In May of 2020, I presented a series of 3 webinars. I attempted to identify an authentic Christian spirituality at the heart of both the Eastern and Western Churches. This article, the first of a series, will expand on and clarify, in writing, my earlier presentations: The First Stage of the Spiritual Life: Purification of the Heart. In order to establish a solid foundation for the coming articles, I will begin first by defining Christian spirituality: what it is not and, then, what it is.
In writing and speaking, I’ve learned the importance of beginning with definitions. Christian spirituality is no different. There seem to be as many individual people as there are individual opinions about the meaning of authentic spirituality, making it difficult for us to speak to one another about our dance with the divine. Instead, despite my limitations, I hope to anchor our thinking in the shared experience of holy men and women of the Biblical and Christian Tradition.
Let us begin with the question: what is not authentic Christian spirituality?
1. “Faith, but without works of mercy,” is a spirituality that remains in the realm of thought.
Faith without works of mercy is a spirituality that puffs up the mind with the idea of salvation, but not the reality. We may be mentally enlivened by faith in the Lord, even read the Scriptures, offer warm thoughts for the poor and prayers of thanks to God. But, when the rubber meets the road, this spirituality does not have its feet on the ground. Faith without works of mercy is like an idea not embodied and an ideal not realized.
Faith ought to be our response to the grace of God piercing our hearts. The grace of God, in this sense, brings about a division in the soul, dividing the old man from the new man, the life in Christ from the life lived in sin. At this moment, this grace-filled awakening, grace rouses us from a deep slumber. Grace leads us to realize that the pursuits, values and attachments of our old life of sin are empty, vain and meaningless. It is not that the pursuit of knowledge, or the desire for good tasting food, or a comfortable luxurious home are bad in and of themselves.
Rather, if we pursue these things at the expense of growing in virtue and charity, then we set these up as idols to be served with all of our faith, effort and devotion. They become fetters, chains, that keep us from life lived in Christ.
Faith is to trust in the Lord, His Providence, and His commandments. Faith is essential to the beginning and progress of the Christian spiritual life. For without faith, how would anyone lift up their hand against themselves and slay their own wicked thoughts, words, and actions. Without faith, why would anyone trade the immediate pleasures of sin for the works of repentance and its fruit, salvation?
2. “Spiritual, but not religious” is a spirituality that remains without commitment or community.
Jesus has called the Church out of the world, to be a holy nation and royal priesthood. With a judgmental eye, focused on the sins of believers, the scandal of sanctity and salvation “in progress,” but not yet attained, justifies in the minds of many a spirituality without religiosity. But importantly, it is in the community that we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. It is the chaffing of our brokenness against the brokenness of fellow believers that demands humility, patience, and courage. To lay claim to Christian spirituality outside of a concrete living community is an appearance of communion with God and the world, yet isolated from concrete communion with the people of God. It is easier us to wander from place to place, person to person, than to commit to love “these” particular people, in “this” particular community. But through commitment to the “other”, genuine charity takes place in the context of the joy and suffering, the holiness and brokenness, of a particular communion of believers.
Commitment to, and participation in, a particular community allows our spirituality to be tested and grow in holiness. In the context of a believing community, we take our hand to the plow and engage in the hard work of repentance. Outside of the company of fellow believers, our wickedness is not erased, merely hidden. In community, we see our progress, or lack thereof, in the spiritual life. In community, with commitment, we can see within ourselves a lack of humility when we react with a harsh word toward a familiar gadfly. We can see our lack of purity when we judge the shortcomings of a leader whom we have watched over the course of many years.
3. “Mysticism, without a grounding in the history and Tradition of the Church” is a spirituality like a ship without a rudder; susceptible and subject to delusion and pride.
The shared experience of the saints throughout the history of the Church keeps us grounded in the straight and narrow path that many friends of God have travelled before us. The Tradition of the Church gives us a standard through which we may judge our own individual spiritual experiences, whether we are experiencing delusions from the Evil One or moments of grace, a gift given by the Lover of Mankind. The shared experience of a concrete historical Church and a lived Tradition will keep us from being blown off course. Without it, we may be swept away by the emotionality and attachments of our own unique experience while we grasp for the Divine.
But What is Authentic Christian Spirituality?
So then, I have provided a few examples of what Christian spirituality is not, but what is authentic Christian spirituality? The path has been walked before, the Scripture speaks of it openly, the saints embody its victory: the path of repentance is the ordinary way through which we enter the narrow gate. Either do not sin, or repent, this is the choice that lies before us.
The Christian spiritual life begins by purifying our hearts from sin, turning away from darkness and embracing the light of Christ, the light of the world. The Christian spiritual life is life lived in union with Jesus Christ. Moved by grace, Christian spirituality calls us to shed the old man with its ways of sin and vanity, and embrace a life of love in union with the source of love, from now into eternity. In authentic Christian spirituality, we are given grace upon grace, growing into perfect love and perfect union with Jesus Christ; the Lord who is both perfect God and perfect man in one Divine person.
Editor’s note: This article is the first part in a series from Deacon Thomas on Authentic Spirituality. You can subscribe to CE or follow us on social media to learn about future articles. This series is based on a webinar at God With Us Online and you can click this link to watch the videos and dive deeper into this subject.