A Mini History of Christian Spirituality

Summary of the  second Lenten lecture 17.3.2014 SS Anselm and Cecilia, London

 With the help of four diagrams!

                                                                           O  /   =  —-    

12th-century_painters_-_The_Tree_of_Jesse_-_WGA15728The theologian Karl Adam summed up early Christian Spirituality  with the words ‘Christ Our Brother’. Imagine it as a circle with Christ at its centre, radiating the infinite love that has been transposed into human loving in his own risen and glorified body. Those who choose to receive it are drawn back into him, to begin the journey back whence they came into the fullness of the Father’s love, (which is the Holy Spirit) that endlessly passes to and from between him and his son. Choosing to receive this love means choosing to observe the first of the New Commandments by loving God in, with, and through Christ. This enables his love to enter, ever more fully into us, so that we can observe the second of the new  commandments, by loving others as Christ loves and continues to love us. It was this quality of loving that was seen in the way the first Christians lived and died, that converted the Roman Empire into a Christian Empire in just three hundred years.

Manichaeism, Arius, and the Pyramid of Power

However this had no sooner happened when the popular pagan  philosophy of Manichaeism, that taught that all material things are evil, influenced the  Christian heresy of Arianism, that denied the incarnation, because for them, the Word could not become incarnate in a material body. In time, over eighty percent of Christians were won over. In order to counteract it the Church coined a slogan that they kept repeating over and over again – Christ is God, Christ is God. Victory came, but at a price.  Christ Our Brother now seemed to undergo a new psychological ascension in people’s mind where he rose to rule from on high. Even reputable Christian writers soon began to refer at one moment  to God, and at another to Christ, as if it wasn’t necessary to distinguish between them. If  early Christianity could be depicted as a circle of light with Christ at its centre then early Medieval Christianity could be depicted as a pyramid of power with Christ/God ruling from its summit. The faithful who languishes at its base, ‘though saved from fully falling into heresy, were nevertheless  influenced by certain features of Manichaeism that had originally galvanised Arius the founder or Arianism. They believed that it was their material bodies that led them into sin and prevented them from rising to union with Christ/God at the summit. They therefore believed that their bodies  should be subjugated by harsh asceticism to free their souls so that they could rise  to God. And feeling utterly unworthy, they turned to those holier than themselves, like the martyrs and the saints to plead for them.

A Franciscan Spring

In the aftermath of the first crusade, that was called by Urban 11 in 1095, a new spiritual spring blossomed that put the human nature of  Christ back at the centred of Christian spirituality, thanks to pilgrims returning from the Holy Land, with stories of how they had visited and been inspired by all the places where Jesus had lived and died. St Bernard  placed devotion to Jesus at the centre of his theology, but it was Francis of Assisi, who had been to the Holy Land himself, and his followers, who disseminated the new spirituality to ordinary people. The change can best be visualised by two parallel lines. The bottom line stands for new devotional spirituality that placed the historical person  of Jesus as central. The top line stands for the mystical contemplation into which those who persevered in Christ-centred prayer would be raised. A disciple of St Bernard, William of St -Thierry, said “You cannot love a person unless you know them, but you will never know them unless you love them.” For the person who perseveres in Christ-centred prayer their knowledge will eventually lead them on to love. However you cannot enter into a dead person through love, so the time comes when love leads them on and into not the dead, but into the living and risen Christ. The love that takes them there now enables them to gaze at God, in and through Christ without all the meditations that they had been accustomed to before. This simple attention upon God came to be called contemplation and it could raise a believer to ever deeper degrees of love, as by trying to observe the first commandment in Christ they are able to experience something of God’s love in return, just as Jesus did. Like their early Christian antecedents this enabled them to observe the second of the new commandments in such a way that others were deeply touched and moved to follow the example of their lives.

Devout Humanism

From St Bernard to St Teresa of Avila and beyond, this new age of mystical contemplation revived Christian Spirituality to the benefit of the whole church, until its counterfeit Quietism was condemned in 1687. The fear of Quietism spreading led to anti- mystical witch hunts so virulent, that authentic mystical prayer was completely undermined and has remained so to the present day. Now only a single line remains to stand for the only spirituality that remained. The spiritual theologian Louis Cognet has called it Devote Humanism, because it continues the Christ-centred spirituality in which the moral teaching of the gospels have been augmented, by the moral teachings of Socrates and the stoics like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius at the Renaissance. In his history of the Catholic Church Monsignor Philip Hughes put it this way:-

‘The most mischievous feature of Quietism was the suspicion that it threw on the contemplative life as a whole. …. At the moment when, more than at any other, the Church needed the strength that only the life of contemplation can give, it was the tragedy of history that this life shrank to very small proportions, and religion, even for holy souls, too often took on the appearance of being no more than a divinely aided effort towards moral perfection.’

This spirituality that formed me and my mentors, whose scholarship made the Second Vatican Council possible, were so apathetical to all forms of mystical prayer that they failed to appreciate the profound mystical theology that gave life and vitality to the early Christian  liturgy. So although the outward structure of the new liturgy had been accurately represented, the inner personal prayer life that gave it such vitality is still lacking. Although the term was never used by the first Christians, a reintroduction and emphasis on what used to be called the morning offering, properly explained, could be inspirational. It could rekindle the way the early Christians offered everything they said and did each day, as an expression of their determination to observe the first commandment, in, with and through Christ, so that they could be filled with the love that would enable them to observe the second commandment. This is the same love that transformed the pagan Roman Empire into a Christian Empire and there is every reason to believe that what was done in the past can be done again today. As Jesus made quite plain at the Last Supper, “With God all things are possible,” just as without him, nothing is possible.

Lessons from History

The two previous reforming Councils – the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the Council of Trent (1545- 1563) were successful because both were preceded by a profound spiritual ethos, generated  by major spiritual leaders and saints. The Fourth Lateran Council for instance was preceded by such saints as St Bernard, St Francis, St Dominic and many others, and its teachings were disseminated by new vibrant religious orders like the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites and the Austin friars. The Council of Trent was preceded by the great Franciscan reformers, St Angela Merici, St Teresa of Avila, St Ignatius, St Philip Neri amongst many others, and its teaching was disseminated by new religious orders like the Jesuits, the Capuchins, the Theatines and a whole host of new religious congregations of sisters.

No such spiritual ethos preceded the Second Vatican Council, nor were there any great spiritual leaders or saints like those who preceded the other great reforming councils. Far from there being new religious orders to implement its teaching, old religious orders left in vast numbers. And many saints who were subsequently canonised were not canonised for their work of implementing its reforms, indeed there were some who positively opposed them. There were great scholars and great theologians, but much more is required for a major reforming council to succeed.

New Theologians – Please Now!

We need a new breed of theologians. Evagrius Ponticus (The fourth century solitary, who synthesised the spirituality of the Desert Fathers) once said “A theologian is a person of prayer, and a person of prayer is a theologian.” These are the theologians that we need, and we need them now. We need to return to the simple spirituality of the early Christians. We need to realise  that each and every day of our lives Christ is risen and alive, and loving now, and is calling us to join him. He is calling us to join him now in loving our common Father. We do this by doing what he did every single day that he lived on earth, by offering every thing that we say and do, in  with, and through him to the Father.  This is the new worship in spirit and truth, and this is the real  way in which we imitate Christ. This is how we observe, as he did, the first of the New Commandments, which will enable us to observe the second, which is to love our neighbour, not as ourselves ( that’s the old law) but as Jesus loves us.

Joy and Peace

At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples that he had kept his Father’s commandments throughout his life, and this gave him such joy that he wants those who follow him to experience this joy too – “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you, and be brought to completion within you.” (Jn 15 :11-12). I have stressed that the Fathers of the church do not emphasise subjective states of psychological awareness like later spiritual writers, but joy and peace are two exceptions. The early Christians were not fanatics  buoyed up by self- induced states of semi- religious hysteria, but the joy that they experienced was often described as sober inebriation, or sober intoxication, phrases that re-occur that describe the restrained joy that communicates far more powerfully than overt gaiety. The Desert Fathers speak more readily of the peace or the apatheia that characterised the mature monk, but there is always a reticence to describe how this profound peace could rise to ever higher degrees of intensity, as you find in a work like St Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle.

 ( Please note that this summary is primarily for those who have heard the lecture on which this summary is based. Others may find it too condensed. A fuller amplification can be found in David Torkington’s books )


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