A Layman Ressourcement Curriculum to Rediscover the English School of Catholic Spirituality

Martin Thornton put together an extraordinary syllabus for prayerfully studying English Spirituality, also known as the “English School of Catholic spirituality” or “Anglican spiritual patrimony.” He did this in the Appendix to English Spirituality, and it provides a very useful starting point to the study of a subject that is both narrow, with respect to other Catholic schools of spirituality, but also vast unto itself, because it stretches over multiple centuries, indeed over the life of the Church herself. Fr Thornton wisely saw the need for concrete directions and starting points in the study of the English ascetical and pastoral tradition, particularly if it is to be used by parish priests and catechists, as he intended, for spiritual direction and the deepening of prayer life of active parishioners.

Fr Thornton called his syllabus “A Course of Study in Ascetical Theology for Parish Priests and Theological Students of the Anglican Communion.” Quite a title. I have summarized it as his “ressourcement syllabus” in part to be more concise, but more to situate his insights properly and in the correct category. All of his insights into, and conceptualization about, the “English School of Catholic spirituality” must be seen not as a showy reading list for the theologically gifted, and not as a “pipe diagram” to show direct historical influences one thinker to the next.

Rather, all of this is ressourcement, which, according to Yves Congar, involves a conscious shift from “a less profound to a more profound tradition; a discovery of the most profound resources,” and is concerned “with the unity of the ever-living tradition” of the Church (Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth Century Catholic Theology, 4-5). These are important characteristics. The first ensures the supreme priority of prayer, and the second catholicity within the One Church. And the purpose is rediscover an ascetical and pastoral tradition to foster the conditions for a newfound health in Anglican Christianity.

Fr Thornton’s syllabus makes a great deal of sense. It begins with the ancient and moves to the modern. It suggests three modes of study: “To study seriously,” “To read or refer to,” and “For mental prayer.” He coordinates ascetical writers that pair well together: Augustine with Hugh of St Victor, Benedict with William of St Thierry, for starters. And its overall shape moves toward the Book of Common Prayer, seen as ascetical system of total spirituality, and flows from it. The English School is alive and well in our day and age, though perhaps underground, and by focusing on the “most profound” voices, the Prayer Book tradition can be revivified: voices like Margery Kempe, Jeremy Taylor, and Saint Anselm.

Keeping in mind Fr Thornton’s intended audience (parish priests and theologically trained lay catechists), my own sense, having studied all the works in Fr Thornton’s syllabus, is that another grouping and progression of texts is possible, and perhaps more effective, for the faithful laity, perhaps the vast majority of them who would want to study the English School. Whereas Fr Thornton’s syllabus moved historically, I believe beginning more in the present and then proceeding towards in-depth study (for those who get that far, which would hardly be necessary) might be the way to go. I also sense that a more explicit attention to Blessed Mary is important, because a robust daily devotion to Our Lady seems to go hand in hand with spiritual health as well as creative prayer.

I am inclined towards such a ressourcement curriculum looking something like the following, which presumes growing and active embrace of the threefold Regula in the Prayer Book tradition. Those growing in maturity of faith invariably benefit from competent spiritual direction, especially learning the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits as taught by Saint Ignatius Loyola and if possible being directed through his Spiritual Exercises, nineteenth annotation (“for everyday life.”)

Admittedly my curriculum is not so neatly arranged as Fr Thornton’s into three categories. I suppose I wonder if, for the laity, those three categories are as useful as they might seem to be. To be sure, this is all “devout experimentation,” to use one of Fr Thornton’s favorite phrases. Yet it is an arrangement born of my own experience with the profound texts of English spirituality, past and not so past, both as a layman and now as a parish priest, catechist, and spiritual director.

For the rediscovery of the active ferment exemplified in the two great flowerings of the English School of Catholic spirituality—the fourteenth century “Mystical” era, and the subsequent sixteenth and seventeenth century Prayer Book era—the following texts (in this order, at least at the Introductory level) are recommended for study in parishes.


Introductory Texts

• Martin Thornton—The Purple Headed Mountain
• Fr Andrew—Our Lady’s Hymn, along with Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, by ARCIC II
• Saint Benedict—Rule (with ascetical commentary)
• Saint Anselm—Prayers and Meditations
The Book of Margery Kempe, along with Martin Thornton’s commentary: Margery Kempe, An Example in the English Pastoral Tradition
• Jeremy Taylor—Rule and Exercises of Holy Living
• John Macquarrie—The Faith of the People of God

• Fr Andrew—Meditations for Every Day, then at will
• Saint Augustine—Enchiridion
• John Macquarrie—Paths in Spirituality

Intermediate Texts

• Martin Thornton—My God: A Reappraisal of Normal Religious Experience
• Julian of Norwich—Revelations of Divine Love
• Saint Anselm—Proslogion
• Readings at will from the Fleur De Lys devotional series—Saint Bonaventure, Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, William of St Thierry, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St Victor
• Saint Catherine of Siena—The Dialogue
• John Macquarrie—Mary for All Christians

The Cloud of Unknowing
• Excerpts from The Ancrene Riwle
• Lancelot Andrewes—Preces Privatae
• John Keble—The Christian Year
• A. M. Allchin—The Joy of All Creation
• George Herbert—The Complete English Poems
• John Wesley—A Plain Account of Christian Perfection
• Charles Gore—The Epistle to the Ephesians
• William Temple—Readings in Saint John’s Gospel
• Excerpts from Anglicanism by More and Cross
• John Henry Newman—Parochial and Plain Sermons
• Martin Thornton—Prayer: A New Encounter, Christian Proficiency, and A Joyful Heart

Advanced Texts

• Thomas Aquinas—Compendium of Theology, then at will
• Michael Ramsey—The Gospel and the Catholic Church
• Augustine—De Trinitate, De Civitate Dei, and biblical commentary at will
• Richard Rolle—The Fire of Love
• Excerpts from the Victorine fathers, at will
• Sermons and writings from the Cistercian fathers, at will
• John Macquarrie—Principles of Christian Theology, then at will
• Kenneth Kirk—The Vision of God, and Some Principles of Moral Theology
• Eric Mascall—Christ, the Christian, and the Church; Corpos Christi, then at will
• Isaac Williams—Tracts 80 and 87 On Reserve
• Walter Hilton—Scale of Perfection

Header image of Saint Anne teaching Our Lady to read, at All Saints’, North Street in York.

English Spirituality meme courtesy Nathaniel Marshall.