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Pursuing an Inclusive Spirituality

February 5, 2024

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I was listening to a podcast recently on “Authentic Spirituality,” and the priest being interviewed made a comment that puzzled me. He said, “There is no non-intellectual spirituality.” 

I think I understand his point. It is similar to what St. John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio, that “it was the task of the fathers of philosophy to bring to light the link between reason and religion” (#36), because otherwise, faith “runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition” (#48). But, no “non-intellectual spirituality”? That seems to me a careless statement. It could imply that those who are cognitively impaired or incapable of a rational pursuit of God are just out of luck? Father’s statement needs some clarification. 

It’s important to understand the broader context of spirituality that is ultimately rooted in who we are as humans. To do so, we have to rewind all the way back to the beginning to the first chapter of Genesis where we find the source of our dignity in our creation in God’s image—what we refer to as the Imago Dei (Gen. 1:27). But that statement itself needs some faceting. We think of God in many ways, but the association most people claim—what they say when asked what distinguishes us from God’s other creatures—is that humans were created like God, i.e., with the gift of intellect and reason. What can follow, then, is to claim that to be spiritual, we must do so through the exercise of our human faculty of reason. God, then, becomes an intellectual pursuit, hence the claim that “there is no non-intellectual spirituality.” 

God calls and our happiness is found in our response to him—by resting in him.

It’s true that we Catholics place a high value on reason, and reasonably so. Our intellectual tradition is unparalleled and finds its philosophical underpinnings way back in antiquity. Even before the coming of Christ, Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know” (Metaphysics, Book 1, Part 1). In his Confessions, St. Augustine wrote, “Man was made in the likeness of God in that he was given the gift of reason by which he might understand God’s truth.” St. Thomas Aquinas taught in the Summa Theologiae that the intellect is unique to human persons and the highest function of the soul (see Part I, Question 78). Even St. John Paul II wrote at the very beginning of the encyclical referenced above, Fides et Ratio, that “Faith and reason are the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Are those who are cognitively impaired constantly flying in circles, trying to pursue God with only one wing? 

Of course not. 

Reason must be held in a broader context as only one aspect of who God is. Christians know God as a trinity of persons, and that reveals to us that he, by his nature, is not just rational but also relational. As creatures created in his image, within our nature is a desire for communion with one another and also communion with him. As St. Augustine wrote so beautifully in his Confessions, “You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” There it is: relationship. God calls and our happiness is found in our response to him—by resting in him.

God desires a relationship with us so much so that he has provided to us a means of familial closeness; he has adopted us through his Son, Jesus (Eph. 1:5). That adoption is not exclusive and based on our level of intelligence. His desire is for all people, including those whose intelligence and reason are impaired. 

Now, before we presume to exclude those who are intellectually impaired from among those who are capable of reason and intellect, we must think deeper into the various ways the intellect functions in the human person. There are other ways of knowing God—other than by reading the Bible, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the spiritual masters. If God desires a relationship with us, including the cognitively impaired, then there must be spiritual paths other than these. 

Our spiritual lives begin at our baptism when we are freed from original sin and incorporated into the Body of Christ and into life in the Spirit. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are given to us in the sacrament, and by them, we are quickened to participate in God’s divine life—in communion with him, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are usually baptized as infants, so our capacity for reason is clearly not a prerequisite to reception of baptismal grace, but through that initial sacrament, grace begins to work within that infant soul, preparing us to live a supernatural life of virtue. 

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St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wrote that “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). So, we are told there is a natural revelation that God has written into his creation, and it is observable by the perception of our senses. This natural revelation is so accessible to us, in fact, that St. Paul goes on to say that “they are without excuse” who “by their wickedness suppress the truth” (v. 18). Our minds reflect on what our senses perceive and draw conclusions—including conclusions regarding God and his creation. Infants, for example, soon know who mom is and who dad is. 

One of my favorite quotes of the Venerable Jerome Lejeune is this: 

The absolute superiority, the complete novelty of humanity, is that no other creature can experience a kind of complicity between the laws of nature and its awareness of its own existence. The ability to admire exists only in human beings. Never in the history of gardening have we seen a dog smell the scent of a rose. Nor has a chimpanzee ever gazed at the sunset or the splendor of a starry sky.

Isn’t that beautiful? It is just this sort of natural observation that leads to wonder, which leads ultimately to an understanding about God. This is a deeper kind of knowing, and it doesn’t come from intellectual pursuits. It comes from the experience of being a human person living in God’s creation. It comes from what St. Thomas called “intellectual light,” a power of the soul that he says can “light up the phantasms” or make those things we observe with our senses intelligible to us. It is a power bestowed upon us by our creator as his gift, as he demonstrates in Psalm 4:7: “The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us.”

Bishop Barron in his commentary on John 14:15-17 in the Word on Fire Bible writes, 

When the great spiritual masters of the Christian way speak of knowing God, they do not use the term in its distanced, analytical sense; they use it in the biblical sense, implying knowledge by way of personal intimacy. This is why St. Bernard of Clairvaux, for one, insists that initiates in the spiritual life know God not simply through books and lectures but through experience, the way one friend knows another.

In our language usage, the word “intellectual” is loaded with academic overtones that exclude those who are cognitively impaired. A statement like “there is no non-intellectual spirituality” implies that those who have intellectual disabilities are excluded from a relationship with Jesus Christ. I’m sure that wasn’t this priest’s intention, and I am not assigning any fault to his comment. 

People unfamiliar with persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities can easily make assumptions about them that are false, effectively distancing them from the community life of the parish or assuming there is no need for them to be nourished spiritually and sacramentally by the Church. Those are careless and harmful assumptions that time is gradually remedying. The remedy cannot come soon enough.