The left-sided menu requires a Java-enabled Browser. If you cannot see the left-sided menu, please click here for an alternative menu.

Christian Spirituality 3: Biblical Images and Christian Spirituality

PDF and .doc files of the overheads used for this presentation are available from the Christian Spirituality Home Page or from the download page.



(These topics are from Chapter 5 in Christian Spirituality. An Introduction)

1. Introduction

2. The Feast

2.1. Biblical Images

2.2. Use in Spirituality

3. The Journey

3.1. Biblical Images

3.2. Use in Spirituality

4. Exile

4.1. Biblical Images

4.2. Use in Spirituality

5. The Struggle

5.1. Biblical Images

5.2. Use in Spirituality

6. Purification

6.1. Biblical Images

6.2. Use in Spirituality

7. The Desert

7.1. Biblical Images

7.2. Use in Spirituality

8. Ascent

8.1. Biblical Images

8.2. Use in Spirituality

9. Darkness and Light

9.1. Biblical Images

9.2. Use in Spirituality

10. Silence

10.1. Biblical Images

10.2. Use in Spirituality



1. Introduction

What is Christian Spirituality?


Christianity Spirituality is the quest for a fulfilled and authentic life, that involves

  • taking the beliefs and values of Christianity

  • and weaving them into the fabric of our lives

  • so that they "animate," provide the "breath" and "spirit" and "fire" for our lives


Biblically derived images that we will consider:



2. The Feast

2.1. Biblical Images

Jesus compared Kingdom of God to a great banquet in celebration of a marriage (Luke 14:15-24)

The Father of Prodigal son threw a feast when the Prodigal son returned (Luke 15:11-24)



2.2. Use in Spirituality

Themes in the image of a feast

  • abundance of food and drink to satisfy hunger

  • invitation. Those invited to feast are wanted and are welcome

  • celebration, rejoicing. Marks a great occasion, such as a wedding


The human hunger for God and the Feast to come

Augustine: “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”


Blaise Pascal (1623-62) on the inner human emptiness due to the absence of God:

What else does this longing and helplessness proclaim, but that there was once in each person a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? We try to fill this in vain with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are there. Yet none can change things, because this infinite abyss can only be filled with something that is infinite and unchanging – in other words, by God himself. God alone is our true good.


C.S. Lewis (1898-1963):

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are  not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited



3. The Journey

3.1. Biblical Images

Biblical images of journey include:

  • Abraham’s journey to Canaan

  • The wandering of the Israelites in the desert for 40 years before coming to the promised land

  • The return of the people to Jerusalem after exile in Babylon in 586 B.C.

  • Paul’s great missionary journeys


Early Christians were called “followers of the way” (e.g. Acts 9:2, 24:14). Christian life was thought of as a journey of deliverance from bondage to sin before arriving in the heavenly city

In the Letters, we find the comparison of Christian life to a race, arduous journey under pressure, with a crown at the end (Galatians 2:2; 2 Tim. 4:7; Hebrews 12:1-2)



3.2. Use in Spirituality

Insights for spirituality in the image of Christian life as a Journey:

  • we frequently use “maps” on a journey to help us on the way. Our “maps” in the Journey of our lives are the shared experience of others who have made that Journey

  • Anticipating our arrival and envisioning the New Jerusalem can provide encouragement on the way

  • the Christian Journey is not merely individual pilgrimage, but a corporate journey in which we can offer each other mutual support


New Testament models of athlete and soldiers highlight importance of discipline in Christian Life: Asceticism (Greek askesis “discipline”)

Self-discipline, training a means of eliminating barriers to spiritual growth, so we reach our goal of arriving safely in our heavenly homeland


Works of Spirituality with the theme of journeying include:

  • Dante (1265-1321) Divine Comedy: journey from the darkness of the woods to encounter with God in a beatific vision

  • John Bunyan (1628-88): Pilgrim’s Progress. Story of Christian’s journey from the “City of Destruction” to “the Heavenly City”



4. Exile

4.1. Biblical Images

Jan. 586 BC: Babylon lay siege to the Jerusalem

Jul. 586 BC: broke through the walls of Jerusalem

  • army routed

  • chief building destroyed

  • temple furnishings taken to Babylon as booty

  • people deported to Babylon to live in exile


Interpreted as:

  • judgment for lapses into pagan religious beliefs

  • opportunity for a period of repentance and renewal



4.2. Use in Spirituality

We are “citizens of heaven” (Paul), and our present life a period of exile from the heavenly Jerusalem where we belong


Peter Abelard (1079-1142):

Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high

We for that country must yearn and must sigh

Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,

Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand


Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) “Prayer to Christ”

All this I hold with unwavering faith

And weep over the hardship of exile.

Hoping in the sole consolation of your coming

Ardently longing for the glorious contemplation of your face



5. The Struggle

5.1. Biblical Images

Paul talks of “putting on the full armor of God” to protect against spiritual attack (Ephesians 6:10-18)

In 2 Tim. 2:3, Christians are compared to soldiers; that is, as those who need self-discipline to persevere in the struggles ahead


In the Old Testament, we have the image of Jacob’s struggle with an unidentified man (God) by the River Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32)



5.2. Use in Spirituality

Contexts in which the image of Christian life as a struggle has been used in spirituality:

  • 1. external struggle against those hostile to Christianity

  • 2. internal struggle against temptation

  • 3. a struggle with God


Examples of spiritual works on the internal struggle against temptation:

  • Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila (1515-82). Invites readers to:

    • look into their souls

    • understand themselves

    • combat the sins which they find

  • Spiritual Combat (Combattimento Spirituale) 1589, by Lorenzo Scupoli. Went through 250 editions 1589-1750

  • Puritan Spirituality. John Owen (1616-83): “On the Mortification of Sin in Believers”


The image of struggle with God is found in both Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley, who both wrote of prayer as a struggle with God in order to gain insights into God’s will and purpose



6. Purification

6.1. Biblical Images

The Day of Atonement ritual (Leviticus 16) was the preparation required for high priest before entering into the presence of God

Psalm 51 has the theme of “cleansing from sin:”


Wash away all my iniquity

And cleanse me from my sin. . .

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.


In the Letter to the Hebrews:

  • Christ the perfect sacrifice who takes away the stain of sin (Hebrews 4:14-16)

  • Christ’s death “sprinkles the hearts” of believers, “cleanses guilty consciences” (Hebrews 10:22)

  • water of baptism described as symbol of the cleansing resulting from Christ’s death on the cross


In the Book of Revelation:

Cleansing as being “washed in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14)



6.2. Use in Spirituality

Sin is like contamination or stain within us, and a goal of our life is to purify and cleanse ourselves through discipline and the grace of God

Sin has distorted the “image and likeness of God” within us


Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) Sermon on the Song of Songs:

“We are repairing the image of God within us, and the way is being prepared, by the grace of God, for the retrieval of that honor which we once possessed, but which we forfeited on account of sin”


Hugh of Balma (13th Century) and the 3 “ways” or “paths” in Christian spirituality

  • 1. “purgative way” via purgative. Purgation of the soul from sin

  • 2.  “way of illumination” via illuminativa. Soul enlightened by rays of divine wisdom through mediation on Scripture and prayer

  • 3. “way of union” via unitiva. Soul united with God



7. The Desert

7.1. Biblical Images

Biblical images of the desert and wilderness include:

  • Wandering of Israelites in the desert before coming to the promised land

  • Jeremiah and Hosea: the desert as a place for the purification and renewal of Israel

  • Elijah and John the Baptist: the desert as a place of prayer and purification

  • Jesus withdrew into the wilderness for 40 days after his baptism



7.2. Use in Spirituality

The desert is a lonely place. The individual is alone with God, able to reflect, mediate, pray without distraction.

This has been taken both literally and allegorically in Christian spirituality

  • Literally:

    • Antony of Egypt (251-356): founded a community in the desert, away from the world

    • Carmelites: hermits on Mount Carmel. Later moved to Europe. Retreats to isolated centers recreated the solitude of Mount Carmel

  • Allegorically

    • Origen: A Christian’s life is a wandering in the desert before we finally cross the Jordan into the promised land

    • the manna in the desert sometimes seen as God’s providing spiritual nourishment on our journeys (abbott Rupert of Deutz (1075-1130)



8. Ascent

8.1. Biblical Images

Moses ascended Sinai to receive the Commandments

Jesus ascended a mountain to be transfigured

Jacob dreams of a ladder between heaven and earth (Genesis 28:12)


Images of ascent bring to the mind and heart a sense of:

  • drawing closer to God

  • a transcendence from transitory human world to heaven



8.2. Use in Spirituality

Our Christian life involves ascent, progressive spiritual growth bringing us closer to God and to the transcendence of heaven

  • Bonaventure (1217-74): contemplation a means of ascent to God. Journey up the mountain begins with love Christ, sustained by meditation on Christ crucified

  • St. John of the Cross (1542-91): Ascent of Mount Carmel. Spirituality involves progressive growth that brings us closer to God


Dante in Divine Comedy climbs Mount Purgatory to get closer to God


Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain (1946): writes of his own spiritual growth in terms of 7 mountains



9. Darkness and Light

9.1. Biblical Images

God is often described in images of illumination:

  • Genesis: God creates light, vanquishing the darkness (chaos and confusion)

  • God presence and power a great light (Isaiah 9:2): the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light

  • Jesus is “the light of the world” who overcomes darkness (John 8:12)


God is also sometimes associated with images of darkness

  • Moses approaches God through darkness and cloud

  • Paul: we are “seeing through a glass darkly”



9.2. Use in Spirituality

Themes of “darkness” in Christian Spirituality:

  • an image of doubt. We are unable to “see” properly and understand what is going on

  • a symbol of sin. Sin is a barrier to God, blinding us to God

  • a symbol of divine unknowability. Our limited minds cannot full comprehend the creator, and so we now live in a “divine night” in which God is ultimately unknowable (Gregory of Nyssa, 330-395, Gregory of Nazianzus 329-89)


Cloud of Unknowing (perhaps by Walter Hilton, 1343-96): there is a cloud of unknowing lies between God and the believer, so we can never see, understand, or experience God clearly. Our lives are a dark road of unknowing and inner suffering with only occasional moments of rapture in partial and temporary glimpses of God


John of the Cross (1542-91) wrote of the “dark night of the soul:” the way the soul is stripped of self-assurance to open a path to a closer relationship to God. It has two aspects:

  • active aspect of the night: through believer’s voluntary self-discipline and submission

  • passive aspect of the night: in the believer’s act of contemplation, God becomes active and leads the believer to new insights



10. Silence

10.1. Biblical Images

Habakkuk: the earth should be silent in the presence of God in the temple (Habakkuk 2:20)


Job reduced to silence at the end, aware of his foolishness in the sight of God (Job 40:1-3)


Revelation 8:1: silence in heaven from human awe in the presence of God



10.2. Use in Spirituality

Human words can never articulate the full wonder of God, and the only appropriate response when confronted with that wonder is silence


Silence liberates the mind and imagination to focus on God

  • Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God”


Arthur Michael Ramsey (1904-88), Archbishop of Canterbury

“Silence enable us to be aware of God, to let mind and imagination dwell upon his truth, to let prayer to be listening before it is talking, and to discover our own selves in a way that is not always possible when we are making or listening to noise. There comes sometimes an inner silence in which the soul discovers itself in a new dimension of energy and peace, a dimension which the restless life can miss. . . Into the Christian’s use of silence there may flow the wonder of God the creator, the recollection of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the recalling of scenes in his life, often a passage of the Bible, the glories of nature in which the finger of God is present, gratitude for personal blessings or the words of poets who tell of wonder and beauty”


Hesychasm (hesychia: Greek for silence or stillness)

  • a movement in Eastern Christianity (8th century and after) in which the believer tries to achieve isolation from all distractions to focus on God by repeating the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”




Christian Spirituality. An Introduction. Alister E. McGrath. Blackwell Publishers, 1999. ISBN: 0631212817 (Chapter 5: Biblical Images and Spirituality)





Christian Spirituality


1. What is Christian Spirituality? Types of Christian Spirituality

2. Theological Foundations for Spirituality

3. Biblical Images and Christian Spirituality

4. Faces, Places, and Spaces: Visualization and Spatialization in Christian Spirituality

5. Introduction to Anglican Spirituality