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Spirituality for Ministry

Spirituality for Ministry

by Urban T. Holmes III

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“Our goal is the Kingdom, the completion of God’s creative vision, and we are God’s hands in bringing that vision to pass,” wrote Urban Holmes in Spirituality for Ministry, originally published in 1982. But, Holmes warned, ministers who are not rooted in the intimate knowledge of God will have a hard time being God’s hands and serving the


“Our goal is the Kingdom, the completion of God’s creative vision, and we are God’s hands in bringing that vision to pass,” wrote Urban Holmes in Spirituality for Ministry, originally published in 1982. But, Holmes warned, ministers who are not rooted in the intimate knowledge of God will have a hard time being God’s hands and serving the congregation well. This timeless and still timely book examines the spiritual base that allows ordained clergy to be interpreters of God’s message and symbol-bearers of God’s presence in their congregations. Based on interviews with clergy from many denominations, Holmes explores the role of spirituality in the vocation of the ordained, the classic virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the place of worship, prayer, and parish piety, and finally the necessity of spiritual companionship in the life of the clergy.

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By Urban T. Holmes III

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2002 Jane N. Holmes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2553-5


The Spiritual Person

It has been my experience that one does not drop the word "spiritual" into a conversation lightly. "How is your spiritual life?" I unwittingly asked a minister in the presence of some others. There was a sudden, discernable tension in the air, as if I had inquired into the intimate details of his sex life. Someone coughed and the person of whom I inquired, obviously sharing the embarrassment, felt he had to say something to me. After all, I was a fellow pastor. "Great," he said with an enthusiasm tinged with condescension. "I've really gotten it all together." Somehow "getting it together"—the tired jargon of humanistic psychology—was not what I had in mind, but now aware that I was treading on forbidden territory I let it pass.

Later on in a conversation with several of the same people, a colleague of mine who had the irritating habit of never rebuking me directly but always through intermediaries remarked, "Why are we asking people about their spiritual life?" Since I was the only one who asked, the "we" obviously meant me. "After all," he averred, "all of life is spiritual!" As I walked away somewhat chastened, I wondered why, if all of life is spiritual and my question had been pointless and unanswerable, the mention of the word so perceptibly heightened the anxiety of those gathered there.

This scenario has been repeated several times due to a stubborn streak that makes me keep asking questions in search of answers. After one such conversation I inquired of someone with whom I felt some rapport why the word "spiritual" evoked so much feeling. He replied, "I don't think we realized that you are charismatic. You know most of us have been pretty active in the civil rights movement and protesting the Vietnam War." I am not sure he spoke for anyone but himself, but for him "spiritual" did not mean everything, "all of life"; it was something very specific. It was synonymous with "baptism in the Holy Spirit," speaking in tongues, prayer meetings, and opposition to the church's social action. It was the escape from the confrontations of the 1960s. It was the enemy. I explained that I could hardly count myself charismatic, and he looked puzzled. Obviously wishing to get off the subject, he said, "Whatever it is, we don't do it."

I responded to his sensitivities, but something else came clear to me at that moment. There is judgment connected with the word "spirituality," particularly when used by clergy of a certain generation. I remembered a classmate in seminary many years ago telling me why he had transferred from another institution. In the former school during his first year he had chosen a course entitled "The Life of Prayer." After three weeks of faithful attendance, he had not heard the word "prayer" mentioned. That day after class he asked the instructor when they would begin to discuss the subject of the course. With some anger the instructor glared at this poor bumpkin. "Young man," he said, "a hot bath will do you more good than all the prayer in the world."

Why the tension? Why the anxiety? Why the ferocity? Is it possible that a whole generation of clergy rejected something they understood to be spirituality, without totally removing from the conscience an inchoate, lingering suspicion that this is precisely what they are to be about? Mention of spirituality provoked guilt, anger, and defensiveness in them.

Then came the renewed interest in spirituality in the church and the tragedy was compounded. For almost a generation clergy have pursued little classical education in spirituality and have had few models for its practice. Caught in an enthusiasm that has touched the lives of many church people, the word "spirituality" came to mean whatever anyone wanted it to mean. Because of their ignorance—culpable or not—there has been a serious lack among the church's leadership of the knowledge that gives substance and direction to a contemporary form of the authentic spiritual renewal of the church. Not infrequently they fall back on the worst kind of hick piety.

Devoid of clear meaning, spirituality has become a catchword for whatever one favors or opposes. I have discovered that passing mention of spirituality can bring immediate acceptance by some or can evoke intellectual skepticism in others. The cynicism of its detractors is only reinforced.

In truth we use the word far too loosely. In my interviews with persons considered spirituality mature it was clare that there was no consensus as to what spirituality meant. "Spirituality" has too little intellectual substance. It has to be more than a name for warm feelings, which in our search for assurance we attribute to God. These feelings may very well be an intimation of our awareness of God's presence, but until we can distinguish spirituality from what it is not—an initial criterion for any definition—then we do not know what it is. It cannot be everything and have any meaning. The word needs to point to a discrete, identifiable something before we can talk about it intelligently.

Defining Spirituality

The classical definition begins with certain dogmatic and religious presuppositions. For example, prior to recent times spiritual theology was divided into ascetical or ordinary spirituality and mystical or extraordinary spirituality. The assumption was that the latter was reserved for those particularly gifted. There has also been the assumption that there are specific tests of an authentic spiritual life by certain manifestations that accompany it. For example, there are the fruits of the Spirit, such as love, joy, and peace. Or some have insisted that various spiritual epiphenomena must be present, such as speaking in tongues.

The definition of spirituality in this study is generic and experiential. Inasmuch as spirituality is a theological discipline, it reflects the conviction that theology moves from humanity to God and not from God to humanity. This is often described as doing theology "from below." The distinction becomes clear when a generic and experiential definition of spirituality is contrasted with a classical definition.

I have no desire necessarily to pass a negative judgment on the classical definition of spirituality, whatever it may be; but there is a value in beginning with a generic and experiential definition. It permits the widest possible ground for dialogue, since it seeks to begin with the observable data. Furthermore, this definition permits the development of a correspondence with the human sciences although it will quickly move beyond the capabilities of those sciences. In other words, a generic and experiential definition is consistent with a foundational theology that argues for a continuity between nature and supernature.

With this in mind I am defining spirituality as (1) a human capacity for relationship (2) with that which transcends sense phenomena; this relationship (3) is perceived by the subject as an expanded or heightened consciousness independent of the subject's efforts, (4) is given substance in the historical setting, and (5) exhibits itself in creative action in the world.

First, there are not two classes of people: those who are spiritual and those who are not. Spirituality is our openness to relationship, which is a universal human capacity involving the whole person. One priest spoke of this very directly:

Spirituality is a total part of my life. I am a person who is concerned with realities and spirituality is as much a part of that as my right hand and my feelings and my perceptions. It is an appetite which I need to feed.

Plato said that to be is to be in relation and Aristotle defined the human being as a political animal, zoe politike. This term is sometimes translated "social animal," but it literally means a creature who lives in a city (polis). In other words, for us to be we must exist in a community, in which our identity does not stop with our skin, but extends into the corporate reality. We are our community or the multiple communities of which we are a part.

In the evolutionary process there is a movement from creatures whose behavior is totally intra-specific (i.e., the result of genetic coding), as in an amoeba, to those whose behavior is a reflection of an acquired memory overlaying biology, as in human beings. Culture is the carrier of this memory, and the individual appropriates the cultural memory by socialization within the immediate family and the society as a whole. The supreme example of cultural memory is language, which enables us to be self-conscious and consequently human. This is to say that Homo sapiens is a creature with the capacity to think about thinking, to transcend himself or herself, which is made possible by the ability to represent and retain the memory of experience by means of language and to reflect upon that representation with more language.

There is an abiding legend in the folklore of some cultures of the child abandoned by its parents and brought up by wild animals. For some reason the favorite animals are wolves, perhaps harking back to the story of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who were supposedly suckled by a wolf. Despite romantic speculations to the contrary, the "wolf child" is subhuman because it has not had a relationship with other humans. As a matter of fact, even if such a creature returned to the company of its own kind after a period of years, it would not be able to recapture its lost previous relationships. It would be forever less than human. The evidence in the human sciences that this would be so is overwhelming.

Spirituality begins with this fact that the human being is by nature a creature requiring relationship. It operates from the postulate that to be a person is to be open to the other and goes on to say that there is within each of us an innate longing for union with the other. This urge is known as eros, from which we get the word "erotic." But this desire is far more profound than a spicy feeling. It is the fundamental need we have for one another and ultimately for God. It is an energy within us, which, while perhaps deflected in its true end (what the doctrine of original sin seeks to say), is nonetheless a grounding for humanity's spiritual longing.

The human need for relationship is not satisfied by external proximity alone; it is not enough to touch. We must compenetrate, which is to say enter into the internal reality of the other, which requires that we share our inner self. This is the nature of intimacy: to come to know one another as we truly are—or come as close as we can. To put it more graphically, there is a desire to get inside each other's skin, of which sexual intercourse is the most profound symbol.

Yet we never do finally comprehend the other! In every relationship we must eventually come face to face with the mystery of the other person. There is no "solution" to the inquiry, Who are you? For we do not even know who we ourselves are. If we chose to answer the inquirer, we could not. Every human personality is rooted in the mystery of God, and attempts to "explain" humankind ultimately founder because they are inevitably reductions. Most of the self is hidden beneath the surface, reaching into the depths, of God's infinite purpose.

It is only an incredibly vapid culture, like our own, that could permit a theory of human nature to prevail that does not understand this mystery of being. A person is far more than the vortex of his or her material conditioning. Behaviorism, the theory that people can be explained in terms of conditioned reflexes, then, is a reductionism so patently contrary to our everyday experience of the mystery of the being of the other that it is difficult to see how anyone can take it seriously.

This leads, second, to the expectation of spirituality for relationship with that which transcends sense phenomena. If anything characterizes modernity, it is the loss of faith in transcendence, that reality that not only encompasses but surpasses our daily affairs. We have been seduced by our socialization into thinking that all truth is susceptible to scientific analysis (as in the natural sciences). Such analysis reduces all experience to numbers, which are then manipulated in the service of objectivity, prediction, and control. But these three values are incapable of explaining the mystery of human relationship. The fact of the matter is that scientific methodology does not describe reality or any part of it; it only builds models, which are subject to constant revision and are occasionally contradictory to one another.

Spirituality's experience of transcendence is one of being addressed from beyond the material world by that which is greater than anything we on our own can conceive. In the quest of eros for the knowledge of the other we become aware of the fact that the more we know, the more there is to be known. Every answer generates another question or series of questions. There is an infinite presence of the not-yet-known that engages the horizon of our knowing and yet recedes before our inquiry into infinite mystery. The very limits of our language in describing experience leave the questioning person with a sense that "of what we cannot speak we must remain silent"—to quote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)—and yet in expectant awe.

The transcendence that addresses us is an energy that takes certain forms. In other words, we do not know God in himself, but only as his transcendent being confronts our finite minds. God is the ultimate source of our intrinsic and normative values, but we perceive this as his energy moves in our world. The purpose of life is that final cause embedded in this transcendent presence, always calling us out of where we are to where we might be. It gives global and personal meaning, but that meaning is still penultimate. The transcendent presence imparts to life its quality, as opposed to its quantity. Numbers may point to what lies beyond, but they never encompass this mystery that overcomes the banality of brute facts. It is the character of the spiritual life to be open to this transcendent energy in all its forms.

The notion of transcendence subverts the idea, of course, that all of reality is reducible to the phenomena or the appearances of things. In fact, when science understands itself, there is every indication that its own methodology becomes spiritual (i.e., open to a relationship with what transcends the phenomena). This is to say that the explanation of the methodology of the natural sciences requires that it draw on that which addresses us from outside the material world. There is good evidence that the data resulting from our observations cannot find a coherent and unified resolution in relation to data themselves, but only by reference to a point beyond the data. If seeing alone were believing, as we sometimes suggest, then the world of natural science would be a hopeless morass of contradictions. Transcendence is the hope for meaning we cannot otherwise have, and spirituality is our capacity for a relationship to that meaning: the mind of God.

Third, the key to the identification of the spiritual experience is a heightened or expanded consciousness. This has been the notion guiding much of the research in recent decades in transcendental experience among sociologists of religion, and it is confirmed by the comments among the members of the research sample for this study. For example, one pastor spoke of spiritual awareness as "anything that builds and holds a sense of meaning in life." Another described a new "consciousness" as "something God did for me. It was there and [I] opened up to it. God did it." Still further, a priest spoke of a spiritual turning point as the "clarity of one's call." One pastor's spiritual journey was highlighted by a book, a person, and therapy, which gave his life and discipline "a whole new sense of meaning and purpose."

This sense of a new awareness is at the heart of the Christian spiritual tradition. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) says of her own mystical experience, which she calls rapture, "What I know in this case is that the soul was never so awake to the things of God nor did it have such a deep enlightenment and knowledge of his Majesty." Among the early church fathers the sacraments, particularly Baptism, are spoken of as the illumination.

David Bohm, a theoretical physicist teaching at the University of London, in a book called Wholeness and the Implicate Order, advances the theory that reality is essentially energy, which surrounds us in a flux and flow. This energy, he argues, takes two forms: material reality and consciousness. Consequently, the stuff of creation possesses an implicate or enfolded order that is consciousness. Theological reflection upon this hypothesis suggests that God is present in his creation supremely as one to be known. If we are related to the living God our initial realization of this relationship is in the form of knowledge.

Excerpted from SPIRITUALITY FOR MINISTRY by Urban T. Holmes III. Copyright © 2002 Jane N. Holmes. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Meet the Author

LOREN MEAD served as a rector in South Carolina and North Carolina before agreeing to direct Project Test Pattern, a national initiative of The Episcopal Church in 1969. The Alban Institute, which he founded in 1974, grew out of this work. He was president of the Institute until 1994. After leaving he wrote a series of books on The Once and Future Church and was a popular speaker and consultant. He still consults with parishes. He is an associate at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.

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