A Whistle Stop History of Catholic Spirituality
Part One: The Resuscitation of Pelagianism
Winston Churchill said that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. That is why I want to offer you a brief history of Catholic Spirituality, so that what pertains to its very essence can be seen. It will show how history has distorted it, and how we can return to it as it was introduced into the early Church by Christ himself.
All the other religions that thrived in the Greco-Roman world into which Christianity was born, did not primarily seek God’s love to transform them, but their own human endeavour. This set of beliefs infiltrated Christianity, championed by the British Monk, Pelagius. Thanks to great saints like St Augustine these Pelagian heresies which overemphasised the action of the human spirit at the expense of the Holy Spirit, were kept at bay.
St Bernard and St Francis
Thanks to a handful of heretics, the simple Christ-centred spirituality that prevailed in the early Church was obfuscated in the Dark Ages. With the reopening of the Holy Land to pilgrims in the wake of the Crusaders, Christ- centred spirituality returned in the twelfth century and was spread all over Christendom with the help of such great saints as St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Francis of Assisi. This spirituality which was lived and practised most particularly in the family, was sustained and strengthened in subsequent centuries by new religious practices like the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross and devotion to the Sacred Heart which helped the faithful to return to the essence of early Christian spirituality. Who is the Sacred Heart but the Risen Christ, love Incarnate continually pouring out his love on all who would receive it.
The Renaissance – A New Highbred Spirituality
However, after the great plague (1348-1350), many began to ask how such a loving God could allow half of Europe to die in such a terrible way, and they began to look elsewhere for religious inspiration. At this very point in history (circa 1350), the rise of the Renaissance enabled those who questioned their faith to re-discover some of the philosophical religions like Stoicism, Gnosticism, and Neoplatonism for instance, that had been seen as heretical in the early Church. A new brand of Catholic intelligentsia came to champion a high-bred form of Spirituality which owed as much to Socrates of Athens as to Jesus of Nazareth.
The Catholic Humanist – John Colet
This new high-bred form of Catholicism found its way into the contemporary education system thanks to such Catholic humanists as John Colet. John Colet was a wealthy Catholic priest, the son of the lord mayor of London and friend of Erasmus. Colet founded St Pauls school in 1509, the year in which Henry VIII was crowned King. In this school all the intellectual glories of the Renaissance were embodied in an academic education system that was followed by all other schools and institutes of further education down to the present day.
Jesus Christ and Marcus Aurelius
Ever since, students like me have been confused, as the simple God-centred spirituality that was learnt at home was contradicted by a complex make-yourself- perfect spirituality that owed as much to the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, than to Jesus Christ. The Pelagian Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius taught how we should turn to ourselves to make us perfect. On the other hand, the God-given spirituality of Jesus Christ taught how to turn to God to enable him to make us perfect, through his Holy Spirit the only true architect of holiness.
From this point onwards two spiritual trends paralleled each other in Catholic theology and spirituality. The new trend, that was born at what has come to be called the birth of the modern world, the Renaissance, emphasised human endeavour and was man-centred or anthropocentric in a way that it never was in early Christian spirituality, which was always theocentric.
Quietism and the Enlightenment
The Credo of humanism is ‘I believe in Man’, whilst the Credo of Christianity is ‘I believe’ in God’. With the rise of the Enlightenment, and a Protestant form of mysticism called Quietism at the end of the seventeenth century, the mystical theology and spirituality that had prevailed since the early Church came under attack. The mystical theology that taught union with Christ and depended on a profound inner purification in prayer, was not only ridiculed but vehemently opposed, not just outside but inside the Church too. In future the anthropocentric spiritualities that grew out of the Renaissance began to prevail above all others down to the present day. The new liturgy that was introduced at the Vatican Council reproduced the ancient liturgy of the early Church, but sadly it did not re-introduce the God-given spirituality that sustained and supported it.
A Damascus Road Conversion
As I grew up breathing in this spiritual ethos in a classical education system born out of the Renaissance, I thought that the sanctity to which I aspired would be primarily the result of my own efforts. I was in effect a Christian stoic, a Pelagian who had failed so comprehensively to make myself into the saint of my dreams that I was about to give up the spiritual life for good. It was then that I came across Pax Animae, written by a Spanish Franciscan in 1588. It was a spiritual gem untouched by the spirit of humanism. Reading it was the nearest I had come to a Damascus road experience. It immediately enabled me to see that I had been misled into believing that I could be the architect of my own perfection. It’s very first paragraph showed me why I had failed and what I ought to do to succeed.
With love you may bring your heart to do whatsoever you may please. The hardest things become easy and pleasant, but without love you will find anything not only difficult but also impossible.
I am grateful to this little book because it enabled me to return to the simple spirituality that prevailed in the early Church which, thanks to a handful of heretics, had been muddied and muddled in the Dark Ages and then turned into a confusing high-bred spirituality at the Renaissance that still confuses the faithful. Following in the footsteps of St John Henry Newman, I am trying to lead you back to the God-given Spirituality introduced into the early Church by Our Lord Jesus Christ, in which his love reigns supreme.
In order to develop the prayer that can continually help us to raise our hearts and minds to God as we practise the asceticism of the heart please follow the Podcast on prayer on this web-site entitled The Hermit – Wisdom from the Western Isles