What is spirituality?
Building a relationship with God is a life-long process of transformation. The key is first figuring out where your heart lies.
What do you treasure the most? How do you imagine the world? Peter Feldmeier, professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo, says if you are willing to ask yourself these questions, then you’re on the way to defining your own spirituality.
Feldmeier volunteers with Cherry Street Mission, a nonprofit community resource center in Toledo that offers job training, an overnight shelter, and daily meals. “My supervisor was talking to someone who was new at the shelter,” he says. “This was a person with massive anger issues, zero social skills—someone whom you just have an aversion to, as Buddhists would say. But she went up to him and said, ‘I love you.’ And she meant it.”
According to Feldmeier, love for those who seem the most unlovable is part of what makes up Christian spirituality. “If you believe that everyone is a child of God, we are all intrinsically valuable. So when you come across these people, you address them differently,” he says.
Of course, practicing spirituality isn’t always so simple, especially when it comes to popular spiritual practices from other religious faiths like Buddhism or indigenous religions. “You can never go wrong learning more about others,” Feldmeier says, but he also cautions that “you can end up embracing spiritual visions that don’t align and aren’t helpful”—especially if you don’t do some research first about these other traditions.
What does it mean to be “spiritual”?
The word spirituality is used widely and wildly; people talk about everything from the spirituality of golf to a nation’s spirituality. I’m a professor of Christian spirituality, and even within my field we argue about the definitions and methods.
Spirituality is the overriding term that describes engagement in things transcendental. Ultimate aims. Ultimate goals. It has to do with one’s connection with and commitment to ways of engaging transcendence. All adherents of religions, Christians or not, have a sense of transcendence or a sense of intimacy that drives how they try to live their lives, their piety, and their virtues and values.
In a theistic religion like Christianity, this transcendence is God. Christian spirituality is engagement with God as God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. But it also has to be grounded in a religious tradition.
In my mid-20s, I was in a reflection group with a parish pastor. He said, “Everyone has a theology, whether or not they know it.” We all have our own ideas about who God is, even if we’re not conscious of it.
I think the same is true with our spirituality; everyone has ideas about what they think makes life meaningful or how they pursue the ultimate, even if they haven’t articulated what exactly that means. These ideas may not be complete spiritualities—they may not even be healthy. Some spiritualities are superficial. But everyone has ways of imagining the world and their place in it, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
For us, Catholicism informs how we make sense of the revelatory fact of Jesus Christ. It’s about how we pray, the values we cultivate, and the goals we think spirituality will achieve for us. There are a variety of Christian spiritualities with different goals and different emphases as an authentic response to Christ.
Does Christian spirituality have anything in common with the spirituality of other religious traditions?
Humility is a big thing in any religious tradition, theist or not. For example, take Theravada Buddhists. They don’t believe in God, and there’s an enormous reliance on one’s self as the transformative agent—as the one who achieves nirvana. That’s the ultimate end; while we search to be in union with God, they search for nirvana.
The Buddha proclaimed that there is no self. There are impersonal bundles of things that make up a sense of being, and that’s it. Buddhist meditation involves deconstructing all the things that you imagine to be permanently you. These things turn out to be impersonal and constantly changing, and none of them have qualities where you could say, “Well, that must be my soul, or my eternal self.”
Therefore, for Theravada Buddhists, humility is the recognition that there is no self. Anything they want to attach themselves to or identify with; it all comes down to that lack of self. For Christians, on the other hand, humility is seeking to encounter a living, personal God. That God is so overwhelming that our soul recognizes its dependence on God and the fact that we have meaning only in God.
One of the reasons I go to Mass every day is to experience the humbling of the Eucharist, and to align my own self-offering to God with the original self-offering of Jesus on the cross. It’s a small moment morning after morning, similar to the experience of humility through daily meditation, even though it’s a very different experience of humility than you would find in a different kind of religion.
So even though the spiritualities in some sense can be very similar, in other ways they demand very different experiences of the same priorities.
What’s the purpose of having a spiritual practice?
I think the purpose is transformation. Any spiritual path that doesn’t lead to real transformation is, at best, useless. At worst, we can fool ourselves into thinking we’re engaged in something deep when we’re really engaged in nothing of substance. The big question we must face is: Am I really being changed?
There are different kinds of transformation, of course, which is one of the reasons I wrote my book Christian Spirituality. There’s really no such thing as the Christian spirituality, but rather many Christian spiritualities. Different ways of framing the Christian path can be radically different from each other, yet authentic and deeply transformative.
At the end of my book, I look at three figures: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Rick Warren. Two are Catholic, one is evangelical, and all three are incredibly different. Yet, what an incredible light they all are of spiritual transformation and depth of witness.
What about people who say they’re “spiritual but not religious”?
The term “spiritual but not religious” is a complicated one that grew from a number of places. Over the last, say, 30 years, people have become disenfranchised with institutional religion, and that’s when this identity started to emerge. I think that people still want to imagine themselves as being connected to something more meaningful than themselves, something spiritual.
The so-called “Nones” is the fastest growing religious self-identification in the United States. Many of these people don’t identify with atheism or even with agnosticism. They want to claim a religiosity, yet they do not feel comfortable with religious institutions.
I think many Nones think that institutionalized religion is self-important and exclusionary. Many of them want to have a larger sense of openness. And then there’s the fact that if you can say you’re “spiritual but not religious,” or a None, that somehow gives you a bye. If you’re just as religious as anyone else, but you’re not affiliated—that’s somehow even better.
Assessing whether someone’s spiritual is a pretty subjective deal. But there’s an incredible intentionality of practice, community, and wisdom in religious traditions. For the most part, it strikes me as a fool’s errand to try to manufacture that on your own.
This actually came up in my doctoral defense. One of the members of my committee said, “Can you be holy without belonging to a religious institution?” My response was, “Yes, but I’ve never met anyone who is.”
Nowadays people talk about all kinds of nonreligious “spiritualities”: It’s a very different world, the spirituality of business, of golf, of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), etc. Maybe there are spiritual values that you can transfer into golf—nonattachment, for example—and these things will make you a better golfer. But, of course, there is no real ultimate end. At best it’s drawing on a few spiritual insights from one tradition or another that maybe make you a better golfer or a better business executive.
The spirituality of AA is similar. There are spiritual themes in AA, but it’s not a complete spirituality. There’s no necessary understanding of who God is, no transformative path. Its values are pretty much limited to supporting recovery and making amends. All of these are good things, and there are spiritual values involved, but it’s not a complete spirituality. This is why you can have people who are highly invested in AA and also deeply invested in Judaism, Christianity, or some other religion. There aren’t any conflicts, because AA isn’t a spirituality in the full sense of the term.
Is there a problem with haphazardly picking and choosing spiritual practices from different faith traditions?
My book Encounters in Faith is an incredibly open and sympathetic engagement with all these religious traditions. At least, until you get to the chapter on New Age traditions. I swear to God, I really tried to be open, but the more I researched, the less impressed I became. There’s a lot of fake borrowing from other religious traditions, a lot of syncretism with no sense of coherency. There’s a lot of cheap spirituality with no transformation.
I knew one woman who grew up Catholic and then left the church. She became interested in the Wicca movement; it seemed all about the feminine, getting in touch with your body, and nature—all good things. But it turned out that all their rites were made up, or borrowed from someone else who made them up. So even though the practices were in line with her values and worldview, when she tried to go deeper, to become transformed and to find God, there wasn’t anywhere else to go.
I met her on a three-month, Buddhist meditation retreat. She had decided to move away from Wicca and go to the other end of the religious spectrum; to practice this very ancient tradition, which required intense practice and led to real transformation.
Is there any way of telling which spiritual traditions lead to real transformation?
According to Sandra Schneiders, a professor of Christian spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, there are six components of spirituality. One has to do with human nature. Another has to do with the belief that there is some ultimate horizon out there, whether God or nirvana; this is the fundamental concern of spirituality. Then, there’s a kind of path to that ultimate end, experiences you tend to have along that path, and ways that your journey affects the community.
In other words, spirituality is about putting yourself in the service of something larger than you. And then, paradoxically, you discover your truest self while giving it over to this larger thing.
Can Catholics ever gain meaning from other religions’ spiritual practices?
Using other religious traditions without understanding them can be kind of a grab bag that they would find terribly disrespectful. For example, if there was a New Age group that decided to do Mass because they thought it sounded really cool, we would think it was somewhat blasphemous—or at least ridiculous.
The same thing happens when self-proclaimed shamans teach people how to do Native American sacred rituals on weekend retreats. Of course, they butcher it.
These practices can seem attractive to the soul, but if there are competing spiritual impulses, it’s not going to work. You end up with theologically and philosophically incoherent combinations of practices that have no ultimate end and disrespect the people who actually practice those religions.
It seems to me that any kind of borrowing from one tradition to the next needs to have a pretty deep analysis to see whether anything is in competition with your own spirituality. The competing claims of different religions have to be taken seriously.
I wrote my dissertation on the possibility of authentic Christian use of Buddhist practices; I compared St. John of the Cross and kind of a Buddhist version of Thomas Aquinas, named Buddhagosa. Some Buddhist practices worked with Christian theology and some didn’t. A member of my committee told me, “You went easy. It’s easy to compare Buddhism to Christianity, but what would you do with, say, indigenous religious traditions, where there are shamans who enter into spirit worlds, and so on?” Those religions would be far more difficult and far more problematic to reconcile.
How, then, can you reconcile two different religious traditions?
Francis Clooney is a Jesuit priest who teaches comparative religions at Harvard. He will tell you, “I’ve never considered myself anything other than a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest.” And yet, his depth of engagement with Hinduism has affected how he understands his Catholic faith without undermining it.
So one possibility is that a different religious tradition doesn’t lead you to compromise your faith, but being exposed to it or even adapting some of its practices or insights can help you engage your faith differently because of the religious experience you find in another tradition.
In my book Encounters in Faith, I talk about the great parable Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel. The publican and the Pharisee go to the Temple and pray; one is essentially telling God how great he is, while the other pounds his breast seeking forgiveness. In the end, it’s the humble one who leaves the Temple justified.
I go on to describe the Buddhist sensibility of paying attention to the quality of your mind, which is a huge part of Buddhism. How does it help us hear the parable differently if we’re thinking about letting go of our attachments toward our thoughts?
Think about how you feel toward the Pharisee. Angry? Judgmental? Annoyed? Wonder how he dared to be such an obnoxious jerk? Except, now we’ve taken on the same judgmental mind—the one the Pharisee is criticized for having in the gospel. The reader has become the bad example.
When I listen to the parable while keeping in mind the Buddhist message, the first thing I think of is how in pain the Pharisee is. His delusion is so deep he doesn’t even know it, but his boasting is just masking pain. And that gives me a different perspective on the Pharisee, but also helps me recognize what’s going on in my own mind when I initially judged him.
When this happens, we can be compassionate with ourselves. It was just a thought, it doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It gives us freedom to see our own thoughts. And it also gives us the possibility of compassion for the Pharisee, for ourselves, and for others.
Looking at the parable in this way doesn’t undermine Jesus or his meaning at all. Instead, it gives us another layer of engagement. Those are the kinds of opportunities we have when we investigate the spiritualities of other religions.
You said it’s easier to reconcile a Christian perspective with Buddhism, where there’s no alternative vision of God. Is it possible to do this with other theistic religions as well?
In Christianity, there’s this temptation to picture God like us. It loses the sense of the overwhelming or the shock value. But in Hinduism, for example, some of the expressions of God are intended to shock believers and make you rethink how you think about God.
There are stories about the god Shiva doing outrageous things that are inappropriate for holy people to do, and yet he does them. Or Kali, the mother goddess, who is a vicious warrior; she drips blood from fangs and wears a garland of skulls—the enemies who would take us from her. She’s a warrior goddess, fighting on people’s behalf. It’s a quite different way of thinking about femininity and the divine feminine, and very unlike our picture of the calm and serene blessed mother. Or Krishna is often depicted as a lover—which isn’t too different from John of the Cross’ poetry, which is often very erotic.
Looking at other religions in this way isn’t an alternative to your own faith, it’s an alignment. How are other traditions wrestling with the same questions I am as a Christian? How do other traditions explain their extraordinary experiences of God?
Different religious narratives often express the same drama, the same dynamics. In this sense, comparing traditions may help us see how there’s a lot of alignments. And where religions don’t line up, we can ask ourselves how other visions of God bring an edge to our understanding of the divine and challenge us.
How can we figure out our own spiritual journey?
Where do you put your energy and your time? Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” What do you treasure most and why? Part of what you treasure involves your time and your energy, your thoughts.
For lots of people, their career is their idol or their god, without their even realizing it. They may think they have other spiritual priorities, but they’re not living up to Christ’s words in the gospel.
If you say, “I want to know God,” but are unwilling to pray a lot, then that’s a great abstraction, but it’s certainly not part of your spiritual life. But if you realize that’s what you want in life, you can figure out what you have to do next.
If what you treasure is a vision of justice, but you’re unwilling to invest yourself in that work, that’s another clue that your spiritual life doesn’t line up with what you think it is.
On the other hand, you could discover just the opposite. You could, in fact be following your passion unwittingly. Unknowingly, you could be realizing that this is your way to God and how you engage God.
I knew such a woman when I worked in a parish. Mabel volunteered at the Catholic school library. Sometimes, when the kids acted out in class, the teachers would send them to the library instead of the principal’s office. I can’t recall ever hearing Mabel offer any big words of wisdom, but the kids would just calm down and rest. She loved them and accepted them. There was this loving, gentle quality to her soul that provided healing. Yet she would have said, “I’m a nobody; I’m just a widow with time on my hands.”
Maybe, like Mabel, you think your work is about somebody else, but it turns out that your vocation has created the kind of Christian that you’re happy to bring to God. There are people all over the world who are doing unbelievable things all the time without even knowing they are; that’s just where their heart is.
If you can articulate that for yourself, it may help you see that you’re holier than you thought in a wonderful, true way.
This article appears in the May 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 5, pages 20–24).