Wilkie Au, S.J. 


Toward a Holistic Christian Spirituality



A Spirituality 
Based on Gospel Loves
Heart Searching 
and Life Choice
Is God the Telling 
influence in My Life?
Blessed are the Poor: Enrichment 
in the Midst of Privation
Holistic Spirituality: 
Integrating Gospel Loves
Open-Heart Prayer 
and the Divine
Sexuality in the Service 
of Life and Love
Conclusion: "Being on the Way Is a Way of Arriving"



"In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.'' (1) 

THE METAPHOR OF a journey captures well what most adults come sooner or later to realize about spiritual and psychological growth: it is a never-ending series of changes and struggles. In a word, it is a hard road to travel. It is tied to the ways we respond to the crises of human life. These crises are both predictable and unpredictable. The predictable ones have been outlined in the literature of developmental psychology, which depicts the pattern of adult growth, not as an undisturbed straight line, but as a zigzag process often full of setbacks and frustrations. The unpredictable crises are easily recognized: sudden illnesses, career disappointments, interpersonal misunderstandings, the loneliness of ruptured relationships, the separation of death or divorce. When faced with the struggles that are the inescapable conditions of growth, people frequently ask themselves: "Why go on? Why keep trying, if there is no chance of success? What difference does it make anyway?" The frustrations of seemingly endless change-new jobs, new residences, new relationships-force many to question whether it is worth all the effort. These are not theoretical or abstract questions. They emerge from the concrete experience of striving to grow in holiness and wholeness. These quandaries frame the struggle to love as Jesus commanded.

In this book I have sought to fashion a spirituality that strengthens the individual's commitment to the ongoing process of sanctification and maturation. Central to this spirituality is the firm belief that God is always dose by with divine love and power to help us in our struggles. Followers of the risen Christ are called to believe that "the power by which life is sustained and invited toward wholeness is no human creation and abides and remains steadfast even in a world where death does have dominion over every individual." (2)

As in other human journeys, we reach the destination of our spiritual pilgrimage only gradually. However, there is a paradoxical nature to the spiritual sojourn. While alive, we will never fully reach our goal of union with God and others. Yet, being on the spiritual path is already a way of attaining that end. God is to be enjoyed not only at the end of the search, but all along the way. The Christmas story of the magi illustrates this truth. God was present to them not only when they joyfully arrived at the cave in Bethlehem, but also in the original stirrings that sent them off in search of the promised messiah. God's presence was also experienced in a guiding star that directed them through dark nights and in a dream that warned them of Herod's threat. They experienced God's support, too, in the encouragement they gave each other throughout an uncharted search that took them miles from home. God is more present to us than we think.

Our search for union with God is lifelong, often a strenuous trek punctuated by dark passages. If we are to persevere, we must take courage in God's abiding presence all along the way. Even as we are traveling toward God as destiny, Emmanuel is already with us in manifold ways. The disciples of Jesus were once given a dramatic lesson about how Christ is ever-present. One day they were crossing the Lake of Galilee when a fierce storm enveloped their little boat. Frightened by violent winds, the apostles were stricken with panic. Suddenly, Jesus appeared to them walking on the water. "It is l," he told them, "Do not be afraid" (Jn 6:21). Jesus then calmed the storm, and the boat quickly came to shore. The significance of Jesus' words is dear when we look at the original text. The Greek has Jesus saying ego eimi which literalIy means "I am." In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the phrase ego eimi is used as a surrogate for the divine name (Ex 3:14). It is Yahweh's response to Moses' question, "Who shall I say sent me?" In placing these words in Jesus' mouth, John expresses the early church's belief in the divinity of Christ. The good news affirmed in this Johannine passage is identical to that contained in Matthew's story of the magi: God is always with us in our journeys through life. This truth must permeate our consciousness, especially when our fragile boat is rocked by waves of worry and troublesome torrents. In our fear and confusion, we need to recognize the presence of the risen Jesus drawing near to us to still the storm. Calm will descend on us when we hear Jesus say, "Do not be afraid. It is I."


The journey metaphor most accurately reflects reality when it is seen as a zigzag path rather than as an undeviating straight course. Not a process that moves relentlessly ahead in a single direction, human growth is a mixture of progressions and regressions. At times, we experience forward movements; on other occasions, slips indicate regress; and sometimes, no matter how much effort we expend, we find ourselves at a standstill, seemingly stuck at a developmental plateau. Is this wrong? On the contrary. Accepting the jerky aspect of growth and relinquishing the illusion of a forever smooth-flowing journey is not only necessary but will bring serenity to our striving for maturity. Failures should not produce despair; temporary plateaus ne ed not trigger paralysis. The expectation of a flawless journey is counterproductive because it misrepresents the process of developmental growth.

It al so distorts the truth of what it means to be a human being. A view of the human perso n that does not acknowledge that sinfulness casts a shadow on every person is unrealistic. Such a notion can also have harmful effects. Our sinful condition renders us radically weak. In an ironic way, not to admit to our weakened capacity leads us to a sense of perversity and guilt rather than worthiness and self-acceptance. The refusal "to recognize the persistent ambiguity and the final impotence of our lives tantalizes us with an optimistic promise of self-evolved becoming," concludes theologian LeRoy Aden. It also "stands in danger of giving us a sense of failure and despair to the extent that we do not achieve it." (3) Thus, failure to acknowledge the shadow aspect of human personality diminishes, not enhances, self-esteem.

Aden elaborates on the harmful effects of a naively optimistic view of human development in the context of a critique of Carl Rogers, the father of client-centered therapy and a major influence in the field of pastoral counseling. Aden objects to a basic hypothesis of client-centered therapy: the belief that persons have within themselves the ongoing capacity to reorganize their lives in the direction of maturity and fulfillment if the pro per psychological climate is presento Concretely, this hypothesis presupposes that if the counselor communicates empathy, warmth, acceptance, and genuineness, a client will naturally begin to manifest behavior that enhances the true self. According to Aden, "Rogers' faith in the individual's ability to choose the good is absolute. He entertains no qualifications. He allows no doubts. In fact, therapists who begin to question the hypothesis and who shift to another mode of interaction only confuse the client and defeat their own purpose. " (4)

Rogers clung tenaciously to his belief in the individual's absolute capacity for constructive and enhancing behavior. Aden recounts an incident in Rogers' life in which he nearly destroyed his own psychic health by maintaining at all cost this article of faith. Rogers once dealt with a very disturbed woman who continually demanded more of him-more time, more warmth, more realness. Although he began to doubt his own adequacy and to lose the boundaries between himself and the client, Rogers was very reluctant to let go. Finally, when he realized that he was on the edge of a personal breakdown, he swiftly referred the client to a psychiatric colleague and left town for an extended period. He eventually sought therapy to overcome feelings of complete inadequacy as a therapist and deep worthlessness as a person.

According to Aden, this "event shows that Rogers would doubt himself as a therapist and as a person before he would question his basic faith in the individual." (5) Rogers had provided his disturbed client with understanding and acceptance over an extended period of time. Nevertheless, she got progressively more dependent and sicker, bordering on psychosis. Her behavior explicitly challenged the very foundation of his theory. Thus, it was easier for him to doubt his own worth as a clinician than to re-examine the linchpin of his therapeutic creed.

Belief in the individual's indomitable capacity for ongoing growth and actualization had to be maintained at alI cost.


Carl Rogers has made many contributions to pastoral counseling, but his trust in the absolute ability of individuals to grow continually toward fulfillment is a harmful assumption for Christians. It contradicts Christianity's deepest insight into the human person as radically good yet burdened by sinfulness. This sinful condition impedes our struggle for growth in holiness and maturity. It often leads to imperfect fulfillment. Unlike the contemporary tendency to absolutize fulfillment as the basic truth and the final goal of human existence, Christian faith reiterates the good news proclaimed by Christ: forgiveness is the end point of human life.

Thus, faulty fulfillment and incomplete development need not worry those who trust in the forgiving love of God. In the end, we will fully enjoy the unconditional acceptance of God, not because we are flawless, but in spite of our imperfections. Our merciful God's gift of forgiveness means that we "cannot and need not measure up to any conditions of worth. (6) When forgiveness, and not fulfillment, is seen as the end point of our lives, we can live with greater acceptance of our weaknesses and with greater hope in God's power to complete what grace has started. No longer will the ambiguity of our fulfillment judge us nor the impotence of our efforts condemn us. With St. Paul, we are "quite certain that the One who began this good work" in us "will see that it is finished when the Day of Christ Jesus comes" (PhiI1:6). As Aden states beautifully, the promise of ultimate forgiveness "allows us to be incomplete and yet complete, estranged and yet related, distorted and yet fulfilled." When our journey reaches its termination, we will be wrapped in God's merciful arms, like the prodigal son.

Because "You are forgiven" will be the final words we will hear, we are freed from the compulsive need to actualize perfectly our human potential and are released from the guilt that accompanies falling short of that goal. "Success and failure are accidental," writes one spiritual writer. "The joy of the Christian is never based on . . o success but on the knowledge that [one's] Redeemer lives." (7) Thus, the author encourages us to learn to live peacefully to the end of our lives with a certain imperfection:

The Lord will never ask how successful we were in overcoming a particular vice, sin, or imperfection. He will ask us, "Did you humbly and patiently accept this mystery of iniquity in your life? How did you deal with it? Did you learn from it to be patient and humble? Did it teach you to trust not your own ability but My love? Did it enable you to understand better the mystery of iniquity in the lives of others ? (8)

Our lack of perfection will never separate us from God because the Lord's forgiveness is always perfect and total.


Until that day of Christ Jesus, when we will receive "the perfection that comes through faith in Christ, and is from God," we are called to strive for the goal without ceasing (PhiI3:9-1O). We are to imitate St. Paul in his deep yearning "to have Christ and be given a place in him" (PhiI3:9). We have not yet won, but are still running, trying to capture the prize for which Jesus captured us. We, too, must forget the past and strain ahead for what is still to come. We must, in Paul's words, race "for the finish, for the prize to which God calls us upward to receive in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:14).

Paul's expression of the Christian goal is beautifully poetic. This book has spelled out some of the practical dimensions of that vision. We have discussed ideals about how to love God and each other by the practice of prayer and the gospel values of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These ideals are meant to help Christians finish the spiritual race and to receive a place in Christ. They can be useful in our spiritual odyssey. Like the stars, they may never be reached; but they are helpful to steer our lives by. Ideals can hinder us, however, and discourage us from trying when the fear of performing poorly paralyzes us. The French saying, "The best is the enemy of the good," illustrates this attitude of fearfulness. Ideals impede our spiritual progress when we use them as an excuse for mediocrity, thinking to ourselves: "Christian holiness is something for saintly people, not ordinary folks like us." Furthermore, ideals are injurious when they lure us into thinking that we can earn God's approval by doing everything perfectly. Paul refers to this as seeking a perfection that comes from the Law rather than on faith in Jesus (Phil 3:9). When striving for holiness deceives us into thinking that we can stand in pharisaical judgment over others, we have been seduced by pride. Finally, ideals are harmful when they lead to cynicism and disillusionment. That no one fully lives up to espoused values should not undermine the importance of having high aspirations. The failure of sincere efforts should not disillusion us, but the apathy of not trying should appall us.

Dreaming is not the same as doing. Ideals should inspire us to act, not merely to dream. Thoughts of what could be tomorrow should lead us to do what we can today. When lofty aspirations lead to romantic preoccupation rather than realistic pursuits, they retard our spiritual development. In a letter to a friend, C.S. Lewis makes this point nicely:

We read of spiritual efforts, and our imagination makes us believe that, because we enjoy the idea of doing them, we have done them. I am appalled to see how much of the change which I thought I had undergone lately was only imaginary. The real work seems still to be done. It is so fatally easy to confuse an aesthetic appreciation of the spiritual life with the life itself-to dream that you have waked, washed, and dressed and then to find yourself still in bed. (9)

No matter how grand our ideals, they can only be achieved through small but steady steps. As the Chinese sage Lao-Tze stated centuries ago, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." W e must bear this wise saying in mind as we let the star of idealism lead us, like the magi, to the messiah.


Striving for spiritual maturity is paradoxical. It requires us to be simultaneously active and passive. We are called to exert our efforts and use our God-given talents to develop ourselves. And, at the same time, we must remember that our efforts alone can never bring us to holiness and wholeness; only God's grace can effect our transformation into Christ. While we ultimately cannot save ourselves, we must nevertheless cooperate with divine grace. We must dispose ourselves to be receptive to the sanctifying action of God's touch. In our spiritual journey we have to negotiate a delicate passage between the ScylIa of presumption and the Charybdis of despair. Presumption, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is "an unwarranted dependence upon God.'' (10) It is the attitude that God will do it all and that our efforts are not important. Fostering irresponsible inaction, it keeps us from doing our part, Despair, on the other hand, is losing hope in God's saving power. It stems from an exclusive reliance on our efforts, without any trust in God's power to make up for our human limitations. It results from thinking that everything depends on us alone. Only ongoing discernment can help us maintain the right balance in our spirituality between personal effort and trusting reliance on God. Both dynamics are encouraged by scripture.

Many New Testament passages attest to the need to rely on God's power in order to bear spiritual fruit in our lives. A beautiful expression of this is the Johannine image of God as the vinedresser. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. The Father prunes us so that we might bear fruit (Jn 15:1-2). Spiritual growth is passive in the sense that purification and progress are the direct results of God's action upon us. The evangelist Mark reinforces the centrality of God's action in his parable about the seed growing by itself.

This is what the Kingdom of God is like. A man throws seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, he loses no time; he starts to reap because the harvest has come (Mk 4:26-29).

Notice that the farmer's work is described with a minimum of words. The emphasis falls on the mysterious process of growth. Just as the earth produces fruit spontaneously, so God's reign comes by divine power alone. Once the seed is planted, the result is as sure, as dependable, and as silent as the forces of nature. Stage by stage-first the green shoot, then the spike of com, and then the full grain in the ear-the seed of God's reign grows to harvest in a way that the farmer does not understand. This parable reminds us that nature (God's creation) contains a power that humans do not make or direct. Similarly, God's grace will bring about conversion and growth in us in ways we may not understand. In human lives, the spirit of Jesus is the divine power that brings God's kingdom from seed to harvest. When we remember that God's "working in us, can do more than we can ask or imagine" (Eph 3:20), we will be protected from the pride and anxiety that stem from the myth of total self-sufficiency.

But scripture al so stresses the importance of human effort. Luke's gospel strongly urges followers of Christ to translate words into action. "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' " asks Jesus, "and not do what I say?" (Lk 6:46).

Everyone who comes to me and listens to my words and acts on them . . . is like the man who when he built his house dug, and dug deep, and laid the foundations on rock; when the river was in flood it bore down on that house but could not shake it, it was so well built. But the one who listens and does nothing is like the man who built his house on soil, with no foundations: as soon as the river bore down on it, it collapsed; and what a ruin that house became! (Lk 6:47-49).

Jesus not only challenges us to practice his teachings, but also warns that our very hearing of his word must be done with care. In the parable of the sower and the seed, he describes the fragility of the seed of God's word. If it is not received by the right soil, it will not take root and grow. Grains that fall on the edge of the path represent people who have heard the word of God, but have it stolen from their hearts by the forces of evil. Seeds that fall on rock are like people who receive the word in a superficial way, and give up in time of trial. Those that fall in the midst of thorns are Christians who let worries, riches and pleasures of life choke their growth, preventing it from reaching maturity. Grains that fall in the rich soil signify those of generous hearts who have let the word take deep roots in themselves and have yielded a harvest through their perseverance (Lk 8:11-15). Emphasizing the importance of human effort in disposing the soil of the inner self for receiving the word, Jesus concludes with a warning: "So take care how you hear" (Lk 8:18). While Mark's parable of the seed growing by itself stresses the power of God actively bringing about growth, Luke's parable emphasizes the necessity of energetic human cooperation.

Another Lukan parable about a fruitless fig tre e highlights the importance of personal effort. When its owner realized that his tree had been barren for three years, he ordered his gardener to remove it. Instead, the caretaker pleaded, "Sir, leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down" (Lk 13:8-9). We too are called to tend actively the seed of God's word so that it can take deep root in our souls and can bear fruit for the world.

A classical biblical text used to illustrate the need for receptivity to God's formative action in our lives is Jeremiah's visit to the potter. Watching the artisan working at his wheel, the prophet noticed that he continued to shape and reshape the day until he created what he was envisioning. Then the word of Yahweh carne to Jeremiah as follows: "House of Israel, can not I do to you what this potter does? . . . Yes, as the day is in the potter's hand, so you are in mine, House of Israel" (Jer 18:1-6). While the image of the human person as day being shaped by the divine potter testifies beautifully to God's active involvement in our spiritual development, it should not be used to justify excessive passivity or infantile irresponsibility. While trying to be malleable to the fashioning influence of God, Christians are called to take adult responsibility for their growth. This means taking active means to deepen one's love for God and neighbor.

Activity and passivity must coexist in dynamic tension if we are to remain spiritually healthy. In describing her Jeremiah-like visit to a potter at work in Provincetown, situated at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a recent writer shed light on the active-passive dimension of spiritual formation. The observer discovered that the artist, a woman of over 70 years, was a wise person as well as a potter. After conveying her belief in the direct relationship between the pliability of the day and its strength, the artisan added, almost as an aside, "If you can't bend a little and give some, life will eventually break you. It's just the way it is, you know." (11) The visitor no tic ed that the potter worked with both hands: one placed inside, applying pressure on the day; the other on the outside of the gradually forming pot. Too much pressure from the outside would cause the pot to collapse, while too much pressure from the inside would make the pot bulge outward. The old potter spoke wisely about life:

Life, like the pot I am turning, is shaped by two sets of opposing forces . . . Sadness and death and misfortune and the love of friends and all the things that happened to me that I didn't even choose. All of that influenced my life. But, there are things I believe in about myself, my faith in God and the love of some friends that worked on the insides of me. (12)

Like Jeremiah, this modern day potter sheds light on the Lord's ways of dealing with us. The Lord who calls us to be holy is also the one who forms us into the image of Jesus, the living icon of God. This divine artist works on us with two hands: one shaping us from the inside and another molding us from the outside. Like the day pot, we need to be malleable. And, paradoxically, our pliability will give us strength to persevere actively in the process. Knowing how to bend a little will keep us from breaking.


In the spiritual project of transformation into Christ, effort is what counts, not unremitting success. Acclaiming the value of practice in spiritual growth, the Eastern guru Chogyam Trungpa speaks of the "manure of experience and the field of bodhi. " (13) Bodhi represents the search for enlightenment. If we are skilled and patient enough to sift through our experiences and study them thoroughly, we can use them to aid our enlightenment. Our experiences, our mistakes and even our failures function like fertilizer. According to Trungpa, to deny or cover up our errors is a waste of experience. When we do not scrutinize our failures for the lessons they contain, we miss an opportunity. What appears to be useless trash contains potential nutrients for life. But, to convert our deficiencies into positive value, we need to pile them on a compost heap, not sweep them behind a bush. Hiding failure is to store it like rubbish. "And if you store it like that," the guru remarks, "you would not have enough manure to raise a crop from the wonderful field of bodhi. " (14)

In a parallel way, experience can be said to be manure in the field of Christian development. Like manure, past experiences must be plowed into the ground to enrich the inner soil of the self, making it more receptive to the seed of God's word. Then we will reap an abundant harvest based on our perseverance. Mistakes need not ruin our spiritual

journey, if we learn from them. Even great saints like Augustine of Hippo and Ignatius of Loyola learned how not to make mistakes by making many. The Lord who desires our holiness can bring good out of everything, can work in any and all of our experiences to transform uso In our fragmentation, we rejoice in the power of God to bring wholeness. If we bring our weakness before the Lord, humbly asking for the help of enabling grace, we can then trust that the Lord will produce an abundant harvest.


The ideals of holistic spirituality cannot be achieved without immersing ourselves in the messiness of nitty-gritty experience. Learning how to love God and others in an integrated way comes only through daily practice. The way of trial and error, not book learning alone, will teach us how to fashion a dynamic and balanced life in which there is room for solitude and community, ministry and leisure, autonomy and intimacy, personal transformation and social reform, prayer and play. Striking the right balance is a highly personal matter. No one can attain it for us; we must discover it ourselves through personal experience. As theologian John Dunne states, "Only one who has tried the extremes can find this personal mean . . . on the other hand, trying the extremes will not necessarily lead to finding the mean. Only the [perso n] who perceives the shortcomings of the extremes will find it. " (15)


Achieving wholeness and holiness requires traversing the difficult terrain of real life with all its challenges and crises. Even at the end of a life time of effort, we will still need to be completed by the finishing touch of the divine artist. God will then bring to completion in us the eternal design of people destined to love wholeheartedly. While awaiting that unifying touch of divine grace, we pilgrims are called to follow the way of Jesus. And the Lord who walks with us assures that we will always be blessed. The blessings sent our way may not always be enjoyable, but they will always nudge us forward in our efforts to love as God intended.

A rabbi was once asked, "What is a blessing?" He prefaced his answer with a riddle involving the creation account in chapter one of Genesis. The riddle went this way: After finishing his work on each of the first five days, the Bible states, "God saw that it was good." But, God is not reported to have commented on the goodness of what was created on the sixth day when the human person was fashioned. "What conclusion can you draw from that?" asked the rabbi. Someone volunteered, "W e can conclude that the human person is not good." "Possibly," the rabbi nodded, "but that's not a likely explanation." He then went on to explain that the Hebrew word translated as "good" in Genesis is the word tov, which is better translated as "complete." That is why, the rabbi contended, God did not declare the human person to be tov. Human beings are created incomplete. It is our life's vocation to collaborate with our creator in fulfilling the Christ-potential in each of us. As the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart suggested, Christ longs to be born and developed into fullness in each of us. (16) A blessing is anything that enters into the center of our lives and expands our capacity to be filled with Christ's love. Therefore, a blessing may not always be painless, but it will always bring spiritual growth. Being blessed does not mean being perfect, but being completed. To be blessed is not to get out of life what we think we want. Rather, it is the assurance that God's purifying grace is active in us, so that our "hidden self [may] grow strong" and "Christ may live in [our] hearts through faith." In this way, we will with all the saints be "filled with the utter fullness of God" (Eph 3:16-19).