What Is Spirituality?

by Father Martin Pable, OFM Capuchin

Spirituality can be defined as “the ongoing endeavor to grow in our relationship with God.”

Let’s take a closer look at that definition.

1. First of all, spirituality is an endeavor. It is not simply a set of concepts or beliefs to keep in our head. It is both a vision of life and a way of living in accord with that vision. In other words, it involves choice and it is action-oriented. Spirituality ought to give direction not only to our thinking, but also to our decision-making and actions.

2. Second, it is an ongoing endeavor. That is, spirituality is not something we eventually finish, like a job or a project. We attend to it, nurture it, refine it till the day we die. Like the biblical notion of conversion, spirituality is dynamic and never-ending.

3. Third, its goal is growth in our relationship with God. This assumes that we already have a relationship with God. The task is to develop and deepen it, much like any other relationship. To do so requires spiritual discipline, such as Scripture reading and personal prayer.

Men: Get Personal with God

For now, however, I want to focus on something more immediate. One of the obstacles to spiritual growth that I often find in my work with men is that many men are not convinced that they have a personal relationship with God. At least, they don't think in those terms.

Rather, they think of spirituality exclusively in terms of practices such as praying, attending Mass, going to confession, helping their neighbor. None of this is wrong, of course, but it does not get to the heart of spirituality. After all, I might succeed in doing all of the above for the wrong reasons: to avoid going to hell, to feel good about myself, to impress my neighbors, to keep my wife from nagging.

To use an analogy, it would be like a golfer concentrating on keeping his head down, bending his right knee, cocking his wrists, following through but forgetting that the object of the game is to hit the ball onto the green and into the cup.

A great truth is that spirituality, in the Christian tradition, begins with God, not with self. Psychologically, however, it begins with us, in the sense that at some point we sense our incompleteness, our loneliness, our profound limitations, our disillusion with all that merely glitters and seduces, our longing for something or someone that can truly fill us. Consciously or unconsciously, we are searching for God.

But the blessed message, the good news of the Scriptures, is that God is in search of us.

This dynamic occurs over and over in the Scriptures, from the story of the Fall to Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, in which the shepherd (image of God) goes out in search of the one who strayed.

It also appears in the scene where Jesus is saying, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). The door is a symbol of the human heart. Notice again who takes the initiative. It is Christ who comes knocking and calling to us.

But he will never force his way into our lives. We must open the door of our heart to him, and that can only be done from the inside that is, from our own free will. But if we make that choice, Jesus says, he will come in and share a meal with us. To share a meal in the Middle East is always a sign of special friendship. Once again, we are back to the very essence of spirituality: a personal relationship.

Are You Avoiding God?

So, first of all, God is always reaching out to us, inviting us. That is the first movement of spirituality. The second movement is up to us: We can choose either to ignore the invitation or to respond by committing ourselves to a personal relationship with God or with Jesus Christ alone, if we find it easier to relate to him; it really doesn't matter, because one Divine Person will eventually draw us into relationship with all three Persons of the Trinity.

When I say we can choose to ignore God’s invitation, I’m not necessarily implying that this is a conscious decision. Most of the time, I think, we are simply too distracted or preoccupied to recognize that we are being addressed by God.

I once heard Anthony De Mello say that our society keeps giving us “drugs” that dull our spiritual awareness: consumer products, forms of entertainment, all-absorbing work, the need to look good, to be accepted, to feel powerful. With our senses and imagination tuned to all this, it is difficult indeed to hear the call of God in the depths of our souls.

Excerpted from The Quest for the Male Soul. Copyright ©1996 by Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN 46556, www.avemariapress.com. Used with permission of the publisher.