January 23, 2010

Spiritual Theology -- What is it?

For Catholics, in its broadest sense, spiritual theology studies the relations between what God has revealed about himself and what the Church experiences in her pilgrimage to Him.  Some look at this study as a specialized part of moral theology (a study of how Christians ought to live).  Others look at it in terms of an approach to dogmatic theology (a study of what Christians ought to believe).  It is probably best to look at it as both - because the object of study is more simple than both morals and dogma.  What I mean by this is that what we believe and how we live is completely rooted in the Church's ongoing encounter of Jesus Christ leading her into the arms of God.

It must be pointed out that what I just wrote is not accepted by most people.  The very name of this science makes it very easy to misunderstand.  There is a widespread and mistaken idea of what "spiritual" means.   The general assumption is that spiritual things are less real than physical things.  It is also assumed that the physical world is the main place for "real life."  The spiritual world is a place we check out to quench our curiosity for the weird or else a place in which we seek comfort because "real life" is too painful to deal with.  So the spiritual is reduced to prosaic, enchanting and consoling myths that help people get by.   For those who think of the spiritual life in this way, spiritual theology is primarily in the realm of imagination and emotions.  The problem with this is that the merely sentimental might help someone feel good for a little while, but it is never really enough in the long run.  Myths can be a way to avoid reality, and reality is not the kind of thing one can safely turn his back on.

The truly spiritual is in the realm of what is good, beautiful and true.  We find these things in the physical world, but what is merely visible does not limit them.  In fact, they witness to something beyond the tangible stuff of life.  In the ugliest moments of life, our most humiliating moments, and those times we really hurt someone entrusted to us - even in these moments, we can be tormented by the desire for truth and goodness which ought to be there.  If our conscience cries out, it is because there is a standard of goodness against which we have not measured up.  We did not make this standard.  Nor did any culture produce it.  Even though we cannot see this standard, it is no less real.  And, our awareness or lack of awareness of it influences the way we see and experience everything.

When we look at what God has revealed about Himself and see the relations this has with the pilgrimage of the Church, we can glimpse a beautifully unfolding tapestry into which our own lives are weaved.  The Church is the Bride of the Living God.  She pilgrimages to her wedding feast.  Each life expresses something contained in the mystery of the Church because each of us can accept or reject this journey for ourselves.   Those who study and contemplation the tapestry or tradition of this pilgrimage find the most beautiful and difficult truths of all: God's unquenchable desire for real friendship with us, the complete extent of our rejection of Him, and the unfathomable depths to which He descends to win back our hearts.  This study must deal with the stark realities of sin and death, and our aching desire for something beyond our own existence.  It also must deal with penance, prayer and the discipline of the Christian life.  Finally, and most important of all, it must strain to see our coming home, to where we really belong -- and this, in comprehensibly, in the embrace of God himself, his arms outstretched on the Cross.