Christian Spirituality in Ecumenical Perspective
Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and Reformation
By Jill Raitt
Pages: 479 pages
Review Author: C.H. Ross
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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