Biblical Spirituality

An Address to the W.C.F.B.A. World Assembly in Malta 1978 by J. N. Wijngaards, Plenary Assembly World Federation Catholic Apostolate, ed R. Delaney, Stuttgart 1979, pp 130 – 144.

"The Lord Yahweh has given me

a disciple’s tongue.

He provides me with speech

so that I may know how to reply to the wearied.

Each morning he wakes me to hear,

to listen like a disciple.

The Lord Yahweh has opened my ear." (Is 50, 4-5).

This description may rightly be applied to every Christian. For to be re-born in Christ means to be given a new existence, to become a new creation through his Word. Both Christian prayer and Christian action spring from the Word. The man who does not believe, the humanist, the agnostic, seeks his own course through a bewildering universe, he considers himself his own master. The Christian walks in the trail blazed by someone he acknowledges to be master of his destiny. Joyfully he has made himself a disciple because he hears the voice of love that guides his steps. God has opened his ears.

In this paper I will not try to develop biblical spirituality from a theological point of view. I do not intend to give a survey of scriptural texts or a synopsis of what authors have written about the topic. I will not adduce arguments to prove that spirituality ought to be biblical, nor will I concentrate on giving practical advice as to how biblical spirituality could be fostered. I refrain from all these legitimate approaches because it seems to me that what this World Conference would need most is a description of what biblical spirituality comes to in practice. To be able to discuss it, we will need to recognise it first. Before we can decide how to promote it, we will have to agree on its essential traits.

To clear the ground for the description, I will begin with two preliminary sections:

a. What is "biblical spirituality"?

b. Why stress biblical spirituality today?

I will then describe the following elements in biblical spirituality:

1. experience of God,

2. searching the Scriptures,

3. testimony of the Spirit,

4. transformation of life.

I will illustrate my observations with examples taken from the lives of the Saints. Values are recognised more readily in living persons.

What is "biblical spirituality"?

Authors use the term biblical spirituality in a number of ways. For some, it means the requirements of spiritual life as found in the Bible. In this concept, biblical spirituality is understood as comprising the virtues and qualities demanded of the Christian by the inspired Word. C. M. Cherian, for instance, enumerates as marks of "biblical spirituality": receiving the grace of repentance, obedience to the Word of God, a prayerful approach to life, preparing the way of
the Lord, watchfulness when resisting temptation, being personally converted to the Gospel, practising love in the human community, suffering with Jesus, being sent by Jesus on his mission of love and waiting for Christ.1 Here "biblical spirituality" would be equivalent to "the spirituality demanded by the Bible". Since the Bible contains many books, we may then further distinguish between various "spiritualities" found in the Bible: the spirituality of deutero-Isaiah, of the Psalms, of Sirach, of the synoptics, of John, of Paul, and so on.

Obviously, no one can forbid authors to use the term with this meaning. But it seems to me that the practice leads to confusion. I would make the plea that its use be discontinued because it obscures the more important meaning of "biblical spirituality" which is the topic of our Conference. Spirituality is a way of life, not
a list of virtues and requirements. Biblical spirituality should be sought in people who live the Bible, rather than in its pages. What we find in Sacred Scripture is not biblical spirituality itself, but the inspiration, the ideals, the models, the patterns, the norms and principles from which biblical spirituality can spring. lt is interesting to note that P. M. de la Croix’s book "Spirituality of the Old Testament" was called in the original French: "L’Ancien Testament, Source de la Vie Spirituelle" (The Old Testament, Source of the Spiritual Life").2 The title of the original work is more correct than that of the English translation: the author wanted to show how the Old Testament can inspire our spiritual life, rather than construct an "Old Testament spirituality"! In the same way he did not really write "The Biblical Spirituality of St. John", as the English translation of 1966 would suggest, but "L’Evangile de Saint Jean et son Temoignage Spirituelle (St Johns Gospel and Its Spiritual Witness").3 In any case, whatever terminology may be preferred by others, in this paper l will never use the term "biblical spirituality" merely as a blueprint of requirements found in the Bible.

Another source of confusion lies in the multiplicity of spiritualities distinguished by authors. We hear of ignatian spirituality, franciscan spirituality, greek-orthodox spirituality, methodist spirituality, buddhist spirituality, . . . Is "biblical spirituality" another variety, existing next to the other ones as one of the many? Are we to hold with L. Bouyer that there is in reality only one spirituality for Christians,4 so that it would be illadvised to speak of spiritualities in the plural? Where does "biblical spirituality" fit in?

Most authors today are agreed that it is legitimate to speak of spiritualities in the plural. Because spirituality is rooted in actual life, it varies according to the person who lives it. The two main factors that make one kind of spirituality different from another are: a person’s character and the particular "horizon" under which he experiences reality. The military temper of St. Ignatius and the carefree abandon of St. Benedict Labre could never find expression in the life of one person. The contemplative horizon of St. John of the Cross led him on a different path from the concern for the poor that motivated St. Vincent de Paul. It is the combination of one’s personality and the horizon within which one interprets life that will cause a person’s spirituality to take a distinct turn. Through their strong personalities and deep convictions, saints have often set pattern of new spirituality for their contemporaries. But strictly speaking, every Christian has his own spirituality. The Spirit of God rules each person in a unique way and expresses himself in the life of each individual in a manner unique to each.

While allowing for a multiplicity of spiritualities, we should realise at the same time that there is much that all genuine Christian spiritualities have in common. Basic and common to all is obedience to the Word of God. We Christians believe that God intervened once for all in the history of man through Jesus Christ. God spoke to man his word of salvation in Him. Whereas non-Christian spiritualities, such as hindu, buddhist, druid, African spirituality, etc., represent different ways of searching the Infinite, every form of Christian spirituality is a response in faith to the revelation in Christ. The Gospel is the ultimate norm and the common inspiration for every authentic Christian spirituality. In this sense, saying that a spirituality is "Christian" or saying that it is "biblical" is stating one and the same thing.

In its most fundamental sense, biblical spirituality is the application of the Gospel to one’s life, to ones thoughts, actions and prayer.6 It is the resonance of salvation history in the life of the individual Christian.7 It is the Word of God in so far as it has been conceived and brought to maturity in the Bride.8 Biblical spirituality is the manifestation of God’s Word through the fullness of the Spirit.9

If being biblical is so basic and fundamental to every Christian spirituality, if biblical and Christian spirituality are synonymous, what use is it to speak of "biblical spirituality"? The objection is well taken. If we were to speak of biblical spirituality as if it stood in opposition to other genuine Christian spiritualities, we would be perpetuating a mistake.

The term "biblical spirituality" can be justified only with reference to a pastoral need. The fact is that in preceding centuries Sacred Scripture was not given the place it deserves. In the lives of many Christians today the biblical aspect of Christian spirituality needs to be highlighted, often almost introduced anew. In the Catholic Church, on account of the controversy with Protestants and other historical reasons, many have lost the habit of reading the Bible and nourishing their spiritual life with its words. For many Catholics the inspired text has become remote. It is no longer "very near to you: in your mouth and in your heart"; but high up in heaven and far beyond the seas (Dt 31, 12-14).

Promoting "biblical" spirituality in these circumstances means that we want to correct an imbalance, that we want to restore Christian spirituality to its true dignity by stressing its source. The use of self-evident terms is often necessitated by adverse conditions. We stress freedom and independence when a country is
oppressed or being colonised. We call for a "legi-imate" government when usurpers are in power. In the same way, we are constrained to propagate a "biblical" spirituality only because there are Christians who don’t take the Bible seriously enough.

St. Basil’s Spirituality

St. Basil, the Doctor of the Church and founder of the first religious monasteries, would not have understood a distinction between living a Christian life and living according to the words of the Gospel. In fact, he wrote a little booklet on Christian living which consists of 573 quotations from the New Testament arranged in logical order. Most passages quoted are from the Gospel; 160 from Matthew, 86 from Luke and 78 from John. Basil draws conclusions from these quotations, many of which concern accepting Scripture as the ultimate norm.

"Rule 8. That we must neither doubt nor hesitate regarding the words of the Lord, but be fully persuaded that every word of God is true and possible even if nature rebel. . . . That we should not rely on our own reasoning to the point of rejecting the words of the Lord, that we must be convinced that the words of the Lord are more worthy of credence than our own foolish knowledge."

"Rule 9. That no one should be remiss in learning what pertains to his duty, but should listen attentively and understand the words of the Lord and do his will."

"Rule 12. That every word of the Lord ought to be received with complete assent. That we should observe everything without exception which has been handed down by the Lord through the Gospel and the Apostles."

"Rule 17. That, having recognised the nature of these present times from the signs revealed to us by the Scriptures, we should dispose our affairs accordingly."

"Rule 26. That every word and deed should be ratified by the testimony of the Holy Scripture to confirm the good and cause shame to the wicked."

"Rule 28. That we should not be readily and thoughtlessly carried away by those who make a pretence of the truth, but we should recognise each from the sign given us by the Scriptures."

"Rule 44. That the yoke of Christ is sweet and his burden light unto refreshment for those who submit to it; that all things alien to the teaching of the Gospel are heavy and burdensome."

"Rule 54. That it is not right for us to judge one another in matters which are permitted by the Scripture. . . . That the faithful should be instructed in all the precepts of the Lord in the Gospel and also those transmitted to us through the Apostles, as well as all that are to be inferred therefrom. That, when there is question of something not expressly commanded in Scripture, each should be exhorted to follow the better course."

"Rule 72. Concerning the hearer: those hearers who are instructed in the Scriptures should examine what is said by the teachers, receiving what is in conformity with the Scriptures and rejecting what is opposed to them, and that those who persist in teaching such doctrines should be strictly avoided. That those who possess little knowledge of the Scriptures should recognise the distinctive mark of the saints by the fruits of the Spirit, receiving those who bear this mark and avoiding those who do not."10

For St. Basil the demands of the Gospel are absolute. Following Christ means nothing else than putting the Gospel into practice. Being a religious is doing this to an extreme degree by taking the Gospel text literally. This conviction that the Gospel text is the fundamental rule for every religious, was restated in Vatican II:

"Since the final norm of the religious life is the following of Christ as it is put before us in the Gospel, this Gospel must be taken by all Institutes as the supreme rule".11 This is an old conviction in religious life, beautifully expressed in the preface to the monastic rule of Grandmont (1076 A.D.):

"There are various ways that lead towards our heavenly Father, in whose house there are many mansions as God the Son told us. We can choose between these ways, between the routes running in various directions. . . . Through them one makes gradual progress "advancing from strength to strength to see the face of God in Sion". Various Fathers have recommended these Ways to us in documents called the Rule of St. Basil, of St. Augustine, of St. Benedict. But these are not the source of spiritual life; they are derived from it. They are not its root; they are only the branches. They are not the head; they are no more than hands and feet. In fact, there exists for faith and salvation only one principal rule of rules from which all others derive as rivers from their source, the Holy Gospel, which God has transmitted to the Apostles and which they have faithfully proclaimed to the whole world. . . . In this Gospel can be found without exception all the general principles which give rise to specific commandments, as well as the special evangelical counsel which the Lord has given in view of attaining greater perfection. . . . If someone asks you to which religious community, which rule or which order you belong, reply that you belong to the first and principal, rule of the Christian religion, namely to the Gospel, which is the Source and fountain of all rules."12

There is in our days the need to remind every Christian of the fact that the Gospel is his principal rule of life. Promoting biblical spirituality means making people realise this fact, trying to ensure that every Christian turns again to Sacred Scripture and seeks inspiration from day-to-day contact with the Word of
God itself.13

There are pastoral consequences to a realization of this need. Our catechical instruction should be less content-oriented, more geared towards introducing people to a meaningful use of Scripture. Biblical formation given to seminarians and teachers should provide more than academic courses: it should also teach future priests and catechists the pastoral uses of Scripture. In the liturgy and in many forms of the apostolate the laity should be encouraged to take a more active role in interpreting Scripture and translating its message. Many approaches may need to be revised, many practical steps taken, to bring about such a new biblical spirituality in the Church. But first we may need clearly to understand and recognise its principal constituents.

Experience of God

When we say that every Christian should nourish his spiritual life through immediate contact with God’s Word, we do not only mean that he should regularly fill his mind with wholesome thoughts from Scripture. Reading Sacred Scripture or hearing it proclaimed in the liturgy should lead not so much to an increase in knowledge as to an experience of God’s presence. The Word of God is not an intellectual textbook, a collection of dogmatic truths and moral principles. The Word of God puts us in contact with God himself. It is an instrument through which we can have the genuine experience of meeting God.

In our own days we are rediscovering the importance of "experience" in our Christian life. It is not enough to stress orthodoxy in faith and perfection in religious practice: we have to teach our Christians once more how to be sensitive to the living presence of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in our lives. We meet this living God in many aspects of our Christian life: in the sacraments of his love, in our sharing with his brothers and sisters, in his providential guidance throughout our lives. One important way in which we meet him very closely and immediately is in the inspired word.

"If anyone loves me, he will keep my Word,

and my Father will love him,

and we shall come to him

and make our home with him.

Those who do not love me do not keep my words.

And my word is not my own:

it is the word of the one who sent me.

I have said these things to you

while still with you;

but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit,

whom the Father will send in my name,

will teach you everything

and remind you of all that I have said to you" John 14. 23-26).

In this text Jesus promises that every Christian will be able to see God at work in his spiritual life. If we listen attentively to the words of his Gospel and put them into practice, the Father and Jesus himself will make their home in us, that is, they will make their presence felt in our heart: the peace, comfort, love and blessing of their presence. Compare the parallel text in John 14-21: "I shall love him and make myself known to him". The words of the Gospel which Jesus has spoken were not meant for his own times only. They have a fulness of meaning that remains relevant in future eras and new circumstances. They are living words because, when we study them in our own century, the Holy Spirit in our hearts explains them to us and tells us how Jesus meant them to apply to our situation. To put it briefly: in texts such as these Jesus promises that when we try to live the words of his Gospel, we shall have the experience of knowing that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are speaking to us in a very direct and personal manner.

Another passage from St. John’s Gospel makes this inner experience of God’s presence an essential part of faith.

"No one can come to me

unless the Father who sent me draws him to me:

And I will raise him to life on the last day.

The prophet wrote,– ‘All people will be taught by God’.

Everyone who hears the Father

and learns from him

comes to me.

This does not mean that anyone has seen the Father:

he who is from God

is the only One who has seen the Father" (John 6, 44-46).

In this passage Jesus wants to explain why the Jewish leaders did not believe in him. The reason is that they failed to acknowledge that it was God (the Father) who was speaking to them in Jesus. This personal experience of knowing that God is at work is a necessary element in Christian faith. For Jesus, the "drawing" done by the Father is not only interior grace as scholastic commentators would have it, but a tangible experience of being pulled by God in his direction. In Old Testament times only prophets had the privilege of hearing God’s voice, but in the New Testament "all men will be taught by God". Everyone will experience this direct appeal from the Father. Accepting Jesus presupposes this "hearing the Father and learning from him". This experience of hearing God speak is not a face-to-face encounter as Jesus, the only Son, enjoyed ("seeing the Father"), yet it is a valid and direct experience of God.

This is the heart of biblical spirituality. The person who lives from the Bible knows that he has encountered God, that he has actually heard God speak to him. The experience may not be as clear and outspoken at every Bible reading, at every contact with the sacred text. There are times of dryness, of academic study and human reflection. There are occasions when our soul is in darkness: we know God’s Word is true, but it does not strike a spark in our heart. But every Christian who listens to the Word with devotion and desire will at least on some important occasions in his life have experienced how God addressed him in the sacred text, how he knew that the Father himself, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, was conveying a personal message. Regular reflection and prayer on the Bible text is fruitful because it rekindles the same experience, even if in a lesser degree, or takes place in the afterglow of the earlier experience.

Charles de Foucauld’s Biblical Spirituality

An example from actual life may help us at this stage. Charles de Foucault, the French mystic who was born in Strasbourg in 1858 and died as a missionary in North Africa in 1916, had a great influence on modern spirituality. His humility, his poverty of life, his apostolate through simple witness, have inspired many new initiatives in the Church. What many people do not realise is that Charles’s convictions came from daily meditations on the Word of God, meditations which were for him a real experience of hearing God speak. Fortunately for us, Charles recorded what happened during some of these meditations.

One of the methods used by Charles for his interior prayer was the following. After reading the Scripture text with great attention, he would first ask in prayer, "What do you want to say to me, O God?" Forcing himself to silence, and listening intently to God, he would, as it were, hear God put into words the message contained in the biblical text. He would write down these words as he knew God spoke them to him. Then he would make a declaration in response, "For
my own part, this is what I want to tell you". After this, he would remain in God’s presence in loving silence, "saying nothing else, gazing on the Beloved".14

Charles in Nazareth

From 1897 to 1901 Charles lived in Nazareth as a servant of the Poor Clares. He slept in a little hut in the monastery garden, did manual work and spent the rest of his time in prayer and meditation. The part of Scripture that inspired

him most was the hidden life of Jesus: his manual work as a carpenter, his humility and silent service. In his notebooks of this period we Find the following extracts:

"O my Lord Jesus, graciously permit me to be you in this meditation. It was you who said: ‘The servant is not above his master’, and in doing so you commanded me not to be higher than you in the eyes of men, as far as my life in this world is concerned. How ought I to practise this lowliness? (Jesus answers): ‘Be taken for what I was taken for, my child, unlearned, poor, of lowly birth, also for what you really are: unintelligent, untalented and ungifted. Always look for the meanest tasks, but cultivate your mind as far as your director allows. But do it secretly. Do not let the world know. I was infinitely wise, but no one knew it. Do not be afraid to study, it is good for your soul. Study zealously to become better, to know me and love me better, to know my will and do it more perfectly, and also to become more like me, who am perfect knowledge. Be very unlearned in the eyes of men, and very learned in the knowledge of God at the foot of my tabernacle. I was lowly and despised beyond all measure. Seek out, ask for and love those occupations that will humiliate you: piling dung, digging, whatever is lowest and most uncouth. The less important you are in this way, the more like me you will be. If you are thought a fool, so much the better. Give infinite thanks for it to me. They treated me as a madman–it is one of the ways I offer you of being like me. . ."15

Charles de Foucauld heard God speak to him through Sacred Scripture. He could write: "I think I see my God clearly. Give me full enlightenment, O God, so that I may act in the certain knowledge of doing your will, for this is the
food by which I long to live a1ways".16 He also knew periods of darkness and confusion. "God sometimes allows us to be in such profound darkness that not a single star shines in our skies."17 This is the ordinary experience of the believing Christian. He has heard God speak, he continues on his journey even in times of discouragement and desolation.

Charles was also a man of action. He went to North Africa because he was concerned about the fate of the people living there.

"Next to nothing is being done for the native peoples of our Algeria: for the most part our civilians are seeking only to enlarge the wants of the local population, so as to make bigger profits from them. The military administer them by letting them go their own way, without seriously trying to help them. . . . The Europeans know nothing of the people’s problems, and see them always as foreigners and most of the time as enemies. . . . In the Sudan, in the colonies in Negro territory, it is even much worse! I have not seen them, but I am close enough here to the Sudan for echoes of what goes on there to reach me. It is clear from the main lines of the stories I hear from those parts that too many there seek only to serve their own low personal interests, and often do not hesitate over the means. Thus in this vast colonial empire, acquired within the space of a few years, an empire which could be a source of so many blessings for these nations, there is nothing but cupidity and violence, without any concern for the people’s good."18

But Charles always remembered that his involvement, his concern, his life for the people would be meaningless without his personal contact with the Father.

"My God, here I am at your feet in my cell. It is night, everything is quiet, everything is sleeping. At this moment I am perhaps the only one in Nazareth at your feet. What have I done to deserve such graces? How I thank you and how happy I am! I adore you from the depth of my heart, my God. I adore you with all my soul, and love you with all the strength that is in my heart. I am yours, yours alone. My whole being is yours. It is yours in any case, whatever I might think, and yours by choice, the free choice of my whole heart. Do with me as seems pleasing to you. ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’, is your reply to me. Very well, O God, make me carry it out as perfectly as is possible, in you, through you and for you. Amen.

What was the manner of your public life, my Lord Jesus? (Jesus speaks): ‘I strove to save men through speech and works of mercy, instead of being satisfied to save them by prayer and penance alone as I had been doing at Nazareth. My zeal for souls became externally apparent. Yet while my life became very public, it still preserved some of the qualities of the solitary life. I often withdrew for the night, or for several whole days in the solitude to pray. It remained a life of prayer, penance and interior recollection; And apart from the time devoted to preaching the Gospel, it was a life of solitude."19

Without an experience of God, our apostolate remains sterile. Our life of faith, hope and charity must be lit up by knowing and observing that the Father draws us, that he speaks to us and teaches us, that he explains everything Jesus had said through his Spirit.


1. C. M. CHERIAN, Meet Jesus in the Bible, Sanjivan, New Delhi 1974, see also by the same author "Now My Eyes See Thee: The Bible as a Record of Religious Experience", Review for Religious 32 (1973/4) 1002-1011. His emphasis on the experimental nature of religion in the Bible is highly commendable.

2. The French original was published by Desclée, Paris, the English translation by Herder, London 1966.

3. The French original appeared with Desclée, Bruges; the English with Alba House, Staten Island 1966.

4. L. BOUYER, La spiritualité du Nouveau Testament et des péres, Paris 1960 (esp. the introduction); Précis de théologie ascétique et mystique, Paris 1960.

5. I derive this term from B. J. F. LONERGAN, Method in Theology, Herder and Herder, New York 1972, esp. p. 235ff.

6. F. VANDENBROUCKE, "Spirituality and Spiritualities", Concilium 9 (1965) 1, p. 25-33.

7. J. DANIELOU, Vom Geheimnis der Geschichte, Stuttgart 1955, p. 322.

8. H. U. von BALTHASAR, "Spiritualität", Geist und Leben 31 (1958) 340-352,

9. J. SUDBRACK, "Vom Geheimnis christlicher Spiritualität", Geist und Leben 39 (1966) 24-44. On the occasion of the Conference on Spirituality at Indore in October 1975 I even suggested that the term "spirituality" should be replaced by other terms, cf. "Christian Radiance" in Mission Spirituality, ed. C. SRAMBICAL, Satprachar, lndore 1976, p. 52-69.

10. SAINT BASIL, "The Morals" in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 9, transl. M. M. WAGNER, Catholic Univ.of America Press, Washington 1962, p. 71-215.

11. "Perfectae Caritatis", no. 2, Vatican Council II, ed. A.. FLANNERY, Fowler Wright, Tenbury Wells 1975,p. 612.

12. Corp. Christ. Continuatio Mediaevalis, vol. VIII, 65-67, J. M. P. TILLARD, "Le fondement évangélique vie réligieuse", Nouvelle Revue Theologique 9 (1969) 916-955, esp. p. 938-939.

13. More about this in my book on; Communicating the Word of God, Mayhew-McCrimmon, London 1978; TheoIogical Publications of India, Bangalore 1978, chapter 2.

14. J. F. SIX, Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucault, Clarke, Wheathampstead 1964,p. 50.

15. L.c., p. 65-67.

16. L.c., p. 33.

17. L.c.,p. 19.

18. L.c., p, 175-176.

19. L.c., p. 87.