Christian spirituality is the ongoing process by which we allow the Holy Spirit to free and empower us to respond to God's self-gift in Jesus Christ. The Spirit frees us to become living icons of God's unfathomable mercy and compassion as incarnated and revealed in Jesus. Given that mercy and compassion orient us beyond ourselves and toward the world God loves, Christian spirituality is not a fitness program aimed at making us spiritually flawless. Rather, the Spirit deepens our compassion for our own and others' brokenness, empowering us through grace to both experience and bring God's healing to the world, in accordance with the justice, compassion, and reconciliation that Jesus embodied. Paradoxically, we grow in holiness as the Spirit frees us from self-focused programs to make ourselves perfect, empowering us instead to become more oriented toward the Gospel challenge to love God and neighbor.
This Spirit-initiated process and our response to it involve two key components: prayer and the continual renewal of our way of being and acting in the world. The Christian tradition acknowledges this back-and-forth movement as the dialectic between contemplation and action. The two are spoken of categorically to aid our understanding, but in fact spirituality is precisely that process by which prayer so suffuses our activity that the two become continual extensions of one another, resulting over time in a palpable transformation not just of ourselves, but of our world through the building up of God's reign of mercy, justice, and compassion.
This process involves a two-way dialogue in which, as prayer directs and empowers our actions, the fruits of our activity increasingly confirm, confront, or redirect our prayer. We become gradually more alert and able to faithfully discern and interpret the opportunities and challenges that present themselves as we go about our daily business. These opportunities and challenges in turn become part of the “signs of the times” (Matt., 16:3) that Jesus urges us to read in the very fabric of our everyday lives. It is in this fertile meeting place where our prayer and activity unite that we continually bear Christ in our hearts and in our actions: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John, 1:14).
This process presupposes three important realities: First, our utter dependence on God, who is as close to us as our breath and yet unfathomably transcendent and capable of trumping our expectations at a moment’s notice; second, that we at least want to be free to listen for and respond to God’s call. How free we may actually be at any given point is another story, and only serves to reinforce the first point about our utter dependence on God. The third and final presupposition is that the movements of the Spirit can indeed be discerned. We discern the Spirit's movements by simultaneously looking around and within us. We look around us at the concrete reality of our sisters and brothers, particularly the most marginalized, in order to read the aforementioned signs of the times; and we look to the deepest desire of our hearts, even as we read and interpret the fruits of our prayer-filled action.
We must remember one final paradox: In this process, walking the path is an intrinsic part of discerning it. This can be enormously counter-intuitive, as we typically expect that in order to perform any task, we must first learn what is required of us. However, God is no ordinary interlocutor, rather one who communicates in and through our own and others’ needs as made evident in our environment, which means that the only way for us to listen for what God wants of us, is to be actively involved within our context, whatever that might be. Otherwise, our prayer to know God's will, fervent as it may be, becomes like a seed that falls on rocky ground.
Learning to listen requires that we practice responding, and prayer to know the will of God that is unaccompanied by action can easily become navel-gazing that masquerades as contemplation. However, it is equally true that action without prayer quickly becomes emptied of its purpose and power. Ultimately, it is in our willingness to walk in Christ's compassion and in loving service to one another that we live our prayer to be shown God's will, and it is at the threshold where our prayer transforms our action that God most eloquently responds.