Over a decade ago I had a conversation with a well educated and successful island woman which began a journey of discovery
for me that continues unabated. She was frustrated. Many of the traditional devotional activities common in her most Catholic of cultures no longer spoke
to her meaningfully. The liturgical activity of the Church was a familiar routine but rarely engaging or uplifting. She felt
Her situation was not unique. I had conversations with others who said much the same thing. Each person reported yearning
for something more. Often the "something more" was expressed as seeking a deeper experience of the transcendent--a deeper
"Spirituality" is a term familiar to most 21st century men and women
but about whose exact meaning there is little agreement. Bookstore shelves marked "spirituality" include everything from psychic
tarot readings, to reincarnation, to the writings of St. John of the Cross, as well as self-help books. Several
recent reviews of the theological and social science literature resulted in the authors concluding that there is no consistent
and generally accepted understanding of the terms “spirituality”, “spiritual
development" or "spiritual growth." (Heliminak)
Part of the problem is that for many centuries spirituality implied living as
a disciple attempting to interiorise and integrate a wisdom being handed on by a faith community. While contemporary, post-modern
society is open to the spiritual having value, often it is blind to value rooted in an institutional context. Rather, spirituality
is perceived as a personal quest. In the post-modern context, the seeker becomes a consumer, picking and choosing from various
spiritual traditions in order to develop a spiritual practice that works for him or her.
Spirituality, in its broadest sense, can justly be described as the way in which humans assess their experience of the Ultimate, make contact with the Ultimate, and
choose life practices which they determine to be in accordance with the Ultimate. The assessment made and life practices chosen
are profoundly influenced by the circumstances and historical context in which people find themselves. Spirituality finds
expression in many cultures and religious traditions, in prayers, stories and celebration, as well through the community in
which it is rooted. It is a dynamic reality, responding to changing social currents.
This course makes no attempt to offer an overview of the many different approaches
to experience of the Ultimate that can be found in the world. Rather, it looks at spirituality from within the Christian tradition.
There may be similarities of understanding and discipline between Christian spirituality and other traditions but these similarities
are not explored at present. Our focus is on the Christian tradition.
What are humans that the term “spiritual” is a meaningful concept? Our spiritual identity emerges from
the experience of being self-aware. Human consciousness goes beyond simple knowledge of its own existence and it goes beyond
thinking about existence. Human consciousness is the capacity to perceive and appreciate not only various stimuli but the
ongoing process of being, and the mystery of that process.
Yet, how can we perceive and appreciate what is beyond knowledge? The primary way we do this is through symbols. We
interact with the world and one another through the medium of symbols. Certain symbols bring us to the limits of our comprehension
and point beyond to mystery; a reality that transcends our comprehension.
These symbols do not stand in isolation. They are joined with other symbols into
networks that are in turn joined together into metaphors and stories. We are story-making creatures who organize our experience in narrative form. Thus, if we are to come to some sense of the mystery toward which we are drawn, we must turn to story. Religion and philosophy
tell stories in an attempt to speak of the ultimate in metaphors and images.
Yet, it is not enough to be well versed in religious symbol systems, with their
many layers of meaning and possible interpretations, as well as the stories of our culture or religious tradition. The symbols
systems must be internalised. Neville refers to the internalisation of important symbol systems as content meaning. This type
of meaning is characterized by an affective engagement in which the person's heart and character is shaped by symbols of the
divine. Neville describes the process of turning the networks of important religious symbols into content meaning as the substance
of our traditional understanding of spirituality. Yet, it must be remembered that ultimately our symbol systems do not penetrate
the mystery to which they point but stand broken, finite icons pointing toward the infinite.
Having come to the limit of our comprehension, attempting to speak of the mystery
encountered in images and metaphors, we find ourselves in relationship with mystery. It is here that we draw upon our particular
religious tradition, asking what or who is this mystery? It is through the mediation of our religious tradition that our encounter
with the mystery at the limit of comprehension is given a face and we discover our own identity.