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Contemporary Spirituality

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

There is an obvious risk in talking about contemporary spirituality. The suspicion may be raised that the spiritual life has different forms in different ages, and that perhaps even the essence of sanctity changes with the times. It may also suggest that Christian perfection somehow depends on being up-to-date, which in more biblical language would mean conformity to the world and the world's models of greatness. It may even intimate that unless a person has first learned the art of being (what is now a "sacred word") "relevant", that person cannot be holy.

The point of all these implications is that for many of us sanctity has been almost equated with relevancy, and we naturally wonder if the spiritual life today is still what we thought it was say, even ten years ago. If it is, why talk about contemporary spirituality? If it is not, is it still the spiritual life that the great masters of the past have described so eloquently?

Not a few people among priests, religious (including contemplative religious), and the laity are confused. They are hearing about the new theology, the new morality, the post-conciliar Church, and of Catholics who until recently formed a sub-culture, and are now coming out, we are told, of their "institutional ghetto" to finally enter the main stream of modern society. The Church, we are told, is growing up.

Is it possible that with so much drastically changing in Catholic Christianity that the pursuit of holiness should not also have changed? We, therefore, return to the question of whether we can still talk about the spiritual life in anything like the language of a generation or even a decade ago. The answer is an emphatic "Yes", because in spite of all the fanfare to the contrary, Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The principles He declared in first-century Palestine are just as valid and as necessary in twentieth-century America.

His own contemporaries, by and large, did not accept His word; and as Calvary so eloquently testifies, He made enemies by what He said, and (how I like to reread it) they killed Him for saying it. Our contemporaries, to say the least, are not enthusiastic about His teaching either. So acceptance or rejection of Christianity, especially of Christian sanctity, is nothing new. Christ had His followers and scoffers then; He has them now.

If anything is contemporaneous it is this fact of religious history: that some love Jesus even to heroic self-sacrifice, and others ignore Jesus, even to demonic opposition to His cause. Having said all of this, what is contemporary spirituality? Or if we separate the two things, what is Christian spirituality in any age, and what, if anything, is distinctive about this spirituality in our day? That was the introduction.

What is Christian Spirituality?

We begin by asking, "What is Christian spirituality?" To some people the expression "spirituality" or "the spiritual life" seems odd. It seems to separate body and spirit in a way that runs counter to what we know man to be, not only soul, but also body.

It seems we prejudice our case from the start by isolating one part of our nature-the spirit-and so concentrate on it as though God were not to be served also in flesh and blood and sweat and tears, which are most certainly bodily and not spiritual. There should be no problem, however, once we see that words like "spirituality" are simply useful labels to express, as everything we talk about in our faith also expresses, more than bare syllables imply.

Of course we are composed of body and spirit, but between the two, the spirit is more important. It is the part of our being that we share as creatures with God. God, as God, has no body. He made us to His image and likeness by giving us a spirit, endowed like His own with a mind that thinks and a will that can love. What we think and what we love with our spirit determines everything else including what we do with our body. Whether we kneel in prayer, or lie prone in bed, whether we use our lips to praise and console, or use them to cause pain by our criticism and scorn, it all depends on what's inside.

The spiritual life, however, has a special connotation which says more than the right use of our spirit, that is, our mind and will. It adds the further dimension of excellence in the practice of morality. Our moral life, in the last analysis, has to do with the proper use of our freedom. Man, we believe, has been created to praise, reverence, and serve his Lord God, and thereby save his soul. We also believe that everything else on earth has been created for man's sake to help him achieve the purpose for which he was created. Accordingly, we are living a good moral life (to distinguish it from the spiritual life) if we use the creatures in our lives as far as they help and abstain from them where they hinder this purpose of our existence. That is morality. It is not yet spirituality.

The spiritual life, in a sense, begins where the moral life ends. Or from another view point, Christian spirituality presumes Christian morality; but it goes beyond its foundation to build what we have come to call an edifice of sanctity, and the figure of speech is correct. The foundation is morality; the edifice is spirituality. This "going beyond" can mean many things, and none of them fully explains what spirituality or its synonym, sanctity, means. We may go beyond what are strictly obliged to do to save our souls. We may go beyond the observance of God's commandments to practice the evangelical counsels. We may go beyond the call of duty to serve God with generosity. We may go beyond the tolerant acceptance of suffering to actually prefer the cross. We may go beyond the requirements of the law to undertake works of supererogation in the practice of charity. We may be beyond the periodic and sporadic performance of extraordinary charity by giving our whole life, for a lifetime, to the exclusive service of Christ and His Church. In every case, this going beyond what is absolutely necessary to keep out of sin (which is morality) and to give ourselves to God (which is sanctity), is an expression simultaneously of two things. First, of more than ordinary grace from God, without which sanctity is unthinkable; and second, of more than ordinary readiness of will to respond to this grace, without which readiness sanctity would remain sterile.

The history of Christianity since apostolic times, is a witness to both elements being constantly active in the Church. All the saints and martyrs, virgins and confessors for the faith, are proof of this bifocal fact: that with the coming of Christ and His outpouring of grace, men are not only able to avoid sin but to become holy; and that all who cooperate with this infusion of grace rise to heights of perfection and reach goals of human achievement that others, no matter how naturally gifted, do not attain. Nature cannot produce sanctity.

What Saint Paul told the Romans can be applied to all who have learned this secret of holiness. "People," he said, "who are interested in only unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God. Your interests however, are not in the unspiritual but in the spiritual, since the Spirit of God has made His home in you." What fundamentally makes a person spiritual by Christian standards is the Spirit of God Who makes His home in those who believe. And what finally makes such a person spiritual is his free and generous cooperation with the Spirit Who dwells in him.. Where the divine Spirit of Christ meets a responsive spirit in man, then we have the spiritual life. Then, in Saint Paul's vocabulary, the opposite is to be unspiritual and for a Christian, to be unfaithful to the great goodness of God.

Sanctity or Sinfulness

We are so struck by this dichotomy in the writings of the apostles because there seems to be no middle ground between sanctity and sinfulness. Time and again Paul and John, Peter and James, return to the same thing: the followers of Christ are called to be holy; their aim should be sanctification; and there is to be no bargain between the Savior and satan. This was simply an echo of Christ's own statement that we cannot serve God and mammon, "So that he who is not with me is against me." The New Testament knows nothing of our modern language of compromise. It is always either black or white.

What is Distinctive about the Spiritual Life Today?

We next ask, "What is distinctive about the spiritual life today?" Basically, the spiritual life is the same as it ever was. It means now what is meant in the time of Saint Paul, namely, a responsiveness to the Spirit of God. Those who are more responsive are more holy. Those who are less responsive are less holy. Those who are unresponsive are unholy.

Saying this, however, is not to say everything, because every age has its distinctive features which in turn make every period of the Church's history in its way unique. Before we say anything about our own age, however, an important proviso should be made: the world at any single point of time is nevertheless not the same everywhere. In spite of our rapid means of communication between different peoples and nations, they still remain, though in the same period of history, very different. South Africa is not South America, and the United States is not, as my African students tell me, Uganda. China and Russia are very unlike Canada and Spain, and the differences are not only in language or climates. Just to protect us from too rapid generalizations about the modern age, always ask yourself, "Where?".

Affluence and Social Mindedness

Having reminded ourselves of these obvious facts, we can still identify the dominant ethos of the Western world of Euro-America in certain general terms to help us better understand what are or should be the features of present day spirituality. Allowing for enough exceptions to prove the rule, we may justly describe this world, today's world, as characterized by affluence and social mindedness. By this I do not mean that everyone is wealthy or socially oriented. But the pursuit of wealth and the trend towards communitarianism are too prevalent to be ignored. They can tell us something about the quality of the spiritual life in the world today.

Affluence and Correlative Poverty

Affluence. There are too many passages in the Scriptures about the dangers of wealth not to put every believer on his guard. The most important are the words of Christ which He spoke after He had invited a rich young man to follow Him. But as Matthew tells us,
When the young man heard these words he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth. Thereupon the Savior said to His disciples, 'I tell you solemnly, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Yes, I tell you again, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.' When the disciples heard this they were astonished. 'Who can be saved, then ?' they said. Jesus gazed at them. 'For men' He told them 'this is impossible; for God everything is possible.'
Clearly, the prevalence of material possessions in affluent countries places a great responsibility on anyone who, unlike the rich young man, does want to follow Christ.

We are too surrounded by the good things of this world. We are living in the most long-lived and most leisurely oriented civilization in the annals of man. We are enveloped in so many facilities, so many conveniences, so many amenities, so many pain relievers and energy savers. We have access to so much comfort and so much pleasure. We have at our finger tips the advantages of a full breeze in summer and a regulated heat in winter. We have lotions for the skin and potions for the hair and creams and powders and tints and dyes. In the United States our cats and dogs eat better food than millions of human beings in Asia and Africa. We consume more meat and more sugar and more alcohol, and we move more miles with more speed than was even thought possible at the turn of the century. Is it any wonder that our demographers write condescendingly about other nations as undeveloped because, by our standards, they enjoy less of this affluence than we?

Let us not say that all of this is irrelevant to the spiritual life or unimportant in the pursuit of sanctity. Where affluence abounds, there the spirit of poverty must more abound, otherwise we shall be talking about holiness or reading the lives of the saints but never grow is holiness or become saints ourselves.

I maintain that, while in every age money had been the root of all evil as Saint Paul bluntly affirmed, the wide spread affluence in certain modern cultures makes the wide spread practice of poverty correspondingly necessary. Francis Bernadone became Francis of Assisi, because, as the son of a rich cloth merchant, he gave up all his possessions to follow Christ. He became "a Franciscan", to coin a phrase, because he had first been a wealthy person, He had positions to give up, to make the sacrifice even possible. We need this example today to shake us out of our lethargy. Not unlike Francis, we too have more things that we can sacrifice than I think we are ready to admit. He had his grace, and we have ours. But unless we too learn to share what we have in such abundance, or sacrifice because this particular thing weakens our devotion to Christ, or do without because we wish to embrace His cross, the lesson of our affluent age will be lost on us.

The first prominent feature of contemporary spirituality, therefore, is and must be the spirit of poverty. This means a sincere detachment from those myriad pleasant things that our affluent culture provides. It need not mean that we become actually poor, speaking in general, unless that is (as it is) our vocation in life. Religious cannot be satisfied with a "spirit" of poverty - they must be actually poor. It means then that we know the kind of age we are living in and the duty we have not to conform to the world which is trying to seduce us. So much for affluence and its correlative poverty.

Social Mindedness and the Practice of Global Charity

Social mindedness. If ours is the age of accumulating prosperity, it is also the age of social mindedness. This seems to be the best single term to describe, without defining, the host of qualities that enter and center around the social nature of man. Human beings are at once individuals and members of society, and no period of history ignores either side of our nature. But modern man is particularly concerned with the social dimension of his existence to a degree never before evident, perhaps because it never had such possibilities. Do you know that practically all the social sciences have come into existence within the last hundred years?

Some would trace this social consciousness to a reaction against the rugged individualism ushered in by the industrial revolution. Certainly Marxism changed its name and became Communism (hear that?) as a violent reaction to the real and apparent abuses of Capitalism. And the movement towards a collectivist society is at least partly explained by the greed in individuals in government, finance, and industry, which the collectivists claim they can restrain. Others would say that our social awareness is a response to the universal cry for peace among nations that have suffered the agony of two world wars and dread the possibility of a third, this time nuclear, conflagration. Either we somehow get together and settle our differences amicably, or we shall destroy one another, and the Armageddon will soon dawn. On these premises, the option is either togetherness and survival, or hostility and global annihilation.

No doubt these factors have contributed to the situation. But I do not think they are primary to explain why our modern world is so preoccupied with man as a social being. The main reason I believe has been the development of communication through every possible kinds of media: the telephone and telegraph, radio and television, radar and computer, photography and film and their derivatives, and the rapid communication between peoples in a country and between nations. Lest we suppose all of this is too secular to intrude into a discussion of the spiritual life, we should read what Pope Paul VI said through his Pontifical Commission for Means of Social Communication. The passage, two paragraphs, needs to be seen in full. Let me quote:

The channels of social communication, even though they are addressed to individuals, reach and affect the whole of society. They inform a vast public about what goes on in the world and about contempo- rary attitudes, and they do it swiftly.
This exactly coincides with the Christian conception of how men should live together. These technical advances have the high purpose of bringing men closer with one another. By passing on knowledge of their common hopes and fears, they help men to resolve them. A Christian estimate of this contribution that the media make to the well- being of mankind is rooted in this fundamental principle.
It would be a mistake, then, to underestimate social communications as an index of contemporary spirituality. This spirituality, even at its most interior and contemplative, is to be aware of others to an extent and with the depth of compassion for their needs that until our day could not have been had.

What would Saint Paul, for all his solicitude for all the churches, say about the solicitude that Christ's followers should have about others nowadays, when we are daily and all day made conscious of the trials and tragedies of people all over the globe? What a catalyst for the practice of charity! What would Saint Paul, who traveled incessantly to preach Christ in his day, do today (how I comfort myself with this thought) if he had at his disposal, as we have at ours, the means of affecting not one, or a dozen or even just a thousand souls, but literally whole nations with the word of the Gospel and the example of a holy life?

No one is minimizing the primary importance of union with God through prayer and the mastery of our passions through self-denial. The spiritual life must have deep roots if its branches are to spread wide or, to change the figure, it must have a source in the well springs of divine grace if it is not to run dry in the active apostolate. But given the roots and the resources, it must today also have scope and breadth and vision. They are the opposite of narrow-mindedness, small-mindedness.

In the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, Christ is made to say, "It is my will to conquer the whole world and all my enemies and thus to enter into the glory of my Father. Whoever wishes to come with me must labor with me so that following me in suffering, he may also follow me in glory." This call of Christ the King was made in equivalent words nineteen hundred years ago. It is our privilege to put His call into extraordinary effect in our socially conscious and interrelated world today.

Concretely this can mean many things. It will enlarge our hearts to see beyond the immediate work we are doing to the teaming millions redeemed by the same blood of Christ. Unlike in former days, the people of Asia and Africa are no longer far away, because distance is no longer measured in miles, but in the time it takes to reach a given place. With hearts thus spiritually enlarged, we shall expand the scope of our prayers to include not only a few but many souls, and pray that God's grace, which is infinite, will share its plenitude with the whole of mankind.

As our horizon broadens, we shall instinctively ask ourselves, "What is the greater glory that I can give to God in whatever I am doing? How can I affect not only the small circle of persons with whom I come into immediate contact but, beyond my immediate environment, thousands of others who, except for what I have done would know God less, or love Him less, or serve Him with less generosity?"

I admit that talking in these accents may seem strange to some people and positively unintelligible to others. No matter. The principle at stake is so great and the prospects of influence in today's socially connected world so good, that I will be satisfied if only a few appreciate what I am saying. Come to think of it, Christ's vision of the future was always in cosmic terms. He bade His disciples preach the Gospel to every creature. He told them to be His witnesses even to the ends of the earth. And in the Apocalypse of Saint John, He gave a dramatic prediction of the world-wide struggle for mastery between His own followers and the agents of the evil spirits. If these global proportions are breath-taking, they are supposed to be! We have today the privilege and opportunity to expand our spirituality and motivate our apostolic zeal with Christ to the ends of the earth, or, in Saint Paul's words, "To bring all nations to the obedience of faith in honor of Christ's Name."

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

Conference transcription from a retreat that Father Hardon gave to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Mother of Sorrows Recordings, Inc.
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Cor Jesu Monastery
P.O. Box 90
Jemez Springs, NM 87025

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