Between Thomas Keating and Teilhard de Chardin: On Finding Your Own Personal Spiritual Style

Have you ever heard of the Enneagram or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator? These are psychological tools that we can use to discover the unique characteristics of our personalities. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Naturally intuitive, or more concrete in your thinking? Do you like to make decisions, or prefer things open-ended? Would you describe yourself as a helper, an achiever, a peacemaker, or a reformer (to name just a few)?

These tools have become popular over the last forty years or so, for a very simple reason: it’s obvious that God has created us as unique individuals with a variety of gifts, talents, personalities, and perspectives. Our brains are wired in different ways  — and this makes for many different ways of living and being in the world. When we understand our similarities and differences, it’s easier to get along, to work together, and to learn from one another.

These tools are primarily psychological in nature: they focus on personality types. Meanwhile, spirituality has its own variety of types — some of us naturally are deeply contemplative, while others tend to be activists. We might have a heady, intellectual approach to faith, or more of an affective, heart-centered devotion. Some of us most easily find God in the gritty, down-to-earth details of life in all its messy glory, while others need to go on a retreat — figuratively if not literally — in order to more fully “be still and know.”

There may be only one mountain, but there are many paths up it. And part of anyone’s spiritual growth is learning what is spiritually meaningful for them — and what isn’t. Just as in personality types there’s no one right way to be a human being, the same holds true for spirituality. My preferred way of praying might leave you feeling cold (and vice versa). So each of us has a responsibility to discover our unique spiritual thumbprint: our unique way of responding to God’s love and God’s call.

How do we go about doing this?

How I Discovered I Love Different Spiritual Styles

When I became a Catholic — I entered the church in my mid-40s — a large part of my experience with Catholic spirituality involved the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA. I had been interested in the Trappists (Cistercians) for many years — ever since I read The Seven Storey Mountain while in graduate school. I knew I wasn’t called to be a monk, but I still found so much about monastic spirituality to be compelling: the emphasis on silence and community, on humility and decorum, on hospitality and earthiness.

Another interest of mine that dates back to my years in college is an appreciation for non-Christian spiritualities, particularly Buddhism; and it seemed to me that Trappist spirituality in many ways was like a Christ-centered response to eastern wisdom. Learning that prominent Trappists like Thomas Merton and M. Basil Pennington had engaged in interreligious dialogue made the spirituality of the Trappists that much more appealing to me.

But the Trappist way is not the only path up the mountain. In the early 1990s — about the same time as my first visit to the Monastery — I began seeing a spiritual director through Ignatius House, the Jesuit Retreat Center on Riverside Drive. My director introduced me to a spirituality that seemed quite different from the silent austerity of the Trappists. From the Jesuits I learned to use my imagination in prayer, to visualize what it must have been like to relate to Jesus in the flesh, to trust that my mind’s eye could bring me to a meaningful encounter with God just as surely as the spartan silence of Centering Prayer could.

Over the years I would deepen my exploration of both Trappist and Ignatian spirituality. In 2007 I entered into the formation process to become a Lay Cistercian — a layperson who promises to follow the Cistercian charism in life outside the cloister. I made my life promises as a Lay Cistercian in 2012. Meanwhile, just a few years later when the Society of Jesus responded to Archbishop Gregory’s invitation to serve St. Thomas More Parish in Decatur, I found a new spiritual home — and eventually, my wife and I took on the joyful task of assisting adults going through the RCIA process (just as we had done ourselves, some years before).

As I explored both Trappist and Ignatian spirituality more deeply, I was surprised to learn how different they are — at least on the surface. Each religious order in the Catholic world has its own charism  — the qualities and characteristics that shape the identity and spirituality of the order. Charism comes from the Greek word for gift or grace, underscoring how the order’s unique spirituality is understood to be a gift from the Holy Spirit. Anyone with knowledge about the different orders within Catholic religious life can get a sense of this: some orders have a ministry of teaching, or hospital administration, or preaching, or care for the poor, and so forth. When it came to the Jesuits and the Cistercians, I learned that each community has its own understanding of how to enter into contemplative prayer (not surprisingly, the Trappists stress silence and the Jesuits stress using the imagination). Each order has its own approach to how to make a retreat and the best practices in spiritual direction. This struck home for me in a very real way: I began a ministry as a lay retreat director under the aegis of the Trappists; a few years later when I began to direct retreats at Ignatius House, I had to learn some new skills for the Ignatian way of doing things.

It’s not that one is better than the other, or that one is more advanced. Same mountain, different paths.

For me, it has been an adventure learning to appreciate how different schools of spirituality have these distinct personalities. It’s almost like learning to play different musical instruments. Playing the guitar is quite different from playing the piano, yet they are both instruments capable of producing sublime music. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows that you don’t mix the words from the two tongues — so it’s helpful to let the different traditions each speak with their own voice.

Navigating the Paths

In the title of this post, I invoke one of my favorite Jesuit authors, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, along with one of my favorite Trappists, Thomas Keating. Like many people of our time, I am fortunate to have access to the writings and wisdom of many theologians, saints, mystics, and contemplatives from down the ages. I love both Keating and Teilhard, but they present two entirely different approaches to the spiritual life. Add in a good Franciscan like Richard Rohr or Ilia Delio, a Dominican like Timothy Radcliffe, and a Carmelite like Ruth Burrows, and we can quickly discover that it’s tricky indeed to find our own personal spiritual style, while there are so many wonderful models to choose from!

So, the obvious question: how do we navigate the spiritual path, in order to find our personal spiritual style? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Be Willing to Explore. We are fortunate here in Atlanta to have both a thriving Trappist monastery and a vibrant Jesuit retreat house. Get to know them both. We also have communities of Lay Carmelites, Secular Franciscans, Focolaré, and other organizations that offer guidance in different spiritual practices and approaches. Meanwhile, between the library, the internet, and the many spiritual books that you can purchase from your local independent bookstore, you can learn about the many different spiritual paths available to you. Take your time and explore! See what author(s) appeal to you, or make a retreat at several different retreat houses. Have an open mind as you go spiritual exploring — and see what speaks to you.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you can’t. A British monk named John Chapman said it first, but I learned this important principle from one of my Trappist mentors. The logic is simple: not every method or practice of prayer will necessarily speak to you. For example, I’m not very drawn to the Rosary, I have a complicated relationship with the Liturgy of the Hours, but I thrive on Centering Prayer. You may be very different — and that’s okay! The purpose of prayer — any kind of prayer — is to draw us closer to God and to help us grow in grace. If a particular method of prayer doesn’t do it for you, then put your time and effort into prayer styles that you do find nourishing. Just remember: over time, your personal prayer style might also evolve.
  3. Meet with a sympathetic spiritual director. Spiritual direction may not be for everyone — but it certainly is for anyone who wants to be intentional about their prayer life. Most spiritual directors will meet with their clients (“directees”) on about a monthly basis, listening to you as  you describe the dynamics of your prayer life and relationship with God. Spiritual directors are human beings too, so they really are companions — meant to help you receive direction from the true spiritual director, the Holy Spirit. A good spiritual director won’t push their agenda on you, but will accompany you as you learn to draw closer to God, and discover the best way for you to pray and to respond to God’s love.
  4. Get to know silence. I’ve described how different Trappist and Ignatian spirituality are from each other — and yet they both stress the importance of silence. “Be still and know that I am God” is more than just a snappy slogan — it’s an invitation into the most nurturing environment for spiritual growth. Because we live in a society that is so noisy and always clamoring for our attention (thank you, smartphones), intentional silence may take some getting used to. It’s worth it. External silence can be humbling because it forces us to realize how internally noisy our minds and hearts are! But if we take time, cultivate patience, and learn to relax, we soon find that we have an interior silence as well: a sacred inner place where we can connect with God.
  5. Be both flexible and disciplined. Spirituality is often described as a practice or a discipline because it requires more than just enthusiasm to be a meaningful part of our lives. Prayer, meditation, and contemplation have to take root in our hearts and souls even when we’re busy, or suffering, or in a time of personal crisis or upheaval. A disciplined prayer practice takes time to grow, but it’s time well spent. As we put down prayer roots, we find that our sense of God’s presence in our lives grows as well. The other side of this coin, though, is to be flexible. As I mentioned above, sometimes our prayer style will grow or evolve. At age 20 you may have had no use for Centering Prayer, but at 60 it might be exactly what you need. Here’s where working with a sympathetic spiritual director is essential, for they will help you to discern the phases and changes of your lifelong spiritual journey.
  6. Remember to love your neighbors. Spirituality is not meant to be a private, just-me-and-God affair. Yes, sometimes we have to go into the desert, or go into our inner room, and pray to God in solitude and stillness. But that can never be the entirety of a Christian spiritual life. We are called to wash one another’s feet as surely as we are called to pray without ceasing. Some of us are more naturally “Mary” (natural contemplatives) and others are more naturally “Martha” (natural activists). We all have to find the proper balance between the two, in our own hearts. What’s important is to remember that both Mary and Martha need to be part of your spiritual life — your prayer needs to bear fruit in how you love and care for others.
  7. Always bear in mind: it’s all about God. Spirituality can feel a lot like personal growth or self-help — for example, Centering Prayer is very similar to mindfulness practices that have become popular in recent years. Mindfulness certainly has its place, but Centering Prayer is more than just an exercise for deep relaxation and discovering inner peace: it is prayer, meant to draw us closer to the living God. And so it is with all spiritual practices. Yes, if you work on discovering your personal spiritual style, I am confident that you will grow psychologically and emotionally. That’s great! Just remember, the blessings of a mature, integrated self is that you can more deeply respond to the love and the call of God — which is the ultimate goal of spirituality.

I hope these suggestions are helpful as you cultivate your own personal spiritual style. It’s an adventure — so explore, have fun, and keep praying!

N.B. This post originally appeared on the Aquinas Emory Thinks Blog.

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