In today’s second reading (Phil 4:6–9), Saint Paul highlights whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, and excellent—“anything worthy of praise.” And then he says: “think about these things.” Think about what is worthy of praise. Why does Saint Paul emphasize thinking?
One of the most common sayings today is this: “I am spiritual, but not religious.” Many people describe themselves in this manner (both Christian and non). Through this statement, well-intentioned persons express their conviction that the interior life—who we are in the depths of our being—is more important than exterior actions. What is “inside” of us defines us more than any “external” things that we might do (or not do). Often people think that religious services—while, perhaps, good and wholesome—are of much less importance than one’s internal spiritual beliefs and practices.
Such is how many people—consciously or not—regard the interior life.
Of course, there is a certain degree of truth to this line of reflection. It is possible to dissimulate through religious practices. Just because we go to church does not mean that we believe—or are living in accordance with—what Jesus teaches. In other words, it is possible to be “religious” without truly loving God. One can be religious without being authentically “spiritual.”
But we can also ask: is it truly possible to be spiritual without also being religious? Ultimately, the answer is no. It is not possible to be spiritual without being religious.
Why is it impossible? It is impossible because we are not purely-spiritual beings. We are spiritual, yes. We have a soul: our “spirit.” But we are not angels—pure spirits. We also have a body. Physical things are an important part of every human life. Because human persons are a unity of soul and body, the body can never be truly separated from the soul—not in this earthly life. The soul operates in and through the body.
For example, to love is a spiritual act. Authentic love and affection come from the depths of the human person. Love is not a bodily or a material reality, certainly. Nonetheless, authentic love inspires us to do certain things—in and through our bodies. This is, perhaps, most readily evident in the love shared between a husband and wife or between parents and their children. Love is a spiritual reality, yes. But love always expresses itself in concrete and physical ways. Moreover, we would be highly dubious of parents who claimed to love their children and yet never expressed their love in physical, tangible ways (i.e., spending time with them, sharing activities and conversations with them, providing housing and nourishment for them, etc.).
Love is indeed spiritual. But true love is not only spiritual. When we love someone from the depths of our being, we express that love with all of our being—and this includes bodily gestures and actions.
Saint Paul knew this. And this is why he emphasizes the importance of thinking about anything worthy of praise. The more we think about something—holding something in the depths of our heart—the more our entire being will be shaped by that something. Those things that capture the attention of our minds also shape the course of our lives. Why? Because our our soul—our spirit—is not isolated from our bodies. Whatever we focus upon with our minds—the highest power of the human spirit—will inform what we do and how we live.
Thus, let us take Saint Paul’s exhortation to heart. May we think—with regularity—about those things that are truly good and worthy of praise. Those who think with regularity about true goods will live according to those goods. Finally, let us thank God that he has made us as creatures who are not only spiritual but are also religious. God does not leave any part of us “outside” of his loving plan of redemption. Let us thank God that we can love him completely, with both spirit and body—in a fully human way.