At the conclusion of a course just completed at Saint Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois, during which we read and discussed this book, I asked the parishioners what they thought future readers needed to know before they read it. I do not think I can improve upon one parishioner’s response:
This simple, down-to-earth book clarifies what Christians need to know about living as followers of Christ. It defines the day-to-day existence of the Christian and provides a simple framework for thinking (and re-thinking) basic tenets/concepts such as sin, prayer and humility. It is a foundation for those looking to live and nurture their relationship with God.
To only elaborate, this is a book that can still teach the Church today, because it contains an integrated, practical vision too often absent from Christian life. Often when we read for spiritual formation (rather than for mere spiritual information), despite a bounty of insights—those which stop us, startle us, raise our eyes to God—the fruits fail to resonate at home and at the altar and in everyday toil. The problem is simply stated: When devotional writings do not correlate easily to doctrine, nor works of serious theology plainly to normal life and prayer, muddle ensues.
Martin Thornton would have none of this disconnect, for his superb theology—always sophisticated yet always accessible and grounded in pastoral reality—insists on what he called a speculative-affective synthesis: an integral balance, in the Benedictine sense, of intellect and action, study and wilderness, dogma and love. Hence, this book, despite it being written in 1962, remains stubbornly contemporary and topical—what a true classic always is. However, four observations might be helpful at the outset to head off unnecessary confusion:
1. Martin Thornton, among the most erudite theologians of his day (see English Spirituality), was a Catholic Anglican: He was utterly committed to an Anglican expression of the full Christian faith once for all delivered to the saints. The last thing he meant by penitence was to encourage anything like hair shirts, punishing guilt-trips or mock piety. Perhaps secular culture’s influence still lingers, as in The Scarlet Letter and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (“Only the penitent man will pass”). But the genuine activity is rooted in humility within the conditions in which we are born—discipleship amid, rather than divorced from, God’s created order. The biblical revelation insists that all of God’s creation, cosmic and microscopic, is made good; yet how often do we persist in pretending otherwise! Creatures mediate God’s presence; so sin as disharmony with creation impedes proper discernment of God’s will. Penitence, then, is searching for the truth of our God-given vocation through sober analysis and a joyful heart within obedient parish life—such as when the Book of Common Prayer is used as Regula (that is, an overall pattern or rule of corporate prayer life: Office-Mass-Devotion)—and, ideally, supplemented by competent spiritual guidance.
2. Amid the bounty of Christian writing we continue to see today, genre must ever be kept in mind. This book is not dogmatic or historical theology, nor is it biblical theology or devotional writing aimed merely for private inspiration. Thornton here elaborates upon the doctrines of Creation and Sin, yet he presumes all others of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church: Holy Trinity, the threefold Church (Militant, Expectant, Triumphant), Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, the Church-deemed authority of Scripture, the Two Natures of Jesus and so on. Academic experts today would add detail to Thornton’s summaries of Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi and Hugh of St Victor, and biblical scholars would underscore the lack of historical-textual clues that Mary Magdalene practiced “harlotry” specifically. Again, genre: So which is it? Properly, this is ascetical theology, because it offers to faithful Christians exactly what they need: a sacramental, corporate framework (or ascetic) that enacts doctrine and articulates our experience and total prayer life so as to ever-grow and reform into the likeness of Jesus; the western Church adopted the Magdalene-as-harlot image because, as seen through an ascetical lens, she is a glorious example to all Christians. Yet this is also pastoral theology, because it makes available to lay and clerical catechists rich reflection that invites creative development in parish life—to graft insights given by the Holy Spirit to the pulpit and the pews, to catechesis and to the home. Pastoral theology, if it is to integrate disparate theological disciplines and insights, requires a Catholic ascetic such as Thornton brilliantly developed throughout his thirteen books.
3. Thornton was no sexist, yet his age had social conventions differing from our own. Today we might wince at the “schoolgirl conscience” and “pretty/plain girl” metaphors introduced in Chapters IV. It should be known that his work as a spiritual director was with women mostly, not men, and the “pretty/plain girl” language likely comes directly from real experience. Indeed, as he wrote in Chapter VI, to be blunt “is seldom bad in pastoral practice”—that is, bluntness has its place in the overall scheme of pastoral and moral theology as both are taught to clergy, catechists and the faithful. But at the same time, Thornton would agree that to offend is never good, either. Readers are advised to take these metaphors with a grain of forgiving salt for the insight into sin that lies beneath the surface. The same applies to “schoolgirl conscience,” yet with a caveat. As much as we might wince, “schoolgirl conscience”—which obviously infects men and women alike—is in fact a strong critique of what sociologists today call moralistic therapeutic deism. This idea—that God made us only to be nice, good and fair to each other; that He created us to be happy-feel-good creatures; and that He is uninvolved in our lives save for the difficulties—may be what a great many people think today, and may contain grains of truth, but it is in no way the Christian conception of God. Ever the gardener, Thornton would applaud all efforts to uproot this unmistakable heresy from parish soil.
4. Finally, it is no accident that Thornton appeals to the doctrine of Creation and its central role in the total prayer life. Thornton possessed what theologians today call a “Catholic imagination” or “sacramental imagination.” Against the impoverished vision of Creation espoused by moralistic therapeutic deism, all things in fact are made, loved, and kept by God; hence all creatures, each according to its kind, mediate His presence and reach their fulfillment of purpose in the Cross and Resurrection. To contemplate that inexhaustible fact is a basis of Catholic ascetic—for ascetic, as the sacramental, corporate framework of total spiritual growth, is nothing but systematic reflection upon all implications of Creation in light of the Incarnation. By presenting the Capital Sins as the recurring patterns of how we go awry with Creation, Thornton invites us to a stunning, thoroughly orthodox life of adventurous inquiry: Who are we? Who are we called to become? How are we out of harmony with His created order? Or in sum: How can right relationship with the Blessed Trinity be restored? Our attitude toward God’s Creation is at the heart of it all. For as Thornton suggests in this book and echoed ten years later in Prayer: A New Encounter, the simple words of the Benedicite—whether chanted in the Divine Office or meditated upon devotionally—are nothing short of tremendous theology:
O ye Mountains and Hills, O all ye Green Things upon the earth,
O ye Wells, O ye Seas and Floods bless ye the Lord! . . .
Let us bless the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit:
Praise Him and magnify Him for ever.
Solemnity of All Saints, 2014