A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
MANY people today would have no difficulty acknowledging that they are spiritual and seek to cultivate a spirituality in their daily lives. However, it is difficult to articulate what precisely we mean even though we have an intuitive sense of what it means to be spiritual. Certainly, people experience the spiritual dimension in life but find it difficult to express precisely what this experience is.
Theologian Donal Dorr has helped many to identify this spiritual dimension in life. He refers to it as the deep longing and searching for meaning, for peace, and for a sense of our own personal call and our place in the community. It embraces “our fundamental commitments, mindsets and attitudes to life.” He identifies two dimensions to our spirituality… one is a meditative or contemplative aspect which helps people to achieve serenity and mindfulness; for others spirituality is more action-orientated, involving them, for example, in the struggle for human rights or care for the environment so that individuals and communities can live in peace and harmony. A rounded, integrated spirituality would embrace the two dimensions, the contemplative and the active. The two dimensions are really two sides of the one coin.
Most spiritual seekers gradually come to acknowledge an experience of what can only be described as a sense of the mystery which surrounds our lives. It underlies the experiences of serenity or mindfulness or immersion in the struggle for justice. People can become conscious of this deeper reality through a range of feelings and sensations. I have been privileged in ministry to journey with people through times of darkness and despair which eventually gave way to the opening up of new possibilities, new beginnings, new energy and zest for life.
‘Why are we failing dismally as a Church to create vibrant communities where people experience a deep level of engagement?’
Other experiences of the mystery occur when things seem to come together, when life seems rich and colourful and we sense a kind of benign providential guidance. The mystery is experienced through our sense of the benevolence of nature, the goodness of friends, the enrichment of belonging in our community.
The Christian approach to the mystery that surrounds our life does not remove the mystery as such but throws light on it. It names the mystery as God and thanks to Jesus of Nazareth, we are invited to believe a number of important dimensions of this mystery. The God of Jesus is benevolent, personal and moral. One who is present to us and invites us to come into God’s presence. God is creator and life-giver and calls us to cooperate, to be co-creators or partners with God in the process of shaping our world and in creating ourselves and our communities.
I have often wondered if there are any benefits to being spiritually committed. Does it make any difference in one’s life? The Gallup Organisation has conducted extensive research in the USA amongst the spiritually committed, attempting to ‘measure’ the difference spirituality can make in people’s lives. The results of this research are published in a book by Albert Winseman called, “Growing an Engaged Church.” In relation to those spiritually committed to the Christian faith, research results indicated that such people assert that they have meaning and purpose in their lives and this meaning derives from their faith, (not wealth, position, power nor status). They report that faith gives an inner calm; “no matter what storms people have weathered in their lives, they discover a calm and steady courage.” As well as that sense of peace, they also have a sense of direction and stability which makes their lives ultimately more satisfying.
The Gallup polls also show that the spiritually committed are deeply compassionate and speak words of kindness to those in need of encouragement: “the compassion in the spiritually committed stands out.” They are also more likely to forgive people. Inherent in this research piece is that without faith, forgiveness is difficult as faith in something greater than oneself is necessary. (For Christians of course forgiveness is at the very heart of faith).
Spiritual seekers believe that they have been given gifts and talents by God and that they have a responsibility to make the most of these talents in service to God and others. This is summed up in the saying: “Life is a gift from God: what you do with it is your gift to God.”
Interestingly, the research showed that Church membership appears to make a difference to spiritual commitment. A much higher percentage of the spiritually committed belong to a Church, compared with those who do not.
However, findings also indicated that spiritual commitment for Christians is determined not only by membership in their parish but more importantly by the level of engagement in their parish. Seemingly, less than 10 percent of parishioners across parishes in the States are actually engaged in their parish. We conducted a similar type survey in our parish and the results reflected the findings of the Gallup polls.
Researchers define engagement as a strong psychological and emotional connection to one’s parish. The engaged parishioners would consider their faith community to be like a family to them. They have a deep sense of belonging. They know that they are deeply valued and they are generous in giving of time and talent to accomplish the mission of the parish. They have discovered ways and opportunities to serve and help others. They have no hesitation about inviting others to participate in the community. Above all, they experience a deep sense of life satisfaction.
We have to ask searching questions as to why so few are engaged in their parish. Why are we failing dismally as a Church to create vibrant communities where people experience a deep level of engagement? I have no doubt that the spiritual hunger experienced by many will continue to seek fulfilment. But without engaged communities of faith, many Christian spiritual seekers will be deprived of the richness. What a challenge we face as we seek to increase the level of engagement in our parishes.