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date: 29 February 2024

Christian Spirituality and Social Transformationfree

Christian Spirituality and Social Transformationfree

  • Philip SheldrakePhilip SheldrakeWestcott House and the Cambridge Theological Federation; Senior Research Associate, Von Hugel Institute, St. Edmund's College, University of Cambridge; Professor, Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas


The word “spirituality” has become increasingly common. What does it mean? It is not limited to spiritual practices, such as meditation, but suggests the pursuit of a life shaped by a sense of meaning, values, and perhaps transcendence. Although the word is used in different religions, and by people with no religious beliefs, its origins were Christian and referred to living life under the influence of God’s spirit.

Nowadays, in a consciously plural world, Christian spirituality has a specific content whose origins are the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In particular, Christian spirituality is associated with following the teachings of Jesus Christ or imitating his values. The main New Testament word for this is “discipleship,” which has two main elements. First, there is a call to personal transformation (conversion). Second, Christians are to continue the mission of Jesus to transform the world and to build the kingdom of a God of love. In that fundamental sense, Christian spirituality is inherently concerned with social transformation. In the Gospel of Matthew, this includes sharing in Jesus’ work of forgiveness and healing. In the Gospel of Mark it involves selfless service of others. The history of Christian spirituality is a varied story of ways of approaching discipleship. Needless to say, part of what makes Christian spirituality distinctive is its underlying beliefs—in other words, how it understands the reality of God, the value of the material world, human nature, and identity and how these interconnect.

The great variety of spiritual traditions and writings within Christianity originated at different times and places. However, they are continually being adapted in the light of new historical and cultural contexts. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to identify different types of Christian spirituality. Their choices vary, and the types are interpretative tools rather than straightforward descriptions. “Types” help us to identify distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom. The ascetical type, sometimes associated with monasticism, highlights discipline and detachment from material pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth. The mystical type focuses on the desire for an immediacy of presence to, and intuitive knowledge of, God, frequently via contemplative practice. The active type promotes everyday life and service to other people as the context for spiritual growth. The aesthetic type covers a range of ways in which the spiritual journey is expressed in and shaped by the arts, music, and literature. Finally the prophetic type of spirituality embraces an explicit commitment to social justice and the transformation of society.

Christian spirituality has become a major area of study. It is an interdisciplinary field shaped by scripture, theology, and Christian history, but which may also draw upon psychology, the social sciences, literature, and the sciences. The study of Christian spirituality is also “self-implicating,” in the sense that it is not treated in a purely theoretical way but includes a quest for practical wisdom.

Finally, the traditions of Christian spirituality increasingly engage with important issues of social and cultural transformation, for example interreligious dialogue, peace and reconciliation, ecological questions, the future of cities, the world of business, and the meaning of healthcare.


  • Christianity
  • Mysticism and Spirituality
  • Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology of Religion

What Is Spirituality?

The word “spirituality” is much in vogue these days, both inside and outside religion. However, the notion is sometimes difficult to define precisely because it is often detached from traditional religious beliefs, and specifically from its Christian origins. In broad terms, spirituality expresses something fundamental about human nature. In her famous book, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, Evelyn Underhill suggested that human beings are vision-creating beings rather than merely tool-making animals.1 In other words, humans are by nature driven by goals that are more than simply a desire for material success, physical well-being, or intellectual achievement. When we turn specifically to Christianity, the word “spirituality” has a more defined content than its general contemporary use. Specifically, it embraces the ways in which human values, lifestyles, and spiritual practices relate to understandings of God, human identity and the material world. This is not a purely individual matter but includes the quest for a transformed world.

The contemporary concept of spirituality refers not only to spiritual practices but also to a framework of values, often implicit rather than explicit, directed at a more intentional lifestyle. In contemporary spirituality literature, the following approaches regularly appear. First, spirituality concerns what is holistic—that is, a fully integrated approach to life. Historically the notion of the spiritual relates to the holy. This translates the Old English word hālig, that is “whole” or “complete,” which relates back to the Greek word holos (ὅλος‎) Thus, spirituality seeks to engage with “life-as-a-whole” rather than with aspects of it. Second, spirituality involves a quest for the sacred. In religious spiritualities, such as Christian ones, the sacred relates to beliefs about God or the Absolute. However, in wider culture, it may refer to broader understandings of the numinous, to the undefined depths of human existence or to the boundless mysteries of the cosmos. Third, contemporary spirituality frequently involves a quest for meaning and purpose. This reflects a growing decline in respect for traditional religious and political authority, particularly in Western countries. The question of meaning also relates to an understanding of personality development. An interesting example is the concept of spiritual development in documentation for English schools produced by the government Office for Standards in Education, in 2004. Here, spirituality is defined as “the development of the non-material element of a human being, which animates and sustains us.” It concerns “the development of a sense of identity, self-worth, personal insight, meaning, and purpose. It is about the development of a pupil’s ‘spirit’.”2 Fourth, spirituality is regularly linked to a notion of thriving that is deeper than merely being successful. In spirituality terms, to thrive is to flourish as a human being in the fullest possible sense. Finally, contemporary definitions of spirituality reflect a search for ultimate values beyond a purely materialistic approach to life. Spirituality also overlaps in significant ways with ethical behavior and moral vision.

Origins of the Concept

The concept of spirituality originated within Christianity. The word translates a Latin noun spiritualitas, associated with the adjective spiritualis (spiritual). These derive from the Greek noun pneuma (πνεῦμα‎), spirit, and the adjective pneumatikos (πνευματικός‎) as they appear in St. Paul’s New Testament letters. It is important to underline that, in the New Testament, “spirit” and “spiritual” are not opposed to “physical” or “material,” Greek soma (σῶμα‎), Latin corpus. They are the opposite of the flesh or fleshliness, Greek sarx (σάρξ‎) Latin caro, and refer to everything that is contrary to the Spirit of God. A spiritual person (see 1 Cor. 2, 14–15) was simply someone who lived under the influence of the God’s Spirit.

This Pauline moral sense of spiritual, meaning “life in the Spirit,” remained in constant use in the West until the 12th century ce. At that time, under the influence of the new theology, influenced by the retrieval of Greek philosophy, the concept of spiritual began to be used as a way to distinguish intelligent humanity from non-rational creation. Yet the Pauline moral sense and the supra-material sense of spiritual continued side by side in the 13th-century writings of a great theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas. The noun only began to refer to a spiritual life in 17th-century France—and not always in a positive way. It then disappeared from religious circles until the end of the 19th century, when it again appeared in France in positive references to the spiritual life as the heart of Christian existence. From there it passed into English usage via translations of French writings.

Despite the Christian origins of the word “spirituality,” its use beyond Christianity is not entirely new. The great world religions reflect different cultural and historical contexts. Consequently, they developed a range of concepts and words to express the reality that we nowadays call spirituality. However, the adoption of the actual word outside Christianity appears to have begun in the late 19th century due to contacts between Europeans and Indian religious figures. For example, the famous Hindu thinker Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) regularly travelled outside India. In speaking to American and European audiences in the 1890s, particularly during the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, he praised the inherent spirituality of Indian culture and contrasted this with what he perceived to be the limitations of Western thought and behavior.

Christian Spirituality and the Scriptures

All Christian spiritual traditions are ultimately rooted in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, particularly the teachings of Jesus Christ in the four gospels. However, the connection with these texts is not straightforward. The extensive range of Christian spiritual traditions across time are also attempts to reinterpret the wisdom of foundational scriptural texts within new historical contexts. Therefore, there is an inevitable tension between a thread of continuities in the history of Christian spirituality and the fact that particular historical expressions are always in response to specific circumstances. This tension is expressed in an interesting way by the late Michel de Certeau, the eminent French social scientist and historian of spirituality.

Christianity implies a relationship to the event which inaugurated it: Jesus Christ. It has had a series of intellectual and historical social forms which have had two apparently contradictory characteristics: the will to be faithfuḻ to the inaugural event: the necessity of being different from these beginnings.3

In de Certeau’s terms, Jesus Christ is the measure of all authentic forms of Christian life. Yet, the contextual nature of the event of Jesus Christ permits the contextual nature of all subsequent attempts to follow his teachings.

Behind the Christian scriptures (the New Testament) lie the Jewish Scriptures (or Hebrew Bible). Apart from the obvious fact that Jesus and his first disciples were Jews, the Christian scriptures grow out of the Hebrew scriptures in many different ways. Equally, the Hebrew scriptures have had a significant impact on Christian spirituality across two thousand years from the use of the Book of Psalms in Christian liturgy and the Song of Songs in medieval Western mystical writings to the role of the Book of Exodus in late-20th century spiritualities of liberation.

The main New Testament image for the Christian life is discipleship, or “following Christ.” Christian spirituality is therefore not reducible to devotional practices or to abstract theory. It implies a complete way of life. Interestingly, discipleship is regularly expressed in the New Testament by the Greek noun mathētēs (μαθητής‎)—that is, a person who learns. This implies not simply a teacher-student relationship between Jesus and his disciples. It also implies that the Christian disciple absorbs a whole way of existence by being alongside the teacher. This links the concept of discipleship to another important New Testament verb, akolouthein (ἀκολουθεῖν‎), to follow, or follow after.

The notion of Christian discipleship has two elements. The first is a call to conversion (in Greek metanoia, μετάνοια‎)—that is, to turn away from previously flawed ways of behaving in response to a call from God. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The second element is actively to follow the way of Jesus. This involves both a new way of life and joining in building the Kingdom of God—that is, continuing Jesus’ mission. “And Jesus said to them [Simon and his brother Andrew], ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’” (Mark 1:17). The same dual call to repentance and to following the way of Jesus is present at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 4:17 & 19) and, although expressed differently, is implicit also in the Gospels of Luke and John.

In New Testament terms, to become a disciple is not a matter either of selecting a reliable spiritual teacher or of relying on the teacher only until we have gained sufficient wisdom to move on. Jesus is recorded as choosing his own disciples (Mark 1:16–20; Matt. 4:18–22; Luke 5:1–11; John 1:35–42). This involves four things. First, discipleship is not self-chosen but is a response to a call by God. Second, the title of “disciple” is not given because of social status or some kind of religious superiority. Jesus is recorded as calling despised tax collectors (Matt. 9: 9) and all kinds of sinners or socially unacceptable people (Mark 2:15–17). Unusually for the time, (1st-century Palestine), there were also women in his immediate circle (Luke 8:1–3). There is a tension here. On the one hand, Jesus called upon everyone to repent and to welcome the Kingdom of God. Yet, on the other hand, the call to join him in formal discipleship is only made to a select number. However, this notion of discipleship radically expands after Jesus’ time. Third, the call to discipleship implied a radical break with the past that involved leaving family, work, possessions (for example, Luke 1:26; Mark 2:24; Mark 10:21)—indeed everything (Luke 5:11)—for the sake of the gospel. The price of this radical change is sometimes characterized as “losing one’s life in order to find it” (see for example, Matt. 10:38–39). Finally, the call to discipleship implies sharing in the work of Jesus to bring about God’s Kingdom. Thus, Matthew 10 lists the work of the disciple as proclaiming the good news, curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, casting out demons (Matt. 10:7–8). This process of sharing in Jesus’ work and life is also bound up with the notion of “taking the lowest place,” or of selfless service to others, as in Mark 9:35, or even of giving up one’s life out of love (John 15:12–13).

After Jesus’ death and the belief that he had subsequently risen from the dead and returned to God, the understanding of discipleship moved strongly in two related directions. First, disciples are not simply people who follow Jesus’ teachings or who model themselves on his life (imitation). Disciples are also profoundly united to Jesus as a person and through that union share in Jesus’ own intimate relationship with God. Through baptism, a disciple enters into the same dynamic of Jesus’ passage through death to new life. The letters of St. Paul, for example, express this as participating in the cross of Jesus and in his resurrection—in other words, in the triumph of glory over suffering and life over sin and death (Rom 6:3–5; Phil 3:8–11). This dynamic is continually strengthened by the regular celebration of the Eucharist in early Christian communities. The notion of union with, and participation in, the life of Jesus Christ is further developed in St. Paul, who also uses the language of adoption. That is, Christian disciples are now adopted as children of God and are co-heirs to God’s promise in Jesus (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). Second, and closely related to this, is the emphasis on discipleship as membership of a family. Thus, discipleship expands beyond Jesus’ few close confidants to embrace all who follow the way of Jesus within the community of believers, that is, the Church. This community is described as “the body of Christ” (see, for example, 1 Cor. 12:12–13).

Spirituality and Christian Beliefs

As already noted, Christian spirituality implies an understanding of God, the material world, and human identity. In other words, spirituality and beliefs are inseparable. However, as we shall see, in the study of Christian spirituality, how the relationship between beliefs and spirituality is understood has changed over the years.

The fundamental point is that the varied traditions of Christian spirituality grew out of spiritual practice rather than out of abstract theory. Equally, formal definitions of Christian doctrine about God, or about Jesus Christ as both human and divine, did not arise from intellectual speculation. They slowly grew out of the ways in which members of the early Church sought to live in relation to Jesus’ life and teachings as expressed in the New Testament and how they experienced his abiding presence with them. Christian doctrine, scripture, and the Christian life were intimately interconnected. However, the motives behind seeking greater doctrinal precision grew from a sense that authentic living depended on maintaining right belief (orthodoxy), and that misbelief (or heresy) led to spiritual inauthenticity.4 For these reasons, it is not surprising that Christians came to see that being clear about the nature of Jesus Christ, and his relationship to God, was critical. The doctrine of the Incarnation, affirming that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth there was a union of the divine and the human, not only governed all other Christian beliefs but was also the bedrock of Christian spirituality.5 In the words of Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130–200 ce), a major Christian thinker and a bishop in the Roman province of Gaul, “The Word of God … did … become what we are, that He might bring us to be what He is Himself.”6

Irenaeus also battled against a heresy called Gnosticism (from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis, γνῶσις‎). This heresy had two main elements. The first was a focus on esoteric knowledge. That is, true knowledge of God was reserved to a special group of initiates who inherited secret oral teachings. Second, this secret knowledge involved dualistic, anti-material beliefs. Human bodily existence is the result of sin. Humans have a fundamental spiritual nature that is trapped in the body, belongs to another world, and needs to return there. For mainstream Christians, such a belief undermined any idea that God actively created “matter” or human embodiment. It also undermined the belief that God entered into the material world and into the human condition in the person of Jesus.

This process of clarification about the nature of Jesus Christ, his relationship to God, and the implications for the Christian life, took several hundred years to be formally defined. Two official gatherings, or Councils, of Church leaders stand out. First, the Council of Nicaea in 325 ce condemned the heresy of Arianism (named after an Egyptian priest called Arius). Arianism denied that the nature of God could be shared or communicated. Consequently, Jesus Christ was not an uncreated equal of the eternal God as Father. Equally, there was no intimate relationship between God and humanity. Consequently, against this, the famous Nicene Creed that came to be recited in Christian liturgies affirmed that Jesus Christ was indeed “God from God” and “one in being with the Father.” Second, a later Council of Chalcedon, in 451 ce, condemned the opposite view that affirmed that Jesus Christ was only divine and not fully human at all. This heresy was termed Monophysitism. Again, this undermined the value of the human condition. The Chalcedonian Creed affirmed that Jesus Christ had two natures and so was paradoxically both truly God and truly human. However, it did not manage to resolve precisely how this was to be understood.

In the end, the focus of all this debate about doctrine was practical in relation to understanding and leading the Christian life and, indeed, to understanding the nature of human life more generally.

Christian Spirituality as Transformation and Mission

It is now possible to describe briefly the fundamental characteristics of Christian spirituality. As we noted, Christian spirituality is founded on “discipleship.” This is expressed in the gospels as the task of extending Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Kingdom to the whole world (Matt. 28:18–20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46–49). However, it is too narrow to understand the call to proclaim the Kingdom simply as a verbal communication of information about God or of moral teachings. Proclaiming the way of Jesus was understood from the beginning as living “after the manner of Jesus Christ.” Thus, Christians extend Jesus’ mission by being a “living message,” through the kind of people they are and how they act in the world (see 2 Cor. 3:3).

While later forms of Christian spirituality necessarily re-interpret these scriptural foundations, it is nevertheless possible to say that personal transformation and the mission to transform the world are key themes. The history of Christian spirituality is a rich and varied commentary on how these two themes have been expressed in a wide variety of spiritual movements and literature. In the light of these values, all classic Christian spiritual traditions address certain questions, implicitly or explicitly.

First, in reference to transformation, both personal and social, what needs to be transformed and why? Second, is transformation essentially individual, or does it also imply a commitment to transform society? Third, what factors stand in the way of transformation? These factors were described in religious terms, although nowadays commentators would also note the role of psychological or social and cultural factors. Fourth, what is the context for transformation? Is it the processes of everyday life, or does it demand stepping aside into a special context (for example, the desert, the monastery, or a retreat house)? Fifth, how does transformation take place? This usually involves some theory about how spiritual growth takes place as well about lifestyles or spiritual practices that assist it. Finally, what is the purpose of transformation? In other words, classic Christian spiritual traditions offer some vision of spiritual enlightenment and human completeness.

In terms of the word mission, the concept is both rich and ambiguous. For some traditionalists, it implies proselytizing—that is, converting people to Christianity. However, for others, Christianity is mission-focused in a quite different, outward-looking way. That is, a key part of the Christian life is to share in God’s own mission to make a better world by proclaiming God’s work of creativity, active goodness, reconciliation, healing, and love, directed towards enabling humanity to arrive at its ultimate destiny. This outward-looking approach seeks to respond to the lives and needs of others. This expands the notion of “mission” beyond purely religious preoccupations to embrace broader social transformation. The message of Jesus Christ demands that disciples attend to the needs of the poor and marginalized, and enable their voices to be heard.7

Images of Spiritual Transformation

At this point it is worth summarizing the classic approaches to spiritual transformation. One widespread image in Christian spirituality is that of a pilgrimage or journey. This has been a rich theme in classic literature from Augustine’s City of God in the 5th century ce to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in the 17th century, and onwards to the anonymous 19th-century Russian work on the Jesus Prayer, The Way of the Pilgrim.

Sometimes in Christian spirituality, two rather static concepts, “perfection” or “union,” have been used. However, the metaphor of “journey” expresses a more dynamic approach. Thus, the theology of the early Church gradually developed a theory of successive stages on the spiritual journey. The theologian Origen (c. 185–255 ce) wrote of three ascending stages away from material existence towards a greater transcendent light—beginners (praxis, πρᾶξις‎), proficients (theōria, θεωρία‎), and the perfect (theologia, θεολογία‎).8 The goal of the journey was to recover the original created likeness of God in the soul. In the following century, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–395 ce), in his Life of Moses, also described the spiritual journey in similar terms of ascent. His metaphor was the story of Moses climbing Mount Sinai to enter deep clouds of darkness in his encounter with God.9 The climax of the spiritual journey in darkness suggests that, while God may be experienced, God is never finally known.

During the Western Middle Ages, the approach to the spiritual journey adopted the concept of “three ways” (triplex via)—the ways of purgation, of illumination, and of union. While described as consecutive stages, in practice they are interrelated dimensions. Subsequent spiritual literature also employed the classic theme of “ascent,” whether of mountains, for example the 16th-century Ascent of Mount Carmel of John of the Cross, or of ladders, for example, the 14th-century English mystic Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection. The 6th-century Rule of St. Benedict also used the image of a ladder (Chapter 7)—the twelve degrees of humility are “a ladder of our ascending actions.” Another influential 12th-century book by a Carthusian monk, Guigo II, on the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina (meditating on scripture) was entitled Ladder of Monks and referred to four structured stages, reading (lectio), meditation (meditatio), prayer (oratio), and silent contemplation (contemplatio).10

While these classic Christian approaches to the spiritual journey may continue to offer wisdom for the present day, their purely individual approach would nowadays be balanced by a renewed biblical emphasis on collective, social understandings of spirituality. The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, in the early mid-1960s, underlined that it is the Christian community as a whole that is a pilgrim people “led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the kingdom of their Father” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, Chapter 1). This recovery of a corporate understanding of the spiritual journey inspired the theme of radical solidarity with others in the movement known as “Liberation Theology” when it emerged in Central and Latin America in the late 1960s. Thus, the theme of transformation in Christian spirituality is nowadays more explicitly engaged with the question of transforming society rather than simply transforming individual lives. This theme will be further developed in the section on “Types of Christian Spirituality.”11

Types of Christian Spirituality

As has already been noted, Christianity embraces a great variety of spiritual traditions and writings. Any attempt to write an overview of Christian spirituality confronts the question of how to organize a large amount of material into an intelligible pattern. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to define what they see as major types of Christian spirituality. Types of spirituality are fundamentally distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom and spiritual practices with certain shared characteristics. These may be expressed in a body of literature, in meditative practices or other spiritual disciplines, in distinctive communities that practice a certain lifestyle, or in a combination of these.

Having identified such types, it is then possible to develop a framework (what is called a typology) that enables us to compare and contrast them and thus to understand their distinctive qualities. However, typologies need to be used with caution. They are useful tools to help people analyze the complexities of Christian spirituality. However, the notion of types is itself an act of interpretation rather than a straightforward description of reality.

For the purposes of this article, I identify five types of Christian spirituality, which will now be briefly described. These types are ascetical, mystical, active, aesthetic, and finally, prophetic. These types sometimes overlap to some degree. Thus, for example, ascetical forms of spirituality may also have mystical elements.

The Ascetical Type

The notion of asceticism derives from the classical Greek word for exercise, training, or discipline (askēsis, ἄσκησις‎) originally related to sport. The ascetical type of spirituality sometimes prescribes special places for the process of spiritual transformation, such as the wilderness or the monastery. Characteristically, it also describes certain disciplines or practices of self-denial, austerity, and abstention from worldly pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth and moral perfection. The end in view is a condition of detachment from material existence as the pathway to eternal life. In some respects, all the major Christian spiritual traditions contain an ascetical or disciplined element. However the most familiar expression of this type is associated with monasticism.

The period from the 4th to the 12th centuries ce was one of major consolidation in the history of Christianity and complex changes in its surrounding political and cultural contexts. First of all, Christianity emerged from being a persecuted minority into the public mainstream as a result of the Emperor Constantine’s edict of toleration (313 ce) and, within a relatively short time, it became the official religion of the Empire. Inevitably, this led to readjustments in self-understanding and in spiritual values. One consequence was the expansion of counter-cultural ascetical movements that gave birth to monasticism. For the next seven centuries, the history of Christian spirituality, both East and West, was in many ways dominated by the ascetical-monastic type of spirituality.

Christianity has no monopoly on monasticism. It has existed in some form in other world religions. While single Christian ascetics first appeared in the region of Syria and Palestine, structured monasticism emerged in Egypt. This took several forms, from small groups of hermits to larger, village-like settlements, and eventually to major communities, for example associated with Pachomius (c. 290–346 ce), who is credited with writing the first monastic Rule. By about 400 ce, monasticism numbered thousands of men and women. From its Egyptian roots, structured monasticism spread throughout the Eastern Roman Empire inspiring the Rule of St. Basil, which is still the foundation for Eastern Orthodox monasticism. In the West, two major monastic Rules emerged, the Rule of St. Augustine in 5th-century North Africa and the Rule of St. Benedict in 6th-century Italy. Although other traditions eventually emerged, these two Rules continue to dominate Western monasticism. Notable medieval products of the Benedictine tradition, and its off-shoot the Cistercians, include a pope, Gregory the Great (540–604); the philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109); the poet, musician, and artist Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179); the mystical theologian Bernard of Clairvaux; and the English writer on human friendship, Aelred of Rievaulx. In modern times, well-known monastic spiritual figures include the popular writer Thomas Merton (1915–1968) and the Eastern Orthodox nun and writer Maria Skobtsova (1891–1945), who was executed by the Nazis for protecting Jews. In recent times, monasticism has re-emerged in Protestant Christianity as well as in the Anglican Communion.12

The Mystical Type

The mystical type of spirituality is associated with the desire for an immediacy of presence to God, frequently through contemplative practice. It does not demand withdrawal from everyday life, but suggests that the everyday world may be transfigured into something wondrous. The mystical type is associated with intuitive knowledge of God beyond discursive reasoning and analysis. The ultimate purpose is spiritual illumination and being connected to the transcendent.

A mystical dimension to Christianity existed from its beginnings. In the 6th century ce, the writings of an anonymous Syrian monk known as pseudo-Dionysius had a considerable influence in both the East and the West.13 His work Mystical Theology, while drawing upon Neo-Platonist philosophy, essentially summed up the early tradition, that all baptized Christians are drawn ever deeper into the mystery of God through exposure to the scriptures, the liturgy, and the sacraments.

However, it is commonly suggested that in Western Christianity the period from 1150–1450 ce saw a particular flourishing of mysticism. This needs qualification. First, according to the researches of the French scholar Michel de Certeau, the noun “mysticism” (as a distinct area of spiritual experience) only appeared in France during the 17th century.14 Second, while spiritual experience does appear in medieval mystics, they were not preoccupied with subjective experiences. The interest in such experiences was reinforced in the late 19th century by the influence of modern psychology in such works as William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.15 Any separation of mystical experience from systems of belief and wider religious practice would have been completely alien to medieval people.16 With these qualifications in mind, it is possible to describe the period as an age of mystical writings and to talk about the emergence of a mystical type of spirituality. This was partly because of a growing sense of the individual self after what became known as the 12th-century Renaissance, and partly as a reaction to a more philosophically driven theology.

The 14th century is particularly rich in mystical writers. A number of key figures have achieved wide popularity, even outside Christianity. Two people may be taken as examples. Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1328) was a German theologian and preacher who is the subject of a great deal of contemporary fascination because of his paradoxical spiritual language. On the one hand, there is an absolute abyss separating humans from a God who is beyond all concepts—the “God beyond God.” On the other hand, Eckhart made daring assertions of a mystical identity between humans and God.17 Julian of Norwich (c. 1342–c. 1420) is, in the judgment of many, the deepest and most original of the English Mystics who flourished during a period of immense social and religious upheaval. We know very little about Julian’s background and life. She became an anchoress sometime after an almost fatal illness in 1373 when, over a twenty-four hour period, she had sixteen visions provoked by the sight of a crucifix in her sick room. Her famous A Revelation of Love, in the version known as the Long Text (she also wrote a Short Text), is a sophisticated vernacular work of mystical-pastoral theology, written after years of reflection for the benefit of all her fellow Christians. It is difficult to summarize Julian’s rich message about God and the human condition. However, in the final Chapter 86, she notes that “I desired many times to know what was our Lord’s meaning.” Eventually she received an answer. “Know it well, love was his meaning … Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.”18

The Active Type

The active type of spirituality, in a variety of ways, promotes everyday life as the principle context for the spiritual path. In this type of spirituality, people do not need to retreat from everyday concerns in order to reach spiritual enlightenment. What is needed for spiritual growth is within our reach. For, in the words of Jesus, “The Kingdom of God is among you.” Because it emphasizes finding God in the midst of everyday existence, this type of spirituality is widely accessible. This type of spirituality seeks to find spiritual growth through the medium of ordinary experiences, commitments, and activity, including the service of our fellow humans.

Among the best-known examples of this type is the spiritual wisdom associated with Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556), a 16th-century Basque noble, soldier, and finally Catholic reformer and founder of the religious order known as the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The main values of Ignatian spirituality are highlighted in his text, the Spiritual Exercises. This was directed from the start at a broad spectrum of Christians who sought to share in Jesus Christ’s mission to the world. The Spiritual Exercises is one of the most influential Christian spiritual texts, now used as a medium for retreats and spiritual guidance across an ecumenical spectrum of Christians. It is not an inspirational text but a collection of practical notes for a retreat guide. The aim is to flexibly assist a retreatant to grow in inner freedom, to be able to respond to the call of Christ in the midst of daily life.

From the Exercises, it is possible to outline certain key features of Ignatian spirituality and of the active type of spirituality more generally. First, God is encountered in the practices of everyday life. Second, the life and death of Jesus Christ are offered as the fundamental pattern for Christian life. Third, God, in and through Jesus Christ, offers the healing and liberation needed to respond to the divine call. Fourth, spirituality focuses on a deepening desire for God in the midst of ordinary existence. The climax of the text underlines the ability to “find God in all things” and the integration of contemplation with a life of action. Finally, a core value of the tradition is the cultivation of a form of practical wisdom known as “discernment”—the ability to interpret our inner desires accurately, to judge wisely, and then to choose well in relation to different potential life directions and courses of action. Ignatius effectively summarizes a long tradition of discernment in Christian spirituality that finds its roots in ancient philosophy, notably in Aristotle. The Exercises and the wider Ignatian tradition promote a range of spiritual practices including meditation, contemplation, and other forms of prayer, including what is known as the Examen, a brief daily practice of prayerful reflection on the events of the day and how God has been present.19

The Aesthetic Type

The aesthetic type of spirituality covers a spectrum of ways by which the spiritual journey may be expressed in, and shaped by, the arts, music and poetry. A range of Christian thinkers, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and in recent times, the Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue, have written about the importance of beauty and how to understand its role in shaping a spiritual life.20 In terms of art as a medium of spirituality, the Eastern Christian tradition of icons (for example, Andrei Rublev’s Trinity) is a prime example. Icons are understood to be a medium of divine power. Through interaction with them, humans may become spiritually united with, and transformed by, what the icon represents—God, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or other saints. In the world of music, there is a long tradition of explicitly spiritual-religious music, often associated with Christian worship, such as plainchant, the polyphonic Mass settings of composers like William Byrd or Giovanni Palestrina, and the Lutheran chorales of Johann Sebastian Bach. In more recent times, the French Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen believed that sound in itself was spiritual, because it connects the listener to the harmonies of the cosmos.

If we turn to literature, it is clear that the extraordinary poetry of someone like the 16th-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross was a direct expression of his own inner spiritual experience. The 19th-century English Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins is considered to be one of the leading and most innovative Victorian poets, full of spiritual vision. In recent times, the lyric poetry of the late Elizabeth Jennings is deeply imbued with her inner struggles and her Christian faith. However, in the history of Christian spirituality, a cluster of important 17th-century English poets expresses the gradual emergence of a distinctive Church of England spiritual tradition. Deeply inspired by the Bible and the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, the sophisticated poetry of such priests as John Donne, George Herbert, and Thomas Traherne as well as the physician Henry Vaughan is both great literature and an important expression of Anglican spirituality.

George Herbert (1593–1633), aristocrat, Cambridge University orator, Member of Parliament, then priest, wrote two great works—a prose treatise on the priestly life, The Country Parson, and an outstanding poetic collection, The Temple. In his own words, his poetry was “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul.” Undoubtedly the poems, some of the greatest in the English language, are genuine expressions of his personal spiritual experience, not least those that take the form of meditative and intimate conversation with God. However, the carefully ordered nature of the collection also indicates their wider purpose—to communicate to readers the sometimes-painful complexity of the Christian spiritual path. Herbert was someone with deep aesthetic sensibilities—to the beauty of liturgy and of church architecture, for example. He was also an able musician and regularly used musical imagery in his poems, for example to express “the way to heaven’s door” (the poem “Church-music”) and his intense desire to respond to Christ’s sufferings (“The Thanksgiving”). He also considered writing poetry as a form of prayer. Behind Herbert’s aesthetics lies a sense of God’s beauty. Created beauty reflects the beauty of God, and it is humanity’s gift to be able to discern God in earthly beauty. “True beauty dwells on high: ours is a flame/But borrow’d thence to light us thither” (“The Forerunners”).21

The Prophetic Type

Finally, the prophetic type of spirituality goes beyond the simple service of other people in the direction of an explicit commitment to social transformation as a spiritual task. It is possible to argue that historic religions have always had prophetic elements. Thus, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible such as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah critiqued corrupt social and political systems. In medieval Christian spirituality, the movement associated with Francis of Assisi emphasized spiritual poverty and worked with marginalized groups of people, partly in reaction against what Francis saw as the prevailing sins of his own wealthy merchant class. However, neither biblical prophecy nor Francis of Assisi explicitly promoted a spirituality of social justice or social transformation.

The development of a prophetic style of spirituality really emerged during the 20th century in response to three factors. First, the appalling slaughter of the two World Wars, mid-century totalitarianism (Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism), the Holocaust, and then the birth of the atomic-nuclear age provoked an overwhelming sense of the destructive power of war and of human oppression. Second, there was the gradual and often violent end to European colonialism in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Third, there was a growing wave of social and cultural change in Europe and North America in relation to the status and role of women and to civil rights for ethnic minorities. In Christianity, there has been a range of examples of the prophetic type of spirituality. These include Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s radical Christian resistance to the Nazis, the preaching of Martin Luther King at the heart of the American Civil Rights movement, feminist spirituality, political theology, and the birth of what is known as “liberation spirituality” in Central and Latin America in the 1970s. This eventually took other forms in Africa and Asia.

Feminist, Political, and Liberation Spiritualities

The interrelated feminist, political, and liberationist expressions of the prophetic type of spirituality promote two central and interdependent values. First, authentic spirituality necessarily demands that humanity should engage fearlessly with the structures of injustice and violence. This includes the concept of “structural sin.” That is to say, evil and sin are never purely personal but are frequently expressed by the structures that shape society.22 Second, any truly effective commitment to promoting social justice is not purely political but demands the purification of human motivation through a challenging practice of contemplation.

As a first example, the fundamental insight of feminist theology and spirituality is that everyone’s relationship with God is deeply influenced by gender as a social construct. That is, all aspects of human sexuality are shaped by social and cultural systems. Too often, the value of women’s humanity is undermined by certain aspects of traditional spirituality, such as limiting spiritual leadership to men, suspicion of the body, bypassing human sexuality, and excessive intellectualism. The work of feminist scripture scholars such as Sandra Schneiders, who is sensitive to spirituality, has been an important tool.23 Equally, the writings of people like Elizabeth Johnson and Catherine LaCugna have offered spiritually rich interpretations of Christian theologies of God with the aim of outlining a more adequate spirituality.24 In terms of rereading classic Christian spiritual or mystical texts from a feminist perspective, the works of Dorothee Sölle, Protestant feminist-political theologian and social activist, and Grace Jantzen are particularly important. For example, Jantzen wrote a major feminist academic study of Christian mysticism, Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism.25

Turning to late 20th-century European political theology, in simple terms, it focuses on how to engage theology explicitly with political and social structures. It has sometimes been caricatured as Christian Marxism. However, its key exponents, such as the Roman Catholic Johannes Baptist Metz and the Protestants Jürgen Moltmann and Dorothee Sölle, engage in striking ways with mysticism and spirituality.26 For example, Moltmann, in his often overlooked little book Experiences of God, writes explicitly about the interface of mystical theology with social action.27

In terms of classic Latin American liberation theology, there have been many points of connection with a spirituality of social transformation, for example in the writings of Jon Sobrino, Leonardo Boff, Pedro Casaldáliga, and in the comprehensive multi-author volume, Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology.28 In terms of the intersection of liberation theology and feminist spirituality, the Cuban refugee Ada María Isasi-Diaz is a notable example, not least as an expression of mujerista spirituality in the United States. This approach affirms that true spirituality is not disembodied interiority but should be marked by a struggle against the sexism, ethnic prejudice, and economic oppression that diminishes the life experience of Latina women.29 However, the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez has become an iconic figure within the liberationist tradition. He was born in a poor family in Lima, studied in Europe, and was ordained in 1959. His dual experience of university teaching and working in a poor parish led him to bring together theology and a commitment to justice. Gutiérrez developed his thinking on spirituality in the book We Drink from Our Own Wells. He used the Old Testament image of the Exodus, a desert journey in which God leads the oppressed peoples from a state of slavery to the possession of a land of their own. The underpinning of all Christian spirituality is discipleship, a radical following of Jesus intrinsically linked to social practice. At the heart of spirituality is the experience of God speaking in and through the poor. In Part 3 of another book, On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, Gutiérrez underlines clearly that prayer and contemplation are paramount in relation to social engagement. In Job’s robust confrontation with God about his sufferings, he comes to a realization that God acts out of gratuitous love. In Gutiérrez, contemplation and confrontation are closely linked. Job’s encounter with God enables him to abandon himself into God’s unfathomable love, beyond abstract notions of justice. True justice is resituated within the depths of God. For Gutiérrez, contemplation is not separate from social practice, but is an inner element of that practice.30

In Africa and Asia, liberation spirituality has taken distinctive cultural forms while sharing the fundamental values of its Latin American inspiration. In Africa, there are a range of emphases. For example, Laurenti Magesa from Tanzania focuses strongly on the injustice of a continent that is not economically self-sufficient but is the victim of global inequality. Theology and spirituality need to respond to this situation of dependency not by imitating Western materialism but by building creatively upon the basic African “spirituality of being.”31 However, Magesa is not naïve about traditional African culture. He robustly critiques women’s oppression within traditional religious and cultural systems. This issue is also confronted powerfully in the movement of African women’s feminist-liberationist theology. For example, the writings of Mercy Amba Oduyoye in Ghana focus critically on how traditional African culture impacts on the religious spiritual experiences of women.32 In South Africa, divided by apartheid over many decades, there have been a variety of theological spirituality responses. Buti Tlhagale (now Roman Catholic Archbishop of Johannesburg) worked in Soweto and developed a black theology of labor. This seeks to awaken assertiveness in black workers so that they become self-realized persons rather than depersonalized objects in the labor market.33 The Reformed pastor and former African Nationalist Congress (ANC) activist Allan Boesak became known as a liberation theologian during the apartheid era.34 He is now a vocal critic of all forms of discrimination (reverse racial discrimination by the governing ANC or anti-gay attitudes in his Church), because this undermines the vision of a single nation. He also focuses on theology and reconciliation, as do Charles Villa-Vicencio, in his call for a reconstructive theology of nation building, and John de Gruchy, in his work on reconciliation, solidarity, and social justice.35

Because of its necessary coexistence with other major world religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, Christian spirituality in Asia is often primarily associated with interreligious interchange, even with what became known as “dual belonging.” Prominent examples are the work and writings of Raimundo Pannikar, Swami Abhishiktananda, and Bede Griffiths in India; Aloysius Pieris in Sri Lanka; and Enomiya Lassalle, Kakichi Kadowaki, and William Johnston in Japan. However, Asia has produced its own variety of liberation theology with an associated spirituality.36 For example, Aloysius Pieris asserted the deep connections between interreligious dialogue and an Asian liberation theology. Another Sri Lankan theologian and human rights activist, Tissa Balasuriya, portrayed the Virgin Mary, a traditional focus of Catholic devotion, as an image of revolutionary strength rather than docile passivity.37 The Chinese theologian Kwok Pui-Lan, recently a professor of theology and spirituality in the United States, has written significantly on the interface of post-colonial and feminist theologies.38 What is called “dalit theology” in India refers to the so-called untouchable castes, who are socially marginalized and traditionally considered to be unclean. Dalit spirituality focuses on the restoration of social dignity, an affirmation of the essential equality of all human beings before God, and a strong emphasis on Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor, freedom for captives, and release for the oppressed (Luke 4). The suffering of Jesus and his resurrection is an important image for the sources of liberation.39 A final example is “minjung theology” in South Korea, which emerged in the 1970s during a period of dictatorship and reflects the struggle for social justice. This “people’s theology” seeks to speak to and for the oppressed who are ostracized by ruling elites.40

Conclusion: Spirituality and Social Transformation

It is now possible to summarize how the close relationship between Christian spirituality and social transformation is approached. Critically, this depends on how the public world is valued. From its scriptural origins, Christianity is clear that there is no exclusively private self. Human existence inherently embodies a social task. For example, the great North African theologian, Augustine of Hippo (354–430 ce) was clear that our individual existence was intrinsically related to the common good. In his Commentary on Genesis, Adam’s sin (image of human failure) was portrayed as living for himself alone. In contrast, for Augustine, the redeemed Heavenly City would be a community based on sharing and solidarity.

The mystical dimension of Christian spirituality has profound social implications.41 One of the great Western medieval mystical writers, the 14th-century Flemish priest Jan van Ruusbroec (1293–1381 ce), saw the contemplative life in terms of “the life common to all.” This life joined human beings to each other in the service of all and harmonized action and contemplation into a single whole. So, the spiritually elevated person never ceases to be a common person. The spiritual person “owes himself to all those who seek his help.”42 Indeed, while dwelling in God, such a person “goes out towards all creatures, in a spirit of love towards all things, in virtue and in works of righteousness. And this is the supreme summit of the inner life.”43 Ruusbroec was also clear that those people who practiced the attainment of contemplative inwardness but disregarded the demands of charity or ethics were, of all people, most guilty of spiritual wickedness.

However, while Christian spirituality has an essentially social dimension, explicit attention to social transformation as a spiritual issue is, as we have seen, particularly characteristic of the last decades of the 20th century. A number of Christian writers argue that mysticism and contemplation are a necessary aspect of social engagement. The Spanish theologian Gaspar Martinez suggests that what he calls “worldly theologies,” especially political and liberation theologies, that engage explicitly with wider society, are simultaneously the ones that focus most clearly on the mystery of God, with the greatest emphasis on spirituality.44

One Chilean theologian, Segundo Galilea, has written a great deal concerning the spiritual dimensions of political and social responses to injustice. Galilea suggests that people need to move beyond the notion that effective responses are purely structural. Humans are not able to find true compassion, nor create structures of deep transformation, without entering contemplatively into God’s own compassion for humanity. Only social action that is nurtured by contemplative practice is capable of bringing about the change of heart necessary for lasting solidarity and social transformation. Social engagement must be accompanied by an interior process of liberation from self-seeking.45

If we are to draw an overall conclusion about the relationship between spirituality and the work of social transformation, it would be in terms of the purification of human motivation in relation to social justice. For Dorothee Sőlle, already mentioned as deeply inspired by the Christian mystical tradition, resistance and changing the world must have spiritual roots. Thus, mystical consciousness “tears the veil of triviality” because it is touched by the spirit of life. “Without reinspiration, nothing new begins.” There is then a leaving of oneself—a process of purification—leading to “a living in God.” Thevia unitiva, or mystical unitive path, involves healing as the birth of true social resistance. In Sőlle’s way of thinking, people become capable of healing others only insofar as they too are healed.46

Review of the Literature

In the early Christian era, the study of Christian spirituality began as part of an undifferentiated theological reflection on scripture, doctrine, worship, and pastoral practice. Later, the so-called “new theology,” in European universities around the 12th century became more speculative, involving philosophical categories. This new scientific approach slowly led to a separation of spiritual theory from theology by the end of the Middle Ages, reinforced by the Reformation. Then the 18th-century European Enlightenment promoted the dominance of analytical thought. This encouraged theology to move in similar directions and deepened its separation from spirituality.

By the early 20th century, spirituality and theology began to re-engage, especially in Roman Catholic circles. Manuals of ascetical theology and mystical theology (later known jointly as “spiritual theology”), for example by Adolphe A. Tanquerey and Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, predominated up to the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s. However, this re-engagement had serious limitations. It was mainly driven by religious dogma and moral theology, with little attention to other disciplines. Even historical studies, for example by Pierre Pourrat, were subordinated to doctrine.47 During the 1960s, the spirituality scholar Louis Bouyer promoted a more scriptural, liturgical, and ecumenical approach.48 However, he still defined spirituality as essentially theological.

In recent decades, major shifts in the study of Christian spirituality have taken place. First, it no longer refers simply to monastic or mystical traditions, but has broadened to reflect on Christian life in the everyday world. Equally, the study of spirituality nowadays embraces material beyond literary texts, such as art, poetry, music, and sacred architecture. Second, Christian spirituality now seeks to integrate all aspects of human experience and existence. The British theologian Rowan Williams argues that spirituality is not the science of private spiritual experience but “… must now touch every area of human experience, the public and social, the painful, negative, even pathological byways of the mind, the moral and relational world.”49 Third, the field of spirituality has become thoroughly ecumenical, embracing scholars from a spectrum of Christian traditions.

The study of Christian spirituality has also established itself as an interdisciplinary field.50 Interdisciplinary study is not a matter of expediency, but is a principled position. What is known as postmodern theory saw the breakdown of closed academic systems where each discipline needed to be autonomous and pure. Interdisciplinary study is not simply an enrichment of the ways in which Christian spirituality is approached. It also involves a discipline of learning to live with what is multi-faceted rather than relatively easy to control.

Because the study of Christian spirituality relates to a specific religious tradition, certain disciplines are necessarily involved. Sandra Schneiders, a key figure in the modern development of the field, describes these as constitutive disciplines and proposes Christian history and scripture. In addition, there are problematic disciplines that relate to the specific theme being studied. Depending on context, Schneiders proposes psychology, the social sciences, literature, and the sciences. In her view, theology is situated between the two categories.51 However, other scholars believe that, in Christian spirituality, a broadly theological approach is also constitutive.52

Schneiders’ portrayal of academic spirituality as self-implicating is now widely accepted. In other words, the study of spirituality is transformative as well as informative. People obviously seek information: historical data, knowledge of texts, an understanding of theological frameworks, and an analysis of the spiritual teachings being presented. However, beyond this lies a quest for the wisdom embodied in what is being studied. Some scholars therefore refer to an “appropriative method” in studying Christian spirituality, whereby people seek to make the wisdom their own.53

The study of Christian spirituality is now at a crossroads. Over the last quarter century, scholars have been concerned with redefining the field and with questions of method. However, they are now less methodologically preoccupied. Consequently, people increasingly seek to bring the subject into conversation with contemporary realities.

One issue is the impact of globalization on Christian spirituality. People are increasingly aware of the cultural plurality of human society. In the past, Christian spirituality was often presented as if it had an entirely Western profile. Today, a critical question concerns how Christian spirituality transmits itself, and how it is received, across cultural boundaries. Any authentic appropriation is contextual. Therefore the study of Christian spirituality has to relate to the specific situations in a plurality of local cultures.54

Another provocative aspect of global interconnectedness is the importance of the Internet and its product, “cyberspace.” This form of connection raises the challenging question of what it really means to “encounter” another person, particularly when social networking is not face‑to‑face” or “fleshly.” On the other hand, in cyberspace, new global communities of interest may be created. Equally, some argue that overcoming our physical limits in this way opens up a new quasi-mystical experience of transcendence.55

Finally, the field of Christian spirituality increasingly engages with important social and cultural issues. There is a growing list of priorities. For example, there is a new urgency regarding interreligious dialogue and the potential contribution of Christian spirituality. This arises from an acute awareness of the connection between religious divisions, violence, and armed conflict.56 Global social and cultural divisions plus gross economic inequality, often resulting in unrest, increasingly provoke reflections on reconciliation, peace, and social justice.57 Then, a deeper awareness of the current fragility of the planet makes an ecologically robust spiritual vision another major priority for scholars in the field.58 In an increasingly urbanized world, reflection on the meaning and future of cities and on what might be called urban virtues is also becoming a vibrant theme in dialogues between urban professionals and the world of spirituality.59 A number of Christian spirituality scholars are involved in dialogue with the world of business and commerce regarding a spirituality of work and of leadership in the workplace that promotes values beyond pragmatic ethics.60 The wider area of spirituality and economics also suggests themes such as sustainability, an ethics of consumption, frugality as a public virtue, and the pursuit of the common good.61 Finally, there are a number of examples of Christian contributions to spirituality and healthcare, for example, in reference to the meaning of “care,” how we understand healing and well-being, focusing on a person rather than on a patient, and considering the spiritual needs of both those being cared for and of the healthcare professionals.62

Primary Sources

In relation to the study of Christian spirituality, the most accessible and comprehensive collection of primary source materials in English is the ongoing series “Classics of Western Spirituality,” published by Paulist Press in New York. The volumes in the series, edited by recognized scholars, consist of translations or modern English versions of widely acknowledged spiritual teachers and traditions from all parts of Christianity. The series also includes material from Jewish, Muslim, and native North American spiritual sources. Currently, the series totals just over one hundred and fifty volumes, some organized in reference to spiritual traditions and others containing the writings of individual people. New volumes are added to the series every year. While the volumes in the series are not critical editions in the strict sense, the material is critically selected with footnotes, extensive and substantial introductions, an additional bibliography, and comprehensive indexes.

The volumes in the series that relate directly to material in this essay, in historical order, are:

Greer, Rowan A., ed. Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer and Selected Works. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.

Malherbe, Abraham J., and Everett Ferguson, eds. Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Luibheid Colm, and Paul Rorem, eds. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.

Colledge, Edmund, and Bernard McGinn, eds. Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

McGinn, Bernard, and Frank J. Tobin, eds. Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.

James A. Wiseman, ed. John Ruusbroec: The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

Colledge, Edmund, and James Walsh, eds. Julian of Norwich: Showings. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Ganss, George E., ed. Ignatius of Loyola: The Spiritual Exercises and Selected Writing. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1991.

Wall, John N., ed. George Herbert: The Country Parson, The Temple. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1981.

Another longstanding series of modern English translations of significant theological writings, including volumes that are relevant to the study of Christian spirituality, is the “Library of Christian Classics,” first published in paperback, in 2006, by Westminster John Knox Press in Louisville, Kentucky. Each volume has an introduction and notes.

There are also two important series of texts that are not in English but are of considerable interest to students and scholars of Christian spirituality. First, Corpus Christianorum, published by Brepols (Turnhout, Belgium), contains over five hundred volumes of critical editions of texts by important Christian authors from Late Antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages. The series is divided into three groups: Series Graeca, Series Latina, and Continuatio Medievalis. Second, Sources Chrétiennes, published by Editions du Cerf (Paris), so far has over five hundred bilingual editions of writings by early church Greek, Latin, and a few Syriac authors. Each text is in its original language with a French translation on the opposite page.

Other important source material in English, related to the five types of Christian spirituality discussed in this article, are listed here.

Ascetic Type

Kardong, Terrence, ed. Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996.

Ward, Benedicta, ed. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. London/New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Mystical Type

Colledge, Edmund, and Bernard McGinn, eds. Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense, 1985.

Spearing, Elizabeth, and A. C. Spearing, eds. Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love. London/New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.

Active Type

Munitiz, Joseph A., and Philip Endean, eds. St Ignatius Loyola: Personal Writings. London/New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.

Aesthetic Type

Sheldrake, Philip, ed. Heaven in Ordinary: George Herbert and His Writings. London: Canterbury Press, 2009.

Prophetic Type

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003.

Jantzen, Grace. Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Further Reading

  • Agnew, Una, Bernadette Flanagan, and Greg Heylin, eds. With Wisdom Seeking God: The Academic Study of Spirituality. World Spirituality Series. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2008.
  • Cunningham, Lawrence S., and Keith J. Egan, eds. Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition. New York: Paulist Press, 1996.
  • Dreyer, Elizabeth, and Mark S. Burrows, eds. Minding the Spirit: The Study of Christian Spirituality. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
  • Dupré, Louis K., Don E. Saliers, and John Meyendorff, eds. Christian Spirituality III: Post-Reformation and Modern. World Spirituality Series. New York: Crossroad, 1989.
  • Holder, Arthur G., ed. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2005.
  • Lamm, Julia A., ed. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2012.
  • Lescher, Bruce H., and Elizabeth Liebert, eds. Exploring Christian Spirituality: Essays in Honor of Sandra M. Schneiders. New York: Paulist Press, 2006.
  • McGinn, Bernard, John Meyendorff, and Jean Leclercq, eds. Christian Spirituality I: Origins to the Twelfth Century. World Spirituality Series. New York: Crossroad, 1985.
  • Perrin, David P. Studying Christian Spirituality. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Raitt, Jill, Bernard McGinn, and John Meyendorff, eds. Christian Spirituality II: High Middle Ages and Reformation. World Spirituality Series. New York: Crossroad, 1987.
  • Sheldrake, Philip. Spirituality and History: Questions of Interpretation and Method. London: SPCK, 1995.
  • Sheldrake, Philip, ed. The New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. London: SCM Press, 2005.
  • Sheldrake, Philip, ed. The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Louisville, KY: Westminster-John Knox Press, 2005.
  • Sheldrake, Philip. Explorations in Spirituality: History, Theology and Social Practice. New York: Paulist Press, 2010.
  • Sheldrake, Philip. Spirituality: A Brief History. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2013.
  • Waaijman, Kees. Spirituality: Forms, Foundations, Methods. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2002.
  • Williams Rowan. The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross. London: Darton Longman & Todd, 1990.


  • 1. Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993), 16–17. Originally published in 1911.

  • 2. Office for Standards in Education, Promoting and Evaluating Pupils’ Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development (London: OFSTED, 2004).

  • 3. Michel de Certeau, “How Is Christianity Thinkable Today?” in Graham Ward, ed., The Postmodern God (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 142. Italics are his.

  • 4. For a concise account of the intimate relationship between spirituality and doctrine in the early Church, see Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2d rev. ed., 1990), 33–78.

  • 5. See for example, Rowan Williams, “Beginning with the Incarnation,” in Rowan Williams, ed., On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 79–92.

  • 6. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Preface, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to ad 325, volume 1, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, New Edition, 1994).

  • 7. See for example David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991).

  • 8. See “The Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs,” in Rowan Greer, trans. and ed., Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer and Selected Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1979).

  • 9. See and Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, eds. and trans., Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

  • 10. See Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, eds., Guigo II: The Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations (New York: Doubleday Image Books, 1978).

  • 11. For discussions of the different approaches to the spiritual journey in Christian spirituality, see for example Lawrence S. Cunningham and Keith J. Egan, Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition (New York: Paulist Press, 1996); Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981); Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality: A Brief History (Oxford/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013); and Philip Sheldrake, Explorations in Spirituality: History, Theology and Social Practice (New York: Paulist Press, 2010).

  • 12. On asceticism and monasticism, see, for example: Richard Valantasis, The Making of the Self: Ancient and Modern Asceticism (Cambridge, U.K.: James Clarke, 2008); Benedicta Ward, ed., The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London/New York: Penguin Classics, 2003); and Terrence C. Kardong, ed., Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996).

  • 13. See Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem, trans. and eds., Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1987).

  • 14. Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

  • 15. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (London/New York: Penguin Classics, 1982).

  • 16. For critical commentaries on the experientialist turn in understandings of mysticism see Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian mysticism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century (New York: Crossroad, 1991), especially the General Introduction and Appendix.

  • 17. Bernard McGinn and Edmund Colledge, eds., Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense (New York: Paulist Press, 1985); and B. McGinn and Frank Tobin, eds., Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher (New York: Paulist Press, 1987). See also, Bernard McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart (New York: Crossroad, 2001).

  • 18. On an analysis of different understandings of Christian mysticism, see the extensive Appendix to McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism. For a version of Julian of Norwich’s text in modern English, see Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, eds., Julian of Norwich: Showings (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

  • 19. For English translations of the Spiritual Exercises as well as of a selection of other writings by Ignatius Loyola, see St Ignatius Loyola, Joseph Munitiz and Philip Endean, eds., Personal Writings: Reminiscences, Spiritual Diary, Select Letters, including the Text of the Spiritual Exercises (London/New York: Penguin, 1996). For an accessible study of Ignatian spirituality, see David Lonsdale, Eyes to See, Ears to Hear: An Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2000).

  • 20. See John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrac (London: Harper Perennial, 2005).

  • 21. For a selection of George Herbert’s poetry and other writings with introduction and commentary, see Philip Sheldrake, Heaven in Ordinary: George Herbert and His Writings (London: Canterbury Press, 2009). For a collection of interesting essays on aesthetics, art, and spirituality, see Bill Hall and David Jasper, eds., Art and the Spiritual (Sunderland: University of Sunderland Press, 2003).

  • 22. See José Ignacio González Faus, “Sin,” in Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuría, eds., Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 194–204.

  • 23. See Sandra Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999).

  • 24. See Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1996); and Catherine M. LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993).

  • 25. Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

  • 26. For an overview, see Gaspar Martinez, Confronting the Mystery of God: Political, Liberation and Public Theologies (New York: Continuum, 2001).

  • 27. Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980).

  • 28. For example, Jon Sobrino, Spirituality of Liberation: Towards Political Holiness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988); Leonardo Boff, Saint Francis: A Model of Human Liberation (London: SCM Press, 1982); Pedro Casaldáliga and José-María Vigil, Political Holiness: A Spirituality of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994); and Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino, eds., Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993).

  • 29. Ada María Isasi-Diaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the 21st Century (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996).

  • 30. See Gustavo Gutiérrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003). Also, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998).

  • 31. See L. Magesa, “Globalisation: African Spirituality,” in New People, 80 (Autumn, 2002).

  • 32. See, for example, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Beads and Strands: Reflections of an African Woman on Christianity in Africa (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004).

  • 33. See Buti Tlhagala, “Towards a Black Theology of Labour,” in Charles Villa-Vicencio and John de Gruchy, eds., Resistance and Hope: South African Essays in Honour of Beyers Naude (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985).

  • 34. See Allan Boesak, Farewell To Innocence: A Socio-Ethical Study on Black Theology and Power (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1978).

  • 35. See Charles Villa-Vicencio, A Theology of Reconstruction: Nation-Building and Human Rights (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992); also John de Gruchy, Reconciliation: Restoring Justice (London: SCM Press, 2002).

  • 36. See for example, Bastiaan Wielanga, “Liberation Theology in Asia,” in Christopher Rowland, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 55–78.

  • 37. Tissa Balasuriya, Mary and Human Liberation: The Story and the Text (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).

  • 38. For example, Kwok Pui-Lan, Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (London: SCM Press, 2005).

  • 39. For example, see Peniel Rajkumar, Dalit Theology and Dalit Liberation (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).

  • 40. For example, Yung Suk Kim and Jin-Ho Kim, eds, Reading Minjung Theology in the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013).

  • 41. See the excellent collection of essays in Janet Ruffing, ed., Mysticism and Social Transformation (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001).

  • 42. For an English translation of Ruusbroec’s mystical writings, see James A. Wiseman, ed., John Ruusbroec: The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1985).

  • 43. The Spiritual Espousals, book I, part 2, chap lxv.

  • 44. Gaspar Martinez, Confronting the Mystery of God: Political, Liberation and Public Theologies (New York: Continuum, 2001).

  • 45. Segundo Galilea, “The Spirituality of Liberation” in The Way: Journal of Contemporary Christian Spirituality 25 (1985): 186–194.

  • 46. Dorothee Sőlle, “To Be Amazed, To Let Go, To Resist: Outline for a Mystical Journey Today,” in Ruffing, ed., Mysticism and Social Transformation, 45–51.

  • 47. See Adolphe Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life (Tournai: Desclée, 1930); Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Christian Perfection and Contemplation (London: Herder, 1937); and Pierre Pourrat, La Spiritualité Chrétienne, 4 vols (Paris: Librarie Lecoffre, 1921).

  • 48. Louis Bouyer, A History of Christian Spirituality, 3 vols (London: Burns and Oates, 1968).

  • 49. Williams, The Wound of Knowledge, 2.

  • 50. On this point, see Sandra Schneiders, “The Study of Christian Spirituality: Contours and Dynamics of a Discipline,” in Elizabeth A. Dreyer and Mark S. Burrows, eds., Minding the Spirit: The Study of Christian Spirituality (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 5–24. Apart from this volume, another volume with important essays on the field of Christian spirituality is Arthur Holder, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality (Oxford/Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005). Some other significant books on the overall field are Bruce Lescher and Elizabeth Liebert, eds., Exploring Christian Spirituality: Essays in Honor of Sandra M. Schneiders (New York: Paulist Press, 2006); David B. Perrin, Studying Christian Spirituality (London/New York: Routledge, 2007); Una Agnew, Bernadette Flanagan and Greg Heylin, eds., With Wisdom Seeking God: The Academic Study of Spirituality (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2008); and Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality: A Brief History (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2013).

  • 51. See Schneiders, “The Study of Christian Spirituality,” 7–8.

  • 52. See, for example Philip Endean, “Theology Out of Spirituality: The Approach of Karl Rahner,” Christian Spirituality Bulletin 3.2 (1995): 6–8.

  • 53. See Michael Downey, Understanding Christian Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 129–131; Sandra Schneiders, Written that You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 1999), passim; and Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000), chap. 4.

  • 54. See for example, Orlando Espin and Gary Macy, eds., Futuring Our Past: Explorations in the Theology of Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006).

  • 55. See entry (with bibliography), “Cyberspace and Spirituality,” in Philip Sheldrake, ed., The New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (London: SCM Press, 2005).

  • 56. For example, see David Marshall and Lucinda Mosher, eds., Prayer: Christian and Muslim Perspectives (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013).

  • 57. See, for example, Sheldrake, Explorations in Spirituality, chap. 8, “Spirituality and Reconciliation: Catholicity and Hospitality.”

  • 58. For example, S. Chase, Nature as Spiritual Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011); and Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Saphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

  • 59. For example, Philip Sheldrake, The Spiritual City: Theology, Spirituality, and the Urban (Oxford/Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014).

  • 60. For example, Robert A. Giacolone and Carole L. Jurkiewicz, eds., Handbook of Workplace Spirituality and Organizational Performance (Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 2003).

  • 61. See for example, the European SPES Institute: Spirituality in Economics and Society, a Europe-centerd international forum founded on Christian humanism and personalist philosophy.

  • 62. See the websites of centers such as the Project for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Durham University, London; the European Network of Research on Religion, Spirituality, and Health, at the Research Institute for Spirituality and Health, Largenthal, Switzerland; and the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.