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Religion and spirituality: a journey into the heart of God

The forced closure of churches during the COVID-19 has left Church leaders wondering whether parishioners will come back at all. Mahadi Buthelezi examines the differences between religious rituals and a personal spirituality, explaining why both are important.

Catholic churches in South Africa are vibrant, especially in African parishes, and the Mass is alive. This enthusiasm for the faith that I see in my community has made me wonder whether African Catholics have a greater appreciation for the religious rites of the Church as an institution. Or perhaps there is a deeper spirituality at play?

These musings led me to think about the differences between religion and spirituality. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I attended Mass weekly, and where possible, daily. With the pandemic and our forced absence from Church, it became much harder to connect with these comforting religious rituals. But I also realised that God is in my heart and mind throughout the day. I have regular and frequent prayer time and praise His Holy Name. My relationship with God is more than my attendance at church.

My reflections have led me to conclude that the purpose of religion should be to lead us to a genuine relationship and praise of God who loves us. This relationship will be lived out in an authentic spirituality that leads one to imitate that love in the relationships with others.

Religion, as opposed to spirituality, is often a more tangible starting point. Religion refers to the “external, social institutions in which the faith and spirituality of an individual are expressed,” according to a journal article by Dawn Overstreet looking at religion and spirituality among young adults in the United States.

In contrast, I find that the way in which the word “spirituality” is used is often nebulous and uncertain, and as a result, it is not always clear what we mean when we speak about having a spirituality. Perhaps we struggle to make sense of this term because it encompasses an aspect of our lives that may appear to be intangible. Spirituality is often experienced beyond the limitations of vocabulary and its presence, so to speak, can only be felt by faith. To use the language of scripture, spirituality is the spirit of God dwelling within us (cf (1 Cor. 2:14-15; Romans 8:9).

Perhaps we struggle to make sense of this term because it encompasses an aspect of our lives that may appear to be intangible.

For this reason, I find the definition of spirituality in the Oxford dictionary offers some good insight. Spirituality refers to “people’s subjective practice and experience of their religion, or to the spiritual exercises and beliefs which individuals or groups have with regard to their personal relationship with God.” Different communities also have a “characteristic set of spiritual practices” that lead them into a deeper prayer, meditation and contemplation of the divine.

My experience of a faith-filled life has shown me that spirituality and religion go hand-in-hand, or at least they should. Religion, with its forms, rituals and structures, leads us towards a tangible relationship with the three persons of the Trinity. The Church is, therefore, a shepherd that leads us to the Father.

My experience of a faith-filled life has shown me that spirituality and religion go hand-in-hand.

One cannot really exist without the other. Going to church offers us a supportive community in which to nurture the faith. The structure of its religious rituals gives shape to our communion with God. But it is the personal relationship cultivated by our individual spirituality that strengthens our faith and guides our daily living.

Love has to be at the heart of our faith. We can know all of the tenets and rules of our religion but if it does not touch the heart and awaken in us a desire for deeper communion with the divine and greater love for our brothers and sisters, then our religious knowledge is, in the words of St. Paul nothing more than a “resounding gong or clashing cymbal.” He rightly reminds us: “If I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.