Spirituality in Cartoons

Spirituality in Cartoons

Spirituality as Group Membership


Who is your favourite saint?

Suppose you answer, “Therese of Lisieux,” or “Francis of Assisi,” or “Oscar Romero,” or “Don Bosco,” or whatever, it says something about you rather than about that saint.

When someone says, “I follow Jesuit (or Franciscan, or Carmelite or Vincentian) spirituality, it does not mean that Ignatius of Loyola or Francis or Teresa of Avila or Vincent Ferrer is our main model or point of reference. These saints cannot invent a new spirituality. They are disciples, not masters. There is only one Master.

You join the Christian Brothers or MCs, or I join the Salesians, not to become fans of Edmund Rice or Mother Teresa or Don Bosco, but to become more like Jesus. You and I cannot differ in the essentials.

Our spirituality cannot be defined by our group affiliation, but by our Christ-like life. Our students and patients, teachers and parents, whatever their religion or professional competence, can make out whether we are Christ-like or not.

What, then, is the use of belonging to special groups? Why not be a spiritual “freelancer,” and walk through the world with our eyes focussed on Jesus? After all, he himself didn’t join any special group.

We most certainly can. There are people leading excellent, inspiring, spiritually deep lives without being part of any special group. Think of Abdul Kalam or Etty Hillesum or Mahatma Gandhi or our own saintly family members or professional colleagues.

Being in a group or structure makes sense, if we use sincerely the helps it offers. It can be a cop out or worse, if I am not serious about my spiritual journey.

I was recently in Varanasi, and heard touching stories about the Krist Bhaktas. They are Hindus, but call themselves (and are) “Devotees of Christ.” On the Lenten Friday I was there, five thousand (!) of them had come to Matridham Ashram for the Way of the Cross. They may be more serious followers of Jesus than I am.

Then why join groups? Why be part of the Church or of a religious order?

For structured helps. Like what?

If I think that the kind of structured helps this religious order offers will help me to become a better follower of Christ, then this choice makes sense. Otherwise, it can be an escape, or worse.

The helps are these:

  • Example of the founder and other inspiring members.
  • Good teachings: Helpful ways of praying, meditating, relating, working, etc.
  • Counselling, spiritual direction, sacramental helps, fraternal correction.
  • Support and challenge of community life.
  • Focus on, and dedication to, a mission (which, again, cannot be opposed to or different from the mission of every baptized person, but only a particular way of living it).

Are there handicaps?

Yes, of course.

I can stay in out of fear of facing life outside, or to enjoy the security, comfort and social status this group enjoys. If so, I may become pleasure-centred, power-hungry and mediocre. I will end up more immature and less God-centred than my married siblings. This, too, happens. A mediocre or irresponsible group member simply enjoys the reputation of the group and the personal privileges he or she gets from it.

Spirituality—living lovingly, wisely and responsibility in our concrete setting, using our gifts and accepting our limitations, or trying to become the best possible version of ourselves—cannot be guaranteed by group affiliation.

To be spiritual, for the Christian, means to live as Jesus lived and taught. It is, as is well-known, a path of active and forgiving love, compassionate and just dealings and incorrupt integrity. Whoever treads that path, as He did, is spiritual. Group membership does not assure godliness. My being Franciscan or Teresian is no proof of discipleship. The final and demanding test is active love extended to anyone in need. The final “passport control,” will not check which group I joined, nor which “spiritual” practices I most assiduously cultivated. If you have doubts, read the Gospels—or check the life of your favourite saint.

Being part of a special group can help my spiritual journey—if I take responsibility for my growth and fidelity. If not, I will simply repeat the slogans of the group, neglect my personal responsibility, and end up a frightful mediocrity—or worse. There are saints, heroes, mediocrities and crooks in every group.

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Spirituality in Cartoons

“Models” of Spirituality

April 05

If you ask four children to draw the picture of a house, will they draw them in the same way?


A kid living in an Indian village will probably draw a thatched hut.

A city boy may draw a multi-storey building and indicate a flat, e.g., 4C, as his house.

An Eskimo child may draw an igloo.

A wealthy girl or boy may draw a mansion.

All four are right, of course. There is no one way of understanding the term, “house.”

These four are different “models” of a house.

Similarly, there are four basic “models” or key ways of understanding spirituality.

The first is COMMUNITARIAN. Someone may say, “I follow Franciscan spirituality,” or “Here are the elements of Ignatian Spirituality.” In such language, one is aware of being part of a special group, and one is expected to follow the values and practices of that group.  Thus, a novice mistress is expected to know the “spirituality” of her order and to train the novices in that.

Casting the net wider, one may speak of Christian Spirituality, Hindu Spirituality, Buddhist Spirituality, etc. Think of Lent for Christians, Hindu dietary rules or the Islamic Haj.

The second is PSYCHO-DEVELOPMENTAL. Proponents of this approach are not writing for followers of a particular religion or religious order, but for all human beings. This approach takes emotions and human development seriously. Thus, when we speak of the spirituality of mid-life, or women’s approach to spirituality, we are talking about how emotions, gender, stages of life or facing death affect the way we understand spirituality.

The third “model” can be called CONTEMPLATIVE. Thus, when we observe silence during a retreat or in an ashram, this is understood as a spiritual practice. When someone sets aside a week or a month for meditation or a retreat, this is supposed to help the person’s spiritual life. Some people spend time regularly in ashrams. Others attend Christian retreats, or Hindu ashrams or Vipassana meditation.

A fourth approach to spirituality is SOCIO-POLITICAL. Some call it liberationist, taking the term used by Liberation Theologians. People are moved to take trouble to fight for justice, to procure rights for the deprived. Others take up common concerns like gender issues or ecology. Still others fight for racial or caste justice. Just to pray for a better world without getting involved in the struggles for justice seems to them to be an irresponsible and selfish escape.

All four approaches or models have their strengths and weaknesses.

They are also mutually critical.  In India, the so-called “Ashram group” (those who are enthusiastic about retreats, ashram life, contemplation, Sanskrit chanting, monastic life, etc.) and the supporters of Liberation Theology have been strongly critical of each other. The first group tends to see the other as being political rather spiritual, and the activists see the first group as escapists cut off from the needs and struggles of people. Both quote Jesus, saints and Church documents to support their stand. For the first group, a saint like John Mary Vianney is an excellent model for priests. For the second group, Oscar Romero or Sr Valsa John are more inspiring.

For the complex world of today, and to respect the different gifts and ministries of people, we need to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each model.

Further, we need to develop and propose an integral spirituality that is not lame or one-sided. We need to be men and women of community; we need to be emotionally healthy; we need to be contemplatives to see the deeper truths about ourselves and about God; and we cannot be blind or indifferent to the gross injustices happening around us. Hence the need of living an integral spirituality. One-sided models can do harm.

In the coming issues, we shall look at these issues one by one.

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Spirituality in Cartoons



What is Spirituality?

This new column will present spirituality in practice. How do we live a good life? What difference do religious practices make? Are we spiritual just because we spend time in church? We begin by clarifying what spirituality is.

What is a computer? What is a chapathi or an idli? What is the meaning of a shirt, or school or basketball court?

The answers to such questions are clear—and easy. We know the exact meaning of the question. We understand the answers.

This way, we can get to know rather precisely even things we have not seen. Thus, even if I have never seen an ostrich or a kangaroo, I can get quite an accurate idea of them from pictures and descriptions.

This is not the case with the term, “spirituality.” There is no way to describe the “spirit” or anything having to do with it. Hence, traditionally, wise teachers tend to use symbols and stories. Think of the parables of Jesus, or the stories of other traditions.

Spirituality is linked to religion, but is not the same as religious practice. One can be “religious” without being spiritual, or spiritual without belonging to any organized religion.

Eating properly or walking will help my bodily fitness. Thinking or reading this article can give you new ideas or clarify older views. Going to college will have given you added knowledge. What does a “spiritual” activity do?

There is hardly any agreement on this. Thus, a person may be very strict on going for Sunday Mass, but have no scruple in speaking ill of others. Is such a person spiritual? Or someone may observe the dietary rules of one’s religion (e.g., eat only vegetarian food), but cheat customers in business. Worse still, there are ideologies of hatred that claim to be sanctioned by God. Does God want anyone to hate and hurt others?

What is spirituality? How do we cultivate our spiritual life?

There is a strange criterion of fidelity in Jesus’ teaching. As we read in his account of the Last Judgement (which is a way of telling us what is most important), people are rewarded or rejected eternally for some very “material” activities—feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, etc. Hardly any “spiritual” activity is mentioned here! The final “balance sheet” says nothing about praying or attending Mass or joining religious orders, or being celibate. What then is a spiritual life? Who is truly spiritual?

A short definition

If you want a short definition of spirituality, here it is:


Spirituality is a way of life. It is not simply about a particular set of activities, such as church attendance, or avoiding meat on some days, or going on pilgrimage.

If we take Jesus seriously, the main trait of our daily life will be love. We need not sound pious or spend long hours in a place of worship to be spiritual. But we need to treat those around us with love and respect. We will not sing beautiful hymns in church and gossip during breakfast. Nor be harsh to the girl in the kitchen. Nor neglect the sick and the less talented.

To be loving in concrete demands WISDOM and RESPONSIBILITY. We need to take wise decisions, putting first things first. It would be foolish to spend much time and money on luxuries and neglect one’s duties, or damage our health through addictions. Thus, care of health, learning, emotional balance and relationships matter far more than watching TV or wearing a stylish dress.

GIFTS: Each of us is gifted. My gifts may be similar to yours, or different. The parable of the talents tells us what matters: not how many talents we have, but how diligently we use them. The one who buried his talent to protect it, is the one who is punished. At the end of our life, God will not ask me how I protected my talents, but how I used them. The biggest mistake would be not doing things for fear of making mistakes.

We all have our LIMITATIONS, too. Thus, a porter at a railway station or a tea vendor on the street cannot do philanthropy as a millionaire can. A cancer patient cannot go around and visit the sick or prisoners. A mother struggling to feed and clothe her children in spite of an alcoholic husband cannot be a daily church-goer or a travelling social worker. But they all can become saints.

I will one day be asked what I did with the gifts God “lent” me for a time. I did not pay for them. I did not deserve them. They were given to me free, to be shared freely. Do I?

Spirituality is the most practical thing in life. We know—and those who live with us know even better—whether we are loving or selfish, gossips or community-builders, harsh or kind, generous or tight-fisted, honest or corrupt.

As for wisdom, we will do well to learn from people who are sensible, to consult wiser people before taking important decisions, and not to take decisions when we are under the sway of intense emotions (like anger, sadness, jealousy or sexual passion).

Danger for Religious

Being responsible for my life is a duty I cannot hand over to someone else. For those of us who belong to religious orders, there is a real danger that we may reduce spirituality to practices of piety, and look at our superiors or religious order as being responsible for us. They cannot be. I can be a saint or a crook while staying in the Salesian Congregation. I can come out of a Eucharist as a compassionate and Christ-like person or a selfish or destructive individual.

For living a loving, wise and responsible life, we need clarity of vision and inner strength. For this, religious practices are a great help. Prayer can help me to forgive. Lent can increase my discipline. A meaningful Eucharist can lead me to see everyone as the Body of Christ. A good confession can help me to admit my faults honestly and want to change. A retreat or heart-felt Bible-reading can focus my attention on God’s plans.

All these are helps, not automatic switches that can “turn on” spirituality. No setting or practice, no group-belonging or longevity makes anyone spiritual. The monks of old knew this. Hence this saying in the monasteries: “It is easier to take the monk from the world than the world from the monk.” It is easier for a religious (or priest) to leave home and join a new setting (seminary or religious house) than to root out worldliness from our heart.

The spiritual life for a Christian supposes a set of priorities based on Christ’s life and teachings, and a serious attempt to move from self-centredness to love. The three temptations that Jesus faced are our constant temptations too: the pull of power, pleasure and possessions. This struggle never gets over.

But if we are truly after what matters, we will experience a peace, joy and inner strength which power, pleasure and possessions cannot give us. That joy and serenity mark the saints of all traditions. Spirituality in this sense is nothing mysterious. It cannot be described or measured directly, but its overflow onto the whole person is evident.

Pope John XXIII, for instance, was known as the GOOD Pope John. His warmth and simplicity touched the hearts of people. Francis of Assisi had a sensational impact on people. They would run to get a glimpse of him. St. Bakhita, the African slave who became a nun, promised the people of the Italian town where she lived (Schio) that no bomb would fall there—a promise that was kept. A simple, serene and transparent life, coupled with a compassionate outreach to others, seems to the most persistent trait of a genuine spiritual life.

There is a luminosity about truly good people, which is indicated by the halo painted around saints. May you and I be marked by a luminous aura of goodness.

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