I had no idea when I sat down with my pretty mint organizer and fountain pen to think of topics for this blog in the coming months that I would be writing about spiritual health at such a time as this (if you are stumbling upon this post later than its publication, it’s the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd). According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “spiritual health refers to that part of the individual which reaches out and strives for meaning and purpose in life. It is the intangible ‘something’ that transcends physiology and psychology”. For us Catholics it’s not a difficult definition, we are in the realm of the soul.
In the very first paragraph of the Catechism (CCC 1) we are told that:
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.
So the purpose of life is quite clear, and we can reasonably assume that anyone who calls themselves a Christian is striving for that as per the WHO definition. One way we do this is, of course, prayer; however, while a regular prayer life is one aspect of spiritual health, it’s not that simple. Things like scrupulosity, which is a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) involving religious or moral obsessions, come with a regular prayer life but that doesn’t mean the person is spiritually healthy. In such cases, our mental health affects our spiritual health, but also we are responding to warped ideas about sin and about God Himself. This is something that St Alphonsus of Liguori, who was alive at the height of Jansenism, spent a long time dealing with and writing about.
Spiritual health is seen as such a key aspect of holistic health that the Catholic Health Organisation of the United States has put it as a priority for healthcare. While they admit that it is difficult to give a conclusive definition of such a thing, they give us some key points to help us evaluate our spiritual health. A spiritually healthy person:
- Is free of addictive habits
- Finds fulfillment in self, others, work, and leisure
- Accepts the limitations of humanity
- Takes time to meditate or communicate with the Holy
- Finds illness as enabling, not disabling
- Knows mortality to be inescapable yet redeeming
- Investigates and interprets illness within the context of meaning
- Balances dependence and freedom
- Uses health to serve others
- Balances the spiritual with the physical and emotional
- Takes responsibility for health
Monsignor Michael Heintz elaborated further on some of these points which are more obviously related to spirituality like the one on prayer. Silence is one that many of us in modern-day can relate to, but a lack of silence isn’t the only threat to our spiritual health. Gary Zimak at Catholic Stand individuated 5 others. The Healthy Catholics blog also discussed the difference between healthy and unhealthy distractions in prayer.
At the end of the day, the standard for a healthy soul is fruits of the Holy Spirit, and most of us will fall on a somewhat grey area between virtue and vice. That doesn’t mean we are necessarily spiritually unhealthy, but it gives us a framework for what to focus on whether it’s in prayer or through actions we can take. In the same way that in the physical realm, just because for most of us our fitness levels are not the same as a pro-athlete, it doesn’t mean we aren’t fit.
When we make spiritual health a priority, we orient our lives in a way that honours the first commandment, loving God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). From this, the other things that we prioritise follow, from the way we organise our day making space for prayer to the kind of entertainment we consume, etc. Personally, part of spiritual health for me has been to give up the expectation that prayer needs to look a certain way at a certain time, specifically long quiet times in the morning. I am just not awake, and more prone to distractions, at that time than other times. That’s why I start the day easing myself into it with worship music before I take up my devotional and any novenas or spiritual exercises I’m doing at any one time.
If you can jump out of bed the moment the alarm goes off and recite a lengthy act of offering from memory kudos to you, but if the goal is to grow closer to God rather than tick a box to say we’re good Christians then I’m better off leaving the spiritual heavy lifting to the evening (on the plus side, I can be counted on to always pick up the graveyard shifts for all-night adoration on retreats). Everyone has a different peak for focus and if you can organise your time around that you have hit the jackpot. And if you can’t, then whatever you can do matters…at the end of the day if your day is filled with the care of others you are giving the Lord way more than I am.
One of the keys to holistic health is that we are all individuals and things need to be tailored to us. I can give you a general guideline of what to look out for (which is why I’m writing this series in the first place) but only you can discern what the picture looks like for you. Others can help you get to that awareness, but they can’t do a lot more.
I shared before my favourite examination of conscience and the Examen app, but if you want another way for a spiritual MOT these Lent journalling prompts by Grotto Network are good to meditate on whenever you feel your spiritual life needs a reset, even if it’s not a penitential season.
The Letter of St Paul to the Romans. I go back to it over and over when I need a pick me up, especially chapter 8 which I love so much it was my NT reading at my wedding. There are a number of Catholic Bible studies around, but the one from Scott Hahn’s St Paul’s Centre is free.
“Own your Life” by Sally Clarkson. I read it last December as I tried to come to terms with the new season of my life and its reflection points were very useful. Her writings act as a sort of mentor and spiritual mother for me since I’m as old as her children and so she’s further along in life (spiritual and otherwise) by a great deal of distance.
St Thérèse of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul. It’s a short and uplifting autobiography from my saintly birthday twin. In it, she teaches us the healthiest spiritual posture: how to approach the Father like an infant who depends on Him.
I consume a lot of spiritual books and it can be expensive, but Scribd has a pretty good collection of them in ebook and audiobook format for £8.99 a month so I’d say they are a favourite for my spiritual health too…
Lastly, one of the thing that saved me from remaining a Pharisee was joining in with some of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in the UK. Now in quarantine, worship is livestreamed by the CCR on their Facebook page on Wednesday evenings. For younger folks, One Hope Project have a fortnightly online gathering too.
Rooted in the Word
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Romans 5:1-5 (NRSVACE)
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved