Christian Spirituality: A Historical Sketch / Edition 1

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“Lord, Teach Us to Pray”

In Christian Spirituality: A Historical Sketch, George Lane looks to the sources of the Christian spiritual tradition in order to establish a firm ground for a vital contemporary spirituality. Quoting the great Jesuit scientist and mystic Teilhard de Chardin, “Everything is the sum of the past; nothing is comprehensible except through its history,” Lane examines the masters of Christian spirituality in their historical context. He shows why the hermits of the East, the monks of the West, Basil, Athanasius, Origen, Jerome, Augustine, Benedict, Dominic, Francis, Ignatius Loyola, Teilhard, and others were so influential in their time and why they have much to teach us today.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780829420814
  • Publisher: Loyola Press
  • Publication date: 7/22/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 96
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

George A. Lane, SJ, is president emeritus of Loyola Press in Chicago.  He holds degrees from Xavier University, Cincinnati, and Loyola University, Chicago. He spent three years teaching English and has served on the Board of Directors for the Chicago Bible Society and St. Ignatius College Prep. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1954 and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1967. Fr. Lane celebrated his Jubilee in 2004.


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Read an Excerpt



In the years since the Second Vatican Council, the church has taken a new and multifaceted interest in spirituality, particularly in spirituality’s psychological aspects. Much of this interest has been directed toward an understanding of the unique individual human person who seriously tries to live a spiritual life. This psychological dimension has ushered in a much more humane approach to many aspects of spirituality, which was much needed to counter the ultramechanical piety of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There has also been a fruitful theological dimension to this spiritual renewal. Recent decades have seen a wealth of theological insight into matters of the spiritual life, providing a rich vein of reflection that has immeasurably deepened contemporary spirituality.
The chief problem confronting any kind of renewal, especially renewal of the spiritual life, is to balance the changing with the changeless, the demands of contemporaneity with the treasures of the past. How to find this balance is the problem we face in attempting to formulate a spirituality that is at once vital for our time and yet solidly grounded in the best traditions of the historical church.
My interest in this book is in the second of these demands—an understanding of Christian tradition. I propose to make a historical-theological survey of Christian spirituality with the hope that this book can help readers base their spiritual renewal on the firm ground of the Christian tradition. As in so much of the work of Vatican II, we look to the sources of Christian life and try to discover how Christianity has developed. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Everything is the sum of the past; nothing is comprehensible except through its history.”1 And similarly, a failure to grasp the historical perspective so often condemns people to relive the mistakes of the past. To arrive at an authentic program for seeking union with God in our present time, we keep both the past and the future in mind. We must preserve the best traditions from the past and look to the future for our goals.
In a broad sense, spirituality may be described as a way to holiness. More precisely, spirituality is humanity’s possession by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. In a sense, there is only one Christian spirituality because there is only one Christ. However, when the means of union with God become concretized, various styles of approach to this union appear. Any particular style of approach to union with God can properly be called a spirituality. As John Courtney Murray, SJ, said, God would have each person wholly to be his witness, but not necessarily a witness to the whole of him. Only the church, as the community of the faithful, can really bear witness to the whole counsel of God in many-splendored variety.2
Indeed, we see many approaches to spirituality throughout Christian history. Society challenges each man and woman differently, and these challenges call forth different responses to God. Some of these responses by extraordinary men and women—the hermits of the East, the monks of the West, Basil, Athanasius, Origen, Jerome, Augustine, Benedict, Dominic, Francis, Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, Ignatius, and Thérèse of Lisieux are among the best known—were so penetrating that large numbers of Christians followed them. Their influence and their insights live on.
As we will see in this book, there is a distinction between the basic worldview (or God-view) of these great men and women and certain techniques used by their followers to implement the vision. The vision is unchangeable, but the techniques used to implement and institutionalize it are intrinsically and necessarily adaptive.
We will also see how certain structural elements remain constant throughout the history of Christian spirituality. Although they may be implemented differently at different times, an authentically Christian spirituality must provide for such perennial elements as prayer, penance, mortification, and apostolic activity. This has always been true, and it is true today.
There is much talk today of finding a contemporary spirituality by searching the writings of our own contemporary artists and thinkers. This will undoubtedly be helpful, but we will find an authentic spirituality only by probing the mystery of Christ as he is transmitted to us through the history of the believing church. Accordingly, our effort will be to distinguish between the vision of the great leaders in the church and certain intrinsically adaptive techniques, and to try to fit the enduring values to the spirit and conditions of our own time.
A final word of caution. As we survey the history of Christian spirituality, we need to keep in mind a distinction between a systematic understanding of a spirituality and the lived experience of the spirituality. Ideally they should coincide and infuse each other. But the reality is that the lived experiences of the great founders of religious orders is a unique thing, and it dies out with the people who have had that experience. It is not the lived experience that influences us but rather the theology of it. The way that experience was explained and interpreted survives. For example, some of the problems we might have about the spirituality of the early desert hermits in the East were not necessarily problems for them, but they are for us. We do not have their experience; we do have the systematic explanation of their way of life, and this is what influences us. We cannot criticize their life experience; but we can criticize and evaluate their articulation or explanation of it in order to discover what may be valid for our own purposes.
Protest and Renunciation in the East


In the centuries after Christ, many Christians led lives of self-denial, prayer, fasting, and celibacy in imitation of Jesus. Most did so in their towns, in the midst of their families. However, toward the beginning of the fourth century, significant numbers of men and women in the East began to withdraw from the world and lead lives of self-denial in the desert. By the end of the fourth century, thousands of monks and nuns were living in the wastelands of the interior of Egypt, as well as in desolate spots in Syria and Palestine. Some lived as cenobites (persons living together in community), but many others lived solitary lives. All subsequent monastic movements are rooted in this early flight to the desert of Egypt, and “Eastern monasticism” has had a lasting impact on the development of spirituality.
The Eastern monastic movement is difficult for us to understand because we are far removed in time from the monks of the desert. These early monks inflicted severe physical and psychological deprivations on themselves. Most of us would regard these penances as extreme and hardly ­worthy of ­imitation today. We have many more models for leading a holy life than they had.
Yet it is not altogether impossible to appreciate why people might want to flee from the world into the quiet sandy desert to come into contact with God. To approach the Eastern monastic movement, as well as the whole of spirituality, we have to recognize a certain basic yearning for self-surrender that is present in every person. This yearning rises at times to a passion; it is something of an instinct that we cannot fully explain. It is a drive that leads many people, almost in spite of themselves, to moments of heroic decision to give their lives to others. There are few people who do not, on occasion, have a vision of a nobler life and a better existence. We seek an escape from a restrictive and repressive conscience, we yearn for the infinite, we search for meaning, we desire God.
This yearning for self-surrender is a given with the human situation, the basic presupposition to which Christ appeals in the Gospels. For those who accept Christ as the Lord and commit themselves entirely to him, this self-surrender is an imperative call of the Master. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. . . . And whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37–38). We can understand passages like this in the New Testament if we see them in the light of the church and in the history of the people who have done this sort of thing.
This desire to follow Christ is what was underneath the Eastern monastic response. The form of this surrender has changed through the years, but its starting point has always been the same, an acceptance of and a commitment to the risen Lord. As they read the Gospel, the people who became the monks of the desert believed wholeheartedly that the only way to respond authentically to Christ was to get away from the din of the world and to go out to the desert to find him there. One had to flee the city of sin in order to find God, the pure God who was wholly other, wholly apart, and wholly transcendent to this city of sinful humanity.
Unfortunately some of the heroic austerities of the monks often overshadowed the real essence of their life and work. Coupled with certain unusual practices was a desire for protest and renunciation that permeated the entire Eastern movement. These men felt the world was evil. The only way they could achieve union with Christ was to protest the evil world and renounce these evil temptations.
Along with this desire in the Eastern monastic movement was a captivating enthusiasm. These men were utterly convinced that theirs was a magnificent vocation. They did not condemn others but looked upon them as hopelessly caught in the turmoil of the world. The monks felt that they had made a great discovery, finding the only way to profound union with God. This enthusiasm comes out in St. Athanasius’s life of St. Anthony the Hermit, which is one of the many stories of the desert monks that inspired Christians at the time, and which continue to do so today. Anthony had lived forty years in the desert, and when people went out to visit him

[h]e came forth as from some shrine, like one who has been initiated in the sacred mysteries, and filled with the spirit of God. Then, for the first time, he was seen outside the fort by those who came to him. They were amazed to see that his body was unchanged, for it had not become heavy from lack of exercise, nor worn from fasting and struggling with the evil spirits; he was just as they had known him before he had secluded himself. The temper of his soul, too, was faultless, for it was neither straightened as if from grief, nor dissipated by pleasure, nor was it strained by laughter or melancholy. He was not disturbed when he saw the crowd, nor elated at being welcomed by such large numbers; he was perfectly calm, as befits a man who is guided by reason and who has remained in his natural state. (The state in which Adam and Eve were created, but which was damaged by the fall.) Through him the Lord healed many of those who were suffering in body and freed them from evil spirits.3

This type of response to the Gospel seems more intelli-gible—and even necessary—against the background of the times. In its earliest days, the Roman authorities treated the young church with tolerance because it was viewed as a Jewish sect. But soon tolerance diminished and the authorities began to view Christians as an alien group that made trouble with its disdain for the gods of the state. Persecution followed and, for Christians, martyrdom became the pinnacle of Christian renunciation. It was a way in which a man or woman could say, “I am renouncing myself, taking up my cross, and literally following Christ.”
When the period of martyrdom and persecutions was over, people needed another way to reach the pinnacle of Christian perfection. Martyrdom had been the ideal, and now there were no martyrs. The notion of rejecting the world and surrendering to God in a life of privation in the desert became an alternative to martyrdom. Indeed, writings of the period show that the monks of the desert did view going into hermitage as another way to reach the height of perfection previously achieved by martyrdom. In addition, the character of the church changed when Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in ad 313. Many new people became Christian and, in the process, diluted the original “quality.” Fervent Christians who had withstood persecution were joined by power seekers and half-converted pagans. Understandably, longtime Christians were unhappy.
Monasticism was a protest against this dilution. It was a protest not just against the world, but especially against the world in the church. It’s important to understand that monasticism was originally a lay movement. In fact, the monks were quite anticlerical in a prophetic sense, similar to the anti-
clericalism of such Jewish prophets as Amos and Hosea, who condemned those priests who did not preach justice and love but became fully enmeshed in the power structure of the state. Accordingly, the monastic movement should be seen not so much within the church as alongside it.
Many of these early monks firmly believed that God could not be found among men. One story makes the point well. Abbot Marcus asked the Abbot Arsenius, “‘Wherefore do you flee from us?’; and the old man said, ‘God knows that I love you, but I cannot be with God and with men—a thousand and a thousand thousand angelic powers have one will, but men have many. Therefore I cannot send God from me and come and be with men.’”4
The corrupt and corroding city of man was another factor that prompted the withdrawal to the city of God in the desert. The empire was decaying; nothing seemed able to reverse the unraveling of organized society. Withdrawal from society seemed quite attractive, even wise.
The monastic movement evolved gradually. The early monks lived in cities and went out into the desert later on as part of an intensifying desire to flee the world. At first, individu-als went out alone to solitary hermitages, but most gradually banded together for survival’s sake and to better support one another in their demanding lives. Nevertheless, solitary living was common.
The ideals of monasticism are still operative today. Dom Hubert Van Zeller points out that it is “not in outward activities that the strength of monasticism lies. The direct contribution is not and never has been the main thing. The main thing has been the indirect contribution made by prayer and penance . . . the monk who loves God perfectly is fulfilling every obligation, which in Christian charity he owes to his neighbor.”5
There is always need for renunciation and solitude in the spiritual life. The question that we must ask is What forms should protest, renunciation, and solitude take today?
As a movement that involved relatively few people, early Eastern monasticism seems elitist to us. The monks seemed to be a breed set apart in favored conditions in an isolated environment. Does Christ preach an elitist spirituality in the Gospel? It seems not. There is also the problem of what we might call the essentialist view of human nature—the notion that human beings are made up of distinct component parts with mind and spirit warring against the flesh. One might go off to the desert to fight oneself, to conquer the flesh definitively, but such a person will usually find that he is his own worst enemy. He creates more problems in isolation than he ever would have found in contact with other people. Not only does he run the risk of exposing himself to greater conflict than he would have found among people, but the problems will have been of his own making. And then in face of the social difficulties of the time, perhaps it was easier to abandon the sinking ship of the church rather than try to guide it into port.
The contemporary question that we must ask ourselves is how can we preserve the ideals of protest and renunciation of this way of life while sifting out the ideals and customs that have come down to us and that are not suited to our age or mentality?

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Table of Contents

Contents Introduction    vii

Protest and Renunciation in the East    1
The Ideal of Contemplation    9
Benedictine Spirituality    17
The Mendicant Transition    25
The Religious Climate of the Later Middle Ages    31
The Nature of Mysticism    37
Ignatian Prayer: Finding God in All Things    43
The Contemplative Climate in Sixteenth-Century Spain    51
Ignatian Prayer, Second Generation    55
Finding God’s Will: Discernment    63
Spirituality for Our Time    71

Notes    81

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