The Roots of Christian Spirituality

Purpose and Plan:

The practice of Christianity can sometimes seem dominated by liturgy - the public enactment of prescribed rituals; by concepts and doctrines that the believer is asked to believe; and by a kind of private prayer that emphasizes conversation and intercession. All of which can be valid and good observances, but is something missing? Where is there space for a deep and practical transformation of the believers? It is arguably the temptation of modern Christianity to neglect that element that has led many Westerners in the past two centuries to look to the religions of the East, with their more evident focus on “spiritual growth,” for guidance.

It need not be so. In fact the New Testament makes clear that from the earliest days of the community, the followers of Christ spoke of the importance of progress and growth in the “new life” that they believed they had been offered. And many of the most thoughtful writers of the ensuing centuries made the transformation of both self and community a central focus of their efforts - generally without in the least separating it from public liturgy, the affirmations of faith, or intercessory prayer.

So we should read them. In fall 2021 and spring 2022, we’ll take up some of the great works of the Christian “spiritual” tradition: works that speak in detail of human progress toward God, both for individuals and for the community. We’ll encounter, among other things, the rich origins of what was later called the “threefold way”: the idea that there are “purgative,” “illuminative,” and “unitive” aspects (originally called by other names) of the approach to God. We’ll also explore the origins of the so-called “seven deadly sins,” discovering not only that there used to be eight of them, but also that they were linked in ways that provided great insight, still useful today, into the human psyche - insight more concerned with understanding the workings of temptation than with assessing penalties for sin. And through all these discoveries runs the theme of desire: the human desire for union with God rooted in God's gratuitous desire for union with humans.


Besides the biblical Song of Songs, expect to read some Plato (a great influence on early church writers on these topics) and then Origen (on the Song of Songs), Evagrius Ponticus (the “Praktikos” and other short works), Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (the Divine Names), and St. Maximus Confessor (from Chapters on Love and/or Chapters on Knowledge). The spring sessions will also feature several medieval descendants of this tradition who were eager to apply it to their very different world, likely including Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh or Achard of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas, and others.


Thoughtful and slow: the reading load is two to three pages per day. These are some of the deepest and most influential writers in the Christian tradition, and at times they can be challenging. But past experience with similar groups shows that taking them in small doses makes them manageable, and that we can all learn from these treasured texts, whatever our background.


Every other week, 1 hour and 15 minutes each time.


Early-to-mid September (fall); Jan. 11 (spring).

Meeting times:

Alternate Tuesday evenings, 7:00-8:15 Eastern.

Meeting venue:

Online meeting via Zoom.


As elsewhere, you are welcome to come to as many, or as few, meetings as desired - which means for this group that you can join us for one or two of these works, or come along for the full ride.