Four Nonnegotiable Pillars of the Spiritual Life

In his book, the Holy Longing, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser lists four essential pillars to build a healthy Christian spirituality: 1) Private Prayer and Private Morality 2) Social Justice 3) Mellowness of Heart and Spirit, and 4) Community as a Constitutive Element of True Worship. He states that “These are not elements we may choose or not choose to incorporate within our spiritual lives. They comprise the essence of the spiritual life. They also supply its balance. Only when all four of these are present in our lives are we healthy as Christians and as human beings.” When I read these pillars, I was touched by their simplicity, clear prescription, and challenges.

Private Prayer and Private Morality

In preparation for the diaconate program, I struggled with prayer. My focus was on the actual “doing” of the prayer instead of “being” in prayer; I was more concerned about checking the box. I was frustrated by how much time prayer was taking away from my busy schedule. This pillar reminded me that praying is about building a relationship with God. Like the many loving relationships I have in my life, prayer is not always pretty, exciting, or perfect. Fr. Rolheiser explains in Prayer: Our Deepest Longing: “there is no bad way to pray and there is no one starting point of prayer. All the great spiritual masters offer only one non-negotiable rule: You have to show up and you have to show up regularly. Everything else is negotiable….” This last statement was insightful because in my search for perfection in prayer, I became discouraged.

Social Justice

I always thought of myself as a person with a strong sense of social justice. Reading about the pillar of Social Justice shed a new light, however. My previous understanding of social justice involved a political mindset, policy instead of charity. I learned that social justice is to act in relationship with God through charity aimed at the most poor and weakest of our society. In Corinthians 13:1-2, Paul tells us, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angles, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” We are called to act with faith through love for the poor and weak in order to be true Christians.

Mellowness of Heart and Spirit

Mellowness of Heart and Spirit has always been a challenge for me. This may be hard to believe for those who know me – except my wife and children – but I struggle with perfectionism. We can all put a façade on; I am not different. A life filled with worries does not make for a mellow heart. This pillar, however, is helping me to understand what I have been missing. Fr. Henri Nouwen explains in his book Making All Things New:  “Jesus’ response to our worry-filled lives is…to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to move from the ‘many things’ to the ‘one necessary thing’: to set our hearts on the kingdom of God first.” I am coming to realize that if I set my thoughts and actions, however imperfect they may be, to give praise and glory to God, then my heart and spirit will grow in mellowness.

Community as a Constitutive Element of True Worship

Finally, the pillar of the Community as a Constitutive Element of True Worship brings all four pillars together for me: “because the search for God is not a private search for what is highest for oneself or even for what is ultimate for oneself. Spirituality is about a communal search for the face of God.” As Fr. Rolheiser discusses, through his incarnation, God became Jesus and while that Jesus is no longer physically with us, he still remains in the Eucharist and in the community of believers. When we come together to celebrate the Eucharist, we  are in communion with God; we give life to his Church by building loving relationships with our brothers and sisters, God’s community of believers.


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