John Bunyan was born in the parish of Elston, two miles from Bedford, England. His father, like himself, was a poor tinker, but he managed to send John to school for a short time. Later, John served for two years in the Parliamentarian army during the civil war against Charles I.
In 1660 Bunyan was put in the Bedford jail for twelve years for preaching without a license. While in prison he supported his family by making shoelaces. It was in prison that he wrote Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (first published in 1666), an autobiographical sketch of his conversion, call to ministry, and subsequent imprisonment. After his release in 1672, Bunyan was appointed pastor of the Baptist church in Bedford but was again sent to prison (on the same charge) for six months. It was then that he wrote his most famous work, The Pilgrim's Progress, published in 1678. This book is a monumental classic, second only to the Bible in the number of copies sold since its first printing. Like the Apostle Paul, Bunyan knew both the pain and the glory of being an instrument in the hands of God.
Isaac Penington was the son of the mayor of London. In 1658 he joined the Society of Friends (the Quakers). He was such a zealous follower of Christ and filled with such faith that he was jailed six times for proclaiming his unshakable convictions. He spent five years in prison as a result of his desire to worship in a manner other than the one prescribed by the established church. For a Quaker, this meant through silence as opposed to liturgy and sacraments and sermons.
He also refused to take an oath in court (which he believed was forbidden by God in Scripture). As a result, he and his wife lost all their property. The hardships he encountered in the following years helped him to understand the growth that comes through suffering. Penington offers light and truth and comfort for all who suffer and are afflicted today as he was in his day. Penington's letters he wrote to friends reveal his own tenderness, sympathy, and unwavering faith.
Ignatius was born in the family castle of Loyola in the Basque country of Spain. His family belonged to a long line of nobility, and Ignatius reflected his refined upbringing throughout his early life. He participated in all the revelry of royalty—gambling, dueling, romance—and worldly attraction.
In 1517 he took service in the army and in May of 1521 received a leg wound in a border skirmish with the French. He returned to Loyola to recuperate and found himself able to do nothing but read. He happened upon a book called The Life of Christ and was converted as a result. He also read The Imitation of Christ and the stories of St. Francis. He concluded by asking, "Could I not do what Francis did?" He then resolved to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, disposed of all his worldly goods, and clothed himself in sackcloth.
His ship was detained in Manresa, however, and he was forced to remain there for a year. During that time he had several profound mystical experiences that led him to begin sharing his faith with others. He also penned a large portion of The Spiritual Exercises during his stay in Manresa, and carried these notes with him as he continued the journey to Jerusalem. Ignatius would later become famous for these simple yet profound instructions on how to take a spiritual retreat. His "exercises" became the standard for Jesuit retreats and have remained so to this day.
Born and raised in the turmoil of seventeenth-century Puritan England, George Fox became the founder and most prominent leader of the Quakers (the Society of Friends). His famous Journal reveals a bold and passionate, even prophetic, man who acted with the certainty of one who knows God firsthand, not by hearsay. He was quick to confront those who "did not possess what they professed." He laid bare pomposity and pretense. He also called thousands to a direct, intimate knowledge of Christ who was present to teach and empower them.
If the Journal portrays a fiery figure, George Fox's Letters show us a loving pastor. In forty years, Fox wrote over three thousand letters, mostly to groups. These tender, practical letters display a full range of pastoral concern, from the life of prayer and worship to family life to the life of commerce.
Catherine was born into a prominent religious family; her father was the viceroy of Naples and two of his family had been popes. In 1463 she married Guiliano Adorno, a wealthy but worldly man with whom she had little in common. After ten years of living a life of worldly vanity, she was converted to the contemplative life. Her husband had lost his fortune so with the remaining income they lived among the poor in Genoa. Guiliano became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis, and both he and Catherine worked among the poor and the sick. In 1479 they began working full time in a nearby hospital. A year later Guiliano died, and Catherine became the matron of the hospital.
Catherine of Genoa was a woman whose spirituality ran deep. Her love for God was matched only by her love for others. Though her writings are full of life and fervor, creative and inspiring, she is best remembered for her acts of charity. He main work, Life and Teachings, along with her Dialogues, were her most important literary contributions. She was a woman who had keen insight into pure love of God and the human struggle of accepting that love.
Thomas Kelly was born into a Quaker family in Ohio in 1893. He was educated at Haverford and Harvard and acquired a reputation for outstanding scholarship. Kelly was involved in two important ministries in his early years: working with German prisoners in 1917-1918 and pastoring a Quaker community in Berlin in 1924-1925. Upon his return, he taught at Earlham College and the University of Hawaii. In 1936 he began teaching philosophy at Haverford, where he remained until his death in 1941.
While a student at Haverford, Kelly said to a professor, "I am going to make my life a miracle!" He set high standards for his life, desiring excellence in truth in all areas. Some believed that he was driven to the point of exhaustion until, in 1937, he had an experience that ended the strain and striving. His efforts were now aimed at developing an acquaintance with God, not merely acquiring knowledge about God.
Kelly was known by his colleagues as a man of genuine devotion, and his writings, in particular A Testament of Devotion and The Eternal Promise, have made a lasting impact on all who have read them. Rufus Jones said of the former book, "There are few—a very few—great devotional books...and here is a book I can recommend along with the best of the ancient ones."
Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada was born in Avila, Spain, in 1515. At the age of twenty she entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation. While there she battled many serious illnesses, especially between the ages of twenty-eight and thirty. She lived a very devout life at the convent and was known to have occasional supernatural experiences.
In 1555 Teresa experienced what she called a "second conversion," which changed her spiritual life decisively. She began experiencing visions more often, most notably, visions of Christ piercing her heart with a spear. Under the direction of her spiritual counselor, she began working on a project to establish new Carmelite houses that were devoted to the contemplative life. Later John of the Cross worked alongside her in this effort.
Teresa began her writing career with a spiritual autobiography, and it was quickly noticed that she had a gift for writing about the spiritual life in elegant yet simple terms. Her most famous work on prayer is Interior Castle, which she wrote following a vision. In it she describes the soul's journey from the outside of a castle and through many rooms as it strives toward the center room where the soul can unite with God completely. In the spirit of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Teresa uses allegory to describe the spiritual journey we all face, with its attendant obstacles and joys.
Christianity became the official state religion early in the 4th century, and with this new status began an unfortunate secularization of the Church. When the Christian faith was mixed with the Roman world, the world did not become Christian so much as Christians became worldly. In reaction, many earnest Christians fled to the desert and ultimately to monasteries and convents as a way of escaping the world and living a faithful life. Into this climate Benedict of Nursia arouse to bring new life to the Christian world.
Born into a good family in the Umbrian village of Nursia and educated at Rome, Benedict grew weary of the evils of the city and fled to the mountains of Subaiaco to live as a hermit. He became well known for his piety, his wisdom, and his humility. In A. D. 529 he founded a monastery on Monte Cassino, midway between Naples and Rome, and he remained there until his death.
In this monastery Benedict wrote his famous Rule, which provided a much needed accountability to the many roving prophets and hermits of the day. In The Rule Benedict gives clear, direct, and effective disciplines for living a holy life. His writings inspired an important period of renewal and are still with us today because of their wisdom and insight.
Blaise Pascal is best remembered for his genius in mathematics, but his work as a philosopher and theologian remains perhaps the most insightful of all his works. Born in France in 1623, Pascal was reared by his father and an older sister after his mother's death in 1626. Though he was often ill, he displayed a sharp intellect at an early age.
By the time he was thirty-one he was well known for his contributions in the fields of math and science. However, it was in that year that he visited his sister at a religious community in Port Royal, where he heard a sermon that brought about a profound religious experience. He remembered that day—November 23, 1654—as the key moment in his life. He wrote the following on a piece of paper, sewed it into the lining of his coat, and carried it with him for the rest of his life: "Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. Joy, joy, joy, oceans of joy!"
Whatever doubts Pascal had before that time had been dispelled. For the next six years he lived with that community (though not as a member), studying the Bible and the Church Fathers. At the age of thirty-seven he began writing a defense of the Christian faith, but his death at age thirty-nine prevented him from finishing. These random notations or "thoughts" were gathered together following Pascal's death and became the world-famous book Pensees.
Born at Noyon, France, and educated at the University of Paris, John Calvin grew up in an atmosphere of wealth and nobility. His father wanted him to study theology, but John felt a yearning to study law. However, he had keen insight as a theologian and the heart of a pastor. Although he was never ordained, he became the curate of St. Martin de Marteville in 1527. In 1534 he was converted to Protestantism, which resulted in two short imprisonments.
In 1536 he wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion at the young age of twenty-six. By 1541 he had gone to Geneva, Switzerland, and had influenced that city to the point that he had gained a large following. Under Calvin's leadership, and in spite of opposition to him, Geneva became famous for its high moral standards, economic prosperity, and educational system. Many consider him to have been the father and founder of both the Presbyterian and the Reformed Protestant churches.
He was deeply influenced by the writings of Martin Luther and St. Augustine, especially Augustine's strong predestination theology. It is safe to say that no theologian holds a higher or clearer understanding of the sovereignty of God that John Calvin. He was well known for his stern temperament and serious lifestyle.
Born in the village of Thornton in the diocese of York in England, Richard Rolle was one of the great spiritual leaders of England. He came from humble beginnings and, through the help of a benefactor, was able to attend Oxford. Although he was an outstanding student, he decided to quit before finishing his master's degree because he did not want to get mixed up in the vanity of the academic world.
Rolle returned to Yorkshire and literally ran away from home in order to become a hermit. He made a hermit's habit out of his father's raincoat and left for a nearby church to spend the night in prayer as a preparation. While there he was enthralled in a deep experience of prayer so astonishing that onlookers could only marvel as he prayed through the night. When he later preached in that church, it marked the beginning of a powerful ministry.
He lived in different towns and villages throughout his life: sometimes in a monastery, sometimes in a nunnery. He also became famous for his writings, especially his work The Fire of Love. Rolle wrote with a kind of passion and energy that few writers have demonstrated. For two hundred years following his death he was highly revered as "St. Richard the Hermit," and his writings were treasured by both religious and nonreligious.
Gregory of Nyssa was one of the great "fathers" of the Church. He lived in the fourth century, a time when the persecution of the Christians was coming to an end. Gregory was one of three Greek Cappadocian fathers (the other two were Gregory's brother, St. Basil, and their mutual friend, Gregory of Nazianzus).
He was called "one of the most powerful and most original thinkers ever known in the history of the Church" (Louis Bouyer). His writings have had a great influence on the spirituality of the Eastern church. He was well versed in Greek philosophy, notably Platonism and Stoicism, but the basis of his thought was rooted in the Bible.
Gregory believed that the main use of the Bible was not for historical reflection but rather for growth in virtue. He and the other Church fathers used the Bible and its characters to teach us how to grow closer to God, how to "elevate" the soul to God. He saw the spiritual life as a race in which we, like St. Paul, "forget...what lies behind and strain...forward to what lies ahead" (Philippians 3:13). For Gregory, perfection is discovered in continual striving—a perpetual progress rooted in the infinite grace of God.
Martin Luther is best known as the father of the Protestant Reformation. Born into a peasant family in Eisleben, Germany, Luther sought to better himself by becoming a scholar. However, at the age of twenty he suffered a deep anxiety about his own salvation and entered an Augustinian monastery to soothe his religious conscience. Soon afterward he felt called into the priesthood and was ordained in 1507. While serving as a professor of biblical literature at Wittenberg in 1512, he lectured on Paul's letter to the Romans, an exercise that shaped his theological thinking—especially concerning salvation. In 1517 he composed the famous ninety-five theses and nailed them on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, registering his complaints with the Roman Catholic church and providing the impetus for the Protestant Reformation.
Luther was not only a brilliant theologian but also a man of deep piety. He was deeply influenced by the writings of St. Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux. Luther's faith was lively, earthy, and practical; his logic was powerful; and his leadership skill unparalleled. He is considered one of the most influential men in the history of the Church.
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.