Spirituality is: the mysterious and wondrous hidden world of the soul
I would define spirituality as “the mysterious and wondrous hidden world of the soul”. It is a world of exploration which is exposed in the layers of our lives, our experiences and prayer.
Mysterious because the truth is revealed gradually (for most of us). Mysterious because even when it is revealed, we have great difficulty explaining to others what has happened to us, it cannot be easily put into the words or pictures, although many of the saints, mystics and others have tried. In the end it is, as Bernard McGinn describes, experiential. And because the experience is hidden to all but those who experience it, the transformation cannot be shared. (McGinn 2006)
Wondrous. Wondrous is an affective word. For me it denotes joy at the highest and a pure level. It transcends happiness because it has sustainability, perhaps sitting contently between ecstasy and what we consider material happiness or love. Akin to someone touching our heart, or butterflies in the stomach lasting for what seems like an eternity. An experience we know can only come from a higher power.
The search for these “wondrous” experiences are one reason recreational drugs have become so popular over the years, and in some cases are now considered, not just therapeutic, but alternative ways of coping. When you experience a high, you don’t want the lows. There is some analogy here with the sensation of inner peace described by the mystics, when inner peace has been attained, do nothing to try and shake it. (Guyon n.d.)
Today we seem to be in the marketing age of Spirituality, where we think we can “buy” some “wondrous” spirituality at Barnes and Noble, at the Spa with some rocks on our backs, buying a beach home. While is there is nothing wrong with some aspects of this “bottled Spirituality” it can and often becomes just another means to boost the ego. I went on a better retreat than you, I rode a bicycle through Vietnam, went on a 5 star safari. The bottom line is these roads, from a book to a trek in Tibet, all lead somewhere.
The increase in pilgrims on the Way of St. James since the screening of Martin Sheen’s movie The Way has been significant. If it means more are on their spiritual journey all to the good. Most have to take an outward journey first before they realize the real journey is inward. I see this in prison ministry in particularly, where for many I deal with, there is never going to be a physical outward journey, it all has to be inward. The wonder is contained inside.
Hidden world of the soul. The hidden world of our soul is only “seen” by ourselves in glimpses and completely by God. Much of the movement according to William James, is tied into “the reality of the unseen”, where tangibles such as images and icons are used to help us “picture” God or what He wants us to be. Without entering the deep subject of Christology here, safe to say that much of Catholic Church tradition is focused on giving the recipient “what they need” to help to them relate to God. God becoming Man, the Word made Flesh is the ultimate relationship between God and His creation. Us. While this movement is useful and helpful, just the words or doctrine in itself is unlikely to create a mystical experience. The hidden world of the soul remains concealed. However, it can put the soul on a path ready to receive one. As there is no “doorway” into a mystical experience, regulation and disciplines may help ready someone to receive one.
However, we can’t rely on this path as being the only way to see what is in the hidden world. (Guyon n.d.) This hidden world of the soul is totally visible to God, we can assume, or “know” that at the very least. Also we can take from the many teachings of others who have followed the mystical path, (St. Theresa of Alivia, St. John of the Cross and many others) God is always with us, it is more a matter of us “noticing” His presence. The more we are aligned with His will, the greater the chances there are of a transformative experience occurring. Our hearts are restless, till they rest in thee. (Augustine 401)
Reading and reference materials (recommended in Bold)
Dubay, Fr. Thomas (2009-12-17). Fire Within Ignatius Press.
Harper Bibles (2013-08-13). The NRSV Daily Bible: Read, Meditate, and Pray Through the Entire Bible in 365 Days (p. 1160). HarperCollins.
Merton, Thomas (2007-11-27). New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 1). New Directions.
Pope Francis (2014-04-20). The Church of Mercy (p. 15). Loyola Press.
Selman, Francis (2009-07-10). Aquinas 101: A Basic Introduction to the Thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas (p. 168). Ave Maria Press – A. Kindle Edition.
Cavazos-González OFM, Gilberto (2010-08-01). Beyond Piety: The Christian Spiritual Life, Justice, and Liberation Wipf & Stock, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
St. Francis of Assisi; Z. El Bey (2009-12-11). The Complete Writings of St. Francis of Assisi Anonymous (2010-10-07). The Cloud of Unknowing. Kindle Edition.
Merton, Thomas (2009-11-03). Contemplative Prayer (Image Classics). The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group.
Brother Lawrence (1967-02-01). The Practice of the Presence of God (Kindle Location 686). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Cantalamessa, Raniero (2011-06-30). Sober Intoxication of the Spirit: Filled With the Fullness of God
Augustine, Saint. 401. The Confessions of Saint Augustine.
Guyon, Madam. n.d. The Autobiography of Madam Guyon. Chicago: Moody Press.
McGinn, Bernard. 2006. The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. Paperback Edition. New York: The Modern Library.
Michael J. Cunningham OSF
PO BOX 306, Harvard, MA 01451
Please contact Mike for information about retreats/workshops/talks/facilitation