Let the greats like St. Francis de Sales and St. Thomas Aquinas help you make progress toward Easter.
It is important for a Christian to become familiar with the texts that come from the Tradition of the Church. Father Max Huot de Longchamp explains to us why it’s essential to rediscover the great classical texts on Christian spirituality.
St. Francis de Sales, St. Claude La Colombière,Pierre de Bérulle, Olier …Should we really take interest in these authors and their somewhat old-fashioned texts?
Vatican II reminded us that the Holy Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church come from the same source — the unique Revelation that God Himself has given us. In the case of the spiritual masters, we can affirm that their teachings are based on their direct experience of God, and that they are at the heart of the Tradition. Holy Scriptures themselves are the earliest result of this Tradition, because it was the Church that determined and wrote down the canon of the Scriptures. And it has been the same discernment throughout the ages that compelled it to officially recognize some of its members as saints and their teachings as example for the faithful.In the course of this process, which is “like an imprint on us of God’s own knowledge,” as St. Thomas termed it, we come to understand that which we didn’t comprehend about the mystery of Christ in order to follow and proclaim it.
Have all practicing Catholics been called to read the spiritual texts included in the Tradition of the Church?
It is as essential for a Christian to become familiar with the texts approved by the Tradition of the Church as to read the Holy Scriptures. St. Thomas Aquinas simultaneously treats the issues of biblical inspiration, contemplative life, theology and sermons: for the Word of God is passed on and received at the same time. Spreading the Good News, because we’ve been inspired by the Holy Spirit is bearing witness to the Incarnation in real time, allowing the Word to become flesh and speak from our heart.
But isn’t this tradition of spiritual masters a domain reserved to intellectuals?
Let’s not confuse the intellectual with the spiritual. The Imitation of JesusChrist indicates that a spiritual text must be read with the Spirit that inspired its author. It’s the very same Spirit of which the Epistle to the Romans tells us that It “pours out God’s love” into our hearts. So, you see, the long years of study are not the issue. The Word of God is a declaration of love, and it follows the heart’s logic, which takes nothing away from the intelligence and the culture, but offers us the key.
Why do you think this Tradition is not well known?
There is a centuries old cause; it goes back to the separation between the spiritual literature and the academic theology that the Sorbonne proclaimed in the 13th century. For 700 years, theology professors have been looking with scorn at authors like St. John of the Cross and St. Francis de Sales, although paradoxically, it’s generally the latter who have been recognized as doctors of the Church.
Today, one can be a professor of theology without having read a page of Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross, who are both Doctors of the Church! As a result many parishes or dioceses offer quality courses in Bible study, but few bother with the readings from Teresa of Avila, who describes the progress in life of prayer or from St. Francis de Sales, who discusses the degrees of divine love.
What renders a spiritual text favorable for meditation?
Canonization, even in recent times, is an official acknowledgement that invites a faithful to follow the saint’s teaching without any reserve. And the Church further reaffirms this invitation by declaring the saint to be a “doctor.” In any case, the first stage in any canonization is to carefully check that the prospective saint’s teaching perfectly corresponds to that of the Church.
So, we may begin with the great saints, without wasting time on dubious texts that often play on the miraculous or the sentimental instead of introducing us to the faith. St. Francis de Sales said that he had seen many who fail to see the difference between God and the sentiment of God, between the faith and the sentiment of faith.
In this case should we only read the texts of “official” saints to sustain our spiritual life?
Actually, the spiritual Tradition includes many authors who have not been canonized.There are those who clearly can be and are reliable, such as Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade, the author of the famous Abandonment to Divine Providence, and there are also others like Jeanne Guyon, who are fascinating but are subject to caution. What matters is that we’re guided by someone competent, who can indicate the extent to which any given text is reliable. Accompanying the worshipers in their spiritual reading is one of the missions of the Church, the guardian of Tradition.
Is reading or meditating on a text tantamount to praying? What frequency should we observe between the readings from spiritual authors and the prayer?
The 12th-century Carthusian monk Guigo II explains the progress of spiritual life on a few pages of his The Ladder of Monks. He compares a monk to a “herbivore,” like a cow that grazes on grass, swallows it, then regurgitates and chews it before swallowing it once again and absorbing it — a continues back and forth. So it is in spiritual life between the Word of God, which is read and meditated, and its digestion and absorption, corresponding to the actual contemplation.
Any relationship between two beings demands these moments of communication and these moments of silence, like two betrothed who talk and then grow quiet, then talk again before falling silent. It’s by far more telling than what they actually say to each other, this is how they gradually build their life together. In the same way, prayer progressively liberates the love that God has poured out into our hearts. Times of prayer are needed so our whole life can become a prayer. This is why there are a thousand ways to pray, with lots or few texts, with many or few words, gestures or images depending on the time and the mood, all this so we can spiritually grow.
Don’t some of these texts seem so dated compared to the world we live in today?
The world has evolved, but “stat crux dum volvitur orbis!” (“The cross remains steady while the world is turning”) is the motto of Carthusian monks. If the Church enriches its teachings, it doesn’t change them. Of course, texts age, and this is why I have insisted that the readings must be guided by competent teachers, who can remove the technical obstacles resulting from the passing of time.
But doesn’t the apostolic ministry that St. Paul describes consist precisely in teaching the faithful how to read? And this, as he writes in the epistle to the Ephesians “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” So, let’s avoid exaggerating the cultural difference between St. Bernard from the 12th century and his modern-day readers. We are fortunate to be a part of a great religious tradition.
What has your vocation taught you about the spiritual needs of the modern-day Christians?
Traditional group readings are a success when the participants leave not just having learned something new but also as better Christians. To achieve this, we must, in the words of St. John of the Cross, “speak the language that God speaks.” To teach this language to the faithful, a pastor must opens the Gospel on the right page and let them perceive with more and more clarity the work of God in their hearts.
Today, God still fascinates and a demand for spirituality is growing. It is manifested among the Christians by the renewed interest in prayer, worship, and confession. I’ve also observed a growing curiosity for great mystical literature on the part of those who proclaim themselves agnostic or atheist.
Interview by Sophie le Pivain