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 Fr Aidan Nichols

Resituating Modern Spirituality

(Chapter 14 of Christendom Awake by Fr Aidan Nichols)

Existence in a 'modern' world

Such phrases as '
modern man' and 'the modern world' can carry dubious implications. Has there been, through cultural change, a transformation of the character of the human species as such, with the result that whatever wisdom the human past might legitimately boast is now inapplicable? It is not self-evident that the patterns of human living in the twentieth century are to that degree different from what they have been in the past. It is not so clear that modern society is more different from all past societies generally than any one such society has been from any other. Yet this is what must be the case if talk of this special animal, 'modern man', is to be justified - at any rate in the strong sense I have ascribed to the phrase so far.

In the realm of spiritual theology, a hectoring stress on modernity usually takes the form of an insistence that man has 'come of age', when compared with the 'immature' attitude of dependence on God characteristic of past styles of praying. Petition, trust, awe, adoration, will then be 'out'; recognising God as our collaborator in the task of world-making will be 'in'. It seems strange that the philosophy of the Superman, for which human autonomy is the keystone of all value, and which worked itself out to its own terrifying conclusion in the gas chambers of the Third Reich, should live on in liberal Christianity over fifty years after its dénouement in political history.

And yet there must be some general factors which mark out the contemporary situation, and suggest to people such a phrase as 'the 'modern world'. And since praying always has a time and a place, a context, this must be of significance for prayer, and so for a theology of prayer today.

The planet Earth in the twentieth century has contained a number of touching, sometimes colliding, 'worlds' - using that term for cultural wholes, distinct realms of what can be counted on as understood, believed or assumed by different sets of people. Hampstead today is different from up-country Sarawak, and Hampstead in 1900 from the same urban village in 1999. Nevertheless, there is a unifying factor:
the modern secular tradition of the West is, for better or worse, the outstanding influence in the world of this century. For better or worse, that tradition over the last hundred years has powerfully shaped - at varying rates, it is true, and to differing degrees - the worlds within-the-world. The rise of the natural sciences to a position of predominance in human understanding; the civic emancipation of women, and the attempts to redefine the significance of gender distinction that constitute feminism; State Communism, liberal welfare capitalism, hyper-nationalism, in political life; the revolutions in transport and communications; biological engineering and its near antonym ecological consciousness; the prolonged collapse of metaphysics now issuing in the vacuities of postmodernism - a list such as that doubtless offers a more or less correct inventory of striking features of a common world. What can it all mean for prayer?

One thing is obvious. If we compare that list with a comparable catalogue of dominant features of Western mediaeval society - to take one great 'whole' informed by Christian faith - it is surely clear that the mediaeval Christian at prayer was supported culturally by a whole way of life. This is true no matter what the volume of practical deviation, in morals or believing, from the norms of that largely lost Christendom. By comparison, the contemporary Christian experiences an absence of God in the world today. Naturally, this cannot mean that God has actually withdrawn himself from creation: the very idea of creation as God's continuous sustaining of finite being, which otherwise would fall into nothingness, makes such a suggestion absurd. Nor can it be the case that God has withdrawn from involvement in human affairs. To affirm that would be to deny Jesus' teaching on the incessant character of the Father's saving activity (John 5.17a) and his own inauguration, through his cross and resurrection, of God's lordly reign. What is true is rather that our culture gives us few, if any, overt signals of God's presence. Conversing with God is not something we take in with the cultural air we breathe - as once it was for many in this country before the Western tradition took its secular turn, and, especially, perhaps - on the eve of the sixteenth-century Reform when a lay devotional culture saturated every aspect of life, both for the individual and for the group. Owing to the imaginative constraints created by secularisation, a large chunk of a culturally transmitted human basis for prayer and contemplation is lost to us, at least for the foreseeable future.

However, so far as the members of the Church, the faithful, are concerned, we are not speaking - by definition - of a loss of faith, but of the deprivation of what is in a Christian culture the humus or compost which nourishes faith in its normal development. We are thinking of obstacles in the way of the growth and blossoming of faith. But in the teaching of Jesus, such obstacles to faith are simply occasions when we renew relationship with him: 'Why are you fearful? You believe in God; have faith then in me' (John 14:1). So the modern Church which for these purposes I propose to define, for reasons that should become clear, as beginning in 1886, has witnessed a whole harvest of distinctively contemporary masters and mistresses of prayer. Their prayer life appears to have arisen with a force and intensity unusual in the history of spirituality from out of a sense of what their very existence demanded. They could not take prayer for granted, and then, on that basis, have useful and illuminating things to say about it. They found out, rather, that for them existence was not bearable without prayer. Theirs was existential praying. There will be more to say about this phrase later; meanwhile, it will suffice to stake out the bald claim that this is, firstly, the feature detectable among modern masters of prayer which most justifies our seeing a family resemblance between them, and, secondly, that such an ethos of prayer has something valuable, or even invaluable, to offer those who, like them, have to find God concretely, personally, in the spiritual desert of modern society.

From Notre Dame to Auschwitz

Christmas night 1886. If we want an hour of clock time by which to date the beginning of a notably contemporary experience of sanctity and prayer, we might do worse than to select this, It was at Vespers at Notre Dame de Paris on Christmas Day 1886 that Paul Claudel, the poet and dramatist, came to his sudden overwhelming realisation of God as a simplicity that could enter all the complexities of life and master them. He described this experience as '
a sudden, piercing sense of the innocence, of the eternal childhood, of God, a revelation quite beyond the power of words to express'. [1]

On the same night a little girl, brought up in the mould of a conventional middle-class piety, received (in her own words) the 'grace of full conversion. . . the grace to leave my childhood behind', so as to discover, in place of the enclosed and protected world of affluent and affectionate parents, the divine Childhood itself, with its inexhaustible yet, once again, simplifying demands. [2] It was the custom, in the Martin household, to put 'surprises' for the youngest, idolised daughter in a special pair of 'enchanted slippers' in the fireplace. That Christmas night, in dawning horror, Thérèse overheard her father, tired and irritable after Midnight Mass, saying in the drawing-room, 'Well, thank goodness it's the last year this is going to happen'.

Céline [her sister], who knew how touchy I was, saw my eyes shining with tears and was ready to cry herself; in her loving sympathy, she knew exactly what I was feeling. 'Oh, Thérèse,' she said, 'don't go down just yet; it'll only make you miserable looking inside your slippers now!'

These may seem unpromising materials for a conversion experience, but this was how Thérèse of Lisieux came to understand this moment.

She didn't know the Thérèse she was dealing with; our Lord had changed me into a different person. I dried my tears and went down at once; my heart was beating fast, but I managed to get hold of my slippers and put them down in front of Papa, and as I took out my presents you would have thought that I was as happy as a queen. Papa smiled, his good humour restored, and Celine thought she must be dreaming. But no, it was a sublime reality . . .[3]

Three years after this loss of natural childhood, Thérèse entered Carmel to devote herself to a life of prayer, regular observance and mortification. But when she tried to pray, her childhood piety shattered, all she could see was the God of fear and majesty, to be reached, if at all, only by a great ladder even whose lowest rung was above her reach. At best, this God was a God with two faces, one loving, the other severe and unsearchable. The offices and prayers she recited with her community were addressed to this Janus-God. The methods of meditation put before her seemed to her like step-ladders for the impossible task of reaching stars, and left her as far away as before from the God she sought.

Under the pressure of this experience, she discovered in the Scriptures what she called the '
little way of spiritual childhood', a spirituality which consisted in seeing God as loving father, and herself as a little child. She rediscovered the openness and serene loving trustfulness of her own childhood, but this time no longer as limited by her family circle or circumscribed by any finite context of support. It was now a childhood open to the infinite, to the God of the mysteries of creation and redemption, who asks of his children a love as wide as the world. She felt irresistibly drawn to a way of being that was at the same time a way also of loving and praying. Her prayer became simply the experience of response to the living God, whose love is more demanding than his wrath, a prayer in which the soul knows its own radical need of God, is aware that it is in the desert, yet rejoices to be there for here is where the true God is to be found, and where channels of love can be scoured in the self that will unite her at the deepest level to others. As the Autobiography puts it:

Even a little child can scatter flowers, to scent the throne-room with their fragrance; even a little child can sing, in its shrill treble, the great canticle of Love. That shall be my life, to scatter flowers -to miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word, always doing the tiniest things right, and doing it for love. I shall suffer all that I have to suffer - yes, and enjoy all my enjoyments too - in the spirit of love, so that I shall always be scattering flowers before your throne; nothing that comes my way but shall yield up its petals in your honour. And, as I scatter my flowers, I shall he singing; how could one be sad when occupied so pleasantly? 1 shall be singing, even when 1 have to pluck my flowers from a thorn-bush; never in better voice than when the thorns are longest and sharpest. I don't ask what use they will be to you, Jesus, these flowers, this music of mine; I know that you will take pleasure in this fragrant shower of worthless petals, in these songs of love in which a worthless heart like mine sings itself out.

And Thérèse goes on, in Ronald Knox's translation, to speak of how this 'floral tribute' of a prayed existence will be turned, in heavenly fashion, into a mediation for others of the grace of Christ.

Because they give pleasure to you, the Church triumphant in heaven will smile upon them too; will take these flowers so bruised by love and pass them on into your divine hands. And so the Church in heaven, ready to take part in the childish game I am playing, will begin scattering these flowers, now hallowed by your touch beyond all recognition; will scatter them on the souls in Purgatory, to abate their sufferings, scatter them on the Church Militant, and give her the strength for fresh conquests. [4]

Thérèse's autobiography, stylistically too perfumed for English taste, though its (literally) flowery language belongs with what has been called an entire 'flower poetic' in nineteenth-century French literature, opens many of the doors to distinctively modern holiness. [5] First, there is candour in regard to one's anxiety at 'being a self', for selfhood becomes more of an agendum than a datum - more of a do-it-yourself job than something given - when the pattern defining human existence in a traditional society is stripped away, and the religious metaphysic undergirding the sense of reality cast aside. Secondly, we find as a consequence an interior experience of that desert which, historically, Christian monks have sought exteriorly, for now the desert is experienced as existence itself. A third hallmark of Thérèse's spiritual manifesto is the emphasis on the supreme simplicity of encounter with God, modelled as her presentation is on a small number of crucial biblical incidents and passages. Fourthly, she stands for a complete coincidence of life and prayer. And fifthly this text characterises the fundamental dynamism of prayer as love - a love that unites one simultaneously to God and to neighbour, by a movement whose direction is, therefore, neither 'vertical' nor 'horizontal' but sui generis, participating in the unique salvific mission of the incarnate Word, for whom obedience to the Father and the salvation of the world were one and the same, and whose disciples, accordingly, do not see the neighbour except in God, nor God apart from the Mystical Body of Christ.

Thérèse's doctrine, originating as it does with a cloistered nun who died of tuberculosis at the early age of 25, may strike us as simply naïve, unless we realise the crucial role played in the subversion of the Gospel, in the closing years of the last century, by attack on Jesus' teaching about the need to become 'as little children'. For Marxism, it is not by receiving but by my own act, my own labours that I become myself. With the Nietzsche of Thus Spake Zarathustra, the child is reinstated, but as a monstrous prodigy, a symbol of the hoped-for 'new man', beyond the 'death of God', a being self-created, or, in Nietzsche's own words, 'a game, a self-moving wheel, a first movement, a sacred affirmation'. Moreover, scepticism about the divine Child of Bethlehem and Nazareth was becoming a commonplace of an intellectually self-absorbed theological liberalism. In 1892, the very year of Thérèse's discovery of the way of spiritual childhood, the Lutheran historian of doctrine Adolf von Harnack, together with twenty-four other Liberal Protestant professors, published the 'Eisenach Declaration' which stated that 'no decisive significance for faith' could be ascribed to the narratives found in the opening chapters of the first and third Gospels. They thus deprived a spirituality of childhood of its Christological foundation, the assumption of childhood by the Son of God. For orthodoxy, by contrast, the divine Word anticipates his later adult teaching, 'Unless you turn and become like children . . .', by becoming a child himself. He comes to us in the humility and simplicity with which he wants us through him, to go to the Father. [6]

But let us return through the six years to 1886, the symbolic date at which I place the beginning of spiritual modernity - that is, modern spirituality - in the Catholic Church of the West. It was in that same winter of 1886-7 that a young cavalry officer, Charles de Foucauld,. made the first communion of his conversion at the Parisian eglise saint Augustin - the parish of a noted spiritual director, the abbé Henri Huvelin. De Foucauld, finding the somewhat vacuous existence of a man-about-town intolerable after his experience of fighting with the French army in the North African desert, had gone into the confessional of this formidable priest. He stayed standing, leaned forward toward the grille, and said, '
Monsieur l'Abbé, I haven't got the faith. I have come to ask you to instruct me'. To his surprise, the occupant of the box replied, 'Kneel down and make your confession to God. You will believe'. 'But I didn't come for that!' 'Make your confession' was the gruff reply from out of a sacerdotal confidence rarely met with nowadays. [7] Certain gestures allow certain attitudes to arise. The formulation comes from the dramatist Bertolt Brecht, but the underlying truth was known already to Pascal. The decision to act in a certain way, to take up a particular posture by something one does, can enable one to shift the vantage-point from which the world is seen. One can argue interminably about God's existence, but to receive it into the heart as a truth assented to at all levels of the personality, a truth held, in Newman's words, 'with real assent', requires an act of love, the kind of act in which the bonds of egocentrism are snapped so that one can step into the spacious world of being at large. Sometimes, choosing to act in a certain way, choosing a particular form of existence, is the only way through to a theoretical grasp of truth. This is, I take it, an important element in the meaning of the word 'existential', and it is well illustrated in this encounter between these two men, one of whom had already achieved, and the other of whom was about to embark upon, an impressively deep life of prayer.

It was Huvelin who gave to de Foucauld, and so to the Petits Frères (and Soeurs) who follow him, their spirituality of the heart of Christ as the matrix of prayer.
[8] In this teaching, Christ's heart is seen as the source from which human beings can be rejuvenated, to the point of finding their own hearts alive with Christ's love, especially for the wretched, the sick, the poor. For de Foucauld, personal devotion to the heart of Christ is the central and irreplaceable focus of the life of prayer, and, so far from, as is sometimes alleged, leading to a self-indulgent and individualistic piety, it is the essential way in which to affirm the universal scope of the Incarnation. He wrote of the brotherhood he dreamed of but never lived to see:

They will not be missionaries exactly, but they will form a cloistered family, vowed to adore the Sacred Host exposed day and night. They will have no financial security but will live in poverty and work. They won't preach except by their silence, which is always more eloquent than words. They will be adorers bringing the Master to the Infidel. If just the very touch of the hem of Christ's Garment could heal a sick woman, think how much his presence in the Sahara could do.

And on the basis of this life centred on the Eucharist as the sacrament of charity, the fruit of the loving sacrifice of the Christ whose heart was broken on the cross, he wrote from his Saharan hermitage:

I want all the inhabitants [of this place], whether Christians, Moslems, Greeks, Jews or idolaters, to look upon me as their brother, the universal brother. They begin to call the house the 'fraternity'. . . I must embrace all men for God's sake in the same love and the same self-forgetfulness as Jesus.

In 1909, he made his last visit to France. From then on, the desert would be his abiding home. In 1910 the abbé Huvelin died, on his lips the words
Nun quam satis amabo, 'I shall never love enough'. In the same year, 1910, another French Catholic based in North Africa, the young Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, left Cairo so as to begin fresh studies at Paris. He was to offer in his own spirituality, as interpreted by cardinal Henri de Lubac, a remarkable theological presentation of de Foucauld's fundamental intuition. If prayer, understood as loving devotion to God in Christ, is truly authentic, then the one who prays will become a channel for Christ's divinising presence, with unlimited ramifications. Prayer is to be at once more personal and more cosmic, more closely related to the entire work of God in creation and transfiguration.

According to de Lubac, it was in the context of prayer that Teilhard found his way to a sense of the God of Christian faith which would make sense in a world increasingly aware through scientific discovery of the immensity of the cosmos, and the power to master nature which technology places in human hands. For Teilhard, the inner dynamism of the cosmos, seen in the emergence of man in the evolutionary process, is '
personogenesis', the making of persons, but only the heart of Christ fully reveals and realises the personifying depth of the Creator's love. As he wrote: 'The true infinite is not an infinite of dispersion, but of concentration'. And de Lubac places next to this statement Claudel's Magnificat, which celebrates his conversion in that Christmas of 1886.

Lord, I have found you.
You have cast down the idols,
and now I see you as a person.

In God, for Teilhard, lies the ultra-personal, and ultra-personalising centre. In prayer we place ourselves within this centre's radiance. Indeed prayer is existence in the ambience of this personalising centre of the world. He traced the conflict that was ravaging the world by 1940 mainly to 'the inner fact that men have despaired of this personality of God'. For Teilhard, the sacred heart of Jesus is the point from which the fire of God bursts into the cosmic milieu to set it ablaze with love. In prayer, we relocate ourselves in this divine source, and in contemplating him, contemplate at the same time the destiny of our world. Prayer, precisely through being Christocentric, has a cosmic significance. [11]

At the time when Teilhard was penning his analysis of the spiritual roots of the second great European war of this century as the product of a failure of the spirit of prayer, the result of despair about the possibility of abandoning oneself to the personalising centre of the universe, another Carmelite (but this time a woman as different as could be from Thérèse Martin), a sophisticated don in a German University, a Jewess, and convert in adult life to Catholicism, was entering the gas-chambers of Auschwitz. St Edith Stein has left a testimony of mastery in prayer no less remarkable than Thérèse's. Like hers, it stresses two characteristically modern notes that I have mentioned: the need for a self-abandonment to God deeper than customary in conventional piety, and the discovery of a way to new life in God through accepting the darkness, the felt absence of God, in a spirit of trust, and even of joy. [12] Edith Stein was herself someone whose conversion witnesses to the primacy of the existential. The stuff of a praying life - in her case that of Thérèse of Lisieux's own patron, the Mother of Carmel, Teresa of Avila, whose name Stein would take in religion - (Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) - can open up a fresh perspective on reality. After reading that foundational autobiography of the Carmelites, Teresa's Vida, Edith remarked: Das ist die Wahrheit, 'This is the truth' - the truth, that is, simultaneously of Teresa and God, since if such a woman is real, then so too is God. [13] From out of her own praying years, and on the eve of the Nazi holocaust of Jewry in which she perished, Edith Stein wrote:

To be a child of God, that means: to be led by the Hand of God, to do the will of God, not one's own will, to place every care and every hope in the Hand of God and not to worry about oneself or one's future. On this rests the freedom and the joy of the child of God. But how few even of the truly pious, even of those ready for heroic sacrifices, possess this freedom! They all walk as if bent down by the heavy burden of their cares and duties.

Edith goes on to offer a way of understanding spiritually the apparent absence of God in the modern world.

God is there. But he is hidden and silent. Why is this so? We are speaking of the mysteries of God and these cannot be completely penetrated. But we may look into them a little. . . God has become Man in order once more to give us a share in his life . . . The suffering and death of Christ are continued in his mystical Body and in each of his members. . . And so a soul united to Christ will stand firm, unshaken even in the dark night of feeling estranged from and abandoned by God. Perhaps divine Providence uses her agony to deliver another, who is truly a prisoner cut off from God. [14]

Praying from out of spiritual darkness, in other words, bears a relation to the prayer of Christ in Gethsemane, on the cross, and in the descent into Hell - and so carries a redemptive charge for others. And this, to return in my end to my beginning, is how, on the scale of the entire Mystical Body, the novelist and dramatist Georges Bernanos understood the mission of (the 'little') St Thérèse. In his Les grands cimitières sous la lune, written under the impact of the Spanish Civil War and the coming pan-European conflagration, he wrote of her and of the influence of her 'little way' on modern Catholic spirituality:

It may, after all, have been among the intentions of this mysterious girl to allow our wretched world a moment of supreme respite, to give it a breathing space in the shade of its familiar mediocrity, since those little hands, innocent and terrible little hands, expert in cutting out paper flowers, though chapped to the bone by laundry chlorine, have sown a seed whose growth nothing can now stop.' [5]

And in the same author's Dialogues des Carmelites, a play set in the French Revolution, understood as the archetype of the political upheavals of this century, and an initiation of Godlessness, the prioress carries an image of the Holy Child from cell to cell for the sisters to venerate on Christmas night. Soeur Blanche, whose fear of death occupies the centre of the drama, murmurs, 'How small he is, and how weak'. 'No', replies Mère Marie, 'How small he is and how strong." [16]


May we sum up then the main family resemblance of some masters and mistresses of prayer in the last hundred years? First, a childlike simplicity which is a true childhood in its dependence, openness and self-surrender, yet is a childhood in a new mode, the fruit of detachment, self-sacrifice and self-transcendence. Second, a prayer which is existential in the sense that it is prepared to allow itself to run on beyond what the analytic or calculating intelligence alone might make of it. A prayer which, in this sense, is willing to be taught by experience, since it is open to the mysterious depths of man (and woman) living with God. Third, a prayer which is at one and the same time intensely personal, indeed devotional, vis-à-vis the figure of Jesus Christ and yet also cosmic, aware of the vast dimensions of God's creative and transformative work, and can be both of these together since Jesus Christ himself is, as the pre-existent Logos, the Word through which the world was made, and, as the crucified and risen Lord, the foundation of the new world of the resurrection. Fourthly, and finally, this is a prayer especially at home in the desert, whether of the Sahara, of Auschwitz, or simply of the modern city, because it knows that, in accepting in a generous spirit our deprivation of many of the conventional props and assurances of a culturally transmitted religion we may be ushered with peculiar immediacy into the presence of the living God. One cannot but think here of David Walsh's powerful case that in the lonely struggles of such figures as Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn the crisis of I modernity is already (proleptically, by anticipation) resolved.

Theirs is an insight that has been achieved by living through the spiritual and political crisis that has defined our era . . .,confronting the darkness at its core and surmounting it by means of the spiritual truth beyond it . . . Indeed, the degree to which they have won through to an order of existence beyond the ideological madness has made the depth of their understanding possible. Only someone who has broken out of the restricted horizon of ideology can see clearly what has been left behind. And only those who have fully contemplated the abyss can be sure of having attained the spiritual truth capable of overcoming it. [17]

Some caveats

Is our age, then, in some sense an especially favoured age for Spirituality? I think not, for reasons both
a priori and a posteriori. A priori, it is part and parcel of the Lordship of the crucified and risen Christ over history that no age of the Church can better any other in so constitutive an aspect of mankind's sharing in the mystery of the Saviour. But also, a posteriori, the kind of prayer I have tried to describe, though it has undeniable greatnesses which I have tried to bring out, has also the vices of its virtues. I want in conclusion to mention three. First, such a simplified existential prayer, centred on the charity of the heart, is exposed to the danger of its own caricature, which is a sentimental subjectivism. Where such a spirituality becomes disengaged from the wider theological, historical, sacramental and moral structure found in the Church's doctrine, it rapidly degenerates into a vague mystical benevolence, as with Teilhardisme at its worst, or into the sentimental banalities of many modern prayer cards, with their kittens, butterflies and soporifically trivial uplifting thoughts. 'All you need is love' is both a truth and an untruth, or, rather, it has its properly evangelical truth only in the context of all the dogmas of the Church. It is, I think, instructive that one of the rare canonical interventions of Church authority in matters of iconography in modern Catholicism was precisely this: the forbidding of the making and venerating of images of Christ consisting in a heart alone. In this sense, an important corrective to the spiritualities I have been describing is found in the deliberately archaising spiritual theology of the Irish Benedictine, and later abbot of Maredsous, in Belgium, Columba Marmion. [18] Marmion, who began his monastic life in my crucial year, 1886, went back to the Fathers and the best of the mediaevals so as to produce a spirituality of participation in the mysteries of redemption, seen as historic events with everlasting significance, re-presented in the liturgical cycle and demanding from the worshipper the development of a range of relevant virtues. Without the aid of this wider structure, the modern Christian can easily fall victim to the false consciousness which a modem Anglican writer describes as follows:

Religion is perceived to be the heaped-up accumulation of the agreeable; God is love, and therefore he is to be envisaged as the great guarantor of whatever in life makes for human satisfaction. In its sentimentalised representations contemporary Christianity has become an uncomplicated sanctifying of the pathetic human disposition to seek basic emotional companionship, and in its intellectualised manifestations it mounts to a variation of the common humanist preoccupation with the values of human moral consciousness. [19]

I will deal more briefly with my second and third a posteriori objections. The second caveat to enter concerns the lack of any developmental account of prayer in these spiritualities. It is true that the variety of human temperament and experience, as well as the diversity of God's gifts, rules out of court any fully systematic description of progress in contemplation. Indeed the attempt to impose one single phenomenology of prayer and mysticism (usually a conflation of the accounts given by the two sixteenth-century Carmelite doctors, John of the Cross and the great Teresa) has done harm in both theory and practice. Surely, however, there are some statements about stages in which the development of prayer and, hopefully, contemplation, can helpfully be made, not least because a large number of texts from the tradition of spiritual doctrine testify to them in various ways.

Thirdly and lastly, I am left with the uncomfortable impression that such an apparently simple and foundational approach to prayer as the existential one is only in fact possible - paradoxically - for elite souls. Those who would sacrifice religion to save faith may end up by losing both. To perform a feat of abstraction reducing to a state of sublime spiritual simplicity both the complexities of God's approach to us in
revelation and its continuance in the Church's Tradition and the complexities of our response to him in our varied needs, situations and stages on life's way, is an achievement of which comparatively few people will ever be capable, this side of the beatific vision. In any widespread or popular form, mystical holiness will always be bound to a ramified and somewhat untidy devotional culture - hence the need for a re-creation of that '
Christendom', with a social ethos founded on transparency to revelation - whose passing, in the course of the nineteenth century, was the presupposition of my story.


1. Cited N. D. O'Donoghue, 'The Paradox of Prayer',
Doctrine and Life 24.1 (January, 1974), pp. 26-37.

2. Ibid.

3. R. Knox (tr.),
Autobiography of a Saint. Thérèse of Lisieux (London, 1958), pp. 127-8.

4. Ibid., pp. 237-8. Knox was able to use, for the first time in English, the full authentic text of Thérèse's
Histoire. A complete edition of her writings, and material pertinent to her life and mission, was produced in the years 1971 to 1989 by the Parisian Editions du Centenaire under the general editorship of D. Delalande, O.C.D. For Thérèse's spirituality see especially P. Descouvement, 'Thérèse de l'Enfant Jesus', in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité 15 (Paris, 1991), cols. 576-611. An outstanding study is B. Bro, OP., La Gloire et le Mendiant (Paris, 1974).

5. P. Knight,
Flower Poetics in Nineteenth Century France (Oxford, 1986). Cf. also E. M. Forster's report of a literary culture far removed in space from the French: 'Pathos, they [Aziz and his friends] agreed, is the highest quality in art; a poem should touch the hearer with a sense of his own weakness, and should institute some comparison between mankind and flowers', A Passage to India (London, 1924; 1995), p. 130.

6. J. Saward, 'Faithful to the Child I Used to Be. Bernanos and the Spirit of Childhood',
Chesterton Review XV 4/XVI. 1. pp. 465-86, who refers us to N. Hausman, Frédéric Nietzsche. Thérèse de Lisieux. Deux poétiques de Ia modernité (Paris, 1984)

7. M. Trouncer,
Charles de Foucauld (London, 1972).

8. Ibid., p. 64. See M. T. Louis-Lefebvre,
Abbé Huvelin, Apostle of Paris, 1839- 1910 (FT Dublin and London, 1967), pp. 9-10. See also P. Lethellieux,
Un prêtre, 1 'abbé Huvelin 1838-1910. Avec de nouveaux documents (Paris,

9. Trouncer,
Charles de Foucauld, p. 149. For de Foucauld's spirituality, see J. F. Six, Itinéraire spirituel de Charles de Foucauld (Paris, 1958); his correspondence with Huvelin was edited by Six (Tournai, 1957). For his own writings, published and unpublished, see P. Quesnel, Charles de Foucauld: les etapes d'une recherche (Paris, 1966).

10. Cited H. de Luhac,
La Prière dii Tel/hard de Chardin (Paris, 1964); ET The Faith of Teilhard de Chardin (London, 1965), p. 14.

11. On Teilhard's attempt to marry the cultus of the Sacred Heart with a cosmic Christology, see ibid., pp. 46-8.
Pace Teilhard's critics, while he by no means altogether escaped the temptation of pantheism, he tried to neutralise that temptation by stressing how the action of love - in this case, divine love - is both differentiating and communicative. Orthodox faith in Incarnation and Eucharist imply both the absolutely distinct reality of God and creature and their most intimate union.

12. See H. Graef,
The Scholar and the Cross: the Life and Work of Edith Stein (London, 1955), who stresses, pp. 90, 130, Edith's teaching on silence, emptiness, and renunciation of self as things to be practised not only by Carmelites but by all the baptised.

13. R. Posselt (Teresia Renata a Spiritu Sancto, O.C.D.), Edith Stein,
Schwester Teresia Benedicta a Cruce. Philosophin und Karmeliten (Freiburg, 1962), pp 55-6; see also N. D. O'Donoghue, 'The Witness of St Theresa', Doctrine and Life 20 (1970), pp. 672-3: 'There is no explaning away that strong, delicate process of transformation by which she became what she became. "All that dower of lights and fires" which the poet [Crashaw] saw in her could only have come from above: it was indeed a dowry, something given by a loving father, enriching the bride for that high marriage of the spirit of which terrestrial marriage is but a faint reflection.'

14. Cited Graef,
The Scholar and the Cross, pp. 139-40. One can compare with this the ideas of the Anglican lay theologian Charles Williams on the possible scope of 'coinherence', the applying of redemptive suffering to another. See G. Cavaliero, Charles Williams. Poet of Theology (London and Basingstoke, 1983), pp. 135-7

15. G. Bernanos,
Les grands cimitières sous la lune (Paris, 1930), p. 242.

16. Bernanos,
Oeuvres romanesques (Paris, 1961), p. 1656. I draw these citations from Saward, 'Faithful to the Child'.

17. D. Walsh, After Ideology. Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (San Francisco, 1990), p. xii.

18. '
Perhaps the greatest spiritual master of the past century', declared the
(no doubt biased!) editors of his English language correspondence. See
C. Ghyssens, O.S.B., and T. Delforge, O.S.B. (eds),
The English Letters of
Abbot Marmion
, 1858-1 923 (Dublin, 1962), p. 5. The most recent life, which
uses manuscript sources uncovered in the course of preparing Marmion's
Cause, is M. Tierney, O.S.B.,
Dom Columba Marmion. A Biography (Blackrock,
Co. Dublin, 1994). See also Aidan Nichols, OP., 'In the Catholic Tradition:
Dom Columba Marmion (1858-1923)',
Priests and People 11.7 (1997), pp.

19. E. Norman,
Entering the Darkness. Christianity and its Modern Substitutes (London, 1991), p. 33.

This Version: 18th July 2009

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