Are You Scared of Spirituality?

Why is it that among ‘conservative Catholics’ there seems to be so little interest in spirituality? We’re big on apologetics. We’re big on dogma. We’re big on the moral teaching of the church. We’re big on the rules, the rubrics, the regulations and the routine.

But I think we’re a little bit scared of spirituality. If my hunch is right, then there are some good reasons for it. Over the last fifty years of the revolution in the Catholic Church ‘spirituality’ has developed a bad reputation. Catechesis which should have focused on doctrine focused on ‘relationships’ instead. People substituted sentimentality for spiritual direction and relativity for true religion.

Sister Sandals and Father Folkmass wanted to make the faith ‘relevant’ and so they began to explore Buddhism and labyrinths and ‘earth religions’ and ‘feminist spiritualities’. Spurred on by spurious psychologies they were all about ‘self discovery’ and their favorite mantra became, “The kingdom of God is within you” which they interpreted as “You are the kingdom of God” or “Whatever turns you on baby. That is the kingdom of God.”

OK. This was swingback. They were probably reacting to a pre-Vatican II Catholic religion that they had experienced as legalistic, sometimes harsh and rigid. They were reacting against a religion that seemed to be over sacramentalized and under evangelized. They were reacting against a religion that was highly institutionalized and formally structured. They wanted something good. They wanted their faith to be real and they wanted people to ‘have an encounter with Christ.’ They wanted the faith to ‘come alive’!

The problem is that they were not properly grounded and rooted in real Catholicism. They  went off on some New Age tangent and cut themselves off from the riches of the church. In their attempt to affirm they couldn’t resist denying. They couldn’t be content to snoop through other religions and spiritual traditions and perhaps glean something from them or allow the other perspective to lighten their way a little. In their enthusiasm they had to throw out what they had, and adopt something totally alien to the Catholic faith.

Consequently those who want to be faithful Catholics have swung back the other way. ‘Spirituality’ is now associated with nuns dressed in overalls and priests in jeans either conducting workshops on ‘Channelling your Spirit Guide’ or ‘the Wild Man’s Journey ‘ which means getting naked and howling at the moon in a sweat lodge.

At the same time the ‘renewal movement’ took Catholics in yet another direction–one which was also subjective, sentimental and suspiciously un-Catholic. Catholics who were not taken over by New Age Nuns and Flakey Friars were captivated by ‘gifts in the Spirit’ and ‘healing ministries’ and ‘signs and wonders’.

Still others substituted social activism for spirituality. It was all about justice and peace and making the world a better place. The spirituality of social struggle became their prayer.
No wonder ordinary Catholic became suspicious, and for ‘spirituality’ the conservative Catholic is more likely to resort to the tried and true classic Catholic spiritual writers and devotional practices.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not down on St Francis de Sales or St Louis de Montfort. I’m all for novenas and scapulars and all that good stuff. However, there is also room for a more creative spirituality–a truly Catholic spirituality that is rooted in Scripture, the magisterium and the lives of the saints, and yet is also creative, positive and which connects with ordinary people alive in our world today.

The religious climate being what it is, I suspect that anything new and ‘creative’ will be met with suspicion by ‘conservative Catholics.’ That’s okay. But at the same time, we do need to be open to the Holy Spirit and seek new ways to share not only the apologetical arguments and doctrinal and moral teachings of the church, but also a spirituality that touches people’s lives and deepens their commitment to Christ and his church.

The faith does need to come alive and there’s nothing wrong with seeking ‘the encounter with Christ’. The tragedy is, the more conservative Catholics retreat from this sort of religion and remain suspicious of it, the more we will find ordinary Catholics tootling off to find what they are searching for elsewhere. Therefore we must help the faithful find that ‘real religion’ by digging deep and discovering all the riches of the church–the riches of theology, liturgy, art and architecture, literature, prayer and poetry, meditation, contemplation and a life truly alive in Christ.

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  • Michael

    We're big on the rules, the rubrics, the regulations and the routine.I reject as false a dichotomy between "spirituality" and "the rules, rubrics, etc." As I see it, subscribing to and maintaining the routine, respecting the rubrics, IS a form of spirituality.

  • Brother Mark Menegatti OSA

    I was in a Catholic forum, and the "Serious Spirituality" section was oftentimes more a non-debated discussion on liturgy or saints. It was kind of useless to try to talk about prayer, the contemplative life, etc., because people were not interested on there.Thanks for this explanation and defense of genuine Catholic spirituality.

  • Fr Longenecker

    "I reject as a false dichotomy between 'spirituality' and the 'rules, rubrics etc."So do I.However, I also reject the idea that the 'rules, rubrics etc'–on their own– are the same thing as a living relationship with God.

  • Jam

    This is a fault that I am guilty of myself, I've gotten a little gun-shy of the term "spirituality" after mostly hearing it in the phrase "spiritual not religious" or the examples you give. It seemed to me that when people talked about liking "Franciscan spirituality" eg it was just a glossy finish on enviro-activism and liking animals and nature and stuff. And then it seemed like "spirituality" became another way of saying "I can call myself Catholic and believe whatever I like because we all choose our own spiritualities."I would really appreciate if you could discuss further what spirituality means and is.

  • Michael

    Father,I agree with you in the abstract, but in reality—or at least in my experience—one cannot follow the rubrics without having a living relationship with God. The most spiritual people whom I know are those who are also deeply concerned with the formal structures of spiritual life. Meanwhile, the least spiritual people I know tend to be the ones who castigate "traddies" and make a big deal about how being spiritual is more important than all those rules.Maybe my experience is distorted, but my instincts tell me it is not. Rather, in all but the most academic exercises the forms (rubrics, rules) and the function (spirituality) are inherently and intrinsically intertwined.

  • Fr Longenecker

    Michael. We agree. That's why I said 'Rules and rubrics on their own…'

  • Augustine

    As an OCDS, to whom spirituality is a vocation, I see the lack of a meaningful Catholic spirituality among the faithful as a crisis. The spiritual legacy of the Church is most rich, yet if not practiced by her members, it will not be passed on and will wither.Yet I see a huge yearning to which developing a spirituality is the answer, but not only are most clueless about where to look for it, they won't find much help from the Church either. More often than not, priests themselves have an underdeveloped spirituality and want to push the faithful to action, ignoring the impossibility of doing the work of the Gospel without being founded on an intimate relationship with Jesus.And it's not that things are easier for us Discalced Carmelites. In this environment, our order has struggled with vocations, for its postulants must have a solid spirituality, which is seldom fostered in the Church today. So we ourselves have to rely on overworked friars for the spiritual assistance of our communities. Even our spiritual directors, who are typically diocesan priests, don't know exactly how to direct us, given the almost forgotten nature of our contemplative charism. Surely, there are many books about prayer and many read our founders, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, but very few live their teachings. Or the teachings of other spiritual writers, like St. Ignatius and St. Francis of Assisi, themselves often reduced to the most external aspect of the charism of the orders they founded.The Church is going through a vibrant renewal, but I'm afraid that if it's not grounded on an intimacy with Jesus, we won't be able to bring Him to our lives in the Church and in the world.

  • Bethie

    This is an amazing article! Thanks.

  • Elizabeth

    I have also been strongly influenced by St John of the Cross and St Teresa (who were influential in bringing me back to the Church) and was formerly in OCDS formation. I go to a pretty good parish but I definitely feel there is a deficit in regards to the perennial and universal spirituality of the Church. There is charismatic spirituality, service activities (good), plenty of Eucharistic adoration (that's good), marriage education and promotion, Bible studies etc, and even a climate of welcoming practices of fasting and mortification, but not a strong environment or community for living what should be the normative Catholic ascetical and mystical spirituality. And where the priests are involved in charismatic spirituality, in particular they will tend not to be properly able to provide appropriate direction to contemplatives because the norms of the charismatic movement are just incompatible. And the liturgies will tend not to be consistent with fostering contemplative spirituality. But to be honest, even the OCDS were hardly getting off the ground in regards to living that spirituality, and had a lot of confusion about it (unfortunately some due to modernist OCD friars) even though they were good Catholics whom I loved and admired. A commitment by the priests to teaching, living, and fostering the perennial spirituality of the Church, would have great value and be a big help. Fr Thomas Dubay has been the more notable apostle of this spirituality in our times than the Carmelites or other ancient orders. There seems to be a lot of interest, but a real need for leadership on the parish level, and forming community aimed at supporting Catholic spirituality (OCDS or the like can be important to this). Above all there is a need for saints (by which I do not mean people who have visions and locutions, I mean humble people of profound faith, hope and charity, profoundly committed to conversion, people who are living in a way oriented toward Christ as the one necessity, the one love of their life)

  • Peony

    I would really appreciate if you could discuss further what spirituality means and is.I would appreciate that as well. Thank you Father.

  • Jordan

    Here is something deeply spiritual: Genuflect before the tabernacle every time you pass in front of it, enter the sanctuary, sit in the pew, or kneel on a kneeler. That is a prayer in itself and can shatter venial sin. (if done with charity) of course

  • Pepin the Short

    A well written and much needed post. Thank you father and could you please expand upon this theme?More specifically, could you point the way/s to an increased spirituality, within the rules, rubrics etc of the Church. I too am inclined to think that it is by living within these 'parameters' that one can have and experience true spirituality. I do not like the way 'spirituality' has manifested itself in the hand-clapping, keening, arm-waving, guitar-strumming gatherings at all. We need something a little more solid and truly spiritual…

  • Patrick J

    Some of the greatest spiritual encounters are done in conjunction with song. This is very troublesome, considering the banality of the music most often heard.One of the greatest spiritual encounters that I had was spending a week in retreat, observing the Hours and Mass in plainchant by a small Benedictine community. Yes, the words were English, but arranged to the original Gregorian melody. I would love to hear it in Latin one day, but I am not far along enough in my studies to glean the beauty and wonder to do it justice. It was appropriate for the time.I can honestly attest that just that one small encounter has fortified and bolstered my resolve to live in Christ all the more.

  • Servant

    Dear Fr. Longenecker,I believe that good example begets good example, that light gives light, and exhortation inspires. St. Francis of Assisi is a prime example.Therefore, if priests were more spiritual in general, their parishes would become more spiritual. In contrast, if a priest is mechanical, methodical, and hurried during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and rushes in and out within 20 minutes with the impression that "Phew! I'm happy I could get through that so I can get to my next meeting", then therein lies your problem – OUR problem. It's one thing to say "Do every Mass as if it were your last," it's quite another to actually do that – and be completely self-less in the process. I know of a few priests who actually are spiritual and self-less most times during the Mass. So how do we help the other priests inspire and motivate through their own spiritual examples? Also, how do we help priests to be open to input of this nature from their own parishioners…without having a negative emotional event. :-)

  • Wade St. Onge

    Michael writes: "I reject as false a dichotomy between "spirituality" and "the rules, rubrics, etc." As I see it, subscribing to and maintaining the routine, respecting the rubrics, IS a form of spirituality". Sure, it is a form of spirituality in some sense, but it is insufficient in itself, and there are a LOT of Catholics who tend to make it their chief focus and who tend toward pharasaical extremes. I can't tell you the number of times Catholics have engaged me in conversation in person or over the internet and gone on and on about the liturgy and the state of the Church, and when they express how down they are, I ask them, "how much have you prayed today", and they sheepishly admit they haven't done much of it.

  • Anneg

    Fr D, you hit every issue for me. Catholic spirituality,going back to John16, St John falling on his face in worship, St Ignatius of Antioch on his way to Roman martyrdom, through the ages, Teresa of Avila, St Therese and Fr Hardon teach a profound, inspiring love of God that stretches my soil to the point of bursting. But, even our prayers of the faithful fall far short of real intercession. We never pray for increased vocations, missions or our own parish. I probably wouldn't ever go to my parish priests to share my prayer life. This is one of my g.reat disappointments in the Church. It's easier to do stuff than to pray. The only thing I can do about it is pray in intercession and offer it up. Thanks

  • fx kelli

    It a mistake I often see to just attribute dissent in this area to excessive liberalization of the church. I'm glad to see Father L. addressing the broader reality.Sincere believers who leave, or never join, the catholic church are often very conservative. They are also often very suspicious of "rules, rubrics, and rituals" without a sincere relationship with Jesus Christ, very much as Jesus was towards the Pharisees.

  • bbmoe

    This is an excellent post. I became Catholic because of the vast tradition and acceptance of mystery, mysticism, and spiritual paths. While it's true that many people can't seem to reconcile "rules and rubrics" with "spirituality," they are closely intertwined. In reading about Therese of Lisieux, for example, her spirituality sprang from a deep desire for a relationship with Jesus, but she was very well formed in theology and Scripture, which she relied on for inspiration and guidance. You need all of it.

  • helgothjb

    Fr., One more recommendation for your readers:Classic Catholic Meditations by Fr. Bede Jarrett, OPIt has an easy to use format to help one making mental prayer and a huge collection of useful meditations to use.

  • helgothjb

    What happened to my other post?

  • Fr Longenecker

    It was too long

  • helgothjb

    Fr,It was no longer than some that you did post.I'll try agian:I agree that most do not even have a rudimentary unterstanding of spirituality. Mental prayer is the key to entering into a true spiritual life. One needs to move beyond vocal prayer, although one never gives it up. St. Theresa of Avila boldly states that those who are faithful to mental prayer are certianly saved and those that are not are certinaly damned. I think that now many are interested in spirituality, but do not find solid teaching about the matter. They are not taught the basics of mental prayer. Then, there are others that are taken intellectually by Catholicism, but never give time to the life of the will. They know much about the faith, but they have learned to love little. In mental prayer, the will is moved to love, first by our own efforts and then, more and more, by the grace of God. This is the spiritual journey. The following is an aid for those interested in mental prayer I prepared for some college students:

  • Augustine

    St. Teresa never said that those not practicing mental would be damned! As a matter of fact, she knew nuns who never got past vocal prayer and were graced with union with God.One thing St. Teresa makes clear though: if we love God, if we want to grow in His love, we have to become intimate with Him. To this end, grace is necessary, as well as our showing up, when mental prayer is an excellent way to bring our 2¢ to the process. But to each, his own. Yet, St. Teresa's teachings are tried and true.

  • Holy Militant

    One sure way to develop the Spiritual life is Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament. In Adoration, Our Lord will fill you with graces and light, gifts and wisdom, if you ask and pray, trust in His Heart. Sure, there are tons of great books out there too, but just starting out, regular Adoration is where I started, and what I would recommend to anyone. Simply asking for deeper wisdom and faith in Adoration and trusting in the Lord to help attain it.Remember too that the very best time to petition the Lord with our deepest desires is in our Thanksgiving prayers immediately after receiving Him in the Eucharist, while He is corporally present near our very hearts. He is in the deepest union with our souls at that time :)God Bless you :)

  • shadow2

    Hi Father D. This is Ros (used to be shadowlands but my blog got taken over by an American advertising website?!). I've started a new blog as I missed everybody.Reading this post, it seems everyone has their own description towards what is and isn't 'spirituality'I believe we are all children, seeing through a mirror, lit dimly. I call to mind Jesus' promise not to leave us as orphans. That means He won't leave us without parents and Our Lady is the best parent/teacher I can think of, whatever your particular persuasion, trad, charismatic, religious, spiritual. She is the first tabernacle and can form us into spiritual beings, if we let her, whatever our preferred bent, religious wise. For me, to answer Christ's question personally "Who do YOU say that I am?" I need to know Him. The rosary helped me to know Jesus and also His family and the gospel events.Our Lady's presence in my life causes me to concentrate and try to find out what is happening at Mass, I find she teaches very well.I still love my praise and worship songs though. I haven't started speaking fluent Latin or anything like that.