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Kees Waaijman
Hein Blommestijn


Kees WaaijmanHein Blommestijn    2010Workspace

"Spirituality" is the basic word which has forced all other names for the field of spirituality into the background. The basic word "spirituality" has a comprehensive semantic range: it embraces the divine and human spirit; overarches asceticism and mysticism; integrates biblical traditions (ruach) with Hellenistic intuitions (nous); exceeds the boundaries of religions and philosophies of life. The core process evoked by the term "spirituality" is the dynamic relation between the divine Spirit and the human spirit.

Biblical background

The word "spirituality" goes back via the French spiritualité to the Latin spiritualitas which is rooted in the biblical semantic field of ruach, pneuma. This is also true for the parallel expression "spiritual life" (vie spirituelle).

We encounter the Hebrew word ruach[1] in three areas of experience. (1) In the sphere of air, wind, and storm the ruach shows itself as a power which is in motion (Jer. 4:12; Exod. 1:12) and sets other things in motion (Ps. 1:4; Isa. 7:2; Exod. 10:13). It follows an inner track of its own (Ezek. 1:12; Exod. 10:13; Prov. 25:23; cf. Ezek. 5:10-12), which, however, eludes our observation (Eccl. 1:6; 8:8; John 3:8; Prov. 27:16). (2) Within the sphere of respiration and the heartbeat ruach makes itself felt as the drive to live, the most intimate and impassioned feeling, personhood; it is vulnerable and can be broken (Ps. 51:17; 34:18; 77:3; Isa. 57:15) and then revive (Gen. 45:27; Judg. 15:19). (3) In the sphere of the psychological it presents itself as drivenness, temper, passion, anger (Eccl. 10:4), a lack of self-control (Prov. 29:11), pride (Prov. 16:18; Eccl. 7:8), jealousy (Num. 5:14, 30), sexual desire (Hos. 4:12; 5:4) and depression (1 Sam. 16:14, 22; 18:10). This ruach can so strongly control people that it turns into an obsession. When Scripture refers to the ruach of God, it is speaking not of God’s inner life but of the manner in which his ruach is creatively at work in all his creatures (Gen. 1:2; Ps. 104:30; Eccl. 11:5), recreates them when they are injured or exhausted (Ps. 51;8-12; Ezek. 37:2-10), liberates them from oppression (Jdg. 6:34; 3:10; 14:6, 19; 15:4), endows them with a spirit of wisdom (Isa. 11:2) and justice (Isa. 11:3-10) and redeems them in the end (Rom. 8:21-27).

Pivotal in Scripture is that the "draft" (breath, movement of air through a narrow passage) of man, which continually threatens to be wafted along by estranging drafts from without, is moved by God’s Draft. In the Gospels and in Acts this basic tension emerges in the field of tension between the Holy Spirit and an unclean spirit.[2] The person who is dragged along by a demonic draft must be transformed down to his inner draft by the Draft of God, a fundamental liberation in which Jesus plays the central role (Mark 1:8, 10, 12, 23-28; John 3:3, 6, etc.).

Paul repeatedly discusses the same process with the binomial: pneuma sarx.[3] For Paul sarx (= flesh) denotes a spiritual attitude which is the same as that of the unclean spirit of the gospels: "fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, feuds, strife, jealousy, explosions of anger, self-seeking, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like" (Gal. 5:19; cf. 5:15-26; 6:3, etc.). Pneuma, on the other hand, is the Holy Spirit who moves people toward "love, joy, peace, patience, friendliness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22). This biblical field of tension continues to play a vital role in Christian spirituality. Spiritus-spiritualis is used, analogously with caro-carnbalis,[4] to translate the Pauline pneuma-pneumatikos (especially in 1 Cor. 2:14-3:3). Spiritualitas, a rare term, accordingly means total transformation in the Spirit. At the dawn of the Benedictine centuries spiritualitas referred to something which one can exercise (exercere),[5] in which one advances (proficere),[6] which entails purposiveness (assequi),[7] and has an affective coloring.[8] This meaning persists.

Modern connotations

A semantic shift in the use of the term spiritualitas occurred in the 11th century. From that time on spiritualitas was contrasted with materiality. Berengarius of Tours, for example, placed the spirituality of the eucharistic presence in opposition to the sense-related elements of bread and wine (sensualitas).[9] In Thomas spiritualitas is reserved for virgins, carnalitas is the portion of the married.[10] Marriage possesses "the least spiritualitas" of all the sacraments.[11] Here we see the impact of Hellenistic influences. In Hellenism pneuma, spiritus referred to the celestial sphere of light as opposed to the dark world of matter. This type of thought seemed to experience a renaissance in the new thought of the 11th/12th century which marks off spiritualitas as a sphere of its own over against everything that is animalis, carnalis, materialis, corporeus, naturalis, civilis, saecularis, mundanus, and temporalis.[12] In the 13th century this process continues in two directions. (1) From a sociological perspective, spirituality set out to reserve everything that, in the broadest as well as in the most external sense, belongs to the "clergy": the ecclesiastical as opposed to the temporal goods; the authority of the church as opposed to that of the secular authorities; the clergy as opposed to the laity; spiritual goods as opposed to material possessions.[13] (2) From a psychological viewpoint, spirituality set out the mark off the sphere of the inner life: purity of motives, affections, intentions of the will, inner dispositions, the psychology of the spiritual life, the analysis of the feelings. Spirituality "took place" in the sphere of the heart, in inwardness, in felt fervency, in the inner life.[14]

In the 17th and 18th century this dichotomization process was further accentuated when a distinction was made in spirituality between higher and lower forms of it. A spiritual person is someone who is "more abundantly and more profoundly a Christian" than others.[15] On account of its close tie with mysticism, the word "spirituality" finally began to share in the ill repute associated with the so-called "modernist-spirituality" of quietists, visionaries and other mystics.[16] At the end of the 19th century the word had almost completely vanished.

The 20th century

At the start of the 20th century the word "spirituality" resurfaced, initially as designation for systematic scientific reflection on lived spirituality.[17] In 1917 Saudreau’s Manuel de spiritualité made its appearance. In 1918 the first part of Pourrat’s La spiritualité chrétienne, a scholarly survey of the history of spirituality, was published. In 1928 the Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique was started. Beginning in 1919, chairs in spirituality were established at papal universities in Rome.[18] These are all indications that the word "spirituality" was considered fit to serve as an umbrella concept for asceticism and mysticism.

Beginning in the 1960s "spirituality" became, in almost all languages and for virtually all philosophies of life, the overarching concept for everything that had to do with "spiritual life."[19] A contributing factor in the enormous expansion of the word outside of the study of spirituality is probably that "spirituality" is an unencumbered word. "Spirituality" stands for something undefined, like "religiosity," "the experience of faith," and "religious experiences," terms which keep open an area that has not yet been occupied by institutional frameworks. In that way "spirituality" can be a term for a "new" outlook on life ("New Age," for example, is preferably linked to "spirituality"), for movements of emancipation (liberation spirituality, peace spirituality, feminist spirituality, environmental spirituality, and so forth) and for widespread motivations which cannot be subsumed under articulations of established institutions of faith.


The basic word "spirituality" interprets the area of spirituality as "spirit": the Spirit of God and the spirit of man which interact with and impact each other. The range and weight of the spirit is enormous. It includes the movement of the spirit (ruach) and the existential intensity of the mind (nous). By its weight spirituality is able to exceed the boundaries of the established religions and to open up new areas.


  • Bacik, J., Spirituality in Transition, Kansas City 1996.
  • Chatterjee, M., The Concept of Spirituality, Ahmedabad 1989.
  • Deutsch, E., Religion and Spirituality, Albany 1995.
  • Huddleston, M., Springs of Spirituality, Liguori (Missouri) 1995.
  • De kracht van de Geest, Speling 50 (1998) no. 1.
  • Singh, S., Was ist Spiritualität? Bern 1983.
  • Tinsley, L., The French Expressions for Spirituality and Devotion. A Semantic Study, Washington D.C. 1953.
  • Toon, P., What is Spirituality? and is It for Me? London 1989.
  • What Do We Mean by Spirituality? The Way 32 (1992) no. 1.


  1. See R. Albertz & C. Westermann, Ruach, in: ThLOT 3 (1997), 1202-1220.
  2. Of the 170 times that pneuma occurs, it concerns this field of tension 120 times. The Holy Spirit (85x) numerically surpasses the unclean spirit (35x).
  3. This field of tension is present approximately 25 times in his letters. In addition, in Paul, also the Holy Spirit continues to play his usual role (approx. 35x) against the unclean spirit (2x).
  4. Chr. Mohrmann, Études sur le latin des chrétiens I, Rome 1961, 25, 89; III (1965), 104, 115.
  5. See Alcimus, Epistola 12 (PL 59, 231-232CD).
  6. Cf. the letter of Jerome, De scientia divinae legis (PL 30, 114D-115A).
  7. Cf. Dionysius Exiguus, De creatione hominis 8.
  8. “You have shown with how much spiritual affection (quanta spiritualitate) you find pleasure in making good the forgetting of which has caused you so much pain,” writes Avitus, bishop of Vienne in the Dauphiné (490-518) to his brother, bishop of Valence, in: Epistola 12 (PL 59, 231-232CD).
  9. Berengarius van Tours, Berengarii Turonensis, De Sacra Coena Adversus Lanfrancum 37 (ed. W. Beekenkamp), The Hague 1941.
  10. Sententiae IV, d.49, q.5., a.2, sol.3.
  11. Summa Theologiae 3a, q.65, a.2, ad 1.
  12. For the texts, see A. Solignac, ibid., 1145-1146.
  13. See L. Tinsley, The French Expression for Spirituality and Devotion, New York 1953, 89-91.
  14. Ibid., 116-117.
  15. Jean-Baptiste Saint-Jure, L’homme spirituel, Paris 1646, 129.
  16. Also see L. Tinsley, ibid., 268-277.
  17. See ibid., 273-278; A. Solginac, ibid., 1149.
  18. A. Solignac, ibid., 1157.
  19. For the shifts in meaning incurred by the word “spirituality” after Vatican II, see J. Heagle, A New Public Piety. Reflections on Spirituality, in: Church 1 (1985), 52-55.