Friday, 14 November 2014

Is This Spirituality?

Image: Joellepearson via Wikimedia Commons
So - this is spirituality, right? Take a look at this woman. She's dressed in vaguely Eastern, cottony clothes. She's out in the beauty of nature. And she's meditating, getting in touch with inner peace, opening her chakras or whatever. Spirituality - yes?

Spirituality is such a slippery word; in many circles (including Christian circles) it's come to mean little more than quiet, reflective, introspective and creative activities that appeal to aesthetically sensitive introverts. It's all about silence, candles, icons, labyrinths, soft music, meditation, sunsets, crystals, incense, and smiling little statues of Buddha.

Two things spirituality rarely seems to be about, at least in the popular imagination: hard work and cities.

I find that kinda weird, but maybe that's because of the way I think about spirituality. In a previous post (This is What I'm About) I offered a definition for anyone who might be interested:

Christian spirituality
is the intentional opening of our lives
to the presence of God in Christ
so that, renewed by the Spirit of God,
we can flourish in this community.*

If I'm even close to being right - and I'd be interested in your thoughts about that - then two key elements of the spiritual life are intentionality and community.

Intentionality because spiritual growth doesn't happen by accident. Well, actually I'd want to qualify that a little. There's a great story about the quirky but brilliant Rabbi Shlomo. One day he told his students: "All our most profound experiences of God happen by accident. We can't do anything to make them happen. They're just glorious accidents!" One of the students, perplexed, challenged him: "Then Rabbi, why in the world are we so intent on all these spiritual practices? This meditation, this prayer, this study of Torah? Why make such effort?" Shlomo grinned and replied, "Why, to make ourselves more accident prone!" That resonates with me: the spiritual life is deeply intentional, a deliberate effort to be as open as possible to the accidents of grace.

And community. Because spirituality, in the end, is all about the Spirit of God renewing us into the likeness of Christ, which at root means becoming more and more loving. Becoming the kind of people who naturally love God and love other people. And that can only fully happen in community.

So why not more emphasis on hard work and cities? In other words, on deliberate effort put into a difficult and demanding task, and on the huge, messy, strange and glorious communities of people among whom most of us live?

My hunch: because we don't really get what spirituality is about. In fact, we don't get it to such an extent that we see it as an escape from intentionality and community. So it becomes all about stopping the hard work (experiencing rest, peace, relaxation, softness and gentleness) and leaving the city (nature, mountaintops, retreats).

The wonderful Jesuit speaker Anthony de Mello used to say that people think they want to change, but in fact most people don't really want change (which is painful); they want relief. For many of us, I think spirituality has become that relief, an escape valve, a painkiller. Which is a shame, since in the end it's the only thing that's likely to make any lasting change in any of our individual lives, our communities and cities, and the world at large.

At least, that's how I see it. What about you?

- -

*("this community" being the community of loving people I mentioned yesterday when talking about The Aim of God in History)


  1. 16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
    and so all went well.
    Is that not what it means to know me?”
    declares the LORD.

  2. I agree, Herb - or then there's this: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1.27). Clearly caring for the poor, the needy, orphans, and widows lies at the very heart of a genuinely Christian spirituality. As does mission and evangelism, and a deep life of prayer. It can't just be an interior, navel-gazing activity. As some wise soul once expressed it to me: "Deeper in Christ, Further in Mission"! Wouldn't you agree?