The term “spirituality” is notoriously difficult to delineate, though Sandra M. Schneiders has put forward a well-received definition. For her, “spirituality” denotes the pursuit of “life integration” by way of a process of “self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives.” Thus particular doctrines underlie every spirituality—for they articulate to the “ultimate value” in question—but spirituality itself is not a mere set of doctrines or rules. Rather, it concerns the existential application of such principles, whether they concern “the Transcendent, the flourishing of humanity, or some other value.”
In the Christian tradition, spirituality has taken its starting point from the Bible, which speaks of the “spirit” (ruach/pneuma) of God and, through it, the promise of new “life.” In a variety of ways, this overarching motif has been explored and developed over the centuries, from the apophatic theology of Gregory of Nyssa to the ecstatic and visionary poetry of Hadewijch of Antwerp to the theme of imitatio Christi in Søren Kierkegaard. And yet, the study of Christian spirituality considers not only thought but also practice, including the habits of contemplation, prayer, penance, liturgy, devotion, and asceticism. As Bernard McGinn has put it, “The study of spirituality requires a desire to try to appreciate how religious people actually live their beliefs.” Moreover, Christian spirituality ranges into affective life, investigating the purpose and the role of the emotions in religious growth. This holistic approach to spirituality integrates bodily existence as well. Indeed, despite stereotypes of “individualism” and “acosmism,” Christian spirituality is rooted in, if not always in agreement with, the Christian ekklesia (“assembly”) or church. Consequently, spirituality engages social life and extends to socio-political movements and communities.
Given its multifarious concerns, the study of spirituality may be approached from a number of disciplines, including ethics, history, and theology. Thus it is an inherently interdisciplinary field, and, for that reason, it often draws on voices of those traditionally marginalized, including laity and women. Furthermore, its objects of study are diverse. To be sure, formal theological reflection is essential, and yet cultural forms such as visual art, film, music, liturgy, popular devotions, novels, hagiography, manuals are increasingly important, shedding new light on familiar ideas and figures.
In all of these ways, the study of spirituality aligns with the Augustinian mission of Villanova. Just as Augustine sought to unite head and heart, belief and practice, mind and body, so does spirituality aim to bring together the plurality of modes in which the divine is known and experienced in human life, from philosophical speculation to cultural praxis. But this point of connection should come as no surprise. After all, in his unique combination of interests, all of which were orientated toward spiritual development, Augustine himself stands as a model for the study of spirituality.