Are You Scared of Spirituality?

François Gérard (1770-1837), “Sainte Thérèse”
François Gérard (1770-1837), “Sainte Thérèse” (photo: Public Domain)
Why is it that among ‘conservative Catholics’ there seems to be so little interest in spirituality? We’re big on apologetics. We’re big on dogma. We’re big on the moral teaching of the Church. We’re big on the rules, the rubrics, the regulations and the routine. But I think we’re a little bit scared of spirituality. 
If my hunch is right, then there are some good reasons for it. Over the last fifty years of the revolution in the Catholic Church “spirituality” has developed a bad reputation. Catechesis which should have focused on doctrine focused on “relationships” instead. Sometimes people substituted sentimentality for spiritual direction and relativity for true religion.
Sisters in liberal orders began to explore Buddhism, labyrinths “earth religions” and “feminist spiritualities”. Spurred on by spurious psychologies they were all about “self discovery” and their favorite mantra became, “The kingdom of God is within you” which they interpreted as “You are the kingdom of God” 
Like most revolutions this was a reaction against something else. Liberal Catholics were reacting to a pre-Vatican II Catholic religion that they had experienced as legalistic, harsh and rigid. They were reacting against a religion that seemed to be over sacramentalized and under evangelized. They were reacting against a religion that was highly institutionalized and formally structured. They wanted something good. They wanted their faith to be real and they wanted people to have a personal encounter with Christ. They wanted the faith to come alive!
The problem is that they were not properly grounded and rooted in real Catholicism. They regarded the old devotions and disciplines as stale and outmoded. They went off on a New Age tangent and cut themselves off from the riches of the Church. In their attempt to affirm they couldn’t resist denying. They couldn’t be content to snoop through other religions and spiritual traditions and perhaps glean something from them or allow the other perspective to lighten their way a little. In their enthusiasm they had to throw out what they had, and adopt something totally alien to the Catholic faith.
Now those who want to be faithful Catholics have reacted against the reaction. Spirituality is now associated with nuns dressed in overalls and priests in jeans either conducting workshops on “Channelling your Spirit Guide” or “the Wild Man’s Journey” which means getting naked and howling at the moon in a sweat lodge with other guys.
At the same time the renewal movement took Catholics in yet another direction–one which was also subjective, sentimental and suspiciously un-Catholic. Catholics who were not taken over by New Age Nuns and Flaky Friars were captivated by “gifts of the Spirit” and healing ministries with signs and wonders.
Others substituted social activism for spirituality. Catholicism was all about making the world a better place. The spirituality of social struggle became their prayer.
No wonder ordinary Catholic became suspicious. The conservative Catholic took refuge in the tried and true classic Catholic spiritual writers and devotional practices.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not down on St Francis de Sales, Ignatian Exercises and St Louis de Montfort. I’m all for novenas and scapulars and all that good stuff. However, there is also room for a more creative spirituality–a truly Catholic spirituality that is rooted in Scripture, the magisterium and the lives of the saints, and yet is also creative, positive and which connects with ordinary people alive in our world today.
The faith does need to come alive and there’s nothing wrong with seeking “the encounter with Christ”. Unfortunately, this sort of talk tends to make conservative Catholics suspicious. It all seems too Protestant or too subjective and fuzzy. 
In addition to traditional devotions, there are two ways that we can grow into a deeper relationship with God. One is an increased awareness of the lives of the saints. Learning about them, reading their writings and meditating on their lives is a great fountain of spiritual depth for traditional Catholics. Pilgrimages to sites associated with the saints, treasuring their feast days and promoting their work can help us walk more closely with them.
The other aspect of the faith that helps the heart to open is an increased awareness of the artistic treasures of the Church. As we re-discover the riches of theology, liturgy, art and architecture, literature, prayer and poetry our hearts will open to a new level of meditation, contemplation and a life truly alive in Christ.
We don’t have to be scared of spirituality. The traditional devotions and disciplines of Catholicism combined with a renewed love for the saints and a new discovery of the artistic treasures of the Church will open our heart to a fresh experience of the abundant life promised by Christ the Lord.