There are few things more wondrous than the Catholic spiritual tradition. It is like an Aladdin’s cave, full of beauty and richness that we can scarcely comprehend, all of it provided so that we can be guided and enriched as we make our way towards the life that God has for us. And yet so many of us are scarcely aware of this treasure-trove or, if we are aware, we are too busy or too uninterested to enter. Nevertheless, the invitation remains.
What follows are some thoughts provided as an introduction to Catholic spirituality. But what do we mean by the term? It is the concrete way in which Catholic faith and teaching impact personally on how each of us lives our lives here and now. For any faith to be genuine, it must take up residence within individuals, transforming their sense of who they are and who they are called to be. This, in turn, impacts on how they live their lives in the real world. It provides the foundation that allows them to reach out in love and service of others.
This is both individual and corporate, as by entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ (which is the very heart of the Catholic faith) we necessarily come into relationship with those who have done likewise. None of us journey to God alone. For this reason, a privatised spirituality is not an authentic expression of the Christian faith. Jesus is the head of the body, the Church (Colossians 1:18), and a relationship with him calls us into the Body of Christ, of which we are part.
The second point to note is that Catholic spirituality, when well-rounded and healthy, is not solely concerned with the purely spiritual. This can seem counterintuitive, as you might think that ‘spirituality’ is only to do with spiritual things. However, central to the Catholic understanding is the conviction that the spiritual and the physical are deeply connected. This is because of who we believe Jesus Christ to be and is a consequence of taking his teaching seriously.
Jesus Christ is God expressed in human form. We experience God in Jesus. This, then, tells us that now and for all time, the spiritual (God) finds its home in the physical (the world). We cannot live an authentic Catholic spirituality while somehow artificially separating our faith from our real day-to-day lives as they are. This is central to the Catholic conviction that while belief in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of salvation, if that faith is not expressed in our lives and in what we do (i.e. our ‘works’), then that faith is not real. A purely spiritual faith, not ‘incarnated’ in our lives, is not faith at all and is not capable of saving anyone. You cannot disconnect the spiritual and the physical.
This is something that Jesus taught us. There are many examples of where he called those who believe in him to care for others. It can be distilled down to his teaching that at the heart of living an authentic spirituality is to love God and to love our neighbour (Mark 12:30 – 31). You cannot have one without the other. But there is more to love than emotion and feelings. When Jesus speaks of loving our neighbour, he tells the story of the Good Samaritan – a man who did not share the faith of the people Jesus was talking to, but who revealed in his actions a degree of love that showed the kind of person with which God is pleased. There are those who do not share our faith who, through their actions, show that they are beloved of God (see Luke 10:25 – 37 & Matthew 25:31 - 46). For this reason, it is not part of Catholic spirituality to believe that only Catholics are saved.
The essential interconnection between the spiritual and physical has at least three other important implications. The first relates to the Catholic understanding of sacramentality, the second to the Catholic awareness of the saints, and the third to the Catholic teaching on the afterlife. These can be read about in more depth elsewhere.
As a final point for this brief introduction, we must touch on the significance of prayer. Prayer can be thought about in several ways, but a good place to start would be to note that it is prayer when we turn our hearts toward God, in whatever way we instinctively wish to do that. This can be very brief or can be over an extended period. It can involve ‘saying prayers’ but not necessarily so. Some use Scripture as a way of focusing (always a great idea), others use other helpful writings, or art, or quietly sitting under a tree and taking in the goodness and beauty around them. We all start somewhere, and we all have those things that instinctively speak to us more effectively than other things.
But it takes perseverance. Our lives are busy, and our hearts are often distracted. It is hard to relate to God if you do not allow yourself the opportunity to do so. In this we are reminded of these words from Scripture: 'This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him' (Matthew 17:5). Discovering how to listen to God amid your everyday life will be a challenge.
If you say you value your relationship with God and yet scarcely give that relationship any time, then do not be surprised when God begins to be experienced as remote and if one day you start to wonder if God even exists at all. Our habitual approach to life is not helpful when it comes to the essential things. As hard as it may be to do in our modern environment, we must take the time required to develop a real relationship with God. We must stop and ‘listen to him’.
For a further development on this important topic see an Introduction to Prayer.
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Labyrinth photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019
30 October 2019