‘Spirituality’ is a much-used word but is very slippery and can mean almost anything. In modern writings on Christian spirituality there have been a number of attempts to define which I find quote illuminating. there is an accumulated wisdom which gives us food for thought.
Gordon Wakefield offers what he calls a ‘rather crude definition’:
It is the sum of forces, influences, beliefs, disciplines, conscious or unconscious, which possess us, determine our motives and behaviour and shape our personalities.
(G. S. Wakefield, Groundwork of Christian Spirituality, Peterborough: Epworth, 2000)
John Macquarrie also moves from covering the scope of spirituality to its purpose:
The word ‘spirituality’ is [commonly] used in a broad way, and includes prayer, worship and whatever other practices are associated with the development of the spiritual life… with becoming a person in the fullest sense.
(J. Macquarrie, Paths in Spirituality, London: SCM, 1972 p40)
But the working definition I prefer to use is that of Philip Sheldrake:
Spirituality is understood to include not merely the techniques of prayer but, more broadly, a conscious relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, through the indwelling of the Spirit and in the context of the community of believers. Spirituality is, therefore, concerned with the conjunction of theology, prayer and practical Christianity.
(P. Sheldrake, Spirituality and History: Questions of Interpretation and Method, London: SPCK, 1995 p60)
Here he distinguishes between what might be regarded as conventional scope of spirituality – devotional practices or prayer – and offers a wider perspective. Thus spirituality is the living the life of the Spirit – the intersection of what we believing, praying and doing.
Eugene Peterson points out that the very vagueness of the word ‘spirituality’ can be helpful because it encourages us to be vigilant. The word points to a ‘transcendence vaguely intermingled with intimacy… the catch-all term that recognizes an organic link to this Beyond and Within that are part of everyone’s experience.’ The vigilance is an ‘attentiveness:
‘noticing the many and profligate ways in which God gives life, renews life, blesses life. Noticing and then insisting that everything in this creation is liveable. The primary way in which this attentiveness is nurtured is in common worship and personal prayer.’
(Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, Grand Rapids MI, 2005, pp 27 & 30)
Despite the lived nature of spirituality, it is often fed by being attentive to written texts – starting with scripture but including the writings of many who have trodden the path of discipleship before us. yet how we read is important, as Rowan Williams points out:
…each believer making his or her own engagement with the questioning at the heart of faith which is so evident in the classical documents of Christian belief…. The questioning involved here is not our interrogation of the data, but its interrogation of us.
(Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross,London: Darton. Longman and Todd, 1979/90 p1)
He goes on to equate this enterprise with what he calls ‘Christian living’ and claims that ‘the goal of a Christian life becomes not enlightenment but wholeness’.
While thinking about the meaning of the word, it is worth reflecting on what the word spirit means in the word spirituality? Does it refer to the human spirit and its transcendence in the face of life? Or does it, refer to the Spirit of God transforming and transfiguring our lives. Life in the Spirit is life in God. Here again is the conjunction of believing, praying and doing…
Yet this doesn’t lead us away from prayer. Yes – spirituality is more than pray – but prayer is at its centre, it is the focus of our relationship with God in the whole of life. The paying attention to God in prayer and worship provide the heart of a spiritual life which includes every aspect of human experience and living.