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An Introductory Course in Christian Spirituality

Christian Spirituality...
What is spirituality?
Christian Spirituality...
What are spiritual disciplines?
Contemplative disciplines
Reflection and Discernment
Prayer and Worship
Moral Action
Course Instructor
Christian spirituality is a matter of responding in love to God, whose very life is relationality and mutual self-gift; that is, love. 

Contemporary understandings of Christian spirituality remain rooted in the tradition of discipleship, while encompassing the post-modern concern for the person.  For example, Pope John Paul II defines spirituality as "a mode or form of life in keeping with Christian demands."[1] Joann Wolski Conn states, "For Christians, it (spirituality) means one's entire life as understood, felt, imagined, and decided upon in relationship to God, in Christ Jesus, empowered by the Spirit."[2] Richard Gaillardetz describes spirituality as “the particular contour and texture of our encounter with God's saving grace in our daily lives. Any authentic spirituality by revealing to us God's action in our lives, also discloses our truest identity; we ‘find’ ourselves in our relationships with God and one another.[3]


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 Christian tradition, asking what or who is this mystery? It is through the mediation of Christian tradition that our encounter with the mystery at the limit of comprehension is given a face and we discover our own identity.

Christian spirituality, rooted in the Trinity, speaks of this mystery as God. Further, Christian spirituality suggests that the question is better posed as: Whose am I? Since God is love, God’s very being is to be in relation, that is, God’s very life is the relationality and mutual self-gift that makes love what it is. Naming God “Father, Son, Spirit,” three in one Love, Trinity, is, then, not an abstraction. It articulates not only who and how we understand God to be, but what I am called to be and become. Created in the image of God, personal identity is constituted by being in relationship. For human beings, personhood is a gift received in the relations of interpersonal love. Our being is toward and for others. We come to ourselves only through and with others.[4]


We possess no identity outside of God’s claim on us. We are what we were created to be only when we are in relationship with God. God is no silent, passive upholder of things; he is an active agent—acting on our behalf. However, relationship involves action on our part as well. God initiates but we must respond.[5] That response is manifest in the relations of interpersonal love, which constitutes our personal identity. 


Seen in this light Christian spirituality is a matter of responding in love to God, whose very life is relationality and mutual self-gift; that is, love.  Self-gift is not emotion but a process of becoming an ever more perfect image of love. That process is characterized by communion, self-emptying, service and self-transcendence. These characteristics are inherent in any form of Christian spirituality.


Spirituality is oriented towards others. It is a mode of relationship that is "I-Thou". "The aim of relation is relation’s own being, that is, contact with the Thou. For through contact with every Thou we are stirred with a breath of the Thou, that is, of eternal life."[6]  In the Christian tradition this aspect of spirituality is known as “communion” (koinonia).


Relationship requires engagement with the "other," whether that engagement is with God or our neighbor. Such engagement moves us from the abstract into the concrete reality of embodied existence. Engagement is a response to the "other." It requires action on our part which moves us beyond our inner world of thought and feeling to acknowledge the humanity of another, through acting as if the need of that person is our need. It is the movement from "loving our neighbor" as a sentiment to acting on that love. Within the Christian tradition this engagement with others in their physical and social reality often is referred to as “service” (diakonia).


Perception is shaped by the mental structures formed by our prior experience. Relationship requires a steady stripping away of expectations based on prior experience and the development of new understandings based on shared experience. Emptying ourselves of prior expectations frees us from the trap of self-absorption, making it possible for us to perceive the other and to respond to the other. We exchange vague and even false expectations for a clearer perception of reality and a greater openness to the “other” which allows true intimacy. Traditionally, such “self-emptying” is described as kenosis.


Communion, service and self-emptying are interdependent. Orientation toward others (communio) is without substance if we are unable to engage the other (diakonia). We can be oriented toward and engage others only when we are sufficiently emptied of expectation (kenosis) to allow orientation and engagement. Self-emptying allows awareness of and engagement with others. 


This interrelationship is not static. Action brings change, exposing the person to new conditions and challenges. As one transcends the challenges encountered, there is a greater capacity for communion, self-emptying and service. This dynamic character of spirituality can be understood as “self-transcendence” (metanoia).

...the drive for self-transcendence is the divine life within the human person, and its realization culminates in a personal relationship with God who is Truth and Goodness and Love. Self-transcendence our effective response to the radical desire of the human spirit for meaning, truth, value and love--a radical desire that is, at bottom, always a desire for God.[7] 


We will take a closer look at the nature and characteristics of Christian spirituality in the next few units.

[1] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation: Ecclesia in America, Vatican City, (1999) no.29.

[2] Joann Wolski Conn, Spirituality and Personal Maturity (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 13.

[3] Richard Gaillardetz, A Daring Promise: A Spirituality of Christian Marriage (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2002), 19.

[4] Michael Downey, Altogether Gift: A Trinitarian Spirituality, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 61-62.

[5] Joseph Allen, Inner Way: Eastern Christian Spiritual Direction, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 66-69.

[6]Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Schribner, 1958), 63.

[7] Walter Conn, The Desiring Self: Rooting Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Direction in Self-Transcendence (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998), 72-73.


Some questions for your reflection and discussion:

1)  Can you think of any examples whe re the concepts or practices of a spiritual tradition (world religion) are not compatible with Christian spirituality?

2)  What is your definition of spirituality?

3)  How does it differ from the definitions offered here?

A Daring Promise : A Spirituality of Christian Marriage
Richard R Gaillardetz

Altogether Gift: A Trinitarian Spirituality
Michael Downey

Spirituality and Personal Maturity (Integration Book)
Joann Wolski Conn

Inner Way Toward a Rebirth of Eastern Christian Spiritual Direction
Joseph J. Allen

Transforming Our Days : Spirituality, Community and Liturgy in a Technological Culture
Richard R. Gaillardetz

I And Thou
Martin Buber

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

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

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