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.