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An Introductory Course in Christian Spirituality

What is spirituality?
What is spirituality?
Christian Spirituality...
What are spiritual disciplines?
Contemplative disciplines
Reflection and Discernment
Prayer and Worship
Moral Action
Course Instructor
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.

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.[1] 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 empty.


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.


"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.[2]


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.[3]


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.[4]


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.[5] We are story-making creatures who organize our experience in narrative form.[6] 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.[7]


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.

[1] Richard Shewman, “Roots of a Marianas Spirituality,” Pacific Journal of Theology, II, no. 10 (1993). At the time I was living and ministering in the Diocese of Chalan Kanoa (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands).

[2] Barbara Doherty, I Am What I Do, (St. Mary of the Woods, Indiana: St Mary of the Woods Books, 1981)

[3] Gerald May, Will & Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1982), 43.

[4] Robert C. Neville, The Truth of Broken Symbols (Albany, NY: The University of New York Press, 1996), 54-55. Neville describes this type of symbol as a finite/infinite contrast, in which the contrast signals that the finite symbol refers to a transcendent reality.

[5] Joseph M. Webb, Preaching and the Challenge of Pluralism (St. Louis, MO: The Chalice Press, 1998), 20-24.

[6] Daniel P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1993), 13.; Terrence R. Tilley, Story Theology, (Wilmington, DL: Michael Glazier Books, 1985), 23.

[7] Neville, The Truth of Broken Symbols, 103.

The following are questions for you to reflect upon. They can be used in a group discussion or individually. It is helpful if you write down your thoughts in response to the questions, as writing tends to demand more engagement on one's part and encourages clarity of thought.
  1. Based on your personal experience, how would you define spirituality?
  2. How does your understanding of human nature influence your understanding of spirituality?

I am what I do: Contemplation and human experience
Barbara Doherty

The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self
Dan P. McAdams

Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology
Gerald G. May
Very technical but rewarding for the philosophically minded.

The Truth of Broken Symbols (S U N Y Series in Religious Studies)
Robert Cummings Neville

Click here to visit Along the Way, a site of reflections, homilies and stories by the author of this website.

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