A comment that I hear from time to time – especially from people who, on finding out that I am a priest, feel they need to make some explanation for why they don’t come to church – is ‘I’m interested in spirituality, just not in religion’. When, as I occasionally do, I ask what they think the difference is, I get a fairly wide variety of answers but a remarkable consistency. Religion, I am told, is about what you do on Sunday, spirituality is for the whole of your life. Religion is about believing stuff, spirituality is about how you live. Religion is about guilt and being told what to do, spirituality is about making the inner connection. Maybe part of the problem is that the Church has all too often seemed to shy away from talking about spirituality, which even the great theologian Karl Rahner once described as, ‘a mysterious and tender thing, about which we can speak only with difficulty’. Or as a less kind person once described it, hitting the nail squarely on the head, ‘the Church’s best kept secret’.
Everybody has a spirituality. Some of us just don’t know what it is. Your spirituality is your hidden centre, what lights your fire, the secret code of your life around which everything else is organised – or perhaps disorganised. Money can be a powerful spirituality, a negative one, a subterranean pull that can subvert your most generous and loving impulses. Alcohol and food and sex can become demonic forms of spirituality, as can all forms of addiction including retail therapy. Good and lifegiving things that become negative forms of spirituality when they occupy such a central place in our lives that our whole personality and all our relationships are be twisted into place around them. Your spirituality is what forms you, day by day and year by year, for good or for ill. And freedom consists of choosing your spirituality wisely, giving yourself to a lifegiving spirituality that forms you through gentle discipline and encourages you to grow in the virtues that build resilience and generosity and strength. We all have a spirituality, the trick is being intentional about choosing a spirituality wisely, and nurturing it reflectively.
St Paul has been talking about the psychology of religion, and the maddening capacity we all have as human beings to subvert out own best intentions - and where we finished our reading from the Epistle to the Romans last week he has just concluded that an approach to religion as a system of do’s and don’ts is doomed to failure. The way of Jesus, Paul claims, has got the power to do what the Law can never do, which is to actually change people’s lives, because we experience ourselves as loved into the sort of people God created us to be. And he builds on this in this week’s instalment – in fact he goes further because he says for those who live in Christ there is no condemnation. Not just because we are assured of God’s love and forgiveness, though that is a major help. But there is a more active principle at work, and that is the principle of the Spirit. Life in the Spirit breaks you out of the vicious cycle that leads you deeper and deeper into the impasse of your own self.
Now, this should be really good news to my friends who prefer spirituality to religion, because the distinction they are making is exactly what St Paul is talking about. Not only is the life-giving relationship with God through Jesus a whole new deal compared with the futility of trying to work your way through the rule book for its own sake, but Paul is claiming there is a mystery ingredient - the Spirit which when we open ourselves to it bears unexpected fruit. The active ingredient that transforms lives from the inside out, so that when we are living in relationship with Christ we experience our lives as more free, more fully alive, and more open to new possibility than ever before. And St Paul contrasts this with what he calls life centred on the flesh – perhaps this is another way of referring to what I described above as negative, addictive forms of spirituality.
But what is this life in the Spirit, or to put it another way, what is this liberating Christian spirituality, and how do we get it? First and foremost, I think, to be ‘spiritual’ in the Christian sense - or as St Paul puts it, to live according to the Spirit - is to know, and to live by the knowledge, that there is more to life than meets the eye, that there is a deeper dimension to reality. And it means to know, and to live by the knowledge, that in a real and immediate way God is present to us as the source of ongoing personal and communal growth and renewal. This energising divine presence is what we call the Holy Spirit, and in the language of the New Testament the word for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us is ‘charis’, which we translate as grace, or gift. And Christian spirituality comes from the life-changing response of intentionally accepting and learning to live by that gift.
There are of course many non-Christian forms of spirituality, positive life-giving spiritual traditions in each of the world’s great faiths, authentic traditions of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu spirituality from which as Christians we have much to learn. And there are many paths of Christian spirituality that have different emphases and recommend different ways of prayer and meditation: Augustinian, Ignation, Franciscan, Benedictine to name just a few. Different Christian denominations emphasise different approaches to spirituality – the wonderful silence of Quaker meetings, the class meetings of early Methodism, the praise and talking in tongues of the charismatic movement and of course the Eucharistic spirituality of our own Anglican tradition. But there are some important shared characteristics of any authentically Christian spirituality.
Firstly, that Christian spirituality is Trinitarian – grounded in the life of the triune God that we address as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Which means our spirituality is grounded in the community of divine love that we understand as the ground of all existence, the loving goodness that the Christian faith understands as characteristically oriented not towards God’s own life but towards the life of all creation through the self-giving outpouring of love. So these are the fundamental marks of Christian spirituality, a spirituality that is communal and shared rather than individual and private, and that orients us towards others in self-giving love. Christian spirituality is fundamentally social and relational and even political, because we are each intimately linked with God and so also with one another. We understand our shared life as grounded in the God who loves us into being, and who at the end of our lives receives us again in love. So Christian spirituality increases our capacity for empathy, sensitising us to the needs of others and driving us to oppose all forms of injustice and suffering.
Next, Christian spirituality is incarnational, which means that it leads us to see all creation as grounded in God. The Christian view of reality is that it is spoken into being by God, an expressive Word of God and filled with the purpose and power of divine love. Creation spirituality is the spirituality of seeing all created things and living creatures as related, held together by our common origin in the creative love of God. And that in the Incarnation of the Word made flesh, creation is made holy and joined to the life of God. Which means that living creatures and the life-giving systems of the earth can never be viewed as commodities or as disposable, because in Christian spirituality they are sacramental, ordinary objects revealed as unique and unrepeatable words of God. So Christian spirituality is uniquely and wonderfully materialistic, understanding human life to be inextricably linked with the life of creation. As we come to feel the suffering of others as our own, so we come to understand the suffering of the whole earth as nothing less than the suffering of Christ. Concern for the environment, for Christians, is not a feel-good option but a spiritual response that comes from our increasing sense of kinship with all that is.
Lastly, Christian spirituality is necessarily transformational, never oriented towards the past or towards the preservation of the status quo, but looking toward our true end, which is to grow into the men and women we were created to be. This is where we understand the Holy Spirit to be most active, in healing, reconciling, drawing together all that human institutions and human sinfulness have kept separate, sustaining hope, creating unity and bringing joy. The Holy Spirit keeps us wonderfully and creatively unsettled and uncomfortable, orienting us toward the future as that part of our lives that still longs to be unfolded and completed. Christians are future people, not past people, our spirituality engages us with the world that is becoming and alerts us to the signs of God’s presence in what is new, and to the challenges to enact God’s priorities.
I hope it is fairly clear that I think Christian spirituality is not the pursuit of super-Christians or of religious sisters and brothers or even, heaven forbid, just of parish priests. But that Christian spirituality is the effortless act of breathing in and out the love of God, the joy of keeping company with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and the freedom of giving assent to the wonderful, unpredictable and surprising work of the Holy Spirit within us. Our work of giving permission is crucial, because what we become, through the bubbling away of the Holy Spirit, is always surprising, opening us up to new experiences and taking us in new directions that we would never have thought of by ourselves. So we need above all to stay open-minded, learning the virtue of flexibility and watching out for the new directions in our individual lives and in the life of the Church that are the sure-fire marks that the Holy Spirit, not us, is in control.
Which, when you think about it, is our best guarantee that all will be well.