Traits of a Healthy Spirituality
By Melannie Svoboda, “Spirituality, Where are You?”
Spirituality is meeting God in all that life is.
– Patricia Livingston
Spirituality is the experience of integrating self-transcendence within the horizon of ultimacy.
– Sandra Schneiders
Spirituality is how I cope with life.
– Gerard Broccolo
An old recipe for rabbit stew begins with this directive: “Catch rabbit.” Obviously the person who wrote the recipe was taking nothing for granted. In writing this book, I wish to take nothing for granted either. That’s why, as I begin it, I am following this directive: “define spirituality.” For it stands to reason that before we can look at the traits of a healthy spirituality we must first know what we mean by spirituality.
The word spirituality has been defined in many ways. Historically, spirituality was often equated with the so-called religious aspects of the Christian life such as prayer, penance, and fasting. More recently the word has been defined in broader terms. In one sense, Christian spirituality is synonymous with Christian living. As theology professor Michael Downey says, “Spirituality is not merely an aspect of Christian life, it is the Christian life lived in response to the Spirit.”
Traditionally, spirituality stressed our relationship with God. More recently the word calls attention to other relationships as well. Gerard Broccolo, in his book Vital Spiritualities, subscribes to this broader view when he writes: “Spirituality . . . involves a way of viewing and experiencing God, self, others, and the world.” Today we also emphasize the fact that our spirituality can never be divorced from the time and place in which we live. Dyckman and Carroll make this point clear in their book Inviting the Mystic, Supporting the Prophet: “Spirituality is the style of a person’s response to Christ before the challenge of everyday life, in a given historical and cultural environment.”
Spirituality as Our Outlook on Life
The owner of a priceless antiques collection was allowing a museum to exhibit some of his valuable treasures. While the movers packed his vases, the owner hovered nervously over them. To one burly mover, the man cautioned, “Please be careful with that vase. It’s nearly two thousand years old!” The mover replied, “Don't worry, Mister. I’ll treat it like it was brand new!”
The story illustrates the fact that individuals can view things in very different ways. I like to think of spirituality in those terms: it is the way we view things. More specifically spirituality is our basic outlook on life. St. Paul exhorts us to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). Spirituality, then, is our endeavor to perceive reality more and more with the mind (and heart) of Jesus. This means all of reality and not simply the so-called religious aspects of our life. Our spirituality colors the way we look at everything – from ourselves to others, from God to the stock market, from love to platypuses.
But spirituality goes beyond the mere perception of reality. It also includes our responses to reality, that is, the actions and behaviors that flow from that perception. Our spirituality is expressed in the little daily decisions and choices we make: what kind of food we eat, how we talk to the clerk in the store, how much time (if any) we devote to prayer. Our spirituality also includes the big choices we make: whom we decide to marry or befriend, the kind of home we live in, the type of work we choose to do. When life presents us with few options, our spirituality influences the way we accept and work within the confines of such restrictions. When life gives us no choice at all, our spirituality determines the way we deal with such “givens,” the way we face the inevitable.
Christian spirituality is not something reserved for Sundays or Christmas Eve. It is lived every day – including rainy Mondays and ordinary days in the middle of February. Our spirituality is reflected in how we do the so-called holy things in life – such as pray to God, give alms to the poor, and forgive those who have wronged us. But it is also shown in how we do the so-called ordinary things – such as eat an apple, stand in a checkout line, greet a stranger, notice a robin. As author Joann Wolski Conn says, “Spirituality includes every dimension of human life.”
Spirituality: One, Unique, and Ongoing
Christian spirituality has three characteristics: it is one, it is unique, it is ongoing. Christian spirituality is one. This means it has certain “constants” or certain universal traits. For example, Christian spirituality has its foundations in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Any spirituality claiming to be Christian, then, must be rooted in the paschal mystery. Other constants of Christian spirituality would include things like the primacy of love, the mandate of forgiveness, the necessity of prayer.
Christian spirituality is, at the same time, unique. No two individuals have exactly the same perspective on life. Each of us sees life differently, depending on our genetic makeup, our past experiences, our gender and age, our educational background, etc. Just as our perspective on life is unique to each one of us, so too is our spirituality – as unique as our fingerprints or DNA. Even though we may share many beliefs and practices with other Christians, none of us has a “spiritual clone.”
Christian spirituality is also ongoing. It is always in process. This means we can never say our spirituality is fully formed or finished. We always have more things to learn and more ways to grow. God is forever calling us to greater conversion. (The very fact that you are taking the time to read this book is a pretty good sign that you believe spirituality is ongoing.)
God Asks: “Where Are you?”
There is an incident in the book of Genesis that reminds us how God is forever calling us to greater conversion. Adam and Eve had just disobeyed God by eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Later that day, when God came to the garden in the cool of the evening to walk with them, Adam and Eve were ashamed of their sin and hid themselves among the trees. God called out to them and asked, “Where are you?” (cf. Gn 3:8-9)
In reflecting on this incident, someone has posed the question: “Because God is all-knowing, God certainly knew what Adam and Eve had done and where they were hiding. Why then did God ask them, ‘Where are you?’” Judaic philosopher Martin Buber provides a good answer. He says God asked Adam and Eve that question not to learn something new. Rather, God asked that question in order to make Adam and Eve confront their current state in life. When God asked them, “Where are you?” God was really asking them, “Where are you – in relationship to me, to yourself, to each other, to your world? How far along are you on your journey?”
God asks us the same question today. “Where are you?” God asks it not to learn something new, but rather, as author Wilkie Au expresses it, God asks it “to jolt us into examining our lives and taking responsibility for our way of living.” God is asking us today, “Where are you? How far along are you in your Christian journey?” Hopefully the following chapters will help us to answer that question.
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From the Preaching Notes of Father André Coindre
On the love of God
from a sermon by Father André Coindre
Yes, in creating you, God loved you as a father,
So you could enjoy the sensation of living,
So you could surge forth from the nothingness of eternal silence,
Out of murky vagueness and into light.
In deciding to create you, God loved you as a father,
No, I say he loved you as more than a father,
Because the love of a father begins only at the instant of birth.
God’s love began eternally before that
Without the slightest interruption,
Without a moment of indifference.
God has loved you constantly in the mystery of eternity.
You began in his mind’s eye a century of centuries before you were born.
You began in his heart of hearts before there was time.
It was his dream to place you among his chosen ones,
in his holy nation.
Before the world was born, faithfully, eagerly,
God had in mind to give you the grace of holiness, of wholeness,
So you would walk in his presence alive with his love.
In deciding to create you, God loved you as a father.
No, I say again as more than a father,
Because the love of a father is mixed with self-interest and duty.
God’s is free, gratuitous. He loves you tenderly, purely and simply.
In deciding to create you, God loved you as a father…
As more than a father,
Because as tender as a father’s love is,
He does not choose his children.
But God loved you with the love of choice, with preferential love.
He preferred you. He wanted you in particular.
I am not talking about all the ways he spoiled you and favored you,
Sparing you from harsh climates and disasters, which so many endure,
Saving you from persecution, suffering and death.
I am talking about the grace of God’s choice
To create you in preference to millions of others
He could have created,
To desire you instead of the hundreds, even thousands
Of worlds and beings which could have fired his love,
And which could have responded more generously than you,
But which, compared to you, will forever remain
Uncreated, in eternal neglect.
Have you ever realized that your heart
Was created in the place of so many hearts
Which might have been holier,
Much more ardent in returning God’s love?
And yet your heart, as simple and as small,
as narrow as you might feel it to be;
God prefers it to all those others.
Never, ever doubt the love in the heart of God for you.
Could he have put into the heart of your father
Or into the heart of your friends who love you dearly
A feeling that he did not first have in his own heart?
Could the tender heart of your mother have showered on you
Such love and caring all day and all night
During your infancy without God first giving her
The energy of his restless love?
Admit it and proclaim it then: God is more than your father.
He is a father deeply in love with you.
Compared to him all fathers and mothers are only a reflection,
He is a father whose heart is a roaring hearth, an intense fire.
He is a father whose love makes
the most loving and dedicated persons you might know or imagine
seem like nothing more than the faintest spark.
Admit his love, proclaim it. And pray with me.
My God, despite my pettiness, my sinfulness, you love me. The goodness, the gentleness of your love is too good to be believed too easily. How is it that you love such inconstant, such small creatures as us? Are you forgetting that only goodness and beauty are worthy of such love? At least that’s how we are! We love only what is good, or at least only what seems good in our limited and sinful affections. We reject what is ugly and unpleasant. But you who see everything, whose gaze penetrates into our darkest selves, into the hardest parts of our hearts, you love us. You love us with our refusals and selfishness, with our vices and addictions. You love us while we are sinners! My God, how sublime and mysterious! I have come to take your love for granted. I have come to count on your love. I have come to expect you to love me even in my most outrageous moments of insult and vengeance.
O incomprehensible lover, how can I keep speaking about your love unless you pour into my heart great tongues of fire? How can I speak another word unless you gather up and fill me with the love in the hearts of all mothers and fathers who ever existed, of all saints who have ever loved, of all the angels who adore you. Give me the grace to love in return, to respond worthily to your heart forever open and forever full.
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Characteristics of a Brothers’ School from the Educational Charism Statement of the United States Provinces of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart
A spirituality of the Heart of Christ
Education in the charism of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart flows from a spirituality of the Heart of Christ which permeates the entire school community. This spirituality of love is characterized by relationships based on compassion, attention, affection, and respect for the individual.
Integration of faith and life
By integrating faith and life, our students, faculty, and staff demonstrate the spirituality of the Heart of Christ. As educators in the faith, we model for our students and for one another faith in action as a necessary response to the Gospel.
A spirit of community
Encountering Christ in each individual, we build community in our schools through close relationships, shared ministry, and common values. We give special attention to developing a spirit of openness, friendliness, and mutual support. Hospitality, family spirit, collegiality, teamwork, and appropriate consultation are characteristics of our schools.
Formation of the whole person
Because students are valued and treasured gifts from God, we accept responsibility for their formation as a sacred trust. We form the whole person by developing the God-given intellectual and physical abilities of our students and by advancing their spiritual, moral, and social consciousness. The total school environment contributes to their formation through emphasis on the modeling of Christian values, high expectations, personal responsibility, and mutual respect. As educators, we model these values through our own personal formation and professional development.
Special concern for the poor and neglected
André Coindre’s concern for poor, neglected, and dechristianized youth is at the heart of our educational mission. We share his determination to provide educational opportunities for as many materially poor students as possible and continue to look for new ways to increase our efforts on their behalf. We work to sensitize the entire school community to the needs of the materially poor. We strive to address the needs of our students who experience learning, personal or social problems.
In our tradition, we view being with the young as privileged opportunities to show expressions of concern, encouragement, and love. We see availability as a witness to the compassionate love of Christ. It is an active presence, which requires accessibility and approachability. Availability provides the opportunity for personal attention, accompaniment, support, and vigilance.
An ordered and structured environment
We believe that a well-ordered, structured, and nurturing environment is essential to teach and to experience love of God, love of neighbor, and love of learning. In such an environment, we strive to teach our students to respect authority and one another and to develop a sense of self-discipline. In our tradition, discipline respects the dignity of the individual, is consistent and fair, and is based on relationships of mutual trust and cooperation.