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Opening up the Concept of Spirituality


Opening up the Concept of Spirituality

Daniel Izuzquiza SJ


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.


Anselm Kiefer, Tupac Shakur, and us


     A few days before coming to Slovakia I had the chance to visit Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, 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.


Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?

Proving nature's law is wrong it learned to walk without feet.

Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.

(Tupac Shakur)


     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 reality possible.


A personal 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 (Journal spirituel d’un jésuite en usine XIII, 65).

     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:


There's a wideness in God's mercy

like the wideness of the sea;

there's a kindness in his justice,

which is more than liberty.

(Frederick 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:


The 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 symbol


     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 modernity.”

     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 spirituality.







Main ‘actor’

Theological reflection

Egide’s Journal



We are water, we desire the Source



Theology of Surnaturel

XXI, 17


XXV, 2


Ocean and Eyes

Mystical and prophetic religions. Nature and history



Theology of Religious pluralism

XXI, 25-27



Kenosis. Jordan, Cross.



Dialectic Theology

VII, 3



Mercy and justice. Glass of water, water wars


The poor

Theology of Liberation

XXI, 51



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: 1).

     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


I come to you not only asking for a glass of water, but looking for its very source.

I 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;

I 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 Age views.(4)

     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 mystical-prophetic tradition.


O spring like crystal!

If only, on your silvered-over faces,

you would suddenly form

the eyes I have desired,

which I bear sketched deep within my heart.(5)

(St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle)


     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 of God’s 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:


We want to keep giving ourselves, because

You are waiting in the night,

with a thousand eyes filled with tears.


Third level: the River

Down 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)


Come, oh come! let us away—

Lower, lower every day

Oh, what joy it is to race

Down to find the lowest place.

This is the dearest law we know—

‘It is happy to go low.’

       Sweetest urge and sweetest will,

      ‘Let us go down lower still.’

Hear the summons night and day,

Calling us to come away.

From the heights we leap and flow

To the valleys down below.

Always answering to the call,

To the 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


If 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:


Come 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.


A theological 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:







Human being














Social Action




     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.


Closing remarks 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.


Daniel Izuzquiza Regalado SJ

Calle Mártires de la Ventilla 103

28029 Madrid   SPAIN



1) Here are the references for the French, English, and Spanish editions. Egide van Broeckhoven SJ, Journal spirituel 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 contemporary ways).

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 4: 10). 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 4: 13-14). “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 19: 28); “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance; and immediately there came out blood and water” (John 19: 34).

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 Ecumenical Water 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:

“Onward, and upward. Action is action only in that way” (Maurice Blondel, Action, p. 127).

“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 Spanish edition).

“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).

13) Aloysius 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

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).