The Church's great spiritual awakenings throughout history
STREAMS OF GRACE
by Bishop Julian Porteous
(ConnorCourt, 2011, 250pp, $29.95, ISBN: 978-1-92142-190-7. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Bishop Julian Porteous' latest book, Streams of Grace, is a spiritual gem. The author masterfully leads the reader on a journey through the great spiritual awakenings which have revitalised the Church in every era. He unveils the extraordinary creativity of the Holy Spirit, who acts in fresh and surprising ways at every stage of the Church's history.
The Bishop's grasp of his topic has come from years of personal interest in the history of spirituality. The book is crafted from a lecture series on the topic, originally given to seminarians at the Good Shepherd Seminary, Sydney, while he was Rector.
It is a handy "primer" for anyone keen to know about the spiritual tradition, and maybe not knowing where to start. It provides a concise, easy to read, summary of the main thrusts of spiritual energy that have been experienced in the Church from the beginnings until the present.
Because of the scope of the work the treatment of each movement is necessarily brief, but sufficient information is provided to whet the appetite of those wanting to explore more deeply. An extensive bibliography offers a comprehensive list of sources for those wanting to know more.
The author begins with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which birthed the Church and empowered the apostles in initial fervour for holiness and evangelisation. The focus is on the grace of a deep love for the word of God and the gift of celibacy for the Kingdom.
I wonder whether something was missed here - the ideal of martyrdom which shaped the vision for holiness. In any case, we are quickly taken to the movement of the Desert Fathers, initiated by Anthony of Egypt. The "first fervour" of the post-apostolic Church was waning, and under the "peace of Constantine," Christianity was not only acceptable, but the preferred option for advancement in society, weakening criteria for entry into sacramental communion.
There was a new quest for radical holiness. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, which was standardised by Benedict of Nursia, who at Subiaco and then Monte Casino, established a regular way of prayer and work which has continued to this day. The author is keen to point out that it was not only on the continent that the monks had a profound impact on the shape of the Church.
Also in Ireland, after the great St Patrick, Celtic spirituality blossomed in a distinctive way, and during the Dark Ages was in many ways the custodian of Christian civilisation. The Irish monks were a powerful force for evangelisation, and in the seventh century brought a vibrant form of Christianity to Europe.
The "grand tour" continues through the Cistercian reform under the influence of Bernard of Clairveax, the rule of St Augustine and the Canons Regular, and then in the 13th century the evangelical revival sparked by Francis of Assisi and Dominic Guzman.
To help the reader have a taste of each of the spiritualities presented in the book, at the end of each section there are selected prayers and writings of the key figures. Once again it is just a "titbit", but enough to whet the appetite so that the reader can go to the sources and partake more fully.
Bishop Porteous seeks to identify the key spiritual experiences and insights associated with each movement. For example, with Francis of Assisi it was his desire to live the gospel radically, to imitate Jesus totally in his poverty, a deep love for solitude, but also a fire to preach repentance.
A significant feature of this history is the treatment of the Byzantine traditions of prayer and the spirituality of the Eastern monks, centred around the Jesus prayer. Sometimes in spiritual works the contribution of the Eastern Fathers is overlooked. As Blessed John Paul II emphasised, the Church has two lungs by which she breathes, the East and the West.
However, appropriately enough, the author stays mainly with the Western tradition. He moves on to the Devotio Moderna, a popular lay movement which gave rise to Thomas à Kempis' famous Imitation of Christ. Then we are taken through the English and Rhineland mystics, who are probably not as well known, but well worth discovering.
From there we come to the precious contribution in the 16th century of Ignatius Loyola, whose impact on Western spirituality was enormous. His Spiritual Exercises, way of meditation/contemplation, and rules for discernment have formed the hearts of millions.
There is a section also for Teresa of Avila, representing the 16th century Carmelite reform. The focus is on her stages of growth in prayer. The limitations of space prevent the author from showing the full significance of the Carmelite movement, through John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, Elizabeth of the Trinity, and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein).
A section is given to devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, initiated by apparitions of Margaret Mary Alocoque, and also to devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, stimulated by apparitions of Lourdes and Fatima.
Then in the 20th century Streams of Grace includes an outline of the contribution of the Charismatic Renewal and the other new ecclesial communities and movements, which have been breathing new life into the Church, especially after the Second Vatican Council.
Fittingly Bishop Julian has chosen an image from the prophet Ezekiel for the "streams of grace" (Ezek 47:1ff). Ezekiel was given a vision of water flowing from the East side of the temple. The stream became wider and deeper, and flowed into the desert bringing forth new life and then into the dead sea, which was now teeming with fish.
The new temple is the body of Christ himself. From his pierced side on the Cross flowed living waters (Jn 19:33; cf, Jn 7:39) understood to be a symbol of the Spirit. The Church now is also the new temple. From the heart of Christ, within his Church, in every age there are new streams of living water renewing the Church and flowing out into the deserts of the world bringing new life
Fr Ken Barker MGL is the founder and moderator of the Missionaries of God's Love, an Australian religious community.