Monday, May 20, 2013

What Does it Mean to be a Spiritual Person?

Homily from the Solemnity of Pentecost, 2013

So often these days, the Catholic Church is spoken of  in institutional rather than spiritual terms.  In fact, religion and spirituality are increasingly placed in opposition to one another.  We hear it all the time: “I am really more of a spiritual than a religious person.”

I heard recently that a particular priest has taken to responding to this claim with “No you’re not.”  Not sure that really builds bridges.  But in less jarring tones, I think he is on to something.  We might ask, “Well, what does it mean to be spiritual, to be a spiritual person?”

I’m not sure what people think that means.  Walks in the woods or on the beach?  A kind of emotional sense of well-being?  Proficiency in the techniques of meditation?

And maybe those in our culture who claim to be spiritual need to be pressed a bit – maybe not with such a stark “No you’re not.” but maybe with the question “What does your spirituality look like?” or what I have taken to asking “So do you consider yourself to be a Christian?”

Because Christian spirituality, Christian teaching on the Spirit is pretty clear.  And it is clear in this: there can be no separation of Religion and Spirituality for the Christian.  To be a Christian is to be religious and spiritual, you cannot be authentically spiritual without being religious and you cannot be authentically religious without being spiritual.

There are other religions that practice a religiosity without a spirituality, and there are religions that practice a spirituality without religiosity.  But Christianity is not one of them.

The solemnity of Pentecost that we celebrate today makes this abundantly clear.  There is no authentic Christian spirituality that does not ultimately come from and lead back to Jesus Christ and his Church, gathered in the upper room.  When the Spirit descended on the 12 in the upper room, he inspired and gave birth not to a disassociated spirituality, but to a new human community animated by the grace, to a religion, the religion of Jesus Christ.

So where is this idea of the spiritual being opposed to the religious coming from?

I think that if we look at it, what people often are referring to, in contrasting the spiritual and the religious, is the interior and the exterior expressions of faith.  The thinking is that religion is an outward expression of faith, whereas the spiritual is interior.  And so when they claim that they are spiritual but not religious, the claim is really that their faith life is an interior matter that they do not believe needs to be or profits from being shared with others or lived in communion.

But this makes no sense - certainly not for the Christian, but nor does it even make sense for human beings.  As human beings, what we do affects who we are and who we are affects what we do.  There is no way that our religious activity or lack thereof can help but impact our spiritual lives, or that our spiritual lives can help but impact our practice of our faith.  Christ pointed this out directly and concretely throughout his life: that the Christian cannot be a whitewashed tomb, empty religiosity and pietism, but neither can the Christian be mere spirituality without concrete actions of love and compassion and worship that are carried out in communion with others.

In Christ, the outward expression and the inward disposition are united, the spiritual and religious are combined, the Spirit and the Word become Flesh work together to accomplish God’s saving work.  In Christ we are given the model of spiritual and religious authenticity: a harmony of soul and body that is united in following the will of the Father.

Here at Mass this harmony is profoundly lived: we come before our Lord, we worship him with signs and actions, and he tangibly and visibly places himself in our hands, giving us his Body and Blood to nourish us and strengthen us in the life of faith.  And at the same time, our hearts, our minds are opened – the Holy Spirit is ever at work within us to transform and convert us through Word and Sacrament, to ensure that the words and ritual actions of Mass are not just rolling off our tongues and being superficially performed.

It is so important for our world to know that this place, that our Church, our spiritual home is not a place of empty religiosity. No.  Here, religion opens us to the Spirit, to Pentecost.   Words that we have said a million times come to life in these walls, gestures that we have made by the thousand take on new meaning.  We are fed here with a food that is not mere earthly food – we are given a spiritual food, spiritual drink.  We learn here from Christ how to be spiritual people, how to love, how to sacrifice, how to be generous and honest and courageous.  Our souls are transformed in this place as our bodies go up and down, standing and sitting, kneeling and genuflecting and making the sign of the cross.  These are outward gestures and signs that express and help us to enter into the real drama of conversion and redemption that is being accomplished among us.

As your priest for the last 5 years, I have had a front row seat on this spiritual drama.  I have seen the Holy Spirit at work in you.  I have watched many of you experience conversion, redemption, consolation, and renewal in these walls.  I have seen the work of Pentecost, of the Holy Spirit, continued in our midst, in this upper room.  I think that is one of the great blessings of being a priest, this front row seat.

What does it mean to be a spiritual person?  For the Christian, there is no way to be spiritual without being religious.  Because being spiritual is a gift, a gift that is given by Holy Spirit to those who have been joined to Christ and his body, who seek to be authentically religious.  The Spirit is a gift given to those men and women who religiously go to the upper room as the apostles did with Our Lady, who place themselves before the Spirit of God so that he can transform them, renew them, purify them.  Men and women who, over time and with much effort and support from the whole Church, are gradually filled and one day we pray that they are entirely permeated with the grace of the Holy Spirit.  In other words, that they become saints.

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