Four sources for personal and spiritual nourishment

The other day I had an insight about four essential sources for my own spiritual nourishment. I described this to a friend last night, using a cross as the visual metaphor to tie these elements together.


At the foundation of my spirituality is, of course, the tradition in which I am immersed: the wisdom teachings of two thousand years of mystics and contemplatives, united in our common devotion to the life and passion of Jesus of Nazareth. In the diagram I call this “theology and mysticism” but I think the entire culture of the Christian faith belongs here, including liturgy and sacraments, prayer practices such as lectio divina and centering prayer, the call to live a holy life, the austere beauty of the Rule of St. Benedict and monastic spirituality, and so forth. The grounding of who I am spiritually is anchored in the Christian faith.

But in order for spirituality to be “real,” it’s not just something we can learn about, it is something we must live. God is not just an idea to be a studied; God calls us into an experiential relationship — with God and with each other. To live the Christian faith means to be vulnerable to the wild and joyful leading of the Holy Spirit, who comes to us in ever-new and surprising ways. The tradition teaches us how to pray and how to meditate; and there still comes a point when we must sit down (or get on our knees) and actually do it. While I’ve placed this “experiential” dimension of spiritual nurture at the crown of the cross, this is not to say that such experience is purely a head trip — on the contrary, a relationship with God must be embodied.

So the vertical axis of the cross brings together received tradition and immediate experience. Meanwhile, the horizontal axis — the arms of the cross — reach out to embrace the world, obeying the mandate to love others as we love ourselves. For me, this takes two particular forms. On the one hand, I am continually nourished by a relationship to nature and, increasingly, to science. By this I do not mean to suggest that spirituality should be reduced to a merely empirical endeavor. But I do think science, nature, and good old fashioned common sense, can be healthy correctives to the shadow side of metaphysical speculation, which can lead to surrendering personal power to sources that are unwise or unloving. Christianity is an incarnate, embodied faith, and so it does not contradict the best wisdom from the world of science and natural philosophy. Indeed, current scientific research into meditation and human consciousness represents an exciting venue of cross-fertilization between the world’s great contemplative traditions and the human capacity to gather verifiable knowledge:  see the work of thinkers and researchers like Ken Wilber or B. Alan Wallace for more on this.

The other arm of the horizontal axis reaches to all of the world’s great wisdom traditions that emerge from sources other than Christianity. Mysticism is not just a Christian phenomenon, it is a world phenomenon, and the testimony of amazing spiritual journeyers from around the world can shed light on our own path. While I am particularly drawn to Celtic wisdom and Buddhism, the wisdom teachings of Vedanta, Taoism, shamanism, Judaism (particularly Kabbalah) and Islam (including Sufism) all belong here as well. Engaging in constructive dialog with other traditions does not need to imply lack of fidelity to one’s own path: on the contrary, it can be a powerful way to deepen the practice to which we are already committed. This has certainly been my experience.

Finally, one of the most important dimensions of any spiritual practice — community — is represented by the circle in the Celtic Cross. In other words, community is something which encircles and encompasses all four dimensions: we encounter community in the tradition, in experiential spirituality, and in the larger community of naturalists/scientists and practitioners of other paths. Community is essential all the way around.

So there you have it. It’s very  personal, so I don’t know how useful this diagram would be for others. Some might think nature belongs at the bottom rather than Christianity, and I can see the logic of revising the diagram that way. But since I have committed myself to the Christian tradition, I thought it makes the most sense to place Christianity at the foundation. Nature, off to the side, is not meant to be marginal, but is meant to include the entire sweep of natural reality, encompassing both material and spiritual dimensions of reality (I see “matter” and “spirit” not as two separate entities, but rather as two dimensions along the continuum of the cosmos).

So, I hope this is helpful. Perhaps you can come up with your own diagram of the sources for your personal and spiritual nurture?

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • thegreeningspirit

    Carl, I am VERY excited by your representation here!…It mirrors very much my own experiencing of the Sacred in my life…I have scanned the article rather quickly and will go back and reread it slowly to ponder but as always, it is balanced and is excellent food for thought. Where these four streams are placed on the edges of the cross would be a deeply personal matter for the actual spiritual journey of a person. Another stimulating meditation for the morning. Thanks Carl…

  • Yewtree

    I love it. I think I will make my own. Thanks!

  • Infinite Warrior

    What a fantastic metaphor. My own experience would place ‘Direct Experience’ (& Mysticism) dead center; Consciousness or Mindfulness at the head; Nature and Science at the foot; and the Wisdom Traditions to both sides (East & West). That makes five as it integrates my own consciousness in the Cross of Reality.

    It’s always interesting to understand where other people are “coming from”. Thank you for sharing that.

  • http://none Delameilleure Fred

    Dear friends,

    Thanks Carl and I.W. for this helpful post!
    Perhaps this has little to do with what is exposed here, but I am very much interested in and longing for a more wholistic approach to my Christian spiritual life or life in general.
    With Karl Rahner (which I just read, speaking so honestly of God who was silent in his life!) I agree that God seems so far away in my life too since many many years! I don’t know about you folks???

    Look at this please:
    (esp. figure 2 on the dimensions of conversion)

    If anyone has recommendations for further reading/diagrams/schemes… on biblical anthropology related to more wholistic spirituality/mind-body connection/energetic and body/emotional therapies… please write me at: