1st June, 2012
Gerald L Sittser
Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries.
IVP Books, Downers Grove, 2007
"Water from a Deep Well is detailed enough to be an ideal textbook for spirituality or church history, but accessible enough for study by any thoughtful Christian."
A quote (whose origin I forget) that channeled my early training for mission was “The ideal missionary has the heart of an evangelist, and the mind of a scholar”. More recently I have realized the missionary also needs “the soul of a monk” – the spirituality that helps us know God for ourselves and sustains us in mission. My evangelical upbringing and early mentors taught me to pray daily, reflect on Scripture, worship with the people of God and make myself available for service. But I have yearned to go deeper and broader, and learn from other traditions. Water from a Deep Well is an inviting overview of what we can learn from how Christians have sought and experienced God over the centuries.
Gerald Sittser is a professor of theology at Whitworth University in Washington. With background as a pastor and chaplain and a PhD in history of Christianity, Sittser regularly takes groups of students on retreats to learn and practice spiritual disciplines. He writes as an evangelical but eager to learn from other traditions. He draws on thorough scholarship and his own teaching and experience to introduce his readers to eleven movements from the early martyrs to risk-taking pioneer missionaries, telling the stories of dozens of famous saints and everyday Christians.
Millions of people have encountered God in ways that are foreign to me – in facing martyrdom, spending years in the desert, fostering monastic rhythms of prayer and work, worshipping with icons, and sailing to foreign lands with no hope of return. In the third century Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria’s church members cared for and buried plague victims. In the fifth century Melania and the younger and her husband Pinian gave away their wealth to the poor. In the middle ages, thousands of Gothic churches were built to visually portray theology, and writers like Thomas Aquinas and Julian of Norwich reflected on their mystical encounters with God. In the sixteenth century Ignatius developed his spiritual practices and Luther and Calvin modeled the importance of preaching and engaging the Bible. Rather than seeing these as strange, Sittser invites us to see faith from their point of view and learn from them for our context.
The volume is thoroughly referenced and points to well-chosen further reading, but lacks an index for the serious reader. I would also have liked dedicated chapters on Pentecostal and charismatic spirituality and spirituality of the social justice movement (rather than treating them just as part of evangelicals), but no book can cover everything and Sittser explores broadly and deeply.
Reading Sittser has inspired me afresh to address “inspiring saints” as illustrations in my teaching, to cultivate locally appropriate spiritual practices for our church community and explore where we best find spiritual life, and to leave contemporary books for a while and read old classics for my next sabbatical. My reading list is now: Augustine’s Confessions, Eusebius’ History of the Church, Athanasius’ Life of Antony, The Rule of St Benedict, John of the Cross: Dark Night of the Soul, Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, and the twentieth-century classics of CS Lewis, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
Water from a Deep Well is detailed enough to be an ideal textbook for spirituality or church history, but accessible enough for study by any thoughtful Christian. Its enticing stories and perspectives, together with its study questions at the back, would make it a thought-provoking basis for small group or tutorial discussion. The greatest gift of this book is that it entices the reader to search for more spiritual reality, and offers diverse practices to draw deep from the well to meet that thirst.
This review was originally published in Mission Studies 29 (2012), 142-143.
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