The spiritual poverty in our society is due to the availability of too many forms of spirituality rather than too few, says Ottawa philosopher Chantal Beauvais.
Like the Samaritan women in John's Gospel, men and women in our contemporary society are going to fountains where they are greeted by a plethora of people who sell water, Beauvais said.
Many are disappointed by the offers, and keep looking for other offers, but many others find something that they find satisfying for the time being.
"It's far from being a simple journey for people," Beauvais said. "We are constantly bombarded with various promises of happiness."
It is too easy, she said, to accuse people of being morally bankrupt when, in fact, there is an "overcrowding of our spiritual space" and people don't know which option to choose.
Beauvais, rector of Saint Paul University in Ottawa, was a keynote speaker at the 92nd annual national convention of the Catholic Women's League of Canada at Shaw Conference Centre Aug 12-15.
"In my view, people are not closed-minded about faith, they are simply spiritually overwhelmed," she said before an audience of 900 convention delegates from across Canada.
Catholics believe Jesus' promise of happiness is worth paying attention to.
But Beauvais said it's not necessarily easy for people to differentiate between promises that have the potential to sustain a quest for meaning over a lifetime and those that will simply make them forget for a while that they are thirsty.
What we need to do, she said, is to create environments where people become spiritually aware. First, we must become open-minded and receptive to others.
"We need courage to listen to our contemporaries, especially when they disagree with us," Beauvais said, quoting Dominican Timothy Radcliffe.
"They too call us to conversion. We must be prepared to get out of our depth, address questions to which we do not have the answers, and not be afraid to admit that we need help to find them.
"We must not be so obsessed by our ideological purity that we fear to get involved in this messy world. Jesus associated with everyone, whatever their morals, so that he might offer them his wide-open hospitality."
Beauvais said sometimes we are so comfortable with our own ideas and values that we are closed to ideas falling outside our comfort zone.
"We only want to associate with people who think like us."
Beauvais said people of other religions as well as people who don't affiliate with any religion yearn for what all human beings want: happiness.
We need to listen with respect and compassion to people who seek spiritual hospitality in our midst, she said.
Christianity has a rich history of spiritualities, but not enough people know about this reality, Beauvais lamented.
"It is as if the inner life of religion is invisible to many people. So they will not necessarily think about Christianity as a spiritually friendly place."
Yet, the same people who might not embrace what they perceive as a rigid religion will sometimes submit to bizarre practices in order to find relief.
"Unfortunately, there are also a lot of people who are improvising themselves as spiritual guides, and who are causing more damage than healing," she said.
"Jesus warned us about false shepherds. Our quest for spiritual relief can lead us on very risky paths. We've all heard of sad situations where people fall prey to self-proclaimed gurus. Guiding others in their spiritual quest requires a lot of knowledge."
Beauvais said a solid background in theology and rigorous training in spiritual direction is necessary to start acting as a spiritual mentor.
"I might add, even if one is not interested in becoming a spiritual mentor, any person who takes their faith seriously should be interested in learning more about it. Studying theology is part of becoming a mature believer."