Not long ago the cover story in Newsweek
was on the seeming resurgence of spirituality in America. As you read through the story the impression you
were left with was that what people described in the article were seeking was an experience of the divine; or, more simply,
a natural high. While experiences of emotional catharsis and other consolations are not uncommon, especially for those who
are neophytes, if they are the focus of your spiritual practice then you are in trouble. All of the spiritual disciplines
are ultimately directed toward God. Our perception of the experience is irrelevant.
Probably the most saintly person of the
20th century was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Yet, during the examination
of her life and writings in preparation for her canonization, it came out that during the period of her most effective and
influential ministry she went day to day only on faith, as the emotional consolations and religious experiences of her youth
seemed to have abandoned her. If the goal was religious experience, then the greater part of her ministry was a waste because
she lacked for much religious experience. Almost instinctively we know that such an assessment is foolish, as it was precisely
this part of her life that flowered with sanctity. It was precisely this part of her life in which the presence of Christ
shown so brightly through her. It was precisely this part of her life that was so rich in the positive impact it had on society.
As stated earlier, spirituality is our
loving response to God, who first loves us. That response is characterized by communion, self-emptying, service and transformation.
The spiritual disciplines give flesh to spirituality. However, the spiritual disciplines should not be considered simply a
series of religious practices. They are qualities and disciplines that we bring to every aspect of our lives and which give
concrete expression to the communion, self-emptying service and transformation which characterize our lives. Spirituality
is not one part of one’s life experience. Rather, it is one’s life lived in loving relationship with God and giving
expression to that relationship in our relationship with others.
One of the categories of spiritual disciplines
is referred to as moral/ethical action. The focus here is to give expression to the attitudes and way of looking at the world
fostered through the other spiritual disciplines. Our actions make us who we are. In the Catholic moral tradition what distinguishes
us from other animals is our ability to perform actions that are rooted in knowledge and given expression through our free
will. Indeed, such actions are referred to as human acts. It is human acts that give greatest expression to our spiritual
life for our ability to properly judge the act rests upon our ability to discern, the contemplative openness to God’s
will that we have nurtured, and our willingness to serve. It is the performance of these human acts, assuming that one’s
desire is to do God’s will that embodies these intangibles and over time works a transformation in our lives.
It is easy to think of actions such as
giving alms to help the needy, helping an elderly neighbor mow the lawn, or even going to Church on Sunday as moral actions
and characteristic of a lively Christian spirituality. However, virtue—moral action—does not stop with the more
obvious religious acts. Taking time from a busy day to spend a few hours with one’s children is an act rooted in the
love of one’s children and the responsibility in justice that arises from bringing children into the world. In acting
from love, and even out of respect for justice, God is present. Time spent with the children brings together attitudes and
actions characteristic of communion, self-emptying, and service. Thus, spending time with one’s children can be a spiritual
discipline as transformative and as spiritually rich as any more “religious” activity. All of one’s actions
can give expression to and deepen one’s spiritual life, if these actions are rooted in a love of God and seek to give
expression to that love. Approaching all that we do with an attitude of contemplative attention adds a special depth to the
experience, but what is most important is that our actions are rooted in a love of God and give expression to that love. Washing
the dishes and doing the laundry can be acts of worship, a fact that the monks realized in the early years of the Church.
The Benedictine motto of Ora et Labora (prayer and work) points to the fact that
both disciplines contribute to the Christian spiritual life.
It is here that a reasonable adaptation
to contexts is important. While the monk may be able to find time in his schedule for the Liturgy of the Hours and Mass, mental
prayer, lectio divina, contemplation and journaling, as well as a regular number
of hours devoted to labor, the Christian layman must adapt his spiritual discipline to the context in which he finds himself.
Trying to hold down a 9-5 job, raise a family, keep a marriage alive, earn a master’s degree and still give expression
to a rich Christian faith and a deep love of God requires an emphasis on the spiritual disciplines appropriate to a layman.
He may find that a weekly attempt to keep a spiritual journal, evening prayer with his wife and children, brief daily mental
prayer, Mass once or twice per week, daily time with his children and conversation with his wife, as well as bringing an attitude
of contemplative attention to work and his interactions with other people, as well serious attention to the moral implications
of his decisions at work, all result in a rich and fruitful spiritual practice.
It must be remembered that Christianity
is not about works. We don’t have to do a lot of good works to get God’s attention. We can’t earn our way
into heaven. Spirituality is no more about doing good deeds than it is about having religious experiences. Both have a relationship
to spirituality but are not the goal or focus of spirituality. God loves us. God demonstrated that love in the life, death
and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that we have salvation and the most powerful expression of divine love.
Our actions give expression to the love with which we respond to God’s love for us. Our actions are the fruit of love—God’s
and ours. Since our actions help shape our environment and ourselves, the good deeds/virtues that we do influence the quality
of our spiritual life and contribute to out transformation in Christ. They are the fruit of our love relationship with God
in Christ, not its cause.