Ascetical theology and Catholic imagination

When we speak ascetically in the Catholic sense as Martin Thornton did — against and beyond the Anglican ascetical writers of the early 20th century such as Evelyn Underhill, Oscar Hardman, Bede Frost, C.F. Rogers, H.S. Box, and F.P. Harton — we are liberated from their more limited “theology of ascetical practices” into ascetical theology that is wider and far more provocative. Following Thornton, to speak ascetically means “articulating the church’s corporate experience.” As Thornton wrote in 1960 in reference to that former crop of Anglican ascetical writers, “we need an ascetical ascetical-theology”.1 Theirs was too narrow and leaned individualistic. His critique did honor their contributions (he was particularly fond of Harton’s Elements of the Spiritual LIfe), but sought to push reflection on the theology of prayer still deeper, more corporate, and more Catholic.

“Catholic” must mean that the particular is analogous to the whole. The very word means “according to the whole.” If a person, a family, a parish, a church is to be Catholic, then its being in the particular must be a microcosm of the Church, the true whole. In all practicality, this means having a comprehensive and active relationship with the Catholic Faith once for all delivered to the saints. It means having a Catholic imagination.

As Thornton wrote in 1978, doctrine and prayer are two sides of the same coin.2 The “use” of these coins or tokens comprises the doing of theology. This sheds intriguing light upon the term “orthodox”. Following Thornton, to be orthodox really means that the corporate prayer life is in full accord and balance with the doctrines that comprise the Faith of Holy Church.

Ascetic corresponds with dogmatic, in other words. Prayer life that lives into and through Christian doctrine is orthodox. Seen in this way, “orthodoxy” becomes not an intellectual litmus test but an exciting adventure. It is a matter of living! Furthermore, this renders the Benedictine emphasis on “balance” as a still more penetrating insight into the nature of Catholic life. Life is a risk and a struggle, and we often lean too far in one direction, only to be pulled back to the other, else we fall over and must get up. The same applies to the balancing of doctrine and prayer life.

In Acts 2.42, we learn that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This threefold framework — respectively, Devotion-Mass-Office — is called by Thornton “Regula“. He appears to be the first Christian writer to do so.

If “Catholic imagination” was alive and active from the first moments of the Church, and why would it not be, then it is clear from the biblical revelation that Catholic imagination and Regula go hand in hand. There is no better example of this than Acts chapter 2: verses 1-41 are Catholic imagination — “baptismal” imagination, if you like. And then comes verse 42: Regula as the response of the community. So to the question, “what is Catholic imagination?”, one must look to the 2nd chapter of Acts as the basis. We ought use Acts 2 prayerfully to open our own hearts to God’s presence in our Christian family.

Hence Regula is not a concept, but rather an articulation the church’s corporate experience. Regula is the heart of ascetical theology in the Thorntonian sense. Or, put another way, Catholic imagination is the “stuff” of Regula. It very well may be a doctrine itself, the doctrine of the Regula. Regula is one side of the token; Catholic imagination is the other.

Hence it makes sense that Catholic imagination has been diminished in the West, because the centrality of Regula has been diminished in the West. You cannot have Catholic imagination without robust Devotional-baptismal commitment out in the world, without a robust Eucharist as the focusing and concentrating of all creation, and without a robust Office that is the daily activity of the People of God, an engine to catalyze devotion and love to God by ordinary Christians, rather than the obligation of the parish priest only!3

We can further reflect upon Catholic imagination when we look at the doctrines of the Trinity, the Church, and the Incarnation.

From the doctrine of the Trinity we can see that Regula is a threefold responding to a Triune God. Divine Office emphasizes praise to the Father through Jesus in the Spirit. Mass emphasizes Communion with Jesus who reveals the Father in the Spirit. Devotion emphasizes guidance by the Spirit to Jesus who reveals the Father. And yet, through it all, it is not three prayer lives, but one prayer life that integrates into seamless praise, communion, and guidance: of, with, and by God. This is the basis of Catholic imagination.

From the doctrines of the Church and Incarnation, we see that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit into the cosmos in order that the Holy Spirit would bring and unite all things to Him and fully reveal the Father. God became man so that man might become God.

Hence in the Church Militant, all things of creation can become sacramental, the God-given exemplars being the seven Sacraments. This process is the basis of our Devotional-Baptismal activity: being Christ’s hands and mind in the world so that the Holy Spirit’s activity can guide all people.

In the Church Expectant, God’s children can become sanctified, or (if you will accept the expression) sanctoral, in the adjectival sense: more and more saintly and holy. God’s adopted children are given the opportunity to continue their growth and reformation into the likeness of Christ. This process is the basis for the Mass, where we commune with the entire Church in a mystical family that shares in the love of Christ which finds consummation (on earth) in the Eucharist.

In the Church Triumphant, all of God’s holy creatures, including those fully sanctified, become angelic, in that all join with the angels in their activity of ceaseless praise and thanksgiving for the primordial God the Father (we do not become angels, but become as like them as possible in our activity). This process is the basis for the Divind Office, where we unite as the Body of Christ (all states of the threefold Church) in praise for Our Father to sing with the Angels, “Holy holy holy”.

In sum, Catholic imagination is spontaneous and organic response by the People of God to the presence of the Holy Spirit who calls us into deeper recognition and working out of our baptismal status. It is the response by Christians whose lives are ordered by the doctrine of Regula. Catholic imagination sums up the activity and processes alive within the Christian family that are preserved (akin to yeast) in the additional core doctrines of Trinity, Church, and Incarnation. Catholic imagination is sacramental, sanctoral, and angelic. And the scriptural basis for this is the second chapter of The Acts of the Apostles, the Church amid the energy of its baptismal status.

Following Thornton’s reasoning, if a corporate, that is to say parochial, Christian existence cannot be seen to be ordered by Regula — daily Office, weekly (or daily) Mass, constant Devotion — then not only can a community not claim to be Catholic, but it cannot claim to be orthodox either, no matter what its intellectual claims on various Christian doctrines may be.

Why? Because for Thornton, the proof of all doctrinal pudding is in the doing. For a parish family to leave out, ignore, or under-emphasize either Office, Mass, or Devotion — or God forbid, two of them — causes immediate violence to the doctrines of Trinity, Church, and Incarnation. Regula is the living out of those doctrines, a making-real through participation in grace; without regula, these doctrines and all others are little more than interesting intellectual wordplay and emotive wall-building.

All of this is something of what “breaks forth” when ascetical theology is correctly understood.4 It is necessary to see “ascetical theology” not as the theology of ascetical practice, but as the articulation of the Church’s corporate experience. Asceticism presupposes Catholic ascetical theology. And once you step into that terrain and begin to grapple with articulating the Church’s corporate experience, catholicity ensues.

1 Martin Thornton, “Anglican Ascetical Theology, 1939–60,” Theology 63 (August 1960): 313-319.
2 Martin Thornton, “Prayer and Incarnation,” Christian 4, no. 4 (1978): 317-324.
3 See Martin Thornton, Prayer: A New Encounter and The Function of Theology.
4 Thornton continued to reconfigure “ascetical theology” in a more Catholic direction with English Spirituality (see chapter 2). Over his entire career, he continued to develop its characteristics and differentiate it from the former “theology of asceticism”. The formulation “the articulation of the Church’s corporate experience” shows up in a book review he wrote in 1984: Martin Thornton, “Spirituality for Ministry,” Pastoral Psychology 32, no. 4 (Sum 1984) 287-288.