Matthew 25:31–46 (“I was hungry and you gave me food”), a Gospel text that speaks to a kind of final judgment, suggests that a critical touchstone and measure for the true disciple is the embrace of and care for all, evidenced by relationship with those who are typically “the excluded,” namely the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the enemy, and the one who inconveniently presses upon my time, attention, and conscience. This moral and spiritual beckon is often called the “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.”
In effect, the wisdom of Jesus describes the powerful, but often neglected, bridge between spiritual insight and social action/real compassion. In fact, the wisdom of Jesus seems to suggest that the link is even more intimate than a bridge; it is the collapse of the two categories altogether. The separation of spirituality from action is a false one. In other words, we are not called to do spiritual practices—prayer, study, meditation, retreat, ritual—to “find God” and then make our way, now inspired, to the work of mercy and justice. In fact, it might be argued that, if anything, it’s just the reverse: Love those who struggle with poverty and suffer abandonment and the effect is that we will find ourselves on a path that leads to insight, maturity, prayer, wisdom, and Christ-likeness. If, however, we choose to avoid engagement and community with those who suffer, we will certainly live an incomplete life, including an incomplete spiritual life.
To put it rightly, the practice of prayer and the practice of compassion are BOTH necessary and complementary spiritual practices. We are called to be both activists and mystics, missionaries of love and contemplatives, great lovers and deep thinkers. And, in all of that, the spiritual journey can happen; in all of that, we can be made whole; in all of that, the world can be made whole. In other words, it is in the alternating rhythm of relationship and reflection, action and inaction, engagement and solitude, availability to the other and availability to silence, that BECOMING can happen. The practice of prayer and the practice of compassion are activated by each other, like a chemical reaction. Hydrogen cannot make water by itself. Oxygen cannot make water by itself. Put them together, water happens, and life can flourish.
I offer the following observation with some trepidation that I will sound grouchy and self-righteous. It seems to me that there is an awful lot that describes itself as Christian spirituality that is glaringly devoid of any sense of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or visiting those in prison. Much of Christian spirituality—indeed, much of what we call church or Christianity—seems, sadly, disengaged from the vision and message of Jesus and the embrace of an authentic and inclusive love—what we could call “mercy.”
My worry is that much of what passes for spirituality and spiritual practice—prayer days, meditation, retreats, spiritual direction, contemplation, ritual, and study—is primarily informed by an exclusive attention to the self and perhaps family relationships, suggesting that much of what we call spirituality is some mixture of psychology and private devotion, made sacred by the use of religious imagery (a LOT of religious words). My argument is not that it’s worthless, but that it’s woefully incomplete. I am concerned that it provides a very limited experience of what Jesus seems so passionate about, namely the “Reign of God,” the most-repeated phrase in the four Gospels.
As I understand the Reign of God, it includes the grace-driven, love-driven transformation of the self and the world; what’s more, it recognizes that the transformation of self and world are directly connected to each other. Many writers have made this point: “The state of the soul is the state of the social order.” The world cannot be changed by love to become just unless we are changed by love to become whole, but we cannot be made whole without engaging in the work of making the world whole. Personal transformation and social transformation are one piece.
Isn’t it instructive that the spiritual formation of the original disciples happens with Jesus on the road? In effect, the disciples grow by doing, and then discussing, and then praying, and in all kinds of mixtures of those three activities. They grow into an understanding of this God of love (1 John 4:8), this God of compassion (Matt 25:31-47), this God who loves justice (Isaiah 61:8), this God who makes all things new (Revelation 21:5), by participating as active observers and agents of love, compassion, justice, and newness! And, yes, necessarily, they pause with Jesus to reflect, ask questions (sometimes stupid questions), and pray. But the spiritual adventure described in the four Gospels does not happen in the sanctuary; it happens mostly on the road, in the company of sinners, beggars, prostitutes, and lepers.
If this is true, then anything that describes itself as concerned with spirituality will necessarily be connected to geography! If we are to be attentive to the world’s reality, with special attention to its suffering, we must position our bodies and hearts accordingly. As a matter of spiritual growth, we will eat, pray, and breathe in unexpected places.
There is little question that when we avail ourselves to what Jesus availed himself to, our prayers can have ready answers. Jesus not only taught us how to pray, he taught us where to pray. If I frame my prayer as a matter of personal salvation and personal fulfillment, the prayer is unanswerable. If I frame my prayer as a matter of opening myself up to a love for the world, answers abound.
The true spiritual quest is not that you or I become whole. Rather, informed by the belief that the world is birthed by God and is precious and sacred and one, the true spiritual quest is that the world become whole—and you and I along with it.
Excerpted and adapted from “Love and Pray: A Path to Spiritual Maturity,” from A New Way to Be Church: Parish Renewal from the Outside In, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018)
Copies also available from JustFaith Ministries website: see https://justfaith.org/product/a-new-way-to-be-church/.