Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues the first chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, entitled “No one after drinking old wine desires new,” by discussing the concepts of “spirituality” and “spiritual life.” He notes that there is great confusion around these concepts in contemporary understanding and that they are often vaguely understood as referring to interiority and to various forms of devotion and piety, including those found outside of Christianity.

The fact that the concept of “spirituality” is so vaguely defined has extremely negative consequences for the Christian understanding of “the spiritual life”. For, as a result, many other things appear to be “spiritual” that actually belong to an entirely different sphere. This becomes clear immediately when we turn to Scripture and, moreover, to the Fathers. For here the adjective “spiritual”, in the connection that is of interest to us, refers unambiguously to the Person of the Holy Spirit. (27-28)

Whereas the Old Covenant had viewed the Holy Spirit as the impersonal power of God, in the New Covenant the Spirit is revealed as the “other Paraclete” who is sent by the Son in order to teach us all things.

The “spiritual man”, therefore, is one who, thanks to the Holy Spirit and “taught by the Spirit”, is able to judge “spiritual things”  “spiritually” in order to discern them. This is, of course, in contrast to the sensual, “natural man”, who can neither receive nor understand “the things of the Spirit of God”, precisely because he does not possess the Spirit of God and the “wisdom of God” remains “folly” to him.

Therefore “spiritual” always signifies, both here and in other contexts in Paul’s writings, “endowed with the Spirit” – wrought or inspired by the Holy Spirit; it is by no means a decorative epithet! (28-29)

The Fathers followed Saint Paul in adopting the distinction between the natural or psychic (i.e. of the unaided human soul) and the spiritual that is wrought by the Spirit. When the adjective “spiritual” is used it is in order to designate that something is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

However much we may talk of “spirituality” and however fond we may be of using the epithet “spiritual”, the Person of the Holy Spirit is the Great Absent One in the “spirituality” of the West, as has often been lamented. As a consequence, we regard many things as “spiritual” that in fact belong to the realm of the “natural man”, who is lacking precisely in the “gift of the Spirit”. We mean here everything that falls within the scope of the “feelings” and “emotions”, which are of a thoroughly irrational nature and are by no means “spiritual” or wrought by the Spirit. (29)

The Fathers distinguished between a “rational” and an “irrational” part of the soul and prayer belongs to the “rational” part.

Prayer is not a matter of “feeling” and certainly not one of “sentimentality” – which is not to say that it consists of a purely “intellectual act” in the modern sense of the word. For “intellect” is not identical with “understanding”, but is rather to be rendered by “core of being”, “person”, or, in biblical terms, “the inner man”. (33)


…we would do well to distinguish carefully, with the Fathers, between that which is really “spiritual”, namely, what is wrought by the Person of the Holy Spirit, and all that belongs to the domain of the “natural man”, that is, our irrational wishes and desires. For the latter are, at best, indifferent in value; most often, though, they are the expression of our “self-love”, which is the exact opposite of a “friendly love for God, in other words, [quoting Evagrius] that “perfect and spiritual love in which prayer acts in spirit and in truth.” (33)