Dom Basilio Magno
There is only one Spirituality in the Catholic Church and NOT schools of
- The Heroes of the Old Testament had one
simple spirituality: Obedience to the Commands of God expressed, in
general, in the Ten Commandments and specially explained by the
The Ancients, the prophets and heroes of the Old Testament and even
the first Christians had no need for books of spirituality or
spiritual directors...much less to attend seminars or retreats. Their
simple spirituality consists in OBEDIENCE TO GOD. To mention a
few, there was Noah who built the Ark in obedience to God and Abraham
who went to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, in obedience to God.
Of course, their obedience must be qualified in that it was different
from the obedience of the Pharisees to the law of Moses.
God had always shown His goodness to Israel and demanded for only one
thing in return ... OBEDIENCE to His Will, expressed in His commands.
Everything else was empty gestures: the sacrifices, the holocaust and
the sprinklings. Living faith meant obedience to God’s commands. Thus
though the Israelites had the Ark and the Temple which were signs of
God’s presence, yet God’s true presence was in the hearts of men
As of old the temptation to choose empty ritualism over obedience is
always a danger today. But any sincere desire to return to God can
only be shown in obedience to His Will.
The norms of the Spiritual Life are simple: foreshadowed in the wisdom
books (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom)... good
will be rewarded, evil will be punished. Then God, and later on
Christ, gave a list of good acts that we must do and a list of evil
acts we must avoid. The “good” is to love God
- The Early Christian were not known to have
many books and yet their era boasted of great saints.
Only two documents, aside from Scriptures, helped the early
Christians: a.) the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” and b.) the Life
of St. Anthony. Later on the Fathers of the Church would be widely
used, too. All these writings interpret the commands of Christ as
found in Scriptures.
The “Sayings” is a collection of short phrases, easy to remember and
profound in meaning. In fact one short phrase was more than enough to
propel a soul to sanctity much in the same way that just one parable
in the Gospel or one command is enough to make a saint of any soul.
These sayings are compiled today in the Philokalia. These very short
sayings were the main source of spirituality in early Christianity and
guided many souls to greatness ...not the entire book but often one or
two phrases only.
The Apothegmata Patrum, as the “Sayings” was referred to, shaped
Christian spirituality of both Christian East and West. The goal of
these writings is to help us reach the kingdom “...simul perviamus ad
vitam aeternam.” At first the Apothegmata was orally transmitted; then
written down by the 5th century, the end of the golden age of desert
monasticism in Egypt. The collection is, to say the least, chaotic to
the uninitiated but very clear to those for whom it was meant to be.
The Apostolic Fathers, heirs to the Apothegmata, though of different
status, origins, etc...spoke of one single spirituality. And the early
Church had so many saints at a time it had no theology; they were
merely guided by the commands. Their knowledge of Spirituality is said
to have been completely developed; otherwise they wouldn’t be saints.
And there was no distinction between clerics, religious and lay.
It is a known fact that the 17th century spiritual treatises, though
closer to our times, are less captivating than the desert writings.
For seldom are we struck by great depth with stark simplicity. The
same can be said of the Fathers in a lesser degree.
Then, there is the “ Life of St. Anthony” where the saint put the
Apothegmata into practice. St. Augustine was greatly influenced by
this book. The physical set up by which the spiritual life was lived
during these times is exemplified in the Basiliades of St. Basil which
were large, self-contained “cities in the desert."
- The Spiritually of the New Testament is
identical to that of the Old Testament: OBEDIENCE to God’s commands
…but as expressed by Christ. Except that the commands of Christ were
more difficult being the perfection of the Old Testament commands;
though because of grace it has become easier to observe.
The Spirituality of the New Testament is an improvement of the Old
Testament but consisted of the same simple formula, so simple one
cannot dissect it and claim that this part is for women and that for
men, this for lay and that for religious. Divide it and Catholic
spirituality ceases to be Catholic.
Early Catholic spirituality was symbolized ARTISTICALLY by the ICON,
an unchangeable prototype, an art form well protected against all
individual private expression. APOCALYPTICALLY, Catholic Spirituality
was symbolized by the DESERT since it was first formulated and lived
by the first Christians in the desert, the lonely places of the
Gospel. The place where the Apocalyptic woman fled to, after the Ascension
of Christ. To modernize or urbanize St. Basil or St. John Chrysostom
Christ came to perfect the commands of the Old Testament. He became
the embodiment of authentic spirituality. And any attempt to construct
a spirituality that is “more contemporary” or “more up-to-date” is
going towards what Deuteronomy forbade “...to add or subtract ” to the
commands of the Lord (4:2).
With Christ the doctrine on spirituality was completed and the role of
the coming of the Holy Spirit was “...to remind you of everything I
have said to you (Jn. 14:21). To learn spirituality is to know what
Christ said and did for our instruction. Anything outside the commands
should be used or avoided depending on the benefit or harm it can do
And so a school of spirituality, and NOT schools of
spirituality. Christ transcends the history of man though He functions
within that context. And so the way the commands are to be observed in
the past, present and future is the same. The way the vice of
fornication is overcome is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. And
the way we must love God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
- Early Christian Spirituality was based on
the Word of God.
The Word of God contains the Revelation of the Commands of Christ. The
early writings on spirituality, like the “Novellae” of Justinian the
Emperor, the “Advices” of Barsanuphius and other writings of the
Fathers, for that matter, speak about OBEDIENCE to the commands of
Christ as found in Scriptures. So that St. Basil aptly summarized this
saying: “Every word and action must be checked with Scriptures.”
This spirituality is what Christ wanted us to learn when He said:
“Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Spirituality is
being humble and meek . . . like Christ as He showed us in Scriptures.
This is man’s portion in the spiritual life; the rest is God’s (though
strictly speaking God is needed from the very first steps).
- Spirituality, further explained.
Evidently there is only one way to holiness (or to heaven or to be
pleasing to God...however you want to put it). And this is by loving
God and neighbor. And there is only one way of loving God and
neighbor...and that is by obeying the Commands of Christ. And the
first command is to “deny oneself” which leads to the humility and
meekness of Christ.
The magisterium, the saints and founders of religious orders and
authors of true spirituality are one heart and mind on this. A
spirituality that differs from this is surely a fake; “If even an
angel preaches a different gospel let him be anathema (2Cor. 11:4).”
All saints, whether the apostles, the first martyrs, the Benedictines,
Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscan or Jesuits have one and the same
spirituality...in that they loved God in a heroic degree by obeying
the commands of Christ summarized in the words: “Deny yourself, take
up your cross and follow Me (Mark 8:34).” Besides, the Founder’s Holy
Rules were approved simply because they conform to the Evangelical
precepts and NOT because they were different or a more up-to-date
interpretation of the Evangelical precepts.
The farther away religious were from being holy the more accentuated
the difference, i.e. an unholy Benedictine is very different from an
unholy Jesuit...though, really, they are the same, slaves to their
vices and passions. It is said that the holy priest, Pierre de
Caussade, a Jesuit, was influenced by St. Francis of Sales, a
Salesian, and in some way he influenced St. Therese of Lisieux, a
Carmelite; that Ignatius was influenced by the Spanish reformer,
Benedictine Cisneros while Teresa of Avila was guided in her prayer
life by St. Augustine and Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican priests.
That seems like a hodgepodge of spirituality...but no, they are all
holy because they followed one and the same simple spirituality of the
Gospel ...they loved God in a heroic degree. There is no such thing as
an Ignatian way of loving God, which makes one suspect that there is
no such thing as Salesian, Jesuit or Carmelite spirituality...but just
one Evangelical spirituality lived by a lay person, a priest and a
nun. Not to mention the early Christian saints who were mostly laymen,
like Benedict, became great saints and pillars of the Church by this
simple Evangelical spirituality.
Christ preached the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of holiness; but He
never defined His terms. The early Christians were not interested in
definitions: they were interested in how to enter the Kingdom. The
Beatitudes express the different degrees of spirituality; the first is
the minimum and the eighth a difficult maximum which must,
nevertheless, be our goal while in this world.
- Why is Spirituality explained so lengthily
We, however, beginners in the life of the Spirit need instructions; we
need sound teachings, examples and rules of conduct. And so arose the
long, and often times tedious and repetitious, theological
explanations on the spiritual life. The pervading idea seems to be
that the longer the explanation the more the pupil will
understand...which is not the case. Because in spirituality, the more
humble and meek the soul is, the more he will understand. Length or
intensity of study has nothing to do with growth in spirituality.
I guess as years passed the new generation of Catholics became less
and less humble considering the treatises on spirituality became
- The Goal of Spirituality.
Among God’s creatures man, alone, has the possibility of transcending
himself into a superior being...a participation with the Divine Image
by a way of life close to God. Spirituality is that process...the
process of becoming a person with a Divine Image. And since this is
over and above man’s natural capabilities, it cannot be man-made.
The goal of Spirituality is to reach a state where our whole being and
life are ordered, led and influenced by the Spirit of God. This way of
life is opposed to carnal life, a way of life opposed to God’s Spirit.
This is not a distinction between the soul and body but between two
ways of life. St. Jerome states that the purpose of the teachings of
St. Paul was “to advance in spirituality (Jerome, Epist. 7, PL 30:
Sanctity is the goal of spirituality and this is attained through the
following of Christ. There is only ONE way of following Christ. And
man becomes a saint by living the spiritual life, not by merely
studying the spiritual life. Studying produces a skepticism that
requires an explanation or dissertation before obedience. The living
of the spiritual life requires faith, i.e. obedience before
understanding. Studying theology points the way to contemplation, but
obedience to Christ’s commands brings the soul to contemplation. The
study of theology is guided by rationalism, obedience is guided by
Spirituality is the “Imitation of Christ”, the apex of which is
martyrdom...and in the absence of opportunities for martyrdom, the
monastic life. Monastic life, which was the substitute for martyrdom,
was a life of virtue: charity, humility and patience, obedience,
chastity and prayer (Didache). And to safeguard these virtues they
found it necessary to imitate the hidden life of Christ which consists
in some degree of separation from the world. With the Parousia in mind
the observance of the virtues and vows became natural.
The first movement in Christian spirituality is to desire to follow
Christ followed by “To deny oneself.” And Christ used the words
“hatred for the world.” But even this first step can’t be done unless
“the Father draws him to Christ.” And how does one get the Father to
draw him to Christ? By prayer accompanied by fasting and good works,
all of which must be done with great humility. For the Pharisees did
pray, fast and perform good works but they were done proudly.
- Spirituality and Monasticism.
Monasticism, though existing even in the old testament, came to the
fore toward the end of the third century as the result of the effort
of fervent Christians to live a more perfect life in place of
martyrdom. It was available to any Christian who wanted to give an
authentic witness to the teachings of Christ.
Fenelon rightly said; “The persecution made less solitaries...the
peace of the Church produced more solitaries. The Christians, simple
and opposed to any softness, were more fearful of a peace that might
be gratifying to the senses than they had been of the cruelty of
tyrants.” The persecution produced martyrs; peace lessened the
opportunities for martyrdom so monasticism was provided as a
substitute for martyrdom.
So though martyrdom was the supreme witnessing to Christ one needed a
special call to be worthy of it. So those who felt they did not have
the call lived as monks or solitaries.
Condemned as criminals, the first Christians avoided society and this
helped in the development of their spirituality. But once Christians
obtained their freedom and Christianity even became the official
religion, Christians felt at home in the world which became their
spiritual downfall; “It is no longer the pagan world that fights and
eliminates the Christian soul; it is the Christian soul that takes up
the attack and eliminates the world from within his own being.”
This was the only Spiritual Life described in early Christianity:
Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch described it as “Imitation of
Christ”. Tertullian and St. Cyprian and later Athanasius, Basil,
Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Ambrose and
Augustine and Cassian described this way of life in greater
detail...using monastic terms, showing that spirituality, for all
purposes, was identical with monasticism.
This way of life was, at first, lived at home, the natural place for
it if the home is truly Christian. But when the home became worldly,
fervent Christians grouped themselves together in communities for
spiritual safety. The Council of Ancyra (314) declared that such
Christians, usually called virgins, who married were guilty of bigamy
and those who married such consecrated souls were subject to the death
Those who lived in their homes did not go out except on exceptional
necessity. They observed fasting the whole year (exceptions were given
for reasons of health). One meal a day was the practice. Works of
mercy for the poor and needy were part of their life. To create a
better atmosphere for their endeavor they left the cities and lived
together in some remote place, thus “...building cities in the
desert.” Others built cities within a city.
For further safety and protection double monasteries were introduced
wherein the male celibates lived with the female, though in separate
buildings and with strict clausura, to protect them and to do the
heavy work. But as the spirit of monasticism waned in some places the
men were marrying the women instead. So the Church stopped the
practice of double monasteries. It was a pretty good idea but not when
the candidates were spiritually weak. And so the present set up where
men and women are separated became the standard observance.
John Chrysostom stated that monasteries are necessary because the
world is not Christian. If it were, there would be no difference
between those inside and those outside the monastery.
A Christian separated himself from the world by a desert, a cloister,
or by vows. A Christian flees the world to seek spiritual safety.
The Apothegmata Patrum describes good monks in the monastery and holy
persons in the world in the midst of their commerce...to show that the
place does not really matter.
Celibacy is one of the ascetical renunciations of the Spiritual life.
So all provisions were made to be far from even the thought of what
was legitimate. Luke was severe when he said: ”...he who does not hate
father, mother...” Matthew was more gentle; “Anyone who loves
mother...more than me.” Because the world, like family ties, is at
odds with Evangelical life. Family ties can be good or bad. But the
worldly family problems always run after the monk in the monastery
thus becoming a burden in the quest for God.
The word “monos,” referring to monks, means simple, uncomplicated,
undistracted, single-minded. He is in the monastery in quest of
humility. Humility is not self-destructive or self-punishing. And the
desert, though not essentially necessary, seems to create an
atmosphere of simplicity where one may grow in humility and spiritual
insight. The desert, Hosea states, has that alluring atmosphere where
God speaks to the soul tenderly.
The early writings on spirituality were addressed to those who were
serious in following Christ first and foremost of whom were the monks.
Today, monks are not that serious in being monks, having more contact
with the world and engaged in various activities that sacrifice their
time for contemplation. All night vigils are unheard of today; fresh
and rich foods are easily available and so fasting has become tame.
Monasteries are surrounded by conveniences unheard of before. Monastic
virtues and obedience are limited by the demands of psychology. The
desert has been interiorized while the monks live in the midst of
The undeniable fact remains that the earlier literature are more
captivating to the modern reader than the later spiritual treatises.
Their text surprises the reader in their stark simplicity; they break
through the complex rational human process and yet render clear what
is opaque. And their seeming chaos puts to shame the rational
mentality of modern writers.
- A Great Need today…to learn and live the
Traditional spiritual life.
Spirituality is most needed now in our highly technological age that
preaches that happiness consists in better toothpaste, faster cars, overcoming
microbes and cloning sheep. The search for happiness has gone from
return to nature to turning to eastern religions, like Zen.
In their despair and ignorance, Catholics never considered the
tradition of the rapidly-vanishing spirituality of the early Catholic
The pursuit of happiness is in all men and in all cultures at all
times. We believe Christ precisely came to show us the way in the way
of life of the Gospel...unchallenged for 1300 years until the advent
of industrialization and scientific and political upheavals. Wherewith
the pure doctrine of Christ was first muddled up by Hellenism and
chewed up by the German tribes who only picked up what they could
understand...which was very little. Then with the rise in popularity
of literature, philosophy and speculative theology plus a sprinkling
of superstition, man produced a spiritual monstrosity we now have
wherewith we cannot make head or foot.
By the 12th century the word “spirituality” was so corrupted that only
St. Thomas of Aquinas was using it in its true sense.
Spirituality is to live the life St. Augustine described as the “happy
life” or “Angelic life,” to live an angelic life without destroying or
giving up the body but as if with no body. This is to live completely
detached or indifferent to the demands of the flesh...not exactly
denying the needs of the flesh but merely detached from its demands.
In 17th century France, the word was used extensively but didn’t have
quite the same meaning because the French were busy chopping off the
heads of those who had the right meaning. The corruption of
traditional spirituality was due to the mingling and merging of
religion with culture and other religious practices...and adaptations
to the demands of the times ...whatever that means.
SPIRITUALITY, in the words of St. Paul, is a life that begins in the
imitation of Christ by obedience to His commands...and, as a result, a
life influenced by the Holy Spirit who is given by the Father and
Christ...with the consequent result of becoming brothers and sisters
of Christ and children of the Father. In Ephesians, St. Paul described
it briefly as the Spirit leading man to advance in Christ to the
praise of the glory of God’s grace...briefly, most spiritual writers
described spirituality as seeking union with God. It is the first duty
and activity of any Christian true to his name. Only after becoming
spiritual can they spiritualize society, politics and economics.
Because man is unable to learn from the wisdom of his past, he
frustrated himself by groping in circles...as most Catholics, neither
affirming nor outright rejecting the forces that made Europe united at
one time in history.
TODAY Catholics and Catholic nations are merely sustained by popular
piety but without the foundation of a firm spirituality. The Catholic
World must again be exposed to authentic Catholic spirituality and
experience the joy it can bring.
- WHAT IS SPIRITUALITY?
Spirituality is the spiritual growth of man in terms of the soul’s
movement towards union with God. St. Augustine simplifies his original
seven steps of spirituality into three: namely, first, withdrawal from
the world, an activity outside the mind. Secondly, entering into
oneself, an activity inside the mind. And thirdly, focus on God, an
activity above the mind. This third is a volitional turning towards
God well beyond a purely rationalistic search for truth.
Man cannot avoid sin without grace. No man is able to undertake
anything without the Lord. Any growth in the spiritual life results
from the gift of grace. True liberty comes only from Divine Grace: “By
grace you have been saved through faith.” And faith and liberty are
both gifts from God. Even heaven is a grace from God. And so, nothing
man-made will ever work in the Spiritual life.
Spiritual progress depends completely on Divine Condescension.
“Neither he that planteth nor he that watereth but God giveth the
God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills wheresoever He
wills, to good according to His mercy or to evil according to their
In the SPIRITUAL LIFE man must render his REQUIRED EFFORT, then
gradually go effortless with the movement of God. Keeping in mind that
this “required effort” is “unless the Father draws him to Christ,”
i.e. still God’s work.
The Christian way of life was no abstract idea; it was a pattern and
ideal way of life that led to sanctity. And this way of life was in
preparation for the second coming or for one’s death.
A word that often goes hand in hand with spirituality is ASCETICISM,
which is exercises to develop discipline or self-control for the
attainment of virtue. In the early church it was practiced by all.
Today it is a stranger even in its home turf, monasteries and
Every time a reform took place in the Church, the reformers turned
increasingly to the Fathers, specially Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the
Great, more specifically to the Rules of St. Benedict and St.
Augustine’s “Regula Tertia.” Evidently they find the Ordo Monasterii
and other Eastern rules exceedingly severe. The NOVUS of reformers was
actually older than the ANTIQUUS. But the reformers were faced with
the fact that the zeal of the heretics was stronger than the faith of
the men in the Church.
The Premonstratensian with Norbert, Eberwin and Anselm restored the
eschatological dimension of Christian spirituality. St. Bernard of
Clairvaux with his austere monks became the most perfect embodiment of
medieval Christian ideal...Bernard thoroughly knew the Latin Fathers
and returned to the spirit of the Fathers for his reform; thus he was
described as the Last of the Fathers.
St. Francis of Assisi was the example of one who was taught directly
by God, as in most of the early monks and hermits, “they will be
taught by God.” His conversion was totally a work of God. It was
during an illness that it all happened. Suddenly he could find no joy
in the beauty of nature followed by an aversion for his former way of
His gaze turned inwards and he began to despise himself. This was due
to a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness that accompanies a
spiritual awakening. He was resolving a conflict between his desire
for deeds of worldly glory versus the unknown God. The invitation to
build the Church would come slowly and later.
The signs of true spirituality are: firstly, the need to be alone,
away from material things wherewith Francis sought out deserted
places, caves and abandoned churches. Here he won many spiritual
battles. And secondly, long moments of prayer with serene humility so much
so that every time he came out of prayer he was a new man. Thirdly,
the desire to know God’s will which resulted in bending one’s own
will. He began by divesting himself of all material possessions. In
fact, this was Christ’s first act at the Incarnation. And fourthly, as
a result of the first three steps, God’s will became clear to him.
How was Spirituality taught? Spirituality was taught directly by God
through a spiritual father-disciple relationship. No uninitiated soul
ever tried the spiritual life without subjection (God teaches through
the subjection) to a director or superior. A director was the occasion
through which the soul could see into his own heart and discover his
intentions and the course appropriate for him.
The abba was to teach by word and example to be a worthy instrument,
while the disciple must be ready to listen and imitate. A director
obviously should be one who has practiced what he is teaching. . . he
who must lead one to sanctity must himself be holy. The Director,
though like the Apostles, merely teaches the commands of Christ and
how to observe them; the disciple has to take the “required effort,”
the first step.
SPIRITUALITY THROUGH THE CENTURIES.
A. Let us
view the golden thread of spirituality from post apostolic times up to the
present to show its unchangeableness.
Apostolic times taught the importance of being single-hearted (HAPLOTES) in
the quest for holiness or the Love of God. Here, everything is used for the
acquisition of said goal. The opposite was double-mindedness (DIPSYCHIA),
i.e. when you have two or more different purposes in life.
In early times, the disciple would go to his master and make two requests:
firstly, “Speak a word.” This was a request for some verbal communication
on the Spiritual Life. And the second was: “What shall I do to be saved?”
meaning, what action should I take in response to the Words of Divine Life.
It is often said in jest that Christ and the Apostles preached. The Fathers
put them into practice and wrote them down. Then came those who made copies
of these writings and shelved them in their libraries.
During the age of persecution, this single-heartedness was exhibited in the
willingness to give up all things, including one’s life in martyrdom. Here,
the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Tertullian and Cyprian were
During the Patristic period, because of the diminishing opportunities for
martyrdom, monasticism, a substitute, was propagated for the practice of
the life of supreme self-denial. The deserts of Syria, Palestine and Egypt
resounded with the life of denial of the five senses to attain this
single-mindedness that leads to Love of God. In the East, Anthony and Basil
shone. In the west, there was John Cassian who, in His Institutues,
summarized the spirituality of Eastern monasticism. And there is St.
Benedict who is considered an introduction to John Cassian.
In the 6th century, man-made changes began to adulterate the purity of
Christian Spirituality, like Hesychism wherewith rhythmic breathing
accompanied prayer. This was helpful but utterly unnecessary as shown by
the thousands who became saints without employing such techniques. At this
era St. Augustine and Benedict dominated the spiritual life with Augustine
emphasizing, again, self-denial of the body to remove all obstacles to
single-mindedness in the quest for the love of God, and St. Benedict
describing essentially the life of obedience and silence, forms of self-denial,
for the attainment of humility and meekness, the necessary virtues for one
to be single-minded and open to the Love of God.
Of significant note is Celtic spirituality which re-evangelized western
Europe even at that early age (390-460).
The middle ages were totally imbued with worldliness within the Church,
herself. And a renewal of Catholic Spirituality was initiated by the
monasteries of Cluny and Bec wherein they returned to the original
austerities of early Christianity (self-denial, unceasing prayer and good
works). The Camaldolese, Carthusians and Cistercian orders were witnesses
to this spirituality. Since this spirituality is basically for all, though
lived mostly by religious, God would always raise, as in all centuries,
mere laymen living the traditional Christian spirituality...and usually in
a more austere way than religious. Of special interest were the Beguines in
the 1100 and the Brethren of the Common Life in the 1300. The latter
produced the “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a’Kempis.
The Beguines, like the
Brethren of the Common Life, were laymen raised by God to witness to the
original Evangelical spirituality amidst a Church that badly needed reform.
The 1100 were known to have great saints; but they were mostly male...Bernard
of Clairvaux, Thomas Becket, John of Matha, Felix of Valois, John of
Lincoln. God had to show that the spirituality that made these men saints
is the same spirituality that should make lay women saints. And the
Beguines, a group of lay women rose to the task.
The Beguines were an informal aggrupation of women without a single leader
or organizational structure. They were single but were free to leave and
marry or join an established religious community. What united them was a
desire to lead a holy life with other women according to the norms of Vita
Apostolica without the constraints of marriage or trappings of formalism
found in established religious orders.
John Malderus, Bishop of Antwerp (1500) described them thus; “...they
practice the vows rather than promise them. They prefer to remain chaste
than make the vow of chastity. They are more eager to obey rather than to
vow obedience. They cultivate poverty by frugal use of their fortunes
rather than abandon everything at once; they might be the kinder to the
poor if something were left. They prefer to obey within the enclosure
rather than be enclosed without obedience.”
Caesarius Heisterback (1180) described them thus: “ . . . they remained in
secular dress but surpassed in charity those who were cloistered. In the
midst of worldly people they were spiritual, in the midst of pleasure
seekers they were pure and in the midst of noise and confusion they led a
serene, eremetical life.”
In the history of the Church God tends to raise lay people to renew the
Church because they lack the canonical constraints of statutes and
constitutions that make established religious orders unresponsive to the
movements of the Holy Spirit. These lay communities, like the early
Christian communities, lived by the Divine Commands of Christ with minimum
man-made rules, making them docile to the movements of the Holy Spirit.
Like the Basiliades of St. Basil they received whole families with their
children (which shows their lay features). In 1207, a girl of seven joined
the Beguines at Nivelle, Belgium, to grow up a holy person whose mystical
writings we treasure today.
The Beguines (holy women) of Liege were renowned for their good works,
religious fervour and learning and inspired others to adopt the Vita
Apostolica (they did not follow the rule of any saint). They multiplied
literally all around Europe, though in small communities, and were the
vanguards against heresies that ravaged Europe at that time.
It is narrated that after the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste,
foremost English theologian of the time and vigorous promoter of reform
among religious communities, praised the poverty of the Franciscan, in
private he told them that there was still a higher kind of poverty: and
that is to live by one’s own labours without burdening the world with their
demands. And this was shown by the Beguines. (While it is of some benefit
for men to beg, like the mendicants, it has always been considered improper
for the female to be exposed to men’s eyes.)
The structure of a Beguinage is identical to the Basiliades of St. Basil or
the first Christian communities, for that matter. It was a formidable
institution. It contained a church or several oratories for the different
groups, a cemetery, hospital, streets and walks, convents for the younger
sisters and children undergoing education, individual houses for the grown
ups. At Ghent a Beguinage had eighteen convents for different groups of
women, young and old, over a hundred houses for more mature women and a
brewery and hospital.
A few males followed their sisters and cousins; they were separated from
the women and were called Beghards.
As usual, the Beguines had persecutions, hatreds, suspicions and
harassment’s which Christ promised would come to whoever follows Him. First
and foremost, as prophesied by Christ, is from their families: opposition
from the families who were against their daughters’ choice of entering an
unapproved austere life of work and prayer. Then clerical opposition due to
their inability to understand the deeper spiritual life; wherewith
everything they could not comprehend they labeled witchcraft.
The Beguines suffered the same fate as the Jesuits would later. Under
clerical pressure the Pope condemned the Beguines in the scandalous Council
at Vinne, a council held to please the caprice of the French king. And the
wordings of the condemnation sort of went this way: We condemn the way of
life of the Beguines but we do not forbid women to live like Beguines.
But like the Jesuits, the Beguines did not completely disappear. They
resurrected to help in the great Counter-Reformation of the 17th century.
They suffered most during the Reformation and French Revolution. They still
exist today. Typical of the lay renewal movements, they were always small
communities; the largest numbered around 200 members in a Beguinage.
“By their fruits...“ From the Beguines came mystical writings in the
tradition of the desert Fathers; the first stigmatist came from them.
DEVOTIO MODERNA (Lay monastic communities were raised directly by God every
time He would renew or take a direct hand in His Church. They are all
identical in spirituality and physical set up. Today all we have to look
for is a similar community with a similar spirituality and similar set
up...and similar persecutions from both the hierarchy and their families.)
The return to the traditional spirit of the founder or the early church is
quite evident in the reformation of religious orders but not so among the
Catholic Laity. This is because we forget that all religious orders began
as lay movements. It was the recognition and approbation of Church
authorities that set them apart as religious. But evident through the
centuries is that every time the Church needed to be reformed, God would
raise up laymen who would surpass religious in zeal and austerities. And
the essence of the reforms started by such laymen, like St. Francis and
Ignatius of Loyola, not to mention the patriarch of monasticism, St.
Benedict, consists in a return to the spirituality of the primitive
church...i.e. Evangelical spirituality commonly called vita apostolica.
St. John Chrysostom began as a layman, then a cenobite for 4 years and 2
years as a hermit before he rose to be the great Bishop of Constantinople.
His treatises on monasticism, the priesthood and spirituality of the laity
say exactly the same things. St. Ammon, one of the desert fathers, and his
wife, both obviously laymen, lived celibate monastic lives in the valley of
Nitria that once saw 5,000 lay hermits.
Another typical lay movement raised by God in the middle of the 13th
century that embraced a return to the early Christian spirituality and
became a great influence even up to the present in the Scandinavians is the
It was an age where speculative theology replaced spirituality. “What
profit is there in discussing the Trinity if one has no humility. It is not
lofty and many words that make man holy but a virtuous life. I would rather
have compunction than define compunction. Leave off that excessive desire
to know; it is the cause of much distraction and deceit. A man of learning
loves to appear wise; but their learning is of no value to the soul. If
only man spent as much time in eradicating vices than in speculating there
would be less evil, less scandal and less relaxation in monasteries.” These
are just a few observations from the “Imitation of Christ.”
Devotio Moderna rose at a time when a renewal in the Church was badly
needed. There was schism in the Papacy, laxity among the clergy and religious;
Christian life was lifeless. Doctrines were being contested, traditional
ideas were not practiced, a Renaissance and the Reformation were in the
God raised Gerard Groote, one of the most learned men of his time, to
initiate the Brethren of the Common Life, a community of laymen living the
early Christian spirituality. Because he corrected erring bishops, as the
Beguines did before, he aroused their hostility. They, in turn, revoked his
faculties. His interest was how to live the Christian life, emphasizing on
self-denial, detachment and the practice of virtues. The goal was the
“Imitation of Christ.” Imitate the humanity of Christ and receive the grace
to contemplate His Divinity. Groote’s teachings, in the pattern of the
Fathers, were brief, practical and without explanations.
The “Imitation of Christ” written by Tomas a’Kempis but authored by Groote,
was second only to the Bible in popularity. It was criticized because it
was a reaction to speculative theology. It was for laymen a manual of
Christian Life within a Church that needed reform. Its teachings were basic
and monastic in nature...separation from the world, repentance, conversion.
The first step is knowledge of oneself, to know and, as a consequence,
The “Imitation” describes death to self as resignation. It consists
of two elements: renunciation of self and total abandonment to God. Self
and God are the opposite ends of a continuum. As one departs from one end
he approaches the other end. Death to self necessarily implies submission
to God. But choosing God is a grace, although a powerful incentive is
meditation on the “Last Things.”
Human nature is described in the tradition of early monasticism and
“Nature draws away many from God, but grace does all for God.
“Nature is unwilling to be restrained; grace wants to be kept under
discipline and desires not to have command over anyone but to live under
“Nature labors for her own interest; grace for what is profitable to many.
“Nature loves to receive respect and honors; grace gives all respect and
honor to God.
“Nature is afraid of shame and to be despised, grace will suffer reproach
for the name of Christ.
“Nature loves idleness and bodily rest, grace cannot be idle and willingly
“Nature seeks what is fine; grace what is humble.
“Nature loves temporal and earthly gains, is troubled at losses and even
slight injurious words; grace looks at eternal things and is not disturbed
Though the aim of Christian Life is Charity, the main preoccupation of the
“Imitation”, as in the case of all monastic rules and of the Gospel itself,
is humility; “Learn from Me for I am meek and humble of heart.”
John Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris (1363-1429) was very
effective in clarifying the orthodox theology of the Spiritual Life because
he was, aside from being a spiritual person, also a theologian. He
preferred ascetical and mystical theology over speculative theology because
the former produces patience and humility, the latter produces pride. But
he admits that it is better to combine both so that the one who experiences
may understand his experience. He was a member of the said community and
often thought to be the author of the “Imitation.”
During the middle ages, Theology, and as a consequence, spirituality, was
becoming academic rather than a way of life. Theologians were more
concerned with describing the union of a soul with God in contemplation
rather than reaching contemplation. They were more concerned with the
nature of God rather than praying to God. Religion became purely a rational
activity rather than a way of life. To refute the thinking of this era and
present the original concept of spirituality God raised Francis of Assisi
with a life of self-denial in his practice of Evangelical poverty. Francis
went one step further than the monks, but just like the hermits. The monks
ate very simple meals but they knew where their next meal was coming from.
Francis, like the first hermits, didn’t even know where the next meal was
coming from. In fact, there could be no next meal, which in fact is desert
spirituality in the tradition of Anthony.
Though knowledge and practice of Christian Spirituality had been decreasing
since the 600 A.D., it can be said that it hit a new low during the middle
ages where it became so complex, confusing and virtually non-existent. As
usual God moved some chosen souls to return to the simple and seemingly
unstructured traditional spirituality. Though St. Ignatius favored the
systematic, definite content, tight structure and uniform regularity
presentation of traditional spirituality, St. Teresa of Avila favored the
positive, warm, unsystematic approach to traditional spirituality. Both
were traditional, emphasizing a life of self-discipline for the attainment
of humility, the road to Union with God; one was just systematic, the other
unsystematic. But that does not really matter before God.
Spirituality in modern times is, on the whole, moribund. It has been
reduced to a set of pious practices and chasing after apparitions...which
is really nothing much. The greatest crime of modern times is that it
jettisoned the traditional spirituality for a seemingly more relevant but
untried spirituality ...which in most cases has no element of spirituality
Whenever God reforms His Church it is because majority of His clergy and
religious are useless to the Church. So he raises up reformers, usually
laymen, as He raised up monks (who were laymen) in the beginning. Most of the
time, though, these lay reformers were later ordained or even became
Vatican II, rightly or wrongly, had been used by those who wished to veer
away from authentic spirituality; this led to the reversal of interest in
Traditional Spirituality and the consequent adaptation of LESS austere
forms of spirituality that caused the departure of priests and nuns in
large numbers. Most of this modern spirituality skipped the first and
fundamental step in the spiritual life, SELF-DENIAL...and in its stead inserted
the fulfillment of the SELF’S DESIRES. And that’s where we all are right
- WHY DO WE GET THE
IMPRESSION THAT THERE ARE DIFFERENT SPIRITUALITIES?
When there are
different spiritualities, that’s bad. If Buddhism is different from
Christianity, that is expected. But when there are different
spiritualities within the Church of Christ, like Lutheran, Calvinism
etc....or worse, different spiritualities within the Catholic Church,
like Franciscan, Dominican, etc....either ignorance reigns or the Catholic
Church has ceased to be Catholic.
The blame must fall on that tendency in man to modify what does not
suit him. The differences were man-made, a typical rebellion against
the Will of God.
The so-called “differences” are due to theologians, with nothing
better to do, extracting their imagined spiritualities from the lives
of saints or even non-saints. I am amazed at how some authors describe
the life of St. Francis of Assisi as if he were a mere ecological
accident. Theologians who write about the spirituality of the saints
usually miss the point. Only saints, I guess, can describe the
spirituality of saints. The words “different spiritualities” usually
come from theologians and not from saints.
As the Church grew, observance became difficult. With the external
pressures like persecution gone, Christians became more complacent.
And as a consequence within the Church the ugly head of Schism and
Heresy arose. Then there were the Judaizers caused by excessive
nationalism, Hellenism which gave rise to Gnosticism and the ambitions
of heads of dioceses...these caused all the “differences.”
- THE SEEMING DIFFERENCE.
The seeming differences in the spirituality of the Saints are merely
on the point of emphasis. All are agreed on the same point that Spirituality
is obedience to the commands of Christ; “The way we may be sure that
we know Him is to keep His commandments ( IJohn 2:3)” Knowing Him is
prelude to Union with Him. The seeming differences are in the
commands emphasized. While Francis obeyed all commands but put a
little emphasis on poverty, i.e. detachment from objects in the
world, Ignatius obeyed all the commands but put a little emphasis on
discipline which is detachment from one’s will. The emphasis is not
due to the needs of the time as much as it is the needs of the souls
of their disciples . . . which, of course, could reflect the needs of
Now, a beginner can have a problem in that he would not know what
Saint to follow because he would not know whether his need is an
emphasis on the poverty of St. Francis or the solitude of St.
Romuald. So it would be wiser for him to choose a spirituality
without any emphasis...the Evangelical Life as interpreted by the
Fathers of the Church.
This is the advantage of the Fathers. Though of different
nationalities, cultures, training, backgrounds and eras, they
presented Catholic Spirituality in exactly the same identical way.
There is not the slightest difference...which is better for us
because we alone know what commands of Christ should be emphasized in
our personal cases. The Fathers interwove skillfully dogma, morals
and asceticism; unlike today where they are dichotomized.
- OTHER SEEMING DIFFERENCES.
Other seeming differences are on the non-essentials, like symbols,
rituals, liturgy and management.
- SPECULATIVE THEOLOGY AND SPIRITUALITY.
The spiritual life has a theological-doctrinal basis but it can be
lived though ignorant of these doctrines. A deeper knowledge of these
doctrines often follows living the spiritual life. The doctrines do
not have to go before or even while living the spiritual life.
While Spiritual Theology is the study of the theological doctrines
and its application to Christian living, Spirituality goes straight
to Christian living. Spirituality would not go against any doctrines
since it is based on the commands of Christ which, I am certain, do
not violate any doctrine of God.
The first Christians were not concerned with theology; they were
concerned with a way of life that leads to Love of God, a way of life
that leads to holiness. At this point it is worthwhile to note that
knowledge of heresies comes in handy so we can detect the errors to
be avoided in the Spiritual Life.
It is said that when St.
Teresa of Avila went to visit her newly-founded Reformed Carmelites, her
parting greeting was “Live our Religion,” and not “ be faithful to our
Carmelite spirit or Carmelite Reformation.” When she was about to die she
described herself as daughter of the Church; not a Carmelite or Carmelite
reformer. For it was very clear to her that spirituality, the way to
perfection, is nothing else but the living of the Catholic Faith and as a
result makes one a daughter of the Church. There was nothing Carmelite in
her spirituality; she was just a good Catholic.
The Apocalypse states: “ A great and wondrous sign appeared in the heavens:
a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet ...she gave
birth to a son...and her child was snatched up to God...The woman fled into
the desert to a place prepared for her by God where she might be taken care
The Catholic Church is symbolized by the Woman and personified by the
Blessed Virgin Mary, i.e. the Catholic Church will be Marian at the end
times for, after all, Mary precisely appeared in Guadalupe as the Woman
clothed with the sun and with the moon under her feet. I don’t see any
other reason why God would make her appear in that manner and have that
image miraculously imprinted and preserved all these centuries if not to
remind us of this. At first the Woman, the Church, was in the world. After
Christ was “snatched up” to heaven, the Ascension, the Catholic Church fled
to the desert, i.e. from the Ascension of Christ, the spirituality of the
Catholic Church must be the desert spirituality, the spirituality
formulated and lived by the first Christians in the desert and resurrected
by the saints through the centuries. This spirituality is the “place
prepared for the Church by God where she might be taken care of.”
We are living in an evil age; the world will be filled with false teachers
and prophets. Filled with self-love and love of money, man will be blind to
the true religion. God’s punishment is “He will abandon them to deceiving
spirits and things taught by demons...which will make it impossible for
them to find the truth.” It is really simple: the Life and the Truth will
be found in them who have the above mentioned spirituality. The true
seekers will surely find this; those who are not won’t find it even if it
is in their midst.