Spirituality for the Individual—A Vast Garden
The Uniqueness of a Soul
Every person is created by God and is different from other people in the world, even within a family. How much more so then, are our souls unique from one another? Unlike the body with its physical limitations, our souls have an unbridled aptitude for good or for evil. We can always become worse; we can always improve.
From our childhood, most of us have learned the catechism, our daily prayers, and have practiced the Catholic Faith as it was given to us by our parents and education. As adults, we have a greater capacity to learn and understand philosophy, theology, and the reasons behind why we are Catholic and how we can continue to grow in our knowledge and consequently our love of God. The education of our childhood is but a stepping stone in the love of God and leaves much room for further development.
Holy Mother Church has set various precepts and disciplines for her children in their practice of the Catholic Faith. Something that we perhaps overlook is the fact that each of us has a unique soul and we are called by God to love Him in many different ways. The Church in her wisdom has given us many different spiritualities to nourish our souls in addition to and without neglecting the fundamentals.
Universal Call to Sanctity
Historically speaking, we admire the lives of the saints who served God with the fullness of their personality. We have the impetuous St. Peter, the fearless St. Joan of Arc, the dumb ox but brilliant theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. Each saint is completely different and God has willed it thus.
Our Lady was full of grace and at every moment, her soul’s potential for grace and charity increased. She has been called the “complement of the Blessed Trinity” by St. Maximilian Kolbe. This would have been the case for our souls too without the consequences of original sin. That being said, the interior life often gets ignored or smothered by our stubborn faults or simply by trying to force-feed ourselves with the wrong type of spirituality.
The basic tenets of Catholicism apply to everyone but how we grow is very different. Some are saints from childhood, others must fall and repent, others live hidden humble lives, while others are public martyrs. Our interior life is the relationship between God and the soul; it is very personal and very intimate. Due to this intimacy, perhaps we don’t quite know how to explain or pursue that which draws us to God. Perhaps we find ourselves perpetually lukewarm or going through the motions of our Faith passively as if it were merely a requirement. Maybe we do the bare minimum and see our Faith as something boring or impossibly complex?
As individuals, it is important that we find the spirituality that is best suited to our soul and pursue it. We are not cookie-cutter people, therefore we are not cookie-cutter souls who have the same strengths and struggles in the spiritual realm. Different virtues might be more appealing or necessary for our progress. We might be more attracted to Jesus as a Father, rather than a King, a Spouse, etc. When we discern these things, we must use them to our advantage to grow closer to God. It is God who put these desires in our hearts to love Him differently as we are all different flowers in His garden.
It is beautiful to see when those who are in authority such as fathers of families or religious superiors recognize that each of their children are called to be saints, but that it might not be in the same manner or time frame as one another or even themselves. The authority realizes with delicacy that while these souls have been committed to their care, they belong to God and must be given the opportunity to love Him as He wills.
To remain stagnant in our spiritual life is unnecessary when we have so many resources at our fingertips. A clear picture of the different types of spiritualities is illustrated for us in the different religious Orders. Some souls are Franciscan—lovers of poverty and simplicity; some are Dominican—soldiers of the truth and lovers of learning and preaching, etc. A Benedictine soul loves to praise and adore God through the singing of the liturgy. These souls have been called by God in special, individual ways into lives where they are best-suited to love Him and grow in charity.
Everyone is able to examine themselves and see what attracts them the most in the spiritual life. Attraction is perhaps a word that we associate with human relationships, but our souls are attracted in the most real sense to the author of what is true and good. As we near this union with our creator, St. John of the Cross speaks of this unitive love as the most beautiful heavenly espousal of the soul!
Perhaps at some point we were introduced to a method of meditation that we continue to struggle with or devotions that do not touch our soul, spiritual reading that we find boring or “Greek” to our mind. We mustn’t try to force ourselves into a mold that is contrary to our inclinations. Or persevere against all odds by taking on too much at once or more than we can maintain in our specific duty of state.
The devil will try to discourage us by convincing our sensibilities that the interior life simply isn’t for us, that we can’t aspire to these heights. But by the very nature that we have a soul, we are called to the interior life. Something important to note is no matter what our state in life, everyone can find their way to sainthood. To bridge the gap between what we think the interior life is supposed to be and what we can accomplish is realizing that everyone is different and we need to know ourselves in the first place. Understanding how we can best dispose ourselves in order to grow in the spiritual life is based on who we are, not in the liberal sense of glorifying the will of the individual regardless of his beliefs, but in simplicity and truth.
The Parable of the Talents
This parable applies to the interior life as well. Based on our temperament and upbringing, we practice certain virtues with greater ease than others. Just as we are required to develop our natural talents, we must look inward to determine what kind of nourishment is ideal for our soul to flourish. Conversely, we each have our own faults. It is up to us to recognize those good qualities and to truly cultivate our interior life based on our personal strengths, weaknesses, and inclinations. For example, perhaps we grew up thinking that we had to meditate in a very specific way or read Carmelite spirituality in order to make the most spiritual progress. The truth is, not everyone has a Carmelite soul and this particular method of spirituality, although beautiful and helpful to many, will not touch everyone. It could even discourage some who pursue or are told to pursue a certain method relentlessly as if cutting across the grain of their soul.
God in His infinite goodness allows for an array of religious Orders, of methods of prayer, and of spiritual writers. If we are struggling in the interior life, perhaps it is because we have not found the proper niche for our soul. To be able to give of ourselves in the way that God intends—which is to give all of ourselves—will be most efficiently accomplished and bring us the most selfless happiness when we give our soul the tools it needs to grow and give of itself, not to remain stagnant or comfortable. A common misconception is to consider ourselves flawed if we do not love a certain saint or a certain renowned book. According to the discernment of spirits, if we begin reading a book and we become discouraged and anxious, those are normal indications that we should stop reading it. Likewise, we should not force ourselves to pray, e.g., a specific number of ejaculatory prayers daily if reaching that number causes us anxiety or the practice frustrates the attention we should be giving to our duty of state.
God in His creative perfection has given us the means to love Him in countless ways and each of our souls will move toward God differently. We often hear Heaven referred to as a garden with varieties of flowers. Or the soul itself as an enclosed garden in the Canticle of Canticles. St. Teresa of Avila refers to the soul as having many mansions and we are told that Heaven itself has many mansions. Our body is the shell of our soul right now, but we must realize that our soul has expansive potential in charity.
During our earthly pilgrimage, we have the opportunity to look inward and find the means to love God to our fullest potential. We mustn’t remain indifferent to our interior life, which is just that—an interior life. If we find ourselves at a standstill, it is detrimental for us to remain here—which is exactly what the enemy wants. He wants us to fall into lukewarmness, routine, frustration, and finally indifference.
Let us conquer the enemy and run in the way of charity based on who we are: a unique creation of a good God who wants us to love Him and give Him a very specific glory in Heaven. This is where we will find true joy on earth, then lasting happiness in union with God in Heaven.