This is my third column discussing obstacles we face as we seek to deepen our own spirituality and participate in our "Amazing God" evangelization initiative in the Albany Diocese.

In two previous reflections, I mentioned a loss of a sense of sin, consumerism, the bifurcation between religion and spirituality, secularism, scientism and atheism as contemporary threats to a genuine Christian spirituality and to our approach to evangelization.

This month, I conclude this part of the reflection by citing three other challenges that can inhibit our spiritual growth and development. In next month's column, I will reflect on some of the Church's own failings in responding to people's spiritual needs.


The mirror image of the scientism and atheism I wrote about last month is fundamentalism, both religious and political. In its religious form, fundamentalism grants a privileged status to faith over reason, to sacred texts and doctrinal tenets. Fundamentalism refuses to grant validity to any evidence which might challenge or override this status.

Within our own Catholic tradition, we see this fundamentalism in nostalgia for the past or in unwillingness to allow for the development of theological doctrine or of moral understanding. There are also strains of fundamentalism to be found among some Protestants, Jews and Muslims.

It is understandable that, in a world which has become so insecure, and in a postmodern age where all certainties, dogmas and doctrines are being questioned, some people inevitably try to go back to absolute certainties which might have been there - or at least were perceived to have been there - in the past.

There is a safety and security to this approach: providing pat answers or facile solutions to every problem, offering a kind of secure spiritual safety net or an "A-B-C" approach to salvation - as long as one does not stray beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Closed off
Fundamentalism, however, is a closed system, often accompanied by a smugness and intolerance, by a condescending judgmentalism and anti-intellectualism which fail to appreciate complexity, seeing only black and white, without any shades of gray.

Fundamentalism, I believe, is one of the attractions of some of the evangelical churches and sects. But it is also a retreat from engaging the world, from seeking to harmonize faith and reason - which both John Paul II (in his encyclical "Fides et Ratio," "Faith and Reason") and Benedict XVI (in his 2006 address on Islam at Regensburg, Germany) stated are so critically important if our Catholic Christian faith is to grow and flourish, and be attractive and credible in our contemporary world.

Need for dialogue
As Catholic Christians, then, we must not retreat from the secular world; nor must we approach it with a voice that constantly warns, judges, condemns and forbids.

Rather, ours must be a dialogic process which listens both to those outside the Church and to our own members - and, when we speak, we must not do so in a didactic or condescending manner, but in a voice which is rational, civil, tolerant, patient, familial and, above all, forgiving.


While not explicitly opposed to religious faith and belief, I would suggest that the explosion of new technologies can also pose a significant threat to people's spiritual well-being.

Not only are there personal computers and the Internet, but there are cell phones, iPods and Blackberries - which, as an editorial in America magazine notes, have created both a culture of distraction and a culture of constant work, where we are reachable around the clock and, therefore, unable to disconnect from the demands of the workplace.

Ironically, these new technologies were supposed to lessen our workloads and free us from menial tasks like phone calls and letters. Instead, they often have filled our lives with even more superfluous communication.

Equally significant, as we spend more time connected to these technologies, we can become more disconnected from one another, from our families and, because of a lack of quiet space, from ourselves and ultimately from God.

The dawn of these new technologies is not a cause simply for lament. Even I, who have been a great foot-dragger and procrastinator in this regard, must acknowledge and, indeed, stand in awe of the benefits they can produce.

Balance usage
But there must be a judicious caution about how these new technologies can affect a relationship with others and our own spiritual life. The great spiritual masters in every tradition have long counseled the need for solitude and quiet.

We can experience God in many ways - even through Internet sites like www.beliefnet. com or - but there remains the need for solitude and quiet where God can speak to us in the silence of our hearts.

As the editors of America magazine note in their commentary, without silence, without conscious disconnecting from the cares of the day, from work and even from friends and family, it becomes increasingly hard to carve out space needed to listen to one's own thoughts and to God.

St. Benedict wrote in his monastic rule, "Silence and the absence of noise in a certain manner encourage the soul to think of God. To connect with God, then, it is sometimes necessary to disconnect."


The final challenge I would cite if we are to foster a contemporary spirituality is the rampant narcissism and individualism which permeate our culture and much of the world.

It is not only we in the Church who view this narcissism and individualism as a problem for individuals and society; so do many psychologists, sociologists and even economists.

In his book, "Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom," South African Dominican theologian Rev. Albert Nolan cites a false or superficial sense of freedom which is at the root of this problem.

It is not the freedom to choose any brand of toothpaste you like; it is a more radical freedom. What people often seek, Nolan notes, is a freedom of the ego, instead of freedom from the ego.

Freedom of the ego means that "I can do anything I like in relation to others. The more my will triumphs, the more free I am." This is a dangerous illusion which only imprisons us further.

Freedom, in the true Christian sense, is freedom from the ego. It means we are not tied down by our own selfishness. It is a freedom to do God's will; to work for the common good, not just the selfish idea of "what's good for me."

Beam in the eye
When we develop this freedom from the ego, we can come to recognize that we often project our problems on others, that we have a false image of ourselves and that we may communicate this false image to others.

As Jesus pointed out, until we really understand what is happening within ourselves, we have a real beam in our own eye. We're blinded by something we need to remove in order to see clearly and to understand that we are not the center of the world.

That's why Father Nolan states that narcissism or self-centeredness is the root cause both of personal failure and of social injustice. He suggests that many so-called liberation movements of the 20th century failed because they neglected the need of the individual to overcome personal selfishness.

Father Nolan cites, as a specific example, the experience of his native South Africa, wherein the hard-won freedom from apartheid was replaced "by greed, corruption, crime, hypocrisy and power-mongering." This is also true of many countries emerging from the colonization of European powers.

The solution to this egotistical self-centeredness, Father Nolan posits, is Jesus' own spirituality, which responds to the need of people to heal, to love, to forgive and to affirm. It is a spirituality based not on condemnation, blame or guilt, but one which liberates, persuades, encourages, enables and empowers.

Benedict's book
This is precisely the freedom and spirituality which our Holy Father Benedict XVI presents in his marvelous book, "Jesus of Nazareth."

In this series of meditations and reflections, Pope Benedict challenges us to read the story of Jesus found in the Gospels not only with the eyes of faith, but in relation to the entire story of the Bible and the drama of Israel and the pilgrim people of God.

Benedict portrays Jesus as the promised new and greater Moses. Like Moses, Jesus speaks to God face-to-face; unlike Moses, Jesus looks directly at the glory of God.

Jesus' unity with God and His filial communion with the Father are seen by Benedict as a key to understanding Jesus' works, deeds, sufferings and triumphs - which become the foundation for developing our own spiritual life.

In reviewing Benedict's book, Peter Steinfels, the former religion correspondent for The New York Times, author of "A People Adrift" and co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion, states that Jesus of Nazareth "is leagues in advance of both the theological and biblical underpinnings of 90 percent of the preaching or catechetics encountered in Catholic America."

That's high praise from a thoughtful, yet at times critical analyst of our contemporary Church. I recommend Benedict's book for your own meditation and as a solid contribution to helping us address contemporary spirituality and evangelization.

I am convinced that more and more our personal and communal spirituality must be rooted in the person of Jesus. We must seek to enter even more fully into a meaningful relationship with Jesus to see how His life, His words, His choices, His facing death and His overcoming death relate to our own fears and to the needs, hopes, fears and expectations of those whom we are privileged to serve.

I believe it is only to the extent that we do this that we can truly face our own fears and find the inner resources needed to reenergize our own spirituality and, then, invite others to a deep meaningful relationship with our Brother and Redeemer: Jesus, the Christ.

May this year's Amazing God focus on the "Heart of Christ" lead us to do so.