CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY

And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!” And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, “No. This is what’s important.

Iain Thomas

A PRACTICAL & PERSONAL SPIRITUALITY

For many, spirituality implies the supernatural – spirits and things of an ethereal, other worldly nature. Evidential theology deemphasizes the supernatural and warns to avoid forms of magical thinking. A Christian Humanism, the fruit of evidential theology focuses on the human, immanent, relational, and practical aspects of Christianity. Given this theological turn – what is left that we could call spirituality?

By spirituality we mean the human arena of questions of meaning and purpose. Spirituality implies the existential and those disciplines and practices that help us focus and probe such issues. By spiritual we mean exploring religious responses including awe and wonder, gratitude, assent, commitment, humility, reverence, joy and the astonishment of being alive at all – moments of feeling connected to the world and everything in it.

Imagination and the affective sphere are significant arenas for religion and spirituality, since the language of imagination includes story, symbol, metaphor, and poetry. Imagination is central to the religious consciousness. Therefore, our efforts at crafting a personal and communal spiritual practice will need our best creative efforts including the application of art, music, poetry, as we participate in existing Christian traditions and weave meaningful new ones. Christian spirituality is incarnational, practical, engaging the whole person.

FOLLOWING JESUS

Christian spirituality is essentially an attempt to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus means to walk a path of kenotic love, self mastery, inner transformation, and social change. To follow Jesus means to harken to an alternative wisdom that the mainstream culture tends to overlook. Kenotic love is this – pick up your cross, bear the weight of integrity, die to self by loving others genuinely, and undermine the abusive empire. In doing so, we may potentially find much of the meaning of our lives.

The concept of metanoia – Greek for turning or transformation – implies an ongoing process of becoming more fully human. Much of spirituality is an exercise in orientation – keeping ourselves on a path of love and personal engagement with the symbol of the cross and the open table, the internalization of the teaching and parables and their meaning, and the willingness to orient our lives through the mythic narrative of the scriptures all fuel our transformation.

Our awakening and awareness of self and sense of self orientation is part of metanoia, the process of repentance, which is better understood as self directed transformation, rather than groveling before power. Metanoia is awareness of the need for change, It inspires us to turn toward the good and toward those things worthy of our dignity. It motivates kenosis.

The Christian assertion of logos as divinity is an affirmation of the meaning of human life. A central aspect of Jesus’ teaching is that kenosis is vital to logos – that the meaning of our lives comes into sight best when we are not focused on self, but rather self giving. Our wholeness is found by giving ourselves to those values and things that return us to ourselves improved and reconstituted. 

Kenosis is a process of self-giving that does not end with us empty. Through our loving donation of self, we find ourself returned to self renewed, or recollected. In recollection we become more fully ourselves, experiencing the depth of our own subjectivity. Each act of dying to self returns us to a more refined state of life, recalling Jesus’ parable of the grain of wheat. 

The assertion that we can give ourselves away to others, to values, to circumstances for the sake of love and goodness, implies a conviction of autonomy and self-possession – we are our own to give at our choosing. And what we give ourselves to determines the condition we find ourselves returned to after the gift.

The call of authentic value for an adequate response addresses itself to us in a sovereign, but non-intrusive, sober manner. It appeals to our spiritual center. In a certain sense, this call is intimate and personal, one in which I experience the uniqueness of myself. 

– Dietrich von Hildebrand

We are quite capable of squandering the gift of self – offering our lives for things not worthy of our dignity and value. In such cases, we become scattered or are recollected in a diminished state. Humans create their future character through action – what we do, what we give ourselves to – influences what we become and the type of person who emerges over time. Continued giving of self to selfish pursuits, forms a person who is increasingly selfish and establishes a self-centered character. 

Conversely, if we give ourselves over to things of value that are worthy of our dignity, we should experience recollection, the regathering of self in a more full and unified manner. Continued giving of self to goodness and virtue results in those goods improving us as persons, refining our character, and making us more like Jesus.

Given that we do not possess the fullness of ourselves at any one time, being extended through time, our lives and formation of character are a dynamic process. Kenosis and recollection build on one another, our moral choices influence not only our future character, but our future moral choices as well. Therefore, our moral action is capable of building a positive feedback loop, with each choice for the good reinforcing our ability make such choices in the future. The same holds for immoral choices. 

Therefore, at the heart of our transformation in Jesus is the cross, an archetypal symbol of self-donation and self-emptying motivated by and for the sake of love. This process of inward formation points toward eudaimonia – the Greek term for wholeness or thriving.

THE CONTOURS OF CHRISTIAN SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

The forms and disciplines of spiritual practice are common across religious traditions – prayer, meditation, reflection, self-discipline, fasting, service to others, and rituals that involve the symbols and myths of the particular tradition. Below are some suggestions for an evidential spiritual practice, a path Christian Humanism. .

Mindfulness  cultivating awareness of our lives and striving to live fully, rooted in the present moment with awareness of our place within the lives of others, the world, and the larger ecosystem itself. Our tools here are meditation and various prayer forms.

Meditation can take various approaches – following one’s breath, using a mantra, guided meditation, using texts and written prayers to cultivate our meditation time, chanting, bells, music – all these things can be aids to our meditation efforts.

Meditation can be themed or themeless. Using both forms can have benefits. Meditating and reflecting on gratitude, joy, love, connectedness – or meditating to simply still the mind – such exercises provide multiple benefits and can serve as the foundation for spiritual practice.

Prayer, a form of meditation, is the sacred expression of the yearnings and hopes of the human heart, and it can be a powerful tool for focusing and expanding awareness – individually and communally.

Silence and solitude – need also be part of our practice. Reflection deepens in the soil of silence. Our contemporary culture and experience is sound-drenched and distraction ridden. To obtain genuine silence can require some effort. But the time spent alone and in silence can be enriching and nourishing.

Personal Study and Reflection – the positive, enhancing power of living an examined life, deepening intellectually, exploring themes of meaning and purpose, reading, writing, and discussing and sharing these ideas with others.

The importance of ongoing learning, reading philosophical, scientific, historical, and spiritual works cannot be overstated. The engagement of ideas helps one form their own worldview and give expression to such. Activities such as writing, blogging, and sustained study on given topics leads to depth and understanding. Mature individuals become equipped to take responsibility for their own education and formation.

Creating a Spiritual Home & Personal Rituals

Our homes should be places of peace and spiritual refuge. Creating a home environment shaped by love and rooted in hospitality is an important aspect of many traditions.

Hospitality is a Christian value. The art of welcoming and sharing can produce powerful results, dissolving artificial boundaries, uniting people, and leading to authentic communities. For example, there is much value in renewing the practice of having friends and family for a leisurely Sunday afternoon meal,

Having religious symbols in the home may serve as an ongoing reminder of our values. Having something of a home altar or spiritual focal point helps some individuals as well. These spaces can employ incense, candles, or objects with spiritual significance. The setting aside of a room or part of a room as a meditation-prayer space may also aid in these efforts.

We should not be afraid to experiment with creatively establishing meaningful, simple rituals that can mark an occasion, meal, or celebration as significant or even sacred – candle lighting, silence, shared readings, poetry, group art and craft projects, the possibilities are endless.

Rituals are repeated, structured actions of significance made to convey meaning. Often rituals are used to make mythic narratives concrete and part of the present moment. Other times, ritual is used to alter consciousness, expand awareness, direct focus, and challenge our hearts and minds, consciously and unconsciously.

Psychologically rituals are capable of speaking to various parts of the human brain, being stimuli for various forms of human awareness. Well done rituals can provoke powerful and meaningful religious experiences of awe, gratitude, wonder, love, connectedness, and other forms of expanded awareness.

The Christian tradition is rich in sacramentals, spiritual disciplines, and personal and family spiritual practices. Saying a blessing over meals, the rosary, making the sign of the cross, holy water, a cross on the wall, novena’s, the liturgy of the hours, spiritual and theological reading, various forms of contemplation and meditation are all possible practices to engage. Find what works, what’s meaningful, adapt to your own needs and liking, and then make it part of your spiritual routine.

Social Action, Advocacy and Service

There is an inherent, significant social action commitment to almost any form of spiritual practice. Our inner transformation naturally has outward expressions and effects. Granted, we are not all required to become social activists. But we are required to reflect on how our actions and habits have social effects as well as look for ways to serve others and better those communities we live in.

Voting, donating money and/or time, respectfully and intelligently expressing our views, engaging in advocacy for those in need, oppressed, or marginalized – doing what we can to create social opportunities for all to participate and benefit from.

Service to others, especially the needy, is a hallmark of genuine spirituality. Whether these be one-off service projects or ongoing commitments, Working to overcome food insecurity, racism, marginalization, poverty, under-education, housing issues – all of these social justice commitments are worthwhile. The Christian practices of the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy are an excellent foundation for such practices.

Concerns of compassion go beyond the human family and local concerns as interconnectedness implies. Animal welfare, sustainable farming, fair trade, prison reform, addressing racism, other human rights issues, advocating for peace, and ecological concern are all part of a holistic, generous spirituality.

Nature as Sacrament

Nature provides the context of our lives. We emerge from nature and are sustained by it. Our lives play out in the interconnected webs of the natural world which undergird our communities and culture.

Denying our interconnectedness with nature puts us at risk of peril. If our culture and spirituality is out of balance with nature, everything about our lives is potentially affected; family, workplace, school, community – all risk eventually becoming unbalanced – because we are of the same stuff as is nature – neglect or abuse of nature is essentially neglect and abuse of self.

Growing evidence abounds that time in nature – be it a forest or wooded area, a field, by water or a beach – away from human developments – is healing, promotes proper mental and physical functions, releases beneficial hormones, neurochemicals, and restores the soul, however understood. These benefits reinforce the wisdom of Celtic spirituality and its focus on nature as sacrament.

There is also a human propensity for the liminal. Liminality refers to the spaces in between, the thin spaces, the borders of where things blend. Sunset and sunrise, the time when we first notice seasons changing, the edge of a forest, the seashore, the horizon – these are all examples of liminal places and times.

Various spiritual traditions have incorporated this human affinity for liminality into their own practices. Vigils, the Jewish practice of lighting candles at sunset for sabbath, Christian sunrise masses, and so on. Irish-Celtic spirituality has a strong emphasis on liminality – referring to such experiences as thin places or thin times – meaning there’s a sense of experiencing something mystical, the blending of the natural world and the world of meaning.

AUTHENTIC CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

The Greek word ecclesia is usually translated as church, but on a more basic level it simply means gathering. The first Christian communities were those who gathered around Jesus and those that continued to gather after his death in support of one another.

The Didache, one of the earliest Christian texts is a sort of manual for Christian living. Part of this short document is instructions for the Christian ritual meal, the eucharist. Communal, eucharistic meals were at the center of Christian life. They were and are a continuation of the meal-based ministry of Jesus and the practice of the open table.

Baptism was the other central practice of the early Christians, used as an initiation rite for those becoming members of the community. The overlapping symbolism of being washed clean, of being refreshed by water, of going down into the water to emerge with a new sense of identity and life are all evoked in this practice. A period of instruction, preparation, and communal integration preceded one’s baptism.

We are inherently social creatures. Genuine spirituality can’t be a completely private affair, there is a natural and necessary communal aspect to spiritual practice. Today’s forms of Christian community can blend institutions, denominations, and non-institutional social and home-based efforts. Being part of a community is part of a meaningful spiritual life. Deciding which community to be part of is often a matter of family heritage, personal theological conviction, and feelings of connectedness with other members.

The current cultural and religious trends point to declines in institutional participation and a slight uptick in involvement with more casual, social, and home-based spiritual communities. While developing home-based, social, noninstitutional communities is positive and to be encouraged, there is much to be recommended in participating in a local parish or congregation. Public ritual and exposure to broader forms of community are beneficial on multiple levels. The benefits of mutual support, engagement, dialog, communal learning and practice in spirituality are hard to overestimate.

On a personal note, most of my spiritual life has been in Catholic and Anglican (Episcopalian) communities. The value and power of sacramental, liturgical, and symbolic engagement, plus the emphasis on more philosophically rigorous forms of theology cannot be overstated. Sacramental practice has the ability to affect one in subconscious ways as well as consciously. The rhythm of this manner of practice can be highly transformative.

Every denomination and every parish and community will have its flaws, limitations, and shortcomings – there is no perfect community given there are no perfect people. The recommended path appears to be committed participation in a parish while also cultivating meaningful forms of spiritual community socially, at home, and outside the confines of institutional participation.

Christians today must ask hard questions. Are our communities appealing? Are they sources of affirmation and welcome? Are they places where concrete needs are met and where those on the margins can find comfort? Are there practical benefits to belonging to our communities? The answers to these, and other such questions, are vital to our integrity as well as the survival of viable communities. 

Community building is the earnest effort to overcome the continuing fragmentation of our culture and local social networks by gathering people together to discuss, read, and study, to socialize, celebrate, and connect, creating alternative networks of social support locally and beyond.

The concept of a circle or salon – or small community of people dedicated to friendship and common spiritual themes is becoming more common. Lightly structured gatherings where individuals meet for conversation, meals, celebration, simple ritual, group reading – the possibilities are many and the opportunity for mutual support, service, and social bonds are priceless.

NATURE, CELEBRATION, & EMBODIED SPIRITUALITY – THE CHRISTIAN CALENDAR

Humans have a deep seated need to celebrate. Reflecting on the turning of the seasons, and engaging in sabbath – the deliberate ceasing of the work-a-day routine and culture to be with loved ones, nature, and ourselves is enriching personally and communally. Such things help promote awareness of the sacred rhythm of our lives. (See Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture and In Tune with the World.)

Christians have historically marked the seasons with festivals that reinforced and celebrated their central myths, conjoining the meaning of significant religious events with the agricultural calendar. In Christian holy day celebration, the seasons provide a rich context for spiritual reflection, melding the deeper meaning of the mythic event with the inherent existential meaning of the natural cycle.

For example, Christmas and its emphasis on the birth of the light at the time of the winter solstice; Easter’s themes of liberation and new life during the arrival of spring. Each Christian holiday is aligned to emphasize the intrinsic metaphors of each of the seasons.

Celebration – Food & the Table

It is difficult to conceive of a holiday or celebration that doesn’t feature food. Feasting and special foods are naturally entwined with human celebration. A shared meal is often one of the highlights and centerpieces of our holiday celebrations. 

Food symbolizes life, our bounty, a sharing of that which gives life. Group meals from community feasts to dinner parties are indicative and constitutive of social bonds and belonging. The sharing of food is one of the most basic and ancient forms of human relationship building.

Further, food connects us with nature and reminds of our dependence on the ecosystem. Granted, many have become so disconnected from the natural world and where our food comes from. Yet it only requires a brief moment of reflection and recognition to allow food to inform us of our interconnectedness with nature, ecology, and communal efforts at food cultivation.

Tables are one of the most important places of human connection. Sharing a meal at table together is an innately human act. Something very human happens at the table  – there’s an intimacy of the table – it’s a face to face, measured encounter. Eating together confirms the sense of belonging, being part of a community.

The table is a place of memory where we become aware of who we are and with whom we are. Around the table, all previous meals come together in every meal, in an endless succession of memories and associations. The table is the place where the family gathers, a symbol of solidarity, hospitality, and connection.

The Christian Seasonal Calendar

Advent – Christmas

The Christian year traditionally begins on the Saturday evening before the First Sunday in Advent. And it is a fitting time to celebrate new beginnings. As winter arrives, we prepare for the return of the light and lengthening days in the midst of darkness and cold. In the midst of the dark, we welcome the birth of a son of light.

A pivotal theme of Christmas is where do we find things of spiritual importance – where is the light? What’s its source? The answer from the perspective of the Christmas story is we find spiritual significance among the lowly, in simplicity, in humility, in poor circumstances, out in a manger – not in a palace or place of honor. We find meaning in simple human things – family, children, love – not power. 

Another question inherent in Christmas – who is Lord? – meaning, whose message do we wish to make our own? Not the virgin born Augustus, the warlord, but the virgin born Jesus – herald of a new form of power that runs counter to that of oppressive Empire.

Reflecting on these questions reveals the audacity of Christmas – the claim that a poor, wandering Jewish peasant born in a barnyard, who later would teach peace through achieving justice nonviolently – is Lord – the one to whom our allegiance should be given.

Therefore, Advent can be a time for reflection on where our allegiances reside. Who do we follow? What power structures do we belong to? Using an Advent wreath, and lighting the candles each of the four weeks prior to Christmas, allows time for us to gather with family and friends and explore these stories and their meanings. 

Christians have celebrated the season with gatherings of light, love, community, and joy. It’s meant to be a communal time of year, but also a slow, inward time of year, a season of reflection and recharging, but also of hope for the year ahead. And of course, the attempt to keep a simple Christmas is well worth the effort.

Midwinter

The light slowly increases – we reflect in the fallow days on what the light means – what is divinity? What is the light we live by? How do we walk by the light?

If we claim Jesus as our light, what does this mean in a practical sense? In the light of Jesus – the wisdom and perspective of his teachings and example – how does our perspective on reality change? 

Two holidays during this season help us explore the meaning of light. Epiphany (early January) celebrates the recognition of divine light now entered the world in a new way – and the Feast of the Presentation, sometimes called Candlemas (February 2) reflects on that light given to the world – and that light’s increase as the days increase in length, despite the snow and cold of the season.

Spring

As winter begins to fade, it’s natural to contemplate new life, new beginnings, and renewal in general. All around us, that new life is emerging – buds, early flowers, the greening of the grass and the reappearance of many animals and warmer days. Spring evokes themes of emergence, vitality, fertility, and the cycles of rebirth. 

It makes sense therefore, that Lent occurs in a season traditionally used for preparation of planting and the clearing away of winter debris. In modern times, Lent can be used to rid our lives of that which hinders our wholeness, happiness, and health. Lent is a time to ask what prevents us from living abundant lives? What holds us back from following Jesus more completely? What interferes with the Light in our life?

We pass through Lent to Holy Week and Easter – the celebration of the fullness of life found in love and generosity of self. We contemplate and enter into the mysteries and metaphors of the redemptive, life-giving power of kenotic love.

Summer

Summer is a time of abundance.  It’s difficult not to notice the bounty of nature and feel a generosity of spirit. Nature is full and flowering – verdant in green and colors. The light is at its peak. 

The ancient festival of Beltane on May 1, traditionally marked the beginning of Summer for Celtic and British peoples. Pentecost is celebrated sometime after this (depending on the date of Easter), but before Midsummer (The Feast of St. John).

Pentecost symbolizes the catholic, meaning universal, nature of Christianity. The holy day’s themes include going beyond tribe, race, or language and finding a unity in humanity itself. Pentecost celebrates the opening of the covenant to all peoples attested to by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit fifty days after Easter. In the account in Acts, the Spirit affects all in the crowd gathered, not just the Jews. People separated by different languages, now understand one another and are unified by the Spirit – the power of God is now loose in the world in a new way, and beyond concerns of tribe, institution, or other mediating structures.

Midsummer (June 21) is a traditional Christian-cultural holiday in many Northern European countries, marking the longest day of the year. It’s an opportunity to pause, give thanks, and enjoy the light and nature’s blessings. Given that this is roughly six months from Christmas, the church celebrates the birth of St. John the Baptist, whom the Gospels portray as Jesus’ six-month older spiritual partner. The Feast of St. John is celebrated on June 24 and in many places people enjoy a late evening dinner outside in the light. 

By the middle of August, the earth is bearing fruit with crops tall and robust. We stand on the brink of the harvest and it’s an ideal time for examining our own efforts for the year thus far. Take time to appreciate nature’s abundance and to examine what spiritual fruit we are producing. The medieval church celebrated Lammas – an Anglo-Saxon word meaning loaf mass, to commemorate the start of the grain harvest. Catholics (and some Anglicans) celebrate the Assumption of Mary on August 15 – understanding this as symbolic of first fruits – Mary being among the first borne fruit of Jesus’ Kingdom. 

Harvest

At the start of autumn, as the shadows lengthen, we sense the slowly fading energies of summer, but also rejoice in the soon to emerge splendid colors.

Harvest Home celebrations can be enjoyed toward the 23rd of September, the official beginning of autumn at the equinox. Pumpkin pie, apple cider, hearty meals – all coincide with cooler temperatures, fading daylight, and increasing thoughts of reaping – both in nature and concerning our own personal harvests.

Fall seems to naturally evoke a desire to give thanks and take stock of our lives. We glimpse the hints of mortality and finality in the season, and as the end of October approaches, turn our minds toward death and those who have come before us. 

The end of October is the closing of the agricultural year – the harvest is over and winter is quickly approaching.

At All Hallows (October 31 – November 2) – also known as the festival of All Saints and All Souls – we contemplate themes of life and death and weigh the results of the year gone by as darkness grows. It is also a time to remember our ancestors and understand our own place in the cycle of life.

As the season ends, we (in the U.S.) celebrate Thanksgiving and collectively give thanks, expressing gratitude for our lives. The Christian Year ends on the Saturday evening following Thanksgiving – the Feast of Christ the King, an appropriate theme to ponder at the end of another year of life. 

All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)

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