The foundations of the spiritual life

Filed in Spirituality by on October 26, 2014 0 Comments


The French philosopher, Rene Descartes, famously tried to find the bedrock of thinking. He wanted the certainty he found in mathematics in all his thinking. He wanted therefore to find something he could not doubt, and then use that as the foundation of all his thinking. He thought he had found it with, “I think therefore I am.”

In St Matthew’s Gospel (22:34-40), Jesus has this encounter:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

One way of reflecting on this gospel reading is to see that it sets out for the spiritual life what Descartes tried to do for the intellectual life. All the elements are there.

First, there is the notion of command. This is the experience of life as demanding a response. And not just any response: a truthful one. Therefore the demand that life makes can accurately be called a command.

Second, this experience is complete. All of life is like this. We do not initiate it. We are always responding. Because the experience is total, there is no escaping it. We must respond with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind. Another way of saying this is: if we are not doing this, then what are we doing? Not doing this would be like trying to live outside of what life is. Not outside some empirical definition of what life is – that is, food, sleep, friends, entertainment, etc – but outside the very possibility of life. So, the choice to do so would falsify itself.

The third element we find in the Gospel is that, together, these two aspects of the experience – its word-like structure and its all-encompassing nature – constitute a profile of the universal experience of God. Much of the spiritual life begins with this awareness: our experience of God just is this life; and so to live, one must be completely faithful to this experience.

Finally, the second commandment adds an important element. Since this is how we experience life, then this is who we are. In a sense, this is what a human is: namely, something that lives in this way, a subject of this type of a life. When we think about it too, the best evidence we have of what other people are like is our own experience. So, it makes more sense to treat other people as irreplaceable subjects than it does to treat them as objects. Anything else would be guesswork.  We therefore must love others as ourselves.

So, between the two commandments we have the very nature of the spiritual life, where spiritual just means real, but real in all its glory. We see this best of all in the one who tells us this truth, who in fact is this truth: Christ. He is the one who is precisely this word, whose life really is love of the Father and his neighbours, and whose love thereby calls forth, commands such a love from us.

In the light of this gospel reading, let us consider then how real our life is. Are we faithful to this life – the only one we know; and does our fidelity extend to our treatment of our neighbours?

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Fr Jerome Santamaria

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Fr Jerome Santamaria is a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia.

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