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of Faith

 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinApril 18, 2008 Issue 

Spirituality basics

Christian spirituality takes many forms, has one source

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

"We've got spirit, yes we do.

"We've got spirit, how 'bout you?"

Back in high school, this was a popular cheer for sports. As the chant repeated and grew in intensity, your whole body got involved. Chanting became shouting; clapping became stomping, and eventually everyone was jumping up and down, yelling at the top of their lungs.

Spirituality should be a lot like that.

Today, spirituality is a broad term. Everyone has an idea of what it is, but not many can completely describe it. "I'm spiritual, but not religious" has become a catchphrase.

And, in part, that's right. Spirituality is, first and foremost, personal. It involves an encounter with some greatness outside of our self and beyond human existence, which is deeply moving and even life-changing.

For Christians, that encounter is with God through the person of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. As theologian and author Michael Downey put it: "Stated simply, Christian spirituality is nothing other than life in Christ by the power of the Spirit."

No greater example of such an encounter exists than on that Pentecost when the Spirit filled Christ's disciples. They were set on fire and rushed out to tell everyone they met - in every language possible - about their experience of God in Jesus Christ.

Can't say it without spirit

There are many forms of spirituality, but not all of them are Christian, even though some of them may complement Christian teachings, in ways such as a concern for creation or in styles of prayer or contemplation. However, "Christian spirituality" must be based in the Trinity. It must be initiated and sustained by the Holy Spirit.

In Scripture, the Spirit is described in ways that remind us of the movement of vital energy, like wind or fire. In the Old Testament, the Spirit moves upon the waters of Genesis, lights the fire of Abraham's offering and speaks to Elijah in a small, tiny whispering (1Kg 19:12).

Our word "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek pneuma, which in turn translates the Hebrew ruah. Ruah can mean a breath or the wind, but it more precisely means the breath of life, full of the vitality of God. (And even that misses a full translation, because who can describe God?)

We get a better understanding of the movement and life of the Spirit when we remember that when the risen Christ first appeared to his disciples, "he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'" He was giving them the very breath of his risen life.

The bishops of Vatican II told us that Jesus "sent the Holy Spirit upon all people that He might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength (217) and that they might love each other as Christ loves them. ..." (Lumen Gentium 40).


Over the centuries since that appearance of the risen Christ to his disciples, Christian spirituality has developed in various ways:

The early church. The New Testament describes groups of Christians, guided by the Spirit, living together in community. Their faith, taught by the apostles and their disciples, spread across the known world in a short span of time. (A bit like fire driven by wind.)

The Desert Fathers. Certain holy men and women, driven by the Spirit, went into the deserts to pray. These hermits were often followed and various monastic communities formed around these teachers. Many became known as the Greek Fathers.

Western Monastics. A similar tendency took place in the West, though there were fewer hermits and more communities. We can trace this history in Ireland and parts of Britain and France. Teachers in this Western tradition include Sts. Augustine, Benedict and Scholastica, who developed early rules for community living that continue to this day.

Medieval Spirituality. Here rose the development of many of the devotions of the church, of the military orders of the church and the development of the scholastic (a form of philosophy) manner of teaching the faith. The variety of medieval styles can be seen in the saints of the time: Thomas Aquinas, Francis and Clare of Assisi, and Dominic.

Council of Trent. This council took place during the Renaissance (16th century), a time focused on science, learning and global exploration. Here we find the development of missionary activity - such as the founding of the Jesuits and Redemptorists - as well as a trend toward mystical experiences of prayer, such as those of the Carmelite saints: Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

Vatican Council II. With its emphasis on a universal call to holiness and the vocation call of the laity, Vatican II had a expansive effect on spirituality. As Downey noted, "the council stressed the reciprocal relationship between liturgy, especially the Eucharist, and Christian life." This period saw an explosion of types of spirituality and the linking of sacramental life to everyday activities. The development of spiritualities ranged from the charismatic movement to Opus Dei, from the ecumenical Taizé community and the community-orientation of Focolare to communities built around eucharistic adoration.

How-to spirituality

With all this variety of Christian spirituality, how does one choose? Biblical scholar and Franciscan Fr. Michael Guinan reminds us, "We are dealing with styles, expressions, modifications of the one basic Christian call to holiness in the Spirit. They all exist within and manifest the richness of the Christian community through the ages."

The important thing to remember about spirituality is that the Spirit always guides us in our relationship with God and with others. However your spirituality develops, theologian Elizabeth Dreyer lists these three things to remember about Christian spirituality:

  • There is a one-on-one encounter with God that develops into a relationship;

  • This encounter finds an outward expression of some form;

  • This outward expression leads the person into contact with others and that communication leads others to an encounter with God.

Sort of reminds you of that old high school cheer. "We've got Spirit, yes we do!"

(Sources: The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; "Understanding Christian Spirituality" in Spirituality Today, Fall 1991; Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition; Catholic Update at; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church)


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