Religion and Spirituality

Praying the Rosary

Praying the Rosary

Sometimes, Catholics get stuck…

Some get stuck on their “Sunday obligation” — which is the minimum commitment and they think that’s all that’s required.

Others get stuck on religious rules and regulations and think if they just mind their manners they’ll be just fine with the Lord.

Others get stuck on doctrine and dogma and liturgical regulations and think if they do that just right they’ll be okay. They get stuck on the small stuff and miss the big picture.

Those who get stuck are often afraid of spirituality. Because of the New Age or the charismatic movement they think it’s a load of sentimentality or personal emotionalism. They hear people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious” and they growl, “I’m religious but not spiritul.” However, both spirituality and religion are necessary. Spirituality without religion is vague and ephemeral. Religion without spirituality is dead formalism.

What is spirituality?

The first problem is to define the term. Spirituality is the heart of our religion. It comprises all that is subjective and personal and relational and emotional and flexible and alive and open ended. In this sense it complements but never contradicts all the doctrine and dogma and rules and regulations and rubrics. Those elements, if you like, provide the structure or skeleton on which the rest survives. On their own they are dry bones, and ‘can these dry bones live?’

These formal structures need spirituality, but spirituality also needs the formal structures. Think of the two like a trellis and a vine. The trellis is carefully crafted out of wood. It is put in place by clever vineyard designers. It needs maintenance and care, but it is the trellis. It is there to enable the vine to grow and flourish and bear rich fruit. The vine, on it’s own will just grow across the ground aimlessly and the fruit (what fruit there is) would be crushed underfoot. The trellis, on the other hand, holds the vine up high. It allows the vine to be accessible, to grow and also to be properly pruned.

So spirituality is that free flowing life of God in our lives. It is the life of the Spirit, and the Spirit blows where it wills. Spirituality is free flowing and alive, but it must be nurtured through one of the many different spiritual traditions, and it is a good thing to discover one of the ‘ways’ within the church and stick with it.

This is where the communion of the saints becomes very practical and real. The saints are our brothers and sisters who have already been made whole in Christ. The church has endorsed their lives and endorsed the spiritualities they offer us. Following the spirituality of one of the saints is crucial because that way has not only been tested by the saint, but by the millions of brothers and sisters in Christ who have also followed that way. This is real, down to earth stuff. Not only has the saint lived the way he offers us, but he or she is also there with their prayers to help us on that way.

So if you’re one of those Catholics who is all religion and no spirituality, then be brave and launch out! Spirituality doesn’t have to be sentimental subjectivism. The Catholic Church has a great treasure house of spirituality.

Why not explore the different spiritual traditions of the church? Are you drawn to Franciscan spirituality? Carmelite? Salesian? Ignatian? Benedictine? Are you drawn to monasticism and contemplation or activism and relationships? Are you drawn to Divine Mercy or Sacred Heart? Your personality type will draw you towards one or another. Explore them. Learn about them and see where the Holy Spirit leads you.

What you must not do is make it up as you go along. Don’t pick and choose among spiritualities. By all means learn about the different ones, but then once you find your home stick with it. Avoid syncretism. This is the modern temptation to put together your own spirituality — kind of like going to a spiritual buffet — “I’ll have a smidgen of Benedictine monasticism, a touch of Franciscan love of animals, a helping of work for the poor and top it off with a little bit of Buddhism.” Instead choose a good solid Catholic spiritual tradition and learn from it and walk in that path.

One of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal put it this way: “We follow Jesus Christ in the way of St Francis.” This is what a true Catholic spirituality does for us. Through it the Spirit gives us a more specific way to follow Jesus Christ. Each way has its own charism, its own discipline, its own structure and tradition.

Don’t be afraid of spirituality. On the other hand, be dismissive of what the popular culture calls “spirituality”. What many people mean by “spirituality” is no more than a sentimental hotch potch of shallow aphorisms, self help nonsense and New Age foolishness. Make sure your Catholic spirituality is deeply rooted in the sacraments and the lives of the saints. This is the ground of our faith, and it is on this structure that your spirit will flourish.

Remember the vine and the trellis…


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About the Author

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He conducts parish missions, retreats and speaks at conferences across the USA.

His latest book is The Romance of Religion - Fighting for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Visit his blog, listen to his radio show, and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.

Catechesis teaches us what to believe and how to behave, but Catholics also need down to earth advice for putting their faith into action. For help in your practice of the Catholic faith sign up for FaithWorks! -- Fr Longenecker's free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith.

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Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. Fr Dwight was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson.

Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. He spent the next ten years working as a freelance Catholic writer, contributing to over twenty-five magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA.

Fr. Dwight is the editor of a best-selling book of English conversion stories called The Path to Rome - Modern Journeys to the Catholic Faith. He has written Listen My Son - a daily Benedictine devotional book which applies the Rule of St Benedict to the task of modern parenting. St Benedict and St Thérèse is a study of the lives and thought of two of the most popular saints.

In the field of Catholic apologetics, Fr. Dwight wrote Challenging Catholics with John Martin, the former editor of the Church of England Newspaper. More Christianity is a straightforward and popular explanation of the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians. Friendly and non-confrontational, it invites the reader to move from 'Mere Christianity' to 'More Christianity'. Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate is a debate with an old Bob Jones friend David Gustafson who is now an Evangelical Episcopalian.

Fr. Dwight’s Adventures in Orthodoxy is described as ‘a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles’ Creed.’ He wrote Christianity Pure&Simple which was published by the Catholic Truth Society in England and Sophia Institute Press in the USA. He has also published How to Be an Ordinary Hero and his book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing was published by Our Sunday Visitor in May 2008. His latest books are The Gargoyle Code - a book in the tradition of Screwtape Letters and a book of poems called A Sudden Certainty, Adventures in Orthodoxy and The Romance of Religion.

Fr. Dwight has contributed a chapter to the third volume of the best selling Surprised by Truth series and is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine, St Austin Review, This Rock, Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register. Fr. Dwight has also written a couple of children’s books, had three of his screenplays produced, and is finishing his first novel. He’s working on a book on angels and his autobiography: There and Back Again.

In 2006 Fr. Dwight accepted a post as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. This brought him and his family back, not only to his hometown, but also to the American Bible belt, and hometown of Bob Jones University. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He is the Administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and an oblate of Belmont Abbey.

Fr. Dwight enjoys movies, blogging, books, and visiting Benedictine monasteries. He’s married to Alison. They have four children, named Benedict, Madeleine, Theodore and Elias. They live in Greenville, South Carolina with a black Labrador named Anna, a chocolate lab called Felicity, cat named James and various other pets.

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