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  • Boundary and Space
  • Douglas Burton-Christie

The history of Christian spirituality has been marked by a recurring concern to determine the extent and reach of the Spirit’s activity in the church and the world. This seemingly quixotic effort to mark the boundaries of what constitutes authentic spiritual experience has often been rooted in an anxiety to prevent harmful excesses of spiritual thought and practice from overwhelming and eroding the life of the community. Still, such laudable intentions have sometimes masked a more ambiguous and problematic impulse: to control and even exclude those persons and teachings deemed too dangerous, too excessive. We now look upon many of these moments when ecclesial or theological authority was invoked to define the boundaries beyond which one dare not pass—such as the Messalian and Origenist controversies in the early Church, or the controversy about the nature and locus of spiritual experience involving Meister Eckhart and the Beguines in the late middle ages—with a more mixed response than we did previously. In part this is because of the growing recognition of how often these creative spiritual movements in Christianity have included as part of their very character a wild energy that led to a transgression of old boundaries, a reconfiguring of the very space of spiritual life and experience. And if the official ecclesial judgments of these movements sometimes resulted in an assessment of them as fundamentally flawed or problematic, many of them now appear to us as more ambiguous, less threatening, more promising. We have come to appreciate the space they opened up in the religious imagination for engaging the Spirit freely and honestly.

The critical, scholarly evaluation of such movements requires a sustained effort to understand and assess their character, not only in terms of the particular conception of the spiritual life that informs them, but also in terms of the specific practices, historical and social locations and political relationships in relation to which they come to expression. A failure to do so can result in the perpetuation of certain caricatures that bear little resemblance to the movements themselves, or to the force of Spirit that helped shape them. In this issue of Spiritus, we see several compelling examples of such work that set out not to assign boundaries, but to ask how the redrawing of boundaries—whether in thought or practice or both—affects our understanding of Christian spirituality. Barbara Newman’s essay does this through a careful examination of British writer Charles Williams’ esoteric spiritual vision, considering not only the [End Page vii] inherent value of William’s work, but also what it means for Christian spirituality to engage esoteric traditions of thought and practice. Mary Frohlich’s essay considers the question of how Christian spirituality can begin to engage the increasingly serious eco-systemic crisis facing us to day, asking in particular whether the cultivation of an honest and sustained attention to this crisis has the potential to transform the way we understand both the tradition and the field of Christian spirituality. Brenna Moore examines Raïssa Maritain’s creative rethinking of the feminine within the framework of early twentieth century French Catholic spirituality, in the process helping us to reconsider not only Maritain’s contributions to the development of an original vision of spiritual life and practice, but also the contribution of her controversial friend and mentor Léon Bloy. Keith Douglas Warner tells the remarkable story of the Franciscans who entered the fields of Central California to evangelize and support the farmworkers, but who experienced a kind of “reverse evangelization” as they found themselves compelled, by the witness of these same farmworkers, to search deeper into the meaning of their own vocations and their understanding of the Gospel. And there is the surprising case of Charles Darwin, whose work has for so long been seen as supporting a view of the world as bereft of Spirit, but which can now be seen, thanks to Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s sensitive reading of his ornithological notebooks, as being rooted in a profound contemplative awareness of the world’s intricate beauty.

Perhaps we cannot resist entirely the impulse to mark out the boundaries of the Spirit’s activities; the...


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pp. vii-viii
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