The Classics of Christian Spirituality

Fausto Gomez OP

Christian spirituality is mystical spirituality, the spirituality of the mystics to which all Christians are called. Mystical life is participation in God’s life: the presence of God and personal experience or realization of this divine life particularly through the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. 

The journey to a deepening union of love with God goes from rejection of sin, and from mainly discursive and “talkative” prayer with some silent prayer of the beginners (purgative stage), through the acquisition and practice of virtues and less discursive and more mental prayer of the proficient (illuminative stage) to “marital” union and contemplative and wordless prayer of the perfect (unitive stage). 

Jesus is the mystic who best represents the experience of God that is a perfect union with God the Father in the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Son of God who shows us the way of progressive union with God as Father. All the saints and mystics follow, imitate and identify with Christ. Their lives point always to Christ. The mystics experience God, the loving union with Christ in a deep way, and tell others about it (empirical mysticism). Treasures of Christian spirituality yesterday, today and forever are the true classic spiritual texts. 

True classics of Christian spirituality are those “that stood the test of time by transcending cultural peculiarities.” These texts are “enduring and endearing” (Peter John Cameron). 

While speaking on social dialogue in the context of religious freedom, Pope Francis writes: “Religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and the heart” (EG 256). 

Undoubtedly, “Reading the works of the mystics can be useful to all the faithful who aspire to spiritual progress” (Gustave Thils). The great scientist Albert Einstein was asked near the end of his life if he had any regrets. His reported answer: “I wish I had read more of the mystics earlier in my life.” 

The classics of Christian spirituality are very important texts for spiritual reading, which is an aid to spiritual growth. Any person interested in spirituality and wishing to grow in his/her interior life, has read or will read the classics. Among these, we mention the following. On the Our Father by St. Cyprian (200-258); Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius (295/97-373); The Confessions of St. Augustine (354-430); Conferences by John Cassian (360-435); On the Degrees of Humility and Pride by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). 

Lord, You, have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you. –God never asks the impossible; He asks us to do what we can and to pray for what we cannot (St. Augustine, Confessions). 

Visions of Hildebrand Bingen (1098- 1179); The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi (13th Century); The Cloud of Unknowing of an anonymous English author (latter half of 14th century); The Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416); The Journey of the Soul to God of St. Bonaventure (1217-1274); On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274); The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380); Commentaries on John’s Gospel by Meister Eckhart (1260–1327), Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis (1379-1471).

To be without Jesus is a grievous hell; to be with Jesus, a sweet paradise. -He that embraces Jesus shall stand firm forever. – Love all things for Jesus’ sake, but love Jesus for his own sake (Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ). 

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556); The Way of Perfection of St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582); Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross (1542-1591); Introduction to the Devout Life of St. Francis of Sales (1567-1622); The Practice of the Presence of God of Brother Laurence of the Resurrection (1614-1691); True Devotion to the Virgin Mary of St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716); Abandonment to Divine Providence of Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751); The Way of the Pilgrim of the anonymous Russian Pilgrim (19th Century); The Story of a Soul of St. Therese of the Child Jesus (1873-1897). 

The only language that God hears is the silent language of love. – The soul that walks in love neither tires nor gets tired. – Put love where there is none, and you will reap love. – Anyone who does not love the neighbor, abhors God. – In the evening of life, you will be examined on love (St. John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love).  

Just a few inspiring books in our time. Spiritual Writings of Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916); The Everlasting Man of G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936); Essential Writings of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein, 1891-1942); Journal of a Soul of St. John XXIII (1881-1963); The Way (Camino) of St. Josemaría Escrivá (1902-1975), The Return of the Prodigal Son of Henri Nouwen (1932-1996); Come, Be my Light: Private Writings of St. Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), etc. 

For the saints, when they remember their sins, do not remember the sins, but the mercy of God, and therefore even past evil is turned by them into a present cause of joy and serves to glorify God (Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain).  

Vatican II contributed greatly to a shift in spiritual and mystical theology by its innovative teaching on the sources of revelation, dialogue with the world, the necessary connection between prayer and love of neighbor, and by asserting unequivocally that all Christians are called to a spiritual and mystical life, that is, to holiness. 

The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection… preached holiness of life to each and every one of His disciples, regardless of their situation… All the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 40).