Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life: A Practical Guide for
By Father Robert Spitzer, S.J.
Ignatius Press, 2008
168 pages, $14.95
To order: ignatius.com
For a certain type of Catholic, the title of Father Spitzer’s newest book will be a turnoff. “Five pillars to the spiritual life, eh? Why not seven or 27? Why can’t people just accept that spiritual life is about mystery and stop making lists?” It’s sometimes a legitimate complaint, for many books so titled have the spiritual depth of Thin Thighs in Thirty Days.
The problem for such naysayers is that God doesn’t share the view that mystery and handy lists are incompatible. After all, when giving his Law to Moses, he summarized the whole thing in the Ten Commandments. And when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees what the most important commandment was, he didn’t avoid the question. Actually, he said, there are two most important commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor. Jesus knows that the mysteries of morality and prayer are beyond our numbered lists, but he also knows what kind of creatures we are — the kind who hang big ideas on the little pegs of lists.
Father Spitzer’s list of spiritual pillars is as good as any I’ve seen. They are: 1. the Holy Eucharist, 2. Spontaneous Prayer, 3. the Beatitudes, 4. Partnership With the Holy Spirit, and 5. the Contemplative Life. I would have preferred that partnership with the Spirit be first rather than fourth, since it is the precondition to getting any good out of the other four pillars. This is clear from Father Spitzer’s constant emphasis on our letting the Spirit be the one who starts and brings to completion the good we have to do. We are junior partners in this partnership, not equals.
That is to say that the pillars, like any other aspect of Christian life, must be approached as gifts to receive rather than projects to undertake alone. Father Spitzer is constantly guarding against the spiritual Pelagianism that most of us subconsciously believe in: the belief that developing a relationship with God is a matter of fixing ourselves so that we’ll be able to approach him, rather than the orthodox belief in approaching him that we may be fixed. This emphasis is important because this guide for prayer is aimed, as its subtitle indicates, at “active people,” the kind who are easily prey to the view that if only they set their minds to it, they’ll establish a prayer life by force of will. The kind of person the young Robert Spitzer was.
What makes Five Pillars particularly readable and effective is the willingness of Father Spitzer to write not just a treatise about how one might learn to approach the Eucharist or contemplate the beatitudes, but how he, hard-charging accountant, philosopher, university president and priest has learned to approach them — including the various mistakes he has made along the way and the temptations that still afflict him. There is a humble transparency in the pages of this book that breaks down skeptical hearts. If, as novelist Frederick Buechner has written, all true theology is autobiography, Five Pillars is true theology of the best sort.
What I suspect bothers many list skeptics ultimately is their suspicion that the prose is not literary enough. This suspicion is accurate enough, for Father Spitzer is an accountant and philosopher, not a poet. He follows Aquinas who, Chesterton said, knew he was speaking the truth and, thus, wrote without adornment. Father Spitzer wants us to be wowed — not by contemplating Spitzer, but God. Knowing and contemplating God is a practical concern, not something reserved for the literary few, but a privilege of all Christians.
Even the ones who make lists.
David Paul Deavel is
associate editor of Logos:
A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and contributing editor
to Gilbert Magazine.