According to Michael Downey in his book Understanding Christian Spirituality, (Paulist Press: 1997) spirituality can be defined in three different ways. Fundamentally, it is an existential reality made up of personal experience. It is also a communal reality dealing with some type of religious/cultural tradition and/or saintly heroes. Thirdly, it is a field that can be studied in an academic or scientific manner.
interested in the scientific or academic study of spirituality. There are those of us however, who make our living doing just that. We are theologians of spirituality or spiritual theologians*. Among my colleagues, there is no consensus as to whether the field of spirituality is a science or an academic study. It seems to be a matter of emphasis. There are those who claim spirituality is best served by calling it scientific while others prefer to think of it as academic.
I admit that the very words scientific and academic seem to cast the Spirit right out of spirituality. For this reason, I have recently started referring to the field of Christian spirituality as an “art”. In his work on prayer, the capuchin friar Ignacio Larrañaga refers to prayer as an art. He claims that like all art forms, prayer takes practice and study, but essentially, it is a gift and a grace. Spirituality, I contend has the same principles.
According to the Toltecas of Mexico, the true theologian is the artist. It is the artist that in painting, sculpture, song, etc can explain God to the soul in ways that theological treatises cannot. One does not become such an artist without talent. Talent cannot be learned, it is something that is innate. It can however be sharpened and developed with years of study and practice.
Art is also a science and an academic field. In it the masters learn how to dissect and investigate the work of other artists. They learn to look beyond the piece to see its design, balance, color scheme, etc in order to better their own work. Similarly, one cannot become truly spiritual without the grace of the Holy Spirit. And, one becomes a spiritual giant or a wisdom figure only through study and practice in the art of spirituality learning from the masters of the past and the practitioners of the present.
Like art, spirituality is existential, it belongs to schools of thought, and it can be studied in a scientific and/or academic manner. However, more than a science or an academic field, spirituality is a self-implicating** art. It is a form of painting in which the artist brushes him/herself onto the living canvas that is a community’s spiritual tradition. Would that all of us could be such artists.
* Today I say that we are Spiritualogians to distinguish ourselves from Spiritual Theologians who work in the field of Spiritual Theology. Spiritualogians, however work in the field of Spirituality.
** Today I would add that it is also a socio-implicating art that by its nature seeks to improve society, social relationships and promotes social justice.