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:
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.  

Thomas of Celano 1:283

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.

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13 Comments

  1. Brian Davis on October 12, 2022 at 3:49 pm

    “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.” what a daring notion. Nonetheless, how utterly Christ centered in its call to transformation and responsibility. Spirituality demands an active part in ourselves and in the world. Thank you for this beautiful insight.



  2. Norma O'Meara on October 12, 2022 at 5:46 pm

    This is outstanding! You have articulated something I have been feeling for some time. Why indeed is there a glut of spirituality and so much injustice in so many countries? Thank you for “raiding the unspeakable” for putting out there what authentic spirituality actually is. For making the words of Jesus super relevant for our times.



  3. Dexter Lanctot on October 12, 2022 at 5:53 pm

    Amen!



  4. hildageraghty on October 12, 2022 at 6:24 pm

    Yes, definitely! Only God is big enough to dethrone our ego. Thank you, Ilia!



  5. Joe Masterleo on October 12, 2022 at 9:54 pm

    None are worthy to enter-in unless made worthy by Another who knows how to accomplish same in each one called. It’s not about you in the least, and from the get-go. Otherwise, without a distinctive invite or call, frequent ego-ectomies along the way, plus ample supplies of grace (also not about you) to get you there, forget it, you’ll never make the grade, or pass muster. Not in your energy anyway, not on your best day. The only ability required is avail-ability. The payoff is immeasurable in terms whole-making dividends, pleasing the Boss (not easy), and maybe service work. The latter is often thankless, with little or no pay, often without success, much disappointment, and little recognition. Fanfare or publicity? You gotta be kidding. Did I forget getting used to stretches of loneliness and being misunderstood? At worst the experience can be harrowing, like being dragged through a knothole. Lumbering camels are averse to such tiny entrance ways. Otherwise, admission is free. No vainglory or glory hounds please. There are no applications to fill out, and no lines waiting to get in. The cost of staying in? Well, let’s just say its steep and deep, Grand Canyon-esque. Spiritual knowledge, after all, is not the same as knowledge of spiritual things. Neither is the Christian experience the same as the experience of Christians. And that’s just for starters.



  6. Craigus on October 15, 2022 at 7:59 pm

    Beautiful! Really needed this.



  7. Desmond on October 21, 2022 at 12:43 pm

    I have just finished the Book by John Higgs “William Blake vs the World.” Perhaps Blake gives us a few pointers, along with other prophets like Vincent vanGogh?



  8. Michael on October 21, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    This article needs to shared widely and enthusiastically. I think it will speak to a wide swath of folks who are genuinely searching, intuitively knowing there has to be more.

    I was remind of a comment by Iain McGilchrist, (Psychiatrist, Neuroscience Researcher, Philosopher and Literary Scholar) who seems to affirm Ilia’s diagnosis’s of much/some of western spirituality – “egoic preferences.”

    Delio’s call and inspiration towards more kenotic love, greater depth, to more becoming and whole-making is very important for this season, and for moving forward in a thoughtful, soulful, and life-inspiring spirituality for a post-christiandom, quantum world.



  9. Joe Masterleo on October 22, 2022 at 11:26 am

    A novel synthesis of science and theology is still in the making. When published, it may well be post-modernity’s Baptist-forerunner preparing the way for the second advent. Such an inspired person will merely introduce (“baptize”) via a novel conceptual synthesis what the returning Christ will effectuate by fire and Spirit universally. This mythical cosmotheology may be to the evolution of consciousness what the invention of air travel was to the Wright brothers in offering an elevated perspective of the rolling countryside. To innovators Orville and Wilber, the land had erstwhile been experienced as only it can be for flatlanders below, divided into so many lots, parcels, and homesteads. But from the air, the landscape took on an altogether different look and feel, that of a continuous, unbroken plane of undulating sod upholding all things. Boundaries which separate crops and cattle of the field do not appear separate to the birds of the air, whose ability to stay aloft at length without flapping their wings were studied diligently by these inquisitively diligent brothers. Ditto vestigial separation-consciousness vs evolved unitive consciousness in human hearts and minds. When Christ returns, “as lightning flashes from east to west,” instantly the entire universe and all things in it shall never again look or feel the same, for old things will have totally passed away, and all things will become new.



  10. williamlowry1 on October 23, 2022 at 6:24 am

    We can never hope to know God, we do, however, need to trust in His love and our capacity to share that love.



  11. Mary Pat Jones on November 7, 2022 at 8:43 pm

    I certainly support what everyone is saying, but I have to point out that of course there are many, many people who want to cling to an idea of what serves them as their perspective of spirituality. That’s where they are! Running just as fast as they can! Running from their patterns, often unaware of their projections and other defense mechanisms. For some that’s what’s holding them together. I had a lady at the dentist office tell me that any day now people are just going to be disappearing, going to be saved. If any thing, I perceive we are seeing a regression in egoic stability. I also would not be surprised if we aren’t going to see a very stark time. We need to be with people where they are at and keep being open ourselves. Kenosis is not to be feared. We are with the ancient and they are with us in Christ which for me includes every world religion. Peace be with you❤️



  12. Mary Pat Jones on November 8, 2022 at 10:42 pm

    I need to clarify what I mean by being with people where they are at. I don’t’ t mean reinforcing what is being said or done, I just mean letting people hear themselves, active listening. There is so much fear and anxiety, it’s not uncommon to see regression in coping right now, or clinging to mental perspectives of “spirituality” to identify with. Yes I do believe that many people are being exploited right now by others who know better. Yes there is evil. Yes, I see an increasing dangerous pattern. I think it is very hard for many to see from a global view. I think we have become so entitled, so attached, materialized, and polarized. We have to live our values and use our spiritual traits/charisms humbly in relation with all. We must remain open and fed by the simple miracles of nature around us and in our animal world. We must be kind, warm, yet firm with boundaries. Our understanding of evolutional Christ has and continues to feed us by this Center for Christogenesis. We are all called to remain open and awake.❤️



  13. Kay Ann Jackson on November 28, 2022 at 7:40 am

    I now realize that not everyone wishes to transform. For son, this movement consumes too much energy and is too scary. Perhaps their lives are too filled with too much uncertainty to take on “one more thing”.
    That’s ok. That’s where I come in. I know that no matter my age, your age, God can make great inroads. If given a chance, an opening, God comes racing in. This is the Transformational Moment. If not turned away, this moment Awakens you forever.



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