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Fr Dwight Longenecker: Are You Scared of Spirituality?

By Fr Dwight Longenecker
October 10th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)


Formal structures need spirituality, but spirituality also needs the formal structures. Think of the two like a trellis and a vine. The trellis is carefully crafted out of wood. It is put in place by clever vineyard designers. It needs maintenance and care, but it is the trellis. It is there to enable the vine to grow and flourish and bear rich fruit.

GREENVILLE, SC (Catholic Online) - Catholics seem to get stuck.  Some get stuck on their 'Sunday obligation'--which is the minimum commitment and they think that's all that's required. Others get stuck on religious rules and regulations and think if they just mind their manners they'll be just fine with the Lord. Others get stuck on doctrine and dogma and liturgical regulations and think if they do that just right they'll be okay. They get stuck on the small stuff and miss the big picture.

The big picture I'm talking about is spirituality. Because of the New Age movement 'spirituality' is a scary term for many Catholics. They think it's a load of sentimentality or personal emotionalism. Spirituality without religion is vague and ephemeral. Religion without spirituality is dead formalism.

What is 'spirituality'? The first problem is to define the term. Spirituality is the heart of our religion. It comprises all that is subjective and personal and relational and emotional and flexible and alive and open ended. In this sense it complements but never contradicts all the doctrine and dogma and rules and regulations and rubrics. Those elements, if you like, provide the structure or skeleton on which the rest survives. On their own they are dry bones, and 'can these dry bones live?'

These formal structures need spirituality, but spirituality also needs the formal structures. Think of the two like a trellis and a vine. The trellis is carefully crafted out of wood. It is put in place by clever vineyard designers. It needs maintenance and care, but it is the trellis. It is there to enable the vine to grow and flourish and bear rich fruit. The vine, on it's own will just grow across the ground aimlessly and the fruit (what fruit there is) would be crushed underfoot. The trellis, on the other hand, holds the vine up high. It allows the vine to be accessible, to grow and also to be properly pruned.

So spirituality is that free flowing life of God in our lives. It is the life of the Spirit, and the Spirit blows where it wills. Spirituality is free flowing and alive, but it must be nurtured through one of the many different spiritual traditions, and it is a good thing to discover one of the 'ways' within the church and stick with it.

This is where the communion of the saints becomes very practical and real. The saints are our brothers and sisters who have already been made whole in Christ. The church has endorsed their lives and endorsed the spiritualities they offer us. Following the spirituality of one of the saints is crucial because that way has not only been tested by the saint, but by the millions of brothers and sisters in Christ who have also followed that way. This is real, down to earth stuff. Not only has the saint lived the way he offers us, but he or she is also there with their prayers to help us on that way.

So I advise you to explore the different spiritual traditions. Are you drawn to Franciscan spirituality? Carmelite? Salesian? Ignatian? Benedictine? Are you drawn to monasticism and contemplation or activism and relationships? Are you drawn to Divine Mercy or Sacred Heart? Your personality type will draw you towards one or another. Explore them. Learn about them and see where God leads you.

What you must not do is make it up as you go along. Don't pick and choose among spiritualities. By all means learn about the different ones, but then once you find your home stick with it. Avoid syncretism. This is the modern temptation to put together your own spirituality-kind of like going to a spiritual buffet-"I'll have a smidgen of Benedictine monasticism, a touch of Franciscan love of animals, a helping of work for the poor and top it off with a little bit of Buddhism. Fugeddaboudit. Choose a good solid Catholic spiritual tradition and learn from it and walk in that path.

One of the Franciscan friars of the renewal put it this way: "We follow Jesus Christ in the way of St Francis." This is what a true Catholic spirituality does for us. Through it the Spirit gives us a more specific way to follow Jesus Christ. Each way has its own charism, its own discipline, its own structure and tradition.

Don't be afraid of spirituality. On the other hand, be dismissive of what most people call 'spirituality'. What a lot of people mean by 'spirituality' is a sentimental mish mash of shallow aphorisms, self help nonsense and New Age foolishness. Make sure your Catholic spirituality is deeply rooted in the sacraments--which is the ground of our faith, and firmly supported by the teachings of the church.

Remember the vine and the trellis.

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Fr Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary, Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his website and blog and sign up for his weekly newsletter at www.dwightlongenecker.com

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