you need to read it. That’s true too for spiritualities. The one you need will find you, and will find you at the exact time you need it.

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