Jordan Aumann O.P.: Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition



"Sacred theology relies on the written Word of God, taken together with sacred Tradition, as on a permanent foundation .... Therefore, the 'study of the sacred page' should be the very soul of theology .... In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them. And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church-as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life."(1)

The Fathers of Vatican Council II have officially recommended a return to Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Yet, it is not without its difficulties, both for Scripture scholars and for theologians, as is pointed out by Yves Congar, a highly respected leader of the movement back to the biblical sources.

There is bound to be at times an alarming confusion among theologians in possession of a centuries-old heritage. The unfortunate consequence is not that they are upset; it is the resulting divorce that might be established between the research of biblical scholars and the conclusions of theologians. An unhealthy situation of "double truth" might ensue, which must be avoided at all costs. One group must pay close attention to the work of the other in a common fidelity to the tradition of the Church ....

But the problems created for classical theology by exegetes returning to biblical sources must be recognized and faced. For centuries past, especially since the great Scholastics who proposed such a seemingly definitive and perfect elaboration of sacred doctrine, theology has been formulated satisfactorily in ontological terms. Its work was to contemplate and define by means of revelation the en-soi of God and of Christ, that is, what they are in themselves. And now biblical scholars agree more and more in affirming that revelation comes to us essentially in the framework of history and that it is essentially "economic" or "functional": there is no revelation of the mystery of God and Christ except in the testimony handed on about what they did and are doing for us, that is, except in relation to our salvation.(2)

The primary witness of Scripture, therefore, is that God has acted in the life of man, so that the Bible is not so much a code of laws or a book of questions and answers as it is "a history of what God has done in the lives of men, for humanity as a whole, in order to fulfill in them the design of grace."(3) One does not go to the Bible to get ideas about God and to talk about God (although it does reveal God to us as he is in himself, e.g., Ex. 3:14.), but to understand what God is to us and to respond to his presence. "Man wants to experience God's presence somehow, through signs that manifest it unambiguously; and he wants to live in communion with God on a quasi-experiential level."(4) The Fathers of Vatican II expressed the same sentiments:
It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will (cf. Eph. 1:9). His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature (cf. Eph. 2:18; 2 Pet. 1:4). By this revelation, then, the invisible God (cf. Col. 1:15; I Tim. 1:17), from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends (cf. Ex. 33:11; Jn. 15:14-15), and moves among them (cf. Bar. 3:38), in order to invite and receive them into his own company.(5)
Since God makes himself known to us by what he does for us, by the extent to which he intervenes in our human history, we must always speak of the mysteries of God, says Congar, "in such a way as to unite a profound perception of what they are in themselves with a vital expression of what they are for us."(6) The new relation ship which results from God's personal intervention in human history causes something unique among the various religions of humanity; it is a relationship in which God approaches man, and man, by a free act of faith, offers himself to whatever God wants to effect in and through him. As Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it:
The question of the relationship between God and man . . . is settled in the Bible from God's point of view .... God chooses, promises, demands, rejects and fulfills .... Man must no longer listen to his nostalgia for the divine in himself but in God's word. Action is led beyond all purely human self-realization and becomes obedience to God and law, and this obedience contains a very concrete will of God which demands fulfillment in fellowship, among people, in the world. Lastly, resignation, guided by God's word, becomes a faith ready to accept all and a patience ready to endure all, even the dark suffering of Israel as the Servant of God.(7)
The Bible, therefore, is the word of God that reveals to man his high destiny and also answers man's innate desire to rise from a fallen condition and to experience the divine. It is the rule and standard of all authentic supernatural life and it demands everything; it will not be reduced to our measure because its aim is to fashion us in the image of God. It cannot be replaced by any ersatz spirituality or religious experience which some may seek in spiritism, drugs, group therapy, psychedelic experience or pentecostalism. Even the charisms enumerated by St. Paul (cf Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. I2:8-10) are reducible to the original apostolic mission as stated in the New Testament. Everything must be understood and evaluated in the light of Scripture, and the closer any spirituality is to the Bible, the more authentic it is. This does not mean that the application of biblical teaching to the spiritual life does not admit of any variety whatever, but it does mean that Sacred Scripture ever remains the unifying factor and the ultimate standard. It transcends all diversity.

Our task, then, is to determine the basic principles of the Christian life as revealed in the Bible; that is to say, the truths that are valid for every Christian of every age and state of life. And since we are concerned with the fundamental framework of Christian spirituality, the New Testament will have priority, although, as Grelot has stated, unless we understand the Old Testament we cannot understand the New.(8) Further, in order to avoid the risk of fitting the Bible to preconceived notions or of using it as a vehicle for private interpretation, we shall accept Charlier's principle that the Bible is "the word of life because it is the word of truth, and for no other reason."(9) In that way we can accept the teachings of Scripture on God's terms and not try to force it into our own intellectual context.


"The first chapter of Genesis is the first chapter of faith,"(10) as opposed to the pagan religions that were born out of fear of an unknown deity. The first law of the Decalogue is stated thus: "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have strange gods before me." This is to designate that the God of the Bible is completely different and set apart from the deities of paganism. Man of antiquity had an awareness of the sacred which he expressed in a cultic religion that was shrouded in various mythologies. His religion was a projection of his instinctive needs, such as health, life, fertility, protection against the unknown. Eventually paganism developed a contemplative type of religion, as a response to man's higher needs, but in the beginning, the fertility cults were perhaps the primitive forms of religious worship.

The basic notion behind every fertility cult was this: they recognized that there is a god or gods .... Secondly, they knew that man was completely dependent on the gods in some way. Their question was, how .... They recognized that man must participate in the creative powers . . . . of these gods, and therefore he must do everything in his power to express the intensity of the desire that is his to participate. And so the fertility cults, which were sexual cults, were basically a form of worship and they were concerned with expressing the intensity of the desire of men to participate in the power of the gods."(11)
Genesis records that the first step in man's relation with God was his creation in the image of God and his situation in a state of innocence which was later lost because of man's sin. What the sin was, remains a mystery; we do not know whether it was a particular action or simply the end-product of an accumulation of evil. We do know that man became acutely aware of sin and therefore found access to the one, true God much more difficult. "For man, God is both present and absent, both near and far away. He is present and near as the Creator, since man is dependent on God for his very existence. He is absent and far away insofar as man looks for him from within the framework of his own sinful condition."(12) Eventually, however, and almost unexpectedly, God intervened once more in human history to resume his dialogue with man.
Yahweh said to Abram, "Leave your country, your family and your father's house, for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name so famous that it will be used as a blessing .... Here now is my covenant with you: you shall become the father of a multitude of nations .... I will establish my covenant between myself and you, and your descendants after you, generation after generation, a covenant in perpetuity, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you" (Gen. 12:1-2; 17:1-8).
Genesis 4-11 records that a few men, such as Abel and Noah, were found worthy in the sight of God, but he chose Abraham for an alliance of friendship and it was through Abraham that God raised up a people who will be his people and he will be their God. He established his presence in their midst, not only in the Temple, but ultimately in their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). In keeping with his promise, God showed the same goodness to the descendants of Abraham, reaching a climax in the golden age under David and Solomon.

Time and again, God revealed himself through his actions, which were often accompanied by signs. Perhaps the sign par excellence was the exodus from Egypt, accompanied by so many miraculous events that the people, could not doubt that they were under the special care and protection of their God. As a result, "the people venerated Yahweh; they put their faith in Yahweh and in Moses, his servant" (Ex. 14:31). Moreover, the fact that Israel was provided with water and food in the desert could be interpreted to demonstrate that God himself became intimately involved in man's earthly existence. It also serves to demonstrate that God is at once transcendent and immanent. Congar says in this regard:

The living God of rich biblical monotheism is posited as being the source and measure of all goodness, of all truth, of all authentic existence. The God of biblical monotheism is something other and more than the great clock-maker or great architect of the theists who posit him only as the Creator of the world; after this initial act the world and man have no longer any rapport with anything but themselves and their own nature. The living God is affirmed by the Bible as sovereign source and measure, to which man and all things must unceasingly be referred and must conform so that one does not just exist but exists truly, realizing the meaning, the fullness of one's existence.(13)
God's initiative, however, demands a response from Israel, both by obedience to the law given on Sinai and by religious worship. Thus, "the obligation of the people to observe the terms of the covenant is solemnly ratified by the holocaust, the sacrifices and the sprinkling of blood (Ex. 24:3-8). On the other hand, the leaders of the community... are brought into God's presence and commune with him in a sacred meal (Ex. 24:1-2;9-11 )."(14) Lest the cultic actions be merely empty gestures, it was necessary that they proceed from and bear witness to a living faith and obedience to God's word. Numerous prophets insisted on this point with great zeal (Am. 5:21-27; Is. 1:10-16; Jer. 6:20), indicating that although Israel had the Ark and the Temple, God's truest presence is not in any material place but in the hearts of men. There was always a temptation to yield to empty ritualism.

Thus, the prophet Isaiah (765-740 B c), whose mission it was to proclaim the fall of Israel and the punishment of the nation's infidelity, described Israel as "a sinful nation, a people weighed down with guilt, a breed of wrong-doers, perverted sons. They have abandoned Yahweh, despised the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away from him" (Is. 1:4). A century later, Jeremiah (b. 646 BC), who witnessed the fall of the kingdom and the exile of many of the Israelites, accused Israel of infidelity and predicted dire punishment in the name of Yahweh (Jer. 1-25). Not only have they wandered away from the presence of God, but God himself seems to disown them: "Even if Moses and Samuel were standing in my presence I could not warm to this people. Drive them out of my sight; away with them!" (Jer. 15:1).

It appears that the divine plan had reached an impasse, but such was not the case; God was disposed to receive Israel back into his presence if the people would repent and give perfect obedience:

I will not make an end of you, only discipline you in moderation, so as not to let you go entirely unpunished .... And you shall be my people and I will be your God .... I have loved you with an everlasting love, so I am constant in my affection for you (Jer. 30:10-11, 22;31:3).
With Ezekiel, whose ministry spanned a time marked by the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the sacred is clearly distinguished from the profane, and great insistence is placed on observance of the Law. The prophet announces that out of pure benevolence God will make a new covenant with his people: "I shall make a covenant of peace with them, an eternal covenant with them .... I shall settle my sanctuary among them forever. I shall -make my home above them; I will be their God, they shall be my people" (Ez. 37:26-27).

But God also demands repentance and conversion, not only collectively but individually, and Ezekiel insists that this requires the proper interior dispositions: "House of Israel, in future I mean to judge each of you by what he does -- it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks. Repent, renounce all your sins, avoid all occasions of sin. Shake off all the sins you have committed against me, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit" (Ez. 18:31; cf. also 11:19; 36:26). The emphasis here is clearly on the necessity for each person to make a commitment and assume personal responsibility.

Toward the end of the exile (between 548 and 538 BC), the people finally responded to the prophets by confessing their infidelity and acknowledging the one true God. Thus, Second-Isaiah (the Book of Consolation)(15) depicts the perfect disciple of Yahweh as one who confesses the true faith, atones for his sin and is exalted by God:

You whom I brought from the confines of the earth
and called from the ends of the world;
you to whom I said, "You are my servant,
I have chosen you, not rejected you,"
do not be afraid, for I am with you;
stop being anxious and watchful, for I am your God.
I give you strength, I bring you help,
I uphold you with my victorious right hand(Is. 41:9-10).

Remember these things, Jacob,
and that you are my servant, Israel.
I have formed you,you are my servant;
Israel, I will not forget you.
I have dispelled your faults like a cloud,
your sins like a mist.
Come back to me, for I have redeemed you (Is. 44:21-22).

Does a woman forget her baby at the breast,
or fail to cherish the son of her womb?
Yet even if these forget,
I will never forget you (Is. 49:15).

Your redeemer will be the Holy One of Israel,
he is called the God of the whole earth.
Yes, like a forsaken wife, distressed in spirit,
Yahweh calls you back.
Does a man cast off the wife of his youth?
says your God.
I did forsake you for a brief moment,
but with great love will I take you back.
In excess of anger, for a moment
I hid my face from you.
But with everlasting love I have taken pity on you,
says Yahweh, your redeemer. (Is. 54:4-8).

We have reached a high point in God's revelation of himself, no longer simply as God of power and majesty, as Yahweh Sabaoth, the God of armies, but as Father of love and mercy. The marriage symbol used by the prophet, portraying God as a husband, is an echo of the stirring passages of the Book of Hosea, who perhaps lived to see the fall of Samaria in 721 B c. The same wedding imagery is found in Jeremiah (2-3), Ezekiel (16) and the Song of Songs. Hosea, however, saw God's love for man as a future triumph over Israel's infidelities; the author of Second-Isaiah sees it as actually victorious. Then, if we accept the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, as understood by the Jewish tradition and the writers of the early Christian Church, we are justified in applying it to the love between God and Israel, and between God and the individual soul.

The message that comes to us from this rapid survey of the patriarchs and the prophets is that God loves us and asks our response to his love through faith and obedience. The Old Testament does not simply record this in a series of statements; God himself makes it known by his intervention in human history, and especially in his relations with Abraham and Moses and his revelation through Hosea and the author of Second-Isaiah.(16) As to man's response to God's love, the Old Testament provides him with maxims according to which he can guide his life. The "wisdom" books (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom) base their moral teaching on the principle that good will be rewarded and evil will be punished; they then offer directives for the acquisition of virtue and the avoidance of sin.

It is not, however, simply a matter of acquiring virtues by one's own strength, for frequently the virtuous are those who suffer most from injustice and uncharity; consequently, the Old Testament morality is one of personal effort based on a deep trust in God (cf. Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes). Finally, in the Book of Psalms the Old Testament provides more moral instruction plus prayers of adoration, petition, thanksgiving and contrition.(17)

The promises and the entire movement of the Old Testament are orientated to the perfect communication of God to man; the newness of the eternal covenant consists precisely in the Word made flesh, through whom the kingdom of God will be definitively established. Christ, says Congar, is "the last revelation .... When God became man, something that was already true in the previous stages of salvation history reached its highest degree: man resembles God and, therefore, in a totally transcendent way, God resembles man.(18)

Whatever the value of the Old Testament in itself as a source of the spiritual life, and however inspiring it is as a witness to the religious experience of the patriarchs and the prophets, for us it is seen primarily as a preparation for Christ and his kingdom. Such, in fact, is the teaching of Vatican Council II:

"The economy of the Old Testament was deliberately so orientated that it should prepare for and declare in prophecy the coming of Christ, Redeemer of all men, and of the messianic kingdom .... For in the context of the human situation before the era of salvation established by Christ, the books of the Old 'Testament provide an understanding of God and man and make clear to all men how a just and merciful God deals with mankind .... Christians should accept with veneration these writings which give expression to a lively sense of God, which are a storehouse of sublime teaching on God and of sound wisdom on human life, as well as a wonderful treasury of prayers; in them, too, the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way.(19)


The continuity between the Old and the New Testaments is evidenced in the fact that Christ frequently supported his teaching by references to the Old Testament and insisted that he had not come to abolish the Law and the prophets "but to complete them" (Mt. 5:17). Christ is the realization and the fulfillment of all that had been promised and signified by the word and action of God in the history of salvation from Adam to the last of the prophets. Christ is, therefore, the embodiment of authentic spirituality and, quite logically, from our point of view the spiritual life must be a participation in the "mystery of Christ." Consequently, Christ is for all times -- yesterday, today and forever -- and any attempt to construct a spirituality that is "more contemporary" or "more up-to-date" is purely an illusion.

This does not mean, however, that we should consider the spiritual life as Christ-centered to such an extent that we would fail to give proper emphasis to God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity of Persons dwelling in the soul through. grace. What Congar has stated in regard to theology in general may be applied also to the theology of the spiritual life: "Of course we reach a knowledge of the intimate mystery of God only through Jesus Christ (inventionis, acquisitionis) and from God (revelationis), but it is only by means of the mystery of God that we can believe fully in the mystery of the Incarnation and, therefore, can understand Jesus Christ."(20)

Nevertheless, having made this precision, we can repeat that the spiritual life is centered in Christ and is, in fact, -a participation in the mystery of Christ. To know what this life is, it is necessary to understand as much as possible about Christ; and to achieve this, it is necessary to turn to the New Testament, which records much of what Christ said and did for our instruction.(21) At this point several observations should be made. First of all, we do not read the New Testament as we would read the biography of a great historical figure whom we wish to remember and perhaps imitate. This could all too easily result in a religion of hero-worship, a liturgy of memorial services and a spirituality of nostalgia for the past. Our objective is rather to live the mystery of Christ here and now, which requires that we somehow identify with Christ as he is here and now -- in glory at the right hand of the Father.

Secondly, Christ did not leave us a detailed code of morality, a fully explicated body of dogmas, a directory of liturgical rubrics and ceremonies, or even a completed pattern for the structure of his Church. Rather, he seems deliberately to have allowed for evolution in dogma, prudential decisions in morality, adaptation in liturgy, and the gradual development of the Church, not to mention the charismatic operations of the Holy Spirit. Therefore the Christian life is not the present trying to recapture the past, but the present striving to become the future; it is a Christianity in via, on the march.

Thirdly, what we should seek in the New Testament is a spirituality that is valid for all persons everywhere and in every age, whether it be the twentieth century, the Middle Ages or the primitive Church. But Christ lived within a particular historical context; the New Testament represents a variety of viewpoints, such as that of St. Matthew or St. Luke as compared with that of St. John or St. Paul; in primitive Christianity there was a Jewish-Palestinian and a Jewish-Hellenistic trend. Consequently, it is not always easy to abstract the essential and perennial elements of Gospel spirituality from die-New Testament writings or from the life of Christians in apostolic times. Further, Gospel spirituality must be lived by particular persons at a particular time and in a particular place. In other words, the Gospel must be constantly inserted into the historical situation; that is why there is a history of spirituality and schools of spirituality.

If Christian spirituality signifies a participation in the mystery of Christ, our first task is to contemplate that mystery with the help of the New Testament and then to discover how we share in it. Stated succinctly, the mystery of Christ is the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh and dwelling among us an. 1:14), the God made man. The Old Testament had progressively revealed God as Father, as one who approaches man, but his presence was never so intimate as when he sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him (I Jn. 4:9). The mystery of the Incarnation reveals that God is not only the transcendent and majestic God, but he is God "for us," a God of generous love (cf. Eph. 2:5; I Jn. 4:9). In Jesus Christ, who possesses "the fulness of divinity" (Col. 2:9), God unites himself to our humanity and to our world so intimately and so definitively that there can be no "opposition or disjunction between the glory of God, which is the ultimate end of everything, and the happiness of man or the completion of the world.(22) Jesus Christ is thus the central mystery of the entire universe and through him, God is not only present to us but dwells in us, as Christ himself had promised (Jn. 14:23).

The Incarnation of the Word of God marks a new stage in the development of God's plan for the world and for mankind. The Mosaic cult yields to the sacrifice of Christ, and fallen man is healed and elevated to the state of friendship with God. It is the manifestation of a new life through Jesus Christ that will be transmitted uninterruptedly through his Church.

The very mystery of the Word made flesh indicates to us how we are able to participate in the mystery of Christ. The Word condescended to "humanize" himself, so to speak, by assuming human nature, but in so doing, he elevated that nature to the supernatural order by "divinizing" it through its union with the divine Person. The Father "sent into the world his only Son so that we could have life through him" (I Jn. 4:9) and Jesus said to himself: "For the Father, who is the source of life, has made the Son the source of life" (Jn. 5:26). Consequently, to participate in the mystery of Christ means to share in the selfsame life which animated the God-man, the life which the incarnate Word shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit; and through this life, man is regenerated and elevated to the supernatural order.

A correct understanding of the supernatural order is a necessary prerequisite for a correct understanding of the spiritual life and the mystery of Christ. The natural and the supernatural are intermingled in such a way that the natural is not destroyed but perfected and elevated, but they are always distinct and separable. So also in Jesus Christ the God-man, the human and the divine are marvelously blended in the hypostatic union but the human nature is distinct from the divine Person and nature. Arintero summarizes the doctrine as follows:

This is precisely what constitutes the supernatural order, the manifestation of eternal life: entrance into fellowship or familiar and friendly relationship with God by sharing in the communication of his life and his intimate secrets. The supernatural order is not, then, anything that our reason can trace out by analogy with the natural order. Nor is it a superior order which has been "naturalized" so as to fit our mode of being ....

The true supernatural order, that unique order which actually exists in union with the natural order, is much more than this. It not only exceeds natural exigencies, but it transcends all suppositions and rational aspirations ....

God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that all those who believe in him may have eternal life. This life is the intimate life of the sacrosanct Trinity in the ineffable communications of the three Persons because all three, and each of them in his own way, contribute to the work of our deification .... It is the Father who adopts us; the Son who makes us his brothers and co-heirs; the Holy Ghost who consecrates and sanctifies us and makes us living temples of God, coming to dwell in us together with the Father and the Son.(23)

The New Testament frequently speaks of the new life which is given to us through Jesus Christ (cf. John 1:12; 3:14; Col. 2:13; Eph. 4:23; Tit. 3:14; Rom.8:19; I Cor. 1:21; 2 Pet.1:4). In substance, the divine teaching reveals to us that through Christ we become children of the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit:
Everyone moved by the Spirit is a son of God. The spirit you received is not the spirit of slaves bringing fear into your lives again; it is the spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God. And if we are children we are heirs as well: heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, sharing his suffering so as to share his glory (Rom. 8:14-17).
Dom Columba Marmion states that "we shall understand nothing -- I do not say merely of perfection, but even of simple Christianity -- if we do not grasp that its most essential basis is constituted by the state of child of God, participation -- through sanctifying grace -- in the eternal filiation of the incarnate Word .... All Christian life, all holiness, is being by grace what Jesus is by nature: the Son of God.(24)

Christ himself spoke most frequently of "the kingdom" and of entrance into the kingdom.(25) But even before Christ began his public ministry, John the Baptist had preached the kingdom of God and had stated explicitly that repentance and forgiveness of sins was a necessary prerequisite for entrance into the kingdom (Lk. 3:1-18; Mt. 3:1-12). When, at the very beginning of his own preaching,

Christ announced the kingdom of God, he made the same demands as John the Baptist: "From that moment Jesus began his preaching with the message, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand'" (Mt. 4:17).

The kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven) was a constant theme in Christ's preaching and it was developed especially in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), the sermon on the plain (Lk. 6:17-49) and the parables.(26) In regard to the parables, it should be noted that some of them are eschatological: they point to a kingdom of the future (e.g., the prudent and foolish virgins [Mt. 25:1-13]); others are descriptive of a kingdom already present (e.g., the sower, the mustard seed and the yeast [Mt. 33:18-23, 31-32, 33]).

"At no time," says Bonsirven, "did Jesus give a definition of this 'kingdom of God' . ... [The various conceptions of it] can be classified into two diametrically opposed types: according to one of them, Christ had in mind a spiritual kingdom, already existing at the time and progressive -- an evolution; according to others, he was looking forward to it as something which had to come into existence suddenly as the result of an eschatological revolution which would shake the whole world."(27)

In the context of the spiritual life, the kingdom of God is interior, it is within us (Lk. 17:21), it is capable of growth and evolution, and from the individual it reaches out to all humanity, to the entire world. The kingdom is life in Christ, with whom the Father and the Holy Spirit are present (Jn. 14:23). It is a kingdom that is present but always evolving, and therefore we must always pray: "thy kingdom come."

On several occasions Christ identified himself with the kingdom: "If it is through the finger of God that I cast out devils, then know that the kingdom of God has overtaken you" (Lk. 11:20); "I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father conferred one on me: you will eat and drink at my table in my kingdom" (Lk. 22:29-30). Origen coined the expression autobasileia to indicate that Jesus is himself the kingdom of God and that membership in the kingdom is determined by the relationship of the individual to Christ.(28) Thus, we are brought back to the basic teaching that in, with and through Jesus Christ we become children of God. God the Father, acting in Christ, establishes his kingdom in the hearts of men and in the world.

Since God is our Father, the kingdom of God likewise refers to God's rule or authority over all.(29) It is his rule or reign that must be established. This entails, on the part of the individual, a total commitment to God which admits of no compromise. Its ultimate objective was stated by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: "You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). The question that arises is how one makes this commitment to God, which is the same thing as to ask what are the conditions for entering the kingdom of God or how one begins to participate in the mystery of Christ and becomes a child of the Father.

The first thing that must be acknowledged is that it is a question of the kingdom of God; therefore it is God who stipulates what is required for membership in the kingdom. The conditions are sufficiently clear and sufficiently demanding. Before anything else, the individual must repent for sin, and this presupposes an acknowledgment of one's guilt before God (Mt. 4:17; Mk. 1:15; Lk. 3:3). Secondly, liberation from sin should lead to a regeneration, a new life in God through Christ and the Holy Spirit (Rom. 6:5). This, in turn, requires two more conditions: reception of the word of God through faith, and baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. "You have been washed clean, and sanctified, and justified through the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and through the Spirit of our God" (I Cor. 6:11). Thus, through repentance, faith and baptism one enters the kingdom of God and subjects oneself to the rule of God.

But entrance into the kingdom is not a static achievement; it involves a new life as sons of God, and this new life also makes its demands by way of a Christian morality.

This inherent situation of the Christian is thus described by Jesus: The disciple is a child of the heavenly Father, he is a member of the kingdom of God, he has fellowship with brothers and sisters, he lives in the world of matter and of men who can fail to appreciate him and persecute him. Next, there is the host of concrete, changing situations, innumerable and unforeseeable, in which it is the duty of the Christian to work out his fundamental situation by creatively giving to each concrete situation a Christian meaning, by responding to it as a child of God and a sharer in the kingdom.(30)
As we have already stated, Christ did not give a detailed code of moral laws to his followers, although he did demand a total commitment and the practice of virtue. His Sermon on the Mount contains the fundamental principles for the Christian life-style; it is in reality "a preliminary draft of Christian situation ethics."(31) Two characteristics in particular reveal that the moral teaching of Christ is a fulfillment and a perfection of the Mosaic law of the Old Testament. First of all, he placed much greater emphasis on the interior than the exterior, as when he condemned the purely external observances and legalistic practices of the Pharisees (Mt. 6:1-18) and called for interior mortification (Mt. 6:16) and the practice of private prayer (Mt. 6:5-7). It is not, however, a question of choosing the interior to the exclusion of the exterior, for Christ was equally insistent that his followers must prove their faith and commitment by obedience to his commandments and by the performance of good works (Mt. 19:16-22; Lk. 6:43-49).

Secondly, the Sermon on the Mount not only fulfills and perfects the laws of the Old Testament; it is an ethic that points to an ideal of ever greater perfection. Christ did not concentrate on the minimum requirements of the law and of justice as the Mosaic Law had done; rather, he repudiated the old legalism with its restrictive moralizing and opened new horizons in the relationships of men with God and their fellow men.

You have heard that it was said, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also .... You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt. 5:38-44).
But if the morality taught by Christ is not restricted to a minimum, neither does it point to a maximum. No limits are set; there is no terminus. As a result, the follower of Christ is made constantly aware of his own sinfulness and weakness, but without pessimism or despair; and he is also urged to strive for excellence. "You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). This last command, as well as the entire structure and tone of the eight beatitudes, indicates that Christ is positing an ideal that is not fully attainable in this life and is certainly not within the grasp of man by his own natural efforts. It is an ideal that is not of this world, but one that must be the goal of all man's striving while he is in this world.

Moreover, the command to be perfect is not to be understood as a precept that obliges here and now, as does the command to love one's neighbor here and now. Rather, it should be seen as a principle of dynamic evolution, a law of constant progress in one's relationship with God. Christ urges all his followers to respond with all their capacity to the call to the perfection of charity. "For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you .... I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me .... If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (Jn. 13:15; 14:6,18). Thus, as Congar states: "The morality of the New Testament is always 'an imperative coming from an indicative': do this because Christ did it. It is the imitation of Jesus, but an imitation that is not moralistic, narrowly individualistic and pessimistic."(32)

What Christ taught in the Sermon on the Mount was summarized in his farewell address at the Last Supper. Previously, when questioned concerning the commandment, Christ had quoted from the Old Testament: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (cf. Dt. 6:5). This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself (cf. Lev. 19:18)" (Mt. 22:37-39).

At the Last Supper, however, Christ gives love an entirely new dimension, not only by relating love of neighbor to the love of God, but by placing love of neighbor in a central position in the Christian life:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another .... As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love .... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you (Jn. 13:34-35; 15:9-12).
St. John, the theologian of charity par excellence, states explicitly that charity is not a love that is acquired and perfected by purely human effort; it is a gift infused in us by God. It makes us one with God, through Christ, and must then extend to all whom God loves -- all men in general and our neighbor in particular:
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God .... In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation of our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us...

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him ....

We love, because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also (I Jn. 4:7-21).

It has been stated that the love of neighbor occupies a central position in Christian spirituality; the logical question that follows immediately is: Who is my neighbor? Christ himself answered this question with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). In the parable the priest and the levite had several bonds of relationship with the victim, and therefore a greater obligation to come to his assistance, but it was the stranger, the Samaritan, who proved to be a true neighbor. Therefore, in the vocabulary of Christian charity the love of neighbor calls for personal involvement in the particular situation or need of another person, and precisely because we have a care or concern for him. Therefore, love of neighbor is not fulfilled by a vague, general love for people in general; it is activated in the concrete circumstances surrounding individual persons. It is because of this interpersonal aspect of fraternal charity that Christ could say: "A new commandment I give to you" (Jn. 13:34).
What then did Jesus really do with the concept of "neighbor"? He made of it a notion that is of itself unlimited and unconditioned, defined only by the concrete situation in which one finds himself. My neighbor is the person with whom I find myself in a circumstance of proximity, that is, anyone with whom I by my love establish a relation of nearness, which in turn engenders a response. It is not determined beforehand who is my neighbor; anyone can become this. It is he, toward whom in concreto I have a relation of neighborliness, not the one whom I may casually meet, but him with whom I hold communication. My neighbor is the one, anyone at all, whoever he may be, whom I wish to encounter in the total concrete situation of my being-in-the-world and not because of something which has been added to my human status.(33)
It is evident, then, that there can be no authentic Christian spirituality and no authentic Christian charity which consists exclusively in love of God or love of man; the arms of love must embrace both objects of that love. Neither can there be a purely secularized~or humanized love that is charity; true charity is always a gift from God through Jesus Christ, which must return to God, either directly or indirectly (through neighbor). If, as St. John says, it is an illusion to think we can love God without loving our neighbor (I Jn. 4:20), it is likewise erroneous to say that we can love our neighbor in Christian charity without loving God. As St. Augustine states in his commentary on the First Letter of St. John: "When therefore you love the members of Christ, you love Christ; when you love Christ, you love the Son of God; when you love the Son of God, you also love the Father. Love therefore cannot be separated into parts. Choose what you love; all the rest will follow. (34)

With this we close our brief description of the spirituality of the Gospels, which is Christian spirituality par excellence. Nothing more can ever be added substantially to the theology of Christian perfection, and if one were to attempt to reduce the spirituality of the New Testament to a formula, it would read as follows: Conversion to God through faith and baptism in the Holy Spirit, and love of God and neighbor in the fellowship of Jesus Christ.

Gospel spirituality adapts itself to every age, but each historical situation and each culture responds to the imperatives of the Gospel in accordance with the needs and capabilities proper to itself. The spirituality of the Gospel is therefore a dynamic evolution which cannot be restricted to any particular age or fixed permanently in any historical context. But taking the New Testament as the authentic foundation of the Christian life, we can now examine the living witness and Catholic tradition of that life throughout the centuries.

Chapter 1 Sacred Scripture and the Spiritual Life

  1. "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," nn. 21-24, passim. All quotations from Vatican II documents are taken from A. Flannery (ed.), Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Costello Publishing Company, Northport, N.Y., 1975.
  2. Y. Congar, "Christ in the Economy of Salvation and in our Dogmatic Tracts," in E. Schillebeeckx and B. Willems (ed.), Who is Jesus of Nazareth?, Paulist Press, Glen Rock, NJ., 1965, pp. 5-6. By "economic," Congar means the realization of God's plan in human history; by "functional," he means the conditioning of revelation in relation to salvation.
  3. Cf. Y. Congar, art. cit., p. 6.
  4. P. Grelot, "God's Presence and Man's Communion with Him in the Old Testament," in P. Benoit and R. F. Murphy (ed.), The Breaking of Bread, Paulist Press, Glen Rock, NJ., 1969, p. 7.
  5. "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," n. 2.
  6. Y. Congar, art. cit., p. 23.
  7. H. U. von Balthasar, "The Gospel as Norm and Test of all Spirituality in the Church," in C. Duquoc (ed.), Spirituality in Church and World, Paulist Press, Glen Rock, NJ., 1965, p. 14.
  8. Cf. P. Grelot, "Exégèse, théologie et pastorale," in Nouvelle revue théologique. Vol. 88, 1966, pp. 3-13; 132-148.
  9. Cf. C. Charlier, The Christian Approach to the. Bible, tr. H. J. Richards and B. Peters, Newman, Westminster, Md., 1963, p. 244.
  10. J. P. Jossua, Yves Congar: Theology in the Service of God's People, tr. M. Jocelyn, Priory Press, Chicago, Ill., 1968, p. 145.
  11. P. Roets, "Scriptural Teaching on Sexuality," in A. Rock (ed.), Sex, Love and the Life of the Spirit, Priory Press, Chicago, Ill., 1966, p. 87.
  12. P. Grelot, art. cit., p. 7.
  13. Cf. J. P. Jossua, op. cit., p. 128.
  14. P. Grelot, art. cit., p. 13.
  15. According to The Jerusalem Bible (p. 1125), the term "Second-Isaiah" signifies that Isaiah 40-55 was probably composed by an anonymous author who was a disciple of Isaiah and a prophet.
  16. Cf. A. Lefèvre, "The Revelation of God's Love in the Old Testament," in. J. A. Grispino (ed.), Foundations of Biblical Spirituality, Alba House, Staten Island, N.Y., 1964, pp. 15-35.
  17. Cf. P. Drijvers, Les Psaumes, Paris, 1958; J. L. McKenzie, The Two Edged Sword, Bruce, Milwaukee, Wis., 1958.
  18. J. P. Jossua, op. cit., pp. 129-130.
  19. "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," n. 15, passim.
  20. Y. Congar, art. cit., pp. 24-25.
  21. H. Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of God: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. I: Seeing the Form, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, Calif, -- Crossroads Publications, New York, N.Y., 1982, pp. 224; 227.
  22. Cf. J. P. Jossua, op. cit., p. 133.
  23. J. G. Arintero, The Mystical Evolution in the Development and Vitality of the Church, tr. J. Aumann, TAN Books, Rockford, Ill., 1978. Vol. 2., pp. 349-351, passim.
  24. C. Marmion, Christ in His Mysteries, B. Herder, St. Louis, Mo., 1924, pp. 54-55
  25. Cf. F. Moschner, The Kingdom of Heaven in Parables, tr. E. Plettenburg B. Herder, St. Louis, Mo., 1960.
  26. Cf. W. K. Grossouw, Spirituality of the New Testament, tr. M. W. Schoenberg, B. Herder, St. Louis, Mo., 1964.
  27. J. Bonsirven, Theology of the New Testament, tr. S. F. L. Tye, Newman Bookshop. Westminster, Md., 1963, p. 37.
  28. Cf. W. K. Grossouw, op. cit., p. 30; P. G. Stevens, The Life of Grace, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1963, pp. 8-18.
  29. Cf. W. K. Grossouw, op. cit., pp. 26-29; E. J. Fortman, The Theology of Man and Grace, Bruce, Milwaukee, Wis., 1966, pp. 23-25.
  30. W. K. Grossouw, op. cit., p. 45.
  31. Cf. ibid., p. 45.
  32. Cf. J. P. Jossua, op. cit., p. 137.
  33. W. K. Grossouw, op. cit., p. 55.
  34. Cf. G. Salet, "Love of God, Love of Neighbor," in J. A. Grispino (ed.), Foundations of Biblical Spirituality, Alba House, Staten Island, N.Y., 1964, p. 50.