It has become common to use the term "spiritual theology" to indicate the portion of theology that in older terminology was called ascetical and mystical. It is called "spiritual" in order to emphasize forcefully that it has to do with the application of Christ's redemptive work to the individual soul and with the manner by which each soul receives and cooperates with it. It embraces the part of sacred doctrine that treats of the "spiritual life," i.e., the life according to the spirit understood in the sense of the New Testament, especially of St. Paul, in opposition to a life according to the "flesh." Joseph de guibert defined spiritual theology as "the science which deduces from revealed principles what constitutes the perfection of the spiritual life and how man can advance towards and obtain it." It is thus the task of spiritual theology to establish the true nature of Christian perfection and to determine the means, both in general and in particular, that are to be used in the soul's advance on the way of perfection.
The Spiritual Life. The growth and development of the spiritual life has been divided into three ways, or stages. This does not mean that there are three parallel or divergent ways, but rather that there are three stages, or degrees, of the spiritual life that souls must traverse on the way to perfection. This division into the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways is a traditional one, and comes from pre-Christian sources through Pseudo-Dionysius. Another, mentioned by Origen and used by St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 24.9; 183.4) divides the spiritual life into the states of the beginner, the proficient, and the perfect. St. Augustine provided a division based on love. Since perfection consists in love, he noted three degrees in the practice of this virtue: incipient, growing, and full-grown or perfect. St. Bernard considered three degrees in the love of God: the first is the love man has for God because of His gifts; then he begins to love God for His own sake; and finally, his love for God is altogether disinterested.
The work of the purgative way is to purify a man from his faults and to strengthen him against committing them in the future. Only the pure in heart will see God, perfectly in heaven, imperfectly and through faith here on earth. Prayer, meditation, mortification, and the practice of the virtues are required to obtain this purity and to strengthen the soul in virtue.
After the work of purification, the soul must "put on Christ." It must strive to make its own the mind and the heart of Christ by a more generous and constant practice of the moral and theological virtues. The great desire of the soul then is to become more and more like Christ in thought, word, and action. Prayer now becomes more affective. The soul is now in the illuminative way.
As the soul progresses, a time comes when under the action of the Holy Spirit, working through His gifts, the desire for a more intimate union with God will become more intense. Seeking Him everywhere and at all times, the soul clings to Him and finds its greatest happiness in His presence. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are now more manifest, and prayer is much more simple, consisting in a loving thought of God and of things of God. This is the unitive way.
Ascetical and Mystical Elements. The development of the life of grace in man has two elements, one ascetical and the other mystical. Both are essential to every form and degree of the spiritual life. The ascetical element (from the Greek verb ἀσκε[symbol omitted]ν, which signifies personal effort, physical and mental training) includes everything that man does, with the help of ordinary grace, toward his spiritual perfection. It is concerned especially with the uprooting of vices or defects and the practice of the virtues. It might be called the active element of the spiritual life. The first Christians who devoted themselves to the practice of mortification and the exercises of piety and who observed perfect continence or virginity were called ascetics. Ascetical theology is the part of sacred science that treats the nature of Christian perfection and the different means to be used to acquire it. It is a practical science, having for its end to guide and direct the soul in its striving for holiness.
The mystical element consists in a deepening of the spiritual life under a more pronounced action of the Holy Spirit through His gifts, thus elevating the soul to a more intimate, hidden knowledge of God, resulting from a more intimate union with Him. The action of the Holy Spirit is especially manifest in the passive purifications of the soul and in the interior illuminations that it receives. For the old authors mystical theology was a knowledge of God and of divine things acquired by the soul in the highest form of contemplation. St. Thomas considered it to be a most perfect and exalted contemplation of God and a "fruitive" and very savory love of Him possessed in the depths of the soul. It is a practical or quasi-experimental knowledge of God acquired in contemplation. J. gerson said that "mystical theology has for its object the experimental knowledge of the things of God produced by the intimate union of love." Mystical theology today is defined as the part of sacred science that treats the more hidden and mysterious things of God, such as the intimate union between the soul and God; the transitory phenomena, such as ecstasy, that sometimes accompany certain degrees of union; and extraordinary graces, such as visions and private revelations.
The sources of both mystical and ascetical theology are Sacred Scripture, tradition, the teachings and definitions of the Church, and the common teaching of the Fathers and the theologians of the Church. The ascetical and mystical writings of the saints and the Doctors of the Church such as SS. Augustine, Bernard, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila offer excellent material for practical and descriptive mysticism.
Ascetical and mystical theology is the practical application of theology in the direction of souls to a more intimate union with God. There is an interplay of the ascetical and the mystical life, and it is difficult to determine precisely where the one stops and the other begins.
Distinction Between Ascetical and Mystical. Until the 17th century spiritual theology was considered as a unit, a whole. It was not divided into ascetical and mystical, nor was it considered to be a science distinct from the rest of theology. The spiritual life was considered as received at Baptism with sanctifying grace, and it was to grow and develop by the exercise of the supernatural organism, i.e., the infused virtues, both theological and moral, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, by the practice of prayer and mortification and by the reception of the Sacraments, until it reached the end to which it was directed, namely, intimate union with God. There is a unity in this conception of the spiritual life, and it sees the mystical life as the normal development of the ascetical. There is no separation or division of the two, but rather an ordering of the one to the other. They are not two distinct divisions of theology, but two aspects of spiritual theology that show the spiritual life in its beginnings, its progression, and in such perfection as it can have upon earth. This was the traditional teaching.
Another school of thought arose in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some theologians of this period thought it necessary to divide spiritual theology into ascetical and mystical. G. B. scaramelli (1687–1752) was one of the first to make this division, and he was followed by many authors of that time. Thus appeared the Mystical Directory and Ascetical Directory. Ascetical theology according to the teaching of these authors should treat the "ordinary" Christian life, whereas mystical theology should consider only extraordinary graces, such as visions and revelations, as well as infused contemplation, the passive purifications, and the mystical union. Although there continue to be authors who hold this division, the general tendency is to return to the traditional teaching expressed by the use of the term spiritual theology in place of the terms ascetical and mystical.
Since the matter treated in spiritual theology is the same as that treated separately under the headings of ascetical and mystical theology, the sources are the same as those given above: the Old and New Testaments and tradition as it is expressed in the writings of the Fathers and the theologians. The autobiographies and lives of the saints provide excellent material for this subject.
The conclusions of experimental and religious psychology also can be used by spiritual theology. Spiritual theology has for its end to teach souls how to acquire perfection. It is a practical science. It employs a combination of the doctrinal, or deductive, and the experimental, or inductive, methods. To use either the doctrinal or the experimental method exclusively would be to run the risk of error. The doctrinal method must be employed because it is only from revelation that the existence, nature, and causes of the perfection at which it aims can be certainly known. From the revealed truths that are its principles and from the infallible teaching of the Church in explanation of these truths, spiritual theology makes deductions concerning its own object, i.e., spiritual perfection.
The deductive method alone does not suffice. Spiritual theology must know how to apply the general theological deductions to individual cases, taking account of all particular circumstances. The experience of the saints and of other fervent souls concerning the means they used to attain perfection, as well as the trials and sufferings that God asked of them will enable one to form a judgment with regard to efficacy of a certain means of sanctification, both its advantages and its dangers.
Spiritual as Related to Other Parts of Theology. St. Thomas and the other theologians of the Middle Ages treated theology as a whole. It was only in the 17th century that theology began to be divided into different parts for the purpose of facilitating its study. The subject matter of dogmatic theology is also treated by spiritual theology: the revealed mysteries of the Blessed Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Sacraments, and the Last Things. It is not only to know and contemplate these mysteries that spiritual theology considers them, but above all to make known how man can participate in them, share in them, and thus be united to God.
Moral theology as it was understood by the early theologians and as it is found in the Summa theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas contains the principles necessary for leading souls to the highest sanctity. However, all authors do not agree concerning the relationship between spiritual and moral theology. For some, moral theology considers the commandments and virtues as they are of obligation and precept, whereas spiritual theology considers the same subject—human acts, virtues, and counsels—as means for acquiring perfection. The difference, however, depends less on a divergence of opinion regarding the nature of spiritual theology than it does on the discrepant views that may be taken of moral theology. If moral theology is understood to be concerned exclusively with the differentiation of what is sinful from what is not, then spiritual theology must necessarily be regarded as a distinct science. If, on the other hand, moral theology is understood, as it was by older theologians and still is by many among modern theologians, as the science of the attainment of God, then it must include spiritual theology within its scope, and it differs from spiritual theology only as a whole differs from its part. Even those who take this latter view, however, generally admit that pedagogical reasons make it desirable to teach and study the two disciplines separately.
The Liturgy. There is a very intimate connection between spiritual theology and the liturgy. It is the liturgy that makes present the mysteries of the life of Christ. It does so in order that men may participate in them in a real way and thus become more fully assimilated to Christ. "In the liturgy the sanctification of man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the mystical body of Jesus Christ, that is by the Head and His members…. Recalling thus the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful the riches of her Lord's powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace" (Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy ). The same constitution makes it clear that the spiritual life is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy. Private, secret prayer, unceasing prayer by which one bears in his body the dying of Jesus so that His life may be made manifest in him, is of great profit to one's spiritual life. The study of sacred liturgy is to be a major course in seminaries and religious houses of studies, and it is to be taught under its spiritual aspect. The professors of such subjects as dogmatic and spiritual theology will show connections between their own subjects and the liturgy. Clerics are to be given a liturgical formation in their spiritual life.
Historical Development. As in the case of theology in general, spiritual theology developed slowly in regard to its subject matter, to the determining of its proper object, and to its method. Sacred Scripture, in both the Old and the New Testaments, is the primary and the most exalted source of the teaching concerning the spiritual life. It is from this source that the Fathers drew the matter for their sermons and writings. In the letters of such men as Jerome and Augustine, and in the Rules of Pachomius, Basil, Benedict, and Augustine, the spiritual life was given much attention. Clement of Alexandria (150–217) and his famous pupil, Origen (1852–55), did much to systematize the study of the spiritual life and to provide it with a philosophical foundation and orientation. The teaching of Origen was characterized by his love of Scripture and its spiritual meaning. His mysticism was founded on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and he surpasses all his precursors by the extensive use he makes of the gifts in explaining the perfect Christian life. The Theologia mystica of Pseudo-Dionysius has held first place in the field of spiritual theology for nearly 1,000 years. The Middle Ages made immense contributions to the history of spiritual theology by the writings of the foremost members of the Benedictine, Cistercian, Carthusian, Franciscan, and Dominican orders, as well as of the Canons Regular. After the Reformation, St. Ignatius expressed his teachings on the spiritual life in his Spiritual Exercises.
The great mystics SS. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila have enriched the study of spiritual theology by their works, which have become classics in this field. In modern times men such as A. Poulain, SJ; J. G. Arintero, OP; R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP; A. Gemelli, OFM; and A. Stolz, OSB, have contributed in no small way to make known the ineffable riches of the spiritual life.
See Also: spirituality, christian; spirituality (history of).
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