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January 10, 2007

Spirituality vs. Jesus

I don't like the word spirituality. It sounds so external, so optional. It isn't a concept I find in the first millennium, or anywhere in Eastern Christianity. As far as I can tell, what Christians today mean by "spirituality" is what St. Paul meant by "life in Christ."

This is a transformation that every Christian is supposed to be experiencing, because we are all "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). As we partake of the life of Christ and discipline ourselves, seeking to assimilate that life, it affects both our souls and bodies. His light spreads within us like fire spreading through coal, and so we become Christ-bearers to the world. This is such an essential, foundational element of life in Christ that to extract it and label it seems to deaden it.

Early Christians did not talk about "spirituality," much less varieties of spirituality, appropriate to this or that kind of personality, or ethnic background, or gender. Not only is that unhelpful, I don't think it's even possible to set up such divisions. Each one of us is participating in the light of the One Christ, so in one sense spirituality is exactly the same for everyone, because Christ is one. But each one of us is the only human being God ever made who is exactly us, so we will radiate that light back out again just a bit differently than any other saint.

So although the unity of Christ means there is only one possible spirituality, in another sense there are as many different spiritualities as the billions of people who live and who have lived. But an in-between that imagines that there are different styles appropriate to this or that sub-group, speaks of nothing so much as our culture's reflexive love of shopping.

The thing about contemporary spirituality that annoys me the most is its capacity for narcissism. Focusing on spirituality instead of on the Lord makes you stop halfway down the hallway and think about yourself. That obviously delays your progress. It can be a temptation to consumerism: "Gee, centering prayer didn't work; I think I'll try Ignatian meditation." And it can be a temptation to self-adornment, by suggesting that being spiritual makes you superior to other people, makes you more interesting or deep. What appears to be very intentional involvement with spiritual things can actually be simply the taking up a new beauty regimen.

We can say, as in Christ's parable of the wheat and tares, "An enemy has done this." It is a strategy of the Evil One to take a good impulse and twist it backward into self-regard.

The term spirituality is troublesome because it reifies something that ought to go unnoticed. When you start taking an exaggerated interest in your breathing is when your breathing starts going wrong. Our sole focus should be on the compelling beauty of our Lord, and what moves us forward is only our desire for him. So my advice is: don't seek an improved spirituality, or even a better prayer life. Just seek the Lord Jesus Christ, and keep your eyes on him.


Thank you, Frederica (and thanks to Amy for posting this). I alway benefit deeply from your writing. I can almost physically see the light infusing the words. Blessings.

Amen to that. It's so easy to lose focus.

I couldn't agree more with what you have written - it is almost as though we are seeking a special formula to draw closer to Jesus - it is all so simple really - just be available - be in His presence - then don't be too busy telling him what he already knows - stay quiet and listen to what he has to say, as well as your speaking with him

I found myself having some interesting reactions to this article. I have been in the evangelical faith tradition for over 30 years. I have served in more ministries than I can count, been to endless Bible studies and read every book I could get my hands on about being more like Christ.

It is only over the past three years when I have stepped into the stream of contemplative 'spirituality' that I feel I have developed true intimacy with Jesus. Although this journey has involved introspection through silence, solitude, journaling, centering prayer, etc., I certainly don't think of it as navel gazing. The time spent practicing the spiritual disciplines has produced fruit....fruit that I tried for years to bring forth. More knowledge of Jesus didn't move me closer to Him; it only gave me more information about Him. But taking the time to process what He speaks into my heart while I sit in His presence has resulted in truly living life for Him out of my heart instead of my head. As I tried different disciplines, I don't think I was 'shopping' for the newest thing to try out but looking for the ways that I could be in communion with God...not for my own selfish desire but to try and live this thing called life in a way that allows me to be aware of His work in and through me.

I have embraced the word "spirituality'. I know it can mean a lot of things to a lot of people but to me it means the wholeness of my journey with God and all that entails in my life.

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