The Spiritual Practice of Intention

The Spiritual Practice of Intention March 21, 2024

“Giannamore! Move with a sense of purpose!” my Drill Instructors used to say when I was in the Army. At almost 47, I still consider my 18th summer spent in Army Basic Training (USAR) the most transformative summer of my life. At that point in my life, I had already spent four years in high school in a Junior Reserves Officer Training (JROTC) program that set me up for discipline and purpose that carries on today.  I would go on to spend an additional two years with ROTC in college before ending my military career in 2002. 

Another pivotal moment in my life happened when I was just a year younger, when I received my first call to ministry. I would not pursue this call until I was 18 and I would then spend the next two years discerning Catholic priesthood and specifically the monastic life of a Benedictine or a Redemptorist, two orders that were present in my community. 

Both life events created the spiritual discipline and the interpersonal discipline I still adhere to today.  

My post on spiritual practice this week is going to look at the practice of intentionality.  

A Different Kind of Expression of Faith 

When one first comes into their faith, they often arrive sometimes with what we used to call the “mountain top experience”. They can feel increased feelings of emotions, ranging from excitement to bliss as perhaps they have finally found their answer. At this stage of faith experience, they are often dependent on whoever is guiding them through this new faith experience. This stage of faith is often known as a prescribed faith; you believe what you believe because you were told to believe it.  

All animals ask questions. Human children are great at asking questions, especially 8-year-olds and 14-year-olds. It is crucial to our development. I often ask the forbidden question in therapy, “why?” However, in religion, it is often looked down upon to ask questions, or if one does, they are simply looped back to a doctrine or scripture that clearly lays out everything they need to know.  

A sense of purpose in faith then comes from asking good strong questions about why one believes in something.  

Truth vs. Certainty 

The problem with literal translations and strict adherence to orthodoxy is that they are so full of certainty. The problem with certainty is that it does not always equal truth. We must consider Aristotle here. For Aristotle, he believed that the goal of truth is to conform the mind to the way things are. Aristotle was a realist. I suspect some people may have read this idea from Aristotle wrongly as I did when I first came across it, echoes of Romans 12 in my ear. But I think there is a hidden truth here.  

Too often it seems these days, we are asked to suspend our objective powers of observation and not engage in our subjective analysis of what we see. Take the American election cycle. It is felt that here clearly is an example of a problem. But for some, strict adherence to orthodoxy on both sides creates a sense of certainty that betrays the truth and prohibits people from action.  

Turning again to Aristotle, to live a life of purpose, for one to be virtuous, one must live in the means between extremes of virtues.  

Our Purpose is not about Ourselves 

Buddha and Jesus both point out that one of the many aims of life is not to focus on ourselves. Stoicism goes further and says it is about us, but only in that it is about our actions that determines how we live.  

Jesus for all intents and purposes was about civil disobedience. He made objective observations about the problems going on around him and pronounced this to the people he spoke to and taught. Buddha on the other hand saw that the world was equally in turmoil, but he strove to reduce suffering by working towards helping people suffer less by showing how their clinging led to their suffering. Both, however, were equally focused on being going people to others.  

We must do the same. In a time of divisiveness and the media spreading daily fear and derision, we must consider something radical that we can learn from the Christian and the Buddhist traditions- we must learn to love ourselves along with focusing on how we can love the other.  

Contemplative Intentionality 

“If I have not love” is a line from 1 Corinthians 13. If our lives are only about ourselves, we risk superficiality. A certain boredom will creep over us, and we will continually seek validation and eventually anxiety as the drive for the next dopamine hit intensifies. The reality is that we live this reality every day when we turn on our Tik Tok, our YouTube, or our Instagram. Millions of people focused on themselves looking for validation.  

A contemplative intentionality approaches life differently. It sees the Christ presence or the Buddha nature in all beings and we bow of compassion and love in all we meet; even those people we are most cross with.  

A leadership lesson I learned when I was in the military was about selflessness. Selflessness is the unselfish concern or wellbeing of others. Later, as a seminary student, I would study another word that applies to how the Divine approaches all of creation, grace. In parenting, babies will mirror their parents and if the parent is engaged, vice versa.  

A contemplative intentionality mirrors the love of the divine.  


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