There is a lot of talk today about spirituality. Everyone is seeking it. Everyone wants it.
But what is it?
One definition that has been offered by a scholar who teaches classes on spirituality is that spirituality is “Striving for self-transcendence by seeking ultimate meaning.”
Now who wouldn’t want that? Doesn’t everyone want something more from life? Don’t we all want to transcend or go beyond ourselves and to live by what we think is most important? But there’s a problem with most spirituality, and that is that it is a man-centered spirituality. It’s one that seeks to transcend itself by itself. It is man trying to re-invent man, trying to make man in man’s image.
It is the most ancient quest of Adam and Eve in the garden, to seek to be like God – to transcend themselves – but without God. And it is the most modern quest of people like Shirley MacLaine and Bishop Spong and many of the self-help books you see on the bookshelves.
In preparation for Pentecost Sunday tomorrow, I’d like to offer a very simple and very different definition of true spirituality. Spirituality is simply this: life in the Holy Spirit. More precisely, spirituality is the life of Christ communicated to the Body of Christ by the Spirit of Christ.
It is simple, but it is all-encompassing. It involves our individual self, but it also involves our corporate self, for we are all connected to one another. It involves our spirit, but also our body and mind.
Christian spirituality means committing our entire life to living by God’s Spirit, and not ours. And the goal of Christian spirituality? Nothing less than living in union with God, according to His holy will. Another word for true spirituality, I’ve concluded, is simply “discipleship.”
St. Paul has a lot to say about life in the Spirit in Romans Chapter 8.
First, you should learn to listen to the Spirit. If you are a Christian, the Spirit of God, His Holy Spirit, is speaking to your spirit every day. What could He possibly be saying? Maybe some of us haven’t been listening. He’s saying that if you are a Christian “the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (verse 16). He’s saying: “You were created to be a child of God, to spend all of your life in His Presence. The Father has sent His Son that you might be restored as a child of God.”
And if you are a Christian, your spirit affirms the same thing back to the Holy Spirit: “You’re right – I am a child of God.”
God is calling everyone to be His child – but there’s a problem. When a fuel cell exploded on Apollo 13, resulting in a loss of power and oxygen, astronaut Jim Lovell said: “Houston, we have a problem.” But after the Fall, resulting in a loss of life, we humans ought to send a message back to our home saying, “Heaven, we have a problem.” That problem that stands in the way of our truly being God’s children is, of course, sin.
Ironically, the man-centered spirituality we hear so much about is the very thing that stands in the way of true spirituality and being a child of God. We have forfeited our inheritance that should be ours (verse 17).
And yet God still calls us to be restored as His children. Through His Spirit, He still calls us to live without sin and death. Through His Spirit, He still calls us to be what we were created to be and to spend our whole lives in His Presence.
Listen! The Spirit of God is calling each of you to be His child.
Second, we must be led by the Spirit. The Spirit is telling each of you something else as well: that it is not enough to be called a child of God and that you must live like one if you want to remain one. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. If (and only if) you are led by the Spirit, then you are a child of God.
In a parent-child relationship, who’s in charge? Who leads (or at least is supposed to)? If it is the child’s will that is being done, if the child is leading the parents, then something is desperately wrong. Yet this is the condition many families find themselves in. It’s the condition that the family of man finds itself in, where we try to lead God and tell Him what to do, and where we try to do our wills, and not His.
We are like a young child whose parent is holding her hand so she won’t get run over, and we squirm and refuse to take the hand – and consequently injure ourselves. But we are to submit to God by submitting to His Spirit. To be His children, and to inherit His treasure, we must be willing to be led. That is the child-like trait we are supposed to have. Why else do we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” unless we believe we’re supposed to be led by Him and follow His will?
Sometimes in Evening Prayer at home, a light goes on inside my spirit, and I motion to my kids to gather all around me, whispering in a stage whisper: “SECRET!” And then I proceed to tell them one of the marvelous, mysterious secrets of the spiritual life.
“SECRET!” No, really, come closer.
Here’s the secret. You know that inheritance God has reserved for us in Heaven? You know that treasure that is beyond all fairy tale treasure? That treasure is God Himself! We are to be led by the Spirit, because the Spirit is the one who will bring us to the Father and His treasure, which is Himself. But following the Spirit to the Treasure means being led by the Spirit and submitting ourselves to the Spirit. Because guess what? Once we get to the Father and the Son, what do you think we must do, if we want to share in the Treasure of the one who loved us? We must submit to Him in love.
To be a child of God, to experience a true spirituality in tune with God, you must first listen to the Spirit of God. And then, when you have heard His voice, you must be willing to be led by the Spirit of God to God.
Finally, you must live in the Spirit. Where the Spirit is leading you is to life, to God, who is Life itself. “And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”
The Spirit is what gives us life: the Spirit is life. This life is life in God, in His kingdom, as His children. But because of your sinful nature, living in the Spirit means re-ordering your life and priorities. Left to yourself, you will do your own will, a way that leads to death. Therefore, if you are willing to listen to the Spirit and be led by the Spirit so that you may have life in the Spirit, you must mortify (put to death) your flesh. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (verse 13).
To live in the Spirit, we must deny, reject, and destroy our old way of thinking, feeling, acting, and relating, which is called “the flesh.” Every part of our lives must be re-ordered to follow the Holy Spirit.
We have a natural desire to follow what feels good, regardless of whether or not it actually is good. In the 70s we were trained to believe: “If it feels good, do it.” This is what Adam and Eve experienced, it’s the way Esau chose to live, and it’s the way of death. I sometimes hear and see even those who call themselves Christians choosing to live this way. Even in the Church, we judge right and wrong by how we feel, refusing to submit our emotions to God’s order and God’s Spirit. Sometimes, this being governed by our feelings and emotions is even equated with being filled with the Spirit.
How often do we willingly expose ourselves to thoughts and images and words that are not good, and then wonder why we act in evil ways? Day by day we practice choosing our will over God’s, and then we wonder why we are so miserable and far from God.
All of this has to be overthrown: life in the flesh must be replaced by life in the Spirit.
True spirituality involves all of life because all of life is spiritual. We must worship our Lord with our spirits and all attached to them, and our spirits must commune with His in prayer. But spirituality is not just about our private, individual, and interior life: it involves all of us. It even, especially, involves the choices we make, choices about what to put into our body, about how to use the resources we have, and so on. And so you see how politics and economics, psychology and sociology, and every “ics” and “ology,” is in reality a spiritual thing.
Mortifying the flesh is as simple as re-thinking the fact that despite the two good jobs my family has, I find myself in debt because of the choices I make. Because I believe I have a right to that house in that neighborhood and those 3 cars and that food and that entertainment and this vacation. Mortifying the flesh, which is part of life in the Spirit, means re-evaluating all the ways I have chosen to live for myself so that I listen to the Spirit that I may be led by the Spirit so that I may have life in the Spirit.
But life in the Spirit is not just about avoiding wrong choices: it is primarily about making choices for God. It’s about listening to the Spirit, whenever we hear His call in our life – and obeying Him. It’s about experiencing the joy and peace and love that come from living for God, and not for myself.
Spirituality, therefore, equals life in the Spirit. The goal of all true spirituality is union with God, doing His holy will, and rejoicing to live in His presence. The goal of all true spirituality, in other words, is to become the children of God again.
When you listen to God’s Holy Spirit, are led by the Spirit, and live in the Spirit, then truly, you are the child of God. And with that comes all of the things that people most want.
After, and only after, we you listened to the Spirit, will you know the Truth that brings peace and joy.
Only after you have been led by the Spirit will you experience the freedom that all of us crave.
And only as you live in the Spirit will you find the deepest longings of your heart fulfilled. For the deepest longings of your heart will be, as a child of God, to be with your heavenly Father and do His holy will and rejoice in His blessed company all the days of your life.
Prayer: Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.
Thy blessed unction from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Enable with perpetual light
the dullness of our blinded sight.
Anoint and cheer our soiled face
with the abundance of thy grace.
Keep far from foes, give peace at home:
where thou art guide, no ill can come.
Teach us to know the Father, Son,
and thee, of both, to be but One,
that through the ages all along,
this may be our endless song:
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Points for Meditation:
- What has the Spirit been trying to tell me?
- In what ways have I resisted being led by the Spirit?
Resolution: I resolve to spend time listening to the Spirit today, that I might be led by and live by the Spirit in my life.
© 2016 Fr. Charles Erlandson