Life Illumined


This essay was written as an introduction to the volume Christian Spirituality and Theology, ed. by Ståle Kristiansen and Kim Larsen (Oslo: Novus, 2024)

‘Spirituality’: A Meaningful Notion?

If the truth be told, I am sick and tired of the word ‘spirituality’. In ordinary parlance it often carries no definable content. I sometimes think ‘spirituality’ has become a designation for subjectivised religion freed from dogmas and commandments – and to a large extent from revelation.

In this country we do tend to subjectivise spiritual things. Just a couple of generations ago, one often heard people speak about faith on the basis of private notions of ‘my god’: ‘My god isn’t this way or that, doesn’t do that sort of thing.’ It was chiefly a matter of distancing oneself from the concept of the covenant, the Biblical idea that God, Ruler of all, relates to humankind on the basis of a bilateral testament marked by a number of conditions, that he calls us into a social and theological context marked by obligation. A God who makes demands and seeks to incorporate me into a superior cosmos is troublesome.

Talk of ‘my god’ made transcendence malleable. It set out from the fantasy of omnipotence seeing me as the centre of the universe, surrounding me like a feather duvet. It is an enticing fantasy; but with time it has faded like dew before the ego’s sun. Unless I’ve turned tone-deaf and no longer notice what people are saying, it seems to me that hardly anyone, now, speaks of ‘my god’. The very thought of ‘god’ has been shelved; it presupposes a subjectivity transcending mine. That is currently off-limit. What we believe in these days is ‘my spirituality‘, a tailor-made ensemble of desires, experience, wishes and imaginations corresponding to my needs and permitting me to project an idealised image of self.

Isn’t ‘spirituality’ often a kind of sublimated narcissism?

The trouble is that ‘spirituality’ has turned into a word susceptible of a plural form. Let me take an example: Being a monk of the Order of Cistercians, I have often been asked to expound ‘Cistercian spirituality’. I have felt obliged to answer that I’ve no idea what such a thing might look like. The Cistercian project was from the outset a practical, evangelical enterprise. An early source, the Exordium parvum, written up in the 1120s, a quarter-century after monastic life had begun at Cîteaux, describes the founders’ intention thus: ‘ We have tirelessly borne the burden of the day and the heat so that [they who come after us] may sweat and toil even to the last gasp in the strait and narrow way which the Rule points out; till at last, having laid aside the burden of flesh, they happily repose in everlasting rest.’ Novices were not introduced to ‘Cistercian spirituality’. They were asked if they were willing to enter the Paschal mystery of Christ Jesus in order to shed the Old Adam and put on the New.

The Order has naturally, over the course of nearly a thousand years, accumulated a particular wisdom. There is naturally a characteristic way of life and prayer in our monasteries. We might even say that the Cistercian Order has come up with its own language for use in describing its heritage. The sum of all this is like a tapestry which, considered from a distance, resembles an icon of Christ. To excise individual threads from the woven whole, to separate them from structuring motifs such as conversion, the common life, liturgical prayers, silence, manual labour, and fasting, in order then to point to them as examples of ‘Cistercian spirituality’, is absurd.

The projection has as little to do with the reality as a scent-of-the-woods incense stick in the loo of an elegant restaurant has to do with a genuine birch forest.

‘Spirituality’ comes from spiritus, which is Latin for both ‘spirit’ and ‘breath’. ‘God is Spirit’. ‘And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed the spirit of life into his nostril; and the man became a living being.’ ‘No one has ever seen God, except the Only-Begotten Son, who dwells in the Father’s bosom; he has shown us who he is.’ Only on these terms is it meaningful to talk of ‘spirituality’. Then the expression designates something specific: Nature’s encounter with the Supernatural in Christ, the Father’s wish to share his life and being with us in his Son, through the Spirit.

To live spiritually is to live in the Spirit attentively and obediently. The Spirit, Jesus told his disciples before he gave himself up to his passion, ‘will let you remember what I have have said to you’. A criterion of authentic ‘spirituality’ is this: it brings us closer to Christ and helps us to ‘walk as he walked’.

To be awakened to ‘spirituality’ is to awaken to responsibility and belonging. We find an account of how this comes about in a masterpiece of Nordic literature, Tito Colliander’s cycle of memoirs in seven volumes, published between 1964 and 1973. The fourth volume, Nära [Coming Close], tells about the time Colliander spent in Estonia with his wife and children in the 30s. Born in 1904, Colliander had a sense of being in the middle of life. He was tired of what lay behind. He sought fresh experience, new words, ‘a richer language, one more alive, a language able to embrace infinity and yet factual, dependable’. He found what he sought, not in a brilliant concoction born of his own mind. No, it was the universe that started to speak to him. It spoke to him about the Word. He learnt to listen. In the utterances of things he perceived with increasing clarity an echo of Scripture and of the Church’s liturgy, in which the constant cry of Kyrie eleison vibrates with the jubilance of the angels’ Gloria. The whole business was at once sublime and utterly concrete:

The dung beetles rise on their hind legs and praise the Lord who gives them food: they can eat their fill of horse manure the blessed day long. ‘Lord, my God, you are great and mighty. You are wrapt in light as in a robe, the clouds are your chariot, you travel on the wings of the wind’. Everything began to be pierced by truth and significance. Significance in every particular. Not merely in an interesting something, some historical or folkloric aspect. And not merely in my particularity, but in everyone’s, everything’s. A presence ever equal to itself, in all conditions and all circumstances the same. I began to believe in what I grasped of what surrounded me, of what I heard and read. With increasing strength I entertained the will to participate in everything that exists, that has been given to us all. A participant: that is what I wanted to become, not just a spectator in the wings.

Genuine ‘spirituality’ awakens us like this. We touch the mystery indicated right at the end of Scriptural Revelation: ‘The Spirit and the Bride say: Come! And everyone who hears it must say: Come!’ The Spirit engages us. It gives us life in Jesus’s name. It bids us give our life for our friends. We can’t then be satisfied just to sit around. We intuit the connectedness of all there is. Each created being resonates with the eternal, life-giving Word of God, the beetle on its dungheap, I on mine.

It is a pleasure to read a book that frees ‘spirituality’ from the introspective paradigm of self-help, letting us rediscover it as a category of theology, as a challenge to step out of our own shadow, towards the Light.


Tito Colliander (1904-89)