Stairways to Heaven


Author: Lawrence Cunningham

As soon as the dust settled at ground zero in New York City and the scope of the 9-11 tragedy became apparent to all, makeshift shrines began to spring up near the site and at adjacent fire houses. Pictures of those lost in the tragedy were pinned on walls, and at the foot of those same walls people left flowers, candles, mementos (teddy bears were a favorite) and scrawled messages — notes of loss or grief, passages from the Bible or prayers. The candles often had religious decals of Our Lady of Guadalupe or Saint Anthony or Christ with a crown of thorns; other candles were those known among Jews as Jahrzeit (remembrance) lights.

Before too long people began to stop at these sites to look or pray or take pictures. When the World Trade Center site cleanup ended in May, the workers left standing an upright steel girder festooned with messages and photos; an American flag flew on top. The girder then was cut down and ceremoniously hauled away as tearful viewers watched.

These makeshift shrines often show up on the American landscape: in front of Columbine High School after the April 1999 shootings there or along highways where a white cross marks a fatal automobile collision. These clusters have the look of something primordial: the kind of display found for centuries at sacred shrines or pilgrimage chapels so common in Mediterranean Catholicism. Sacred spots are marked; gifts and tokens are left; people come to pray or meditate; community bonds are formed.

What do those displays “say”? Briefly this: We want to mark the spot; we want to remember; we want to symbolize our grief, our sadness, our bewilderment. Plainly put, people reach back to some of the most ancient gestures of spiritual symbolism to articulate something too deep for words. In a broad sense, we want to make a spiritual statement.

Americans have an insatiable desire for the spiritual. Our bookstores have groaning shelves that try to teach us how to “get in touch” with our inner child, our guardian angel, our bliss, our soul. We want chicken soup for the soul to warm and heal us. We read books by spiritual gurus to make us more effective people, to harness our energies, to experience a high by running or rock climbing or walking along a beach. Sometimes we try a disciplinary regime of meditation to seek inner peace or lower our blood pressure, or we enter a 12-step program to combat our raging appetites for drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex or food. The more dedicated might actually take on a seminar in mind-expansion or Sufi dancing. Sylvan areas of the country are studded with ashrams, retreat houses, conference centers and houses of worship that cater to every need from angel study to Zen.

What many seekers desire (to repeat what is now a weary cliche) is to be spiritual without being religious. One hears this with some frequency: “I am spiritual but not religious.” Observers of the American religious scene have studied this phenomenon in works from Wade Roof’s A Generation of Seekers to Robert Wuthnow’s more recent After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s.

A perceived gap

Every cliche bears within it a nugget of truth. This particular cliche about being spiritual but not religious seems to mean something like this: I would like to have some kind of fulfilling experience in my life but I do not want to be constricted by the demands of institutional religion. Being spiritual is to be uplifted by the spectacular awe felt at watching a sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, while being religious is sitting on a pew listening to some dreary moralizer preaching about sin to a bored congregation. Spiritual means freedom and exaltation. Religion means rules, rote rituals and, well, religion. Spiritual is large and religion is small. Being spiritual will make me feel fulfilled but being religious will make me feel guilty. Being spiritual, then, is good but being religious is, if not bad, at least second best.

Is that, in fact, the case? Is the gap between religion and spirituality to be described in such stark oppositions? That distinction works only if we accept such a narrow caricature of religion and if we resist caricaturing spirituality as being the desire for some kind of “wow” experience to go along with all of the other comforts of post-industrial Yuppiedom. After all, the aim of certain forms of New Age spirituality (warm feelings of contentment and peace with the world) could as easily be obtained by the regular use of the hot tub.

To be sure, there are certain forms of spiritual discipline that not only exist outside the walls of institutional religion but do so with great benefit to large numbers of people. Alcoholics Anonymous and other serious 12-step programs come immediately to mind. Alcoholics Anonymous puts a premium on confession, repentance and dependence on some transcendental principle (a “Higher Power”), together with a desire to help others gain sobriety. That A.A. has a religious or spiritual component is so clear that some efforts have been made by militant unbelievers to adapt the 12 steps without reference to any Higher Power. It is also true that certain forms of New Age spirituality bring healthy benefits: Meditation does lower blood pressure, and a vegetarian diet might well forestall the Big Pain in the Chest.

The limits of “spirituality,” as opposed to belonging to a religious tradition, are also well known. Much spirituality (think of the preachments of such best-selling authors as Thomas Moore or Deepak Chopra) is highly narcissistic and not easily distinguishable from old self-improvement schemes and/or the standard smorgasbord of psychotherapies. One might call such tendencies “spirituality lite.”

Because such strategies are for the “self” they are not so easily transmitted to others. A good test case for a “spirituality” is this: Can you teach it to your children? Does it spill over into more loving relationships with others who are not part of your own nurturing community? An even better test: Does a way of being spiritual help in moments of profound crisis, like coping with serious illness? Nothing focuses the mind, the great Doctor Samuel Johnson once said, like being sentenced to hanging.

The Catholic tradition

Of course, religion and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. In Roman Catholicism, the religious tradition I know best, there is a spectrum of every kind of spiritual discipline. Being a member of a religious tradition like Catholic Christianity, in fact, nurtures a person who desires to become more spiritual. Contrary to what many think, being religious is the larger concept and being spiritual but not religious is its pale cousin.

The word “spirituality” has an honorable history in the Catholic tradition. The noun derives from Saint Paul’s teaching that those who are in Christ “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). By flesh, Paul does not mean the body. For Paul, flesh is that which is not life-giving. He uses a polarity to make the point: “to set the mind on the flesh is death but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). We might more clearly see the distinction if we translate Paul’s language into contemporary discourse: hatred is flesh/love is Spirit; violence is flesh/reconciliation is Spirit; rape is flesh/marital love is Spirit; greed is flesh/generosity is Spirit.

To be spiritual in Paul’s sense of the term comes to every person in whom the Spirit of God (who is also called the “Spirit of Christ”) dwells (Romans 8:9). This is fundamental to the Christian life. To put it boldly: To be a Christian is not to join a religion but to possess the spirit of Christ and live under the impulse of that life-giving force. It is that gift of Spirit that allows us to call God “Abba” (Father) as Christ did, which results in us becoming Children of God, “then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).

We, then, are first called to be spiritual people in the sense just described, and the way we receive God’s Spirit in Christ is by being part of that community in which we can be made transparent to God, learn how to grow, how to live, how to act with others, how to share the gift of grace to all. To be religious means to be bound (the word religion comes from the Latin verb religare: to tie or bind) to God and to others who are part of the gathering of those who seek a similar relationship.

If being religious/spiritual is so simple, what does it have to do with this enormously complex historical reality called the Catholic Church? What have popes, bishops, parishes, devotions, pilgrimages, sacraments, the Vatican, icons, moral dicta, leather-bound tomes of theology, schools and universities to do with living in the Spirit of Christ? Does not the sheer weight of the Catholic tradition simply serve as an obstacle through which one must pass in order to be the person of spirit discussed by Paul? Is not the Catholic tradition as expressed in the factual reality of the church no better than other large corporations (as some might assume from the most recent scandals)?

Such objections are legitimate, but a few important distinctions must be made. First, one need not bear the total weight of the accumulated Catholic tradition in order to be a Catholic, anymore than an American citizen need constantly worry about what goes on in the various offices in Washington in order to be a loyal American. While both institutions can become burdensome in specific circumstances (an IRS audit or an unreasonably pompous rule issued by some church functionary), institutional structures are designed at their best to serve, not to obstruct. We are more at ease as citizens knowing that our borders are protected, our prisons hold the malefactors at bay, our highways are safe, and so on. In the same way, as believers we want churches to be ready to help us celebrate everything from birth to death. We’d like the spiritual memory of our Christian tradition safeguarded and passed on. We desire opportunities for various ways of discipleship from contemplative monasteries to agencies of social care

Three essentials

It is often said, dismissively, that too many Catholics are “cafeteria Catholics” — they pick and choose only those parts of the tradition that appeal to them. There is, however, another way of thinking about that criticism. By judicious choice you can get an excellent and nutritious meal in a cafeteria. It all depends on what is chosen.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that there are three essentials that make up Catholicity: the profession of the full apostolic faith; the full sacramental life; and the union of the local bishop with all other bishops including the center of that unity, the bishop of Rome, who is the pope. Once that essential core is present there is a huge panoply of specific ways in which a person may choose how to live in the Spirit of Christ.

Even here in South Bend, a bewildering array of avenues for deepening the life of the spirit exists. If one wishes to follow the way of service, volunteers are needed at the Center for the Homeless or the Saint Vincent DePaul Society or at Saint Margaret’s House or the local hospice. If one likes the Taize prayer experience, there is a group that prays in that style, just as there is a charismatic group, a community that uses centering prayer and a Sant’Egidio group. At Notre Dame, there are daily rosary groups at the Grotto as well as adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. There are Bible study groups. One can serve as a volunteer for RCIA or catechism classes. If one seeks contemplative prayer, the Thomas Merton Society can help. One can get spiritual direction at Mary’s Solitude or at the local retreat center. One can start or join a support group or a 12-step program. There are small Christian communities and large parishes. There are devotees of Marian apparitions of various stripes, with groups regularly jetting off to Medjugorje. There is Mass in Spanish and English and Latin and Slavonic and God knows what else. If one has lost faith in the revised liturgy, one can worship in the Byzantine rite at either the local Melkite church or the Ukranian one. There is indeed food for everyone’s tray.

Such activities and their variations are found in every diocese in the world. Some possess a long history and some are new. Within a mile of Notre Dame’s campus there is both an Opus Dei house and a Catholic Worker house. Take your pick; both are Catholic. (And, by the way, a word of caution: If the group you investigate tells you that their way is the only way, run. Christ is the Way but there are many ways to follow the One Way.)

A fundamental truth

The Catholic spiritual tradition urges us to be obedient to two fundamental laws, namely, to love God and to love neighbor. Those laws are not separated into two impermeable boxes. Their intimate connection was stated two millennia ago: “Those who say, ‘I love God’ [yet] hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen” (I John 4:20). The real test, then, of an authentic spirituality is not how pious a person is or how good one feels about oneself but whether the cultivation of the spiritual life spills over in love for others.

This connection between love of God and service to others is the constant teaching of the great spiritual writers. Saint Teresa of Avila, for instance, maps out the path of intense prayer in her classic work The Interior Castle (written in five months in 1577!). This prayer, Teresa asserts to the nuns who were her intended audience, is not only for enjoyment but for the service of others. The test about whether someone has reached the pinnacle of the life of prayer is quite simple: Does the person love more?

Implicit in that fundamental truth that we should love God and love our neighbor is a criticism of much of New Age spirituality, which is almost totally oriented to the satisfactions of the self. It would be a caricature of Christianity to say that it hates the self (after all, Jesus tells us that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves), but Christianity does say that self-giving love is for the sake of others. One good test about the value of any spiritual discipline is this: Does it help in some way the needs of others? True Christian spirituality ought to radiate out in a series of widening concentric circles from the self to the family to the local environs to the nation and to the world. That sense of responsibility and care for others seen globally is part of what it means to be a Catholic, which is to say, universal.

Being Catholic is like living in a huge home that has been occupied over the generations. Some furnishings are timeworn, some are packed away. It is a multigenerational home with old and young alike living cheek by jowl. There might even be a peculiar aunt or a tippling uncle living quietly in the attic. More than likely someone in the family has had a scrape or two with the law. It is a house that has its stories, its memories both good and bad; there are places where it needs some touching up or even major redecorating. The house has seen its fair share of happy events of births and marriages and its sad times of sickness and death. It is a place where some, getting heartily sick of the house, have left either in bewilderment or anger. It is a place, however, where one can return. A home, a wise person once said, is where they have to take you in when you knock at the door.

To extend the metaphor a bit: Much of what passes for spirituality is like four rooms in an apartment complex furnished with things from the old house. The apartment may be comfortable, but it is a wan reflection of the original house. Many of the “spiritual” writers who gain popularity today do so by cobbling together some fragments of an older tradition on a framework of trends in psychotherapy. The result is a dash of Jung, a sprinkling of a sanitized Jesus, topped off with a badly understood Eastern meditation technique.

Hidden treasures

Many people say that they seek out groups who teach such disciplines as yoga or meditation techniques because they do not find such resources within the church. That such resources are not easily found is a criticism of the church, which has failed to highlight its long and rich spiritual tradition. Within the broad Catholic tradition, profound ways of prayer, meditation and contemplative practices do exist. In recent times there have been concerted efforts to bring such resources to the attention of people. Not only are there written resources for every form of Catholic spirituality, but, since the Second Vatican Council, there has been a renewed interest in prayer circles and other such groups. There is also a burgeoning movement of lay affiliation with contemplative orders of both men and women.

It is ironic that the hidden treasures of Catholic spirituality have been popularized by people who are not Catholic but who see the contemplative wisdom that is available in the Catholic tradition. The books of the Protestant poet and writer Kathleen Norris, including Dakota and Cloister Walk, have spawned a host of other such works by those who are rediscovering the writings and practices of Catholic monasticism. Such writers as Patricia Hampl, Nancy Mairs and Annie Dillard have mediated Catholic spirituality in an accessible but serious fashion that some of our traditional “spiritual” writers have been unable to do. Fiction writers Ron Hansen and Andre Dubus have imagined the Catholic faith in new and original ways. They have shown — as spiritual writers including Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton did in their day — that there is no need to create a chasm between spirituality and religious fidelity. Indeed, the most creative of these thinkers have done what is the best thing that Catholics do: They have dug deep into the Catholic past — the tradition of Ignatian, Salesian, Carmelite and Benedictine spiritualities — and re-imagined them for our own day.

In the last analysis, religion can be seen as the way we remember God. In that remembering, we become spiritual persons. To remember God is to recall his presence in our lives. We remember God by signs in our sacramental life at the beginning through baptism and at the end in the last rites. We re-call, re-member, re-present Christ in the liturgy. In the great eucharistic prayer of the liturgy we pray to God, “Remember your people” — “Remember all of us gathered here before you” — we celebrate “the memory of Christ your Son” — We recall “passion, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into glory.”

In the little gestures of grace before meals, blessing our children, praying for our dead, marking our homes with crucifixes and pictures, wearing a cross on a chain, we remember God in the daily exercise of our lives. We honor the saints canonized and uncanonized by remembering their lives and deeds. Every time we tell or listen to the Word of God we call to mind the story of salvation. We teach our history, study our theologians, read our spiritual authors, recite time-honored prayers as a way of remembering our tradition.

To remember is to call to mind. That “calling to mind” is the fundamental task of the faith as it is enshrined in our lives as Catholics. In a number of places in the New Testament Jesus tells his disciples, “Remember the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:20). Paul urges Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ” (II Timothy 2:8), and Paul asks the Ephesians to “remember that you were without Christ” at one time (Ephesians 2:12). To the degree that we call to mind (which is to remember) the presence of God in our lives, we live in the spirit of God. To be a Catholic Christian is — to paraphrase Saint Augustine in the Confessions — to “roam the spacious halls of memory.” And from that living comes the spirituality worthy of truly being named as such.

Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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