Historical Synopsis of Christian Spirituality


The history of Christian Spirituality gives some good starting points for discussion. Each aspect of the summary is fascinating in and of itself. The history is marked with bloodshed and confusions, heresies and misperceptions. (e.g. the Crusades – the Inquisition) On the positive side there is common prayer, the celebration of the Last Supper, the practice of charismatic gifts, and the sacraments which assisted the community in worship.


The violence of the history of the Christian church is the aspect that I found most disturbing. The Christian church was founded on the shed and martyred blood of Christ. Surely those who led the church could have sought a better way to deal with heresy, and dissension? A way that would have promoted peace and allowed dissenting voices to be heard. Faith and reason and the way of peace would surely have saved lives and won converts to the faith, rather than intolerance and indifference to the beliefs of others, which caused schisms, holy wars (oxymoron) and untold harm. 


There are many forms of spirituality; there are many pathways on our journeys towards holiness. (wholeness, health) As the history of the church teaches us not all forms of spirituality are good, even though the founders of those doctrines believed them to be good, e.g. Manichaeism, (dualism, believed world created by satan) Catharism,  (reincarnation, rejection of marriage) Gnosticism, (salvation by knowledge) not all forms of spirituality will stand the test of time.


Researching the past and seeing things in the context of the time and place, brings with it a wider understanding of traditions and the development of Christian spirituality. There are those who cling to the past and want to bring back ‘traditions’ that were in place prior to Vatican II but looking backwards blocks the work and intent of the Holy Spirit, whose recorded intention in scripture is to “renew the face of the earth” Ps.104: 30.


 “We are asked to resist the temptation to see in earlier periods what we want to see, thereby validating our present beliefs by our naïve reading of history. Rather, we are to be attentive to the “underside of history,” i.e., to take a different standpoint in order to let history have its say. Viewing history from the underside also allows us to see: the other: -the losers, the poor, the outcasts, those who have been pushed and shoved to the margins by the victors. Simply, it is to give those outside the mainstream a chance to be heard, recognizing that the history of spirituality is richly laden with alternative experiences” 

(p65) Understanding Christian Spirituality, Michael Downey (1997) Paulist Press.


There has been much growth and evolution and diversity in the movements that have sprung up within the church, new movements continue to appear, such as the Catholic Charismatic movement referred to by John Paul II as the “new springtime in the church” Blessed Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity sprung up out of an unmet need to serve the poorest of the poor first in Calcutta, India and is now in over 100 countries operating over 500 missions worldwide. Jean Vanier invited two men who were developmentally disabled to come and live with him in 1969 and L’Arche (the ark) was founded and is now in 30 countries with 130 communities and is still growing.


The Spirit blows where it wills and obedient women and men respond by opening their hearts and obeying the call God is making on their lives and subsequently many other hearts and lives are changed forever as a result. This honors the spirituality of community.


As we ourselves progress in our journeys the spirituality we once embraced may no longer meet our needs and we will seek a different path, perhaps seeking meditation through centering prayer. Adapting to the changes that different seasons of life bring we embrace new methods of becoming ‘one’ with our Savior. This honors our individual spirituality.


“No one in the world can alter truth. All we can do is seek it and live it.” St Maximilian M. Kolbe.


Marion Sinclair-Simpson ©