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In the footsteps of giants

19 January 2024

Michael Hahn introduces a new course on Christian spirituality, run in partnership with the Church Times


Fra Angelico, Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers (1420)

Fra Angelico, Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers (1420)

TODAY, there is a growing interest in “spirituality” in wider society, and its application in, for example, the mindfulness or well-being movements is increasingly divorced from all religious connotations. At the same time, in some parts of the Church, there is an increasing interest in Christian spirituality.

While spirituality more generally is often perceived as having an ethical component, and helping someone towards a particular goal, or to their most perfect state (“to live [my] very best life”, perhaps), the addition of the word “Christian” lends such goals a particular Trinitarian and Christological component.

As Jordan Aumann puts it, spirituality “refers to any religious or ethical value that is concretised as an attitude or spirit from which one’s actions flow”, whereas, when we talk about Christian spirituality, the “spirit” is specifically the Holy Spirit, and is “a participation in the mystery of Christ through the interior life of grace”.

WHILE the numbers of those in cloistered religious orders is decreasing, lay religious orders are increasingly popular; and many who are not professed religious have found specific traditions particularly influential for their life and faith.

These spiritual traditions have a long history, and we can situate ourselves within their trajectories. As Philip Sheldrake notes, “Many of us belong within living spiritual traditions [and many] are turning to the wisdom of the past, often through the medium of spiritual classics. . . The issue of historical interpretation is therefore a live one.”

The histories of these traditions are not owned by the modern religious orders that trace their foundation back to the spiritual giants who established them. By applying fresh perspectives to the histories of these traditions, we can learn new lessons, and retrieve the lost voices of those who do not often appear in the pages of history books.

Spirituality and its history are inextricably tied up together; Christian spiritual practices and movements almost always look back to their tradition, and adopt (or adapt) what has gone before. By interrogating this history, we can hope to learn lessons about how our predecessors (and our contemporaries) have made mistakes, and how to move beyond these mistakes.

The desert traditions, which flourished in the first centuries of Christianity, took their cue from Christ. Women and men (often known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers) retreated into the desert, particularly — from the time of Anthony the Great (251-56) onwards — the deserts of Egypt. Such figures emphasised solitude and contemplation and, in his text Praktikos, Evagrius Ponticus (345-99) highlighted the freedom to pray, and the liberation from obstacles and intrusive thoughts, that such retreat allowed for.

Many later figures and movements took up this idea and made “deserts” in their own geographical landscapes, retreating into the countryside, into mountainous areas, or to islands. For most people today, such permanent retreats or solitudes are not possible, but they take inspiration by finding opportunities to go on retreat, or to devote small parts of their day to quiet contemplation.

Many spiritual traditions are based on one of the religious rules that were designed to emphasise a particular aspect of Christian spirituality. Of all the religious rules in the history of Christianity, none has been as influential as that written by Benedict of Nursia (c.480-547). Benedict’s blueprint was for a life balancing prayer, work, and reading in community (or, for experienced monastics, as hermits).

There are a range of orders today (both Catholic and Protestant) whose lives are based on Benedict’s rule, but the rule is also employed as a blueprint for business or institutional structures. Several practices taught by Benedict — such as lectio divina — provide frameworks for current contemplative practice, for example in Christian meditation.

THE next significant revolution in the spiritual life of Western Christianity occurred at the start of the 13th century, when a range of social, economic, and religious changes coalesced to change the landscape of spiritual practice. A range of new religious (and semi-religious) orders and movements emerged, perhaps most famously those related to Francis of Assisi (d.1226), who had received oral approval for his way of life, but in 1223 was granted formal approval for the “Later Rule” of the Lesser Brothers.

Francis’s order was not enclosed (although early orders of Franciscan-aligned nuns were), but was one in which friars — not monks — went out and worked, or begged, for their daily requirements. Francis’s key teachings emphasised humility, an immersive reading of the Gospel narratives, and a sense that all creation (including the material world, non-human animals, and humans outcast by society) was a fraternity.

Francis is among the most popular of saints, and many of his followers (including Clare of Assisi and Anthony of Padua) are likewise very popular. Today, a range of orders (again, both Roman Catholic and Protestant) use Francis’s rule, or those associated with him or his followers; and his teachings — particularly on the environment, the economy, and marginalised people — are often invoked in ethical debates.

THE religious cataclysm of the 16th century is often marked out as a significant stifling point in the history of Christian spirituality, but spirituality and mysticism flourished on either side of the Reformation/s. Within the post-Tridentine Catholic tradition, perhaps the three best-known writers are the so-called Spanish mystics: Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), and John of the Cross (1542-1591).

The founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius, is probably best-known for his spiritual exercises — a combination of meditation and contemplation which are respectively focused on thinking and feeling. The spiritual exercises are particularly popular today in spiritual direction.

A century later, in England and its civil wars, George Fox (1624-1691) preached publicly and gained followers who became the first “Friends”. The Society of Friends broke away from the Church of England, and quickly spread to North America, and, subsequently — from the late 19th century — to Africa and Asia also. Quaker spirituality emphasises the immanent Christ and the God within, and action in the world as an expression of one’s spirituality.

Each of these traditions has its own distinctive flavour, and we can consider how our spiritualities today can be inspired by the different traditions of the past.

Dr Michael Hahn is Programme Leader for Postgraduate Programmes in Christian Spirituality at Sarum College.

A FIVE-part series of webinars, hosted jointly by Sarum College and the Church Times, will run from 7.30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on one Monday every month from January to May. Each webinar will be led by an expert on the traditions referred to: Sister Laura Swan on desert spirituality; Rowan Williams on Benedictine spirituality; Michael Hahn on Franciscan spirituality; Gillian Ahlgren on Ignatian spirituality; and Madeleine Pennington on Quaker spirituality.

The course is part of Sarum College’s offerings in the study of Christian Spirituality, which includes a variety of stand-alone courses; a part-time MA in Christian Spirituality; and M.Phil. and Ph.D. provision in this area. The stand-alone courses in spirituality are a part of our short courses provision, which features evening webinars, and day- and weekend-long courses taught in-person, online, or hybrid, on a range of topics concerning Christian theology, spirituality, biblical studies, and interfaith dialogue.

Contact Michael Hahn (mhahn@sarum.ac.uk) or visit the Sarum College website, sarum.ac.uk, for further information about this particular course, or any of our other programmes.

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