Dominic McGrattan: 'Spirituality is not our goal this Lent. Our goal is God'
Avoid the temptation this Lent to confuse being 'spiritual' with the pursuit of authentic holiness, urges Fr Dominic McGrattan
I returned from the gym one evening this week a little the worse for wear.
I thought I would take a bath, otherwise I'd wake next morning paralysed with muscle ache - age is catching up with me.
As I headed to the bathroom, I spied my Rosary beads on the sideboard and was reminded that, with one thing and another, I hadn't managed to pray the Rosary that day.
I lifted the beads and in the length of time it took me to draw a bath, I had the Rosary said.
A little while after, I began to feel guilty. I wondered whether that was a good way to pray.
Instead of rattling through the decades, it would have been better to make time for the Rosary, to meditate on its mysteries, to properly call to mind my prayer intentions.
In that moment of doubt, I was gifted with a welcome insight: the Devil would want me to think it wasn't worth the bother.
He would have preferred me not to have bothered at all, and to go from bath to bed without ever thinking of prayer.
"The Devil," I hear you say. Didn't he depart the stage of life's drama some time ago, a relic of a superstitious, pre-modern age?
Pope Francis would disagree. In Gaudete et Exsultate, the Pope cautions that Old Nick remains "a malign power present in our midst".
To dismiss him as "a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea" would be a mistake that can lead us "to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable".
That wisdom is worth heeding this Lent. Our journey to Easter begins with the Sunday of Temptations, when the Gospels recount how the Spirit of God led Jesus into the desert to be tempted.
There, he confronted not his own demons, for he had none.
Rather, he faced the evil thoughts that had haunted his people ever since their own desert wanderings described in the opening books of Scripture, and so often referred back to in the prophets.
The first temptation was that of materialism which led people to sell out the spiritual vision given them.
The second was the love of power, which made Israel want to be a nation like other nations and dominate the rest.
The third was doubt which, when cultivated, bred mistrust of God's goodness.
Unlike Jesus, we have our own demons, our own evil thoughts, which we contend with day and daily.
"Command this stone to become bread." How often do we fall into sin just to prove something not worth proving? That temptation to say, "I'll teach them that I'm someone you don't mess with, I'm a real man, or a confident woman, nobody's fool, a somebody."
The thirst for success, good looks, money, prestige, sex is rarely sated and often followed by despair.
"Throw yourself down from here," the Devil goads; the craving for power and self-exaltation comes at a price.
When confronted with temptation, it's not uncommon for us to take refuge in a form of 'spirituality' that promises escape from the realities of the world and the flesh.
No such flight is possible, nor would it be desirable. There is no antiseptically sterile realm of spirit for you and me; it is an illusion.
Pitting spirit against flesh can take us down a dangerous path. It leads to a dualistic way of thinking and a disincarnate spirituality.
When confronted with temptation, it's not uncommon for us to take refuge in a form of 'spirituality' that promises escape from the realities of the world and the flesh. No such flight is possible, nor would it be desirable
Pope Francis, in his critique of modern heresies, describes this as a form of contemporary Gnosticism that reduces Christian holiness to a set of abstract ideas detached from the flesh.
Such an approach makes individuals "incapable of touching Christ's suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopedia of abstractions".
Some are attracted by a "strict and allegedly pure" faith which appears to possess "a certain harmony or order that encompasses everything".
The modern Gnostic recoils at the messiness of real life, the imperfections of others, the suffering of people at the margins and the fact that God is a mystery that cannot be domesticated or understood easily.
"[Yet] God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises," says Pope Francis.
The deadly potential of distorted 'spirituality' is illustrated well by one commentary on the Scriptures for the First Sunday of Lent.
Citing the Holocaust as an - admittedly extreme - example, the commentator argues that for the Nazis, interior 'spiritual' strength was crucial to advancing their "noble mission".
Himmler's infamous address at Poznan makes the point: "We have fulfilled this most difficult duty for the love of our people.
"And our spirit, our soul, our character has not suffered injury from it."
Convinced of their 'spiritual' superiority, the Nazis believed they could engage in the most diabolical activities with no consequence for their souls.
We might be tempted to call them beasts, but when a man falls into temptation, he does not risk becoming an animal, but rather a devil.
And the Devil is pure spirit, much more spiritual than you and me, always ready to assist those who seek after the higher realms of 'spirituality'.
Nowadays, it's not uncommon to hear people say, "I'm spiritual, not religious."
The reasons for the trend are many and varied, ranging from disillusionment with organised religion to boredom, even laziness.
"Why bother going to church?" I hear Screwtape ask.
According to one study from 2014, 69 per cent of Irish people identify as Catholic, but only 34 per cent go to church regularly.
That's not bad by European standards. The picture is more bleak in the UK, where 34 per cent identify as Christian with only 13 per cent church attendance.
This has consequences for the spiritual life. 'Spiritualities' that are divorced from a rule of life, religion, do nothing to cultivate sacrifice or the discipline of discipleship. They risk becoming an end in themselves.
The best spiritualities - be they Benedictine, Carmelite or Ignatian - are ordered to and at the service of a higher goal: union with God.
They enable us to 'keep it real', feet firmly on the ground, with hearts and minds directed to God.
Holiness is a very ordinary, down-to-earth enterprise.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the staples of this 'earthed' spirituality: praying the Rosary while running a bath, fasting from the iPhone during mealtimes so as to connect with the person sat opposite, holding back on that bar of chocolate when buying the newspaper and putting the money saved in the Trócaire box.
Spirituality is not our goal this Lent. Our goal is God. And we come to him not by way of comfortable, lofty spiritual thoughts but by taking up our cross daily, and helping others do the same.
- Fr Dominic McGrattan is a priest of St Brigid's Parish, Belfast and an associate of the Down and Connor Living Church office.