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An Introductory Course in Christian Spirituality

What is spirituality?
Christian Spirituality...
What are spiritual disciplines?
Contemplative disciplines
Reflection and Discernment
Prayer and Worship
Moral Action
Course Instructor
Wholeness and holiness can not be separated without harm to the person

There is a tendency to focus on success and achievement and judge our worth in terms of our achievements. This can occur even with regard to spirituality. One might judge one’s progress on the spiritual path by the consolations experienced or the presence of signs of the Dark Night of the Soul. Yet, consolations are no sure indicator of spiritual development and the Dark Night of the Soul is best understood not as a single event in one’s life that is undergone and moved beyond. Rather, it is the ongoing spiritual process of our lives. We may have periodic conscious experiences of it, but it continues at all times, hidden within us.[1] Attempts to compete with one another for ever greater signs of spiritual achievement suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of spirituality. Yet, self-transcendence, that is, spiritual growth, is an integral characteristic of Christian spirituality.


According to Bernard Lonergan, "Man achieves authenticity in self-transcendence." [2] He describes moral self-transcendence as the key to becoming a person in human society. Walter Conn expands on this by explaining that among all the possible realizations of human potential, the cognitive, moral, affective and religious self-transcendence described by Lonergan is the criterion of authentic self-realization, of the true self. “Every achievement of creative understanding, realistic judgment, responsible choice and generous love is an instance of self-transcendence.”[3]


Robert Kegan describes self-transcendence as the basic mechanism of human development. He sees the human as process. Meaning is the motion inherent in this process. All physical, social and survival activity are the vehicles and expression of this drive for meaning. As a person develops physically and interacts with the environment, he or she slowly learns to differentiate self from the environment. A small child learns that the mother is not an extension of itself but another person. This insight results in the capacity for a new type of relationship with the mother. As this new type of relationship is realized the on-going relationship has taken on a new meaning. The child has transcended the "self" he or she had been. Thus, the dynamic of self-transcendence is differentiation eventually followed by integration but with new meaning. While self-transcendence is the basic mechanism of development, Kegan postulates six plateaus of development as one moves from infancy to adulthood each characterized by a particular developmental insight.[4]


Adrian Van Kaam describes a process of self-transcendence similar to that of Kegan. He also sees self-transcendence as a critical aspect in the formation of a person's humanity. Like Kegan he is unwilling to separate spiritual development from human development. Van Kaam describes the person as being-in-the-world. This description is similar to Rahner's spirit-in-the-world and similar as well in its understanding of human nature.[5] The thrust of Van Kaam's thought, as with Lonergan and Kegan, is that the human person is best understood as a process. Process implies change and the possibility of giving direction and form to the change. Such process allows the possibility of self-transcendence (metanoia).


Van Kaam and Kegan are not alone among psychologists in viewing the human person from the perspective of a developmental process. A great deal of work has been done in psychology over the past half century to understand the human developmental process. Of particular interest to this study is the work of James Fowler.


Fowler focuses on the developmental process of faith apparent in the life cycle. He describes faith as the most fundamental category in the human quest for transcendence. It is a “generic, universal feature of human living…an orientation of the total person, giving purpose and goal to one's hopes and strivings, thoughts and actions.”[6]

Faith is imagination as it composes a felt image of an ultimate environment. We enter into, form and transform our relationships in reciprocity with the transcendent backdrop of meaning and power in relation to which we make sense of our lives. As this reciprocal relationship between imagined ultimate environment and everyday living suggests, faith's imaginal life is dynamic and continually changing. [7]


Like Van Kaam, Fowler views human development as movement toward wholeness. That development is the product of synergy between human potentials, given in creation, and the presence and activity of Spirit, as mediated through many channels. Faith is a relation of trust in and loyalty to one's neighbor, maintained through trust in and loyalty to a unifying image of an ultimate environment. The human calling is to undergo and participate in the widening inclusiveness of the circle of those who count as neighbor.[8]


Spiritual growth can not be separated from other forms of human development, especially at the higher levels of maturity, as the human is an integrated reality--body, mind and spirit. Wholeness and holiness can not be separated without harm to the person. “When we accept human nature with all its conflicting desires and paradoxes, the soul seems to thrive and to develop in a unique, creative way. If, however, we ignore or reject a part of ourselves, the soul suffers and rebels in some form of psychological or physical- spiritual illness.” [9] A correlate of this is that holiness is not an end product to be achieved but a process of development.


Communion, self-emptying, service and self-transcendence describe the Trinitarian and Incarnational dynamic that is given flesh in our actions.  While every aspect of life is integral with and influenced by one’s relationship with God, certain actions more readily give expression to the spiritual dynamic just described. These actions also may foster attitudes of openness to and discernment of God’s action in our lives.


These practices can have special symbolic and practical value in deepening our engagement with God and the faith tradition. Known as spiritual disciplines, these actions help the spiritual life move from the theoretical to the practical. These disciplines intensify our faith commitment, foster in us a greater openness to God and our neighbor, as well as encourage a more effective realization of the ethical consequences of our faith. Spiritual practices are of significant consequence to a vital Christian spirituality. A person can not give what he does not have. “Remain in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit unless it remains in the vine, so also with you unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). It is in our spiritual disciplines that we nurture intimacy with Christ.


    Discussion Questions


1. Can you think of any examples of self- transcendence in your life?

2. Can you think of any examples from Scripture which point to self- transcendence as an integral part of the spiritual life?

3. Why is the continuing process of self-transcendence important to the spiritual life?

4. Both Fowler and Van Kaam view human development as a movement toward wholeness. The words sound nice but what do they mean? What does this have to do with holiness?

5. How does self-transcendence relate to the other characteristics of Christian spirituality discussed in this book?


[1] May, The Dark Night of the Soul, 186.

[2] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972), 104.

[3] Conn, The Desiring Self, 73.

[4] Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 18-19, 77, 86-87.

[5] Adrian Van Kaam, Formative Spirituality: Human Formation Vol. 2, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1983), 8.

[6] James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1981), 14.

[7] Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, 33-34.

[8] Ibid., 48-72.

[9] Noreen Cannon, “Becoming Holy & Whole,” Human Development 3, no. 1 (1982): 33, 37.

The Desiring Self: Rooting Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Direction in Self-Transcendence
Walter E. Conn

Stages of Faith : The Psychology of Human Development
James W. Fowler

The Dark Night of the Soul : A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth
Gerald G. May

The Evolving Self : Problem and Process in Human Development
Robert Kegan

Method in Theology
Bernard J.F. Lonergan

Foundations of Christian Formation
Adrian van Kaam

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