Nourishing our spirituality

Nourishing our spirituality
Mindful Living
Dr Noel Keating


We have seen that meditation is a universal practice which has a particular expression and meaning in the Christian tradition. Many who practice meditation have been drawn to do so because of its pragmatic benefits. Indeed, the spread of mindfulness as a secular practice in health and other secular settings has made people keenly aware of its practical benefits. These can be physical, psychological, emotional or cognitive.

{{In the Christian tradition meditation – often called contemplation in the Catholic tradition – is seen a form of deep prayer without words or images.”

An internet search on the benefits of meditation will reveal thousands of studies carried out over the last 30 years which demonstrate beyond a doubt that the practice of meditation is enormously beneficial to the person. But the wisdom and religious traditions of the world, all of which embrace some form of meditation practice, also attest that meditation gives rise to deeper, spiritual fruits.

In the Christian tradition meditation – often called contemplation in the Catholic tradition – is seen a form of deep prayer without words or images. It is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer; rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from active prayer into receptive prayer. It moves our centre of gravity from the head to the heart. It deepens our awareness of our spiritual nature.

In modern secular society many have lost touch with their spirituality. Religion was an integral part of the society in which I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and a very significant majority of the Irish population would have described themselves as being affiliated to the Christian religion. But even then I wonder how many people would have been keenly aware of their spirituality?

Religion and spirituality are not the same. In the1950s spirituality would have been understood – if referred to at all – as a subset of religion; referring to people who took their religion seriously who might have been described as ‘spiritual’ or ‘very holy’. Whereas, nowadays, it is religion which is often seen to be a subset of spirituality. There are many today who would say of themselves “I’m not a religious person but I do see myself very much as a spiritual person”. Within the larger circle of spirituality, different religions are then understood to give expression to the spirituality of the person in different ways; while others would assert that they do not need to be affiliated with any religion in order to give expression to their spirituality.

Defining spirituality – like other abstract concepts such as truth or beauty – is not an easy thing to do. To describe the basic human desire for insight into the meaning of life, Kees Waaijman, a Carmelite and former professor of spirituality at Radboud University in the Netherlands, uses the expression ‘primordial spirituality’, “because this type of spirituality belongs to the basic processes of human existence … beyond or prior to the type of  spirituality as it is institutionalised” in the religions of the world. In other words, spirituality may be considered as an inner drive to live an authentic life, a drive that finds expression in all religious traditions – theistic and non-theistic – and none.

This dynamic, this drive can be described in secular terms or in terms of a particular faith or religious tradition. Spirituality, then, can be understood as a natural, innate human predisposition.

In the Christian tradition, spirituality can be seen as a discovery of the true-self, as a form of self-knowledge. Thomas Merton saw the discovery of the true-self as an experience of finding God deep within the centre of the human person and Richard Rohr describes the true-self as “who we are in God and who God is in us”. When we discover this for ourselves, when we experience this form of conscious awareness, it is not merely psychological insight but an experiential insight into our participation in Being itself.  As we learn the language of the heart, the language of silence, we begin to appreciate that spiritual knowledge is not irrational but trans-rational. In this state of consciousness, we no longer perceive ourselves as objects but as participants in Being. In Christian terms, it makes us deeply conscious of our mysterious and intimate connection with the Divine and that we are called to discover our personal relationship with Christ. This is perceptual, spiritual knowledge and it is simply not possible to give adequate expression to it in words.

Yet a 12-year-old boy who had been meditating for eight years could say to me that in his view “meditation is like a map and your destination is who you really are”. This was knowledge of the heart, not the head, but didn’t he describe the essential fruit of meditation as well as any of the great mystics.  And as well as John Main, who described the same truth by saying that “the Spirit of God dwells in our hearts, loving to all”.