Spirituality vs. Jesus
January 17, 2007 • By Federica Mathewes-Green
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.