I have been asked
to open up the concept of spirituality as a way of framing the discussion for
this week. There are two distinct tasks; they might even point in divergent directions.
‘Opening up’ an issue is opposed to closing it down, but at the same time,
‘framing’ is a way of limiting or ‘closing’ it. Given this ambiguity, I shall
provide a general framework to initiate our discussion without developing any
particular aspect in detail. An additional clarification. I don’t feel very
comfortable talking about the ‘concept’ of spirituality because it sounds too
abstract. I prefer to talk about the notion of spirituality in a more
intuitive (even impressionistic) way.
Tupac Shakur, and us
A few days before coming to Slovakia I
had the chance to visit Bilbao’s GuggenheimMuseum,
where I could admire the work of the German artist Anselm Kiefer. I was struck
by one of his sculptures, titled Merkaba, made out of various pieces of
concrete forming a ladder that seemed to connect earth and heaven—with a clear
and explicit reference to Jacob’s experience in the Old Testament. The audio
guide said that, back in 1966, Anselm Kiefer spent three weeks in France at
the Dominican convent of La Tourette, built by the architect Le Corbusier.
Kiefer said he wanted to learn “how to give concrete material appearance to
abstract religious ideas.” It appears that this short visit was a turning point
for Kiefer, who decided to abandon his study of law and pursue his interest in
art. Later on, Kiefer has referred to “the spirituality of the concrete” as one
of the guiding principles of his art.
Let me point out that the word ‘concrete’
has a double meaning in English: as a noun it refers to a stone-like material
used for various structural purposes, while as an adjective it means something
concerned with realities or actual instances rather than abstractions. Inspired
by this word and image, I would like to start talking about a spirituality of
the ‘concrete’ as a way of providing the basis for an urban spirituality and a
non-abstract spirituality—a good start for a meeting concerned with the
spirituality of the social apostolate in Europe.
I have also
remembered a text by an American hip-hop composer and singer called Tupac
Shakur. After a short and difficult life that led him to prison, he was killed
in a drive-by shooting at the age of twenty-five.
you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?
nature's law is wrong it learned to walk without feet.
it seems, but by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air.
live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.
According to this urban poet, in the midst
of violence, injustice, loneliness, loss, or desperation, in the concrete
reality of urban life, roses may grow! Spirituality refers to the ability to recognize
that reality and, at the same time, to the invitation to make that
witness: Egide van Broeckhoven SJ
I want to start my presentation referring
to the testimony of a personal witness. He writes about transforming triviality
into an experience of depth (Journalspirituel d’un jésuite en usine
Some of you may be familiar with the life
and writings of Egide van Broeckhoven. He was a Flemish Jesuit, a young worker
priest who died in 1967 in a work-related accident at the age of 33. His diary
has been published in several languages,(1) and
offers a wonderful example of what a Spirit-filled life may look like in the
midst of social engagement in an urban context. I have chosen him as a
particular example not only because of his general value as a contemporary
mystic, but also because I find him especially appropriate for our group.
On the one hand, he links us to the
tradition of Mission Ouvrière in the 1960s, while on the other hand he
offers the testimony of a young Jesuit during the last period of his formation
and the first years as a priest. From this perspective, he offers a good
initial working definition of spirituality as the ability “to transform trivial
things into an experience of depth.” Egide felt a particular personal calling
to friendship as a spiritual experience, and actually established strong
relationships with fellow workers and neighbours. “The difference between a
spirituality based on an ascetic flight from the world (fuga mundis) and
one centred on the world lies in our incapacity to comprehend God’s breadth and
depth” (Journal I, 73).
This quotation sounds like an invitation
to a double movement—going deeper, going farther. Later on we read in his
diary: “Friendship develops itself in two different directions that converge to
some kind of unity: (i) an in-depth contact with the person; and (ii) updating
that depth in the dimensions (length and breadth) of daily, ordinary life” (Journal
XXII, 74). This is important for any Christian spirituality, since we are surrounded
by God’s depth and breadth, and only by embracing both dimensions can a
complete spirituality develop. This is of course a classical topic in our
Christian tradition, as the letter to the Ephesians says: “I pray that you
will, with all the saints, have strength to grasp the breadth and the length,
the height and the depth, until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond
all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God” (Eph 3: 17-19).
Or, in the words of a 19th century hymn:
a wideness in God's mercy
the wideness of the sea;
a kindness in his justice,
is more than liberty.
William Faber, 1862)
We Jesuits engaged in the social
apostolate are invited to deepen our relationships, particularly with the poor
and excluded persons in our societies, a movement of personal depth and social
descent. And we are all invited to expand these relationships until we can
embrace the whole of humanity in God’s love: a movement of universal breadth
and structural dimensions. Let me quote Egide once again:
God of above, the God of beyond, the God of immense spaces, loves all human
beings; the efficacious sign of this love is the realisation of his word: the
Good News is announced to the poor people. The immense breadth of God’s love
has incarnated itself in Christ and in his will to save us all; this love is
expanded by the evangelisation of the poor: a sine qua non condition for the
Church to continue unfolding Christ’s life, in its breadth, length, and depth,
as a space where the deep sea, more powerful than the divine Ocean, can move
and give life to all creation with the living Life of God (Journal XXI, 51).
Water: a concrete
Our second approach to the notion of
spirituality is symbolic. I use the image or symbol of water to introduce
different aspects or levels of spirituality. Notice that we are moving from a
solid image (concrete) to a liquid one. Both solid and liquid images are good
starting points for a spiritual reflection, which connects with a more airy
reality—Spirit, pneuma, ruah. One of the most poignant sociologists of
the moment (Zygmunt Bauman) describes our contemporary world as “liquid
I decided to use this image a few weeks
ago while swimming in Southern Spain. I
went there to give a talk, but I invited an African migrant who lives in our
Jesuit community in Madrid to
come along. He was having a hard time those days—he was unemployed, had
personal difficulties, was feeling depressed. So off we went. Once there, he
told me he had never entered the ocean to swim and at the age of 35 he was
afraid to do so. I finally convinced him to go to the beach, go into the water,
and enjoy swimming. At that very moment, I realised we were sharing a spiritual
experience—deep and wide as the Ocean.(2)
We all know that water is a key symbol in
almost every culture and religion. This will help us to unfold four levels of
are water, we desire the Source
Ocean and Eyes
and prophetic religions. Nature and history
of Religious pluralism
and justice. Glass of water, water wars
First level: the
thirst for the Source
On the first level, we acknowledge that
human beings are made out of water, and a significant fraction (around 60-70%)
of the human body is water. Every human person has a spiritual dimension. Not only
we are made out of water, but we all thirst for the Source. In the words of the
Psalmist, “O God, you are my God, am seeking you; my soul is thirsting for you,
my flesh is longing for you, a land parched weary and waterless.” (Psalm 63:
Not everyone would agree on the specific
meaning of this thirst and source. Many of our neighbours would not be at ease
with a religious or Christian interpretation of this spiritual dimension. Many
opinion polls in different countries say that a majority of the current
population in our countries agree with the statement “I’m not a religious
person, but I am a spiritual person.” I think it would be good, however, to
remember in this context a couple of well-known episodes from the Gospel of
John in which Jesus addresses a Samaritan woman and a group of Greeks, that is
to say, non-Jewish human seekers, searching for the Source.(3)
Second level: the
Ocean and the Eyes
Moving now from basic human spirituality
to an explicitly religious one, our water image becomes the Ocean as a key
symbol for God or the Divine
come to you not only asking for a glass of water, but looking for its very
come to you not only asking for somebody who can guide me to the door, but looking
for a path to the very hearth of God’s house;
come not only looking for the gift of love but for Love itself.
We need to keep in mind the classical
distinction between mystical and prophetic religions. The image of the Ocean
refers more directly to the traditional religions of the East (Buddhism,
Hinduism) in which the spiritual experience tends to express itself in the
oceanic feeling of being surrounded by the non-personal immensity of the
Divine. This is not the Christian experience as such; we are always facing the
immensity of God in a deep personal relationship. I agree with Séamus Murphy SJ
when he describes the serious challenges posed by current talk of spirituality,
particularly for a Christian spirituality committed to social justice. These
are first, the challenge of an inward, therapeutic, psychologically-oriented
spirituality; and second, the ideology of nature-worship inspired by some New
For this reason I prefer to talk not only
about the ocean, but also about the eyes. The eyes, also made out of water,
refer to the deep personal character of our encounter with the Living God. Ours
is not a religion (simply) of nature, but a religion of history. Our God
reveals himself in the context of injustices, labour conflicts, struggles for
the land, personal quests, and so on—always as the God who accompanies and
liberates God’s people. Christian spirituality is always invited to embody this
spring like crystal!
on your silvered-over faces,
would suddenly form
eyes I have desired,
I bear sketched deep within my heart.(5)
John of the Cross, Spiritual
This image of the eyes has a particular
meaning for a spirituality of the social apostolate. Water and eyes come
together in tears. We are called to submerge ourselves in the Ocean
eyes, full of tears, full of the poor people’s tears. We encounter God’s
presence in our midst when we share the sufferings and hopes of those excluded
from society, of the victims of injustice. Their tears merge with our own tears
into God’s tears, the current of Trinitarian liberating Love. Lucho Espinal, a
Jesuit martyr for faith and justice, killed in Bolivia in
1980, expressed it with these poetic words:
want to keep giving ourselves, because
are waiting in the night,
a thousand eyes filled with tears.
Third level: the
to the river we ride (Bruce Springsteen)
Water receives definitive Christian meaning
with Jesus’ baptism at the river Jordan.
He, along with sinner and outcasts, went down to that river to be submerged in
the waters. The rich scene is familiar to all of us, and carries powerful
consequences for our understanding of life from the perspective of Christian
spirituality. Again, I find useful a poetic approach, taken from a
modern-classical text that clearly expresses that dynamics of descent is the
very core of Christian spirituality:
The Water Song(6)
oh come! let us away—
lower every day
what joy it is to race
find the lowest place.
the dearest law we know—
happy to go low.’
Sweetest urge and sweetest will,
‘Let us go down lower still.’
the summons night and day,
us to come away.
the heights we leap and flow
valleys down below.
answering to the call,
lowest place of all.
Sweetest urge and sweetest pain,
To go low and rise again.
In a more theological way, we can recall
the hymn cited by Paul in his letter to the Philippians (Phil 2: 5-11). It is
well known as a powerful passage with deep reverberations for Christian life,
which it understands as identification with Christ through radical
self-emptying (kenosis) and constant service to others. Biblical
scholars have shown clearly that it is a pre-Pauline hymn of baptismal origin.
It is also fairly well recognised that it is a hymn in the literal sense, that
it is a poetic composition used in the liturgy. Reading the hymn in a baptismal
key and, reciprocally, understanding baptism as participation in the descending
movement of Jesus Christ (kenosis) turn out to have extremely important
consequences. If such interpretations are valid, then the Church is by essence
and by definition constituted as a kenotic body.
The socio-political implications of this
affirmation are only too evident in a society structured according to the
totally opposed movements of dominion, power, oppression, social ascent,
meritocracy, violence and injustice. In fact, a recent study has shown clearly
that in Philippians Paul is at once defending a redefinition of the social
order and attacking the social stratification of the Roman Empire, basing his
argument precisely on the kenotic humbling of Christ.(7)
This movement of radical descent in solidarity with the poor of this earth was
lived by Jesus himself in an outstanding way.(8)
Let me add a final remark. The Greek word theorein
(contemplation) is a key concept in Greek philosophy, but it is striking to
realise that in the Gospels it is used only once—or, better, twice, but both in
the same sentence—precisely at the moment of Jesus’ death.(9)
“And when all the people who had gathered for the spectacle saw what had happened,
they went home beating their breasts.” (Luke 23: 48). The importance of this
detail lays in that searching for a common spirituality in the social
apostolate, we ought to remember that God’s revelation—and, thus, human
contemplation—takes place precisely at the Cross, in the reverse of history,
outside the city, in the midst of suffering. We are together called to go
there, down to the river, and to drink from Jesus’ outpouring love.
Fourth level: a
glass of water
anyone gives so much as a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because
he is a disciple, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his
reward. (Matthew 10: 42)
So far I have stressed the fact that we
need to discern spirituality, since not ‘everything goes’. Even within
Christian spirituality, it is necessary to unmask some currents of
“spiritualistic spirituality” that tend to forget social injustice and the
situation of the poor of this earth. However, in the Gospel we find a firm
criterion, clear as crystal water. Jesus himself put it bluntly:
you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for
you since the foundation of the world For I was hungry and you gave me food; I
was thirsty and you gave me drink. (Matthew 25: 34-35).
Personal encounter with the Lord takes
place in actual relationships with those in need, with those who are excluded.
Authentic Christian spirituality recognises the option for the poor as one of
its essential features. The option for the poor is not a vague idea, but needs
to be embodied in practices of daily life, in works of mercy. As simple and
concrete as giving a glass of cold water to anyone who is thirsty.
Furthermore, in our current world, over
1.5 billion people lack access to adequate water and sanitation. If poverty is
bad, then poverty without water is hell on earth. The reasoning now becomes a
little more complex. Providing a glass of fresh and clean water leads us to
think about climate change, deforestation, pollution, “water wars” and other
global issues.(10) In other words, the option
for the poor means a struggle for justice. This belongs to the core of any
spirituality of my ‘social’ clarification.
reflection: the Surnaturel
A further clarification may be needed
because one sometimes finds attempts to articulate faith and justice within a
dualistic perspective; more rarely than some decades ago, but still too often.
In my view, one of the most important debates in 20th century
Catholic theology throws light on this issue. I refer to the question of the
relation between human nature and divine grace. According to Henri de Lubac SJ
and other authors, every human person has a natural desire to see God, but this
human desire cannot be fulfilled unless the fulfilment is given by God—the
paradox of the Surnaturel. While this basic assertion is generally
affirmed nowadays, it is also true that the former extrinsic view of God’s
grace reappears—sometimes in an unconscious way—in a dualist scheme shown in
the following pairs of terms:
With this approach it is very hard to
develop a real spirituality of the social apostolate, because it seems that we
talk about two different realities.(11) At
most, one may ‘force’ the connection between the two columns, but others will
see it as a failed attempt to ‘politicise’ spiritual life. On the contrary,
contemporary theology of the Surnaturel has helped to realise that the
absolute dominion of Jesus Christ, Lord of all reality and Lord of all history,
is without divisions of any kind. Having said this, I just want to stress that
grace is always dynamic, and that it refers to a downward movement of
descent—with important consequences in the socio-political field.(12)
This reality is not a mere individual
issue of devotion, but one with strong political implications. Let me add three
brief comments, from three different authors, that will help to clarify this
topic. First, Aloisius Pieris has convincingly argued that the real way to
overcome the division between faith and justice is, precisely, the option for
the poor.(13) Without it, we fall back
again into dualism. Second, we would do well to remember Dorothy Day’s powerful
witness of a spirituality driven by the theology of the supernatural that led
her to a strong commitment with the poor, a steadfast struggle for justice, and
a non-violent dedication for peace. Her spiritual politics can be summarized as
“revolutionary descent, revolution from below.”(14)
Third, Dominique Bertrand’s classical study on the letters of Saint Ignatius
shows that the key interpretative clue to understand Ignatian social analysis
lies in the “effective election of extreme positions”—expressed in two families
of words, two nuclear terms, two socio-spiritual movements.(15)
One is the Lord/servant relationship(16)
showing a movement of descent, both spiritual and social. The second one is the
pupil/schoolmaster relationship(17) showing a firm
resolution to serve and to empower our neighbours, as God desires: an ascendant
movement. Descending as the way to serve better and to render all reality to
the only Lord: this is the core of the Ignatian view of social dynamics, which
of course is a spiritual dynamic.
or, rather, “opening” notes
As I said at the beginning, I have not
tried to offer a full-blown development of the concept of spirituality. I have
not presented in detail any feature; rather I wanted to provide some inputs
from different perspectives—personal witness, symbolic approach, theological
reflection. In others words, this is not a key-note address, it is just an
introductory talk. I hope that these remarks may help to open our conversation.
Now it is our task to continue the dialogue.
Calle Mártires de la
28029 Madrid –SPAIN
1) Here are the references for the
French, English, and Spanish editions. Egide van Broeckhoven SJ, Journalspirituel d’un jésuite en usine. Du temps des études au temps du travail.
Présenté et traduit du néerlandais par George Neefs, SJ. Collection «Christus»,
n. 43, Desclée de Brouwer-Bellarmin: Paris 1976. Egide Van
Broeckhoven SJ, A Friend To All Men, The Diary Of A Worker-Priest,
Denville, NJ: Dimension Books 1977. Preface by Peter G. Van Breemen, edited and
with introduction by George Neefs. Translated from the French by Thomas Matus. Josep Maria
Rambla SJ, Dios, la amistad y los pobres. La mística de Egide van
Broeckhoven, jesuita obrero, Santander: Sal Terrae 2007.
2) I find it not at all
surprising that the current of the Trinity running through our lives is one of
the oft-repeated features in Egide’s diary (this is a theme he derives from Jan
van Ruusbroec and other traditional mystic authors, but he actualises it in
3) Jesus answered, “If you
only knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you: Give me a
drink, you would have been the one to ask and he would have given you living
water (John ). A few lines
later, we read: Jesus answered, Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty
again, but anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty
again. The water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside him, welling
up to eternal life” (John -14). “On the
last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If any man
is thirsty let him come to me. Let the man come and drink!’” (John 7: 37).
4) Séamus Murphy SJ, “Two
Challenges for Social Spirituality” in Windows on Social Spirituality:
Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice (Dublin: Columba Press
2003), pp. 148-159.
6) Hannah Hurnard, Hinds’ Feet on
High Places,Eastbourne: Kingsway 2001 (original edition
1955), pp. 36-37.
7) Cf. Joseph H.
Hellerman, “The Humiliation of Christ in the Social World of Roman Philippi”: Biblioteca
Sacra 160 (2003) 321-336 and 421-433. Some of the specific Ignatian overtones of
this same approach, which I am not explicitly considering here, may be found in
Dean Brackley SJ, “Downward mobility: social
implications of St Ignatius' Two Standards”, Studies in the
Spirituality of Jesuits 20, 1 (January 1988).
8) According to the Gospel of John, the
scenes at the cross provide two additional scenes connected with water: “After
this Jesus knew that everything had been completed and to fulfil the scripture
perfectly he said ‘I am thirsty!’” (John ); “One of the
soldiers pierced his side with a lance; and immediately there came out blood
and water” (John ).
9) Irénée Hausherr
SJ, “Tèn Theorían tauten. Un hapax eiréménon et ses
consequences” in id., Hésychasme et prière, (Rome: Orientalia Christiana
Analecta 1966), pp. 247-253.
10) Cf. Vandana Shiva, Water Wars: Privatization,
Pollution, and Profit,Cambridge, MA: South End Press 2002. See also the initiative for an
Network, launched by the
World Council of Churches in 2005.
11) This possible
risk can be seen even in some formulations coming from the spirituality of
liberation. See a significant example in Pedro Casaldáliga y José Ma
Vigil, Espiritualidad de la liberación, Santander: Sal Terrae 1992. I
have elsewhere proposed an alternative view that tries to overcome these
difficulties. See Daniel Izuzquiza SJ, “Can a Gift Be Wrapped? John Milbank and
Supernatural Sociology”: The Heythrop Journal 47 (2006) 387-404.
12) A few
significant quotes will suffice for this purpose:
upward. Action is action only in that way” (Maurice Blondel, Action, p.
“Grace is always
kenotic” (John Milbank, The Suspended Middle, p. 6).
“Grace is the law
of downward movement” (Simone Weil, La pesanteur et la grâce, p. 55
“No one, after
all, can lead any spiritual life unless he himself participates in the downward
ascent in Christ” (Hugo Rahner SJ, Ignatius the Theologian, p. 16).
Pieris SJ, God's Reign for God's Poor: A Return to the Jesus Formula,
Kelaniya: Tulana Research Centre 1999. Aloysius Pieris SJ,
“La integración de fe y justicia en la 34a Congregación General” in id.,El Reino de Dios para los pobres
de Dios. Retorno a la fórmula de Jesús, Bilbao: Mensajero 2006, pp. 65-85.
14) See Daniel Izuzquiza SJ, Revolución desde abajo,
descenso revolucionario: La política espiritual de Dorothy Day (Barcelona:
Cristianisme i Justícia 2006). Available at www.fespinal.com
15) Dominique Bertrand SJ, La politique de Sainte Ignace de Loyola. L’analyse sociale, Paris: Ed. Du Cerf 1985. Dominique Bertrand SJ, La
política de San Ignacio de Loyola. El análisis social, Bilbao-Santander:
Mensajero- Sal Térrea 2003.
16) Expressed in the phrase “Mi senor en el Senor
Nuestro”, i.e. “My lord in Our Lord” (St Ignatius).
17) Condensed in the expression “De los niños se
hazen los grandes”, i.e. “Children grow into adults” (St Ignatius).