SPIRITUALITY AND ATTENDING CHURCH
How often have you heard someone talk about ‘being ‘spiritual’? It is as if a person is either spiritual or they are not spiritual. However we are all spiritual beings, which we demonstrate to a greater or lesser extent depending on our degree of spiritual development. Spirituality is a process of growth or development and even those who have made the greatest progress have elements within themselves that are not particularly spiritual. So the question really should be, ‘Can a person make sound spiritual progress without going to church?’
In seeking the answer to this question the first thing that should be noted is that, just as in learning all other subjects, a good teacher with sound knowledge and experience of the subject is necessary, in most cases. This is particularly true when it comes to spirituality because this is more than just gaining intellectual knowledge or acquiring a practical skill. It is therefore not surprising that over the centuries the major world religions, not least of all Christianity, have been seen as the primary sources where reliable spiritual guidance can be found. Yet many are turning away from the Church today and seeking an alternative spirituality. There are many such alternatives available and although they may seem attractive, how sound are they? Where are their spiritual roots and how reliable are these foundations? The vast majority of these alternatives do not contain substance which adequately conforms to the immutable spiritual laws, which are as real as the physical laws with which we are familiar. Moreover they are incapable of guiding anyone towards the true heights of spiritual attainment
What are these heights? We can know something of them from the many who, over the centuries, have recorded something of their experiences, and not least among these are those who wrote the Bible. Yet it is impossible for the true nature of the most profound of these experiences and the truths they contain to even begin to be understood by any except the few who have attained a considerable degree of spiritual illumination. How then is it possible to identify these lights? From the lasting endurance of their teachings and the words of wisdom they speak, but even these are not always easily discernable.
Now, Christianity does provide a reliable path but if this is so why have so many been turning away from it? There is justification in this trend because many who profess Christianity are seen to be acting in very un-Christian ways. Many exhibit a failure, in one form or another, to do or say things which demonstrate charity towards their neighbours. Often they are unable to answer rational and logical questions regarding the Faith or the contents of the Bible and all too often they avoid answering the question by simply saying that they believe and that is sufficient.
It is claimed by some that the Bible has been proved to be historically inaccurate. Now this may well be true with regards to at least some parts of it. This is however, actually, irrelevant. One reason is that history was not recorded in those days in the way that we see history today. More importantly, however, the Bible was not written primarily as a history book but as a spiritual guide book which, in some places, incorporated historical events into the narrative. Again, it is said that the Bible contains contradictions, but this is only so if it is read from an entirely literal perspective, and there is far more to it than that.
In addition to all this, the Church is often subject to bad press, for one reason or another and, from a spiritual perspective at least, there are serious imperfections and failings in all denominations, and plenty of them. In fact, it could be said that they all deserve, ‘bad press,’ for their spiritual failings, although in this regard some deserve it more than others. This is inevitable, but in order to understand, ‘why,’ it is necessary to understand, ‘what,’ the spiritual structure of Christianity is and what it teaches. Misunderstandings abound in both of these areas. These will be outlined briefly later on but first let us look at where the true teachings of Christianity can be found.
First of all, there is the Bible, which is frequently misinterpreted. Then, in the first centuries, there were the many Church Fathers, who wrote voluminously, among whom a number had deep insight, although others had less spiritual understanding but are nevertheless respected for their work. Following this, in every generation, there have been the true Christian mystics, always few in number and always deeply profound in their spiritual experience and understanding.
However you are unlikely to find much, if anything, of these deepest teachings in your local church—you do not teach graduate level classes to those still in the first grades of school. In Christianity, one sets out on the spiritual journey with simply believing and this is known as the Way of Purification or Purgation. Indeed, as long as we are in this life we always remain in the Way of Purification as we cannot avoid sinning and there are always further refinements we can make to our degree of purification. In fact this is key to our making progress on the spiritual journey. Knowledge and understanding are important but, by themselves, only assist with growth to the extent that we apply what we learn to the purification of self. It is through purification that we continually open our hearts further to the love of God and the love of neighbour. We may think we love God deeply now but there are always deeper degrees of the love of God that we can come to experience. Academic knowledge, a degree in theology, for example, is largely an intellectual exercise and belongs to the realm of ordinary theology. But beyond that lies spiritual theology with which, perhaps surprisingly, many priests, pastors and others with a theological education, are largely unfamiliar. The majority of people do not move on beyond the Way of Purification in this life and, spiritually speaking, that is fine.
There are some, however, who have developed a spiritual hunger for more and this is where local Churches so often fail. They frequently provide little to nourish the hungry and some provide nothing at all. A deep and unquenchable spiritual hunger is born to those who seek to move on from the Way of Purification to the Way of Illumination, which is the second of the three major stages defined in Christian spirituality. Later on, the Way of Illumination gradually gives way to the Way of Unification or, ‘mystical union,’ with God. These are the three stages of development spoken of in spiritual theology although a fourth, which is the initial state of unbelief, is sometimes mentioned.
There is a particular renewal or awakening that marks the transition from the Way of Purification to that of Illumination. Those who have attained to this stage of transition receive a spiritual impetus and they begin to perceive and understand things in a new way. For them the Paschal Light has begun to dawn. They no longer seek merely to believe but also to know and understand. Too often Churches fail to identify these individuals and to direct them to the nourishment they require. As a result some leave the Church to look elsewhere. This point in the journey is also a time when individuals begin to question some of the things they have learned and, unfortunately, they may come to believe that they are losing their faith when, in fact, they are growing in it. This also results in some leaving the Church.
So where can what is being looked for be found? Some denominations do provide it, although you might need to do some searching. There are also many good books available and among these are the writings of the Christian mystics throughout the centuries. The style of language they use might be a bit dated but they speak of unchanging truths and realities. Some of the things encountered here may be a bit difficult to understand at first but absorb what you can and then return later.
At this stage of the journey it is quite likely that you might have to change your understanding of some things you had previously accepted. One reason for this may be due to a partial understanding on the part of the person you learned from, whether this is an individual, a group, or a book. However Christianity does have an inner as well as an outer teaching. Does this mean that some things are purposefully kept as secrets for the few? No, but there may well be one understanding given to the beginner and another to one who has made some progress along the way. Indeed, the disciples asked Jesus, ‘And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?’ He answered, ‘Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.’ (Mat. 13:10-11) They were neither spiritually ready nor prepared to receive.
Now a great deal of guidance can be found which relates to what an individual can do to assist their spiritual development in the writings of the mystics and other sound spiritual teachers. However there is comparatively little said about how worship in the Church assists the process. A very important and detailed exception to this is the RATIONALE DIVINORUM OFFICIORUM.
Prayer, both private and corporate, is an essential ingredient on the spiritual journey and there is nothing wrong with, ‘making a joyful noise to the Lord;’ it can prove to be very spiritually uplifting. However that, ‘joyful noise,’ can sometimes be so loud, particularly if there is too much of it, that it blocks the way to true spiritual worship. This is because it too easily becomes an external emotional release, while sound spiritual progress is made by turning to the silence within. For Christianity is rightly called, ‘the way of the heart,’ and we need to honestly encounter what lies in our hearts in order to open this only true pathway to the Divine. This may seem to be a daunting challenge at first, but it is accomplished step-by-step, a little at a time. Each of the sacraments, in those denominations which have them, are also there to assist in this process.
Is this all there is to the spiritual significance of worship? No, far from it, but much of it is little known in the English speaking Church. To understand this we must first understand what the Catholic Church is and then take a journey back through time. Strictly speaking the term, ‘Catholic Church,’ does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church alone. It means those more than twenty denominations, including primarily the Roman Catholic, Anglican (or Episcopalian), Lutheran and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which hold that they have an unbroken ministry, derived from the Apostles by a continuous succession, and which is passed on by the laying on of the hands in consecration of bishops. That is the outer meaning but inwardly and spiritually it means something further.
It means that the Traditions of the Apostles have been handed down in an unbroken chain. Now there is a difference between, ‘Tradition,’ and, ‘tradition.’ A tradition is something that has developed, usually locally, by habitual use over a period of time. It is a custom. Now it may encapsulate some teaching, such as a piece of local history, and so has some value or use, but it does not embody or symbolize a spiritual teaching. It can therefore be discarded with little or no real loss. A Tradition, on the other hand, does signify or embody a spiritual teaching and this is usually quite a profound one. It may have a meaning that can be explained at a simple level as well, but not always. Now the liturgies or rites of the Catholic Church are built on Tradition and these were long ago designed to gradually nurture worshipers spiritually. This nurturing may not be obvious or apparent, for truly spiritual things often speak in a way that is first heard and experienced in the heart before they are understood in the mind or are able to be spoken of with the lips.
Every part of each liturgy of the Catholic Church has, or should have, a meaning of spiritual significance, and there are many such components. Yet what these many things are is barely known in the English-speaking Church. To understand why, it is necessary to roll back the clock, back to the Reformation and back even further in time to the late 12th century. It was at this time that the Eastern Church split from the Western Church and it was at this time also that the RATIONALE DIVINORUM OFFICIORUM of Guilluame Durandus was published. The author demonstrated not only an extensive understanding of the spiritual teachings of the Bible but also of the Fathers of the Church and that of highly esteemed spiritual teachers who came later. From this he compiled a detailed explanation of every aspect of what was then and which should fundamentally remain today, Catholic worship.
Let us now return to the original question: Is it necessary to attend Church in order to be spiritual? The answer is that it is not essential but if you choose not to you will be missing much that could enhance your spiritual life. Furthermore, you would miss the opportunity of participating in the various sacraments, of which Baptism and the Eucharist are extremely important in the Catholic Tradition.
© Copyright Janet Gentles, Founder and Owner – Paschal Light