An Introduction to Great Spiritual Classics

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by John McGrath, SM, PhD

See the end of this article for a more comprehensive Study Guide.

To live the life of Christ is the goal of the Christian. The Lord Jesus bestowed the gift of the Spirit on all believers so that they could live and grow in the life of Christ with the community of the faithful as the Body of Christ. Those living a Christian life—fed by the Word of God in Scripture and the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist—are on the journey of assimilating the salvific mission of Christ and bringing it to others.

This article considers how a few people—recognized by the Church as remarkably helpful—responded to the call of the Spirit in and around themselves and left us some significant reflections, directions, and experiences that can guide and stimulate us in our days. They certainly are women and men of their times. But at the heart of their lives and work, their goal and longing are the same as ours: to live increasingly in relationship with Jesus Christ and share his mission for the sake of the flourishing of men and women in Christ.

Catherine of Siena
Catherine lived and wrote at a difficult time in the history of the Church. The popes lived in Avignon, not Rome, making life confusing for believers in a universal Church. The black plague struck Europe in her childhood, and up to 50 percent of the population died. And the disease returned.

Catherine was the twenty-fourth of 25 children of a middle-class family. She was outgoing, pleasant, and independent. A “passion for the truth of things” was central to her as she matured. She worshiped often at the nearby church and cloister of St. Dominic. She was only seven years old when she vowed her virginity to God. At 18, she received the habit of the Dominican affiliates.

For a few years, Catherine lived a contemplative life. At 21 she began her ministry of the Corporal Works of Mercy and spiritual conversations with people. Her prayer life involved mystical experiences and, in her many conversations, she learned the nuances of theology and Scripture from others while sharing with them her experience of the ways of God.

Catherine’s social involvement led to interventions to promote peace among Italian cities like Florence, Pisa, Lucca, and Siena, plus reform of the clergy and the return of the pope to Rome. Called to Rome by Urban VI in the cause of unity and peace, Catherine carried on her ascetical community life as best she could, but her health gave way. She died in Rome at the age of 33.

Catherine was a mystic. She led a highly active life, especially in her last 12 years, but she was led to this activity by her contemplation. Her classic work, The Dialogue, is the fruit of her prayer, much of it actual dictation during her prayer and from her own teaching and letters.

Catherine had no formal schooling, but she was completely orthodox in theology and in use of Scripture. Her influences were broad but especially Dominican, and she was at home with God’s word. Her theology is not new. “What is original in Catherine is her capacity for fresh and vivid expression of the tradition,” writes Suzanne Noffke, O.P., in her Introduction to The Dialogue (Paulist Classics of Western Spirituality, 1988). Catherine wrote not in Latin, as all the scholars did, but in her own Sienese dialect. This was another mark of the attraction of her writing.

Catherine’s central teaching is Truth and Love. God is the “first gentle Truth,” “mad with love” for us, and “charity itself.” The way to God is the “constantly lived dynamic of knowledge and love.”

Catherine was less a “social mystic” than a “mystic activist.” In other words, her activism was driven by her prayer more than her prayer by her activism. Behind it all was her “tremendous desire for God’s honor and the salvation of souls.” She was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.

John of the Cross
One of the great Spanish mystics of the Catholic reformation, John was a leader of reform in his age, both respected and reviled. A saint (canonized in 1675 by Pope Benedict XIII) and a Doctor of the Church (declared in 1926 by Pope Pius XI), his reputation has seen a great resurgence of attraction in the last century as the contemplative movement has grown.

John was one of three sons born to a poor family. After a very basic education and during a job as a nurse and alms-seeker in a hospital, he took advantage of an opportunity to study Latin and rhetoric at a Jesuit school. These studies and other experiences with poetry and composition revealed and formed a very bright mind.

Joining the Carmelites, John was given the best education available in theology and philosophy in Salamanca. This brilliant student seemed headed toward ministry in education or theology, but the attractive austerity and contemplation made him think of joining the Carthusians. Instead, he met St. Teresa of Ávila, and she persuaded him to become part of the Carmelite reform movement in which she was a leader.

Teresa and John emphasized mental prayer that they called recollection. “By the recollection…you withdraw from people and noisy places and enter within yourself, withdraw into the heart, unite the powers of the soul with the soul’s highest part where the image of God is imprinted. Finally then prayer joins God and the soul, that is, ‘the soul participates in the Lord himself and is perfectly recollected in him.’” This way of recollection had to involve one’s whole life.

There was a great measure of success for the reforms, as Teresa and John founded Carmelite monasteries and convents in this new discalced or recollected direction. Progress, however, was far from smooth. The struggle for power among the king, pope, nuncio, bishops, visitators, and priors—as well as suspicions of Lutheranism—resulted in attacks, disavowals of support, imprisonments, exoneration, and sickness.

After some very hard times, most of John’s last 13 years were spent in positions of leadership. During this time, in Grenada, with an outstanding view of the Sierra Nevada and adjacent to the Alhambra, palace of the Muslim kings, John of the Cross wrote most of his poems and commentaries. He died in 1591 at the age of 49.

Key to John’s teaching is deification, the greater and greater union with God which is the goal of human life. This happens through the elimination of everything incompatible with God and the gradual increase of God’s gifts, graces, and virtues. The result is transformation.

John’s work and significance slipped into obscurity until the end of the nineteenth century, when spiritual writers again grew to appreciate its richness.

Teresa of Ávila
One of the great women of Christianity is St. Teresa of Ávila. Of the upper middle-class, she was 15 years old and one of ten children left behind when her mother died. Being outgoing and enthusiastic in personality, Teresa set out briefly at the age of seven, with her younger brother in tow, to be a martyr among the Muslims. Later, it was a struggle to get her father’s permission and to maintain her health long enough to enter the convent at the age of 20.

Mystical prayer, a strong sense of God’s presence, and even ecstatic experiences were part of Teresa’s early years in the convent. Although criticism of her prayer and explanations of her visions made her distrust herself, the advice of St. Francis Borgia and St. Peter Alcantara helped restore her confidence that her prayer was genuine.

Fellow Carmelites urged Teresa to take the lead in the reform of the Carmelite nuns toward a more prayerful and poor way of life, collaborating with the discalced (shoeless) reform among the men. Teresa accepted a leadership role. There were many reversals along the way for Teresa as provincials, nuncios, bishops, and kings, along with the religious themselves, sometimes supported and sometimes thwarted the reform movement. Her way was contemplative and active, idealistic and practical, rigorous and very human, and essentially feminine with some masculine traits. Teresa died at the age of 67 in 1582. She was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, and was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

Teresa’s three major works were her autobiography, The Book of My Life, The Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle.

In Life, the earliest of the books, Teresa describes the degrees of prayer by comparing them to a garden. In discursive meditation, using thoughts and reason, the soul is watering the garden by buckets carried from the well. In the next stage of recollection, this prayer is affective and the garden is fed by the steady prayer water wheel. In the prayer of quiet, a more passive stage, water rises from a spring or stream. In the last stage, union, God supplies the water—drenching rain.

In The Interior Castle, each room represents a different moment in the life of prayer, ranging from the beginning—when there is still a lot of reluctance about the spiritual life—to increasing openness to prayer, greater virtue, and closer union with God.

There are many books explaining Teresa and John of the Cross, and their ideas can sound very complicated. But all of us faithful can have the fundamental confidence as “God himself is the one ultimate teacher of prayer who will most certainly provide all that is needful to those who humbly, patiently and generously place themselves unconditionally in his hands” (Living Flame, iii, 4b).

Francis de Sales
The wounds of the Reformation were open and bloody in the time of Francis de Sales. A religious crisis seized the young devout Francis in the midst of an excellent Catholic humanist secondary education. Sick to despair about predestination, he accepted his radical dependency, abandoned himself to God’s mercy, and was free to give himself to loving God to the fullest in the present.

Pursuing theology alongside his principal commitment to studying law, Francis was led to the conviction that God willed to save all people and that the divine name revealed on the cross was not “he who condemns” but “Savior.” This conviction matched his experience of God’s sustaining love and desire to redeem and a strong sense of human freedom to respond or not.

Francis decided to seek the priesthood and, as a priest of the strongly Protestant territory of Geneva, he sought to win back Geneva to Catholicism—not by battle but by personal reform and the power of love. As bishop, his great instrument for Catholicism would be an exemplary clergy, fervent monasteries, and bringing the Gospel to the needs of all the community. He preached fervently, wrote, talked, and administered the Sacraments. Convinced that all women and men were called to authentic and fervent Christianity, he was also a spiritual director. For a woman at the French court who wanted to live her faith, Francis wrote many letters of direction aimed at realizing a greater love of God and living according to that love. These letters became the heart of his book The Introduction to the Devout Life, one of the most popular books of all time.

A more formal work of theological reflection and insight was the Treatise on the Love of God, a result of Francis’ absorption of the entire wisdom of Christian history.

The spirituality of Francis de Sales continues to offer light for all who seek a life close and faithful to God. Our wounded but not corrupt human nature is oriented to God naturally. Each of us is graced to participate in our salvation and each is called to intimate communion with God. Abbess and stay-at-home mother, bishop and lay person, female executive and non-degreed rancher: All are called to realize his or her fullest capacity for the love of God. The one who seeks God doesn’t have to go to the desert. An authentic life with God can be lived in the very busy world where we work and in our relationships with others.

Francis de Sales’ “ask for nothing, refuse nothing” is a foundation for a holy kind of indifference and freedom in God’s service. When Francis encouraged all to engrave the name of Jesus on their hearts, he meant that it is in the heart where the living Jesus comes to be. The heart is seat of both intellect and will. The spiritual life of a person, with the name of Jesus on his or her heart, is not primarily about understanding or enthusiasm but all the integration and engagement of the entire person.

In addition to The Introduction to the Devout Life and the Treatise on the Love of God, 2,000 letters of Francis have been published, although he probably wrote over 20,000. He was canonized by Pope Alexander VII in 1665, and was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1877.

Father John McGrath, SM,, PhD, is a Marianist and has been a professor of Theology and Church History at the University of Dayton for 25 years. He has taught graduate studies in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada, and has taught and preached retreats in India, Kenya, Zambia, and Korea. A special interest is the Catholic Church in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Study Guide
This is the third article in the series titled “Spirituality: Grounding in the Mystery of God.”  Father McGrath introduces four spiritual heroes who composed rich spiritual writings during their lifetimes. Their writings have reverberated through history and offer wisdom, enlightenment, and spiritual grounding for those who endeavor to engage them. Catholic spiritual literacy means being familiar, informed, and transformed through our great treasury of Catholic literature.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. What intrigues me about Catherine of Siena? How did her spirituality contribute to the role she played in Church history? What more would I like to know about Catherine?
  2. Who was John of the Cross? What factors influenced his life and the contribution he made to spiritual renewal and formation in the Church? What more would I like to know about John?
  3. What is my experience of poetry as a form or expression of prayer? When I read one of John of the Cross’s poems and reflect upon his spiritual insights, can I connect with any of them?
  4. Saint Francis de Sales believed that an authentic life with God can be lived in the very busy world where we work and in our relationships with others. What is my experience of this? What was a constant theme that wove itself through his copious correspondence?
  5. What are the metaphors or images that St. Teresa of Ávila uses to describe the spiritual life?  What are some of the approaches to prayer that she encourages?
  6. What common factors do I observe in the lives of the spiritual heroes addressed in Fr. McGrath’s article? (Be specific.)
  7. As I reflect on the previous articles in this series—by Fr. Heft (go to, Support for Catechists, Article Archive, and search author Heft) and Dr. Johnston (go to, Support for Catechists, Article Archive, and search author Johnston)—do I see a pattern emerging for how individuals ground themselves in the mystery of God?


  1. Create a play that introduces to your students each of the spiritual heroes presented in this article.
  2. Assign students into study groups around each of the saints Fr. McGrath presents. Have students prepare a panel discussion whereby the saints are in dialogue with one another regarding their perspective on the needs of the Church in their time and the challenges they see demanding our attention today. Students may engage in online research to locate additional information on each of these saints.
  3. Become acquainted with one of St. John of the Cross’s classical poems described in McGrath’s article. Write a personal commentary on the poem, presenting how John of the Cross’s spiritual perspective invites or challenges your spirituality.
  4. Saint Francis de Sales is identified as the patron of friendship. His thousands of letters on God’s unconditional love offered spiritual inspiration and encouragement. In our day, receiving a letter is a rare experience. The Internet and text-messaging technology offer students an opportunity to cultivate the art of composing letters of spiritual inspiration and encouragement. Have students read the life of St. Francis de Sales and compose letters to family members, friends, or neighbors that speak of God’s unconditional love for them. These letters could be sent via the Internet or snail-mail.
  5. Invite students to prepare a skit on the life and message of St. Teresa of Ávila. Have students study the period in history during which she lived. What were some of the significant cultural characteristics of the people? What were the challenges the Church faced in Spain? What unique contribution did St. Teresa bring to spiritual renewal in the Church? Why is she considered a Doctor of the Church?
  6. Prepare a retreat experience for your students based on the great spiritual classics. Provide students an opportunity to spend quality time reading, reflecting, and praying over sections of selected writings. Through group discussion and creative activities, include the design of a personal spiritual journal that can be used during the year or during the summer to compose spiritual insights on their growing relationship with God.

Related Reading
Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue. Trans. and Intro., Suzanne Noffke, OP. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988.
Francis de Sales. Introduction to the Devout Life. Trans., John K. Ryan. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1982.
John of the Cross. Selected Writings. Edited and Intro., Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987.
Jones, Cheslyn, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold, SJ, eds. The Study of Spirituality, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Lonsdale, David. Eyes to See, Ears to Hear: An Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.
Teresa of Ávila. Autobiography of St. Teresa of Ávila. Trans. and edited, E. Allison Peers. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2010.

Copyright 2011, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.

This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, October 2011.

Image Credit: Shutter Stock 447170968

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