A spirituality for today – sparked by gems from the past

Denise M Ackermann

  • Preliminary matters

This is an impossible title. I got myself into it by trying to reconcile a request from Quintus to do something historical with the fact that I am not an historian of Christian spirituality.  So – now I need to salvage what I can – from expectations that I may have created by making a few qualifications. First, what I shall attempt to outline is clearly personal, drawn from my own experience. Second, it is imperative to state clearly that there are a myriad of spiritualities today. There is no such thing as one correct spirituality. Spirituality is shaped by one’s context, traditions, denomination and lastly, but most importantly, by one’s experience. To put myself in the picture, I am a practical theologian, an Anglican, and someone who has for the last 40 years explored different dimensions of Christian spirituality as I seek to respond to God’s call on me. I have also done this because I have found it impossible to separate theology and spirituality into two different spheres of my life.

To begin with my understanding of Christian spirituality: it is about a living relationship with God in Jesus Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, lived out in the community of believers and in the world. Spirituality draws on and is formed out of prayer, the bible, Christian practices and theology. Since western theology has reflected more seriously on human experience in its contextual and cultural particularity, spirituality is no longer seen as abstract spiritual theology but as a dynamic, central ingredient for the life of the faithful.

This fairly comprehensive understanding of spirituality does not leave me entirely satisfied. It is comprehensive yes, but it lacks the passion, the tears and the groans, the contradictoriness, the element of surprise, and the persistent inner longing that I believe is inherent to spirituality. The Christian faith is an experience of engagement and questioning, of allowing the intractable strangeness of our beliefs to challenge our fixed assumptions. It is both simple and complex, both light and dark. Rowan Williams writes: “…the greatness of the great Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked and left speechless by that which lies at the centre of their faith.”  What lies at the centre of faith is both clear – we are saved by God’s loving grace in Jesus Christ – and it is mysterious – clothed in paradoxes and infinitely challenging. A spirituality for today is one that can live with freedom and hope in the tensions that arise between dependence and autonomy, knowing and not knowing, faith and doubt.

I need not dwell on just how complex and challenging life is today. “Spirituality becomes far more than a science of interpreting exceptional private experiences; it 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. And the goal of a Christian life becomes not enlightenment but wholeness – an acceptance of this complicated and muddled bundle of experiences as a possible theatre for God’s creative work”, writes Williams.  Spirituality is our response to God’s call to wholeness – or differently put it is the call on us to live into our holiness. It is intimate movement in God to God.


  • Gems from the past?

Can we learn from the past in shaping present Christian attitudes, values and lifestyles? Surely circumstances and our needs are different today? Yes, circumstances are different, and no, our needs are much the same as those experienced millennia ago. In a recent talk to the faculty of theology at the University of Stellenbosch, I said that our journeys were fragile and full of potholes and I mentioned one pothole that is a particular contemporary challenge. We live in times of consumer spirituality. There is a teeming market place of different spiritualities that can be sampled at little cost – feel-good spirituality, spirituality of popular songs (mostly with poor music and theologically meaningless lyrics), novelties in the form of esoteric techniques, as well as a good body of serious writing on the subject. There is also the temptation in churches to make spirituality yet another programme – one we will devise and present to our people for their consumption. There is so much available that our twenty-first century consumer mentalities can make us flit like butterflies from one offer to another in search of THE spiritual experience. But once the buzz of novelty wears off we are left with little more than a shallow memory and the compulsion to move on to the next offer.

Spiritual tourism is not the same as following our deepest longing for God. This has not changed. Longing for the Transcendent has been part of human experience since the beginning. It is what the German poet Rainier Maria Rilke described as Herz-Werk, work of the heart. Our longing is our tool, for our longing is where the Holy Spirit is. Perhaps this longing is what Karl Barth termed “that incurable God-sickness”. My contention is that the history of Christianity is a rich resource for contemporary Christians, as it contains ideas, values and practices that are deeply relevant in the context of the twenty-first century.

Now I am confronted with a further problem arising from my impossible title. Our Christian tradition is full of enduring treasures of over 2000 years to choose from. As I said I have had to make choices. The pickings are rich. I love the simple wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers. I am awed by their refusal of any view that will make human maturity before God dependent on external stimulus, good thoughts, good impressions, edifying influences and ideas. Instead they had to learn to live with their own darkness, with temptation and fantasy, restlessness and unsatisfied desire in inhospitable environments. They sought the roots of illusion in themselves and for them the Christian life was a ceaseless engagement of the will. Later the Reformers were to object to any glorification of the will at the expense of grace. But there is something that we can learn from these early Christians’ acceptance of failure, their joyful giving of themselves and their support and love of one another. We can then turn to Augustine (354-430) and learn much of the experience of grace or, if we struggle with living in harmony with one another, Benedict of Nursia’s lucid, pithy and realistic Rule (c.540) is a work of rare genius. Obedience, stability and openness to change are a rare combination for communal living. No one has wrestled more insightfully with the way of paradox than Meister Eckhart (1260-1327). The 14th and 15th centuries in Europe produced a remarkable flowering of mysticism. The Cloud of Unknowing, a brilliant little summary of contemplation, counsels us: “Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know….By love he may be touched and embraced, never by thought”.  Julian of Norwich’s (c.1342-c.1413) Revelations of Divine Love with its emphasis on love and hope, is essential reading for anyone wanting to explore spiritual gems of the past. And then there is Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) about whom I shall say more presently. Having painted myself into a corner by sticking to the past, it would not be fair to explore the spirituality of Desmond Tutu and what it has meant to many contemporary Christians.

Overwhelmed by the riches in our tradition, I have had had to make choices – I would love to talk about the desert, awareness, lament, meditation, spiritual direction, holiness – the list it far too long. So I have selected three specific themes that have been central to the shaping of my spirituality today because they are central to my prayer life. They are the experience of longing, listening with discernment in prayer and how to live with the tensions and contradictions of our faith. To illustrate these themes and how they are vital to prayer, I turn to three writers whose work spans some 1600 years. They are Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas Merton.


  • The experience of longing

Every single Christian manual on spirituality contains something about the experience of longing, simply because it is foundational for spirituality. It is both the entry point and a life-long pursuit.  Talk about longing leads me to Augustine’s Confessions.  The Confessions is a book of dangers and delights. Its title is significant. For Augustine, confessio meant “accusation of oneself; praise of God”. When in 401 Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, theologian, preacher, and controversialist, published his Confessions, he was not indulging in self-advertisement. This was a new kind of book, says Peter Brown in his remarkable biography of Augustine.  Entering middle-age, forced to adjust to the new life of being a bishop, this was a time for self-examination, for coming to terms with himself and for asking: Why is this so? Augustine confronted his experience of longing for God relentlessly, encapsulated in that well-known phrase:. “…you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”.

Much of the Confessions (particularly the first nine books) centres on the image of homecoming – the longing to come home to God. This is what Augustine longs for. He sees God waiting for the soul to come back to its home with God. Without being at home in God, nothing has meaning. Longing is not without pain. This Augustine knew when he wrote: “Who will enable me to find rest in you?… The house of my soul is too small for you to come in to it. May it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins: restore it….”.  Being prepared to follow our longing for God is an experience of self-doubt, of times of drought, as well as times of sunlight and joy.
So we find that our identity is ultimately in God’s hands.  For Augustine the soul is at home only in God, because there alone it is itself, in the love and knowledge of God, held in God’s hands.

What does this mean for our prayers? It does not mean that we will vanish into “an impersonal cosmic unity”.  It is much more personal and much more immediate. Prayer is after all the experience of being in love, while at the same time it is the experience of discovering what we are in love with. In this sense it is a journey of self-discovery and God-discovery – of knowing yourself and knowing God. It means that as we follow our longing, we will rediscover the eternal, patient, and faithful love of the Creator who made us to enjoy us, and who brings our restless hearts to rest. We will also learn to love ourselves as we are intended to do. To come home to God is to know oneself in knowing God. Self-knowledge and God knowledge are one and the same, said Augustine, some thousand years before Calvin. Augustine trusted the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the journey of the knowledge of the heart. Understanding this is vital for the way in which we prayer. Augustine shows us the way: “Accordingly let me confess of myself what I know of myself. Let me confess too that I do not know myself. For what I know of myself I know because you grant me light, what I do not know of myself, I do not know until such time as my darkness becomes like noonday before your face.”  Longing to come home is setting out on a journey, often filled with pain, labour, precious moments, never quite lost, responding to the ache of longing which nothing else can satisfy. It faces us with ourselves.

All Christian autobiography owes a debt to Augustine’s Confessions, not least of all the autobiography of Thomas Merton, to whose work I now refer.  Both Augustine and Merton wrestled with the intellectual demons of their respective times and both sought moral order in their personal lives. The Confessions touched Merton deeply as he sought to understand what it means to have faith. Born in 1915, Merton, after much searching, entered a Trappist monastery where he spent the last 27 years of his life until his death in 1968 in a freak accident. Merton was a prodigious writer whose work has given spiritual guidance to hundreds of thousands of Christians in our times.

Merton explored his longing in great depth. This led him to face his spiritual poverty. Knowing your spiritual poverty is not an exercise in self-loathing. It is the first and vital step in the life of prayer. Merton asked: “What does it mean to know and experience my own nothingness?”  He knew that it was not enough to turn away from our illusions and mistakes and to try to separate ourselves from them, pretending that we are really someone other than ourselves. As he said “This kind of self-annihilation is only a worse illusion, it is a pretended humility which, by saying ‘I am nothing’, I mean in effect ‘I wish I were not what I am’.” He continues to point out that spiritual poverty is our greatest challenge. Once faced with it we have to learn to love it and once we love it, we see that it is good and we cannot see that it is good, unless we accept it. It is good because in our helplessness and moral misery, we still know spiritual longing that attracts us to the mercy of God. In short, we learn to rely totally on God and become God-centred rather than self-centred. So, in a rather contradictory way, Merton could say: “to love nothingness (by this he means our spiritual poverty) we must love ourselves.” Discovering our spiritual poverty is the door to freedom because we then know that we rest in God in whom alone is our hope. This frees us from the tyrannies we impose on ourselves, from the demands of society to achieve, even from the demands of our religious institutions to be “good Christians”.

A brief anecdote from my experience. A couple of years ago I did a 30 day retreat at a Jesuit centre based on the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, about whom I shall say more presently. On the second day, I was given Ignatius’ prayer.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and call my own. You have given it all to me. To you, Lord, I return it.  Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, for this is sufficient for me.

I said to the wise and witty Irish nun who was my spiritual director for the retreat: “I can never pray this”. At the end of the 30 days this prayer became as natural as breathing to me. I had learnt something of my own poverty, that freed me from self-imposed limitations and filled me with joy.

Like Augustine, Merton knew the traps we fall into and the by-roads we choose as we attempt to follow our longing. He said: “The inner self is not an ideal self, especially not an imaginary, perfect creature fabricated to measure up to our compulsive need for greatness, heroism, and infallibility. On the contrary, the real ‘I’ is just simply ourself and nothing more. Nothing more, nothing less. Our self as we are in the eyes of God, to use Christian terms. Our self in all our uniqueness, dignity, littleness, and ineffable greatness: the greatness we have received from God our Father and that we share with Him because he is our Father and ‘In Him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28)”.

Both Merton and Augustine knew that the longing can only be assuaged by love – love of God that comes with mercy, forgiveness, and endless compassion. A last word from Augustine here from a deeply moving prayer of repentance and longing:

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel that hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.

More clearly than any other early Christian writer, Augustine paints the entirety of human experience caught up into grace and into God, providence at work in sin, doubt, confusion, complex and imperfect motivation. As Rowan Williams puts it: “…when God pulls taut the slack thread of desire, binding it to himself, the muddled and painful litter of experience is gathered together and given direction.”

  • Listening in prayer

We long – and then we listen for a response to our longing. On the opening evening of a conference in Heidelberg, Germany, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of renowned biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad, philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (then aged 101) stood up and said of von Rad: “There was a silence in him that came out of a deep listening”. Every one who knew von Rad attested to the truth of this statement. I have learnt that prayer is about listening, deep listening, listening that requires solitude and silence. In Thomas Merton’s words: “My life is a listening, His is a speaking.  My salvation is to hear and respond. For this, my life must be silent.  Hence my silence is my salvation”.

Listening implies waiting with the willingness to hear and obey the Word. The root of prayer and of our whole life is an unconditional “Yes” to God even when we do not understand what is going on. I believe that it is the Spirit who opens our hearts to the kind of listening that hears and receives the Word. Our  listening is our prayer. Does this sound a highly individualistic and self-centered activity?  It shouldn’t, for this is only half the story. Prayerful listening makes no distinction between the public and the private.   We ‘listen’ in order to act. Our deeds are the touchstone of our listening. Saying ‘Yes’ to God is made manifest in tangible actions for justice, love, peace and freedom. Christians listen together to the Word to make community open to and within the multi-layered reality that is ours. We join with people of faith throughout the ages, unknown believers of every age and place whose lives have been shaped and fed by the same Word.

Listening with awareness requires silence.  Effective silence needs solitude. Isaac of Nineveh says : “If you love truth, be a lover of silence ….”. In today’s world, silence and solitude seem luxuries accessible only to some.  Who can take time off to be silent in solitude, without jettisoning responsibilities, taking precious leave, losing income, or perhaps even endangering one’s job?  Going on a silent retreat is a privileged activity.  But it is on retreats that I learnt about listening in the silence. Jesus’ need for times of withdrawal and quiet is our template for retreats.

I turn now to my third spiritual guide, Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius, was born of a wealthy family in Loyola in the Basque region of Spain in 1491.  A year later, Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America. Ignatius started life as a soldier and ‘lived it up’ in the traditional sense of this phrase. In 1521 he was terribly wounded in battle. One leg was broken and the other injured.  The broken leg was set crooked, and was broken and reset in consuming pain. During his long convalescence, he asked for stories of chivalry, the staple diet for knights of his time, but when none were available, he read the lives of the saints instead. As he read, he found two warring impulses in himself. The first was to indulge in the delights that life could offer, and the second was to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Reflecting on being tugged in opposite directions, he realized that contemplating the pilgrimage was uplifting, even joyous, whereas a return to his previous ways left him feeling arid and unfulfilled.

This experience he described as a “transformation of the soul”. It was crucial to his discovery of the gift of discernment and it laid the foundation for the two central concepts of the Spiritual Exercises, consolation and desolation. This is not a book to read.  It is a guide for a silent retreat and will make little sense outside of putting it into practice. The purpose of the Spiritual Exercises is to lead a person to true spiritual freedom. I can attest to the profound spiritual insights of the Exercises. They are life-changing. The great gift of the Exercises is spiritual discernment.

Discernment means being attentive in our prayers to our inner promptings, and assessing them. It means distinguishing the movements for love, freedom, justice, dignity, and goodness (consolations) from those movements that lead to fear, tension, aridity, and envy (desolations). It is precisely in the moments of desolation that the Spirit is at work, lead us to look and hear afresh, to sift and to trust God in the process. Ignatius also pinpoints the realization of our spiritual poverty and our need of God as desolation. It is painful to face. It is the door to freedom. A consolation he says, is a free gift – not something we can control, buy or make our own. Without discerning these inner movements, we are not able to sift what is life-giving from what is not. Listening discerningly is a process of distinguishing what is consonant with God’s life and desire for us (consolation) and what is dissonant from God (desolation). Such listening takes place through the Spirit in the Word in the context of a listening community. Discernment shapes our prayers. How to discern in prayer is Ignatius’ great gift to the Christian tradition.

  • Living the tensions

We long, we listen and tensions surface. Who is my God? Can I love as I am called to? Years ago I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s description of God as ‘the Great Beyond in the midst of us’. It has stayed with me. We claim to know and to love God. Yet in a sense all we can know about God is that God is incomprehensible. We believe that God is the ground of our being on whom we are entirely dependent, yet we have to each grow to maturity in a sense over and against God – who is our everything. The ability to love is also ambivalent.  In order to love I must know what it is not to love. If we don’t we cannot grow in God’s love. Faith is a maze of contradictions.
A God who became a man
A victor who rides on a donkey in his hour of triumph
A saviour who is executed like some common thief
A king whose kingdom is not here but to come
A God who tells me that “when I am weak I am strong”
A God whose promise is that “in losing my life I shall find it”.

Christian spirituality is about learning to live with trust and hope in the middle of tensions and contradictions and this learning takes place in our prayers.  Tension has a bad name today. Yes, it can be destructive – but tension is the price of life. When we recognize tensions that are life-giving we will not fall prey so readily to tensions that are death-dealing. Tension is part of the universe itself. I am a scientific ignoramus, but I do know dimly that the very smallest particle gets its dynamic movement from both positive and negative charges. Tension, conflict, contradiction are part of trying to live as moral and spiritual beings.

Take the tension between faith and doubt. Paul tells us we walk by faith not by sight. Sight gives certainty, the inability to doubt. Faith is often confused with sight as though perfect faith would consist of complete certainty. I think this is a false assumption. It means that we have put our awkward questions to sleep within us. The result is some form of fundamentalism, or an uneasy complacency. But the person inside us who asks the awkward questions, will not go away easily. She will hide deep down and not be open and honest but sneak about causing tension that is not life-giving. We can end up feeling half dead holding on to a bogus faith.

Augustine, Ignatius and Merton all knew the reality of the tension between faith and doubt. All three of them wrote about doubt. Augustine expressed his doubt about the business of living, crying out to God: “What, Lord, do I wish to say except that I do not know whence I came to be in this mortal life or, as I may call it, this living death? I do not know where I come from”  Ignatius knew doubt and anxiety about God’s love and our response. “You cannot be a person of faith unless you know how to doubt.  You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning the authority of prejudice, even though that prejudice may seem religious”, says Merton.

The challenge of doubt, the awkward questions, surface when one is attempting to pray. I know this when praying for my children through difficult times or when praying for a friend whose beautiful daughter is killed right at the beginning of her professional life as a doctor. I know doubt at times as I pray for Zimbabwe. I know this when praying for a young friend who is dying painfully from cancer, a true man of God. As faith deepens, so does doubt. Faith and doubt develop together.  Doubt is no enemy of faith. The deeper one’s awareness, the greater the level of distrust of conventional wisdoms and the more the questions increase. This is necessary for the refining of belief.  Once I understood that to be sceptical and questioning of my beliefs was deeply part of my growing faith, I welcomed doubt.

Prayer is an act of integrity and truth. We speak our doubts to God, unambiguously, hiding nothing, not attempting to disguise or resort to pleasant pious talk.  The psalms, the cries of the prophets remind me of the integrity of doubt. The profound contradiction in the question: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” reveals for me the comfortable truth – nothing fits together in a coherent logical pattern in the journey of faith. When the scripture tells me that not a sparrow falls outside of God’s providence, part of my experience tells me that it is true and another part questions it. So often in the same breath I am able to say that it or this is true and that it or this is not true. That is the cross of faith. This Jesus showed me on Calvary. Doubts force us to speak truth in prayer. The Spanish novelist, poet and philosopher, Miguel Unamuno cautions us: “Those who believe they believe in God”, he said, “but without passion in their hearts, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, not in God himself”.

What would it mean for Christians today to follow our longing with dedicated passion, to seek discernment through prayer, and to learn to live in the tensions and contradictions of our faith with integrity and hope? I think it would mean a witness that can change the world.

In conclusion, a passage from the writing of Rowan Williams on Augustine:

Augustine’s greatest legacy to Christian spirituality is the affirmation that the life of grace can include not only moral struggle and spiritual darkness, but also an awareness of the radically conditioned character of human behaviour – marked as we are in ways unknown to us by childhood experience, historical and social structures, and many more facts of which Augustine himself could not have been consciously aware, but to which our own age is especially sensitive. What holds a life together is simply the trust – or faith – that the eyes and the heart are turned towards truth, and that God accepts such a life without condition, looking on the will rather than merely the deed. God asks not for heroes but for lovers; not for moral athletes but for men and women aware of their need for acceptance, ready to find their selfhood in the longing for communion with an eternal ‘other’.