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Which “spirituality” is for you? A place to start

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 14, 2024

One of the confusing things about spiritual growth is how to figure out exactly what particular approaches or procedures we ought to follow to foster that growth. We may come across various particular devotions or spiritual exercises, some of which may (or may not) have a particular appeal. The Holy Spirit, and presumably our guardian angel, know how we can best focus our spiritual energies, so we should certainly ask our angels for help and spend some time in silent prayer and reflection to try to discern the promptings of the Spirit. But getting the balance right is typically an ongoing process, especially since our personal circumstances change based not only on the realities of age, family life, health, work and other responsibilities but also on our own growing (or diminishing) spiritual maturity.

If we observe what others do in the spiritual life, we find that spiritual attachments vary just like other tastes. Some prefer solitary prayer; others prefer praying in groups whenever possible. Some prefer the prayerful reading of Scripture; others would rather be in front of the tabernacle with no books at all. Some are rejuvenated by sacred song (for these, it really does seem that he who sings prays twice). Others prefer an atmosphere of total silence. As for myself, since I have the worst case imaginable of NIHS—“not invented here syndrome”—I naturally prefer solitary and silent prayer, except when praying with my wife and family.

We are all different, but the reality is that each of us ought to make a commitment to certain types of corporate prayer, and certainly it is not possible to set that aside as a Catholic. But each one needs to cultivate private prayer as well, and the exact pattern of fruitful private prayer will vary widely. It will generally be a combination of standard structured elements (set prayers and spiritual reading) and at least some effort to place oneself in the presence of God through a paradoxical combination of interior relaxation and interior focus—as may be done through active meditation, silent reflection, a simple resting in the Lord, or even moments of Divinely-initiated contemplation. Personal experience may vary, but what we can say without fear of contradiction is that the following should be assumed to be true by Catholics:

  1. Sacramental participation is always essential insofar as it is available. Put negatively, a disdain for the sacraments of the Church is a rejection of Christ Himself, and so a roadblock to spiritual development.
  2. Little spiritual growth can be expected unless a certain amount of time is set aside for private prayer each day, even if, at the beginning, only as little as five or ten minutes. As spiritual maturity increases, the time set aside generally increases, and we also gradually learn to pray in all circumstances.
  3. For the mentally unimpaired, some spiritual study and deliberate focus on the techniques of prayer are typically necessary to our efforts to grow into closer union with God. Here, pastoral recommendations and/or acknowledged Catholic spiritual classics provide the starting points.

Particular approaches

My own spiritual development has been assisted significantly by the concepts of “practicing the presence of God” and “the sacrament of the present moment”—two ways of describing the deliberate effort to live always with an awareness of God, His closeness to us, and His will for us here and now. More negatively, I have (eventually) learned that periods of preoccupation with the great deeds I am going to do for God in the distant future ought to be regarded as distractions.

Indeed, in reflecting on such flights of “spiritual” imagination, I am reminded of what St. Ignatius of Loyola discovered during his efforts to study philosophy and theology. It seems that whenever he sat down to this work, his imagination was fired with beautiful and lofty spiritual visions, so that he could make little or no progress on what he was supposed to be learning at that moment. But Ignatius eventually realized that even these beautiful thoughts were mere distractions, to be banished in favor of his present spiritual responsibilities. The Devil often appears as an angel of light.

This particular observation might be useful to somebody else, and the point here is that there have been a great many observations about spiritual growth and development by those we call “spiritual masters” throughout the history of the Church, each one of whom developed a significant approach to spiritual growth that can be of great use to others. In some ways, they can all be melded together, and they can all be spiritually useful to most of us; but in other ways, spiritual development is not a “one size fits all” kind of thing. Therefore, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get started not by reading, say, all of St. Augustine and all of St. John of the Cross, but instead by gaining an overview of the unique contribution of St. Augustine, St. John of the Cross, and a manageable selection of other classic Catholic spiritual guides?

Perhaps we could then more easily discern which ones, at any given moment or period in our lives, we might most profitably use for spiritual reading. Surely this might save us from reading the right author at the wrong time, while missing the author who is most likely, in that moment, to do us the most good.

One solution

This is the beauty of a new book from Ignatius Press by Archbishop Emeritus Alfred C. Hughes, Spiritual Masters: Living and Praying in the Catholic Tradition. Archbishop Hughes covers thirteen spiritual masters from the third through the eighteenth centuries, each of whom has provided a key to union with God in the Church Christ founded. These are all keys that can be used by everyone, but one of them is very likely to prove to be the master key for each particular person’s spiritual development.

Of the thirteen spiritual masters covered, eight are canonized saints. The table of contents provides an indicative outline:

  1. Taking Christian Life Seriously: Anthony and Desert Solitude
  2. Who are We? Walter Hilton and the Image of God
  3. Something’s Wrong: Augustine Discovers Sin
  4. Maturing in Love: Aelred on Friendship
  5. A Holy Rhythm of Life: Benedict and His Rule
  6. Spiritual Warfare: Thomas à Kempis and The Imitation of Christ
  7. The Goal of Prayer: Guigo’s Ladder
  8. Prayer and Real Life: Teresa of Ávila and The Way of Perfection
  9. The Sacramental Mystery: Catherine of Siena’s Burning Desire
  10. A Life of Virtue: The Devout Life of Francis de Sales
  11. Discerning Our Place in the World: Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises
  12. Suffering: John of the Cross and The Dark Night
  13. The Goal of Life: Jean-Pierre de Caussade and the Gift of Abandonment

Archbishop Hughes has provided a rich and accessible introduction to the most important insights of these giants in the Church’s history of sound spiritual writing, holy men and women whom the Church has consistently recommended as sound mentors. Thus Spiritual Masters offers thirteen different emphases in the spiritual life which will serve the reader well both as a survey of key Catholic insights for growth in grace and as a guide to those authors who may be most beneficial for personal spiritual reading. There can be no question that such reading is needed as the life of Christ continues to grow and flower in each unique soul.


Archbishop Emeritus Alfred C. Hughes, Spiritual Masters: Living and Praying in the Catholic Tradition. Ignatius Press, 2024. 182 pp. Paper $17.95; eBook $11.67.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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