The Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuit Curia in Rome


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Spiritual Experience and Social Commitment:

Spiritual Experience and Social Commitment:

Crises and transformations

Alain Thomasset SJ


The following reflection is the result of a research study jointly conducted by the Centre d'étude et de recherche en action sociale (CERAS) and the Centre Sèvres during a study seminar entitled “Faith that is social: a theological locus.” This seminar is an annual event held each year for about ten students. Since 2001, with Bertrand Cassaigne, we have been inviting 4 or 5 Christian witnesses each year; they are people involved in social, political or economic matters, and we attempt to highlight through their lives the various complex links between the witnesses’ faith in Christ and their commitment to serving society. Our task consists mainly of analysing the witnesses’ narratives and their answers to previously recorded and transcribed questions. During our research, we also study their words, the language they use, and we draw comparisons with such and such theologian and with such and such passage from the Bible. It is largely an empirical approach on the most rigorous analysis possible of the witnesses’ texts.


Founding experiences and moments of crisis: a constitutive interaction between the experience of an encounter, of a commitment, and the experience of an encounter with God


     Analysis of the witnesses leads us to qualify the notion of “founding experience” since the social commitment of the witnesses often arises partly from a family heritage, which is slowly transformed and the fruits of which appear gradually. There are many stages in their journeys: it is not a case of one single experience determining everything, but several events that strengthen each other and take on meaning together. It would be more accurate to speak of a “founding history.”

     The stages also differ in nature. Sometimes it is a faith experience that leads one to a commitment in favour of the poorest (deductive path). But in other cases, it is an unexpected encounter that proves disrupting, leads to a commitment and to a questioning of one’s faith (inductive path).

     The following figure illustrates that double path of interaction between the lived experience of encountering the most destitute (or social commitment), and the personal experience of an encounter with God. Depending on the witnesses and on the experiences that constitute their references, the path begins at different ends:





Faith experiences                                       gives rise                                       social action

Received heritage                                   (deductive path)                               social commitment





A transformation                                                                                   

- of the way one views society                                    imply                                            Encounters, events

- of the way one believes                                     (inductive path)                  Duration of the commitment



     The commitment’s founding experiences, when identifiable, or deep experiences that occur during the commitment often comprise crises and disruptions in the way one believes or views society. One’s relationships with oneself, with others and with God are modified all at once.


A gradual unification of the itinerary based on a received heritage and occurring through a personal spiritual experience


     The fundamental link between faith and commitment is often affirmed in an inchoative way at the beginning, and, thanks to a received heritage, that link may not be grasped other than through the subject’s experience which is built up through life. It is precisely the telling of the narrative that makes it possible to approach that evolution and slowly draw the contours in what is not an explanation of external events nor a logical line but rather the interior unification of an itinerary scattered till now.

     It is thanks to a personal spiritual experience that the link between faith and social commitment finds a certain unification. Single spiritual experiences make for discoveries which involve resources of Christian tradition (the Word of God, liturgy, prayer…) and are crucial to the understanding of action and its orientation. A correlation is thus made between the interpretation of Christ’s life and an ethics of attitudes (virtues). The example of Michel, a senior officer in charity organisations, will help illustrate how this works (see box).

    Figure 2 below shows how a coherent link between faith and commitment is achieved through a spiritual experience which correlates human relations and the perception of God’s mystery.

Perception of social reality

Relations with others

Action in society










Ethics of attitudes (virtues)                                                                                                        Interpretation of Jesus’ life

Ecclesial traditions of interpretation

Jesuit apostolical traditions


     This unification of the itinerary appears in different types of spiritual sensibilities which one can refer to different theologies (Rahner, Tillich, Schillebeeckx, Gutierrez, etc.). It is also influenced by various ecclesial traditions and apostolical prerequisites, which offer pre-interpretations of that correlation and on which the subject relies whether consciously or otherwise (Catholic Action, Charismatic Renewal, etc.). Concerning Jesuits, we can also talk of the influence from various apostolical traditions (Mission Ouvrière, youth education, popular pastoral activity, formation, etc.).



     Michel’s route is marked by numerous periods of crisis. At first sight, it seems to be at odds with the unification movement for it carries a heavy tension. Nevertheless, it is the to-and-fro movement between life and understanding given by the spiritual life which makes his narrative cohesive. Michel, 44, married and father of four, is a senior officer in the social institutions that manage national solidarity. He was born into a devout family. A teenage crisis, which led to a break with traditional family faith, was overcome thanks to a double experience. First, he met, in the seventies, groups of young Baptists who lived an exciting and joyous faith life, engaged in a literal reading of the Gospel and living the effusion of the Holy Spirit; that gave him a new impulse. Next, while at a Paris engineering school, he took part in student chaplaincies and discovered Ignatian spirituality which calls one to love the world and re-evaluate one’s experience. Thus he was able to bring faith and reason together. Having become a researcher in physics, he was confronted with a painful event in 1987—the birth of a son with developmental disability. His son underwent an exceptional surgery thanks to which he was saved and allowed to have a family life. Going through that experience led Michel to a change of profession so as to dedicate himself to solidarity.

     Michel’s life has been constantly confronted with crises: he speaks of a life full of tension, caught between faith life and active life, and of a religious life made up of “stability and instability” simultaneously. Michel shows a careful concern about finding the right attitude, which should not be a mere recourse to acquired habits. An attitude which is about welcoming the Gospel’s “radicalness,” about fostering “carefulness towards the poor, being poor himself and being with the poor.” For him, “social commitment begins with our flaws and wounds.” The shocks he received and the crises he underwent gave rise to reflection and motivated his choices. The care of his son led him to understand tangibly what solidarity, as a tactile experience of faith, is: “With my public health insurance thirteen-digit number, an ordinary file, without any privileges, I could offer my son the best health service… I experienced always that feeling of tangible solidarity, of financial, opaque, blind solidarity, because my fellow citizens had unknowingly paid for a serious operation that saved a little one… It was through public health insurance that the child had access to a life that was worth living. Thanks to that, we were touched by and became aware of what a collective solidarity system was. It was very different from the image of a public health insurance with its forms, its refund sheets…” And he added: “Commenting on Christ’s appearance to Thomas, after the resurrection (John 20): ‘come forth, put your hand in my side’, someone said: faith is tactile, it is about touching… faith is not about seeing, about hearing, but about touching”. We can long ponder that thought which seems insightful to me. I think social commitment is also about touching, it is concerned with touching, one has access to it through that which has truly, physically touched him.”

     In the event of his son’s birth and operation, Michel interprets the concrete experience of solidarity as a spiritual experience through which he grasps something of God’s reality so far hidden and unknown. At the level of God’s representations, that change occurs through the discovery of an “ontologically poor” God. “God is there, that’s the way he is: poor.” Thus faith springs from “the acknowledgement of flaws in the fact of loving.” Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus appears at the end as one who has been cared for by others, helps him understand in a new way that God is poor and “it is through such flaws that I am able to see God poor.” The power of love is a power of weakness and of destitution. For Michel, faced with illness, also “had to get rid of the image of God as a miracle-worker, to convert it from the image of the all-powerful.” It was a fundamental letting-go, so as to rediscover the image of God the Father who, as the father in the parable of the prodigal son, awaits his son (Luke 15).



Crises and the transformation processes they entail: taking up an attitude of compassion, solidarity and hope


     For the witnesses, whatever the nature of their commitment, faith appears as the driving force behind their role as actors, be it in an association, a company, a political party or any other social structure. This ‘deductive’ dimension of faith towards action is always present. No narrative however is happy with just that first step. Each goes on to describe a faith experience which evolves as more encounters and more trials occur. As with Michel (see box), that faith is transformed thanks to spiritual experience, which allows one to meet new faces of God and the Church. Thus, social commitment is not merely an ethical consequence of faith, which is often lived out as a ‘can-do’ attitude in the first days of action, but rather a constitutive dimension of faith. The meeting of, and concern for, ‘the other’ through social life is not just a moral appendix to the fact of belonging to Christian community, but the crucible of a revelation and an authentication of the spiritual experience. Social action is an essential place where the witnesses discover a new face of God and a new way of believing which is peculiar to them.

     One of the most frequent transformations is the acknowledgement of one’s own weaknesses, an experience of deprivation and gradual access to humility. That leads to taking up an attitude of compassion, solidarity and hope towards others, together with a transformed image of God as a forgiving Father and of Christ who accompanies humans on their way. Paul’s experience is significant in that respect (see box).



     Paul, an official in an association for aid to the destitute, experienced a stripping of faith and pride through meeting Fourth World people whose lives have been shattered. “Before such distressed humanity, it is another aspect of God that appears. One feels weaker, more dependent on God. All is spent”. His idea of a rupture with society, which he lived with at the beginning, gave way to a larger openness and tolerance, in particular towards those preoccupied by money concerns. It also led to a relativisation of his own commitment, and to seeking a compromise with his wife. God reveals himself in the disfigured face of wounded men and women who, in spite of all, are capable of fraternity and joy. It is worth noting that his narrative offers two different interpretations of the Gospel of the rich young man (cf. Matthew 10). He sees it, first, as a radical invitation to get rid of riches and a denunciation of family affluence. But at the end, the same passage is taken up to express compassion towards the young man who goes away sad, which he sees as an invitation to be tolerant towards those who are preoccupied with their own security. Jesus is, first, the one who puts us on the move, pushes us to leave our false securities; but he is also the one who considers every person as a human being, including villains such as Zacheus; he is the one whose face meets that of disfigured poor people, the one who is there wherever there is suffering. God is, thus, the one before whom it is a question of being disarmed, as is the case with families.



     The following table shows some kinds of evolution that were noted in the relationship with oneself, with others, and with God following periods of crises. A first stage (the moral threshold) brings together the various basic elements of the experience of commitment; it is often a result of a received heritage and deeply shaped by action, and sometimes a ‘can-do’ attitude. A second stage (that of hope) indicates the trials and crises gone through. From there comes an attitude of humility, of compassion and hope together with another relationship with God and the Church.




Images of self

Images of others and of the social field

Images of God

Images of the Church

“Moral” threshold





•Positive collective Experiences

•Strictness towards others

•Ideal society project

•Taking action for others, giving back what has been receive

•“Moral”, powerful, good, demanding God.

•Jesus as a prophet who denounces injustices

•Assembly of the faithful, the “just”

•“Natural” environment or strangeness


Threshold of hope

Trials linked to the encounter, to duration, to violence

•Experience of fragility, of being limited, of flaws

•Taking up humility, active passivity

•Insistence on the interpersonal

•Compassion, hope, fundamental solidarity

•Transformation of attitudes, of approach

•A place for everyone


•Life favouring Father God of tenderness, who gives, forgives, accompanies


•Cross and Resurrection of Christ

•God who is poor

•Community of sinners, people who walk though lame or shaky


•Experience of differences


•Enlarged Family



     For those involved in social activities, as well as among those who confront the difficulties of life in business or in the roughness of political life, meeting others, both in their uniqueness and in complex structures of relations, gives rise to deep questioning. Certain images of oneself (with its illusory claim to power and to autonomy) or of social relationships (which are too idealised) are shaken, overturned. At a personal level, meeting people who suffer reveals an essential place of meaning and questioning. As the witnesses put it, it reveals “an otherness which is never completely known,” something “incomprehensible and impossible to master.” This particular other, the poor, sends us back “to fragilities and limits” appropriate to each one; she opens the “inner flaw” which displaces our attention and calls us to take into account suffering, evil, death and conflict. She also introduces us to happiness received, to the gift of a shared moment which brings meaning and enthusiasm. Similarly, at the social level, utopian visions of social transformation which may have driven action at the beginning can seem devalued, and that often leads to a new insistence on interpersonal relationships of proximity.

     However, faith is inevitably affected. Thus, the other is discovered by surprise as it were, defies all grip and appears as the face of a God who becomes Altogether-Other, different from the God of childhood or of tradition “who is easier to seize, smoother” to use the words of a witness. That encounter is the crucible of a revelation. The other is seen as an image of God, God is seen as the Altogether-Other; the one reveals the other as two faces of a strangeness, each rousing a passivity so far little known. The discovery of personal limits and the humble acceptance of one’s human flaws are also made possible through the access to a God who gives and forgives, who wants to make man stand up again.

     If that face gives rise to trust, to a welcoming of life and a new acceptance of one’s limits, then the relation with the other is transformed. In that respect, many witnesses speak of a new attitude towards the men and women they meet, an attitude which refuses to judge and joins in new hope towards everyone, in compassion that shows solidarity and no longer keeps people at bay but acknowledges that all belong to the same wounded humanity. The splits they have lived open the way to “a loss of what seemed before to be the main force,” so as to live out an availability that leads to a new hope, similar to Christ’s kenosis. Then, relating to others and engaging with them changes the modality of commitment: the concern is not so much about doing something myself (“pulling ahead”) as about accompanying (backing); it is about adopting a new attitude towards people, which can at once “create,” invite to live, and be filled with hope instead of an attitude that “shapes.”




Some other attitudes


     Having affirmed the principle that experienced transformations offer a new system of interpreting reality, one may briefly list a few other attitudes often mentioned in the narratives and which the witnesses consider as characteristic of their Christian faith and of their action


·          Being passionate about the world and fighting in favour of human beings

·          The experience of becoming free and the will to lead others to freedom

·          The perception of a fundamental gratuitousness which accompanies human relationships

·          The strength of standing trials and facing death

·          Hope towards people, life and the future with no guarantee demanded

·          The possibility of standing back and relativising one’s action.


Original French

Translation by Christian Uwe


Alain Thomasset SJ

Centre Sèvres

35 bis rue de Sèvres

75006 Paris FRANCE