Seven Great Schools of Catholic Spirituality


On Oct. 23, Deacon Frank Dunleavy spoke to us about the Seven Great Schools of Catholic Spirituality, in which his main source was an audio course from “Now You Know Media” – by Fr. Anthony Ciorra – called The Seven Great Schools of Catholic Spirituality. Deacon Frank was kind enough to email me notes from his presentation. Below are the highlights:


There are many more than seven schools, but what is important to know, is each school is built upon and embraces the school that went before it, then transcends it.


We call these schools great because the founder(s) who had the initial impulse in the development of spirituality – unfolded something new, an element that brought spirituality to its next historical level. Those who embraced the insight of the founder(s) usually nuanced it and applied it to new centuries and changing circumstances


The 7 Great Schools covered are: (1) Desert (2) Monastic (3) Mendicant (4) Carmelite (5) Ignatian (6) Salesian (7) Vincentian


There are 4 elements of Catholic/Christian Spirituality:

  1. It’s Christ-ocentric rooted and focused on the life, teachings, death and resurrection of the person of Jesus Christ.
  2. It’s Trinitarian – Jesus came to show us the way to God. The God who is Father-Son-Spirit.
  3. Its Biblically Rooted. Christian tradition is rooted in the sacred text of the Old and New Testaments.
  4. Its Ecclesial. Christian spirituality is lived in the context of community that spills out into the world.

CONSIDER as we move through these 7 spiritualties –

  • What is your personal experience of God?
  • To what extent is God seeking you?
  1. Desert Spirituality (Discovering God in the Desert)


In response to the institutionalization of Christianity and the end of the martyrdom era, the Desert Spirituality flourished in 3rd to 5th Centuries. Men and women left society behind and fled to the desert. They were the first Christian HERMITS. The desert fathers and mothers withdrew in order to better respond to the issues and problems of their time. This movement was Out from society “into the desert.” It tapped into the basic human need and desire and quest for God. This theme continues even now and is foundational to all spiritualities.


The major figures in this spirituality are: Israelites, John the Baptist, Jesus, St. Anthony and other Desert Fathers & Mothers. This Spirituality is rooted in the Scriptures. With these major figures:
(a) We build on the experience of withdraw NOT to escape, but to go deeper into a relationship with the Father and to purify the spirit. 
(b) The desert is a place of: silence and solitude, fasting, humility, radical simplicity, charity, constant prayer, asceticism (severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence) where we’re stripped away of all distractions and forced to face ourselves as we are – then we can change, repent, hear God & come closer to God.
(c) In the Desert, our Human spirit is tested, refined, and challenged to go deeper. We wrestle with basic human temptations as Jesus did.


St. Anthony of the Desert (250-?) – became the model for desert living (AKA temptation model – temptations of Christ) – a) – The Hermit/Monk in the desert is a symbol for living the Christian life that all people, in one way or another are called to embrace. Discerning what does and does not come from God; being completely dependent on God; recognizing our riches are in God alone. We go into the desert not to escape reality but to embrace it.


What are your temptations and struggles? Bring these into the desert of your heart and allow yourself into the struggle.


2-Monastic Spirituality


In both the East and the West, monastic communities began to emerge out of the solitary desert experience and into the Monastery community. Monastic spirituality means living the solitary life in common with others.

From Hermits to Monk(s) (Monos= to be alone, apart) = living the solitary life in common with others.

The major figures in this spirituality are: Pachomius, John Cassian, and St. Benedict.


Monastic life includes all that came before it – its biblical foundations and desert spirituality – while also transcending its past.

Some parallels between monastic and desert spirituality. Nuns and monks are people who have gone apart to be alone with God. Every one of us is called in some way to do what monks do – and emulate the rhythm and wisdom of monastic life. Those who embrace the monastic life want to live the Christian life to the fullest. Monks and nuns seek union with the world through communion with God. Going into the monastery is no guarantee of freedom from distraction.

Characteristics of Monastic Spirituality and all monastic communities include: -
1) Opus Dei: the purpose of monastic life is to seek God. The work of God must be the center of their lives. 2) Monastic obedience: 3) Monastic silence 4) Moderation 5) Lectio Divina 
6) Monastic peace

Movements towards monasticism would climax in the rule of St. Benedict.

St. Benedict of Nursia is the “Father of Monasticism” in the West. The Rule of St. Benedict is a classic text that had a profound impact on religious life in the Church and the Western world in general.

The ultimate purpose of the Rule was to come closer to God.  Most, if not all human beings need a sense of structure in order to reach their goals.  St. Benedict did not make a God out of structure; the structure was to be a path to God.  St. Benedict avoided excessive practices. The first word of the Rule is to listen. St. Benedict invites us to listen deeply with the ear of the heart.

3-Mendicant Spirituality

Mendicant Spirituality flourished in the13th century and Involved a movement out of the monasteries and into the world. It was a new way of being in the world, a new dimension to religious life with an emphasis on poverty. Mendicant means “begging”; (a remedy for the extreme wealth seen in the Church and monasteries. It includes the orders founded by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic, which provided a solution to the monastic and canonical aspirations of the period by creating a new form of religious life (called the Mendicants). They both corresponded to the intellectual tendencies of the day. Franciscans and Dominicans were FRIARS (brothers) not MONKS who lived in monasteries. Francis and Dominic were contemporaries. These 2 figures had different personalities & temperament but similar in impulse to bring desert & monastic life into the world and live poorly and simply.


Mendicant – Franciscan Spirituality

The major figures in this spirituality are: St. Francis & St. Claire of Assisi and St. Bonaventure. This school is all about relationships. It’s also about “spiritual poverty” where we are to empty ourselves to be filled with God.


Mendicant -Dominican Spirituality

The major figures in this spirituality are: St. Dominic, Thomas Aquinas & St. Catherine of Sienna


St. Dominic Guzman (1170-1221) Dominic had a passion for preaching the Word of God and the care of souls. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers. His way of preaching was didactic, emphasizing the centrality of truth, private contemplative prayer, the liturgy and study.


Although Dominic never authored a treatise on prayer, a commentary called “The Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic” was published one hundred years after his death.


Living with and reading the Word of God was important.  Nourished by prayer and the study of the Gospels, Dominic’s preaching caught fire. The Order’s motto became: “To praise, to bless, to preach.” There was a departure from St. Francis’s way of preaching. St. Dominic had an agenda of combatting the heresies of his day. St. Dominic and St. Francis preached with WORDS and by the way in which they lived their lives – The Dominican movement in Christian spirituality was a source of renewal not only in the thirteenth century but also in subsequent centuries, up to and including the present time.


Thomas Aquinas gave Dominic’s vision a systematic theological expression in his extensive writings. Aquinas spent most of his life as a lecturer in Dominican houses. The Summa Theologica is Aquinas’ masterpiece. His conviction that the intellect is primary and that love flows from knowledge is central to his theology. He affirms the incomprehensibility of God – while holding that, through revelation; God has expressed the will to lead humankind to fulfillment. Teaching was Aquinas’ form of preaching in the Dominican order. He was faithful to Dominican’s emphasis on prayer and study. Aquinas employed Aristotelian (secular) philosophy to develop his (Christian) theology. Also showing us a way to engage with the world. Aquinas’ theology continues to influence the Church today.

St. Catherine of Siena (1347-?) St. Catherine of Siena brought a feminine dimension to Dominican Spirituality. For several years she lived as a recluse in her parent’s home, going out only for Mass. In 1368, she sensed a call to go out and work among her sisters. Her activity amongst the sick and destitute brought her notoriety. She became a spiritual mother. Others recognized her wisdom and spirituality. She was called upon to be a mediator of the intense politics of the 14th century Italy, including urging the Pope to go back to Rome. Catherine exemplifies the Dominican dynamic of “contemplation and action”. Her study, prayer and contemplation ultimately led her out into the world to share God. She was a powerful influence in the Church and society in her day.


4-Carmelite Spirituality


Reform is an important aspect of Carmelite spirituality. It began in the 13th century in the mountain range in North Israel near the Mediterranean Sea on Mount Carmel with a group of lay hermits. They modeled themselves on the prophet Elijah. Early Carmelite life was lived in caves where solitude, silence and prayer were the order of the day. They found God not in the thunder but in the tiny whispering sounds.


By 1206, they had a primitive structure and a leader. The Rule of St. Albert was established in 1214. Carmelite life was marked by: solitude, continuous prayer, silence, fasting, perpetual abstinence from meat, manual work, vocal recitation of the Psalms, Self-Denial, attendance of Mass and Devotion to Mary (The wearing of the brown scapular came to symbolize a dedication to Mary).


They shifted from rustic hermits to highly educated priest. The first Carmelite nuns were admitted around 1452. Carmelites were a blend of hermits and mendicants. The Carmelite school teaches that one must master one’s sinfulness by going into the desert and be purified by God.


The sixteenth century witnessed a reform of the Carmelite friars and nuns through the life and writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. In a sense, they represent a return to the earlier asceticism of the hermits of Mount Caramel. The emphasis on contemplative prayer, union with God, and solitude resurfaced and flourished under: John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, and was carried on by: Thérèse of Lisieux.

St. Teresa of Avila – (1515 to 1582) experienced a mid-life conversion. Prior to this moment, she lived a more lax form of religious life in a large and crowded Carmelite monastery where solitude was unavailable. So she started a new model of Carmelite life with the foundation of San Jose in Avila where she limited the number of nuns allowed to live in the monastery in order to support a life of solitude and prayer.

She symbolized her transformation by changing her name, referring to herself simply as Teresa of Jesus after her conversion. People began to come to Teresa and ask her to instruct them in prayer. She composed The Way of Perfection, in which she presented a schema of the spiritual life and reflected on the mystical manifestations of God. She also wrote The Interior Castle, her classic exposition of the mystical journey to God. In it, she leads the reader through seven mansions, reflecting the spiritual journey and the purification that we need to experience before going into the castle of the spiritual life. Teresa was beatified in the 17th century. In 1970, Pope Paul VI declared her the first woman Doctor of the Church.

St. John of the Cross – (1542 to 1591).was hand picked by Teresa of Avila to be her collaborator in the reform of the Carmelite Order. John was single-minded in his God-centered life. His passion for reform led him to be rejected by his Carmelite brothers who threw him into prison. While imprisoned, he composed many stanzas of his Spiritual Canticle. In it, he reflects the mystical notion of espousal with God. The darkness in John of the Cross is another form of spiritual poverty. He later wrote the Ascent of Mount Carmel (which returns to the tradition of Elijah, inviting us back into the cave) and the Dark Night of the Soul, where he writes about the God we find in the dark moments of life. For John of the Cross, the goal of the contemplative life is the transformation of the soul and the union of God in love.

St. Therese of Lisieux – (1873 to 1897) is one of the most widely known Carmelites. She was also declared a Doctor of the Church. There is a simplicity in her writings and lifestyle that sets her apart from other Doctors of the Church. Because of her extraordinary spirituality and influence on the Carmelite tradition, she is recognized as a key figure in the history of the Church. Therese of Lisieux lived and wrote about a spirituality that matured in the crucible of suffering. In the last 18 months of her life, the young nun endured a terrible darkness marked by temptations against faith. Ultimately, her faith protected her against suicide. The sources of her spirituality were the Bible, the writings of John of the Cross, and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. She lived out the Carmelite tradition in a humble convent in Lisieux, France. She is well known for her autobiography The Story of a Soul where she wrote a passage indicating that she felt that the basic vocation was to love which was tied to a spirituality of martyrdom. Therese was on fire with the love of God and a love of the world. She brought the world into her heart from inside the monastery. St. Therese of Lisieux never left her cloister but has been named patroness of the missions because of her deep love and concern for the needs of the world.

The early hermits of Mount Carmel were called out of their caves into the world. What are some of the needs of today’s Church that call us to new and creative forms of spirituality?


5-Ignatian Spirituality


St. Ignatius was the founder of Ignition Spirituality – the spiritual renewal and reform that emerged in 16th- century Spain. He founded 
the Society (or Company) of Jesus (aka Jesuits). From the very beginning of this “Apostolic Spirituality” Ignatius and his (Jesuit) followers founded universities and colleges and had an effective outreach to the poor, especially in the foreign missions. Ignatian spirituality is a spirituality of contemplation in action. “We are called to be men and women for others.” AND we “Do all thing for the greater glory and honor of God”.

St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) was the soldier, wounded in battle, who became a saint. In 1521, he suffered a severe leg wound. During his recuperation, he began to read the about the lives of the saints. He had a profound religious experience that led him to reform his life and to become a soldier for Christ. He was transformed from being a temporal knight to be a knight for Christ. Besides founding colleges, universities, and charitable institutions – He had a deep love for the poor and the sick and a strong missionary spirit.

Ignatius brought St. Francis’s vision of bringing the friars from the monastery into the world to a new level. He adamantly refused to allow the Jesuits to chant the Divine Office because he envisioned a clear correlation between prayer and ministry – called Contemplation in action. Ignatius insisted on “the pilgrimage” implied in ministry so that the Jesuit could hope to attain sanctification, thereby giving going “into the world” a spiritual significance.

The biggest gift of St. Ignatius to the Church is his Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises teach us to be more reflective as we live in the context of a very busy world and help us grow in our relationship with God.

The Exercises are divided into four weeks or movements.

Week (1) corresponds to the purgative way. (a) The First Principle and Foundation: “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man and to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to use them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him…(b) We must begin with the notion of being loved and accepted by God, and then examine the things that draw us away from God.
 Week (2) corresponds to the illuminative way. (a) It begins with contemplation of Christ’s kingship over the world. (Is Jesus my king, or is something else?) We move into the mysteries of Christ’s life up to the Last Supper. 

Week (3) corresponds to the unitive way. It focuses on the Passion of Christ. (and the cross)

 Week (4) also corresponds to the unitive way. It focuses on the joy of Christ and his followers in the risen life. We are now sent out into the world as disciples of Christ.

Another Ignatian tool is The Examen, which is a daily awareness of workings of God. Where is God today? What He saying & doing in your life? How you are responding, and do you need to ask for forgiveness and healing as you continue today/tomorrow? Steps: 1) Be grateful and aware you are in the presence of God 2) Ask/Petition for grace to be able to see and go deeper) 3) Ask for Forgiveness 4) Renewal-as I live the rest of this day (tomorrow) how do I live my life more fully and faithfully 5) Transitions – out of prayer into life.

Ignatius tells us that we will experience both consolation and desolation in our prayer. He develops a skill set of discernment.

6-Salesian Spirituality


Salesian spirituality is embodied in the two people of St. Francis de Sales and St Jane Frances de Chantal.

It ushered in gentleness, kindness, compassion and optimism into 17th-century France. Their emphasis and focus was on relationships, friendships, and a God who is loving and forgiving. It‘s an apostolic spirituality to be lived in the context of the world; one that embraces the “ordinariness” of everyday life. The overall motto of Salesian spirituality is “Live Jesus!” The motto reflects the goal of making the gentle and humble Jesus – live in the hearts of humankind.

St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622) was university educated in law, theology, philosophy, and rhetoric. Francis was educated by Jesuits (in the Ignatian spirituality). He was a man of the world, engaged in public life as a bishop of a diocese, spiritual director, writer, preacher, correspondent with people in all walks of life, and advocate of lay devotion. Francis was a gentle soul, patient, graceful and is often referred to as “the gentle saint” due to his mindset and his emphasis on relationships. Love begets love. Francis would propose that the love we receive from God spills over in the love that we give to others.

Francis’ best known works are his Introduction to the Devout Life and his Treatise on the Love of God. 1) In the Introduction, Francis states the uniqueness of his spirituality: “Almost all those who have hitherto written about devotion have been concerned with instructing persons wholly withdrawn from the world…My purpose is to instruct those who live in town, within families, or at court, and by their state of life are obliged to live an ordinary life as to outward appearances.”

(a) Francis builds on the notion of going out into the world, but focuses on ordinary people (not only priests, nuns, religious). (b) The insight that everyone is called to holiness begins with Francis de Sales. This idea made it’s way into 2nd Vatican Council – Universal Call to Holiness.

St Jane Frances de Chantal (1572–1641) was a baroness, wife, mother, widow, foundress, and religious superior. Her world was monastic. The original plan was that the Visitation nuns would be unenclosed but Francis yielded to the wishes of the Archbishop of Lyons and made them cloistered. Jane brought the nuns to spiritual maturity not through fear or servile duty but through love. She describes the process of the spiritual life and birth into love of God as martyrdom. She builds on the spirituality of martyrdom and the Cross in a gentle and loving way.

Jane and Francis undertook the spiritual revitalization of their society through the devout life (aka spiritual life). Both had intense personal experiences that colored the way they viewed the world and spirituality. They recognized that human nature is wounded by sin, they moved beyond their own intense periods of darkness and recognized that the healing of the human heart comes from receiving God’s love and mercy.

Are you ready to be introduced to the Devout Life?

7-Vincentian Spirituality


The 7th and last school is Vincentian spirituality, which is spirituality firmly rooted in the world. Their contemporary apostolic communities focused on “Practical Charity” for the poor and needy and oppressed.


The three major figures in this 17th Century France spirituality are: St. Vincent DePaul, St. Louise de Marillac, and Elizabeth Ann Seton.


St. Vincent DePaul In his early life, he decided to become a priest but was motivated primarily by a desire for social advancement and wealth. He lied about his age so he could be ordained at the age of 19. While in Paris, he took charge of a parish and was touched by a sermon he preached on the conversion of St. Paul. He had his own conversion and began a ministry to the “galley slaves” and founded the Confraternity of Charity. Other priests began to gather around him. He founded a community called the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians). The primary focus of the Congregation was service to the poor.

Louise de Marillac – Louise came into Vincent’s life after his conversion. They became companions and their personalities and spiritualities complimented each other. Louise was the head person while Vincent was the heart person. Louise was often restless and anxious. Vincent had a calming effect on her. Louise’s early life was troubled. She never knew her mother. Her health was fragile. Her husband died after a prolonged illness. Her experiences plunged her into a dark night of the soul. Vincent became a spiritual guide for her in dealing with her discouragement. Her friendship and collaboration with Vincent became a healing force in her life. Her service to the poor and involvement with the Confraternities of Charity gradually cured her depressed spirit.- Vincent and Louise shared a conversion of heart that came through the experience of the poor. Louise’s Spirituality complimented the spirituality of Vincent. – She emphasized the centrality of Christ Crucified and the virtues of humility, simplicity and charity. Louise was able to take her own suffering and bring it to focus on the suffering of Christ on the Cross. She said that Christ is “the source and the model of all charity.”

Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774–1821) Elizabeth Ann Seton brought the legacy, spirit and way of life of Vincent and Louise to America. She founded the Sisters of Charity, who expressed the virtue of charity through education, especially of the poor, ignorant, and immigrants. Elizabeth was the first American born woman to be canonized a saint. Elizabeth and the Sisters of Charity established the parochial school system in the US.

Vincent shows us a way of love, a way to God and a way of living in the world. (Charity in Action) He built on Ignatius’s notion of seeking God in all things. Vincent was firm and persevering in regard to goals, but flexible and gentle in regard to means. We can see from Vincent’s work and spiritual life that he was extremely creative.

Together, Vincent and Louise founded of the Daughters of Charity, a radical break with previous forms of religious life for women. The Daughters became “Nuns in the World,” and they became the model for all subsequent forms of active religious life for women.

Vincent, Louise, and Elizabeth all exemplify the highest virtue, the most important aspect of walking in the footsteps of Jesus. They show us how to live a life of charity in the context of the world.




These Seven great schools of spirituality are both moments of grace and beauty – and traditions on the move.

They emerged through people who had an impulse/insight that responded to a particular need at a particular time in history. This impulse became a school when others would carry and develop it in subsequent centuries.

How is God calling you? Are you attracted to a specific spirituality or school? Perhaps you can find something in each one that will help you grow closer to God?

St. Augustine: “Love people over things, and God most of all, and God above all”

2 thoughts on “Seven Great Schools of Catholic Spirituality

  1. Vargheese

    The seven Catholic Spiritualities are explained well in brief. How well the Spirituality moved from desert to modern day. I think every form of spirituality has its own goodness, but today the world stands in need of more Christs on the move. Salesian spirituality seems more relevant to the modern day. Praise God for the effort to bring these teachings to the common man.

    Thank you. God bless.


  2. bernard p boyle

    I am 85 and have never heard about the Seven Great Schools. I am very interested in spirituality and am working on developing spiritual groups in my parish Thank you for this article I will make a copy of your article and use it with our spirit groups Thanks again Peace


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