The term spirit comes from the Old French word espirit from the Latin word spiritus meaning "soul, courage, vigour or breath", and is itself related to spirare, meaning "to breathe".

In the 4th century translation of the bible, the Latin word spiritus is used to translate the Greek pneuma and Hebrew ruah.

Spirituality today has also become associated with a broad mix of religious traditions as well as non-religious practice. Yet all forms of spirituality have a common thread, “the quest of the human spirit for something that is above us, that is bigger, deeper, ‘more than’ the ordinary surface reality of life” (Guinan, Christian Spirituality: Many Styles - One Spirit, Catholic Update, 1998 p 1).

All spiritualities share the fundamental characteristics of being:

  • holistic
  • an intrinsic human capacity
  • transcendent
  • and about meaning making.

Spirituality in the Catholic Christian tradition

Until recent times, the word ‘spirituality’ was an almost exclusively Catholic term referring to the experiential and ascetical aspects of Christian life, especially as seen in various movements and Catholic religious orders.

A Catholic understanding of spirituality is rooted in theology and the Christian tradition of discipleship. Both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures have a concrete meaning for the word ‘spirit’: in both the Hebrew ruach and the Greek pneuma, the basic meaning is ‘wind/breath’ describing the breath of life permeating and animating all of life. The Christian theological origin of the word is Pauline. Pneumatikos (spiritual) was a new word created and applied to any person or reality seen to be filled with the Spirit. The original meaning thus had a distinctly inclusive sense that referred to the whole person being influenced by the Spirit or breath of God (ruach).

As the various streams of Christian practice have developed, today the way in which spirituality is expressed within Eastern Orthodoxy appears very different from how it is expressed within Roman Catholicism. For example, the sacramental emphases of all Catholic traditions contrast with the evangelical traditions of Protestantism.

In recapturing the essence of a Christ-centred spirituality and a renewed vision of Christian life signalled by the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965), Post Vatican II scholars have turned to earliest Judeo-Christian foundations. 

A definition for Spirituality:

Spirituality is our way of being in the world in the light of the Mystery at the core of the universe. (Harris, Proclaim Jubilee: A Spirituality for the 21st Century, 1996, p75)

In this definition, the dynamic mystery is God; this mystery pervades and fills all of creation.

The ‘way of being in the world’, along with the individual’s response to it, is uniquely influenced by the Catholic Christian tradition, the wider culture and the individual’s personal reality.

As the child of theology, Christian spirituality is about how our understanding of and connection to God – the mystery at the heart of life - profoundly influences how we live.

Spiritual formation is about integrating one’s meaning-making, values and beliefs with one’s behaviour in daily life – both personally and professionally – grounded in that mystery.

Saints and Charisms

During Christianity's 2,000-year history, certain charismatic figures have sparked religious renewals. Through the power of their lives and examples they have attracted followers down through the centuries. These spiritual giants include St Theresa of Avila, St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, St. Francis and St. Clare, St. Dominic, St. Angela Merici, St. Ignatius Loyola. While they did not set out to establish new traditions, their example inspired others down through the ages to follow Christ as they did, particularly through religious orders. Their followers pass on to us Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, Ursuline, Ignatian styles (or "schools") of spirituality.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, religious orders began to use the language of charism rather than spirituality to describe their distinguishing characteristics. This paralleled the development in the secular world of the use of the word ‘spirituality’ to describe the depth dimensions of human experience. At the same time, the emergence of reference to ‘lay ministry’ as a result of Vatican II attracted theological and spiritual debate on the varieties of Christian experience in the world. Dialogue concerning a ‘lay spirituality’ emerged.

Any truly catholic view will recognise that no one form of spiritual practice or tradition captures all of the Christian life. We are dealing with styles, expressions, modifications of the one basic Christian call to holiness in the Spirit modelled in Jesus. Diversity manifests the richness of the Christian life and all exist within and manifest the richness of the Christian community through the ages (Guinan, Christian Spirituality: Many Styles – One Spirit, Catholic Update, 1998).

Spiritual Direction

Spiritual direction as a support to lay people also began to gain acceptance after Vatican II. Having originally grown out of the tradition of companioning (anam cara) particularly common in the early Celtic Christian tradition, spiritual direction had developed as a distinctive feature in religious orders in the Middle Ages and remains an important role to assist spiritual seekers today. Since 1980, the psycho-spiritual perspectives pioneered by Wicks, Parsons and Capps have developed as an influential element in the contemporary understanding and approach to spiritual direction, lay ministry, and Christian formation.

It is good for each of us to have an anam cara to companion us to authentic vocation as catholic educators.

“Your noble friend will not accept pretension but will gently and very firmly confront you with your own blindness. Such friendship is creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness.”  (John O'Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom)