Spirituality and the Catholic Church – February 2005

Despite the secularism of our age – or perhaps, because of it – many people are rediscovering an interest in spirituality. One can go to almost any commercial book store and discover whole sections devoted to the theme. Unfortunately, most of what sells as “spiritual reading” usually classified under the heading of “New Age”, does not demand any more faith or belief than going to the movies. Not all that is marketed under the rubric “spirituality” is chicken soup for the Christian soul. Indeed, much of it, if consumed indiscriminately or unwarily, could prove poisonous to the life of faith. While “New Age” writings may seductively appeal to the legitimate longing of human nature they are fundamentally opposed to Christian revelation.

Spirituality in our Catholic tradition is more than just narcissistic navel gazing. It is not a self-absorbed seeking after self-fulfillment found through esoteric teachings or practices. Christianity’s invitation is to look outwardly and beyond – to a “New Advent” of the God who calls us to a dialog of love, a dialog which invites us to conversion and submission to his will.

Authentic spirituality for the Christian is not so much our search for God but God’s search for us. Spiritual life is a relationship with the Triune God entered into through our participation in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection through Baptism and the living of a life of discipleship. This personal relationship with God grows through his free gift of grace and sheds light on our relationship to our fellow men and women and indeed on our relationship to the world.

New Age spirituality – born as a reaction to contemporary culture but nevertheless its child – certainly represents a new challenge to the Church today. Yet, there is very little that is “new” in “New Age” teachings. A joint statement issued a few years ago by the Pontifical Council for Culture as well as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue quotes the Holy Father who warns with regard to the “return of ancient Gnostic ideas under the guise of the so-called New Age: We cannot delude ourselves that this will lead toward a renewal of religion. It is only a new way of practicing Gnosticism – that attitude of the spirit that, in the name of a profound knowledge of God, results in distorting His Word and replacing it with purely human words.”

That statement entitled “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life” offers an insightful analysis of the New Age movement and its incompatibility with sound Christian doctrine and practice. It specifically cautions against using the Enneagram which in recent years has enjoyed some popularity among Christian groups and has even been promoted by some Catholic religious communities. The Enneagram, a pseudo-psychological exercise supposedly based in Eastern mysticism, introduces ambiguity into the doctrine and life of the Christian faith and therefore cannot be happily used to promote growth in an authentic Christian spirituality.

In Novo Milenio Ineunte, John Paul II urged parishes to become “authentic schools of prayer”. As he says: “…we who have received the grace of believing in Christ, the revealer of the Father and the Savior of the world, have a duty to show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead” (n. 33).

As “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life” says: “To those shopping around in the world’s fair of religious proposals, the appeal of Christianity will be felt first of all in the witness of the members of the Church, in their trust, calm, patience and cheerfulness, and in their concrete love of neighbors, all the fruit of their faith nourished in authentic personal prayer.”