Christian Spirituality in Ecumenical Perspective

January-February 1989By C.H. Ross

C.H. Ross is clerking for a federal dis­trict judge in Nashville.

Christian Spirituality: High Mid­dle Ages and Reformation.  Edited by Jill Raitt. Crossroad. 479 pages. $49.50.



In the post-conciliar world, the idea of spirituality has not bulked as large in Catholic con­sciousness as it once did. The fact of spirituality, of course, is a constant. In every age God is wondrous in His saints. Moreover, every Christian is called to live his life with God — the irreduci­ble core of any spirituality.

Still, the current spiritual life is largely untutored. Some fine books about spirituality are still being written, but their read­ership has been sadly limited. This dimension of the Christian life is rarely mentioned from the pulpit or discussed in lay groups.

This state of things has no one cause, but one attitude has contributed mightily to it: the delusion that “spirituality” stands radically opposed to the active apostolate. Ask a layman about spirituality, and he will likely think you are talking about the contemplative life.

The otherworldliness of tra­ditional Catholicism, like so many other things about the “old” Church, is generally over­stated to the point of caricature by contemporaries. The Incarna­tion and its endless implications for Christian living are not mod­ern discoveries. The better Cath­olic thought about spirituality dealt not only with mysticism and suchlike, but with liturgy, with the whole range of popular piety, and — last but not least — with the life of charity. It was St. Thomas who held that the highest ideal was to live so as to “give to others what you have contemplated.”

As with any aspect of Chris­tianity, a good way to grasp the meaning of spirituality is to study how it developed. There are two principal ways to do this. One can examine the history of spirituality from the perspective of a particular doctrinal tradition. For the Catholic perspective, one thinks of the writings of Louis Bouyer, Jordan Aumann, and the little gemlike studies of Simon Tugwell. Another way is to probe each tradition (Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox) through the writings of distinguished observ­ers from within that particular tradition. Both approaches are entirely legitimate; both may well be necessary.

Christian Spirituality takes the second course. It is one of the component peaks of a veri­table mountain range of scholar­ship — the 25-volume Crossroad History of World Spirituality, one of the most massive under­takings of its kind in the history of religious publishing. This is one of three volumes devoted to Christianity. At first glance, it may seem that Christianity has been shortchanged, given its pre-­eminent role in Western culture. The reader should not be put off. No other religion gets more than two volumes, and the bulk of the set deals with a great variety of non-Western religions. In any case, it is the quality of the vol­umes, not their quantity, that matters, and the Crossroad peo­ple pass that test handsomely.

One of the better things about the essays in this volume is the absence of polemic. This is not to say that the writers are without decided opinions, but on the whole they express themselv­es with civility. The only really jarring lapse occurs in an other­wise fine discussion of hesychasm by Russian Orthodox Fr. John Meyendorff, who, in his zeal for St. Gregory Palamas, refuses to call his “Westernizing” adversary Barlaam of Calabria a “philoso­pher” without sardonic inverted commas.

These essays range over much of the history of Christian spirituality during the high Mid­dle Ages and Reformation. Un­happily, the great Spanish mystics make only cameo appearances, but mystics and contemplatives are by no means neglected. Sev­eral contributors reflect the con­temporary interest in the Rhen­ish mystics (Tauler, Meister Eckhart, Henry Suso, and their fol­lowers).

The mendicant orders re­ceive extended treatment, as is only proper since the ideal of ho­ly begging is now so little under­stood. J.A. Wayne Hellman on the Franciscans represents schol­arly condensation at its most painless. Keith Egan’s somewhat wry account of the early Carme­lites is a valuable corrective to some of the syrupy stories about this great order. Adolar Zumkellar shows that the Augustinians tended to de-emphasize good works long before the advent of their famous “alumnus,” Luther. My fellow admirers of Simon Tugwell will not be disappointed by his brief contribution on the Dominicans.

Richard Kieckhefer offers an excellent short overview of medieval pious practices, includ­ing a fascinating account of the pervasive emphasis on Christ’s passion as reflected in the art of the period. The eucharistic devo­tions of the time shifted the pop­ular attention from actual receipt of the sacrament to adoration. It has become fashionable to dis­parage such worship, but Kieck­hefer, refreshingly, sees it as “the growth of devotion out of the liturgy.” Unfortunately, it does not seem to occur to many peo­ple that one can receive the Host and worship it too. At the Refor­mation, and again today, that at­titude led to a reaction toward an emphasis on the Eucharist as a meal, with a corresponding de­cline in adoration.

Among the essays on the early Reformers, I have found William J. Bouwsma’s treatment of Calvin particularly striking. Catholics are given to thinking of him as harsh and dour, like his repellant disciple John Knox. Yet some of the Genevan ser­mons are disarming in their mild­ness and charm. I could not re­press a smile on reading his dictum that “he who shall be induc­ed to choose a wife because of the elegance of her shape will not necessarily sin.” Human after all!

There should have been an essay on the Hussites and their various offshoots, including the English Lollards, but some omissions were inevitable.

On the whole. this is one of the best books of its kind ever printed — surely destined to be­come a standard source for his­torians of religion.



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