History of the term Spirituality

Get Paid To Write Online

Get Paid to Write at Home

Get Instant Access

'Spirituality' has become the standard word for the theory and practice of 'life in the Spirit', or of discipleship. However, in its present sense, the word has a relatively short history. The Catholic Encyclopedia, published before the First World War, contained no references to 'spirituality' while The New Catholic Encyclopedia, published in the 1970s, contained eight articles on different aspects of the subject. Standard reference works such as The Oxford Dictionary and Websters International Dictionary offer only one definition out of six that corresponds to spirituality as a religious area of study. This, however, supports a dualistic contrast between concern for 'things of the spirit' and material interests.

'Spirituality' derives from the Latin spiritualitas which corresponds to the Greek pneuma, 'spirit', and its adjective pneumatikos as they appear in the Pauline Epistles (for example, 1 Cor. 2:10f. and 12:13). At the risk of simplification, a spiritual-material dichotomy is not implied here because 'spirit' does not contrast with 'matter' or 'physical body' (soma, in Latin corpus) but rather with anything that is opposed to the Spirit of God (sarx, in Latin caro). The 'spiritual' is what expresses the Spirit of God. A spiritual person (1 Cor. 2:14, 15) is simply someone in whom the Spirit of God dwells (Deidun 1988).

In the West, this emphasis predominated until the twelfth century. At this point, the development of philosophical theology, known as scholasticism, led to a sharper distinction between spirit and matter. This was partly because 'spiritual' came to be applied only to intelligent creatures (humankind) as opposed to non-rational creation (everything else). The Pauline moral sense of 'spiritual' gradually gave way to one more radically opposed to corporeality. Although the theoreticians and practitioners of Christian asceticism had always been ambivalent in their attitudes to bodiliness, the intellectual basis for an unhealthy disdain for the body undoubtedly received a further impulse at this point. However, the two senses of 'spiritual' continued to stand side by side in the writings of someone like Thomas Aquinas.

In fact, the theological use of the word declined during the remainder of the Middle Ages and only re-emerged in seventeenth-century France. It sometimes referred simply to affective relationships with God but was often used pejoratively of enthusiastic or quietistic movements. Voltaire used the word in his angry rejection of the over-refined 'salon mysticism' that became popular in upper-class circles. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a variety of words was used for Christian living. 'Devotion' was preferred by Francis de Sales and the Anglican mystic William Law, 'perfection' by John Wesley and the early Methodists and 'piety' among early Evangelicals. The use of the word 'spirituality' declined in reaction to its unorthodox associations and by the nineteenth century was confined to groups outside the mainline Churches.

The word reappeared in France at the beginning of the twentieth century and thence passed into English. It found favour particularly with those theologians and historians who sought a comprehensive term for the Christian life as opposed to those who believed in a radical distinction between ascetical theology (concerning the life of 'ordinary' Christians) and mystical theology (concerning 'extraordinary' people and experiences). The still continuing Dictionnaire de Spiritualité (1932 onwards) was highly influential in establishing the respectability of the word. Since the Second Vatican Council, 'spirituality' has established itself across an increasingly ecumenical spectrum (see Principe 1983:130-5; Sheldrake 1991:34-6.

'Spirituality' as a subject for reflection

Theology was a unified enterprise from the patristic period of the early Church until the development of the 'new theology' of scholasticism in the West from the twelfth century onwards. Thomas Aquinas divided his Summa Theologiae into various component parts which in some senses heralded a slow process of division which would climax in the development of different theological 'disciplines' centuries later. However, patristic theology was not a purely abstract discipline separated from pastoral theory and practice. The unifying feature was the Bible. Thus, theology was a process of interpreting Scripture on different levels with the aim of deepening the Christian life in all its dimensions. This approach encapsulated a synthesis of biblical exegesis, speculative reasoning and mystical contemplation. Doctrinal theology, as well as arising from this biblical base, attempted to provide precise language to incarnate what was essentially a mystical apprehension of God who is revealed in Christ and as the Spirit within every Christian. Early theologians did not write about 'spirituality' or 'mystical theology' as distinct areas of knowledge. Rather the very heart of patristic theology was mystical.

Patristic 'mysticism' is not to be confused with later Western interest in subjective religious experience or in detailed itineraries for the spiritual journey. Rather, it is the life of every baptized Christian who knows God, revealed in Jesus Christ, through belonging to the 'fellowship of the mystery', supported by Scripture and liturgy. In the sixth century this insight fused with neo-Platonic elements in the writings of a theologian, Pseudo-Dionysius, to produce a more explicit 'mystical theology'. Although, to some degree, PseudoDionysius pointed towards the later medieval development of mystical theory he essentially summarized patristic approaches (Bouyer 1981; Rorem 1986).

The Eastern Orthodox, unlike the Western tradition, continued to follow the patristic model of a 'mystical theology' that synthesized ethics, spirituality and doctrine. The classic treatment by Vladimir Lossky defines Orthodox theology as a spirituality that expresses a doctrinal attitude. Theology is inseparable from contemplation and is 'mystical' in that its overall aim is to show forth the divine mystery. True theologians are those who experience the content of their theology. On the other hand, mystical experiences, while personal, are nevertheless the working out in an individual of a faith that is common to all (Lossky 1973).

In the West, the patristic—monastic style of theology drew its inspiration and method from the traditional meditative reading of Scripture, or lectio divina. Considerations of what might be called 'spiritual' theology appeared simply as collections of homilies or scriptural commentaries. Apart from this, there were some writings specifically associated with the way to God appropriate to monastic life. Studies of prayer and asceticism, therefore, took for granted a context of separation from everyday life (Leclercq 1978:1-9, 111-38, 233-86).

In contrast, the new theological method of the schools, with a more 'scientific' approach based on the increased availability of ancient Greek philosophy, led writing on the spiritual life to take new directions. First, there was a slow but inexorable separation of 'spiritual' theory from the rest of theology. Even Thomas Aquinas, the great thirteenth-century Dominican, who tried to maintain the unity between contemplation and theological speculation, knowledge and love, divided his Summa theologiae into distinct parts. In doing so he contributed to the classical divisions within theology, for example, between doctrine and ethics. Second, there was a recovery of interest in the mystical theology of Pseudo-Dionysius. These two factors combined in the writings of the Victorine school of theology based on the monastery of St Victor in Paris. The two great writers, Hugh and Richard of St Victor, exercised a major influence on the development of a distinct spiritual theology.

Third, there was a new interest in subjective, particularly affective, mystical experience, and the birth of an associated literature. This had several sources, including a new sensibility born of the 'Renaissance' of the twelfth century. The theme of love, secular and religious, was cultivated to a heightened degree. Also, with qualification, there was an increased awareness of the inner human landscape, if not precisely of the modern concept of the individual 'self. Affective mysticism and attention to the individual encouraged an interest in spiritual guidance which in turn generated treatises by spiritual directors for those under their guidance. The Cloud of Unknowing, the fourteenth-century English mystical text, is a well-known example (Bynum 1982:82-109).

Finally, the growth of a body of knowledge associated with asceticism, contemplation and mysticism led to the gradual systematization of meditative techniques. While the meditations of, for example, St Anselm in the eleventh century were still associated with unsystematic, prayerful reading of Scripture, the treatises of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century movement known as the devotio moderna discussed methods of prayer and structured them into regular exercises. This tradition of methodical prayer gave rise to a considerable literature over the next few centuries.

In summary, the High Middle Ages in the West were characterized by divisions within theology and the gradual separation of 'spirituality' from theology as a whole. This division went deeper than method or content. It was, at heart, a division between affectivity and conceptual knowledge. Further, within 'spirituality' a concentration on subjectivity and interiority led to its separation from public liturgy and from ethics. By the end of the Middle Ages, the 'spiritual life' had increasingly moved to the margins of theology and culture as a whole. Although late medieval religion was not completely individualistic (the growth of lay confraternities is evidence of the importance of collective experience), there is no doubt that religious practice became more personal and internalized. It also began to demand a new specialized language, distinct from theological discourse as a whole, capable of expressing its separate existence (Dupre and Saliers 1989: xiii-xix; Sheldrake 1991:40-4).

Although immediately post-Reformation writers such as Teresa of Avila, Ignatius Loyola or Francis de Sales did not yet possess the terminology of 'ascetical' or 'mystical' theology there was a suggestion of distinctive knowledge concerning the 'spiritual life'. It was not, however, until the eighteenth century that the terms 'ascetical theology' (Christian life up to the beginnings of contemplation) and 'mystical theology' (from contemplation to mystical union) came into being.

During the period of the Enlightenment the growth of scientific enquiry as a way to truth and certainty aggravated the split between 'spirituality' and theology. To theologians, spirituality became an object of suspicion. It was unrealistic because it was associated with theologically dubious devotion and was of optional interest because it seemed to relate only to a certain cast of mind. The value of abstract intelligence was overestimated and, consequently, the experiential was to be questioned throughout the analytical journey towards the provable which became the point of intellectual endeavour. The notion that theology was a science united with a sense that science could generate value-free knowledge. This pointed theology towards isolation from context or personal feeling (Louth 1983: chapters 1 and 6).

During the next hundred and fifty years a vocabulary of Christian life and prayer stabilized and a field of study defined as 'spiritual theology' was established. There were, of course, Anglican and Protestant mystical writers who, particularly in seventeenth-century Anglicanism, produced works of spiritual guidance or meditation. However, until the modern era, there was not the same systematic approach as in Roman Catholicism but, rather, some antagonism to it (Leech 1977: chapter 3; Moorman 1983).

Numerous manuals of ascetical and mystical theology appeared in Roman Catholic circles from the nineteenth century until the Second Vatican Council. The overall approach was one of precise categories and definitions. The theology was static and the method deductive despite the experiential subject matter. Divine revelation and rational knowledge were the major sources because universal principles necessarily governed a 'scientific' study of the spiritual life. A.A.Tanquerey and R.Garrigou-Lagrange may be taken as representatives of two contrasting views with regard to whether the spiritual life was fundamentally a unity or not (Tanquerey 1930; Garrigou-Lagrange 1937). Tanquerey believed that there was an essential distinction between ordinary moral life and 'extraordinary' mysticism. In contrast, Garrigou-Lagrange emphasized continuity and that mystical prayer was a goal to which all were called. Immediately prior to Vatican II, writers such as Louis Bouyer moved away from the style of the older manuals. Although now dated, his work espoused a more scriptural, liturgical and even ecumenical approach (Bouyer 1961).

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Meditation Mastery Breath Watching

Meditation Mastery Breath Watching

Discover How Breath Watching Meditation Turned My Mind From Cluttered To Laser Focus. You Can Get More Things Done When You’re Focus And Aware Of Your Mind.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment