The Acts of the Apostles tell of St. Paul’s efforts to share Jesus Christ with the people of Athens, appealing to the fact that they already had an altar inscribed “To a God Unknown.”
This appeal by St. Paul can help us understand that regardless of whether God is known or unknown to us, God longs for us and extends a continuous invitation to deepen our relationship with him.
Sometimes we label this ongoing invitation “spirituality” – the way that God invites us, encourages us and reveals himself to us.
Within the Catholic Church, thanks to the communion of saints, “many and varied spiritualities have been developed throughout the history of the churches. The personal charism of some witnesses to God’s love for men has been handed on, like ‘the spirit’ of Elijah to Elisha and John the Baptist, so that their followers may have a share of this spirit.” Catholic Catechism 2684
Why are there so many paths and which might God be using or want to use to help you?
Dr. Chris Burgwald, who focuses on adult discipleship and evangelization for the Diocese of Sioux Falls, says there are many types of spiritualities because there are many types of people.
“Because our Lord and Creator delights in multiplicity, in variety. Or to use a different analogy, we might all like ice cream, but we each prefer a different flavor. So too with our spirituality: while there are certain fundamentals that are constant throughout all authentic Catholic spiritualities (personal prayer, reception of the sacraments, devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist, etc.), they each have their own particular emphases in the spiritual life, or their own ways of expressing those common fundamentals… their own flavor,” he said.
Examples are all around us. The rich diversity of religious communities that serve in the Diocese of Sioux Falls each have unique aspects to their spirituality and charism, usually based upon those who founded them: Benedictine, Presentation, Franciscan, Carmelite, Blessed Sacrament, Daughters of St. Mary of Providence and the Perpetual Adoration Sisters.
Sometimes lay people also find the invitation to deepen their spiritual path through these consecrated communities; many have lay associates or oblates who pray with, support and find spiritual growth in this manner.
Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul use other aspects of the Catholic faith, such as service to others, as means of deepening their spirituality.
“Inspired by Gospel values, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic lay organization, leads women and men to join together to grow spiritually by offering person-to-person service to those who are needy and suffering in the tradition of its founder, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, and patron, St. Vincent de Paul,” said local leader Andrew Hoerner.
While most people are more familiar with the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, the primary work of Vincentians is different.
“As a reflection of the whole family of God members are drawn from every ethnic and cultural background, age group, and economic level. Vincentians are united in an international society of charity by their spirit of poverty, humility and sharing, which is nourished by prayer and reflection, mutually supportive gatherings and adherence to a basic Rule,” Hoerner said.
Their goal is to see the face of Christ in all as they seek to not just help with needs but also the causes of the needs. This work often happens through home visits to those in need.
“When I first became a Vincentian, I struggled with the idea that the spirituality of our members is our number one goal,” said Vincentian member Mary Montoya.
“I wanted to get out and help the poor and not spend so much time praying at our meetings and discussing spiritual matters. Over time the spirituality aspect grew on me. I began to cherish sharing my Christian values with other like-minded people. It became personal to me. I learned that rushing out to do Jesus’ work would quickly lead to fatigue without the underpinnings of spirituality,” she said.
The goal of deepening spirituality is true, not just for the Vincentians, but also for those they are visiting.
“The home visit team prays with those we have been asked to serve,” said Jean Lipetzky, another Vincentian member. “We hope that we have brought them some encouragement as we help with their immediate need.”
“I believe that I have become more compassionate and less judgmental of others by accompanying them through a difficult time,” she said.
“It’s much better to share the love of Christ through serving others than to look down upon the less fortunate. You don’t have to walk a mile in their shoes but a few home visits will help you and those you visit,” said Lipetzky.
Broom Tree Retreat and Conference Center director Fr. Joe Vogel said approaching the spiritual life does not have to be complicated.
“I think that the best place to start any discussion on spirituality and our relationship with God is with two fundamental truths: We are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26) and God is love (1 John 4:8).”
“Given these truths we learn that our prayer is always a response to God’s love. We don’t have to make God love us, he already does. In a sense we just have to put ourselves in a place to let this love of God find us,” said Fr. Vogel.
“Our experience of God’s love is first made visible in our families and then in our friends. For many of us God’s love was made visible in going to Church. As a young child it was always a great thing to see so many people coming to pray together. One of the best teachers in life is our own experiences, both good and bad. We would like things to always go our way but if that happened most of us would never have a need for God,” he said.
The experiences of Missy Baumberger, Adult Faith Formation coordinator at Immaculate Conception Parish, Watertown, suggest checking our motivation towards things of God can also be important and clarifying that can help us on the spiritual journey
“It was about sixteen years ago that my interest in scripture was peaked as I had a coworker ask me questions about stories in the Bible,” she said.
“At first, I picked up and dusted off the Big Book out of spite and frustration that I didn’t know how to answer him, but as I began to read and search for the answer something started to happen deep inside of me. I started to embrace the stories as truth, not just childhood stories I have heard so many times before. With this desire came a new hunger for knowledge. I started to attend Mass and participate more in the sacraments not because I was told to, but because something was drawing me. I also started to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, dig deeper into Scripture, attend daily Mass, search for a spiritual director and find time daily to sit in silence preferably in front of the Tabernacle,” Baumberger said.
Over time, Baumberger said her spiritual path has included adoration, scripture, and what she describes as “being a student in the school of silence.”
“I believe the practice of Lectio Divina has been most beneficial in helping me open my heart to God’s will for my life. Through meditating upon His Living Word, I not only learn more about Christ and His church but my own strengths, weaknesses and the desires God has placed on my heart. God is no longer distant but a friend and His Church’s teachings are no longer a set of rules but guidelines so I can experience His true gift of peace, joy and happiness. Meditating on Scripture has also helped me in my daily vocation as a wife and a mom,” she said.
“God has also taught me how to listen carefully to the whispers He places upon my heart. For example, a few weeks ago I could feel him nudging me that after I took care of the needs of my family, He wanted me to spend time with Him. Because it worked out, I went back to the chapel,” Baumberger said.
“As I became silent, I found myself gazing upon a painting of Mary that we have beside the crucifix. My eyes became locked on it and I started to feel a peace and joy that made no sense humanly. It’s like I could feel her drawing me to her Son. I knew deep inside my being that He was answering a prayer that I had been praying for some time. His message to me was just stay focused on Him and our Mother Mary, that it wasn’t my job to make sense of things but instead to just believe and trust.”
“Experiences like this are what give me the courage to keep going in my times that I too am Moses and ask God ‘Are you sure it’s me you want for this great task?’” she said.
Fr. Vogel believes silence is essential for developing our relationship with God.
“One of the greatest experiences in my spiritual life and priesthood has been my time spent at Broom Tree Retreat Center. Broom Tree is best explained by the statement: “In the Silence God Speaks.” One of the best ways to get back to the basics (God loves me before I do anything) is to get off the merry go round and be still and listen,” he said.
“It is said of God that he will rarely hit a moving target. Our world teaches us to stay busy, do more and that will make us happy. Again it isn’t that we have to be still to make God love us but to be still and realize that he always has.”
“As director of Broom Tree and as a spiritual director I encourage everyone to spend time in silence each day thanking God for your blessings and reading God’s word each day. For many people who have wandered away from the practice of the faith (as I did for a few years) the best thing we can do is to go to confession. Confession isn’t about seeing how bad we are but about coming to realize how good God is and what freedom is really like,” Fr. Vogel said.
For parents, developing prayer habits with children can set a pattern for a lifetime of deepening spirituality.
“As a child we often said the rosary together as a family. Eight kids kneeling down to say the rosary didn’t always seem like prayer to me but it taught me the discipline of prayer,” said Fr. Vogel.
“I can’t imagine a day that I wouldn’t say the rosary and that is because of this experience. The family is always the best place to learn to meet God – in good times and in bad.”
“One of the greatest changes in my relationship with God has been coming to understand that God isn’t against me, but he is on my side and one of the best tools to help see that is the Bible.
“I believe that we should not talk about reading and praying the Bible, but reading and praying the Word of God. If we read and pray God’s word that changes everything. Remember that he first loves us and his ‘Word’ is a series of love letters encouraging us to know his mercy and forgiveness,” he said.
“One of the best ways to know of God’s love for us is to begin each day thinking of five ways that God blessed us in the past 24 hours. This attitude of gratitude always lifts our spirits and helps us look for the good in each day rather that the bad.”
“Another tool and weapon that we have available in our Catholic faith is a devotion to our Blessed Mother. She is often referred to as our shortcut to Jesus. Matthew Kelly has said that no one knows a son like a mother. There is nothing that we are dealing with that the Blessed Mother hasn’t had to deal with. For some people it is difficult to pray to Jesus or the Father because of difficult family situations. In that case it is often easier to go to her for comfort and unconditional love,” said Fr. Vogel.
There are some cautions and concerns when talking about spirituality, to the point that some become wary of using the word.
“When people say things like ‘I’m spiritual, but not religious,’ what they usually mean is that they have some interest in their spiritual life, but they don’t think that they need ‘organized religion’ (e.g. belonging to a church community) to attend to their spiritual life,” said Burgwald.
“Hence the term (spirituality) is sometimes looked on with suspicion, precisely because it can be used in a way that is opposed to belonging to Christ’s Church. But the fact that the term can be misused in this way doesn’t mean that we ought to avoid using it altogether: as I noted previously, it truly does refer to the health of our soul, and we shouldn’t give up that meaning because of how others misuse it,” he said.
“There simply is no opposition between our spiritual life and belonging to the Church. At the Second Vatican Council, the Church taught that in Jesus Christ, God has fully revealed to us who we are (cf. Gaudium et Spes 22), and therefore we need to look to Him and what He has revealed in us to determine how best to attend to our spiritual health, not to my own, self-created religion,” said Burgwald.
Among the graces found in working to listen and follow up on God’s invitation to know Him better is the joy of witnessing and helping others on their journey.
“Praying communally by going to Mass to pray with other parishioners is very important and being able to share the Good News in conversation with a small group of others, feeds my soul too,” said Montoya.
“I noticed soon after becoming a Vincentian that other members of our parish conference have been through serious difficulties in their lives, as have I. I believe we are wounded healers and can relate on a personal level with those we serve,” she said.
“As the Adult Faith Formation Coordinator for Immaculate Conception Church, I find the greatest joy in being able to witness moments of grace; when clarity is awakened within the hearts of our parishioners,” Baumberger said.
“Some of the most fruitful moments this past year would be the newly found hope obtained by a woman that unexpectedly lost her husband, a man that has been convicted that God is weaved into his ‘everyday ordinary’ activities like getting coffee from the gas station, a young lady that has found strength to simply walk into the church again after years of addiction and the loss of a child through abortion. These are all moments of grace only possible through love, a receptive heart and a desire to know the Creator,” she said.
“Too many times I can fall into the trap thinking that being ‘spiritual’ is something special for those that walked the earth with Christ or the saints, but in reality, I am learning through the Word that God calls each of us to be saints which is something very attainable if we are willing to allow Him to show us His plan for our ordinary daily lives,” Baumberger said.
“Being a Vincentian has changed my perspective on life by allowing me to put my faith into action. I’m more appreciative for the blessings God has given me,” said Hoerner.
“Recently I visited a lady who was renting a room and shared a bathroom with a whole floor of strangers. She had no bed, no furniture, and very few clothes but was only asking for help with hygiene items. Even though she had so little, she was overjoyed to be off the streets. The Holy Spirit humbled me with her humility. It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you do a visit like that!” he said.
“One of my best Broom Tree stories is everyone that I talk to about Broom Tree just smiles when they talk about their experience of being there,” said Fr. Vogel.
“They all say that it is holy ground and there are very few places like that in their life. I believe that there is a fear in some people that only super holy people can go there and ordinary people won’t fit in. I would say that it is just the opposite.”
“All of us need a place to sense the presence of God in a very special way. Check out the Broom Tree website and see how many different opportunities are available there for you. Even if you don’t think you need a break to get back in touch with God’s love ask the people you live with and work with. I would bet that they would say to go, calm down and come back and share with them the love you have received. That is evangelization at its finest,” he said.