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 curriculum “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 progression through the 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 syllabus 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 being directed through his Spiritual Exercises, nineteenth annotation (“for everyday life.”) Admittedly my syllabus 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.
A RESSOURCEMENT SYLLABUS FOR THE LAITY
• Fr Thornton—The Purple Headed Mountain
• Rule of Saint Benedict (w/ commentary)
• Fr Andrew—Our Lady’s Hymn (w/ “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ” ARCIC II), and Meditations for Every Day
• John Macquarrie—The Faith of the People of God
• Anselm—Prayers and Meditations
• Excerpts from Rationale upon the Book of Common-Prayer of the Church of England—Anthony Sparrow
• Excerpts from The Whole Duty of Man
• The Book of Margery Kempe (w/ Thornton commentary)
• Jeremy Taylor—Holy Living
• Julian of Norwich—Revelations of Divine Love
• Richard Rolle—Fire of Love
• The Cloud of Unknowing
• Readings at will from the Fleur De Lys devotional series—Bonaventure, Aelred of Rievaulx, William of St Thierry, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St Victor
• Catherine of Siena—The Dialogue
• Excerpts from The Ancrene Riwle
• Lancelot Andrewes—Preces Privatae
• John Keble—The Christian Year
• 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
• A. M. Allchin—The Joy of All Creation
• Fr Andrew, at will
• Excerpts from Anglicanism by More and Cross
• Fr Thornton—My God: A Reappraisal of Normal Religious Experience, Prayer: A New Encounter, Christian Proficiency, A Joyful Heart
• Michael Ramsey—The Gospel and the Catholic Church
• Augustine—De Trinitate, De Civitate Dei, and biblical commentary at will
• Walter Hilton—Scale of Perfection
• Excerpts from the Victorine fathers, at will
• Sermons and writings from the Cistercian fathers, at will
• Thomas Aquinas—Compendium of Theology, then at will
• John Macquarrie—Principles of Christian Theology, and Mary for All Christians, then at will
• Kenneth Kirk—The Vision of God, and Some Principles of Moral Theology
• Eric Mascall—Christ, the Christian, and the Church; then at will
• Isaac Williams—Tracts 80 and 87 On Reserve
• John Henry Newman—Parochial and Plain Sermons
(Header image of Saint Anne teaching Our Lady to read, at All Saints’, North Street in York; English Spirituality meme courtesy Nathaniel Marshall)