Friday, September 10, 2010

Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion

By Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe, 347 pages, IV Press.

Longing for God uncovers great riches in Christianity's 2000 year-old history. Christianity's vast sweep of people and traditions demands organization. The authors have separated the major currents of Christian spirituality into 7 patterns.

Foster and Beebe respect the tradition enough that they stick quite closely to the original thinking of these Christians rather than overly-psychoanalyzing them. In discussing St. Augustine (354-430), they examine the relationship between reason and faith according to the saint. They note:

"The right use of reason allows us to recognize our need for God. But reason cannot lead us to union with God. It can only show us that God is not present and help us recognize the depth of our need for God."

Longing for God does not attempt to convert atheists; it is not an antidote to the storm of atheist-inspired books. Most of the spiritual writers portrayed assumed their readers believe in God and need no proof for God's existence. Beebe and Foster, and the spiritual teachers they portray, are demanding in the level of Christian commitment they expect from readers. They offer no shortcuts on the spiritual life.

In fact, Longing for God uncovers an important, oft-forgotten theme – the long, slow, and penitential journey towards God. Again and again, the saints covered emphasize the importance of humbly acknowledging one's sinfulness before the Father. Further spiritual growth cannot occur until this exhaustive, oft-repeated examination of conscience is completed. In writing of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Foster and Beebe note: "Like Augustine before him, Bernard believed that we always love but do not always love properly."

St. Bernard, like many Christian writers, showed how love of God demanded love of neighbor. Love of God could never be genuine without loving others. In turn, Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) overcame his fear of lepers to love them – and other social outcasts – and has ever since been identified with the stigmata, which signified his imitation of Christ.

Longing for God gives the reader some background to the lives of these spiritual writers, demonstrating how their relationship with God, and their spiritual writings, happened within a concrete social reality. They note, when referring to Francis and the late-medieval writers: "At the rise of the thirteenth century, the church began to look again to Jesus... [M]edieval Christians renewed their focus on the person and work of Christ," and especially to the imitation of Christ.

This personalized, emotional spirituality led to the great fourteenth-century English mystics such as Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), famous for her intensely personal mystical experiences. She became a spiritual adviser to rich and poor, and emphasized a loving relationship with God rather than spending much time developing doctrine.

This individualism contributed to the Protestant Reformation, but also to the Catholic Reformation. Saints Ignatius of Loyala and Teresa of Avila transformed the Church not according to doctrine or opposing the pope, but according to inner spiritual conversion. Both Catholic and Protestant reforming paths emphasized the individual's personal relationship with Christ.

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