What are we to make of all the books on spirituality cramming the shelves at Borders and the crowds of readers clotting the aisles between those shelves? How should we think about the mantra, “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual,” mouthed by everyone from Oprah to our tattooed daughters, or the craze for kabbalism among the otherwise not visibly enlightened?
Like others dedicated to the proposition that religion is not necessarily destructive of humanity, I have objected to the swell of new Gnosticism all around us and have argued that a bit of creed, canon, and even episcopacy (taken in moderate doses) could help keep spirituality from becoming, well, crazy.
Still, I am also committed to the notion that God uses human experience to teach us, and when some experiences become widespread, we need at least to pay attention. God may be revealing something to us. Even if we grant that a great deal of what calls itself spirituality these days is more psychic self-grooming than engagement with the Holy Spirit of God, even if we allow that the flight from religion is another form of the pandemic avoidance of community commitment in our world, there is perhaps more to be learned from so popular a movement about the starvation of the human spirit in a pathology that is as much communal as individual.
The pathology is systemic in American culture and in American religion. American society privileges the loud and the productive. With its mind-numbing noise, crowding, rushing, anxiety and anger, the Atlanta airport on any given day provides the pulse of a culture lacking what Josef Pieper said was its essential basis, namely leisure. Not even our kids are allowed space and time for creative boredom. They must slave all day everyday at studies, or soccer, or cheerleading, or dance. Parenting is a frantic juggling of mini-seconds and multitasking in minivans filled with the noise of restless children and commercial hectoring. Quiet is a commodity not available in the American market. American religion, in turn, perfectly reflects our bias for productivity and success over mature growth and fruitfulness. American religion is nothing if not busy. Ministry is program, successful ministry is programming as complex as the circumambient society.
Is it any wonder that Christians seek something more than the spirit-flattening utilitarianism of commerce and church, some sense of worth for being and not just doing? In some circles, the spirit is sought through the experience of being born again, in others through the experience of baptism in the Spirit and speaking in tongues. It is the same impulse, I think, that in other circles leads people to the self-help and spirituality section of the bookstore. Looked at this way, the quest for a spiritual life or a life of prayer is not only perfectly intelligible, it can be affirmed as a form of prophetic protest against everything mechanistic and dehumanizing in culture and religion.
Not every form of this quest, however, is necessarily healthy, and not every realization of the Spirit (as Paul long ago alerted us) “builds up the body.” There is a lot of ersatz spirituality floating around, a lot of silliness, that can do lesser or greater damage to the needy and naive.
The good news for Catholics is that we have resources for learning the movements of the spirit and the way of prayer, the dimensions of the quiet life, a richer and deeper than those peddled by the gurus of instant bliss. Most important, we have a living tradition of the contemplative life within Catholicism found in monasteries and convents where men and women have dedicated themselves precisely to being more than doing. And their wisdom and discernment in the life of the Spirit is available to lay Catholics through pilgrimage, retreat, and spiritual direction. Even more accessible—often on the same Borders bookshelves—are the great classics of spirituality from Gregory of Nyssa to Teresa of Ávila, whose books on spirituality lead readers deeper into the mystery of Christ rather than away from it. Finally, some sense of this vast territory can be glimpsed in the more contemporary writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Kathleen Norris. Now find a quiet hour, a quiet spot, to read and think and pray a bit.
Related: Thomas Baker reviews Kathleen Norris's 'Acedia & Me'