Naming the Spiritual Life: The Interior Life

All-SaintsHaving finished our Friday series on the seven cardinal vices, we will spend the next few Fridays considering different names for the spiritual life. In a sense, this series began last week, with the Feast of All Saints: one name for the spiritual life is sanctity. But in the weeks to come we will consider what we can learn from names such as “the spiritual life,” “life in Christ,” “divine filiation,” “spiritual childhood,” and “living our baptism.” Each of these names describes the same thing, but from different angles. We will better understand each of them, and our own Christian vocation, by considering them one by one.


We begin this week with a title that is in the subtitle of this web page, but might be the most deceptive: “the interior life.” This has somehow become one of the most popular names for the spiritual life among Catholics. In fact, we put it in the title of this web page figuring that, sociologically, people who search for “the interior life” are more interested in theological reflections like these, whereas people who search for “spirituality” tend to prefer things more vague and mushy.

The first thing to realize about this name, in contrast to all the others, is that it is non-relational. “Interior life” says nothing about the Holy Spirit, Jesus, God the Father, the sacraments, or the Church. That is the weakness of this title, and it is considerable.

The strength is that, though it ignores the way these external forces influence us, it points to where they influence us: on the inside. The spiritual life – or, the interior life – is about us, our hearts, who we are.

Maybe part of the reason this title is popular is that it points out that life is not just about the exterior. Personally, the greatest moment in my conversion to Christianity was the night I first read the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. I had thought Christianity was principally about following the commandments. What I found in the Sermon on the Mount was a God who cared about my heart. Not just murder, but anger, and hatred. Not just adultery, but lust. Not just charity, but poverty of spirit. The Gospel is, above all, about what goes on in our hearts: our interior life.


Now, one danger is that we can create too much of a separation between the interior and the exterior. Modern philosophy, especially since Kant, drives a huge wedge between “facts” and “values,” between the objective world and the subjective world, between “out there” and “in here.”

There may be nothing more important in philosophy than overcoming this divide. In fact, the human heart is all about “out there.” Our eyes see things, our minds know things – out there. We desire things, and our choices are about doing real things. The most important thing to know about the human heart, the human interior, is that we are profoundly related to the world around us.

Another way this plays out is that sometimes there is a division created between spirituality (the interior life) and morality (the exterior life). But morality matters precisely because it is where spirituality is lived. What does it mean to love unless we act? That is where the Sermon on the Mount comes full circle. Brands of Christianity (mostly Protestant) that say that our actions don’t matter ultimately end up saying our hearts don’t matter. Faith without works is also faith without love. There is no spirituality disconnected from morality.


That said, the name “interior life” points to the immense transcendence of the human person. The eyes see a mountain; the heart sees the beauty of God. As children we were taught to say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” – but that isn’t true. Words can never hurt my body, but they can hurt my heart. Real suffering is never just physical; what makes suffering profound is the meaning we see in it. Different words applied to the same physical pain mark all the difference between comfort and someone trying to grind us down. Our interior perceives things our exterior never could.

So too in our actions. We mustn’t make too great a separation between our actions and our intentions – intentions are expressed in actions. Nonetheless, the same action can express vastly different intentions. It is in our interior that we decide whether to be silent out of reverence or contempt; to apologize out of conniving or humility; to praise God or to withdraw into ourselves.


What do you discover in your interior?


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