Reading this book filled me with envy for my son, who is a sophomore at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA. Next January he and two dozen of his peers will go on a three-week retreat at Tall Timber Ranch in the Cascade Mountains, where their professor, the author of this book, will introduce them to the history of Christian spirituality, and where they will practice many of the disciplines that Christians have used over the centuries to draw near to God. Professor Sittser has taught this “Jan term” course frequently since 1993, and it is extremely popular with students. Having now read this book, which has its roots in this course, I can understand why. Sittser writes with the mind of a versatile scholar, the heart of a sensitive pastor, and the clarity of brilliant teacher—and he has written here a wonderful book.
It is almost misleading to call this a “history” of Christian spirituality, for that might suggest that its aim is purely antiquarian, that it simply seeks to reconstruct bygone epochs. Certainly there is plenty of thoughtfully analyzed information about the past here, and the book provides a clear and well-organized guide through twenty centuries of Christian piety. But Sittser wants his readers not just to know what the great spiritual masters have taught about prayer and service; he wants them to learn from the great masters how to pray and serve. Accordingly, he has given us a usable history, a history whose insights must be practiced in order to be properly understood.
There are eleven chapters: each chapter focuses on a major strand of Christian spirituality, and each strand is given a keyword that represents its orienting concern. Thus, chapter 1 is titled “Witness: The Spirituality of the Early Christian Martyrs,” and chapter 10, “Conversion: The Spirituality of Evangelicals.” Sittser describes the historical and religious situation out of which each movement arose and offers pithy vignettes of the life and thought of its major representatives. At the end of each chapter he reflects briefly on what that movement has to say to us today, and closes with a list of practices that readers might undertake in order to appropriate the key insights and challenges of that movement for themselves (e.g., Scripture passages on which to meditate, exercises for self-examination and guides to prayer).
Sittser’s lucid prose and earnest manner of addressing his readers’ own spiritual needs makes Water from a Deep Well an exceptionally accessible book, and thus “popular” in the best sense of the word. But the helps and critical apparatus at the end—a list of discussion questions for each chapter, an annotated reading list for each chapter and 45 pages of notes—make the book suitable for academically rigorous settings. A colleague of mine recently used it with great success in an undergraduate course on the history of Christian spirituality, and if used in tandem with primary sources it would work equally well in a seminary or graduate school class.
I would offer one cautionary note and one minor quibble about this wonderful book. The cautionary note is that Water from a Deep Well is relentlessly upbeat. Sittser gives the most charitable possible appraisal of each of his eleven traditions, and he is most self-consciously positive toward those with which he personally is least in sympathy (e.g. mysticism). There are no “bad guys” or “straw men” in this narrative, and no one from whom a serious contemporary Christian couldn’t learn. Readers looking for another “critique” and a bit more “deconstruction” will have to look elsewhere. Yet Sittser’s charity—like all true charity—is deliberate, not sentimental. He is well aware of the distortions, exaggerations and deficiencies that have plagued each of these traditions, but he opts to focus on the virtues that we should imitate, not the vices that we might easily excoriate. Abusus non tollit usus, as he reminds us several times. As to the quibble, the book contains numerous small black-and-white illustrations. I am in favor of using art in a book of this sort, but I am a bit disappointed in the actual selection. Why include a kitchy nineteenth century engraving of Martin Luther nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg Door or a faux-Byzantine icon of Julian of Norwich petting a cat? Much finer art is available, and might have given a bit more gravitas to what is otherwise an exquisite work.