September 6, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Both spiritual and religious

John F. FinkYou have probably heard someone comment that he or she is “spiritual but not religious.” It seems to be an excuse for seeking spiritual experiences while steadfastly avoiding any type of organized religion.

Americans seem always to be seeking the spiritual. Bookstores are full of books that tell how to harness our spiritual energy or “find our true selves.” Experts lead us away from harmful addictions and help us to find inner peace through meditation. New Age spirituality has become popular as people search for spiritual values in our secular society.

But many of these people reject religion like a plague. They see spirituality as freedom but religion as confining. They want to experience the magnificence of a sunrise rather than sit in a dreary church listening to a boring preacher.

These people don’t seem to realize that spirituality without religion is incomplete. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with spirituality, but one can be both spiritual and religious. It’s “both/and,” not “either/or.” A good Catholic uses the gifts that religion provides to make him or her more spiritual.

Too much of what passes for spirituality today is narcissistic. It smacks of a self-improvement system. It’s geared toward making one feel better, either physically or mentally. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Religion reaches out to others—or at least it should. It teaches love of God and love of neighbor because of our love for God. It’s possible to have spiritual experiences that have no relationship with God, but they are incomplete.

St. Thomas Aquinas said that religion is that part of the virtue of justice in which we human beings publicly and privately give God the worship due to him. It means observing what Jesus called the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5).

When we do that, we combine spirituality with religion. We become both spiritual and religious. Then we should carry it a bit further and accept Jesus Christ’s call to unite with others in communion with his mystical body, the Church. Through the graces we receive in baptism and the other sacraments, we are connected deeply to Christ and to all others whom he has redeemed.

Spirituality is a deeply personal thing, different for every individual. Within Catholicism, however, we are offered all kinds of help to develop our spirituality. Catholicism has a vast body of writings about spirituality.

Meditation and contemplative prayer have always been staples of Christian prayer. Today “centering prayer” (a form of contemplation) is being taught in many places. It is no longer confined to monasteries of men and women religious, but is regularly being practiced by lay people as an important part of their spiritual life.

Within the Catholic Church, there is some form of spirituality to satisfy anyone. The point is, the Catholic Church provides the opportunity for everyone to be both spiritual and religious. One does not have to choose one or the other. †

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