At first, when one looks at the title of this essay, “Spirituality vs. Sanctity”, one could be surprised. They both seem compatible with one another. But the word versus, signifying opposition, is not a mistake. Many today use the word ‘spirituality’ as a term that does not mean what it traditionally has meant in the history of the Church. True Spirituality leads to Sanctity when practiced religiously, that is, in the context of a Religious Community or Church.
But in the modern way of speaking, Spirituality is in opposition to both Religion and Sanctity. Spirituality has come to mean any form of connectedness to a vague ‘spirit world’. The connection is solitary and does not involve itself with a Church or any organization. It is also optional: something I can do or not do depending on my schedule or mood. It is all about feeling. People looking for Spirituality and not Religion are looking for a warm feeling of contentment and connectedness that makes no demands and for which no commitments are necessary; a sort of ‘faith lite’.
The quest to be holy and imbued with the Spirit of God involves a commitment and takes a lot of time and effort. It involves a strict moral code and involvement with a community of like-minded individuals.
The witness of the saints is that it is also a lifelong quest and requires great sacrifices on the part of the pilgrim. While the rewards are great, so are the struggles. This cannot occur without a commitment that transcends all that this world has to offer the person.
There is a reason why modern people run away from any commitments, let alone a life time commitment. When I say yes to someone or to something, I say no to many other things that I could have had. Take when one decides to marry: when a man finds the woman of his dreams, he promises lifelong and exclusive love to her. By doing that, he rejects the pretty coworker at the office and the fan who seeks to be with him at every turn. He has made his choice. His ‘Yes’ includes many a ‘No’.
When we seek God, to love and honor Him above all things, we set up a life that is created with the free choice of the One who will direct all future choices. Because of my commitment to God alone, first and above all things, every earthly reality becomes relative to that fundamental choice. This is the true prerequisite for all true spiritual growth. Someone who refuses to make that choice in the real world and in the here and now forever condemns themselves to the state of an ineffectual spiritual dilettante.
One expresses a true seeking of God through the virtues. We need to make clear here that there is a difference between the values that we have and the virtues we live in our lives. Values are the natural or acquired aspirations that we truly or falsely believe contribute to our good and that of society. But virtues are less in the mind than in the will; they require hard work.
Patriotism may be a value that I espouse, but I live it through the virtue of courage when I join the military and risk my life to defend my country. Truthfulness in what I say or do can be a value in my life, but being honest day in and day out with God and the people around me is the virtue that undergirds and expresses that value.
Values are easy to espouse. One must work at virtue.
Therefore, the espousal of ‘spirituality’ in contradistinction to ‘religion’ is to opt for a commodity that will make me feel good and will not require any commitment on my part nor any active engagement with a community of flawed human beings. It frees me from entanglement with the, often, uninspiring history of a religious group with which I may have some affiliation but cannot subscribe to all their beliefs.
This is the stance of what are sometimes called ‘cafeteria Catholics’. They pick and choose the Catholic teachings that they agree with and leave the rest behind.
But to be a Christian, one must accept all the teachings of Christ; otherwise, we are still in the center of things and everything serves the ‘me’. The first virtue that any Christian needs to have is humility, to say with St. John the Baptist: “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).
The cumulative historical experience of Scripture and the 2,000-year meditation theologically on that Scriptural data has formed a consistent whole that is not a mere logical result but rather an organic unity. To try to separate from that unity what I can accept from what I cannot is not possible. One must accept the authority of the Church in that teaching as a whole or part ways with the Church completely.
To humbly accept this fact is a prerequisite of sanctity. St. Teresa of Avila in her voluminous writings on the Spiritual life made clear over and over again that if she said anything against the teaching of the Church she would retract it immediately.
This is the basis of the robust nature of humble sanctity rather than the pallid partiality of a spirituality born of human pride.