The following history of the word spirituality is a summary of the article by Walter Principe (1922-1996), Toward defining spirituality, published in the magazine Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuses, number 12, 2 (1983), on pages 127-141.
The noun spiritus and the adjective spiritualis are at the root of the Latin word spiritualitas. The use of these last two terms has a background in saint Paul’s theology; he distinguishes between the spiritual and the carnal person. A spiritual person is who adapt his life to the Spirit of God; carnal is a way of life that opposes it. The word spiritualitas is met for the first time in a letter by an anonymous author of the fifth century, urging the recipient “to act as to advance in spirituality”. The context enables us to detect, in the use of the term, the Pauline background we said about.
In the ninth century Candidus, a German monk, uses the term in a generic sense, not related to st. Paul, but rather referred to a confrontation with what is corporal, material. This way of using the word will spread in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Meanwhile it will be used even in a completely different sense, meaning spiritualitas material property owned by the Church, as opposed to temporalitas, indicating the property of the king.
In the seventeenth century a more philosophical use of the term begins to appear: Descartes, for example, talks about “spirituality of soul” as opposed to extension of matter. The term is also used to refer to the devout life conducted by the religious.
In 1932 the Catholic Institute of Paris establishes a chair of “History of spirituality”. We can sense the context of historical research in a French dictionary of 1964, in which the term is defined as “the whole of beliefs, practices regarding the life of soul” or “whole of principles that govern the spiritual life of a person, a group” of which an example is “st. Francis’ spirituality”.
Between the nineteenth and twentieth century, on the occasion of an increased interest in Hinduism, the word “spirituality” is used to express the depth of Indian religion as well, against western materialism.
Today, in an attempt to define the term “spirituality”, it is useful to distinguish three levels of meaning. The first one is real or existential: spirituality indicates the way in which somebody has understood the religious ideal that he will follow.
At this point Walter Principe wonders if we can formulate a definition of spirituality that can be applied more universally, that is, to non-Christians. The question is, however, quickly abandoned, after having admitted the possibility. In this sense I find that Principe proves conditioned by his mentality of Catholic scholar, which makes he feel natural the meaning of the term as meant, anyway, in its most obvious use, referred to the context of religion, and more specifically to Catholicism.
The second level that Principe states is the formulation of a teaching about the lived reality, often under the influence of some outstanding spiritual person. The third one is the study, by scholars, of the first and especially the second level of spirituality.
At this point the author passes to consider the issue about relationships of spirituality with its context, i.e. whether and to what extent the sense of what spirituality is should take into account all other side subjects, such as philosophy, theology, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc., at risk of reducind its specificity to them; finally, he mentions the problem of subjectivity, both of these disciplines and of the specific study of spirituality.
In conclusion, I find that even for Principe, despite his historical research efforts, the meaning of the term “spirituality” remains somewhat confused, as well as having the defect of remaining in the restricted area of religious experience. On the other hand, his research keeps a reference value to be aware of the historical basis to keep in mind for those who, like me, propose to radically redefine the term. It is necessary to point out that the work of redefinition carried out in this blog is not intended to give new meanings to the word, but to bring to light what in fact lies behind its use, so that we can highlight and develop the potentials that so far have remained hampered by confusion and vagueness.
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Last update: 2 October 2016.