World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Study VII: Spirituality

The study guide My Neighbour's Faith and Mine: Theological discoveries through interfaith dialogue, was published by the WCC in 1986. Since then it has been translated into numerous languages and used widely.

01 January 1986

A. Different approaches to spirituality

1. Texts
The concept of spirituality varies between religions. Also the word "spirituality" is understood in many ways within various religious traditions. First let us consider the following texts which, in one way or another, deal with the area of spirituality.

a) Swami Krishnananda says the following in relation to one form of Hindu spirituality:

The spirit of sadhana (spiritual discipline) in the inner part is more important than the outward form with which most people usually busy themselves... It is to be remembered that sadhana is not any kind of bodily action that is outwardly demonstrated in the world, but a state of mind, a condition of thinking, a consciousness in which one lives. Suppose one counts ten thousand beads on a particular day, with a heart filled with rancour,... the beads are not going to do one any good. All actions are symbols of an inward mood of mind. And when the mood is absent, the action itself has no significance... It is difficult to make one understand that the spirit of sadhana is determined by the extent to which one aspires for God-realization...

Spiritual Life, The Divine Life Society, U.P., India, pp. 11-16.

b) Here is a prayer of a modern Hindu sage, Ramana Maharshi:

Within the heart's cave Brahman ever shines. There, all alone is "I" the self-aware.Then enter deep in the heart by search for SelfOr diving deep by meditation's meansOr stilling mind by use of breath-control.Thus may'st thou find sure rest within the Self.

A.N. Sharma, Modern Saints and Mystics, The Divine Life Society, U.P., India, 1978, p. 133.

c) Orthodox tradition within Christianity speaks of spirituality in terms of theosis or deification. The following passage explains the final goal of spiritual life:

The aim of the Christian life which Orthodox spirituality describes as the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God can equally be defined in terms of deification (theosis). The Church Fathers, as for example St Basil the Great, described man as a native creature whose final goal is the attainment of theosis, "deification" or "divinization". For Orthodoxy humankind's salvation and redemption means its deification.

Behind the doctrine of deification there lies the belief that man is made in the image and likeness of God, the Holy Trinity. "May they all be one", Christ prayed at the Last Supper: "as thou, Father, art in me and I in Thee, so also may they be in us" (John 17.21). Just as the three persons of the Holy Trinity "dwell" in one another in an unceasing koinonia of love, so man, made in the image of the Trinity, is called to "dwell" in the Trinitarian God.

The mystical union between God and man is a true union, yet in this union Creator and creature do not become fused into one single being. Unlike some Eastern religions which understand God-soul union as total identification, Orthodox mystical theology has always insisted that man, however closely linked to God, retains his full personal integrity. Man, when deified, remains distinct (though not separate) from God. The Mystery of the Trinity is a mystery of unity in diversity and those who express the Trinity in themselves do not sacrifice their personal characteristics. Therefore, man does not become God by nature, but is merely a "created God", a god by grace or by status.

Gennadios Limouris, Theological Significance Study, Workshop II, Bossey 1986.

d) There is also a tradition within the church which speaks of spirituality primarily in terms of Christian discipleship in the commitment to justice. It has been said: "The question of bread for myself is a material question. The question of bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question."An ecumenical group gathered at Annecy in France in December 1984, to explore the marks of "A Spirituality for Our Times". Discipleship in service, the group recognized, is one of those "marks".

It is a spirituality that is expressed in service and witness. We are to be a servant church, willing to divest ourselves of the allurements of power, fully involved in the daily struggles of the people, recognizing the wholeness of God's kingdom. We are to be a witnessing church, committed to the non-violent struggle for peace and reconciliation with creation and with one another. The God of history and Jesus of Nazareth direct us to throw in our lot with the poor and oppressed. To learn the gospel from them and to live in solidarity with them. To confront the sinful structures that oppress them. This will require repentance, conversion, and suffering. And we rejoice when the body is built up in integrity and freedom. Our faithfulness is judged by the inclusiveness of our communities and by the compassion we show to the least among us, the hungry, the naked, the sick and imprisoned.

A Spirituality for Our Times, Geneva, WCC, 1985, pp. 18-19.

2. Discussion and questions
How do you respond to these statements on the meaning of spirituality? Is its purpose to wean ourselves from the tastes of this world and develop a taste for God alone, that our passions and ambitions may be transformed Godward? Is it to dwell in God through the power of the Holy Spirit? Is it to be actively at work in the service of the poor and oppressed, in the work of reconciliation and non-violence? What other understandings of spirituality do you have?

a) Whom do you consider to be a "spiritual", "holy", or "saintly" person? What are the qualities of such a person? Have you encountered such "holiness" in persons of other faiths?

b) If or when you come across saintliness or holiness in someone of another faith, how do you understand this theologically?

B. The spirituality of prayer

1. Texts
Spirituality, of course, inevitably involves some form of spiritual discipline such as prayer or meditation from which one draws strength and insight. As Christians, we are a people who pray. We pray in a great variety of ways. We open our hearts to God, we speak and are spoken to, in prayer. We live amidst people of other faiths who also pray. How do we understand the prayers of our neighbours?

a) At dawn, an elderly Hindu woman stands in her dripping sari in the waters of the River Ganges, her rites of bathing completed, her hands folded in prayer:

At dawn I worship Shiva, the Lord who is half-man, half-woman, the Primeval Lord who is the cause of the creation, maintenance, and dissolution of this world, the Lord of the Universe, the conqueror of the world who captivates also my heart, who is the one infallible remedy for the afflictions of earthly life.

Adapted from "A Morning Hymn to Shiva", Altar Flowers, Calcutta, Advaita Ashram, 1953.

b) At noontime in Indonesia, a Muslim man excuses himself from the company of his Christian friend to join Muslims throughout the world who bow down in prayer. "I must remember our Creator," he explains to his companion. He begins with Islam's most universal prayer:

In the Name of God, the merciful Lord of mercy. Praise be to God, the Lord of all being.The merciful Lord of mercy, Master of the day of judgment, You alone we serve and to you alone we come for aid. Guide us in the straight path, The path of those whom you have blessed, Not of those against whom there is displeasure, Nor of those who go astray.

The "Fatibah", Qur'an, Surah 1, Kenneth Cragg, trans.

c) On Friday evening a Jewish mother lights the candles on the supper table as the family begins the Sabbath service. Their prayers include this one:

God of might, light of the world, bless us with a perfect blessing in Your presence. Enlighten our eyes with Your light and Your truth, just as we light the Sabbath candles before You, and so make a spirit of trust and love dwell in our homes. Guide us with the light of Your presence, for in Your light we see light. Send Your blessing to every home of Israel and to the whole world, and set peace and eternal blessing upon them. Amen.

Forms of Prayer for Jewish Worship, edited by the Assembly of Rabbis of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, London, 1977, p. 315.

d) A Kikuyu from Kenya offers a traditional prayer of his people:

O my Father, Great Elder,
I have no words to thank you,
But with your deep wisdom
I am sure that you can see
How I value your glorious gifts.
O my Father, when I look upon your greatness,
I am confounded with awe.
O Great Elder,
Ruler of all things earthly and heavenly,
I am your warrior,
Ready to act in accordance with your will.

e) This prayer comes from the Shona people (Zimbabwe):

Great Spirit!Piler up of the rocks into towering mountains!When thou stampest on the stone,The dust rises and fills the land,Hardness of the precipice;Waters of the pool that turnInto misty rain when stirred.Vessel overflowing with oil!Father of Rundi,Who seweth the heavens like cloth:Let him knit together that which is below.Caller forth of the branching trees:Thou bringest forth the shootsThat they stand erect.Thou hast filled the land with mankind,The dust rises on high, oh Lord!Wonderful One, thou livestIn the midst of the sheltering rocks,Thou givest of rain to mankind:We pray to thee, Hear us, Lord!Show mercy when we beseech thee, Lord.Thou art on high with the spirits of the great. Thou raisest the grass-covered hills Above the earth, and createst the rivers, Gracious One.

From John S. Mbiti, The Prayers of African Religion, London, SPCK, and Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 1975, pp. 148f.

2. CommentAs Christians, we recognize acts we perceive as "prayer" in the lives of people of other faiths. Some prayers are spoken; others are unspoken. We can affirm from our own experience of prayer that, in the yearning of the heart towards God, words may not come readily. According to St Paul, it is the Spirit who enables us to pray when we cannot find the words to pray, and it is the Spirit that intercedes for us "with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8). Contemplation or silent meditation is also a form of prayer or "centring".

Prayer too may require the discipline of practice. Devout Hindus pray three times a day, or at least at dawn and nightfall. Muslims remember God in prayer five times a day. Many Orthodox disciplines of prayer aim to inculcate the perpetual remembrance of God.

What does it mean that we as Christians are people of prayer living in the midst of other peoples of prayer? The Jewish writer Chaim Potok puts the issue powerfully in the question of a young Jewish rabbi travelling in Japan. At a Buddhist shrine, he observed an old Japanese man, prayer book in hand, slowly swaying back and forth as he stood in prayer. The young rabbi asked his Jewish companion, "Do you think our God is listening to him?"

I don't know, ... I never thought of it.
Neither did I until now. If He's not listening, why not? If he is listening, then - well, what are we all about?" (The Book of Lights, New York, Fawcett Crest, 1981, pp. 261-2).

The rabbi's question is a profoundly important theological question: If God is not listening, why not? What kind of God do we understand God to be that he would not listen to the ardent prayers of this man? If God is listening, then what is distinctive about us as a community? Who are we who have especially claimed the ear of God?

3. Discussion and questions
If you have not yet visited a place of worship, a monastery, a meditation hall of another religious tradition, this would be a good time to do so as a group. If possible, arrange to attend a worship event and try to find out from the participants as much as possible about the songs, prayers, and rituals which make up the worship. Discuss the event, both in terms of what it meant for the participants and what it meant to members of your group who went as guests or observers.

With this as part of your collective experience as a group, reflect on the prayer above and on other prayers and aspects of spiritual discipline that you know about from your neighbours and colleagues of other faiths.

Do you think it is meaningful to speak of a particular prayer as "Hindu" "Muslim", "Christian", etc.? If so, in what sense? If not, why not? What is "Christian about the Lord's Prayer, which is, of course, a Jewish prayer in origin?

C. Sharing in the spirituality of other religious traditions

1. Texts
Now listen to this text where witness is given by a person on how her spiritual life was enriched by incorporating techniques of meditation that belong to another religious tradition. The passage comes from Zen and Me by Ann E. Chester, who, remaining a convinced Christian, practised Zazen, sitting meditation, for many years:

I knew from experience that an authentic prayer life had to involve more than "saying prayers". Zen helped me to clarify my concepts and to grow in a more contemplative stance towards life. I saw this stance as twofold: inner and outer.

The practice of Zazen became a way to develop the inner stance. Spoken word really tends to limit God, limiting him to the meaning of the words spoken. But "centring down" as the Quakers put it, remaining at the "still point" within, completely open to the all-pervading energy of God, was to be in touch with myself, with who I really am; it is also to give God full freedom to help me become what I am capable of being. .. Zazen has helped me to seek that depth, to be at home there, to deepen it, to act out of it.

The outer contemplative stance is described in the Christian tradition as "a loving glance". It is really the eye of the poet, or of any artist, the open eye that looks with love on all reality, seeing nothing as unimportant, nothing as uninteresting....

Two aspects of Zen deepened this outward contemplative stance. One was the directive "to keep the eyes open" because the practice of Zazen was not to "shut out reality" but to "make one more aware of reality". That appealed to me as an antidote to any "ivory-tower praying", always a danger to be avoided by the contemplative. A second deepening influence was the Zen openness to nature. The practice of mindfulness, of being completely present wherever I am, increased my awareness of beauty in often overlooked places, like noticing the velvet cameos of the milkweed blossom as I walked along a dusty lane...

When I practise Zazen, centring down to that "still point" within, I am not only in touch with myself and with God; I am in touch with all humankind, with all reality. I find the horizons of my prayer and of my consequent action constantly expanding. I become more aware of what it means to be a member of the human family and of the earth community. And as I become more adept in the twofold movement - advance without, retreat within - I am growing in the realization that the inner and the outer contemplative stances are not at all separate paths. It is only illusion to think they are. They have always been one. And to walk in this path means to act out responsibility not from duty, not from zeal, not from any desire to play the hero, the saviour, the martyr; it is rather to act spontaneously out of the integralness of our nature, which is HUMANITY.

In Spring Wind, Vol. 4, No. 4, Winter 1984-85, pp. 25-27.

3. Discussion and questions
Discuss the testimony of this woman. Are there other examples you can think of where Christians have explored or benefited from the spiritual resources of another tradition, remaining fundamentally grounded in Christianity? Do you know of people of other faiths who have explored or benefited from the spiritual resources of the Christian tradition, while still remaining firmly a part of their own tradition?

a) What are the issues involved in the "sharing" of spiritual traditions?

b) How do you understand the Holy Spirit, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the "spiritual" life? What do we mean when we speak of the "spiritual" life of people of other faiths?

For further discussion of some of the specific issues of inter-religious sharing you might invite people from a local interfaith council, if there is one in your area, to discuss together some of the issues being faced on the question of worship and spirituality when persons of different religious traditions meet.