What is spirituality?’ That’s a question I once asked a group of clergy wives at the beginning of a retreat they had invited me to lead. Before answering the question, they broke into buzz groups where each person offered a definition. The group leader then scribbled the definitions on a piece of paper.

Here are some of them:

  • Spirituality is a tool to develop our relationship with God
  • Spirituality is our soul’s response to the God who seeks us
  • Spirituality is tuning into God
  • Spirituality is anything that brings us closer to God
  • Spirituality is any catalyst that develops the response of our soul, mind and body to the God who seeks us and brings us closer to himself.

How would you define Spirituality?

The question is a crucial one for Christians because ‘spirituality’ has been a buzz word for many years. Is that why many secular bookshops now boast a ‘Spirituality Section’? Is that why an Internet search on the subject can keep you riveted to your computer for hours as you sample the smorgasbord of ‘spiritualities’ spread out on your screen?

The buffet provides you with a feast of information on homeopathic medicine or the ‘spiritual disciplines’ of regular exercise or organic diets. You might also be invited to taste some New Age philosophies and practices or to dabble in witchcraft, voodoo or engagement with evil spirits. Equally, you might find yourself tempted to try some of the Self Help or Feel Good practices that also appear under the heading Spirituality. Alternatively, you could be lured into one of the most successful ‘spiritualities’ that has been marketed in recent years - the secular retreat movement promoted by businesses and corporate executives that aims to strengthen personal growth in and through corporate identity and increased productivity. By this time you may be surprised to note that the initiatives outlined make no mention of ‘religion’ when advocating ‘spirituality’. They may concede that religion helps some people. What really matters, though, they insist is ‘spirituality’ not religion. Religious practices and commitments, in some instances may even be maligned.

What is Christian Spirituality?

If you search long enough, you will be rewarded with definitions of Christian Spirituality’ - like this one that came, not from the Internet or a book but from a friend of mine:

‘Spirituality is theology with legs.’

This profound definition implies that ‘spirituality’ for the Christian refers to ways in which we allow the indwelling Holy Spirit to think and live and love and act and pray through us. In other words, spirituality involves applying the Gospel to our everyday encounters with people and projects and life – the kind of spirituality an American Bishop refers to as ‘intentional discipleship’. The process begins by feasting on God’s love in such a way that this love invades and infects every aspect of our life: our thoughts and feelings, our aspirations and our behaviour. The process continues in a hidden but ongoing way as Paul puts it to the Philippians when he reminds them that the One who had begun a good work in them would bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6).

This spirituality may best be summed up with one word: Christlikeness. Christian spirituality’s main emphasis is to become like Jesus and to incarnate the love that burns in Jesus’ heart for every person who inhabits this earth. Christian spirituality aims to fulfil this mission in the way the contemplative, compassionate, caring Jesus did.

Many times in the Gospels we read of Jesus leaving the crowds to spend quality time with his Father. What was he doing during this time? Relaxing, listening, soaking up the Father’s love, pouring out his pain, seeking a sense of direction? He was almost certainly doing all of these things. In the Gospels we also read that Jesus felt full of compassion for the folk who flocked to him because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

The word used for ‘compassion’ means ‘to hurt at gut level’ – to hurt in such a way that feelings goad us into action. So, when he was filled with compassion for the multitude that spent an entire day listening to him preach, Jesus fed them. When his disciples returned tired from their first mission, Jesus cared enough about them to insist that, instead of going out on another evangelistic mission or healing tour, they should go away to a quiet place with him simply ‘to be’ – to be with him.

In other words, spirituality begins in the quiet place – relaxing with God, listening to him, soaking up truths like the claim that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. It continues as we pour out our own anguish or longing. It gathers momentum as we seek a sense of direction knowing that the faithful hand of the One who loves us will guide us. This is where spirituality begins – but it doesn’t end there. Spirituality sends us from that privileged place along avenues where we might prefer not to venture - places where people are hurting, needy and desperate.

As Rowan Willliams reminds us in Silence and Honey Cakes, the acid test of whether or not our love for God is genuine, our intimacy with God real and our spirituality being incarnated in the way Jesus modelled, is whether or not we have become a channel through which God’s love flows to our neighbour. A claim that echoes Jesus’ own story of the Good Samaritan.

In his challenging book Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster has exposed a variety of ‘streams’ of spirituality that can flow through us to enrich the lives of others. One is Evangelical Spirituality.