New Notions of the Spiritual Life by Gene Ciarlo


We fragile mortals are gradually evolving into a new notion of spiritual life that calls for a paradigm shift in our Christian beliefs and practices. Our so-called faith in God, as we have known it, and as the majority of people in this world have known it, is ancient, outmoded, and loaded with superstition, half truths, and ignorance. The world and everything in it—science, technology, even our thought processes and the human condition of reason and understanding—are evolving exponentially, while religion remains stagnant somewhere in the Dark Ages.

If this is the case, and I believe that it is, then we, clergy and laity alike, are starting off with the wrong mindset. We are not thinking radically enough about gospel-based spirituality generally, and Christianity more specifically. Therefore, from the sophomoric perspective that is our launchpad, we are bound to amplify and augment a stunted idea of religion and the spiritual life.

What we need to do is forget about upgrading a worn-out and obsolete notion of how to reach God-in-Christ. We must enter a period of rediscovery by struggling with and defining what our Catholic Christian faith is all about in this 21st century. Otherwise, the synod on synodality ordered by the Vatican to solicit the input of the entire church body regarding the condition and direction of the church will not bring us to an impressive new awakening in our religious beliefs and practices, but simply to more activities, programs, and projects. Radical change will be too much to expect. The reality will be more like cosmetic surgery than the grassroots probing necessary to create a revitalized religion.


Religion has evolved throughout history because people felt the need to explain what could not be reasonably grasped nor appreciated simply through sense perception. We humans need to know, and religion brought our ancestors to a point at which they knew, or at least thought they knew. A world above and beyond our own was born, mythologized, and worshiped, often through wordless but dramatic ritual that brought “heaven” down to earth.

We don’t need to guess, hypothesize, or theologize about matters that fascinated and mystified our forebears. As time marches on, we gain reasons and explanations for what is happening in our world and in our lives. For the past 50 or 60 years we have witnessed a marked and profound decline in religious belief and practice among progressive nations worldwide. The feeling among many intelligent and well-educated people is that we don’t need religion to explain things to us anymore. So what, then, is its value today?

Religion has enormous value in and of itself, and for very good reason. If nothing else, it offers us a lifestyle that contradicts the world of shallow verbiage and superficial values. According to Karen Armstrong in her comprehensive tome, The Case for God, “Religion . . . shows us how to live more richly and intensely, how to cope with our mortality, and how creatively to endure the suffering that flesh is heir to.”

In addition, religion has been a pacifier, an ameliorator, a way to calm and dispel the negativity that flows with abandon throughout our humanity. Human nature is often cited as basically good and altruistic. However, there is another side to this coin. David Brooks, opinion writer for New York Times, quotes Samuel Adams: “Ambition and lust for power. . . are predominant passions in the breasts of most men.” He also cites Patrick Henry, who spoke of the “depravity of human nature.”

We humans are often portrayed as ugly, hostile, and fundamentally damaged, to the extent that we are more inclined to cede to our lower nature and less-than-human instincts than to our “better angels,” which, I believe, is an indirect reference to the goodness that surrounds us in spite of our selves. True religious faith, with great effort on the part of those who work at it, is calculated to draw out our goodness, determined by the cultural and social progress of what is good, right, and just according to our time-honed developmental inheritance.


Though it has been grossly misunderstood and remains in a primitive state according to our modern, well-educated, and informed populace, religion still affects people in a positive way. Even in our secular society, religion apparently draws goodness out of people, out of society at large—not just one person at a time, but into the herd of humanity that we are. It surreptitiously invests the general population with a goodly, godly spirit. Thus we are beneficiaries of goodness even as we are victims of negative social and cultural elements that are built into our human nature and our secular environment.

True religious life, by which I mean a life that is discerning and mindful of where truth lies, is one that is reflective, aware of the best in humanity, sensitive, and not blindsided by the negative elements that barnacle our continually developing personhood. The way of the spirit is a tortuous and uncertain road to travel. It entails constant questioning and struggle. Witness the Jesus path: he chose not religion but the spiritual way. Let me be clearer. Religion, as Armstrong reminds us, is “a transcendent mystery that can never be plumbed.” It is belittled and denigrated when we think we can capture it in our theology and musings. On the contrary, we are captured by God when religion puts us on the path of the spiritual life. This process of growth elevates religion to matters of the spirit.

There is a reason why our Western theologizing can be a pitfall to growth in these matters of the spirit. Armstrong reminds us that “Confucius preferred not to speak about the divine, because it lay beyond the competence of language, and theological chatter was a distraction from the real business of religion.” Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are religions of the word—books, writings, and commentaries. Eastern religions are not so rigorously based on sets of doctrines, the acceptance of which are supposed to please God and bring salvation to their faithful adherents. That is a Western, supposedly progressive and modernized development of religion. Instead, in the East, sensing and feeling, reflecting and contemplating relative to “the Other,” took precedence over our “modern” rationalizing and synthesizing, theologizing and formulating, setting up of norms and establishing of sociological realities for the sake of factual, timeless stability that is part and parcel of religions that depend on “the Book.”

Book-based religions have been both a curse and a blessing. Understood as a blessing, we Christians say that we need to know about Jesus, just as Jews need to know about Abraham, the Prophets, and their history, just as Muslims need to know Mohammed as the messenger of God. But we the people of the Book in our Western society get lost in the stories, setting aside the undefinable and elusive myths and rituals and opting instead for developed dogmas, literal interpretations, laws, and prescriptions for right living. We set aside as less than factual and actual the matters of the heart and of the spirit. We prefer mundane facts and figures, calling them doctrine and dogma. We define grace and sin, heaven and hell, pleasing God and acquiring grace, as the “stuff” of religion. We tell God what God is all about. The chutzpah! We lose sight of the struggle, the effort that it takes to become enthusiastic, enthusiasmos, to be inspired or possessed by God, filled with the Spirit of divinity with which we are surrounded, unawares. We hold dogma and definitions on the high plane, ideals for a life well lived. Pity.


“Religion, like any skill, requires perseverance, hard work, and discipline,” Armstrong writes. On the contrary, acceptance of credal doctrines in our Western society is a prerequisite of faith. We call the adherents “believers” for precisely that reason. The fallout and end result of such thinking and stagnancy labels our Christian faith and practice as archaic, lost in the past, having no part in humanity’s progress into a future envisioned and constructed purely by human ingenuity. I cringe at what is considered spirituality by “believers” who consider fidelity to doctrine and teachings as the epitome of a life well lived. It is idolatry. If bad religion thus described were the way I presently believe in God and all that is numinous and not of this world, I would label myself an atheist. And many have assumed that label for precisely that reason.

As for fundamentalists, the woeful common denominator in today’s Christian life, I feel that these well-intentioned men and women are taking the easy way out of a really difficult path into the world of Spirit and life. Their style is simply to believe, literally, what the Bible says. No muss, no fuss, no bother, no sweat. No need to struggle with questions, dilemmas, or contradictions. Just follow what it says in the Book, and make sure you skip over the parts that seem to contradict something you have come to believe and ignore the parts that are contrary to the way you live. Consider them mistakes.


To return to present realities, looming into view in the Catholic Church is the synod on synodality. It is a chance for the people to let the hierarchy, those who autocratically manage the church, to know what we are thinking, what we need and would like our church to look like and become. Can the majority of Catholic people, people who have inadvertently and unintentionally been shortchanged and malformed all these years, be in a position to suggest what the Catholic Church, their religion, should, if fact, look like? Do they have the competence to do that? Allow me the boldness to suggest an alternative approach.

This initial stage of synodality, getting the people involved in the workings of the church, should be an opportunity for a new evangelizing, a struggle with the very idea of Christianity, Roman Catholic style. It should bring the people, the faithful and unfaithful, to a point at which they begin to appreciate the fact that spiritual life is much more than doctrines and moral imperatives for the sake of dying in a state of grace and gaining the kingdom of heaven. How can our people be given the responsibility to re-envision the church if they don’t have the proper tools with which to work? Our theology, translated into catechesis for the faithful, has remained static, sophomoric, and worthy of criticism by those who plead, profess, and confess atheism. Unrealistically speaking, we need to start all over again. The very sad result in the history of catechesis, which breaks my heart, is that so many good people who in their unquestioning youth professed Catholicism have rejected the God they had inherited and deny that anything above terrestrial reality exists, now that they have arrived at a certain intellectual and personal maturity.

I am finally coming to realize that we are living in Mystery—God, the Mystery. We have dogmatized, synthesized, categorized, anathematized, criticized, denied, nursed, wondered, and thought about the reality of God—depending upon how thought-full we have been, or not. If we have not questioned or struggled with our beliefs and practices, then we have wasted precious time on our so-called “religion.” ♦

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white.

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