Transformation or Self-Inflation? The Challenge of Spirituality Today
Spirituality has exploded in the twenty-first century and spiritual paths are everywhere. Contemplative practices, spirituality groups, Eastern and Western paths of mysticism, all abound across the infinite terrain of cyberspace. Basically, one can find whatever group that fits one’s spirit: “We have the spirituality for you!” If there was a shopping mall dedicated to spirituality, it would be packed with seekers and spirituality stuff.
With so much spirituality around, one wonders why we have such a divided world. Surely, there is enough spiritual energy at hand to ignite a spaceship. How do we make sense of the abundance of spirituality and the depletion of world resources? An abundance of spirituality and global warming? An abundance of spirituality and homeless people? Something is not quite right.
We have built ourselves a very complex world, so complex that our overworked brains can no longer comprehend what we are reading. The daily overload of information depletes our spirits, and we are in need each day of soul nourishment. Spirituality seems to be a matter of survival. Without soul nourishment, we feel we will perish. But spirituality was never intended to be a therapeutic approach to self-maintenance or survival. In fact, the great spiritual traditions are all centered around the transformation of the human person, not maintenance of the human person. We are not neutral with regard to the world: we either help make the world a better place or we unravel it. The transformation of self is the transformation of world.
While there is a lot of spirituality permeating the human net, there is too much ego for spirituality to really be effective. Everyone wants to be a star. Everyone wants to shine out, to be important. Social media can be notoriously ego-building. We profile ourselves so others will notice: “Isn’t she wonderful!” “What a great idea!” “You are really special!” Teachers know the difficulty of educating students today. God forbid a teacher should give a student a “B,” even worse, a “C.” They will likely hear from the parents and the administration. We can no longer effectively criticize another’s work or suggest that it needs improvement. Everyone wants to be accepted as they are; every student wants an “A,” even if the work is mediocre. We can no longer distinguish between what is truly excellent and what is average, whether in education or spirituality. It is all lumped together as “super smart” or “really great,” a “superstar in the making” when, in fact, what is being produced is neither smart nor great. It is acceptable—ok—nothing more.
The internet has compounded our lack of excellence, whether it is spiritual excellence, mental excellence or physical excellence. Everyone seems to be copying from everyone else, especially if they think the “other” might have a head’s up or a lead in the competition we have imagined for ourselves. Everything is a game, and everyone wants to be on the winning side. In this respect, spirituality has become mundane, prosaic. One can find fifty different ways of practicing contemplation on the web, as if being fitted for a dress: “I like this method because it fits me.” Spirituality abounds but the truth is, there are very few real spiritual people.
The truly spiritual person never defines oneself as “spiritual,” no less “deeply spiritual,” because the truly spiritual are truly other-centered. This morning I gave a talk on Francis of Assisi. Every time I recount his life, I am in awe at his spiritual genius. He described himself as a “simple and ignorant” (or illiterate) person. “What a person is before God,” he said, “that is what he or she is and nothing more.” What? Nothing more? Francis, like many saints, had a one-track mind focused entirely on God. The goal of his life was to fall in love with God completely and to become like Christ. Francis did not want to become just a good person; he wanted a Godly life, one where Christ shone through every cell of his body, every word and gesture of his life. Thomas of Celano, the earliest biographer of Francis, said that Jesus was “always on his lips and in his heart” and he described Francis’s intense Christ focus this way:
He was always with Jesus:Thomas of Celano 1:283
Jesus in his heart,
Jesus in his mouth,
Jesus in his ears,
Jesus in his eyes,
Jesus in his hands,
he bore Jesus always
in his whole body.
Elsewhere he writes, “walking, sitting, eating, drinking, he was focused on prayer.” In other words, Francis dedicated his entire life, every waking hour, to the love of God. This was his vocation. Many other saints, in unique ways, lived whole-hearted and single-hearted lives dedicated to God. We see through the window of the saints that the spiritual life is a life of transforming ordinary human energies into super-human divine energies of love. The spiritual life takes all that we have and all that we are. It is not a method or a group practice or whatever modern spirituality has carved out for itself. It is a choice and decision to throw oneself into the arms of God. By doing so, one throws oneself into the heart of mystery. One lives by faith in what is not seen rather than by sight in what is seen. There is a real desire to know the spiritual journey more deeply today but there is little patience in acquiring such knowledge and deepening it.
In our age of “spiritual but not religious,” spirituality is no longer defined by religious traditions. Rather, the spiritual mystic is one who is grasped by the ineffable depth and breadth of life. This past week I had the opportunity to speak with two different scientists for our podcast series. One scientist works at NASA on questions of extraterrestrial life, and the other works at the University of California on questions of the origin of life. What really struck me was the complete other-centeredness of their discussions. Each one was enamored by a mystery of life that science itself cannot quite understand. Studying the dazzling beauty of the cosmos, in its origins and expansiveness, is a spiritual experience. Bonaventure spoke of theological study as a path to holiness. I think the same can be same of cosmological study today; it is a path to the whole and thus to holiness. Teilhard de Chardin spoke of science as a form of spirituality. He called it “dark adoration.” He blessed matter because without it we would remain ignorant both of ourselves and of God. In his “Hymn to Matter,” he wrote:
I bless you , matter….in our totality and your true nature. You I acclaim as the inexhaustible potentiality for existence and transformation. . . .I acclaim you as the universal power which brings together and unites. . . .I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power. . . Raise me up then, matter. . .until, at long last, it becomes possible for me in perfect chastity to embrace the universe (Hymn of the Universe, 69-70).
Matter does not separate us from the world of essences; it is neither fallen nor profane. It is only by working our way through matter that our minds can expand to ultimate meaning. Teilhard saw the work of science as contemplative work, forming new truths, new discoveries, that create new horizons of insight. Is this not what the spiritual life is about? Discovering who we are and our capacity for God is the work of a lifetime. God is an inexhaustible mystery of surprise and newness. The spiritual person, whether explicitly or implicitly, is filled with wonder and awe—unaware of what anyone else thinks or, if they do, it is of little importance compared to the dynamic attraction of mystery. God is such a magnificent word of abundant life it would take many lifetimes to really know God, and even then, we would hardly touch the hem of the mystery.
Jesus summed up the choice between the busy person who seeks to be noticed, and the contemplative who ponders the mystery of life, in his parable of Mary and Martha. Mary sat quietly and listened to Jesus’ words while Martha ran around the kitchen striving to serve him the perfect meal. He simply said: “Mary has chosen the better half and it shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42). Busyness is exhausting. Real spirituality is dynamic and energizing, even in sickness. Where the Spirit of God is truly alive, energy abounds with the newness of life because the inner person is being born; an attractive power of love is pulling one onward.
Our world is desperately in need of real spirituality because it is in need of persons on fire with the love of God. Let us not deceive ourselves by spiritual consumerism. God needs us to be fully open and ready for transformation, a new type of Godly-life that makes the universe expand and stars explore. To give birth to God is to give birth to the freedom of our identity. Spirituality is about the creation of the soul, not maintenance of the soul. The greatest challenge of our age is the self-inflated ego, as well as the self-protected ego. We desire real transcendence, but we fear the cost of transformation. Jesus said it best: “If you want to find your life, you must lose it and if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it” (Matt 10:39). Can we lose our lives in an age of the internet and consumerism? Spirituality must redefine itself in the twenty-first century if we hope for the future. The fires raging across our beautiful planet must become the raging fires of our own personal transformation: “I have come to cast fire up on the earth,” Jesus said, “and how I wish it were blazing” (Luke 12:49). Fire burns but it also transforms. The fire of the Gospel is love. Let us set ourselves on fire with love, and the world will be made anew.
When Did Jesus Become God?
[God is another name for personhood. The Christian mutation is the development of personhood in freedom and love.] In an article on “The Emergence of Devotion to Jesus in the…