The spiritual life presents a quest unequaled by any other aspect of human existence, says Fr. Thomas Williams, dean of the theology school at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. In his new book, “Spiritual Progress,” Williams draws on the knowledge he's gained from his own spiritual journey to inspire others in the pursuit of progress. Williams was invited on TODAY to discuss the book. Here is an excerpt:
As life goes on, a certain maturing normally takes place. After years of schooling we pack away a reasonable stock of knowledge. Work experience brings practical knowhow. Travels, readings, and conversations afford us a modest bit of culture. And we may even keep our physical health in check with diets, medical visits, and some regular exercise. Yet somehow in this forward wave of personal progress, one element-unfortunately, the most important-often gets left behind. Our spiritual lives often languish at the level where we left them back when Sunday school ended. Socially and professionally we are adults, but spiritually we may still be adolescents. I hope with this modest book to help bridge the gap between our practical, day-to-day lives and our spiritual lives.
Literature on Christian spirituality generally falls into three categories, which we could loosely term self-help, devotional reading, and spiritual manuals. Self-help books, even those with a Christian veneer, often smack of the spiritual narcissism where spirituality is pursued as a means of feeling better about oneself, rather than an earnest search for truth and transcendence. Our posttherapeutic generation is slowly realizing that the road to happiness does not pass through excessive self-absorption. Devotional reading, while very useful to some, can come across as sentimental and cloying, and somehow disconnected from the real problems and doubts of modern men and women. Spiritual manuals often contain hearty spiritual meat drawn from a long tradition of lived Christianity, but their rigorous structure and technical vocabulary can be off-putting to modern readers. Moreover, these manuals often presuppose much prior spiritual formation that today's Christians don't have.
This book aspires to offer something different. First, it takes the Christian proposal seriously, examining gospel teaching and its demands at face value. People who would follow Christ have a right to know what this entails, including both what Christ asks from us and what he promises. This must be done on his terms, not ours. Second, the book translates perennial spiritual concepts into familiar terms. Modern readers are starved for spiritual substance but would like it couched in accessible language that addresses modern problems and speaks to our generation rather that our forbears'. Finally, the book engages readers' critical intelligence, inviting rather than imposing a closer look at the Christian proposal. It seeks to explain not only the whats of the spiritual life, but just as important, the whys and the hows. Today's Christian seeks not only instruction, but also motivation and practical guidance. For example, it is one thing to present a general idea of what Christian prayer is and to reiterate the necessity of prayer, and quite another thing to show the real value and joy of prayer, to offer pointers for overcoming obstacles to prayer, and to give practical advice as to what to do during prayer time.
This work is meant to be a guidebook. A proper guide does not attempt to replace an experience but to accompany and enrich it. A trail guide does not supplant a hike over the mountain but prepares hikers to get the most out of the experience. A guide helps chart a course, explain the terrain, point out pitfalls, and accompany hikers as they confront the unknown. The spiritual life cannot be experienced vicariously but only lived personally, and thus a guide to the spiritual life can only offer hints and suggestions for living it well and recognizing the signs along the way. Reading this book cannot substitute prayer or the practice of virtue, but it can perhaps offer some helpful pointers and motivations to facilitate these activities.
This book is for beginners, but beginners in the broadest sense. It is for rank beginners, for whom the idea of spiritual progress presents a fresh, exciting quest into the unknown. It is for "experienced" beginners, for whom starting over and over again has become something of a profession. It is for humbled beginners, who realize that after much travel they need to retrace their steps and set out anew from square one. It is for curious beginners, who for the first time are considering the spiritual life as something worthy of pursuit. It is even for embarrassed beginners, who realize they should probably be far ahead of where they actually find themselves but simply aren't. In short, it is for anyone willing to take seriously Jesus' words: "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3 RSV). Beginning, and a willingness to begin over and over again, is part and parcel of the Christian life.
For Christians, the spiritual life includes not only prayer, but also every dimension of friendship with God and the day-to-day experience of following Jesus Christ. This book deals with the aims and objectives of the spiritual life, as well as the natural and supernatural means we have at our disposal to reach our goal. It offers practical counsel, not lofty theory. In fact, I have made a concerted effort in these pages to render the spiritual life accessible and intelligible, rather than distant and esoteric.
As readers will quickly realize, this book tackles the spiritual life from a solidly Christian perspective. It unabashedly distances itself from New Age materials and self-help books by examining the Christian proposal at face value. Relying heavily on sacred Scripture, and especially the New Testament, the book lays out the basics of the spiritual life as gleaned from Jesus' life and teachings. I, the author, am a Catholic priest and naturally write from my own experience and tradition. Yet not only Catholics but other Christians as well will quickly discover that the perspective of the book is firmly based on the gospel.
The spiritual life presents an adventure unequaled by any other aspect of human existence. No other project or enterprise, no matter how absorbing or exciting, can match it. For spiritual explorers of every sort, this book aspires to be an introductory guidebook into the marvelous challenge of following Jesus Christ and living the riches of the Christian faith. It is Christ himself who assures us: Do not be afraid! I have conquered the world! (see John 16:33).