Tensions Within Spirituality
[Martha] said to him, “Yes, Lord.
I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.” (Gospel)
Healthy spirituality has always been a question of putting a number of things into a delicate balance and then walking a tightrope so as not to fall off either side. Spiritual health is very much the task of living the proper tension between a number of things:
1) The tension between contemplation and action … How much of our lives should be given over to action and how much to prayer? What is the essence of religion, private prayer and private morality or service to others and social justice? What ultimately will save the planet – soul craft or statecraft? This tension is often depicted as the one that is described in the biblical passage of Martha and Mary. Martha engaged herself in the necessary task of serving others while Mary simply sat at Jesus’ feet, doing nothing, but loving a lot. Jesus commends Mary, saying she has chosen the better part. Christian spirituality forever after has had to struggle with those words. Is prayer really more important than active service?
The saints would have us do both. A healthy spirituality is not a question of choosing between Mary and Martha, but of choosing both—contemplation and action, soulcraft and statecraft, loving and doing, prayer and service, private morality and social justice.
2) The tension between the monastic and the domestic … Where is God most easily found, in the church or in the kitchen? In the monastery or in the family? In a celibate monk’s cot or in the marriage bed? At a shrine or in a sports stadium? The God we believe in is both the Holy God of transcendence and the Incarnate God of immanence. God is, in a privileged way, found in both, the monastic and the domestic, the church and the world, A healthy spiritual life keeps a robust respect for both.
3) The tension between passion and purity … What is the secret for depth in sexuality, passion or purity? What ultimately brings us a soul mate, eros or awe? Again, the saints would say it is both. Sexuality will only surrender its real depth and arouse its singular power to unite when it is surrounded with both the fire of passion and the reticence of purity.
4) The tension between duty and personal actualization … What ultimately is the higher call, duty or personal fulfillment? Are we in this world to serve others or to exercise fully the talents that God has put into us? Which call to us is the higher moral imperative – that which comes from family, church, and country or that which comes from those centres within us that ache for the personal in love, art, achievement, and immorality? Again, if the saints can be believed, it is a question of both, of balance, of walking a tightrope, of living a daily tension.
5) The tension between this life and the next … What is more important, this world or the next? Within what perspective do I make decisions, the span of my years here on earth or the horizon of eternity? How much potential happiness should I sacrifice here in this world in view of eternal life? Is this life a vale of tears or a valley of opportunity? The Christian view is that both are important. When Jesus said that “I have come so that you may have life he is referring both to life after death and life after birth.
6) The tension between intellect and will … What is more important, the head or the heart? By which should we guide our lives? What should be the ultimate basis for our decisions, thought or feelings? What is more valuable, insight or love? The wisdom of the saints suggests that a healthy spiritual life, not to mention a full humanity, demands both—head and heart, thought and feelings, the rational and the emotional.
7) The tension between community and individuality … Are we in this world primarily to fulfill a personal vocation or is our primary purpose a communitarian one? Might an individual's personal freedom be sacrificed for the good of the group or should the common good be less important than personal freedom? Again, a healthy spiritual life walks the proper tension between these polarities. It refuses to sacrifice the individual for the group even as it asserts that we are essentially communitarian and that we have non-negotiable obligations towards community.
Contemplation and action, the monastic and the domestic, passion and purity, duty and self-actualization, this life and the next, intellect and will, community and individuality … all of these, like a complete set of keys on a piano, are needed if we hope to play all the tunes that the various circumstances of our lives demand. One is wise not to cut off part of one’s keyboard.
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser. Currently, Father Rolheiser is serving as President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio Texas. He can be contacted through his web site, www.ronrolheiser.com.
**From Saint Louis University