In 1915 Frank Laubach went with his wife to the Philippine Islands as a missionary. After founding churches on the island of Mindanao, he established and became dean of Union College in Manila. In 1930 he returned to Mindanao to work with the Mohammedan Moros who regarded the Christian Filipinos as their enemies. Laubach, however, went with a heart filled with the presence of God and sought only to live among them, not trying to coerce them into Christianity but living each moment with a sense of God's presence.
It is estimated that through his educational efforts he was responsible for teaching one-half of the ninety thousand people in the area to read and write. More than that, he has brought thousands of people to a richer experience of God.
Few women of the twentieth century have done more to further our understanding of the devotional life than Evelyn Underhill. Her scholarly research and writing have helped saints and skeptics alike in the study of religion and spirituality. Her highly praised book Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness has gone through many editions and continues to be a foundational text for all students of spirituality.
Underhill was educated at King's College for Women in London, where she spent much of her time writing and lecturing. She was the Upton lecturer at Manchester College, Oxford, from 1921 to 1922. However, her enduring contribution comes not from her academic achievements but from her personal insights into the devotional life. After a religious conversion at the age of thirty-two, she practiced this devotional life with great intensity.
Underhill's personal spiritual journey intersected with her intellectual capability, producing the much needed combination of authentic spirituality and academic integrity. As a result, she was a highly sought after spiritual director. In addition, she became well known as the conductor of retreats at various Anglican religious centers.
Soren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in the early nineteenth century. He graduated from the University of Copenhagen and then spent two years in Germany before returning to Copenhagen, where he would spend the rest of his life. In 1843 he wrote and published his first book, Either/Or, which startled the religious world with its denouncement of watered-down Christianity.
In fact, Kierkegaard's life and works were a serious challenge to the institutional church that he believed had removed the necessary leap of faith and the individual's (as opposed to the masses') responsibility of commitment. All his writings served as a kind of judgment against a church that minimized the distance between the human and the divine.
Kierkegaard believed that there was a great chasm between God and human beings and that the only bridge was Jesus Christ. In the period of history we call the Enlightenment (when reason seemed to triumph over faith and human potential over human weakness), Kierkegaard's philosophy served as a corrective to a world and a church that had lost its identity.
Born in England in 1892, George Buttrick was educated at Lancaster Independent College. He later came to the United States and was ordained by the Congregational church in 1915. Five years later he entered the Presbyterian ministry. In 1927 he became the pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City and served there until his death in 1980.
During his ministry Buttrick delivered many lectures and addresses at colleges and universities around the world. He was also a gifted writer on the spiritual life. His book "Prayer" is considered to be one of the most thorough and comprehensive works on prayer ever written.
Born into a poor family in Lorraine, France, Nicholas Herman (later known as Brother Lawrence) grew up and became a soldier and a household servant. He never received any formal education, and yet he left behind one of the classic memoirs of the devotional life.
In 1666 he became a lay brother in the Discalced Carmelite order in Paris. He worked there in the kitchen, calling himself "a servant of the servants of God." He remained there until his death at the age of eighty. In his own life he determined to be an experiment of living every moment in "the presence of God." his attempts to create an habitual state of communion led to new heights of spiritual living. Like a pioneer, he discovered a new world of spiritual living that others, notably Frank Laubach and Thomas Kelly, have since traveled.
No task was too trivial for Brother Lawrence, for he was able to transform the mundane chores of the kitchen into glorious experiences of heaven. Like Benedict and Bernard of Clairvaux, he blended work with prayer. Perhaps no other writer in all of Christian literature so beautifully and simply express the joy of living in the presence of God.
Although as a young man Lancelot Andrews was a member of the Puritans, he is now remembered as one of the outstanding figures in the history of the Anglican church. Andrews became the bishop of Ely, Winchester, and Chichester, then the chaplain to Queen Elizabeth, and later, served as an apologist for King James I in his debates with Cardinal Bellarmine. He was a Fellow of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, and one of the scholars who was appointed in 1607 to prepare the King James Version of the Bible.
Andrews was widely known as an eloquent preacher because of his wordplay and sense of humor, which contrasted starkly with the popular Puritan style of plainness. Andrews greatly influenced author and poet T. S. Eliot, who was inspired to write a book about him. Eliot's poem "Journey of the Magi" begins with a quotation from one of Andrews's sermons. It has been said that Andrews's great genius was his ability to compose prayers that "lift the mind up to God."
Julian is the most popular of the English mystics. She lived as a Benedictine nun in Norwich, beside the St. Julian Church, from which she most likely took her name. Little is known about Julian's life. Julian's book Revelations of Divine Love entitled her to become the first great female writer in the English language. Despite her disclaimers of being unskilled as an author, she wrote lively prose in a style all her own. She was well trained in the Bible as well as the teachings of the Church.
Her theology is based on her mystical experiences. She became seriously ill at the age of thirty and in the midst of her suffering prayed for a vision of Christ's passion. Once in a time of prayer Julian heard the words, "I am the foundation of your praying"—words that greatly influenced her spiritual life. She always pointed to the goodness and love of God, a light in a time of darkness for Julian, who lived in an age of social unrest and fear of the Black Plague.
Joy is perhaps the keynote in her writings. She penned the famous saying, "All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." Her writings have been called "the most perfect fruit of later medieval mysticism in England." The following selection shows both her intense desire and her sane reasoning. While her "revelations" may be hard for us today to identify with completely, they contain significant insights from which we all can learn.
Born in Prades, France, Thomas Merton had a trying and painful childhood—his mother died when he was six, and his father (an artist who moved from place to place, often leaving young Thomas unattended) died when he was fifteen. In his teens and early twenties Merton led a prodigal, sensual life in his search for fulfillment.
In his mid-twenties Merton experienced a profound conversion while attending Columbia University, and he joined the Roman Catholic church. At the age of twenty-six he entered Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky where he would live the rest of his life as a Trappist monk.
In 1948 he published The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography that mirrored the spiritual climate of the times. It quickly became an international best-seller. Merton went on to write many more books that made a significant impact on the face of Western spirituality. Known for his journal writing, meditations, and social critique, Merton continues to influence the late twentieth century in many ways.
Some criticize his attempts to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western spirituality, but he never surrendered his belief in the importance of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In the same vein, Merton also held a delicate balance between the inner and the outer life—contemplation and action. Because of this he was able to have an influence not only in the Church, but in the secular world as well. His accidental death in 1968 was a tragic loss, yet Merton continues to inspire countless men and women.
St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, was the great doctor of the Latin church. He was born in North Africa in 354, the son of a pagan father and a devoutly religious mother. He was brought up as a Christian and at the age of sixteen went to Carthage to complete his education in law. In 375 he became interested in philosophy and abandoned his Christian heritage. A skilled orator, Augustine was offered a professorship in Rome, where he founded his own school of rhetoric.
There he came under the influence of the philosophy of Plato and the teachings of St. Ambrose. After a long inner struggle he renounced his earlier philosophical beliefs and embraced the Christian faith. He then returned to Africa where he formed a religious community. In 391 he was ordained a priest (against his wishes) as the Vandals began an invasion of Hippo.
For thirty-four years he lived in this monastic community. He wrote a vast number of books and became known for his eloquence, logic, and spiritual passion. These three combined to make Augustine one of the most significant thinkers in the history of the Christian Church. Perhaps no one except St. Paul has been so widely read for so long. His theological insights shaped not only the age he lived in, but all the subsequent centuries of Christianity. It is difficult to find a theologian—from any age—who has not been influenced by the teachings of St. Augustine.
Bernard was one of the great leaders in the history of the Church. He was an eloquent speaker and considered by many to be one of the holiest individuals who ever lived. He grew up in Dijon, France, and at the age of twenty-two entered as a novice in the monastery of Citeaux. Three years later he was appointed to supervise a group of his fellow monks in the newly founded monastery at Clairvaux. Though he was offered high positions in the church, Bernard remained at Clairvaux until his death.
Thanks to careful preservation over the centuries, many of Bernard's writings have survived today. His works had a profound influence on both Martin Luther and John Calvin. One of his most well-known works is his treatise On the Love of God. In it Bernard incisively outlines his famous "four degrees of love."
Born in Fantiveros, Castile, in Spain, John became a Carmelite monk in 1564. He studied philosophy and theology at the Carmelite college in Salamanca, one of Europe's leading universities. In 1567, the year he was ordained, he met with Teresa of Avila. Teresa saw great potential in John and put him in charge of the order. She admired his rigorous life-style and leadership ability. She was not disappointed, as John was able to establish several new orders.
It was during this time that he was name "John of the Cross," as a result of his suffering and commitment. He spent the rest of his life in the service of the Catholic Reform through his leadership and many writings. He was eventually arrested and put in confinement by those who opposed the reform. It was in confinement that his most famous work, The Dark Night of the Soul, was written. It describes the work of God upon the soul—not through joy and light, but through sorrow and darkness. The concept of "dark night" has become an integral part of understanding the spiritual journey. Though he died centuries ago, John of the Cross continues to exercise a significant influence on Christian spirituality.
Francis de Sales was born into a noble family at the castle of Sales and later attended a Jesuit school in Paris. The Jesuits taught him the classics, Hebrew, Greek, and the life of discipline. His training also included the study of law and the humanities. He was ordained a priest in 1591 despite opposition from his family. In 1602 he became bishop of Geneva.
Francis was a prolific writer whose works had a great influence on the church. He combined spiritual depth with ethical concern in a way the few writers, before or after him, have been able to do. He was a master of metaphor, describing the mysteries of the spiritual life through simple everyday images like bees and milk, birds and sugar. Because of his considerable influence, Francis is considered one of "the doctors of the Western Church."
Jonathan Edwards was a Congregational pastor and a key figure in the eighteenth-century "Great Awakening." He is considered one of America's greatest theologians. Born in Connecticut and educated at Yale, he ministered for twenty-three years at a church in Northampton, Massachusetts. He later became a missionary to the Indians at Stockbridge. In 1758 he was named president of Princeton University but died only a few weeks after taking office.
Edwards produced a theology of Christian spirituality for his age that blended together Lockean philosophy and his own Calvinist theology. His main concern was the question, How do we distinguish the presence of the Holy Spirit? Christian experience, according to Edwards, is a gift of God, but he spent his life working out the ways in which we define that experience. A central theme of his writings is the importance of religious "affections," which he defined as the passions that move the will to act.
Clive Staples Lewis will be remembered as one of the most important Christian thinkers of the twentieth century. He was born in Ireland in 1898, and the major part of his adult years was spent as a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he taught medieval literature. It was in 1931 that he was "surprised by joy," Lewis's own description of his conversion to Christianity. A brilliant scholar and writer, Lewis used his talents to reach thousands through the printed and spoken word.
He and a group of friends (including J. R. R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings) gathered once a week to share their writings. During those years Lewis produced his famous work The Screwtape Letters. In the early 1940s he delivered talks on various Christian topics over British radio. His fame grew throughout Great Britain and spread to the United States. Out of those talks came the book Mere Christianity, a penetrating work on Christian apologetics. Countless Christians point to this book as an essential part of their faith journey. If sales are an indication of popularity, then C. S. Lewis is one of the most popular Christian thinkers of the twentieth century.