Catholic Spirituality and Mysticism

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CATHOLIC SPIRITUALITY AND MYSTICISM. Early modern spirituality was practical in orientation as it moved away from contemplation toward a more active apostolate. This resulted in an active spirituality among religious orders, as well as a lay-oriented spirituality that translated into charitable activities. The compulsion toward an active life of good works as a means toward personal sanctification, along with the revival of the sacramental life, the emergence of new forms of meditative prayer, and Eucharistic devotions, came to characterize the basic elements of Catholic spirituality during this period.


Numerous men and women renowned for their sanctity, and new religious institutes dedicated either to the reform of the church or to charitable works, emerged in Italy. Oratories, lay or clerical confraternities whose purpose was the personal sanctification of its members, fostered an intense piety that translated into the care of orphans, the education of the poor, and the institution of hospitals. Notable among those who fostered this spirit were St. Catherine of Genoa (14471510), a lay-woman whose work led to the founding of the Oratory of Divine Love; St. Philip Neri (15151595), founder of the Oratorians; St. Angela Merici (14741540), founder of the Ursulines; St. Anthony Zaccaria (15021539), founder of the Barnabites; and St. Camillus of Lellis (15501614), founder of the Ministers of the Sick, also called the Fathers of a Good Death.

Each of these figures sought an inner renewal that would foster reform on a social, institutional, and personal level. Most influential in developing this aspect of Italian spirituality was The Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli (15301610). Emerging from the context of ecclesiastical renewal and reform, this spiritual literature aimed first and fore-most at conversion from sin and the cultivation of the interior life. For the Italian mystics of this period this interior perfection was lived out through a mission of social and religious reform.

A different emphasis was apparent in Spain, where spirituality was more scientific and academic. This is evident in the methods of prayer and meditation that came to be known as "spiritual exercises." This new approach, with its systematic meditative form of mental prayer, was first seen as a vehicle for the reform of religious life. However, it was quickly adapted to meet the needs and situations of the laity. This method of prayer became one of the foundations of the new spirituality that spread throughout the church during this period. Highly individualistic in contrast to more communal or liturgical forms of prayer, this approach reflected the individualism of the age.

Sixteenth-century Spain gave birth to a wealth of spiritual literature and saints, most prominently Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross. Ignatius of Loyola (14911556) presented in The Spiritual Exercises (1540) a systematic approach to prayer for the purpose of bringing about a personal renewal. For Ignatius, this form of prayer was not exclusive to those in religious life or those who have attained advanced stages of prayer but was open to all persons regardless of where they were spiritually.

St. Teresa of Ávila (15151582) occupies a prominent place because of her theology of prayer. In The Interior Castle (1588) she described prayer as a loving dialogue between friends and said that one's progress in prayer was an indication of one's progress in the spiritual life. Teresa's view of prayer was not exclusively mystical, despite the predominance of mysticism in her doctrine. Nor did she view the entire spiritual life as flowing from prayer alone. She saw the reception of Communion, the cultivation of humility, fraternal charity, spiritual direction, spiritual friendships, and the apostolate as playing an equally important part in the spiritual life.

Complementing Teresa is St. John of the Cross (15421591). The fundamental principle of his theology was that God was everything and the creature was nothing. If, then, one desired to attain perfect union with God, one was required to undergo a purgation of the body and the soul. John of the Cross developed this theology of purification in The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul. For St. John, the soul must be completely purified in all of its faculties and powers before it can be fully illuminated by the light of divine union. In the writings of both Teresa and John of the Cross there is less specific guidance on methods of prayer than on the Christian way of life in general.

France was also an important center of spirituality, particularly in the person of François de Sales (15671622). François brought the piety of the cloister into the world as he sought to show Christians that, whatever their place in society, their lives must be imbued with the religion they profess. In The Introduction to the Devout Life, he developed a complete program for the spiritual advancement of the laity that sought to provide a spirituality for those who remained in the world pursuing their professions and providing for their families.


The spirituality of the Catholic Reformation restored the Eucharist to a more central place in Christian life. Frequent Communion was encouraged and became a more common practice among devout laity, which reflected the changes that were taking place in Eucharistic piety. The worship of the Host in such devotions as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and Forty Hours exposition was a development of the Catholic Reformation.

Forty Hours devotion became a normative practice during this period. The uninterrupted exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for forty hours throughout a diocese, representing the number of hours that Christ's body lay in the tomb, began in Milan between 1527 and 1537. This practice had been established in Rome by St. Philip Neri prior to 1550. In 1560, Pius IV issued a papal bull of approbation and in 1592, Clement VIII issued a constitution that established the Forty Hours devotion in Rome, granting a plenary indulgence to those who participated.

The time of prayer spent before the Blessed Sacrament during the Forty Hours devotion was oriented to the reform of the church and the Christian life. A spirit of reparation and penitence formed the context of the devotion that flowed out of a meditation on the passion and death of Christ. Through an examination of conscience the supplicant sought a disposition of heart that would lead to contrition, purification, and conversion.

Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament strongly influenced the cult of the Sacred Heart. The introduction of the feast of Corpus Christi in the thirteenth century underscored the close link between the Eucharist and the heart of Jesus, giving the devotion a Eucharistic dimension. The Eucharist was seen as a gift and an abiding presence of the loving heart of Jesus. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century devotion to the Sacred Heart took on the character of a private, individual devotion rather than a popular devotion. In the sixteenth century, a noticeable shift began to take place as the devotion to the Sacred Heart moved from an exclusively private practice to one that assumed a public and official character within the whole church, especially due to the influence of St. John Eudes (16011680) and St. Marguerite-Marie Alacoque (16471690).


The period of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation marked a turning point in the history of spirituality. In general, a deeper interiority was emphasized. The spirituality of this period was highly sacramental, biblically oriented, and focused on the life and passion of Jesus. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics insisted that a deeply lived spiritual life was possible outside of the cloister, thereby fostering a spirituality oriented toward the laity, which represented a direction hitherto unseen.

See also Ignatius of Loyola ; Reformation, Catholic ; Theology ; Teresa of Ávila .


Primary Sources

The Collected Works of Teresa of Avila. 3 vols. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodríguez. Washington, D.C., 19761985.

The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church. 3 vols. Edited by E. Allison Peers. London, 1943.

DeSales, Francis. Introduction to the Devout Life. Translated and edited by Allan Ross. Westminster, Md., 1948. Translation of Introduction a la vie devote (1609).

Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Personal Writings. Translated by Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean. London and New York, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Aumann, Jordan. Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition. San Francisco and London, 1985.

Brenan, Gerald. St. John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry. Cambridge, U.K., 1973.

Evennett, H. O. The Spirit of the Counter Reformation: The Birkbeck Lectures in Ecclesiastical History Given in the University of Cambridge in May 1951. Cambridge, U.K., and London, 1968.

Leclercq, Jean, François Vandenbroucke, and Louis Bouyer. The Spirituality of the Middle Ages. Translated by the Benedictines of Holme Eden Abbey, Carlisle. London, 1968.

Raitt, Jill ed. Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and the Reformation. New York, 1987.

Rubin, Miri. Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1991.

Stierli, Josef. Heart of the Saviour: A Symposium on Devotion to the Sacred Heart. Translated by Paul Andrews. Freiburg, 1957.

Williams, Rowan. Teresa of Avila. Harrisburg, Pa., 1991.

Francesco C. Cesareo

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Catholic Spirituality and Mysticism

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